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 nave. "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.
And Vacation, released the following year, sounded like a record made by superstars--flat, slick, a vapid attempt to capitalize on what made them famous (cutesy bathing suit cover this time, frolicking videos again) and diminish what made them special. Only "It's Everything But Partytime" stands up now, though it's more a nod to Leslie Gore than its own piece of work.
By the time of Talk Show in 1984, the band had all but fallen apart: most of the women had become drug addicts and alcoholics, they began feuding over who would assume lead vocals for particular songs, and they stopped writing together. It played out like teenybopper soap opera--five girls grow up in the L.A. fast lane, crave fame but don't know how to handle it when it arrives, hang out with celebrities (John Belushi) and tour with superstars (The Police), and succumb to the pressures and jealousies that come with unexpected success.
Wiedlin, who says she was "completely miserable" at the time, recalls how the band turned against guitarist Charlotte Caffey as the worst offender, often handing her parts over to bassist Kathy Valentine. Wiedlin, in fact, says that she can't separate herself from the bitterness that surrounded the making of Talk Show, recalling the bad feeling that still lingers from the fact her bandmates forced her to let Carlisle sing "Forget the Day" when she desperately wanted to handle the chores.
"I know I have heard from a lot of people that they think Talk Show is our best record," Wiedlin says, "and I don't really have a clear perspective of it because we were having so many problems when we were making that record that I think all of us just sort of feel the negative emotions of that record more than the actual songwriting quality or the production standard or anything. So it's hard for me to divorce my feelings of 1983 and 1984 from what that record sounds like.
"Like, at rehearsal [for the current tour], everyone said they wanted to rehearse 'Forget that Day,' which was a real sore point. We were just nuts then. It was really ridiculous. Like, who really cares either way? Why do I care that much if I sing, and why do they care that much to say they don't want me to sing? It was just kind of an indication of how badly things had disintegrated. So when they brought that up, I was kind of like, 'Oh, God, not that thing.'"
Talk Show ranks as the band's worst-selling record, but it is indeed the Go-Go's most confident, mature, and willful: it's a mini-masterpiece of pop songcraft, two handfuls of relationship songs balanced out by equal parts bitterness, cynicism, and romantic hope. If the Go-Go's of Beauty and the Beat created the frothy, perky image and the girls on Vacation honed that image to imperfection, then the band members on Talk Show emerged as confident, independent women who stopped flirting with the boys and began talking with the men.
"I wonder if we think the same thoughts," Carlisle sang in "Beneath the Blue Sky," "I think we're sharing the same lies." And when she proclaimed "I'll live without you" on the B-side "Good for Gone" (written by drummer Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine), she was staking out her independence with pride and good cheer: "Everything's the same, nothing's changed, without you."
And with the maturation as musicians and songwriters came the shedding of the bubbly thrift-store image--a move that ultimately alienated those fans who thought of the band as kewpie dolls who got the beat. It failed to place a hit single ("Head Over Heels" and "Turn to You" fared modestly on the charts), and shortly after its release in 1984, Wiedlin left the band. By that time, Carlisle and Caffey had succumbed to enormous drug and alcohol problems, and the infighting became too much for Wiedlin to handle; eventually, by May 1985, Carlisle and Caffey had sobered up and decided they, too, had had enough, leaving Valentine and Schock to go their own way.
"At that time, it was less fun, fun, fun and more, 'OK, here's some good songs and, yes, we're grown-up women,'" Wiedlin says. "We presented that to the public, and the public was like, 'Well, we don't want you to be grown-up women. We want you to be fun, fun, fun.' And it sucks! It freaks you out, it pisses you off.
"The whole image thing is so mystifying to me. It can be such a blessing and such a curse because, let's face it, that was what attracted people to the Go-Go's--that whole sense of bubbly fun. And that was cool because the first record sold over two million copies, but then after the 1,001st person asks you, 'Wow, what's it like being a girl in an all-girl band?' or yet another dorky question, you kinda feel like you want to smack people a little bit. God, get over it already. But basically we were kind of trapped in our little fun-fun-fun world.
"And it is partially true. It's not a completely false image. I mean, we were having fun. We started the band to have fun. We're fun-loving people. I still love to have fun. But that's not all I am. I can be morose and bitter and bitchy like anyone else on this planet. I think what happens is you start getting resentful that everyone expects you to be like a little cartoon character."
Wiedlin, Carlisle, Caffey, and Schock all went on to solo careers, each greeted with varying degrees of success, artistic and commercial: Carlisle's inanely slick, smooth disco-soul moves garnered her a few hits ("Heaven is a Place on Earth" went Number One in 1988), but Wiedlin's first solo record (Jane Wiedlin in 1985) ranks as the strongest of any post-Go-Go's record, a wildly varying piece of work that takes the Talk Show sound one step further toward adulthood. Valentine was the only member who did not record alone, instead returning to Austin and briefly hooking up with her former mate in the Violators, rocker-turned-mystery-author Jesse Sublett.
But it became painfully clear that without each other, the five Go-Go's were as useless as fingers unattached to a hand, and when A&M Records released a rather lamely assembled greatest-hits album in 1990, it gave them an excuse to regroup--if only, they said at the time, to mend old wounds and find out whether they could be pals again. The tour went well enough, but Carlisle had just come off her own trek across the world's performance stages and fought illness and fatigue the entire time, casting the pall of history over the affair. Eventually, the small talk about reuniting as a recording entity fell aside once the tour ended.
Then, last June, the band discovered I.R.S. Records was going to issue yet another best-of and demanded to become involved because the label owned only the masters to the first three records; the band feared a repeat of the A&M fiasco, and began providing cassettes of old performances and rehearsals, B-sides, and goofy private photos that dated back to their punk days.
And then the Go-Go's decided to record some new material, three songs of which (including the single "The Whole World Lost its Head" and the arrogantly mocking "Beautiful"--as in, "Beautiful is all I see when I look at me") are included on Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's and further blur the line between nostalgia and art. After all, the songs sound so Go-Go's--as though the decade that separates two breakups and two reunions is only a few weeks--yet they are every bit as endearing, as catchy, as sturdy as the moments they built on Beauty and the Beat and Talk Show. Which is ultimately what makes the Go-Go's, then and now, a great band: they were indeed a product of a time, exponents of glamour and excess and sarcasm, yet they transcend their point of origin.
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"I almost feel the new songs are closer in spirit to our original intent," Wiedlin says. "I feel like in some ways we got a little bit sidelined in the '80s. And I'm not saying I'm not proud of the records I made or I'm ashamed of them. But let's face it, there were a lot of things going on in the '80s with new technology, and it was so exciting for musicians, and, of course, you wanted to use it on your records. Of course, we didn't know anything about it, so consequently we had people coming in and doing this stuff, and in a way it didn't represent what the band is now.
"Ten years later it's easy to look back and say, 'Oh, I get it--the Go-Go's are basically a garage band.' I mean, that's basically what we are. Let's face it, we're not Eddie Van Halen guitar players, we're not technodweebs, we're just kinda basic players and fortunately, for whatever reason, we just seem to have a good sense of melody, and that's where the pop enters into it. That's why now it's even more exciting for me because I feel like I have a clear picture of what we were, whereas before I was kinda like flying blindly and didn't know what was going on.
"Now," Wiedlin laughs, "I'm superior in every way."
The Go-Go's perform December 18 at the Fair Park Coliseum. Also on the bill are 4 Non-Blondes, Sarah McLachlan, Dada, and Simple Minds.