What we learned from Beck’s brilliant Take 5
For over 25 years, Beck has been one of the most inventive and creative musicians in alternative music.
So, it’s no surprise that he’s pretty great at talking about music as well as making it.
The theme for his Take 5 was ‘Great Leaps in Music’ and his choices were interesting. Rather than looking for boundary-pushing obscurities and odd tracks, he chose songs that you would have heard 100 times over.
But his justifications were brilliant.
“It’s funny, you think about songs that are a great leap forward, it’s hard to not be obvious,” he acknowledges. “The ones that changed everything were really obvious songs. ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘When Doves Cry’ or a Zeppelin tune or pretty much every Beatles tune ever written.”
But, he didn’t choose them. These were his five selections:
The Beach Boys – ‘Good Vibrations’
Gary Numan – ‘Cars’
Talking Heads – ‘Once In a Lifetime’
Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Outkast – ‘Hey Ya!’
Here are some things we learnt from his generous insights into these masterpieces of pop music.
He keeps striving to make that perfect record, and so do his famous friends.
“You’ll never get to the top of the mountain. It’ll never happen,” Beck says about what drives him to keep creating.
“I toured with U2, I’ve hung out with Paul McCartney – if you talk to them, they’ll say ‘I still want to make a great record, I still haven’t made that record that I want to make. That ideal.’
“You think that they’re at the top of the Himalayas, but from where they are, there’s still higher to go. But that’s the impetus, that’s the drive.”
Throughout his Take 5, Beck speaks with huge admiration about what these songs achieved in the context in which they were released. But he saves his most incisive analysis and perhaps most gushing praise for the Talking Heads classic 1980 single ‘Once In A Lifetime’.
“It’s mysterious but so uplifting,” he says. “To characterise something as uplifting, it tends to be music that’s a bit superficial. But there’s a real depth to this song, talking about the existential modern crisis of the life you’re living and what it means. But it’s still a celebration of that life. It’s completely subversive.
“It’s not about hooks, it’s about being able to bring something from a deep musical and personal place that feels like it’s from the other. There’s an otherness to it that brings everybody together.
“As a kid, I didn’t appreciate the influences that were happening in the song, whether it’s African music, hip hop, kraut rock, punk – but I could feel it somehow, it was seeping into the consciousness.
“What keeps me ambitious about music is to someday try to make a song this great. It’s a high watermark.”
He saw early versions of two of the biggest songs in modern music
Beck used to go and see Nirvana play all the time when he was in his teens and early-20s. Usually they’d be opening for other bands, but they always impressed him.
“They were a band that very few people knew about,” he says. “But the few people who did know them knew they were very special.”
There was one Nirvana show in 1990 that Beck will never forget. Something powerful happened, that thing was ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit’.
“I remember, as it was playing – I didn’t know the song, I only knew the first album, this was a year before Nevermind came out – immediately you could feel a visceral shift in the entire room,” he says.
“It was like the entire room was frozen. It was like we’d entered another dimension of music. That’s how I first heard the song.
“I remember elbowing the person I was with and saying, ‘What the fuck? Are you hearing what I’m hearing?’.”
Flash forward a decade or so and Beck was again privy to a game-changing song before the rest of the world knew it.
“I played many shows with Outkast in the late-90s, so I’d seen them perform this song a year before [‘Hey Ya!’] came out,” he said.
“I remember the whole Polaroid picture thing, it was a thing they did in concert and I always thought it was brilliant and thought it was too bad they didn’t put it in one of their songs.”
He sees himself somewhere between an agitator and a crowd-pleaser
Beck doesn’t believe he’s ever made any enormous leaps in his own music.
I would love to have the opportunity to do something one-off, where I could really go off and explore.
To a Beck fan, or even a casual listener, that seems kind of absurd.
His beautiful 2002 record Sea Change was as big a departure as you could imagine from the shiny funk of Midnite Vultures that came before it. Even his latest record Colors has a shiny mainstream pop bent that so few would have anticipated from him in the past.
“If I have something like Sea Change, something that’s a little bit different to what I’ve done before, it’s incubating for so many years,” he says. “I’ve been living with it forever. I’ve been thinking about Colors for 15 years.”
He’s Beck: surely he can just do what he wants?
Turns out he does actually care what we think.
“I think of the records and my fans as a conversation. I want to keep the conversation going,” he says. “I don’t want to say something so off-topic that the conversation ends. I want to engage, but, at the same time, I don’t want to fall back on formula either.”
His work has often lived on the edges of what was considered kosher in the given genres he worked in. In that sense, he sees kindred spirits in Outkast.
“Hip hop has its conventions, like any genre,” he says. “They were constantly stepping out of what you’re supposed to do in that genre, which I could relate to.
“With Odelay and the first album, I was trying to do something similar in the sense that there’s no rules about what lane we’re supposed to be in.”
His Grammys controversy with Kanye West is funnier than we thought
At the 2015 Grammys, Beck surprised just about everyone by taking out the massive Album of the Year award for his record Morning Phase. The other nominees? Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Pharrell Williams.
One man who wasn’t exactly stoked with Beck’s win was Kanye West, who gave a lively diatribe to E! immediately following the ceremony.
“Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé,” he said.
There were never any hard feelings from Beck’s end – and Kanye later apologised for his comments – but there were a few behind the scenes things that made
Firstly, Beck’s father, respected composer David Campbell, was actually set to work with Kanye a few days after the Grammys.
“My father conducts for strings,” Hansen says. “That whole Grammys week, one of the ironies of that whole thing was that he was actually working on Kanye’s record and had a session a few days later.”
Secondly, Morning Phase was made just a stones throw from where Kanye West was making Yeezus at the same time.
“It’s funny, when we were doing Morning Phase, he was down the street several houses down making Yeezus. When the Grammys thing happened I said, ‘It’s funny, those two albums were made on the same block! We’re not worlds apart!’”
As to whether the two artists will bury the hatchet deep enough to collaborate, well, never say never.
“Who knows?” Beck says. “Life is long. Maybe!”