"Gamma Ray" is the second track on Modern Guilt
. It is a catchy song built on electro skittery beat, and is surprisingly minimal. The song has a very traditional arrangement, but as most songs on Modern Guilt
, it sounds and feels like much more. It is basically just Beck's guitar over DangerMouse's beats (with percussion and piano/keyboards for flavor). To that end, Beck commented once that "Gamma Ray" was one of the best representations of the work DangerMouse and he had done together. ("It's not quite James Bond, probably more Our Man Flint, or Danger Diabolique. That was the second song we did.")
In light of this minimalism and normalcy, the song certainly sounds and feels much more complex and interesting. Part of that is how Beck affects a stutter while singing, which kinda fits with the beat. Beck explains, "On 'Gamma Ray,' I added some fake stuttering; I was trying to sound as bad as I could, for a laugh. I like pop songs where everything's unexpected, otherwise things get too heavy-handed and meaningful."
Lyrically, Beck made a point once to clarify that he improvised most of the lyrics:
A lot of the other songs had things going on lyrically that were a little more hefty, had a little more weight to them. [On "Gamma Ray"] I kept trying to do that, but it just didn't work. I ended up just improvising the lyrics actually. I thought it should feel like those Chuck Berry songs where he's just singing about a car and it feels like he's making up the lyrics on the spot. It's just sort of nonsense, but it has the right feeling. That's what I ended up going with on this song. It was meant to be kind of a song about a car and a girl and not really much else.
Well, that doesn't mean the song defies being looked at closely. Beck begins with a fairly typical (for him) verse. He often explores landscapes of icecaps melting, cars going nowhere, a somewhat distraught vision of the world. Though, in his description, this was simply the part about the car.
Beck then pulls into the chorus, where he sings of the girl, who somehow remains unaffected among the wild craziness (hurricanes and burning houses). Beck's sung of this unaffectedness before (i.e., "The New Pollution
"), and there found it admirable. I assume this girl is the same across songs? He does not impress his feelings on the girl much here, however, simply depicting her character. At one live show in 2018, Beck said "Gamma Ray" was about "a girl he met at a beach."
Throughout the song, Beck uses some stock blues language such as "smokestack lightning" (a very famous blues image). Similarly, Terraplanes are an old type of car
, and the reference can similarly be traced back to Robert Johnson (see here
). Robert Johnson used it as a euphemism (as usual), but it doesn't appear to me that Beck is (though... hmmm maybe I should think about it that way some more?).
(Also, from what I can tell, Chevrolet didn't make Terraplanes!)
Anyway, the song ended up fairly successful for Beck, as one of the singles from Modern Guilt
About a year after Modern Guilt
came out, Beck put up an "acoustic" version of the album on his website. He and his touring band played all the songs live in the studio, but acoustically. Arranging "Gamma Ray" to acoustic instruments made the song more rhythmic, with the strumming acoustic guitar replacing the fingerpicked riffs of the album. Jessica Dobson harmonizes with Beck, almost as a duet, and she adds some subtle acoustic lead guitar licks in there too.
Played live 120 times:
June 9, 2008June 11, 2008June 24, 2008June 27, 2008June 30, 2008July 1, 2008July 2, 2008July 4, 2008July 6, 2008July 7, 2008
...and 110 more
Earliest known live version: June 9, 2008
Latest known live version: August 18, 20192008/2009 Modern Guilt tours
"Gamma Ray" as one of the singles from Modern Guilt
was played at all of the shows on the tour. (The only shows we don't have it listed for from 2008/2009 are shows with no setlist reports.)
On stage, the song is much more a band performance, though it is arranged and sounds very similar to the record. They add some nice vocal harmonies, which are buried pretty deep on the recording. Beck still does the stuttering thing though! Listening to a bunch of these, it feels like a song that sometimes struggles to find it's momentum on stage, but then other times the band click very well and the song works great (i.e., August 31, 2008).
There was one different arrangement of the song, on KCRW in November, 2008. This was an acoustic version, as Beck and Jessica Dobson played acoustic guitars and sang together, while Bram Inscore added bass. It's much mellower, prettier.
2011-2013 pre-Morning Phase
Beck did not tour much in 2010 and 2011, but had some sporadic tours in 2012 and 2013. "Gamma Ray" was a big part of most of the shows in this time, a lingering leftover from the 2008 tours.
2014 Morning Phase tours
In 2014, Beck played "Gamma Ray" at about half of his shows (26 out of 57 shows). It was never out of the setlist for very long. The version the band cooked up for this tour felt pretty different too, performed as a throbbing new wave song. Early on the tour, they played a long dramatic intro to the song, though by the end they seem to have shortened that down. This intro reminds me of the fast synth pulse of "Timebomb." Smokey would also play a short guitar solo as the bridge. This was a fun song to hear them do, it's never been one of my favorites, but they really made it immensely catchy this year.
2015-2016 post-Morning Phase tours
The song again hung around for 2015, where it was played at about half of the shows. It lasted slightly into 2016, where Beck played "Gamma Ray" at two of the first shows, before being dropped for the rest of the year.