April 30 – Beck Perfected Being A Winner By…Being A ‘Loser’?

Ever feel like you can’t win for losing? Well, today we look at the oddball story of a song and singer that seemingly that couldn’t lose for winning. “Loser” by Beck hit a peak of #10 in the U.S. this day in 1994.

The song certainly sounded like very little else on radio then, fitting because Beck was rather unlike many of the artists he shared the airwaves with. At the time, he was 23, and back in his beloved L.A., after a stint of living in New York. He’d spent some time with relatives in Europe as a kid, but always gravitated back to the Pacific coast. His mother was a friend of Andy Warhol’s, so needless to say, a bit of an odd, avant garde type. Beck dropped out of school after grade eight, but used a fake ID to attend some music and literature classes at a California college. When he was 16, he got himself a guitar and taught himself to play, taking to the streets to busk. He was a big fan of folk music and hip-hop, and tried to combine the two. “I knew my folk music would take off if I put hip-hop beats behind it,” he later said.

He tried that out in cafes in New York and L.A., singing somewhat stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Or at times “I’d just make up these ridiculous songs just to see if people were listening. ‘Loser’ was an extension of that.” (A previous indie single he put out was called “MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack” so one might think he took advantage of that strategy of checking to see if anyone was listening frequently.)

It caught the ear of a local producer, who put the song out as a 12” vinyl single on his own Bong Load label. They made 500 of them. Then Beck began to win, with “Loser.” Two local college radio stations liked it and played it, which in turn drew attention from alt rock powerhouse KROQ in town. As Pitchfork put it, “it arrived without context or marketing” in the city. But with one of the nation’s top stations backing it, major labels got curious and soon Geffen – Nirvana’s label – signed Beck and got him working on his first album, Mellow Gold. “Loser” was the first track for it.

Beck played guitars and bass on it, and synths on some tracks for the album, but he got some major help from Carl Stephenson, the producer. Stephenson played sitar on the song, but more importantly put the dance beat to it and found all the little samples, like George Bush saying “I’m a driver, I’m a winner.” Stephenson would later say he rather disliked the song and regretted putting something so negative out there.

Many felt differently though. Rolling Stone called it “ultra-catchy” and were one of several publications that worked some sort of Bob Dylan comparison in with its review. They also correctly seemed to predict it would take off since “slacker victims often trumpet their dropout status with dilapidated jeans, greasy hair and a sarcastic, defeatist posture.” Everything needed to make Beck their “unwitting icon” as Record Collector‘s Bruno MacDonald suggests.

By the time Mellow Gold came out, “Loser” had already spent five weeks at #1 on the Alternative Rock chart, and from there, mainstream success followed, hitting the top 10 at home as well as in Canada and New Zealand and #15 in the UK. With it ending up a (mellow?) gold single, it remains Beck’s biggest-seller to date. Many would say that was quite a good “winner” of a debut. 

9 thoughts on “April 30 – Beck Perfected Being A Winner By…Being A ‘Loser’?

    1. he was certainly different, sometimes that works. I like one album of his a lot … I forget it’s title, but it has the song ‘Paper Tiger’ on it. Album’s mostly acoustic stuff that could pass for folk. And gotta like anyone who gets accosted by Kanye when accepting an award!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. he’s apparently bigger here than Europe, but that said, even over here, he’s not had a long string of hits. Alt rock stations do still play maybe half a dozen of his songs routinely I think. He’s kind of bounced around musical genres, which is cool but makes his sound hard to define. This song, I was only lukewarm to when it came out, and now almost 30 years later… well you know what happens to lukewarm stuff left sitting out for a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    I thought I commented on this yesterday! I thought the MTV song is funny as hell…I love it. He had an interesting idea about combining the two genres…I’m not a huge fan of that style like in Loser but it worked for him big time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gotta give him credit for doing things his own way & not chasing trends. Sometimes it works for him, sometimes not as much but he’s rarely predictable. A bit like Weezer in that respect

      Liked by 1 person

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