Friday, March 1, 2019

Beck - 25 Years of Mellow Gold & Other 1994 Releases


Twenty-five years ago today, on March 1st, 1994, Geffen released the album Mellow Gold by Beck. There are a lot of records that I love that are quite old now and have hit milestone anniversaries. Very few are as important to the person I turned out to be as Mellow Gold is.

It’s hard to quantify how much impact the three albums that Beck released in 1994 had on me. In many ways they completely changed my life and put me on the path to become the person I am to this day. Other than the Blues Brothers, Beck is probably the most influential musician in my life. While bands like Rocket From The Crypt, Snuff and Leatherface far eclipsed Beck in how much I enjoy their records and how impactful their music is to me, the truth is that I would have never gotten to them without Beck.

In a lot of ways, I’ve always felt a little bit like a poser as I didn’t get into punk rock quite as early as some of the other folks that I would eventually befriend. Yes, I jumped into the deep end of the pool right away and I certainly learned a lot quickly, but since I started listening in 1994 and not 1991, I’ve always felt like the newcomer. At this point I’ve been into these types of bands for two and a half decades, but some of those feelings I had in 1994 still linger.

In 1994 I was seventeen years old and a junior in high school growing up in Sussex County in New Jersey. Sussex County is the north westernmost county in New Jersey and is about an hour and change from New York City. While it probably seems reasonably close to a gigantic city to people who aren’t from the area, it couldn’t be more dissimilar from the New York metropolitan area. The town I lived in was small to the point where it didn’t have its own post office, we had to share one with the neighboring town. It was mostly clusters of residential developments, lots of farms and a ton of trees. My high school was a regional school that funneled kids from 5 different towns into it. Even with all those towns, my graduating class was still only about a hundred and ten people. In New Jersey you can’t get a driver’s license until you are seventeen years old, so in the prior sixteen years, you’re essentially trapped in whatever town you happen to be living in.

I moved to Sussex County in the third grade and most kids already had their groups of friends. Being a kid who was super into the Blues Brothers and Weird Al, there wasn’t a ton of common ground right away, which was weird to me as that didn’t seem to be an issue in the town I had moved from. Regardless, over the years I was usually hanging out with a small group of close friends. Musically I never really was interested in the sort of music that others seemed to be into. Van Halen, Guns N Roses, Metallica…these were bands that I just didn’t care about. What really hit me more than anything else was hip-hop. That was the first music that I listened to that was current, starting around 1989 or so.

I was an avid watcher of Yo! MTV Raps during the so-called ‘golden age’ of hip-hop. The first groups that I remember grabbing my attention were Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. I remember the shift when things started getting more innovative with Tribe Called Quest, Nice & Smooth, Gang Starr and groups like that. Then my mind was blown when I came across Del The Funky Homosapien and the rest of the Hieroglyphics crew. Not only was I amazed by this music, I could actually find out about it on television because Yo! MTV Raps was taking a lot of chances at the time. Hip-hop was an emerging artform so a lot of groups were given a platform to see what would hit. Way more snuck through to a giant mainstream outlet than probably could have at another time. I was very lucky, and I devoured anything I could get my hands on. Did anyone else buy that Kurious album A Constipated Monkey? Probably not. It wasn’t very good, but I just wanted to hear more.

While this was going on, the alternative explosion hit. Nirvana, Pearl Jam – those sorts of bands. They didn’t register with me at all. My friend Pat (who would later be my introduction to Karl Hendricks Trio, Archers of Loaf and Operation Ivy) gave me a tape of Nevermind my freshman year before I had ever heard it mentioned anywhere else. He suggested I listen to it as he thought it was great. I gave the tape back to him the next day and told him I didn’t get it. I had so much great music to listen to, it didn’t really matter to me what was going on in rock and roll.

Then in 1992, The Chronic came out by Dr. Dre. I was excited, having been pretty into NWA, and I remember buying that CD when they still came in long boxes. Little did I know at the time was that The Chronic essentially killed innovative mainstream hip-hop dead. Suddenly, that record was gigantic. Everyone at my high school had it and as I watched Yo! MTV Raps there was a big shift to soundalike groups. It didn’t happen overnight, but every week the playlist got more and more similar. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hate that Warren G & Nate Dogg “Regulate” song. By 1994, I was getting a little desperate for new tunes. Sure, I had Fear Itself by Casual, but there weren’t a lot of other records that were as exciting.

I vividly remember the first time I heard Mellow Gold. I was in my friend Scott’s car - A Plymouth Sundance, I believe - and he played it for me on our way to Rockaway Mall. I hadn’t heard the song “Loser” and I had never heard of Beck before that car ride. Scott wanted me to hear a song called “Soul Suckin’ Jerk” as he thought it sounded like the Beastie Boys. Since I did like the Beasties I was certainly up for it. He popped that cassette into the tape deck and my whole world changed.

Yes, “Soul Suckin’ Jerk’ did sound like the Beastie Boys to me, but as the album kept playing, I couldn’t believe the craziness that was coming out of the speakers. I had never heard anything like this. It was as if someone made an album that was purposefully difficult to listen to. Like it was a gauntlet thrown down to see who could get through it. Songs like “Truck Drivin’ Neighbors Downstairs” and “Nightmare Hippy Girl” were lyrically very funny, but they were minimal acoustic songs that were a stark contrast from the hip-hop leaning songs on the album. “Beercan” had an amazing bassline and was catchy as hell but was almost a pop song. “Sweet Sunshine” and “Steal My Body Home” were bizarre and confusing and “Mutherfuker” was an uncontrollable burst of yelling and screaming. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it sure wasn’t this wild mix of styles.

It was weird to then realize that Beck was actually quite popular because of the song “Loser.” I only watched Yo! MTV Raps on MTV and didn’t listen to the radio, so I had no idea what else was going on in the music world. I wondered if most of the people who liked Beck had heard the whole album. Looking back on things now, I highly doubt it. I bought Mellow Gold and wanted to hear more. That’s when I figured out that Beck had other records out.

The next one I bought was Stereopathetic Soulmanure. This was the album that turned my fandom into a full-blown obsession. I could not believe how weird and random this record was. There were no hip-hop songs at all, but there were noisy punk songs like “Pink Noise” and “Thunderpeel,” Slower country songs like “Rowboat” and “Modesto,” weird tape collages and of course, “Satan Gave Me A Taco.” What an incredible song to hear. Here was a guy that was writing music and just being weird and random. It spoke to me like nothing else really had before.

The next thing I found was One Foot In The Grave. This one also took me completely by surprise. It was essentially a barebones folk album with a couple of indie rock songs mixed in. This was the album that made me realize that Beck wasn’t just a wacky dude, but he was also writing deeper serious songs. Prior to hearing it, I can’t say I would have ever thought I would listen to a record like that, but I loved it so much and to this day it’s my all-time favorite Beck record.

I essentially went insane at this point trying to find every single Beck release I could find. He became the first musician that inspired me to collect records. I’d long had the collecting bug because of toys and I remember buying a couple of Del The Funky Homosapien cassette singles so I could get the remixes, but this was the first time I ever actively was trying to search for every single record by someone.

So many important firsts in my life were because of Beck. The first time I went into NYC to go record shopping was to try to find Beck stuff at Generation Records (found some bootlegs – and I found the Western Harvest Field By Moonlinght 10” at Second Coming). The first time I went on the internet, I did so to try to look up information about Beck at a friend’s house. I eventually ran an online Beck discography from a Geocities page early on in college. The first concert I went to was Lollapalooza in 1995, to see Beck (and Pavement) and that’s where I saw Superchunk for the first time. The first time I tried to play guitar was to learn to play Beck songs. He inspired me to do so many things I wouldn’t have done previously.

The other big part of this was that Beck was a huge gateway drug for me to other music. I started looking into the names of other people who played on his records and I started looking into other bands that were on labels that Beck was putting out records on. Beck is a direct link to bands like Lync, Built To Spill, Halo Benders, Superchunk and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Those bands helped me branch out into other bands like Rocket From the Crypt (who were discovered on a Merge records compilation my friend Joe bought), Supersuckers, Snuff and Leatherface. Asking questions at record stores led me to more and more discoveries until I ultimately turned into the weird asshole that I am now, obsessed by a constant barrage of random bands that never seem to get the attention that I think they deserve.

As the years went by, Beck records got less and less interesting to me. As much as I tried to convince myself that Odelay was just as good as his ’94 releases, I never liked it as much. Mutations was a letdown as I was expecting Two Foot In The Grave. He’s had good songs on just about every album and it’s always interesting for me to hear his latest tunes, but it’s never been like it was that first year I was buying his records.

The sheer amount of songs he has, particularly from the ’94 and ’95 era, that were never commercially released is staggering. You could fill several albums with the songs I’ve heard on radio performances and concert bootlegs. A giant compilation of this material is a release that I wish would come to fruition, but Beck seems embarrassed by these songs at this stage in his career. While I won’t pretend to be the same person I was in 1994 either, I find it strange that he would turn his back on such an important chunk of his career. Not only is this a time period beloved by many but it is also the reason he ever had the spotlight shined on him in the first place. He wouldn’t have been able to have the career he has without these early songs.

Beck may be a serious and mainstream artist now, but he was never more exciting to me as he was when he was just a complete nutcase, setting his guitar on fire and singing about squeegees. He’s no longer the guy wearing a stormtrooper helmet and playing a banjo, but he was exactly what I needed in 1994, and for that I will always thank him.

Beck - "Nightmare Hippy Girl":

Beck - "Pay No Mind":

Beck - "Painted Eyelids"

Beck - "Steve Threw Up":

Beck - "Satan Gave Me a Taco":

Beck - "Totally Confused":

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