A new album by Beck is something to be celebrated, and the man himself has been in London all week to promote the new LP “Colors”, an upbeat, shiny, modern pop record, a million miles removed from its predecessor, the gorgeous but melancholy “Morning Phase”.
Even better, Beck and his band eschewed the chance to play a larger venue, instead choosing to play Camden’s Electric Ballroom. A big name in a small venue: It doesn’t get much better than that.
Although this appears somewhat startling, it is entirely possible that even the best informed Millenial may yet be entirely unaware of the talents of Beck. Plenty may not have explored Beck’s back catalogue beyond the song “Debra” on the Baby Driver Soundtrack (sadly not played tonight). Indeed a straw poll I conducted yesterday suggested few people under thirty even had a dim awareness of Beck, even when prompted about his being the unwitting recipient of one of Kanye West’s more feather-brained moments at The Grammys.
For the benefit of anyone under thirty for whom the name Beck Hansen has yet to crop up on WhatsApp or Snapchat, here’s a Millennial’s Guide To Beck’s Career:
Born in LA in 1970, (which is, like, ages ago*).
He grew up in a Spanish neighbourhood before such places were filled with hipsters and coffee shops selling flat whites, and his mother hung out with the Andy Warhol crowd – (note for Millennials: that’s the seventies equivalent of some of Taylor Swift’s cooler friends).
Moved to New York where he recorded some folk tunes with friends. Beck’s idea of folk was the opposite of everyone else’s idea of folk.
“It was our reaction to the whole ’60s and ’70s folk thing, which ended up as James Taylor and Cat Stevens and all those women with quivering voices who sang about white birds and unicorns” he told Vox magazine in 1994.
Unsurprisingly, the folk songs Beck wrote at this time, with titles such as “MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack” featured very few doves and unicorns.
One of those songs was “Loser”, the song that broke him into the mainstream but which nearly got lost. Beck recorded it with a hip hop producer named Karl Stephenson.
“I went over to his house and played him some folk songs, blues and slide guitar. We recorded ‘Loser’ in a couple of hours. It was great fun, but I didn’t see him again for a year. I didn’t have a copy of the song and it was only when a local independent label called Bong Load wanted to put it out as a 12-inch that we got together again”.
That song became one of the biggest hits of the day. Beck’s Top of the Pops appearance memorably featured him with a grey-haired backing band…
It also resulted in a number of record companies bidding for Beck’s services.
Yet, instead of going with the highest bidder, Beck chose the lowest, Geffen, on the condition he could retain control of what and how he released his music. Low key folk albums such as “One Foot In The Grave” appeared on indie labels, whilst the groundbreaking Odelay and pop orientated major label gems such as Midnight Vultures made Beck a force to be reckoned with.
Then just as Beck was consolidating his position as Prince Mark II, came Sea Change.
Perhaps the finest break-up album since Dylan recorded “Blood on the Tracks”, Sea Change transformed Beck’s image from pop lothario to serious singer songwriter…
Various albums have happened since, including that Grammy winning spiritual-follow up to Sea Change “Morning Phase”. All good. It’s odd. He hasn’t made a bad record.
And now there’s the new album, Colors, which may be spelt wrong, but is released today, and is perhaps in his top five…
Yeah. Good point.
As Beck explains, he was in the U.K. to promote the album and play Later…with Jools Holland. But he was hardly going to come all the way over here and then not play a gig or two, right?
Camden’s Electric Ballroom is one of London’s best venues. The floor is pleasantly sticky, the main room vanishingly small, and stuffed to the brim with a crowd of perhaps a thousand people who all know that this is Where It’s At. All the best ingredients for an astonishing night.
We start with five songs from Sea Change and Morning Phase. Easing us in gently before it gets unruly. Blackbird Chain, Blue Moon, Lost Cause, Say Goodbye, Heart is a Drum. It’s wonderful. A night of songs from just those two albums would be extraordinary.
But then Beck unleashes a career of highlights. Devil’s Haircut, Go It Alone, Nausea, Black Tambourine all pass in a flash.
There’s a debut for title track from the new album “Colors” and the best thing we can say about catchy new single “Up All Night” is that it followed a manic “Loser” seamlessly and without being diminished. There are so many songs in Beck’s catalogue. E-Pro and Girl, Where It’s At and Devil’s Haircut. Mixed Bizness and The New Pollution. Classics all.
Even better was the finale. As Beck introduced his band, each played a fragment of a song, giving us “London Calling”, and a tribute to Tom Petty in “American Girl” (not to mention “Once In A Lifetime” and from the drummer, the Phil Collins classic “In the Air Tonight”). The Electric Ballroom was transformed into the best kind of wedding party. Maybe every gig should end like this…a bunch of covers and lots of smiling faces.
So job done. Jools is happy. Beck is happy. And the crowd at Camden’s Electric Ballroom is happy. It was a fantastic performance. The new album is a cracker. Beck is back…
* I’m three months older than him.
Categories: Live Reviews