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Members include RichardGreentree (born in Portsmouth, England, former carpenter), bass, percussion; RobinJones (born in Edinburgh, Scotland, former art student), drums, percussion; StephenMason (born in Edinburgh, Scotland, former automobile mechanic), vocals, guitar, percussion; JohnMcLean (born in Edinburgh, Scotland, former art student), decks, samples, percussion. Addresses: Home--London, England; Record company--Astralwerks, 104 W. 29th St., Flr. 4, New York City, NY 10001.
The British quartet known as the Beta Band quickly earned the reputation as one of the hottest new acts in music after the release of their first EP, 1997's Champion Versions. Their unique sound, which defies classification, combines an array of musical styles, from hip-hop, rap, and soul to psychedelic rock, pop, punk, and folk. Although critics often compared the Beta Band's music to that of American pop star Beck, they also noted a distinct, original quality about their work. For example, David Daley of Magnet magazine noted, "While they share a basic indie-rock sensibility with musical deconstructivists like Beck--embracing skewed melodies, tape loops, hip-hop beats and garage-sale electronica--everything the Betas record manages to sound radically different." After the Beta Band's first release, they produced two more EPs in 1998, which were later combined into a single album, followed by the group's first full-length album in 1999. Like the first EP, their subsequent recordings only added more fuel to their rising popularity. Even multi-platinum selling bands like the Verve and Oasis looked to the Beta Band as one of their favorite groups, and the Beastie Boys personally requested the Betas to DJ an after show party in England. In addition, the gritty-voiced jazz singer from New Orleans, Dr. John, called on two of the foursome to contribute to his album Anutha Zone.
While most newcomers only dream of the hype, critical attention, and loyal flock of disciples collected by the band in just two short years, the Betas insisted that their music, not the media game, remained the sole purpose of the band. Nonetheless, the young Brits were sure to draw attention to themselves, if not for their rhythms punctuated by bongos, pots and pans, a brass car horn, "whistles, bells, cheers, trotting horses and sounds not unlike a cuckoo clock," commented Neil Strauss of The Times (London), then for their wildly entertaining live shows. During a typical performance, complete with their homemade short films, poetry readings, potted plants, and festive costumes amid skillful gospel piano and rock guitar melodies, the Beta Band switches instruments and swaps roles while creating tunes which they call dance music. "We're always playing things we don't know how to play," drummer Richard Greentree told Daley. "We just want to get a noise out of it and see what it sounds like. The thing is, you can get soul across in a song if you mean it, even if you're not able to play the instrument."
The foursome, made up of Steve Mason (a former automobile mechanic and guitarist, John McLean (a former art student and DJ), Robin Jones (a former art student and drummer), and Richard Greentree (a former carpenter and bassist from the coastal town of)--all except Greentree are from Edinburgh, Scotland, Greentree is from Portsmouth, England-- decided to create the Beta Band in 1996 while sharing a cramped flat together in London. Although they owned few instruments to work with, primarily an old acoustic guitar and some pans, as well as a massive record between them, the group managed to use these sparse belongings to compose songs for their first EP, Champion Versions, which included the stand-out opening track "Dry the Rain." To their surprise, the record, then available on vinyl only, received radio air play, and the Beta Band's alluring music immediately caught the attention of listeners and critics.
However, Mason, McLean, Jones, and Greentree, taken aback by the sudden recognition, seemed unsure about diving into the pop scene right away, claiming that they "weren't really a band," as quoted by Ben Thompson in Independent, and repeatedly dodging reporters for interviews. Jones remarked to Matthias Clamer of Spin magazine, "We didn't fancy being in a band and we didn't want to play live. It just kind of crept up on us." For about one year after their 1997 release, they played just three London shows and two low-profile tours around Great Britain. Then, rather than meeting the expectations of fans and the press by finally recording a full-length album, the Betas, almost in defiance, instead opted to release two more EPs, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos, both in 1998. Like the Beta Band's first release, the subsequent recordings of long, intricate songs earned critical praise as well. The track "Inner Meet Me," for example, from The Patty Patty Sound, "is a joyous whirl with trippy synth effects, a funky scratch beat and a good-time energy about it." Likewise, "Push It Out," a song from Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos, "is weird and otherworldly, a Bernie Worrell-ish deep groove," wrote Colin Berry in Magnet.
By this time, record buyers in Britain and even in the United States were scrambling to pick up copies of the three EPs, driving retail prices to well over fifty dollars for each record. Therefore, in order to remedy the inflated costs, Regal Recordings and the Astralwerks label (who distributes the Beta Band for the American market) combined the three EPs into one album in 1999, appropriately titled The Three E.P.'s, which highlighted the numerous styles the Beta Band had assimilated into a cohesive body of work. Still, despite the enthusiasm surrounding the release, the band continued to ignore the media and industry spectacle. As McLean later explained to Daley, "We just don't care about image or fashion. We're tired of hype and trendiness. You look around at the other bands getting the same hype, listen to their music and it sounds awful. It's all just nonsense."
Eventually, though, the Beta Band started to lose the race in trying to distance themselves from the mounting pressure and hype. Thus, the Betas gave way in 1999 when their record company pleaded with them to begin work on an album. However, in order to thwart the music press, they pretended as if they composing songs for another series of EPs. The journey began when the foursome set off for a remote location in the northwest corner of Scotland near the ocean. They camped in a small hut that belonged to McLean's grandfather and packed the tiny cabin with their equipment and instruments, leaving them not even room enough for a place to sleep. Just six day later, the Beta Band emerged from their retreat with several hours worth of music and headed back to England to record four sets of songs in four different studios. "We tried to make it easy on ourselves. And there's only so much time you can spend in one place. So we treated (all the sessions) as separate projects," Greentree told Daley.
The end result, 1999's The Beta Band, again proved an instant success, although McLean admitted to Music Week that "Because of the time limit, we didn't really have the opportunity to rip tracks apart as we'd like to have done." Nevertheless, he continued, "The finished album sounds pretty diverse because we have so many ideas. If we share anything it's eclecticism but we converge on certain things. Steve Mason, our guitarist, is the man with the reggae influences, I'm more from a hip-hop background." Critics, too, seemed to agree with McLean's assessment. "The Beta males layer warped voices, pastoral guitars and random sound effects over slow-motion loops to evoke a chance meeting between King Crimson circa 1969 and Happy Mondays 1989," concluded Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone. "Of course, it's not all gold, but the funniest tunes will give you fits--try 'The Cow's Wrong,' which features singer Stephen Mason intoning bovine poetry until the drum machine's batteries wear down."
With no plans of slowing down, the three Scotsmen and lone Englishman, somewhat more at ease with their popularity, planned a more extensive club tour in support of The Beta Band. "The live side of things is also an important part of the puzzle," McLean assured Music Week. "People will see the progress we've made." Therefore, during the summer of 1999, the Beta Band made their first trip to New York City and kicked off their stay in the United States at the trendy Joe's Pub, a venue frequented by celebrity patrons such as magician David Blaine and actor Leonardo Dicaprio, in the East Village. But the laid back Betas refused to change their usual show for the hip New York crowd. Instead, as Daley described the scene, "they're simply slapping down hip-hop records as they feel like it. There's silence. There's confusion. There's chaos."
Furthermore, the quartet, after gaining more studio knowledge through work on The Beta Band, intended to use technology more with future projects. "Hopefully, we've stumbled along a way of recording that will help us move away from guitars. The sound changes so much because we're still learning all the things you can do in a studio. The house engineers always tell us, 'You can't do it that way.' Well, sure you can. We're just doing things most people don't even bother to try," Greentree said to Daley.
The always inventive Beta Band pursued other creative avenues, in addition to their own special concoction of British pop. They published a pamphlet of original artwork called The Flower Press, and Mason also released a solo project in 1999 entitled King Biscuit Time Sings Nelly Foggit's Blues in "Me and the Pharaohs," a record full of "Chipmunk-style" vocals. Although some critics described the group as obscure, purposefully weird, or mysterious, the Beta Band claimed that their projects simply reflect who they are. As Jones explained to Clamer, "Folks thought The Flower Press was mysterious. To us it was a perfectly normal thing to do."
by Laura Hightower
The Beta Band's Career
Group formed in 1996 in London, England; released first EP, Champion Versions, Regal, 1997; released EPs, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos, Regal, 1998; combined EPs into a single album, The Three E.P.'s, and released debut full-length album, The Beta Band, both on Astralwerks, 1999.
- Selected discography
- The Beta Band Astralwerks, 1999.
- The Three E.P.'s Astralwerks, 1999.
- Champion Versions Regal, 1997.
- Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos Regal, 1998.
- The Patty Patty Sound Regal, 1998.
- Calgary Sun, July 4, 1999, p 38.
- Entertainment Weekly, January 22, 1999, p.100.
- Independent, September 18, 1998, p. 13; October 2, 1998, p. 15.
- Independent on Sunday, June 20, 1999, p. 5.
- Indieworld, December 9, 1997.
- Magnet, April/May 1999, pp. 63-64; June/July 1999, pp. 60-61, 92.
- Rolling Stone, July 8-22, 1999.
- Select, September 1998.
- Spin, June 1999.
- The Times (London), July 9, 1999.
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