I’ve been asked to write something about 'The Three E.P.s' by The Beta Band. I should warn you, it’s going to be quite tricky to restrain myself from an embarrassing personal outpouring of devotional gush. This band, you see, are my favourite of all time. I should probably point out that 'The Three E.P.s' is my favourite album of all time, too. Double whammy. That’s because The Beta Band are the greatest of all time, and if you don’t agree then you are wrong wrong wrong and you frankly have a stupid lying face.
Look, I did warn you it was going to get emotional. Robin Jones, John MacLean and Steve Mason - accompanied by Steve Duffield and, later, Richard Greentree - created this series of EPs at the start of their musical career, and they are such an incredible accomplishment. I listened to a podcast about a year ago, conducted by the Barbican in London, in which Mason revealed that when the Beta Band had signed to EMI, he had only written something like 3 songs in his life. I think that is what makes these first recordings so special - four individuals making music together, not having to conform to any specific remit other than their own sense of adventure.
'The Three E.P.s' are a playful, mesmeric, psychedelic odyssey of boundless imagination - to me, far more influential than any other of its Britpop counterparts. I think the band’s organic approach to making music, and their commitment to creating their own colourful artwork, which fed into their records and live performance, created an indelible mark on the landscape of alternative music in the 90’s. Despite being on a major label, the DIY nature of their sound and their overall artistic identity helped inspire a whole generation of independent labels and artists, that still carries through today. I can say 100%, hand-on-heart, that I certainly wouldn’t be making music today if it wasn’t for The Beta Band.
But anyway... instead of me harping on, let’s just listen to the album. Together, in real time. Those good people at Because Music have resurrected the Betas back-catalogue, giving it the full remaster treatment. Which means if you’ve never heard any of the Betas music before, you’re now going to be able to hear it in it’s finest quality, the best it’s ever sounded. You lucky sods. Go out to your local record shop, buy the newly released triple vinyl of 'The Three E.P.s', come back home, put it on your record player. Let’s go. C’mon. Chop, chop.
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You back? Good. Right, track one of the first EP, 'Champion Versions', ‘Dry The Rain’. Some would say that it’s arguably the best opening track by any band ever. These people are wrong. There is no argument about it. It is inarguably the best opening track by any band ever. Think of another one, go on. You see. You can’t. That’s because ‘Dry The Rain’ is the best one ever. The production is sublime, so many beautiful textures and it still manages to sounds like four people in a room, picking up an instrument, singing along and making a glorious racket. That lolloping hip-hop beat that seems to trip over itself, before the song suddenly opens out, and builds and builds towards that irrepressible, heart-thumping refrain, “If there’s something inside that you wanna say / say it out loud, it’ll be okay / I will be your light / I need love...” It’s perfect.
Track two, ‘I Know’, here we go. Let’s have a beer and a hug. I’m still feeling emotional from that previous song. This opens with some thick bass guitar, a sample that sounds like someone jangling some keys, hushed vocals, a beat that gets your knees moving. I’m blimmin’ dancing already, and we’re only two songs in. Oh shit, now we’re on to ‘B+A’, repeated cyclical guitar patterns, a loop that sounds like a broken fax machine, another beer, then ride cymbal crashes into a shoegazey groove, handclaps, percussion, and some guy shaking some keys again. Yes! Let’s do this. Oooooft. Steve Mason shouting “HIIIIIGH”, soaked in reverb. I might take it easy on the beer for a bit.
The last track on the first EP is ‘Dog’s Got A Bone’. “It’s me,” someone whispers, and the ballad begins. Layered acoustic guitars, harmonica, chanting vocals are swept along by a rolling bassline, and we’re all transported to Fife. “Won’t you come home now, if you’re feeling so alone, now?” When the piano comes in, holy moley, you’re actually flying in the air. This was co-written with Gordon Anderson (aka Lone Pigeon), and you can almost feel his wings flutter past by the end of the song.-
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'The Patty Patty Sound' is the second EP, and ‘Inner Meet Me’ has us climbing up Scottish hills, dressed up as aliens, and performing some sort of sacrificial ritual. When that shaker comes in, I dare you to keep your knees still. Acoustic guitar, one chord for the verses, let’s go. Remember, the punks needed three chords. The Beta Band only need ONE. That’s how punk they are. My favourite bit of this song is the wee laugh at the end. This is the fun EP, after all.
Fittingly, the next track - ’House Song’ - is the most fun of all the Betas songs. Steve Mason’s voice is layered upon itself, lots of different refrains piled on top of one another, with a weird vinyl crackle above it all. As the title suggests, a house beat ‘drops’, and then a classic Betas funk-bassline emerges, before absolutely everything falls away, and then a full-blown rap is spat out, in a nonsense-language, but performed in a French accent. OUI OUI OUI and OUI. Bird song is sampled and scratched on vinyl, and the whole thing gets very, very weird. But, wait - the weird door has only just been opened.
Because now, we have entered ‘The Monolith’. To be honest, I could have written an entire article about this track - a fifteen minute ambient-dub fantasy, that pretty much encapsulates everything that is disturbingly brilliant about the band. A sped-up sample from a Les Baxter exotica record, opens proceedings, drenched in reverb of course, and lost within the world of the Betas, which goes a bit Krautrock, then classic rock, pastoral-psych, and then … a sort of uncategorisable collage of sound.
These guys are ardent music fans and artists, and their limitless approach to making music extended beyond their own records - I remember listening to mixes they made for the radio around that time, which introduced an audience to a wide mixture of styles and genres, from across the globe. But back to the record, and what’s especially great about this ‘Monolith’ track is that it constantly surprises. And it’s funny! Ha! So many groups around the mid-90’s took themselves so seriously … and then you’ve got this lot who have a track like ‘The - fucking - Monolith’, where an abrasive cut-up break beat is followed by someone playing the bicycle horn.
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And out of all that beautiful mess comes … ‘She’s The One’, perhaps the most beautiful moment throughout their entire catalogue. It combines all of my favourite Beta elements: those relentless, driving vocals with daft lyrics propelled by insistent acoustic guitar. The bicycle horn is back. Vocals are sped up into a summery chipmunk choir, and the Keith Moon-esque drums come joyously clattering in, accompanied by an electric guitar submerged in so many effects it sounds like a wurlitzer organ, that spins around and around. It’s glorious. Pop goes the weasel, indeed.
Los Amigos Del Beta Banditos is the blissful, final chapter in this compilation, with ‘Push It Out’ beckoning us towards a cave fire, inviting us to join in with an almost spiritual incantation, summoning us into a dream state. ‘It’s Over’ continues this soporific journey, our sonic souls transported to the heavens above alongside the birds, blessed by the Betas who are now singing almost in prayer.
That is until we are revived back to life by ‘Dr Baker’. This song. My god. It’s so hypnotically chaotic. It’s a magic carpet ride across space and time. “you will see me lost, how high”. This track completely blew my mind when I first heard it. Changed everything. Irrevocably altered my perception of what a song could be.
But there’s no time to find your feet, now. ‘Needles In My Eyes’, the final track on the final EP, signals the end of our journey. This is no quiet exit, though. Instead, it’s a rousing anthem, all organ swells and baggy drums.
Thank you for joining me on this audio-voyage. These new Beta Band remasters sound truly fantastic, so many wee details jump through the headphones, bringing a whole new lease of life to an album i’d played to death - I’d highly recommend it to both new listeners, and long-term fans.
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Words: The Pictish Trail
The Pictish Trail also releases fine music of his own, and plays some exceptional live shows - for more on that click HERE.
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