Whenever embarking on a conversation about punk rock's early '90s transformation from an abrasive, aggressive-rather-than-inspired, uniformed and elitist sect into an open-ended theory around which lifestyles could be entirely molded, the city of Olympia, Washington, and its music scene invariably come up.
Along with Washington, D.C., and its largely Dischord Records-centric hard-core scene, Olympia was unquestionably the epicenter of a precious and important movement sprung from youthful idealism, the independent spirit, and the revolutionary dictum that artists can invent themselves without preconceived restraints.
Concurrently, any intelligent discussion of Olympia and its many contributions to this punk-rock metamorphosis inevitably turns to a label called K Records, and its co-founder Calvin Johnson. Johnson, who now fronts the Jamaican dub-inspired freestyle funk/soul outfit Dub Narcotic Sound System (so named after Johnson's Dub Narcotic recording studio, located at the K Records headquarters), has long been an enigmatic benefactor of countless bands, conventions, and the D.I.Y. spirit. On the occasion of Dub Narcotic Sound System's impending visit to the Valley, we thought it timely to pen a brief summary of Johnson and his label's history and continuing legacy, an effort greatly aided by the recent release of a documentary focused on Johnson, his former band Beat Happening, and K Records itself, titled The Shield Around the K.
Though the film, produced and directed by novice cinematographer Heather Rose Dominic, leaves something to be desired aesthetically -- with its shaky footage, unflattering facial close-ups and linear discrepancies, it virtually defines the D.I.Y. philosophy -- the sheer volume of information, and the connect-the-dots aspect of seeing various personalities who've since become institutions in the world of independent rock (Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, acclaimed rock critics Michael Azzerrad and Ira Robbins, producer and musician Steve Fisk, Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, Matador Records owner Gerard Cosloy, recording engineer John Goodmanson of Bikini Kill fame, and many others), give fans and the simply curious a fairly comprehensive if narrowly focused Cliffs Notes version of the Olympia story.
Johnson was interviewed for this article, but was characteristically vague and distant with his responses (example: when questioned about the documentary -- "Ohhhh, yeah. It seemed fine."). His is an eccentric personality cultivated over the years, as made obvious in the film. The opening scene, featuring footage from 1991's International Pop Underground Convention (the brain child of Johnson and K co-owner Candice Pederson), shows Johnson bellowing a spiel about the astronomical price of candy in the venue, Oly's famed Capitol Theatre, and then proceeding to throw 25 cent Herrara vegan candies (you know, Alexander the Grape and Lemonheads) into the audience. It's a poignant snapshot capturing the childlike qualities that Johnson and K injected into the early '90s punk-rock scene. This moment wasn't about whiskey swilling and razor-blade self-mutilation; it was a return to naiveté, to the unfeigned confidence that the world is yours to do with as you pleased.
In these formative years, Johnson's band Beat Happening was materializing those same qualities through the jangly and simplistic upbeat music that they played, though the lyrics concerned considerably darker subject matter, setting the standard for the paradoxical synthesis that can be seen in the work of current bands like Quasi. In fact, Beat Happening easily would have fit into the cuddly monikered "twee" category, were it not for Johnson's unmistakably pronounced baritone rumbling over the melodies.
Johnson's style directly confronted the uniformed parameters that punk rock operated within in those early years. Ian MacKaye remembers the first time he met Johnson, who was sporting pastel clothing and a pink bandanna tied around his ankle. "It just didn't seem right in that era," MacKaye says with a grin. K Records' reinterpretation of the punk-rock aesthetic didn't stop with fashion reinvention, though; it cracked open wide any preconceived definition of what a punk-rock band should be, releasing records by a multitude of unconventionally constructed bands -- two-piece outfits like Mecca Normal, the Spinanes, Courtney Love (the band, not the "actress"), Kicking Giant, and the Crabs, as well as bands like Johnson's own Beat Happening, which regularly shunned conventional notions -- like having a bass player.
Beat Happening, with its primitive drum-propelled rhythms and jangling guitars, was an anomaly in the punk-rock scene of the time. In one of the film's more amusing moments, Mecca Normal front woman Jean Smith recalls her first meeting with Johnson, where they swapped their respective bands' records. After playing the Beat Happening record, Smith thought, "Pardon me? Didn't he recognize that we were like this hard-core punk-rock band and he's giving me this album of piffle? So I said to the guy, 'What's up with this shit?'" Despite this initial reaction, Smith and Johnson formed a mutually beneficial friendship that continues to this day.