By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Go-Go's have long been dismissed and forgotten--relegated to slots on new-wave-hits-of-the-'80s compilations alongside Kajagoogoo, Bananarama, and Bow Wow Wow, written off as disposable products of a disposable era that gave us the Yugo, Members Only jackets, James Watt, PeoplExpress, and Cabbage Patch Kids. Where, say, the Runaways (and Joan Jett, in particular) are cited as the influence on a new generation of women in rock, from L7 to Bikini Kill to Hole, the Go-Go's are remembered now only as a kitschy novelty left over from the early '80s, new-wave chicks whose frothy image supersedes their musical output. Their current reunion--the second in four years--is laughed off by cynics and nonbelievers as a financial move, a way to salvage floundering careers; never once does anyone mention they were a great band silenced before it said all it had so say.
And besides, the Runaways--themselves influences on the Go-Go's, predating them by only a couple of years--produced only one remotely interesting single, "Cherry Bomb," that wears as well today as it did 15 years ago; the rest was unremarkable, generic, proof that there was indeed no distinction between male and female rockers because crap knows no gender boundaries. (Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love would do better to salute Exene Cervenka, Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith, Poly Styrene, Sally Timmons of the Mekons, and even Debbie Harry.)
The just-released 36-song, two-disc Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's, then, serves to correct history and alter old perceptions: from the earliest home-recorded demos (dating back to the ragged, venomous "Party Pose" from 1979) through the new hit single ("The Whole World Lost Its Head"), the Go-Go's have always been a great band--astute pop songwriters who fancied themselves a garage band, girls who wanted to be at once punk and feminine, mediocre musicians who managed to transcend their limitations.
"The original intent was to be sort of a hybrid between punk and pop," guitarist Jane Wiedlin says now, "to write songs with a strong melodic sensibility but that had a lot of rough edges to it."
From their inception in the summer of 1978 through 1980, they were a shoddy, second-rate lot: whenever and wherever they performed the sound was terrible, the instruments slipped in and out of tune, and Belinda Carlisle would have sounded more in tune if she had kept her mouth shut. The versions of the songs off Beauty and the Beat--which had just been released, and had yet to yield the multi-platinum success that would elevate them from would-bes to superstars in just a matter of weeks--barely resembled their recorded counterparts. If the Go-Go's fancied themselves a punk band, they had the right idea because they couldn't play for shit. (For proof, check out "Blades" on Valley of the Go-Go's, recorded in 1980.)
But Beauty and the Beat, released in 1981, was a tremendous debut--a perfect product of a decade that embraced both desperate hope and nasty cynicism, and a musical gem that brought the sweet-but-rough edges of '50s Top 40 pop-rock into the new-wave '80s. Carlisle (who's got the punk credentials, having been an early member of Darby Crash's Germs) and company were like some weird hybrid of Annette Funicello, the Ronettes (see: the creepy "Walking in the Sand"), the Beach Boys, the Capitols, the Ventures, and Fear. They came off as cheery thrift-store gals who hung out at the beach scoping surfers, out for a good time, quick to lose their innocence but never their control; they told stories of women who tried to ride the waves without getting wet but were dragged under by the tide, who craved lust but found surprising--and unwelcome--love instead. They asserted their independence (like men?), but did so with compassion and a certain unbridled giddiness (like women?).
While "We Got the Beat" and "Our Lips are Sealed" may have defined the success of Beauty and the Beat to radio listeners, "Skidmarks on My Heart" and "This Town" embodied the whole attitude of the record. The former sounds like a '50s rebel anthem, a poodle-skirted gal lamenting her lover's desire to "fondle the steering wheel" of another (it's loaded with witty-dumb metaphors equating being a good lover with being a good auto mechanic).
And "This Town" is as wicked as a sneer and as beckoning as a smile, a confusing message encased in a fairly haunting song. "This Town" is, of course, the band's hometown of Los Angeles--a "glamorous" city that, Carlisle sings, promises quick success and a chance to hang out with other famous people (like, you know, the Go-Go's). And yet, they caution (or celebrate, it's hard to tell), we're all just "dreamers" and "whores," and "discarded stars, like worn-out cars, litter the street" of this town--our town, so glamorous.
In his 1981 essay "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," Greil Marcus wrote that Beauty and the Beat only sounded like a product of innocence, that it was actually a product born of the "toughness and nerve" it took to create something so perky and familiar and superficially na•ve. "Beneath the surface of this music--rather, rising to the surface--is a lot of pathos, nerve, toughness, some bitterness," he wrote. "In a word, experience." And in the end, it sold more than two million copies, earned them a Grammy nomination (they lost), and made them superstars.