Beck

beck

This songwriting story comes from the recording of Beck’s “Loser”, of which only 500 copies were originally released, but later become Beck’s breakout success.

Early in his career, Colin Graybill (Beck) would often spontaneously generate random lyrics, to escape the boredom (and sometimes invisibility) of busking in public or working in small venues. “I don’t think I would have been able to go in and do “Loser” in a six-hour shot without having been somewhat prepared. It was accidental, but it was something that I’d been working toward for a long time” he later said.

Beck gained the attention and friendship of Carl Stephenson, a producer for Rap-A-Lot Records. Stephenson had been the force behind Forest for the Trees, whose now somewhat awkward 1990′s psychedelic hit “Dream” now sounds like Beck, without the Beck. For songwriters, this connection in itself is a reminder that well-connected peers are usually the most important audience and influence on your music.

Stephenson decided to record Beck in his kitchen – a more or less spontaneous decision, that somewhat effected the eventual lyrics. Many of Beck’s words were inspired by looking at things in Stephenson’s kitchen – “Spray-paint the vegetables” to “Get crazy with the Cheese Whiz”.

They both got a laugh out of how terrible his rapping was, a sort of amateur version of Public Enemy’s Chuck D. In response, Beck started sarcastically singing, “I’m a loser, baby” to the playbacks (adding “so why don’t you kill me” to finish the line).

How much the final mix was decided by Beck, and how much Stephenson, is unknown – but perhaps academic. Beck had already perceived similarities between Delta blues and hip hop, which he said helped to inspire the song. Its roots in LA’s anti-folk scene are obvious also, as are his interest in hip hop and blues. Beck later said “I’d realized that a lot of what folk music is about taking a tradition and reflecting your own time. I knew my folk music would take off, if I put hip-hop beats behind it.” Indeed, in LA at the time it would be hard not to be influenced by the many musical influences around one.

Stephenson’s touch on the record is undeniable. The slide guitar is a brief guitar part from one of Beck’s other songs, copied by Stephenson onto an 8-track, looped, and added to a drum track. Stephenson then added his own sitar playing and other samples, including a tremolo guitar part and a bassline. According to a friend, the song was largely finished in six and a half hours, with two minor overdubs several months later.

The all-important song’s drum track is sampled from a Johnny Jenkins cover of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”.

As the original sample contained few variations that could be used for interest, silent ‘breaks’ in the beat are used (a technique which would later become a Beck signature). The same beat as Loser was also sampled by Blackalicious – “A to G”, CPO “Ren’s Rhythm”, Oasis’ “Go Let it Out”, Soul II Soul’s “Get a Life”, and the Wild Bunch – “Friends & Countrymen”. Comparing “Loser” to “Go Let it Out”, for instance, is an good lesson in using beats for any beginner songwriter.

A similar technique can be seen in many other Beck songs, most notably in “Devil’s Haircut”, which contains a similar sampled drum beat, the by now synonymous Beck rap talking style, and again, a simple, anthemic verse lyric – combined with various contemporary musical overlays. However, it was with “Loser” that the template was first laid down.

Coming soon: In our eBook we take a look at how drums, including sampled beats, are usually the most important genesis of many great pop songs. We take you through how to sample break beats from YouTube, and how to correct them for use in programs like Garageband. Why not register, above, to find out when it becomes available?