Recently I was having a chat with a friend on the subject of music, a subject we talk about at great length whenever we are together. In particular we were discussing which artists have made the most exhilarating music of the last decade or so. We invariably discussed the merits of Boards Of Canada, Beck, Radiohead and countless others but came to the conclusion that it was hard to see passed the merits of The Beta Band, sadly no longer together but still regularly on my playlist.
I have eulogised about The Beta Band to anyone who would listen over the years and imagine I’ll continue to do so for some time yet. They became my favourite group directly after I saw them live for the first time, at a small club in Edinburgh called La Belle Angele in 1998. I had a musical epiphany in a venue which a few years later would be burned to the ground and never rebuilt, but less about that, this isn’t a tirade about inner city arson. At the time the band were playing a set consisting of songs from their first three ep’s (Champion Versions, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos) which just a few weeks later would be released collectively as The Three Ep’s. I already owned a copy of this collection as at the time I had just returned to Edinburgh from London where I had completed a weeks work experience at a music promotions company in Camden. As it was work experience I wasn’t paid but I was allowed to take some copies of the seemingly thousands of albums and singles lying around the office. I ended up bagging as much as I could possibly carry on to the train back north, The Three Ep’s included. Anyway, I wasn’t at this gig feeling smug that I had a copy of something none of the other punters had, I was feeling euphoric along with the rest of the crowd. This was a time before the band started to drop their most famous song Dry The Rain from the set list due I imagine to being fed up at people only knowing that one song and not giving others the attention they deserved. This probably wasn’t helped by the scene in the film High Fidelity where John Cusack attempts to sell five copies of The Three Ep’s by playing Dry The Rain in his record shop and proclaiming to know just how good the group are to a customer. So, back to the gig. Having listened intently to a set consisting of the freshest and absorbing songs I had ever heard live coupled with a stage show where the group’s members swapped instruments for certain songs whilst being flanked on both sides by palm trees (quite surprising as arecaceae are hard to come by in Edinburgh) I couldn’t wait to hear more of what I believed to be the best British group since The Stone Roses.
In 1999 the first album proper was released with more thought going in to the music than the title, it was simply called The Beta Band. Admittedly, while the album was packed full of interesting ideas and some great tunes notably It’s Not Too Beautiful, Round The Bend and The Hard One (although I prefer the remix version of this track on the Human Being single release in 2001) it lacked focus. It also left me wondering if they were under pressure to release an album as quickly as they could to capitalize on the growing interest in the band. The fact that soon after release the band distanced themselves from the record was partly understandable although not the wisest business move. The fact remains that while not being as coherent as many fans would have wished it was at least attempting to be more innovative than the majority of releases that year.
Thankfully just two years later a new album Hot Shots II befitting the groups talent was released with finely honed structures and production values courtesy of Colin Emmanuel and the group themselves. This was a more polished affair but still in keeping with the bands routes of experimentalism. The singles released from the album – Broke, Human Being and Squares were as strong as anything they would go on to release but the strength of the album was enhanced by songs not selected as singles such as the haunting Gone and my personal favourite Alleged.
On the back of the records release the band toured and I saw them at every available opportunity. With three ep’s and two albums worth of material to draw upon the shows were as varied and exciting as I had hoped although none as exciting as one particular show at The Arches in Glasgow. This was a performance for the BBC2 Scotland music show The Beat Room with a live audience invited to see the group perform a set of about half a dozen songs filmed for the programme which would be aired a few weeks later. To see the band in such an intimate venue was exciting but the fact that I was presenting the show made it a shear delight. Not only did I get to meet the band but I also watched them soundcheck which to such a fan was a privilege. How many times do you get to see your favourite group do all that in one day? Not many if ever. As I was the presenter I was allowed to get some mates in on the guest list although I think the production staff were slightly surprised at the number of names I gave them. There were enough to form a football team including subs. Needless to say, everyone enjoyed it although perhaps not quite as much as myself. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be in the position I was but also that it was a good thing a genuine fan got to introduce their set as opposed to someone who had only ever heard Dry The Rain.
Although I didn’t interview them for The Beat Room I did get my chance in 2002 when I presented the T In the Park music festival again for the BBC. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting too much from the interview as I had seen them interviewed before and the main impression I got was that they were far more comfortable performing than speaking about their music. This proved to be the case as although the interview went smoothly and I asked the questions I wanted to without fawning too much, the band seemed a little nervous and reticent to go into too much detail about their work. This I understood as if there was ever an act who were better at letting the recorded output do the talking for them it was The Beta Band. I did find it endearing though that after the camera had stopped rolling keyboardist John Maclean took it upon himself to apologise to me in case I had thought they were too monosyllabic as in his words “we’re just not very good at doing interviews”. It was a gesture I greatly appreciated although not entirely necessary.
Having moved to London in 2002 I had to wait a further two years for the next album and what would prove to be their final long player consisting of new material. Having already bought the lead off single Assessment I was eagerly anticipating a fresh batch of songs but must admit that on first listen I wasn’t entirely convinced of Heroes To Zeroes‘ merits. This feeling dissipated on repeat listens though. I think the reason for this was that the songs on Heroes… were more introspective than anything they had done before. In songs such as Troubles, Simple and Wonderful there was a slight melancholic edge which in some ways almost prophesied the groups decision to disband later that year. Thankfully there were still touring commitments to be undertaken and before seeing them on The Farewell Tour I saw them at the ICA and the Coronet in London. Both gigs were highly enjoyable especially due to the fact the audience were hearing tunes from the new album for the first time live. At the Coronet gig in Elephant and Castle I took my mate Nigel along as he was almost as big a fan as I was. Brilliantly, we were given two passes for the aftershow party and as it was a Friday night, we were in the mood for some post gig pints. Unfortunately the booze seemed to go to Nigels head more than mine. At the aftershow I caught the eye of John Maclean who came over to chat to me about the gig. I told him how much I enjoyed it and how I thought the new album was a real cracker. Alas, Nigel decided to bypass the music chat and berate John for the fact that when he purchased a Beta Band t-shirt some years previously it appeared to give him on wearing the item, man boobs. To his credit, John offered an apology whilst making the point that it wasn’t really his fault. Immediately afterwards I suggested Nigel ease up on the alcohol intake which may or may not have contributed to the appearance of man boobs in the first place.
The last time I saw the Beta Band live was on the aforementioned Farewell Tour at The Shepherds Bush Empire in November 2004. It was a strange experience knowing that this was the last time I would see them live but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the show. When in 2005 a retrospective Best Of was released it also came with a cd of the Shepherds Bush gig so at least I had a fitting memento of my final Beta live experience.
Obviously I wish the band had continued but understand that because of a continuing lack of real commercial success and debts incurred as a result the decision was made to call it a day. There are those who would argue that if they had tried to replicate the material found on their first three ep’s they could have been more successful but I would disagree. They were never a band intent on retreadeding old ground and thankfully they never did. Instead they left a body of work that stands up to anyone else’s of the last 20 years and matched in my opinion by no-one. I did find it slightly annoying that in the multitude of end of decade polls concerning the greatest artists and albums of the noughties The Beta Band were scarcely mentioned. How quickly those who compile such lists forget. Thankfully there is still original music being created from the ex band members. On one side there is Steve Mason with his King Biscuit Time and Black Affair projects and on the other are The Aliens compromising John Maclean, Robin Jones and early Beta member Gordon Anderson. I have bought everything each have released and enjoyed them greatly. However, I have to admit that nothing has reached the heights and made me as excited about music as The Beta Band did. At least I have the whole back catalogue for prosperity which is more than can be said for Nigel and that t-shirt.