Beck's 'Odelay': The Secret History

Beck tells the stories behind his newly reissued classic track by track

February 21, 2008
Beck, Rolling Stone, Magazine, Beck Hansen, guitar, loser, 90s, rock
Beck performs on February 20th, 2007 in Los Angeles, California.
John Shearer/WireImage

I thought Odelay might be the last time I got a chance to make a record," Beck says of his 1996 album. "I was acutely aware that I was thought of as a one-hit wonder." But almost twelve years later, Odelay is the definitive Beck album, full of funk, noise and sliced-up jokes. It's now receiving the deluxe reissue treatment, with an edition that adds nineteen outtakes, remixes and B sides.

Beck reminisces about his landmark disc at the Hollywood studio where he's quickly recording a new one with a producer he declines to name. "We're not going to get sidetracked," he says. "This one might be coming out sooner than people would think – definitely this year." Today, he's working in a modern facility full of expensive blond wood; back in 1995, it was the smallest room in the Silver Lake, L.A., house of the Dust Brothers (Mike Simpson and John King), the production team behind the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. "It was tiny," Beck says. "And one wall, floor to ceiling, was all records." Although Beck emphasizes that "a lot of Odelay was played, not sampled," many of those records were called into service, from Them's version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (the organ part became the backbone of "JackAss") to a sex-ed. album called Sex for Teens (Where It's At), which provided the funniest bits of the single "Where It's At."

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Beck, Odelay

The reason they had so much time to listen to records? The trio was using an early version of Pro Tools: After every take, the computer required about a half-hour to compile the data. Technology aside, Beck says he doesn't feel like much time has passed: "When I go back to it, not a lot feels different. I'm into the same things, you know what I mean?"

The last track on Odelay was salvaged from an earlier set of sessions. "It was a whole record's worth of stuff, somewhere between Big Star, Pavement and Nirvana." That lost disc was almost finished when Beck first hooked up with the Dust Brothers. "Odelay was very informal. I just showed up one day with the slide guitar and a couple of harmonicas, and we started working."

This Sabbath-style freakout, originally a B side to "Devils Haircut," was recorded at the Beastie Boys' L.A. studio. "It had a big skate ramp in it," Beck recalls. He isn't sure how one would pronounce the song's title and can't even decipher the words anymore. "There were definitely lyrics, and they were very meaningful. I think."

The recording of the album was split in half by Beck going on the 1995 Lollapalooza tour. "Everything we did before was very complex — we would spend weeks on each track. When I came back, we did a bunch of songs really quick in two weeks. We did 'Devils Haircut' and 'New Pollution' back to back in two days."

Odelay's third single had some of its most inscrutable lyrics, like "She's got a cigarette on each arm." "Most of the vocals on the record were scratch vocals," Beck says. "We just grew attached to them."

A previously unreleased track featuring the chorus "I'm going back home with my gold chains swinging." "We went back and mixed that. It was never a serious album contender — we were just fucking around one day."

This "Jack-Ass" B side was a Spanish translation of the song, rerecorded with a mariachi band from an L.A. Mexican restaurant. "I tried to sing it straight, but I got carried away. I ended up sounding like Mario Lanza."

This story is from the February 21, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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