Say It Out Loud: The Beta Band's The Three E.P.'s turns 20
In September 1998, The Beta Band released The Three E.P.'s. Twenty years on, the compilation is finally being issued on vinyl sounding as fresh and inventive as ever
If Dry the Rain lasted just four minutes, it would still surely rank as one of the best opening songs on a debut release by any group in the last couple of decades. It set the standard for The Three E.P.'s, a remarkable collection of songs that announced The Beta Band to the world in September 1998. Two decades on, it’s finally been given a vinyl release for the first time courtesy of the Because Music label. It’s as good a time as any to look back at this rag-tag group of artists and musical visionaries that mystified some but delighted many more.
"I remember hearing Dry the Rain and thinking it was an instant classic and I wished I had written it," broadcaster and journalist Vic Galloway tells us. "I saw the band play early on as well. It was about their fourth or fifth gig at the Edinburgh Venue and they had very few songs. But you knew something special was going on."
Even if you’ve heard it four-dozen times, Dry the Rain still retains the power to leave you mesmerised. Steve Mason’s distinctive hushed vocal style, a simple slide guitar part, and a scratchy vinyl beat – it’s a straightforward introduction to a band who were never afraid to take a sudden left turn. When the bass and drums kick in, you’re already tapping your feet and nodding along without realising.
Then something remarkable happens. With the band locked into what sounds like a hazy outro jam, along comes one of the most incredible codas in popular music. 'If there’s something inside that you want to say / Say it out loud it’ll be okay,' Mason implores, as a trumpet solo suddenly rings out. 'I will be your light / I will be your light.' The whole tone of the track is transformed – from dusty folk bar to cathedral choir. It’s one of those songs that makes you want to run outside and punch the air in sheer delight.
Yet as any fan of The Beta Band knows, Dry the Rain merely hinted at what the group was capable of. It’s just one of the greats on The Three E.P.'s, a record that contains at least six landmark songs. “Throughout those three EP releases, there is that rare thing where pop and experimentation meet,” says Galloway. “It's dreamy, tripped-out and psychedelic and yet still packs melodic punches throughout. It works!” There’s more invention on this one LP than many artists manage in five. From Monolith, a 15-minute-long avant-garde sound collage, to the haunting chamber pop of Dr. Baker, there are surprises at every turn. It’s by no means guaranteed you’ll enjoy them all, but you'll enjoy finding out.
But can we really describe it as an album at all? Such distinctions in the age of Spotify and online streaming may seem redundant, yet it’s impossible to reappraise The Three E.P.’s without reminding yourself it wasn't originally intended as one body of work. Dry the Rain was the first track on Champion Versions, a four-track EP released in July 1997 and only obtainable on 12" vinyl – a bold move in the CD-dominated late-90s. As an indication of the industry clout the group once enjoyed, it was released by Regal – a legendary imprint revived in 1995 by music giant EMI – and immediately won the attention of the then still-powerful music press.
Two further EPs, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos, were released in 1998. Each was crammed with beguiling sounds completely out of step with anything else going on at the time. Even today, how do you go about explaining a track like The House Song? Various tags were applied to The Beta Band, yet none of them felt quite right. Folktronica? Trip-hop? Plain old psychedelia? The group were all of these things and more. This undefinable quality provides plenty of copy for music hacks charged with writing a 1,300-word feature, but it made the job of EMI’s record pluggers rather difficult back when daytime radio was the quickest way of promoting music in those distant pre-internet times. According to one source, a BBC Radio 1 boss once frankly admitted while being wined and dined by the label that he simply “didn’t get” The Beta Band.
So who were these guys anyway? Keyboardist, trained artist, and ace producer John Maclean first met drummer Robin Jones at Edinburgh College of Art. By 1996 they were sharing a flat in Shepherd’s Bush with old pal Steve Mason, a drummer-turned-singer-songwriter from St Andrews. Maclean began adding beats to various songs that Mason had written – particularly one with a hypnotic acoustic guitar groove, whose euphoric coda was written by Mason's errant songwriting partner, Gordon Anderson. “The Beta Band was built upon a combination of the idea of the beauty of naivety and, also, actual naivety,” said Mason in a later biography of the group. “It all just sort of worked really well.”
Champion Versions, with its colourful collage artwork provided by Maclean, was released the same week they played their debut gig at The Water Rats in King’s Cross. The Beta Band live could be every bit as surprising as they were on record. The group offered a riot of projected images, plant pots and instrument-swapping throughout their journey-like songs. “I think people were used to the slick four-piece by then,” added Mason. “People who had the rock and roll haircuts and the right shoes on. Then we come in with total chaos.”
The Patty Patty Sound EP followed in March 1998. Three of its four tracks were greeted with almost universal acclaim and still sound dazzling today. Inner Meet Me, which was accompanied by a bizarre Maclean-directed video shot on a Highland hillside, sets the tone with its bass groove and catchy vocal hook. The House Song would become a live favourite, while She’s the One remains one of the band’s most beloved tracks. Only the aforementioned Monolith divided opinion. It was an indication that nothing with this group was ever straightforward.
Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos arrived a few months later that same year, in July. While containing less sonic experimentation, it's perhaps the most consistent of the EPs, closing with the glorious Needles in My Eyes. That same month they appeared on the cover of the NME dressed as comedy Mexican bandits. “We didn’t approach it from the standard angle,” explained Jones. “So there wasn’t really any desire to be standing there looking moody.”
On the band’s tendency to dress-up for promo shots and gigs, Maclean added: “That was like our record collections – Parliament/Funkadelic, The Monks. The history of music was littered with people expressing themselves. We just thought music had gone a bit cool then.”
For all the quality of their recorded output, a proper mainstream breakthrough always eluded them. Mason would infamously dismiss their self-titled debut album upon release in 1999 as “fucking awful.” You can imagine how that went down with the record label who had just stumped up the cash to pay for its recording.
Two great albums – Hot Shots II and Heroes to Zeros – followed, but neither could match the thrill of those first EPs. Today, The Beta Band are remembered as an alternative act, a niche concern left to be enjoyed by people happy to spend hours in second-hand record stores. But this relegation does them a massive disservice. The Beta Band were not another little-known group who recorded a few albums in cheap local studios only to shuffle off into obscurity. They spent time and money on their recordings to a level many artists in 2018 could only dream of.
Listen to their albums today and you can't argue with the result of their creative endeavours. “Much like The Velvet Underground, The Beta Band have had a far greater impact than their commercial appeal alone,” concludes Galloway. “Those songs still sound fresh and will go on to influence music-makers and listeners well into the future." Their recorded material has barely aged, almost 15 years since they last released a song. But by 2004 a substantial record company debt hung over the band. The music industry was being battered by the internet. A&R men could no longer afford to promote dynamic yet underperforming groups who enjoyed dressing up. The streaming services and profitable live tours that would eventually save it were a long time off. Despite selling out 2,000-capacity venues and winning rave reviews, The Beta Band called it quits.
An interview published by The Guardian that year caught them at the end: “The Beta Band have lavished money not on limos and drugs, but on making albums. The quartet have existed for years on “McDonald’s-type wages,” had their phones cut off at home and at one point were so broke that they were thinking of “nipping to Argos for some standard lamps” to use as lights on tour.”
Mason summed it up: “I always imagined we’d be as big as Radiohead, but it hasn’t happened. I still can’t understand why.”
The Three E.P.'s is re-released on vinyl on 14 Sep via Because Music