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The Beta Band

Every so often an innovative alt-pop/rock group comes along that simply blows away the opposition, and for a time in their 8-year formation, The BETA BAND, did just that. A heady brew of folktronica (i.e. folk, electronica, trip hop, acid-rock and experimental pop), the dextrous midnight runners took flight from St. Andrews via Edinburgh University to the warmer climes of London; Steve Mason (vocals/guitar/etc.) and buddy Gordon Anderson (aka The Pigeons) cementing the foundations of their songs while on a train down to the capital. There, they worked at various day jobs while sharing a flat in Shepherds Bush, although ill-health forced Anderson to return home in August ’96; he later took the one-man-band option to form LONE PIGEON.
Drawing from other ex-pats, John Maclean (their arty sleeve designer as well as their DJ sampler), drummer Robin Jones and bassist Steve Duffield, The BETA BAND went to work on what was to be their first songs. However, after the group inked a deal with Parlophone splinter, Regal Recordings, Duffield quit, and was duly superseded by Portsmouth-born Richard Greentree (ex-Sinister Footwear); he was introduced through mutual friends, PUSHERMAN. Discovered and subsequently produced by THE VERVE’s Nick McCabe, who saw some potential in their psychedelic, transcendental, dub malarkey (recalling The STONE ROSES or The MOONFLOWERS on a mantra-ic mission!), the lads from the north issued a triumvirate of EPs, all in the space of a year.
`Champion Versions’ (1997), `The Patty Patty Sound’ (1998) and the sublime, `Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos’ (1998) were soon changing hands for upwards of £40 a time! Led by the anthemic, `Dry The Rain’, the first of these records was the sound of “baggy” almost a decade on, albeit filtered through a king-sized bong and chorused by the soothing phrase of “I will be all right”. Just as effective and toying with experimental cool, attendant tracks `I Know’, `B+A’ and `Dogs Got A Bone’, rolled prog/Krautrock, trip-hop and folk into one respective ball.
Lauded by the more discerning factions of the music press, the bumbling art-rockers (all by-passing the fashion stakes completely: safari suits, judo gear and horror of horrors, Steve’s “smarty-pants” shell-suit being the disorder of the day), forked out extended studio time for `The Patty Patty Sound’, featuring four tracks running up a total of 37 minutes; worth the admission price for book-enders, `Inner Meet Me’ and `She’s The One’.
Much more effective and accessible was the third EP; all four divergent dirges – `Push It Out’, `It’s Over’, `Dr. Baker’ and `Needles In My Eyes’ – modern-day cult classics. Collected together on one shiny set, simply titled THE THREE E.P.’S (1998) {*9}, The BETA BAND found themselves in the Top 40 with a unique debut compilation long player that hung together surprisingly well.
To end the year, Mason moonlighted as KING BISCUIT TIME, releasing (to coincide with the latest edition of the band’s zany in-house comic) a bizarre EP of spaced-out drum ’n’ bass, `“Sings” Nelly Foggit’s Blues In “Me And The Pharaohs”’.
With expectation and hype rife about the recording schedules and rumoured double-disc set of their debut set proper, the quirky quartet were finally ready to promote THE BETA BAND {*7} long-player in June ’99, having just inked a deal in the US with Astralwerks. However, delays due to an objection from JIM STEINMAN (for the sample/use of his “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” collaboration with BONNIE TYLER) and the group’s post-release qualms that it was “fucking awful”, contributed to complete bewilderment within the press and its readers.
At the start of July, the album shot into the Top 20, despite contrasting reviews stating over-production its downfall (or was it just plain arsing about?). Opening with the self-explanatory `The Beta Band Rap’ (which might’ve been handled better by The BONZOs in the 60s…) and finishing with the baffling `The Cow’s Wrong’, the record shocked fans who thought the quartet were perhaps a tad over-indulgent. On reflection though, The BETA BAND’s original stage interpretations of the tracks could not be faulted. But for `It’s Not Too Beautiful’, `Broken Up Adingdong’, the Caribbean-flavoured `Number 15’ and the prog-y `The Hard One’, it’s just a pity that critical cohorts like the MANIC STREET PREACHERS were beginning to be proved right.
As unfazed as ever, The BETA BAND shambled back into the fray (and the Top 20) with HOT SHOTS II (2001) {*8}; the irony of the self-mocking title belying a half decent, occasionally brilliant set which certainly came closer to realising the promise of their early EPs. There was more focus, less sonic soup for the sake of it and more determined attempts at discernible songs; example singles `Broke’, `Human Being’ and `Squares’. Which wasn’t to say they no longer walked that tightrope between endearingly wayward invention and rampant self-indulgence, it was the guiding hand of R&B producer C Swing that lent a contemporary edge to their urban meta-folk.
Another self-mocking title, another BETA BAND album: HEROES TO ZEROS (2004) {*7} met with the same mixture of bafflement and wonderment that’s greeted everything they’d already put their name to, even if Mason and Co resisted at least some of their flightier impulses. Lead single, `Assessment’ (a minor Top 40 hit), ranked as one of most straightforward alterna-pop epistles in their catalogue. Even the SUPER FURRY ANIMALS-esque `Wonderful’ and `Out-Side’ were warped, sample-tastic songs on a mission to resurrect psychedelia. There was still enough record collection saturation, glo-worm revelation and lost-in-headspace charm to satisfy long-time fans and earn a Top 20 placing; maybe not enough to satisfy them indefinitely, but with the announcement of their retirement it ultimately ended up as their epitaph.
Half anthology/half live, THE BEST OF THE BETA BAND (2005) {*8}, summed up why Scotland has consistently shown itself to be a breeding ground for some of Britain’s most imaginative, intelligent and attitude-free pop music. The talented STEVE MASON has since mainlined the Beta mind-set with the resurrected KING BISCUIT TIME moniker, releasing the `Black Gold’ album in 2006; he’s since realised his spacey songs might have some worth as a credible solo artist. Meanwhile, Maclean and Jones teamed up with former cohort, Gordon Anderson, to form the short-lived The ALIENS.
© MC Strong 1999-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Mar2013

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