Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Beck Hansen, 8 July 1970 near Kansas City) Rock singer/songwriter, guitarist; a sensation of the '90s: 'From coffee-house folk to born-again blues, bell-bottomed psych to fully-flared funk, music's deepest roots and most tropical fruits -- Beck has not just run the gamut but fed it through the blender' (Mojo). A skinny unprepossessing kid, Beck seemed to sum up everything, like Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and a few others. His grandfather Al Hansen (d 1995) and his mother Bibbe were part of the Andy Warhol's Factory scene in the '60s (she appeared in film Prison). Grandpa Campbell was a Presbyterian minister in rural Kansas; Beck's father, David Campbell, was a studio musician in Los Angeles, a classically-trained viola player who worked in the back room beginning with a Carole King album in 1972, and has finally gained considerable respect for orchestrating rock and pop albums. He recently conducted the Hollywood Bowl orchestra in a concert performance of Willie Nelson's Stardust album, and has also worked in films. 

Beck grew up in the kind of L.A. suburb that has no soul; he became a good cook because it was look after himself or starve. He dropped out of high school and did odd jobs, got involved in the spoken poetry scene (filmed by Sophie Rachnal), recorded 23 tracks 1988-94 (compilation Stereopathic Soul Manure '94 on Flipside), and meanwhile relocated for a while to NYC's East Village, where the folk scene was being irreverently mangled; went back to L.A. and was eventually signed to a BMG publishing deal. He made demos including 'Loser', pressed on 12-inch vinyl by Bong Load Custom Records; it became an anthem of the slackers, a generation who saw nothing worth working hard for in the USA. (This ethos was named by Richard Linklater's film Slacker '91 about young people in Austin, Texas avoiding careers; a key quote was 'Withdrawing in disgust is not apathy.' Of course the media turned it into a parable of lazy rich kids.) Beck sang 'MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack' at Café Troy '93, co-owned by his mother, and a bidding war broke out, resolved when Beck signed with Geffen, making sure that he would be allowed to release 'uncommercial' material wherever he liked. Mellow Gold '94 was virtually studio re-recordings of demos, made in four weeks, and reached no. 13 on the Billboard album chart ('Loser' a top ten single); the hype could have finished him off but he was made of better stuff. Many years later he said that the record deal had been a fluke, the album of 'funny songs' thrown together according to what seemed to be wanted, and that he had more interesting stuff waiting in the wings.

Odelay '96 was produced by the Dust Brothers (John King and Mike Simpson, who'd produced the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, also Tone Loc, Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil). Beck wanted it to be 'the kind of album they made in the '60s, when people experimented with whatever they felt like -- folk, country, chamber music, Eastern sounds'. He threw in the hip-hop/Delta blues hybrid (cf. 'Loser') but the album was composed; the hip-hop wouldn't become a dead end. 'Odelay was really a reaction to the whole grunge thing. By the end of 1994 I was sick of hearing another band moping. I was sick of the pain and the agony.' It reached no. 16 (with minor hit single 'Where It's At') but stayed in the charts and went platinum. His music is partly about the joy of sonic possibility; he dropped a quote from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony as a 'palate cleanser' into 'High Five (Rock The Catskills)', a song about 'having too many ideas and throwing them together and just kind of watching them explode'; it is also full of humour ('drive-by body-pierce'), a kind of performance art about the central American contradiction between the anything goes of L.A. bohemianism and the Presbyterianism of the Great Plains. 'Because everything that we preach against is exactly what we do.' A video for 'New Pollution' was inspired by surrealists/absurdists such as Buñuel; steeped in art history, Beck was amused when some thought it was a sendup of Robert Palmer's 'Addicted To Love'.

Another album One Foot In The Grave was on the cult K label; new single 'Deadweight' '97 was used in film A Life Less Ordinary, and 'Where It's At' was another taste of the next album. Mutations '98 on DGC/Bong Load had Brazilian accents; Midnight Vultures '99 on DGC included funk that might have been inspired by Prince. There was an 'audio biography CD' on Chrome Dreams 2000; Sea Change 2002 appeared on Geffen/Interscope. Guero 2005 on Interscope was made with the Dust Brothers again; it was described by a disappointed Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune as 'playing it safe […] repackages a dozen of Beck's choicest moves.' He injured his back on a video shoot and took it easy for a while.

Beck produced music for singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, and worked with a group of friends called Record Club, who recorded cover versions of beloved albums, making each in one day and sharing them on the Web. In 2012 a book, 'Song Reader', was a collection of 20 pieces of sheet music for others to perform, referring to a time when a hit song might be recorded by many artists: make your own version. Morning Phase in early 2014 was his first album in six years, orchestrated by his father, 'meticulously constructed and uniformly subdued' according to John Jurgensen in the Wall Street Journal. Beck told Jurgensen, 'If you're throwing a lot of five-dollar words around, it can weigh down a melody. With this record, I spent a lot of time rewriting when lines didn't feel as elemental as they needed to be.' Beck has always been an artist who knows what he's doing.