An unconventional pop
musician and singer
who rose to fame in the 1990's, Beck
has been labelled everything from folk
musician to anti-folk
, innovator and imitator, a genre chameleon
or a tongue-in-cheek
poseur, the new Dylan
or the "Christina Aguilera
of the indie set" (Jaguaro.org, "One Hundred Albums You Should Remove from Your Collection Immediately"). He is probably best known for his breakthrough single 'Loser
' (1995), and the major-label
follow-up LP Odelay
(1996), which thrust him into the public eye
as a long-haired slacker
with an acoustic guitar
and a penchant for kooky
samples. His discography
taken as a whole reveals that he has more strings to his bow, continuing to explore new directions while splitting critic
s into two equally fervent camps.
Beck was born Bek David Campbell, son of bluegrass musician David Campbell and former Warhol Superstar Bibbe Hansen and grandson of Fluxus artist Al Hansen. After his parents split when he was three, he took his mother's surname. He grew up in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood in Los Angeles, up to the point where he dropped out of high school and, sick of menial jobs, caught a bus to New York. Although this stage of his life did not run smoothly ("New York City chewed me up and spit me out, and I had the bleakest moments of my existence there. It's hard when you don't have connections and you're not the most outgoing, charming person, and after a while, my friends got tired of me crashing on their floors."), Beck managed to hook up with the 'punk-folk' scene. On returning to L.A. he played folk clubs (and his stepdad's coffee shop) and recorded songs at home.
One of these songs, a goofy pop song built off of a looped slide guitar sample and a nonsensical nasal rap, ended up getting recorded as a single for the tiny Bong Load Custom Records label in 1993. Gradually this 'Loser' song began to get more and more airplay, sparking the inevitable major label bidding war (eventually won by Geffen, who, unusually, offered Beck the freedom to continue putting out records on small labels at the same time as working on a high-profile LP for them). Unfortunately, it also earned Beck the status in many critics' eyes as a one hit wonder. This perception was to change in the wake of his first major label album, 1996's Odelay.
Odelay (the name is a corruption of the Spanish greeting Oralé, as jotted down by a sound engineer during the recording of 'Lord Only Knows') was produced by The Dust Brothers (see Paul's Boutique), although produced is perhaps not quite the right word. This collection of songs span the dial from country-folk to alt-rock to nostalgic hip-hop (attempts at genre classification become increasingly futile as this writeup progresses), with each track liberally sprinkled with a plethora of obscure samples, scratching and static. The album went platinum, spawned a string of successful singles and netted Beck a fistful of Grammys. Beck had become a household name and (on balance) hadn't sold out in the process. The promotional clip for Devil's Haircut, directed by Mark Romanek, also presented the iconic image of Beck wandering the streets of New York with a cowboy hat and a boombox.
Many listeners who had only been following this radio-friendly side of Beck's output didn't know what to make of his next album, 1998's Mutations (produced by Nigel Godrich). Consisting mainly of folky songs with very tidy production (including the use of an Indian orchestra), this was far away from the loose hokey grooves of Odelay and Mellow Gold, but consistent with the acoustic trend present in Beck's earlier albums. (It did however retain the nonsensical lyrics.) There was still some room for sonic experimentation- the only single from the album being a tribute to 1960's Brazilian pop (Tropicalia). Another track, 'Static', remains perhaps the most accomplished song that Beck has recorded. The whole record was put together in two weeks, and resulted in a legal spat between Bong Load and Geffen, the latter party having reputedly muscled in on selling the record when they realised that it had turned out better than they had expected. (An amicable agreement was reached.)
Having done what he had set out to do in the folk arena (at least for the time being), Beck, caught up in millennial high spirits, got back in touch with the Dust Brothers, as well as his new showbiz friends Johnny Marr, Jack Black and Beth Orton, and began work on a party record to end all party records. 1999's Midnite Vultures was Beck's strangest and most flamboyant record. In places very heavily (and not very reverentially) influenced by R&B, it showcases Beck's voice as capable of all manner of craziness (does he really sing any of 'Get Real Paid' at all?). Once again the album spawned three singles (less successful and catchy than anything of Odelay, with the best probably being Nicotine & Gravy) and the dubious honour of having a track featured on the Windows ME CD-ROM (Beautiful Way).
Beck's latest record (as of this writing, see below), Sea Change (which you can read about in more depth in its own writeup) has been more of a muted affair from a promotional point of view, which seems like a missed opportunity as it's arguably his best record to date. Beck is currently busy touring, and keeping an online journal of his exploits. There's also an internet rumour that he recently became a scientologist. He is perhaps the only popular musician working today for whom this rumour would spark fears among his fanbase that his lyrics are going to become less nonsensical. And on that tortuous abuse of grammar, we proceed to a mini discography:-
- Golden Feelings (Sonic Enemy, 1993)
- A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight (Fingerpaint Records, 1994)
- Stereopathetic Soul Manure (Flipside Records, 1994)
- Mellow Gold (Bong Load Custom Records, 1994)
- One Foot In The Grave (K Records, 1994)
- Odelay (Geffen/Bong Load, 1996)
- Mutations (Geffen/Bong Load, 1998)
- Midnite Vultures (Geffen, 1999)
- Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope, 2002)
- Guero (Interscope, 2005)
- The Information (Interscope, 2006)
- Modern Guilt (Interscope, 2008)