The Beta Band

The Best of the Beta Band [DVD]

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Besides their excellent music, the Beta Band were extremely good at making videos, promotional films for their concerts, and more besides, whether on their own (John Maclean in particular directed or co-directed many) or with the help of various friends and/or directors. The Best of the Beta Band, released as a complement to the strictly audio overview of the group, pulls all of their efforts together in a welcome two-DVD collection, an often riotous experience of deft (and daft) humor that is just as memorable, if not more so, than many high-budget extravaganzas of the time and place.

The first disc is split into "Trailers" and "Promos," with the first section consisting of four fake trailers for films and Internet sites, the first two being spot-on riffs of both '70s cop dramas and the deluge of wannabe Tarantino efforts following in that vein. (Guest star Mani of Stone Roses/Primal Scream fame as a random villain in "Chalk and Cheese" adds to the merry idiocy.) Meantime, the brief "Highland Fidelity" is a brilliant self-parody of the band's memorable (audio) appearance in High Fidelity itself, though the elderly shoppers at the charity store where the song is playing are not so kindly disposed towards "Dry the Rain" as the record store shoppers were.

"Promos," meanwhile, is the heart of the set, covering many of the standalone videos and concert films the band made over time -- the majority coming from the underrated Heroes to Zeros album, which shows that even in their final days the band's spirit was far from exhausted (as something like the wonderfully weird "Lion Thief" shows, where a shifty-eyed, Godlike figure steals snails to set up unsuspecting sleepers -- and that's just the start). The sheer cleverness of the group and its collaborators is remarkable enough, as is the collective humor on display -- the bouts of whimsy exhibited have roots in everything from The Goon Show and the Beatles to Monty Python and any number of U.K. kids' programs, but all seem to perfectly suit the songs without detracting from them, and the easygoing way the band's members have in front of the camera, whether "being themselves" or acting out roles, is a definite bonus. The full film for "Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos," which runs the length of that early EP, is especially wonderful and ridiculous, detailing a supposed kidnapping of Robin Jones, first by an evil amateur dentist and then by a "big evil bird," with the rest of the band setting out to rescue him by means of interplanetary flying carpets, topped off with a celebratory banquet that also serves as a credit sequence. Other wonderful standouts include "Squares," where the band appear to be landing on the moon only for them to discover that they're in a Capricorn One scenario without their knowledge, "Assessment," a capsule history of warfare, history and time travel as set on a deserted beach, and the brilliant "Trouble," which surely must be the world's first Scottish kung fu short feature. "Out-Side" deserves special mention as well -- among its other kaleidoscopic elements, seeing the band as the lead characters in The Wizard of Oz, with Steve Mason as Dorothy, is one of those see-it-to-be-believed moments. (Meanwhile, anyone familiar with Scottish television personalities will enjoy "Weird's Way," an extended joke on the late Tom Weir and his long-running history program Weir's Way.) Not everything done by or for the group appears, though, perhaps most notably the concert film for "The Hard One," which tweaks Bonnie Tyler even more directly than the vocal and lyric reworking from "Total Eclipse of the Heart" which had to be dropped from the final released mix of the song.

The second disc is also split into two sections, the first being three documentaries about the group and its times and travails, each of which happily avoids the kind of dull standard band documentary approach (or, alternately, the self-conscious "we appreciate Spinal Tap too much" way). "The Depot at Monte Cristo" is a brief collection of various interview snippets done around the time of Hot Shots II along with some road and live footage, making it enjoyable but also the least of the three. "1997-2004," put together by Maclean from a huge amount of archival video and still photographs, tells the story of the band via flowing collage from start to finish -- wisely avoiding narration of any kind, it captures the group and its members in all sorts of contexts, including a landmark Glastonbury festival show, their American tour with Radiohead, and their last ever concert. Edited to a quick pace, it's a nice overview and says a lot more about the group than a Behind the Music history would have done. In contrast, "Let It Beta," by irregular video collaborator Pete Rankin, is a sometimes tenser affair, tracking the band's recording of Heroes to Zeros from demo sessions to completion. While the group's creativity remained strong and many humorous moments crop up along the way, as well as the kind of random fun done to break the boredom during delays in recording (such as a visit to a Lambretta scooter museum by Mason), the sense that the band was drawing towards a close is almost palpable at points. In one discussion session during the demo days the band speak frankly among themselves about the financial and business burdens they faced with understated but raw emotion. A cut between Mason's controlled anger at the prospect of facing a particular record company figure again and a subsequent meeting with said figure helps illustrate the tightrope of band life with direct but vivid clarity.

The final part of the DVD consists of four cuts filmed at one of their last shows in 2004, taken from the same concert that produced the live disc that was included on the CD equivalent of the greatest-hits package. The performances are all a joy though the filming is standard enough -- multi-camera setups, fades between angles and so forth -- that this is more of a souvenir than anything else on the set (though hearing the entire crowd singing along to "Dry the Rain" at the end of that song is a wonderful valedictory moment). If nothing else, the clips help close out the band's story in full, and if the Beta Band never broke through to a truly huge audience as they so well deserved, this set is further evidence that it was not for want of ability or skill.