Twenty-five years before he’d nab Grammy gold for his excellent Colors, helping to solidify his status as an alt-rock elder statesman, Beck was an industry upstart changing the game with Mellow Gold (out March 1, 1994), his third album and major label debut.
The album was the manifestation of his meeting with producer Tom Rothrock, who happened upon Beck at a local show shortly after the singer moved out to Los Angeles from New York City, and quickly signed him to his burgeoning label Bong Load Records.
“I went to Jabberjaw in L.A. one hot summer day,” Rothrock muses. “And in between bands this guy bum-rushed the stage with a jazzercise sticker on his acoustic guitar, and I was blown away. I just started Bong Load, and we had stuff in the can. But I went out back to talk to him after he finished performing and asked him if he was into hip-hop. I knew it was a longshot, because the set he played was straight up Lead Belly/Woody Guthrie/early Bob Dylan folk presentation. But he says to me, ‘Oh yeah, yeah. I really like Public Enemy and Chuck D.’ And I was like, ‘Oh perfect!’ We were trying to do some kind of hip-hop folk album and we tried it once but it flipped the songwriter out because we changed it up so much. Beck, meanwhile, got a huge grin when I approached him with this, and he says, ‘Wait a minute, you can fuck stuff up?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the idea.’ So the first time we got together, we made ‘Loser.'”
Working alongside Rothrock’s production partners, Rob Schnapf and Carl Stephenson, Beck and company would create “Loser” in a matter of hours, cobbling together a lo-fi pastiche of Village folk, Delta blues stomp and Bomb Squad swagger that would quickly explode over the airwaves along the West Coast in 1993.
“There was a station in Seattle that had just switched to the alternative format called The End [KNDD 107.7 FM], and they were the first commercial station to go with it,” Rothrock explains. “We already had good play locally on KXLU in L.A. thanks to this guy Fred who had a show called Demo-listen and we’d send all our stuff to him. And he would play it all. Being the ‘Loser’ 12-inch was the fifth thing we pressed at Bong Load, they just thought it was the next thing from us, because we’d put stuff out in rapid succession, so they chucked it on and played it. It sounded really funny on KXLU, like in the middle of a hardcore show you’d hear this folky hip-hop song drop on. It was so punk rock in its anti-folk trappings that they wound up championing it.”
Soon after, “Loser” hit like wildfire across MTV and the burgeoning network of radio stations switching over to the alternative rock format, helping the song reach the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the top spot on the Alternative Songs chart. But Mellow Gold, which would be picked up by DGC Records, was much more than a full-length supporting act for “Loser.” What Beck, Schnapf, Rothrock and Stephenson did after kicking the LP off with its biggest hit was follow it up with songs that break down each element comprising the mad genius of Beck Hansen’s sonic scope. From the calming afterglow of “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” to the harmonica stomp of “Fuckin’ With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)” to the junkyard hardcore of “Motherfuker” to the transcendent drone of album closer “Blackhole,” the essence of Gold keeps peeling off layer after layer to reveal its translucent core of artistic purity.
While Beck would evolve his MC stylings on future favorites like 1996’s Dust Brothers-helmed Odelay! and 2006’s vastly underrated Nigel Godrich-produced The Information, hearing the way Beck and Stephenson (who would later go on to make one sole great album in 1997 as Forest For The Trees) combined forces to create the kitchen sink hip-hop they made not only on “Loser” but tracks like “Beercan” and “Soul Sucking Jerk” is pure lightning in a bottle, often imitated but never duplicated.
“Mellow Gold opened a door which I feel has created a lot of space for advancements in contemporary music happening now,” opines Elliot Bergman of Wild Belle, one of several acts opening for Beck on his massive North American tour this summer with co-headliner Cage the Elephant and supporting acts Spoon, The Distillers and Sunflower Bean. “Artists are constantly pulling from all these different [sources] and mixing them up. He was most definitely a pioneer in bringing together the organic and the sampled in an indie rock context.”
“Films like Slacker created the vacuum for Mellow Gold to exist,” explains Rothrock, referencing Richard Linklater’s 1991 cult classic debut film. “Part of the tough sell in the beginning was we’d play it for people and we knew they liked it and got people to dance, especially ‘Loser.’ We knew we had something, but everyone would be like, ‘What is it?’ When we were in New York, we’d play it for anybody. We had a meeting with the guy who signed Bon Jovi, which we thought was cool but there was no way he would take interest in what we were doing. But we played him ‘Loser’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but it’s good!’ Even the Bon Jovi dude knew it was good, but they didn’t know what slot to put us in. But when the whole Gen X caricature began to take shape, then all of a sudden they had a cubbyhole for us.”
Better still is the truth behind these songs, which were based on actual people in Beck’s everyday life. The wildest anecdote of which stems from the dazed folk meditation “Truck Driving Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)” about the crazies who lived in the apartment below Beck in Los Angeles.
“Those were really his neighbors,” explains Rothrock. “And not only that, the beginning of the song was the sound of those actual neighbors fighting. What happened was, the guy threw something out the window, and Beck was recording on his four-track at home that day. This was right before we finished Mellow Gold. So he lowered his recorder out the window and captured the fight going on through the broken window. This was going on all the time. He’d talk about these truck driving neighbors who were crazy. Then one day he shows up to the studio with that recording on a four-track cassette.”
“He’d say they were always arguing,” recalls Arrow de Wilde, lead singer of Starcrawler who is also touring with Beck and whose mother—renowned photographer and filmmaker Autumn de Wilde—is a longtime friend of Hansen’s, even shooting the cover photo for his acclaimed 2002 LP Sea Change. “My mom told me the story once about them and how he was terrified of those neighbors. They were like speed freaks.”
Beck also released two more albums that year: the rootsy blues-folk masterpiece One Foot In The Grave for K Records, and the wildly experimental Stereopathetic Soulmanure on the label run by legendary Los Angeles punk fanzine Flipside. So by the time “Loser” reached its fever pitch on radio and MTV (via a super low budget video filmed largely in Rothrock’s backyard and studio), fans in search of Beck’s music beyond Mellow Gold had treasures to find at their local record shop.
“I grew up around Beck my whole life,” explains de Wilde. “He’s like family. The first show I remember going to was Beck when I was little. And the thing is, when I first heard Mellow Gold, it sounded totally normal to me, because it was the kind of music that was always played around the house. But then again, I don’t know many people who could do the same thing Beck does.”
“If somebody else tried to make something like Mellow Gold—and a few have over the years—it wouldn’t come off right because the way Beck does it is so honest,” added Starcrawler guitarist Henri Cash. “And that’s one of the coolest things about this album, the way he was genuinely chronicling these events and characters in his life.”
“I remember listening to Mellow Gold a ton my freshmen year of high school,” says Jacob Faber of NYC psych-rock upstarts Sunflower Bean. “I don’t know what it’s like in high schools now but at the time everyone was walking around with earbuds in their ears constantly listening to music and trying not to get caught. It really gave me a soundtrack to my tumultuous freshman life. The cool thing about this record is that it’s such an eclectic gathering of sounds but yet remains very clearly in its own world, one that is super in touch with the human feel and can guide the listener through those feels. Mellow Gold is definitely a record that will be forever inspiring to those who dare.”
If listening to Mellow Gold in 2019 isn’t as much of a mind-blowing revelation as it was in the spring of 1994, that’s only because pop music has finally caught up with the way Beck Hansen operated when he first broke through on the national stage 25 years ago.