Welcome to Jukebox Breakdown, a column where we write about songs we love. Less about overarching themes or through-lines, Jukebox Breakdown is simply a space for our thoughts on perfect tracks.
Jukebox Breakdown: Beat Happening – “Bewitched”
by Chad Jewett
It may be a coincidence that “Bewitched”, the opening song from Beat Happenings 1988 magnum opus Jamboree, is built from more or less the exact same riff as MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams”. Or perhaps, as the old cliché says, there is no such thing as coincidence. Indeed, on the one hand, when the lo-fi Olympia pop trio did borrow from yesterday’s rock-and-roll it was more often the version you’d see in kitschy Technicolor surf movies than the kind to be found on the grainy super-8 footage that documented the first early kicks of proto-punk. Beat Happening had a lot more to do with the chaste living room-bound early days of The Beach Boys than the sweaty, hyper-masculine wallop of the Detroit garage-punk originators. Indeed, that remains part of what makes Beat Happening great: that its version of punk dispensed with the genre’s worst normative baggage and replaced it with something more open, insecure, expansive, and intimate. Heather Lewis and Calvin Harris – the band’s two singers – were often conversational and quiet in their performances, and the tape-deck fidelity of their first two LPs offered a literal kind of working democracy that seemed a whole lot more expansive than the more militant version espoused by hardcore. You had to sit close to the record player to hear it and you could easily imagine doing it. Beat Happening simply seemed to be inviting more people to the party.
So while it’s just about impossible to imagine the Washington trio opening a song with an announcement as cavalierly macho as “It’s time to KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHAFUCKAS!” (as the MC5 did on their first album), Beat Happening did offer their own form of radical statement, as suited to its era of underground rock-and-roll as MC5’s was to theirs. “Bewitched” begins with a quick buzz of feedback before that monolith of a three-note riff (G# G# B B C# C# C# C#) rolls into place, accompanied by Heather Lewis’ minimalist march of a beat, lending the stiff guitar figure a 1-2 groove that is uncannily danceable. “I’ve got a crush on you / I’ve got a crush on you / What am I to do / I’ve got a crush on you”. Such is the song’s chorus, as pared down and direct as the rest of the band’s input, delivered with a wry wink by Calvin Harris. Between the lines there are nods to both the highly unfashionable Americana nostalgia of 1950s pre-Beatles jukebox rock and to the always quite fashionable garage rock of 1960s Mod culture – the combination of which would be an aesthetic for the K Records crowd for years. “Bewitched” is loud and muscular and undeniably punk in both its sound (feedback, distorted guitars, a thumping down beat) and its sentiment. What’s easy to forget, however, is the uniquely defiant nature of the trio, who made loud, noisy art while declining to check a single one of hardcore’s loaded cultural boxes. This is what really makes “Bewitched” a conceptual cousin to “Kick Out The Jams”: another three-note punk song that — by its very nature, sound, and attitude — serves as a sonic declaration of independence.