An Early Van Morrison Record Had A Major Influence on Beck’s “Odelay”
Beck’s 1994 album Mellow Gold managed to go platinum and had some critical acclaim, but the average listener in the mid-90s knew him for his single “Loser”. While the hit song put Beck on the map, 1996’s Odelay helped him shed the label of “the guy who did ‘Loser’” and established him as a legitimate artist.
The production duties on Odelay were handled by John King and Mike Simpson, better known as The Dust Brothers. The duo, who already had a more than stellar reputation thanks to their work on The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, were a perfect match for Beck’s eclectic blend of folk and hip-hop. Known for piecing together samples with live instrumentation, the Brothers were well aware of Beck’s possible fate as a mere novelty act with one big hit. In a 2011 interview Simpson told the website Music Radar, “Beck had notoriety and success from his single ‘Loser’, but I think pretty much everyone had considered him a one hit wonder and no one really expected anything more from him.”
To help shake the dreaded one hit wonder label, The Dust Brothers took a sample-based approach to making the music for Odelay, even when recording Beck’s live instrumentation. Describing their general philosophy and production process to Sound on Sound magazine, Simpson said, “We don’t necessarily want you to play things right, we want you to play things cool. You play over a groove until you have a good bar, and then we take that bar and loop it.”
“I had this record and it turned out to be a treasure trove of ideas.”- Mike Simpson
Beyond taking a sampled-based approach approach to the production, they also used their massive record collection for more than just sampling. Odelay certainly has it’s fair share of sampled elements, but King and Simpson also played Beck records to inspire a particular style or riff for him to play. As Beck explained to Rolling Stone, “a lot of Odelay was played, not sampled.”
One record that stands for its influence on Odelay is Them Again by Van Morrison’s first group Them. Best known for the song “Gloria” from their previous album The Angry Young Them, the group helped kick start Morrison’s career. Their sophomore effort also acted as a major creative spark for Beck and The Dust Brothers 30 years after its initial release. Simpson described Them Again as “a treasure trove of ideas” and went on to say that it “ provided the inspiration for three or four songs on the album.” “Devil’s Haircut” is one of those songs, building around a replayed distorted, hard-hitting riff taken from the opening of “I Can Only Give You Everything”.
“A lot of Odelay was played, not sampled.”- Beck
Another Odelay cut that used a building block from Them was “Jack-Ass”, which borrowed the beautiful organ sounds from the beginning of Them’s version of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”. As an interesting aside, Them interpolated the opening of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” at the beginning of their cover of “Baby Blue”. “This is classic Beck” Simpson said when reflecting on the track. “‘Jack-Ass’ ended up a beautiful song to start with and Beck took it even further and put his own twist on it. He took that Decca Records sound from ’66 and just flipped it.”
The genealogy of influence here is fascinating. Bob Dylan records “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and releases it on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home. Van Morrison hears the album, falls in love with it, and decides to make what Rolling Stone called “a rare Dylan cover that, in every way, stands up to the original” with his band Them in 1966. The Dust Brothers pick up a copy of Them’s second album and revisit it 30 years after its release while making Odelay. Beck then breathes new life into “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” with his song “Jack-Ass” and uses other elements of Them Again on one of his most beloved albums.
And to think all of it started with one song.