Hansen’s half century: Beck at 50

Celebrating the shape-shifting, breakdancing king of fusion, Beck Hansen as he reaches his half-century. The indie icon doesn’t always stand apart in today’s musical landscape quite as much as he used to, but he’s still Los Angeles’s golden child. Just don’t tell Lana Del Rey.

Beck must really hate surfing: fourteen albums in and he has never allowed himself to coast. Even at his most conventional, the music he makes is still usually better thought out than that of the average musician.

As with David Bowie before him, Beck is predominantly referred to as a chameleon-esque character—a Scramble Suit of a musician who can seamlessly slip from folk to Tropicália to funk to country, so much so that any given record is embraced as the adoption of some new identity. But chameleons camouflage themselves only as things that they’re not, and for most of the genres that Beck has expertly channelled in the past 30 years, he hasn’t been doing a cheap copy of something; rather, he’s been reaching into the music of his youth, which he was immersed in while growing up in various working-class neighbourhoods of Los Angeles.

Born Bek David Campbell on 8 July 1970, this scrawny, blond, half-Jewish kid’s life and career can largely be traced through his neo–David Copperfield history in the SoCal city. Originally living out of a boarding house in downtown LA, Beck and his family moved to Hollywood, in an area just off the Walk of Fame behind the Egyptian Theatre. His parents were both artists—his dad, David Campbell, a composer, wrote string arrangements for stars like Carole King, and his mom, Bibbe Hansen, a visual artist and actor, was notable for having starred in an Andy Warhol film at the age of 13.

This allowed the Campbell kids to sneak into the heart of the city, taking in a nascent hip-hop scene as it grew up out of the glittery pavement outside their home. “My funk came from being 11 years old on a Saturday night hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard with all the breakdancers,” Beck says in Rob Jovanovic’s 2000 biography, Beck! On A Backwards River.

Part of the appeal of Beck’s career has been that his music is as diverse and inspired as he is. His music is constantly on edge, jumping from genre to genre and style to style, and proving that restlessness on records can act as a catalyst for a stroke of genius.

That’s not to say he did everything himself. Beck has worked with myriad producers in his career, occasionally revisiting some of them, but he’s recognised for constantly being uncomfortable in a single genre. Odelay, his international breakthrough, worked because of his resilience to being pegged down; the album features straight hip-hop, acid rock, electronica and pretty much every last trick the Dust Brothers’ eclectic production scale shook out of the bag.

Since that mid-‘90s set Beck has been a man of many faces: the Kraftwerkian hoedown hipster of 1999’s Midnite Vultures, the devastated pop paramour of 2002’s Sea Change, and the psychedelic New Wave weird merchant of 2017’s Colors to name just three.

Naturally, Beck was far from the only one playing around with genre-hopping the past three decades, and it’s also crucial to remember that his success is based on a variation of an industry-old story of a white man being used to present nonwhite music in a safer package. (The way Elvis Presley rose to fame and eclipsed the likes of Little Richard was not all that dissimilar.) But looking back on Beck’s dizzying career, he feels more like an architect of contemporary style-splatter than perhaps anyone else—and, thankfully, his music itself has for the most part aged wonderfully, and still is respectful of the styles and cultures that it dips into.

As the title implies, Beck’s most recent album, 2019’s Hyperspace, is more of an intergalactic experience, defined by glistening synths, heartbeat drums, and Kevin Parker–worthy hand snaps. It sounds, not entirely surprisingly, like the work of a man hell bent on not doing the same thing twice. Largely a collaboration with smack-hot co-producer Pharrell Williams, Hyperspace sounds like what you might hear in a terminal on the moon base of the future. But like the moon base in James Gray’s Ad Astra, Beck’s outer space feels vulnerable to the inescapable gravity of commercialism. It’s not for nothing that he recently referred to the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood as his “mothership.”

Hyperspace is a solid record, to be sure, and one that confirms his ongoing genius as a hook writer (Star is a funky, shimmering New Beck Classic—like Dr. John doing Japanese city pop), but inevitably, and perhaps a little unreasonably, the whole release doesn’t feel as relevant as it would have done a few years earlier. That was the same issue with Colors, though at some point you’ve just got to give the guy a break for not causing a cultural tidal wave with every release, especially as he enters his fourth decade of releasing music.

The year before Hyperspace landed, in February 2019, Beck made his way to the New South Wales capital for a rare headline set at the inaugural Sydney City Limits festival. In suitably impromptu style, the Californian chameleon slipped in a surprise sideshow the night before, with the 500 tickets available via public ballot just 48 hours before showtime. I was one of the lucky 500.

An endearing and enigmatic performer, the genre-defying trailblazer showed Where It’s At by tearing up Marrickville’s arty and intimate venue with an “extra long” set that would “start out slowly” before getting “chaotic in a friendly way.” And how.

Greeting the crowd with a brief solo rendition of Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime before inviting his seven piece band to join him, Beck’s well seasoned ensemble delivered a world class performance in the harbour city. Naturally, the main man – who seemingly changed guitars with every new song – complimented said location, remarking, “Every time I come back I get reminded you have one of the best cities in the world. We don’t want to leave. We can stay. We’ll do this every week!”

Best of all was the wacky way he peppered his band introductions with ingenious interludes that segued a selection of covers from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Talking Heads, Gary Numan, plus an incendiary blast of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.

And I did.

Happy birthday Hansen.

Steve Pafford

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