I mentioned the The Beakers a few weeks back in a post about 3 Swimmers. The Beakers were the predecessors to much of what became Seattle’s punk scene in the early 1980s, a weird saxophone-wielding-funk-bass-playing collections of art rockers. Fortunately for us during their roughly 13-month lifespan the band left behind enough studio and live material for K Records to put out a compilation of their music in 2004.
There’s a heavy funk element to the bass and the presence of saxophone definitely give many of the tracks an early new wave vibe, and much of it maintains the raw experimental feel of four musicians exploring various spaces and ideas. If you told me that a track like “What’s Important?” was an early Talking Heads song I’d totally believe you, from the David Byrne-esque vocals to the sometimes jarring disjointedness of the music. The half dozen live tracks sound very similar to those recorded in the studio, meaning The Beakers were either adept at intentionally sounding unintentional or, more like, they brought that same experimentation with them to both the studio and the stage.
The isolation that characterized the Seattle punk scene contributed an environment of unbridled creativity. The artists and musicians of the era were free of the corrupting influence of economics and audience.
— Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, from the liner notes of Four Steps Toward A Cultural Revolution
Lest anyone think The Beakers were just some kind of Talking Heads copycats, let’s just be clear that there is a strong undercurrent of garage rock here as well; we need to remember that some of the OG down-and-dirty Northwest rockers were also fond of the saxophone, and there’s a certain dirtiness to some of their sound. Songs like “Fig. 21” could, with just a little tweaking, be turned into respectable surf jams that would have been right at home on a California beach in the 1960s. But it’s their experimentalism that sets The Beakers apart. “I’m Crawling” is arguably the most challenging piece on the record, a sax scatfest that sounds like it’s stabbing Mark H. Smith over and over again based on his tortured and writhing vocals. And that live cover of “Funky Town”? Just put that thing on repeat and play it over and over (and over).
Often these kinds of comps are of primary interest to the localist, the person interested in diving deep into their city’s musical past. And while I kind of expected Four Steps Toward A Cultural Revolution to fit into that category, it’s actually much more than that. It’s an artifact of a certain period of time when there was an undercurrent of music that was trying to discover itself, one operating in an environment that provided enough freedom to encourage taking risks and with just enough of an audience of like-minded seekers to offer a bit of moral support. Much like the No Wave movement that came and went in the blink of an eye, bands like The Beakers are like a transitional fossil in the musical strata, a way to connect the dots and see how we got from A to Z or in this case from punk to new wave and eventually to grunge. And this comp is one small piece of that progression.