Drummer Mike Beck: “…it was just a magic thing that happened.”

Mike Beck was the drummer for Happy The Man when they recorded for Arista Records. Today, he is a vocalist and plays percussion with his band Dog Talk. Mike has also collaborated on music for theater and dance companies. He plays a variety of ethnic percussion instruments such as djembe, shekeres, and angklung. His collection includes hundreds of instruments from around the world.

ATI:  We know you met Stan through Rick Kennell, who convinced you to travel from Indiana to the East Coast to check out a new band that needed a drummer. How did that go down?

MB:    When Rick and I moved there, they were in a dorm. We jammed in the dorm and eventually moved into rehearsal houses together, with everybody living in their own little room and practicing in the basement for as many hours as we could slip in every day. It was wonderful.  I mean we just lived and breathed it.  That was all we did.

I was mostly the drummer percussionist. I came up with a huge percussion rig built in with the drum kit. It was bigger than anybody was using at that time, just a concept that I took on.  It fit what we did perfectly at that time, because it was very orchestrated and I used all the timpani, the chimes, all kinds of unusual percussion along with the drum kit.  It was one of those chemistry melds. Everything fell together.

ATI:  What did you think about the playing level and the skill level of the band in general and Stanley’s guitar playing in particular?

MB:    It was great.  Frank was a great writer at that time. Stanley had more of the rock edge than the other guys did.  He was a little ballsier, a little more rocking, a used a little odder time signature.  Stanley was the glue of the band. As far as I am concerned, Stanley put the band together and Stanley ended the band.

I’ve always had camaraderie with Stan. I admire him and respect him, and I find myself standing up for Stanley more than any of the other guys just because of the way I feel about him.  He’s who he is, and he says what he believes in, and he is not afraid to speak up. He’s always honest and true—a real human being.

ATI:  How did the band work together?

MB:    We worked as a unit more than most bands would ever dream of. We all had our individual style, and it fit like a glove, beautiful.  It was an incredible experience, and I could never have asked for anything more than what we did together, the friendship we had and the camaraderie—especially musically speaking.  It was just on. Frank was very big composing classical-type pieces.  Kit was more out there with beautiful melodies, but very different.  Kennel held down bass in a real percussive type manner, and Stanley just added that edge.  Back then Stanley really didn’t sing.  He always wanted too.  He loved it, but we were primarily an instrumental band. Until we got signed by the record company, and they wanted some vocals on it, that’s when we dabbed into it a bit. Stanley was the only one who had a voice that could cut the muster.  He has come a long way since then as a singer.  He always wanted to sing.

I remember years ago, a good friend of ours, Dale Newman was a personal roadie for Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford and had been for years. Dale and I were old friends from back in Indiana. Dale came out and camped out with us for a while. He was also a singer/songwriter musician. He and Dan Owens used to open up as an acoustic singer/songwriter group for Happy The Man in several gigs.  Dan sang beautifully.  He has a beautiful voice, and Dale had a nice voice that would work for the stuff he wrote. I know Stanley always loved what they did and was a real supporter of them opening for us.

ATI:  Just today Stanley told me that Dan was his inspiration for singing, nothing less nothing more.  Seeing him sing actually got him going.

MB:    Dan was an incredible singer, still is. I remember Stanley really locking into that vocal end of it, because we were primarily instrumental, and everything was built around that. When Dan and Dale opened for us, I could see Stanley was turned on by that, and he found that he had a voice. He just had to develop it like anybody would, because he wasn’t a singer at that point. It was pretty cool to see that develop. I know he went on to sing, and, once he got into his cover band Vision, I’m sure he took on a lot of vocals at that point. Years of experience have toned him up to what he is now; he could be classified as a singer for sure.

Stanley used to sit around with his acoustic guitar, knock out tunes by Supertramp and sing up in his room and at parties we’d have for fun. He’s come a long way.

ATI:  Dale Newman and Dan Owens seemed to be the connection to Peter Gabriel. Our understanding is that just as Arista was about to sign you guys, Peter was interested in working with Happy The Man as his band?

MB:    Yeah.  That was a really cool time because we really admired Peter and Genesis and all the European bands. There are all kinds of stories from that. I don’t know who has the right one but I can tell you my perspective.

I’m not exactly sure how Peter found out about us. It probably would have been through Dale, who worked for them.  When we were pretty close to signing with Arista, Peter found out about us. It was right after he had left Genesis and was going to do a solo album, his very first one.

We lived in Washington D.C., together at that time, and he flew over and spent four or five days camping with us, swimming and hanging out, and we also rehearsed a rehearsal studio.

We worked on “Slow Burn”, “Here Comes the Flood”, “Solsbury Hill” and all that stuff.  We were doing what we do and did at that time, which was orchestrating music.  We weren’t a rock band slamming it down doing a four/four kind of thing.  I had all my percussion gear, and I remember Peter coming into our studio, walking through my set up going, “Whoa, man, this is wild.”  He was amazed by who and what we were and what we had laid down so far.  We listened to his tunes, and then we worked on them with him. I remember he wanted more of a rock feel and, if you remember the first CD he put out, it’s pretty straight-ahead rocking.  I remember him taking me aside and playing a demo Phil [Collins] had played on. He said Phil had done those tunes, and that’s what he was going after.  Long story short, he didn’t choose to go with us as his back-up band or touring band, but he did want to use Stanley.  I believe he asked Stanley later on to be his guitar player.  I don’t think Stanley took it because he was pretty wrapped up in his Vision band and thought that might be the better way to go.

That might be something he looks back and goes, “shoot,” you know?  What a bummer that was, but knowing Stanley, probably not.  Stanley makes decisions and stands by them. I think Stan stood out to Peter more than anybody in that unit, not only because of his musicianship and because he was such a nice person, but because he had the sound Peter wanted at that time. Stanley was giving a bit tiny more than the rest of us, who were a little too much orchestration and avant-garde. We were outside the lines of what he wanted so Stanley scored a lot of points on that episode.

ATI:  Are you still in touch with Dan Owen and Dale Newman?

MB:    Yes.  I talked to Dan about four months ago. Not many people do. Dan’s kind of a hermit. Same with Kit.  Kit is even more of a hermit now. I talked with Dale probably a year ago and he was still running The Farm. That’s Genesis’ place,  and Dale is in charge of their studio, just keeping things in the groove, well-kept and working. He’s done it for years.

ATI:   Did Gabriel or other artists give you any feedback about the music you played?

MB:    I don’t think Peter would have come over if he wasn’t knocked out by what he had heard at that point. Happy The Man was an unbelievable band. Live, we were just amazing. Our live tapes are almost better than the [studio] records. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. We could do fade-outs, and we could nail all the parts we did. The musicianship was at a super-high level. Once we started playing, everybody was so emotionally wrapped up in what we were doing that we’d forget there was a crowd in front of us half the time. It was just an amazing group of players that scored an amazing chemistry and had everything there to do what we did. It all got buried up in over-budgeted production, punk music coming in, disco, and everything else. Aside from working with Peter, we almost got to do the score for the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Lots of “ifs”, “ands” and “buts”, and none of them materialized to take us over the top. It led to some internal disputes and problems like every band has.

Different members, including myself, left for various reasons at that point, so it kept moving on in different configurations, mostly in the drummer’s seat.

ATI:  I heard Geddy Lee, bassist, keyboardist and lead vocalist from Rush, contacted Bobby Baker [former President of Cellar Door Management] to express how impressed he was with the music. Do you know anything about that?

MB:    That’s a new one to me, but I think anybody that heard us back then was knocked out.  You couldn’t help but be.  It might not be your cup of tea, but the musicianship level and what we had executed was so marvelous,  how could you not appreciate it?

Personally, I believe the albums are still relevant today, even though the instruments are outdated. We opened for a lot of different acts, and everyone we played for and in front of always was blown away.  I remember playing with Larry Coryell [guitar player] once at a show; He was a pretty big name at that point and a masterful player. He opened up by himself; then he sat and watched our show in the front row and was just knocked out. We were kind of the band that “should have made it”, and “why didn’t they?”

ATI:  Could it have been the lack of vocals?

MB:    Well, vocal bands have an easier time making it. Look at King Crimson. They added vocals later on.  We were one of the more instrumental bands, but I personally feel that our compositions and the way we played them and formed them outdid most of the progressive bands.

ATI:  No question the music was very powerful, very out there and very complex.

MB:    Exactly. There’s melody, and there are beautiful parts with all the emotion you would want. I was real proud of our compositions. Progressive bands at that time would go in and out of different time changes, three/four to five/four to seven/ four, whatever it may be.  It was very obvious.  It was, “let’s go with this now, and let’s do this because this is cool, and this will be hip.”  Ours would just flow.  You could hardly tell what time signature we ran if we went into another one, because it was the way the piece was written and when. The majority of the tunes were written by Frank and Kit. In rehearsal, those guys would work in either pairs or a trio, structure a piece and bring it in. Rick and I would inter-flux our creativity into what they had, and then we would bring everything together and make it one piece. Everybody equally contributed after the fact as far as putting the whole thing together. If we’d had one part of the puzzle missing, it wouldn’t have been what it was at that time. We worked our butts off, and it was just a magic thing that happened.

ATI:  What are you doing musically nowadays?

MB:    I still do music for a living.  I own a music booking company with a partner, and we book regionally mostly out of Indianapolis—everything you can imagine.  And I play professionally all the time so between having my own booking company and playing everything you can imagine, I’ve done fine.

ATI:  Do you compose?

MB:    I write all the time. And I’ve had several bands. I had a band for about thirteen years here called Dog Talk that was a world-beat, crazy, wacky band. We did great, and I wrote all the music for that. I haven’t had anything as grand as Happy The Man since that happened. I’m really happy with what I do—and did.

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