Pretty on the outside

For many bands, the lasting image of a carefully coiffed hairdo in a music video has given them far more fame than their talents would otherwise have warranted (See Duran Duran. Or don't, actually). Yet there are others who have suffered a reverse fate: groups whose music is worthy of praise and critical reassessment -- but whose contributions have been slighted, or even ignored, simply because they emerged from the video era.

Perhaps no group's reputation has suffered more from this than the Go-Go's. Writing and playing their own material, the band combined elements of surf, punk, and shiny '60s pop to create a unique formula resulting in a string of hit singles and platinum albums. More important, they served as a catalyst, creating a template for modern girl guitar groups ranging from Luscious Jackson to Veruca Salt.

As Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins once noted, the Go-Go's were "not only a welcome breakthrough for new music but proof that an all-female band could make it big without a man pulling the strings and without resorting to an image grounded in male fantasy, be it sex kitten or tough leatherette." The Go-Go's were a living, breathing embodiment of girl power long before the Spice Girls turned the term into a cartoon tagline. Yet faded images of the band frolicking in a fountain or those portraying them as happy, tiara-wearing cuties on water skis are the ones most people are left with.

So as the decade draws to a close, the Go-Go's have reunited to tour once again. And although this is the third such reunion since their breakup some 14 years ago, it seems the band members have come to the same realization about their legacy and are eager to reclaim their small but crucial place in rock-and-roll history.

The band had its best chance five years ago, with the release of Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's. Although it was unfairly ignored when it came out in 1994, the two-CD retrospective is an insightful musical document tracing the history of the female pop pioneers. With 36 tracks spanning 15 years, Valley helps to explain the disparity between the Go-Go's broad musical identity and the one ingrained in the public consciousness. It's a situation that the group's original -- and somewhat limited -- discography (including a questionably chosen 1990 greatest-hits collection) was never able to correct.

Essentially, Valley stands as a kind of confirmation that before receiving the proverbial major-label makeover, the Go-Go's were genuine "blue haired punks" inhabiting the same decaying ground that was home to the late-'70s/early-'80s Los Angeles punk/New Wave movement. Even now it's hard to reconcile the band's later sound with the screeching, shambolic noise evidenced on early material like "Screaming," "Johnny Are You Queer?" and "Fun With Ropes."

Taken mostly from rehearsal tapes or live recordings from odd venues (including Palos Verdes High School and San Francisco's famed punk palace the Mabuhay Gardens), this early material finds the group struggling to fit into its tattered punk clothing. It would only be later, when the Go-Go's found a more suitable musical identity, that they would have their greatest impact. Still, it's hard to deny the charm of the band's more primitive efforts. Even if Go-Go's frontwoman Belinda Carlisle never had the dangerous punk essence of the Avengers' Penelope Houston, the group's confrontational humor and slash-and-burn musical ethos were very much in line with the sensibilities of their West Coast contemporaries.

The fact that the Go-Go's didn't seek to publicize their early punk roots (at one point they even shared a rehearsal space with L.A. proto-punkers X) at the time is understandable. Mall-dwelling teens and wannabe Valley girls didn't want to be told that their shiny pop princesses were borne of the same chaotic and notorious scene that spawned the Germs and the Zeroes.

Beyond simple stylistic concerns, the band was a new breed of female performers: self-sufficient writers and musicians who embodied the truest spirit of the feminist ideal. In the end, their greatest success was measured not in album sales or chart positions but by the fact that they had helped liberate their gender in the male-dominated field of rock and roll armed with only a Telecaster and a Fender amp.

While their influence within musical circles has not diminished, the tendency among the general public is to lump the Go-Go's in with a growing legion of '80s one-hit wonders currently cashing in on the wave of nostalgia for the era. The band's musical reputation hasn't been helped by the availability (or non-availability) of the bulk of their catalogue. That situation will soon be remedied as Universal (under the banner of its newly formed Chronicles imprint) is set to release remastered versions of Vacation and Talk Show.

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Bob Mehr

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