Having just been announced as one of the headline acts in Electric Picnic ’14 Beck will be dragged reluctantly back into the lime-light. His album Morning Phase, released last month, will surely get the airplay it deserves. So is this accidental hero deserving of such a billing or is this David Spade look-a-like another imposter riding his luck?
Beck Hansen’s earliest musical inspiration came from old blues music. Blues references old African music but adopts European instruments and scales blending the two cultures together. “They would take verses from different things and assemble them,” Beck told the Shambhala Sun in 1999, “[I] got really into the old music … all the blues stuff. We’d just sit for hours trying to figure out how to do this stuff.” In 1994 Beck spoke to Spin magazine about the revelation he experienced having discovered an old Mississippi John Hurt LP (which he then stole from a friend’s parent’s collection), explaining that “[he] was looking for something more honest in music. This was 1985, the height of the artificial synth-pop, no-personality … zero charisma music period – music influenced by greed and materialism. When I found the blues it was like this is what I am.”
Beck is better known for his cutting edge pop music. He is known to have bridged the gap between hip-hop and pop and he continues to bridge musical genres today, adding orchestral arrangements to old blues structures in his latest offering. His albums are masterful demonstrations of cut and paste artistry. Nothing is too niche for his eclectic melting pot, except maybe the cliches. His touring band is a solid troupe of accomplished musicians. They have to be.
Beck himself comes from artistic stock. His grandfather was a paratrooper in 1946. When he descended upon the German city of Frankfurt which had been ravaged by Allied bombs, he noticed a piano, teetering on the edge of an exposed 5th floor room of a building that had been torn apart. Unable to resist the urge, he pushed the damaged instrument until it plummeted to the ground below. The explosive sound was a starting point in Hansen’s interest in performance and so was born a creativity that would be passed down through generations.
Beck’s grandmother, Audrey Hansen, was one of the original Greenwich village bohemians. She cut all links with the straight world to become an actress, model and poet. Beck’s mother, Bibbe, admits to having grown up in a very artistic environment and cultivated the same environment for Beck. Beck’s father, David Campbell, was a successful session musician, arranger and producer. He developed a niche for himself and his troupe of session musicians, becoming the most sought after group in LA, by making the outlandish decision to hire female musicians as well as talented young artists. The budding singer songwriters in LA felt more of an affinity with David’s musicians than the stuffy old studio men.
Beck’s mother, Bibbe, told the Los Angeles a Times in 1998 that her son came into the world with inherent creativity which she helped to cultivate: “I did create a [creative] environment for him. Beck’s father is a musician, I worked in film, photography and in bands and when Beck was a child [his grandfather] Al lived with us. He used to sit in the backyard making art, and because he was involved in L.A.’s punk scene, there were always people at the house playing guitars.”
At age 16, Beck started to record his own music. Lacking the funds to purchase a 4-track recorder, the ever inventive Beck would record tracks on ordinary tape deck. He’d switch the tape into another stereo and play along while recording, layering track after track. By the 4th layer the hiss and distortion would drown out the sound of guitar and vocal tracks buried deep in the mix. Beck would artificially replicate this sound on later recordings. His interest in seemingly disparate trends and his ability to tie genres together has made Beck a very unique and original artist. From raw country blues he began to incorporate sounds from noise drenched independent offerings. One of these influences was Sonic Youth. Beck was enthralled with these new raucous elements and noise became a fundamental part of his sound.