The lost Beck songs you'll never hear...and the one that you will
May/June 2000
pp. 24-28
Laurie Pike

LA bands on almost-forgotten compilation reveal origins of Silver Lake sound

Gun in mouth, I'm headin' south
I got a good deal on a pickup truck
Kill the lights and roll the dice
Roll 13 and I'm out of luck
Put it in neutral
Put it in neutral
I'm gonna let it roll away
-Beck, "Put it in Neutral"

Beck's creepy folk song "Put it in Neutral" has been unearthed after 10 years in storage. Its beautiful three-chord simplicity makes it sound like a track off his 1994 album One Foot in the Grave. Perhaps the last song Beck recorded before getting famous that will ever see the light of day, it will be released this spring on A Hot Wild Drive in the City, a compilation of car-themed songs by LA bands circa 1988-92. There's actually a whole album of unreleased Beck tracks on ice, and the man sitting on them has every right to release them. But he probably never will.

Gus Hudson could be a Silver Lake poster boy. He looks quite a bit younger than his age of 44; he holds no discernable job; and he goes out a lot to see bands. Rock show posters and paintings he and his roommate have made cover the walls of his apartment. Fellow patrons of Al's Bar, where Hudson spends many of his evenings, say he's an affable guy whose devotion to the punk ethos is evident in his support of bands and his participation in the Cacophony Society, a posse of pranksters whose main goal seems to be artistically screwing with people's heads. Other than that, there's nothing particularly notable about Hudson, except for one thing. He produced those Beck songs, and all he has to do is give Beck half the money from sales if he ever releases them.

"Everything I do is an accident," Hudson says over a cup of tea in his living room. "I was hanging out on Sunset Strip in the '70s and saw one of the first issues of Flipside magazine." Flipside was-and against all odds, still is-one of the most widely read punk rock 'zines in the U.S. Hudson volunteered to lay out the ads in the magazine after his sister started dating its publisher. "It was the DIY approach where you learn by doing," Hudson says. So he learned to produce records on Flipside's nascent label by getting an engineer to record an album by the band Detox in 1985. Then Hudson executive produced albums by the Crowd, Bulemia Banquet, the Paper Tulips, TVTV$ and Babyland. "I never thought of financial gain," Hudson says. "I enjoyed the music and thought these bands would make interesting records. I would make 2,000 and give 200 to the band. That would be their pay."

Beck was one of many musicians in LA who appealed to Hudson. As any Beck fan knows, the young troubadour landed on the Silver Lake scene in the late '80s, playing songs on acoustic guitar in between bands' sets at clubs.

Around the time that Beck was gigging regularly at coffeehouses like the Onyx, pikme-up and the Mad Hatter, Hudson was recording various LA bands for a car-themed compilation CD, a project he worked on intermittently between 1988 and 1992. Its mouthful of a title A Hot Wild Drive in the City was ignored by most bands who dubbed it Gus's Car Comp (and later, as years passed, Gus's Supposed Car Comp). Beck contributed his song "Put it in Neutral" and also sang back-up (with Michael Rivkin) on "American Car" by a band called Bean.

"Beck came in to record his song, but he said he had more than one. I recorded five that day," Hudson recalls. "Later, he said he had more songs, so we recorded about five more." Swimming in material, Hudson told Beck he wanted to put out a split 7-inch record of two Bean songs and two Beck songs. "Beck said he said he had even more ideas for the 7-inch, so we did some more." And those weren't the only sessions. How many Beck songs has Hudson produced? He shrugs. "I can't even count."

The blue vinyl split EP, released in 1993, was Beck's first release ever. Hudson conducted the first published interview with Beck, which ran in Flipside. A year later, in early 1994, Hudson also released Beck's Stereopathetic Soulmanure on the Flipside Records label. It wasn't the first full-length Beck album out-two obscure indies slightly predated its release-but it contained the earliest of Beck's recordings, dating back to 1988. Britain's Mojo magazine counts Stereopathetic Soulmonure as one of America's top 20 "rustic classics," and Beck's official website calls the work on it "possibly the most eclectic mix of Beck stuff on one disc."

As is the case with a lot of no-budget records, Stereopathetic Soulmanure was slow to come out after recording. In fact, it came out so late that it actually hit shelves the same week as Beck's major label debut-Mellow Gold (Geffen). "[Beck's single] 'Loser' had started to break, but I didn't think he was going to be a huge hit," Hudson says. "I thought I would sell three or four thousand copies [of Stereopathetic]." More than 50,000 copies later, Flipside Records is still filling orders for catalogue number FLIP 60.

Recorded at the same time, in the same studios, and with some of the same personnel, A Hot Wild Drive in the City is arguably every bit as important as Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Beck's "Put it in Neutral" is a simple, poignant folk song; it's less experimental and progressive than most of the car comp songs, but it's nestled comfortably among the tracks of his peers, and together the songs evoke the funky vibe and savvy post-modernism that came to be known as the Silver Lake sound. In that, the car comp is a sort of Rosetta Stone carved out by the bands on the Raji's-Gaslight-Shamrock-Al's Bar circuit.

"All of the bands were so ahead of their time," says Steve Gregoropoulos, whose band The Wild Stares contributed the industrial new wave song "Motor Drive" [see page 28 for a list of all the songs]. Babyland's Dan Gatto agrees: "It doesn't sound like old music. The Raji's thing [Beer, Wine Et Good Food: Live at Raji's 1987] was cool, but it was indicative of one period and sounded dated. The car comp doesn't."

All of the bands admit that their memory of the era may be romanticised because they were young and fresh on the scene at the time. Still, the compilation stands as proof of sounds ahead of their time and a general atmosphere of uninhibited creativity and expression. "It's like the Bob Dylan basement tapes!" says Steve Moramarco, of Bean (and later, the Abe Lincoln Story). "I hope Gus gets off his ass and puts this thing out!" Adds Jack Gould (of the band Black Angel's Death Song), "The late '80s in LA was a time when punk rock became eclectic again, and broke out of the hardcore orthodoxy that had settled over it. There was a depth and texture to the music that I think is missing from today's scene."

Dan Gatto remembers that bands were mixing up musical styles in uncategorizable ways, something Beck is celebrated for. "Beck is representative of all those bands," says Gatto. "You could have taken any one of them and given them the resources and allowed them to grow and they could have come out with records that people would have embraced."

When the success of Beck, L7 and the Offspring drew A Et R folks to sniff out LA's East Side for the next eclectic/grunge/punk crossover, some bands started to bicker over the notion of going more mainstream or hiring management. "The style of music was trampled by Nirvana and the punk things, because there was one thing you could do if you wanted to get signed," says Gatto. "There was a turning point where bands got very serious. Some people had more ambition than others and it put a strain on everything."

Mia Ferrara, whose band Spoon did the grunge song "Big Rig" on the comp, says the mere naming of the scene helped hastened its implosion. "Whenever something gets defined, it makes people say 'that sucks' because it's defined. The bands didn't ask to be called 'the Silver Lake sound' or 'grunge: But all of a sudden it's this thing that people want to distance themselves from."

Another reason the Silver Lake scene started to fall apart, or at least dissipate, was that the bands who did get signed-or got more serious-started touring more often, leaving the hometown for long stretches. "We did an album on Epitaph and then one on Interscope," says Claw Hammer's Jon Wahl. "So we were always touring. When we came home, we just wanted to relax. It's sort of like when I went to New York in 1978, wanting to see Blondie and all the other bands happening at the time. They were all on tour! Nothing was going on."

The Silver Lake band scene is far from over, and probably never will be. Yes, there were some bands who achieved some national success, and then broke up-Geraldine Fibbers, Possum Dixon, Extra Fancy-or got dropped by their labels, as was Claw Hammer's predicament (in the middle of a tour, no less). But wherever you have clubs for live music and cheap rent, bands will go forth and multiply. Still, post-grunge, post-Beck, it's just ... well, different, as any of the band members will tell you. "It's more cliquey and contrived to me," says Blaze James, who now manages At the Drive In and TSOL.

Now that a TV company is making a pilot for a series called "Silver Lake," it's the perfect time for the car comp to come out and set the record straight. "We called our song 'Car Burn 2000; because we would joke that that's the year Gus would finally put it out," says Paper Tulips bassist Toast (who is also an editor at Glue). "And we were right!" Jack Gould says he got the impression that Hudson was "kind of a flake" for not releasing the car comp year after year, despite ads for it in Flipside, "but that was par for the course in the indie rock world."

Hudson's lack of motivation to release the compilation stems partly from the anti-commercial attitude he shares with many of the bands. Another reason may have to do with Beck, whose lawyers periodically bother Hudson about sales of Stereopathetic Soulmanure. "I have a 50-50 deal with Beck, and we've both honored it," says Hudson. "But I don't want to deal with all the legal crap." And so it looks unlikely that Hudson will ever polish off those priceless other Beck tracks and put them out.

"It's hard for us in the punk rock crowd to deal with bands that make it big," says Hudson. "We want the same relationship we had before. And somehow that ends." Hudson isn't bitter about the fact that he no longer has Beck's home phone number. He just wishes he could have gotten some show tickets out of their friendship. "He opened for Johnny Cash. I wanted to see that so bad." He gets a bit wistful and shakes his head, "It was a rainy night ... oh man!"