‘’I will now sell five copies of ‘The Three E.P’s by The Beta Band’’ says John Cusack’s neurotic record store owner in High Fidelity. And as he plays ‘Dry the Rain’, the classic opener from the Scots band’s 1998 compilation, he does just that. As I worked in a record store at the time of the film, I can confirm I once tried the same trick. Unfortunately its only affect was to amuse two schoolboy customers as the strains (maybe not the right word here) of ‘Push it Out’ filled the shop. Now what does this tell us? Perhaps that Cusack’s make believe customers were more discerning than mine, but more likely that the music of The Beta Band veered rather wildly from the seductively accessible and melodic, to the gleefully ridiculous and ramshackle; often within the same song.
So why am I relaying this tale? Well, as I have previously alluded, The Beta’s debut long player is 20 years old this year, and to celebrate, Because Music are reissuing this record, and subsequently the remainder of the bands back catalogue. What better time for a re-appraisal of a group that never quite hit the heights their talent promised.
Formed from that unlikely hive of musical talent that is Fife, the band (eventually comprising of multi-instrumentalists Steve Mason, Richard Greentree, Robin Jones and John Maclean) started out in 1996 as a loose art and music collective and went on to release three increasingly sought after E.P’s over the next two years. When packaged together, those EP’s (Champion Versions, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos) really added up to something very special indeed.
Describing their sound, was almost an impossible ask. Monastic chants, shuffling guitars, cow bells, animal noises and pots and pans percussion somehow combining to sound not just innovative, but almost hypnotic. Mason’s unerring ear for melody always holding things together through the chaos.
The first album proper, 1999’s self-titled offering, is a curiosity, famously and regrettably derided by the band themselves upon its release. It’s a genuinely interesting collage of ideas, half ideas and dizzying psychedelia that just lacks, well, actual songs. Kind of like an episode of ‘Monty Python’ that exclusively features Terry Gilliam’s animations – you don’t quite get a sense of the group from it.
That would come with 2001’s ‘Hot Shots 2’. A crystal clear vision of The Beta manifesto. A whole clutch of 3 minute, hook driven pop songs, that lost none of the bands love of obscure samples and inventive folktronica (I know, I know, I hate that word too).
It was a record begging for commercial success. Something that would consistently elude the band, for a variety of reasons. Unsympathetic radio controllers, truly awful management, a refusal to compromise or play the game and some frankly dreadful financial decisions saw the band floundering in the lower reaches of the charts.
In the live arena, the band were a joy to watch, swapping instruments almost at will, their music was so unique they would feel equally at home at Creamfields as they would a folk festival, but even a lucrative support slot with Radiohead would fail to break the band into the big leagues.
Their final roll of the dice came with 2004’s ‘Heroes to Zeroes’. An album which built still further upon its predecessor. The bands quirky and enduring rhythms and Mason’s mournful vocals combining perfectly, and never better than on ‘Wonderful’, a touching pop gem of a single that neatly summed up the qualities of a truly exceptional and underrated group.
If you have read this without having heard much of this band, I really would recommend entering the world of The Beta’s. Starting with that collection of delightfully bonkers E.P’s. Twenty years on, I might just sell my five copies after all..