This album marks the apex of the band that galvanized and refined the twee pop movement. “Twee” means something that is excessively quaint, and indeed Beat Happening was that. They rejected drugs and drinking in place for picnic and pie-baking parties. But what makes them important musically was the fact that they called themselves punk. In fact twee pop, which developed throughout the 80’s, essentially took punk to its rawest tenet of “I’ll do whatever I want to do”, especially eschewing the already formulaic style of leather jackets and safety pin piercing. Or as Beat Happening sang in “Hey Day”: “No golden rule”.
Beat Happening chose the less-travelled route where everything was incredibly informal: chords were jangled out, drum beats held a very fragile rhythm, instruments were swapped most songs, and if the speakers didn’t work then that would not mean stopping. Indeed upon first listen to their early songs, one wonders if they’d even be able to finish their song. Yet what perseveres is the songs’ simple greatness. Harking back to the basic virtuosity of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album, and catalysed by singer Calvin Johnson’s baritone confidence, they encapsulate a pure feeling.
You Turn Me On exhibits these feelings in their completed and varnished state. As the album title suggests, a prominent feeling is lust. Raw guitar riffs and primal drumbeats bleed through songs like “Pinebox Derby” and the Kinks-esque “You Turn Me On” which maintains a manic chorus of Johnson drawling “Turn me on dead man”. Indeed as “You Turn Me On” best highlights in its images of burning, Beat Happening are no longer playing kids. Their penultimate song “Hey Day” has the disaffectedness of their darker compatriots such as Sonic Youth and Nirvana. And yet conversely, the album also contains some of the band’s greatest love songs. The opener “Tiger Trap” harks back to the idyllic innocent scenes of Beat Happening’s early hits such as “Indian Summer” yet contain more conviction. Also the band’s secondary singer Heather Lewis finally comes into her own in this album, rather than merely playing Moe Tucker to Johnson’ Lou Reed. She sings three songs on the album with her girly charm, including the nine-minute droning love song “Godsend”, a landmark length for the band.
Indeed this album was a landmark for the band in many ways, most importantly it signalled a desire to mature. The songs no longer have the abrasive lo-fi quality of their earlier works, but show technical efforts such as over-dubbing, rhythmic ability and even guitar solos. Yet in tightening a sound, which is inherently loose, does the band not lose its purpose? For this album was the band’s last; and the closer “Bury The Hammer”, shared by both Johnson and Lewis, definitely has the swansong quality of riding into the sunset. Instead the Beat Happening story, which lasted nearly a decade, should be viewed more as a striving for an ideal. Thus once this ideal was realised in You Turn Me On, they had the choice of either continue playing into monotonous oblivion or end on a high. Once again the band chose the harder but more fulfilling route of disbanding and pursuing other interests, in order to preserve the legend of Beat Happening.