Across the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Fife outfit The Beta Band released an extensive catalogue of experimental works, moulding a unique brand of freaky folktronica that left a lasting legacy on alternative music. Their highly eclectic output was lauded by the contemporary music press and gained recognition from far more popular bands than themselves, such as Oasis and Radiohead, as they garnered a steadfast cult following. Their left-field sound dabbled in a host of genres, from indie rock and traditional Scottish folk, to downtempo funk and hip-hop.
In the summer of 1997, the Beta’s released their first E.P., entitled Champion Versions, to small, yet comprehensive acclaim. In the next year the group released a further two successful E.P.’s in The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos. The following September, the releases were conjoined and the compilation album, The Three E.P.’s, was born. With this, The Beta Band had made themselves known. The compilation featured in Pitchfork’s ‘Top 10 Albums of the Year’ list and earned an A- rating from New York based magazine, Entertainment Weekly.
The Three E.P.’s sits alongside the likes of Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point as one of the most important albums of the decade. It demonstrates that British rock in the 1990’s was a lot more than the media hyped Blur vs Oasis frenzy, which boasts its own unique legacy of desperately launching a pissed-into-plastic-pint at an unassuming crowd member, as it slowly sets in that the English National team is really quite shite.
The compilation is an intelligent celebration of music and shows off a prodigious breadth of genre-knowledge on part of the band members. The opening number, Dry the Rain, begins with folky, melodic acoustics before unleashing into a satisfying climax featuring a moody trumpet solo, constantly underpinned by swaggering bass. The laidback groove of I Know follows, as Steve Mason’s whispered vocals are juxtaposed with crunching percussion, before the instrumental B + A intervenes with its arty atmospherics and thrilling, harder edge coming straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie score.
Incidentatlly, The Beta Band’s sound guru, DJ, sampler and keyboardist John MacLean would go on to forge for himself a career as a movie director following the group’s demise. Furthermore, the aforementioned Dry the Rain actually became the band’s greatest hit after its inclusion on the silver screen. The track features in the acclaimed High Fidelity (2000), in which John Cusack’s character, a record store owner, claims he’s going to sell multiple copies of The Three E.P.’s simply through playing the song:
Other highlights of the record include Needles In My Eyes, an easy-listening catchy folk number, and trippy psychedelic monster The House Song, which grows from unaccompanied ramblings that oddly co-exist and then are met with swampy backward guitars and tribal bongos. The live version featured below highlights the group’s jarring prowess, as ultra-talented frontman Mason goes from singing, to bongos, to acting as a full-on drummer to support the bass heavy outro which showcases the DJ exploits of Maclean, taking the track into another dimension with his fizzing scratch techniques. Around the time of The Three E.P.’s the group became known for their unusual live performances which featured DJ sets and Maclean’s love of sampling.
Shortly after their breakthrough E.P.’s, the group were signed to Regal Recrords and after a successful North American tour, work began on their much anticipated, eponymous debut album. Released in 1999, The Beta Band initially received mixed reviews which later became entirely negative when the band disowned the album only a week after its release.
“It’s definitely the worst record we’ve ever made and it’s probably one of the worst records that’ll come out this year.” – Steve Mason in an interview with the NME on 15th May 1999
The LP was perhaps too eclectic for its own good – it draws influence from a huge scope of genres; from reggae, to bubblegum pop, 50’s rock ‘n’ roll, rap – and was conceived largely through improvisation. It is densely complicated, sounding like numerous pieces of music at once. Which, although on the face of it a potential downside, was perhaps the groups plan all along, as they had originally intended to record the LP in stages, across a number of continents.
The Beta Band was however hailed in other quarters, with some believing its ambient experimentation to be something of a masterstroke. The album was featured in numerous end of year best lists and in its sheer madness, is quite symbolic of the band’s peculiar appeal.
“The Beta Band stands as a time capsule of possibly the last instance when a group this strange could not just get signed to a major label, but use the company dime to make themselves sound even stranger.” – Notes Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman
The group would go on to release Hot Shots II (2001), which was met with universally positive reviews and their final album in Heroes to Zeros (2004). Their diverse incorporation of so many influences is hard to come by in music these days and their legacy remains both compelling and hugely important.