In a brazen display of multi-generational marketing, Paul Weller described Sound Affects as “a mixture between Revolver and Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall.” Valerie Siebert of The Quietus and I disagree:
As a matter of fact – and speaking strictly musically and not negatively – it’s arguably the least soulful Paul Weller record there is. Setting Sons would likely be up for the title if it weren’t for the casual inclusion of Vandella’s cover ‘Heatwave’ tacked on the end. But soul music, as a universal language, is probably the least offensive and least criticized form of pop. It does wade into political waters, but it’s never apocalyptic, aggressively confrontational and angry as tunes on this record are.
Perhaps Weller was engaging in a bit of prognostication, as the argument for a Michael Jackson connection is a bit stronger on The Jam’s final album, The Gift (though the soul on that album is more 60’s Motown than peak-period MJ). Siebert’s claim that post-punk bands like Joy Division and Gang of Four had a greater influence on Sound Affects than the King of Pop is much more plausible.
The influence of Revolver, on the other hand, is quite obvious, and Sound Affects generally maintains the connection to the mod-oriented rock played by The Jam on their two previous albums. You can find further evidence in support of that continuity on the 2010 Deluxe Edition, which features demos of The Beatles’ “Rain” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” The Kinks’ “Dead End Street” and “Waterloo Sunset,” and Small Faces’ “Get Yourself Together.” And as Ms. Siebert points out, Sound Affects is full of those delightful Wellerian bursts of righteous anger he displayed consistently on Setting Sons.
Sales pitch overreach aside, 1980 was a great year for Jam fans, who were not only treated to some great music but had the satisfaction of seeing their heroes rise to the upper reaches of the British charts. Early in the year, the twin single “Going Underground”/”Dreams of Children” became the band’s first #1 single; they’d top the charts again a few months later with the lead-in single “Start.” Sound Affects made it all the way to #2, blocked from reaching the summit by ABBA’s Super Trouper, 1980’s best-selling album in the U.K.
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I never got ABBA, have no plans to get ABBA and if I ever show any symptoms of ABBA, I will insist on a no resuscitation order.
Sound Affects opens with the song that the geniuses at Polydor wanted as the lead-in single, “Pretty Green.” I’m pretty sure that their thinking had something to do with the not inaccurate perception that the socio-cultural criticism featured in “Pretty Green” was “on brand,” consistent with the image the band had cultivated on All Mod Cons and Setting Sons. Stuck in their give-the-people-what-they-want mindset, they ignored the obvious flaw in “Pretty Green” that should have made it a non-starter—the song lacks a strong hook. Sure, “I’ve got a pocket full of pretty green” is repeated several times as the first line of the verses, but it’s neither a particularly catchy phrase nor a nugget of faux wisdom you can recall to wrap up a conversation, like “You can’t always get what you want” or, more to the point, “And what you give is what you get.” There are only two likely responses to someone who comes up to you and says, “Hey, guess what? I’ve got a pocket full of pretty green!”
- “Put your hands up.” Reaches into pocket and takes all the pretty green.
- “Good. Buy me a drink.”
“Pretty Green” is a strong album-opening song, reassuring fans that Weller hadn’t sold his soul to Thatcherism with his complete rejection of the money = power equation. That formula is one of the most basic assumptions in a capitalist society and Weller was right to call it into question. Why should immoral losers like Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have so much influence just because they made a lot of money? Why should inherited wealth give you more power than an artist who creates beauty or a nurse who cares for the sick or a social worker trying to address lingering social ills? Why the fuck are the Kardashians on television? “I’m going to be rich someday” is a profoundly pathetic desire, as all it confirms is that you’re a selfish asshole willing to sacrifice any sense of moral responsibility in the pursuit of purchasing power and/or influence.
Alas, it’s the way the game is played, and those who aren’t selfish or lack talent in the art of manipulation can look forward to a lifetime of feeding on trickle-down crumbs:
I’ve got a pocket full of pretty green
I’m gonna give it to the man behind the counter
He’s gonna give me food and water
I’m gonna eat that and look for more
This is the pretty green, this is society
You can’t do nothing, unless it’s in the pocket
“Pretty Green” may come across as an astonishingly simple song, but the simplest messages often contain more truth than the longest speeches, poems or novels:
And they didn’t teach me that in school
It’s something that I learnt on my own
That power is measured by the pound or the fist
It’s as clear as this
The most noticeable aspect of the music to “Pretty Green” (and the rest of the album) is the nod to “new wave” recording techniques, most apparent in the extra reverb applied to Rick Buckler’s drums and the removal of low-end frequencies from Bruce Foxton’s bass. Thankfully, the engineers didn’t go full 1980s on us, leaving the band’s essential power intact.
“Monday” feels like it could have fit nicely on The Kinks’ Something Else, a first-person narrative character sketch of a guy who’s sweet on a girl he met at work but lacks the confidence to do much about it, meekly living in the hope of seeing her again after a long, lonely weekend. Our hero has a touch of the poet in his soul, but as an introverted personality in a world that assumes that introverts don’t have much to offer, he suffers from low self-esteem that solidifies his introversion:
Tortured winds that blew me over
When I start to think that I’m something special
They tell me that I’m not
And they’re right and I’m glad and I’m not
I will never be embarrassed about that again.
The harmonies on the song reflect the baroque phase of rock circa 1966-1967 and Paul Weller’s piano fills are so George Martin that you can’t help but think “Revolver.”
Though I get where she’s coming from, I don’t entirely agree with Siebert’s identification of the similarities between “But I’m Different Now” and “Doctor Robert,” as the number of songs with two-chord riffs must be astronomical and The Jam are combining two straight chords (B/E) as opposed to Lennon’s more clever A7/Asus4 combination. I also don’t get the “modicum of soul influence” she heard—to me, this is The Jam kicking ass, end of discussion. This dramatic monologue creates interest through the implications in the lyrics rather than the lyrics themselves, as the story of a guy who admits he has “done some things that I never should have done, but I’m different now” sounds like the same old bullshit peddled by every wife-beater who ever lived. Though the meaning is ambiguous, the music is not—The Jam confirm their status as one of the tightest rock groups ever with a ripping lead guitar from Weller, thumping and nimble bass runs from Coxton and a thrilling performance from Buckler on skins and hi-hat.
The Jam keep bashing away in the anti-National Front rant “Set the House Ablaze,” a song I would recommend to the prosecutors who have been tasked with convicting the sick bastards who stormed the U. S. Capitol . . . but alas, the engineering crew didn’t do a very good job of isolating Paul Weller’s voice when he shifts to narrative delivery and most of his words are lost in the mayhem. Too bad, because you can make out the words “It has nothing to do with democracy” if you’re wearing headphones, but taking the time to pass out headphones to the jurors would kill prosecutorial momentum. Love the energy, ADORE the whistling, but you’d have to have the hearing acuity of a moth to understand all the lyrics.
Do you know where I learned that moths have the best hearing of any animal on the planet? Snapple bottle caps. I wonder what title they give to the person who comes up with those essential bits of knowledge. Man, I would love that job.
Placing my fantasy career goals aside for the moment, we will now consider “Start,” the song that beat out “Pretty Green” in the singles competition and shot to the toppermost of the poppermost. “Start” also messes with the classic formula by featuring a hook that is not part of the title, which probably led thousands of wannabe buyers to ask the record store clerk for a copy of “And What You Give Is What You Get.” Truly discerning buyers with a knowledge of music history would have dispensed with the lyrical reference and asked the clerk, “I want a copy of the new Jam record that sounds like ‘Taxman.'” The bass run is indeed lifted from the opening track to Revolver and both rhythm and lead guitar parts echo “Taxman” as well. The only possible explanation for the absence of a lawsuit is that George Harrison may have been in deep meditation during this period and wanted nothing to do with . . . the material world.
Despite the thievery, the song has an undeniable freshness about it, and the bass part was close enough to funk to please contemporary tastes. It also deals with a problem common to every human being on the planet: human communication. Having likely been subject to plenty of miscommunication even at the ripe old age of twenty-two, Weller sets a pretty low bar for success in this endeavor:
It’s not important for you to know my name –
Nor I to know yours
If we communicate for two minutes only
It will be enough
For knowing that someone in this world
Feels as desperate as me –
And what you give is what you get.
It doesn’t matter if we never meet again,
What we have said will always remain.
If we get through for two minutes only,
It will be a start!
I’m not sure if this is realism or sarcasm, but whatever it is, it works!
Side one ends with “That’s Entertainment,” a song Paul Weller wrote in ten minutes after getting pissed at a pub, pissed off by the damp on the walls of his flat and disgusted at the squalor of working-class neighborhoods in London:
A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing and stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment
A smash of glass and a rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped up ‘phone booth
Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat
Lights going out and a kick in the balls
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment
I really don’t get where Valerie Siebert was coming from when she described the song as “a piece of urban art in league with Banksy – about finding beauty in the little-noticed and sometimes maligned details of the grey mood and mundane routines of city life.” All six verses paint a pretty bleak picture of working-class existence—and though the last two verses depict displays of affection, the environment is far from romantic:
Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment
Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude
Getting a cab and traveling on buses
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment
I don’t think “wishing you were far away” qualifies as “finding beauty,” and I find that characterization rather condescending, in my always-humble opinion. Critical disagreement aside, I think “That’s Entertainment” contains some of Paul Weller’s best poetry. The language is a deliberate assault on the senses—you can smell the petrol, hear the shattering of glass, and feel the cold rain—but I think the intent behind the imagery was to inspire the listener to say “Enough!” and do something about the sorry state of lower-class existence. The music is ironically light, the harmonies providing stark contrast to Weller’s tone of disgust (and features a bit of backward guitar to remind us again of the Revolver influence).
Our success at knowing how to flip a disc to side two is confirmed immediately by the backward guitar and choral overture that create the dreamscape that opens “Dream Time.” Since this is Paul Weller’s dream, the serene passage to REM sleep ends in a burst of electric guitar, bass and drums. We find Paul in that all-too-familiar dream state where you try to run from some sort of danger but the wires get crossed in your brain so you try to move your real legs, but HEY STUPID, YOU CAN’T RUN IN YOUR BED! With his feet “glued” and tongue tied, our hero is unable to escape from a superficially pleasant experience beneath which lurks . . . danger!
I saw the lights and the pretty girls
And I thought to myself what a pretty world
But there’s something else here that puts me off
And I’m so scared dear, my love comes in frozen packs
Bought in a supermarket
I have no idea what the “frozen packs” are, but if they have any connection to my favorite part of the male anatomy, Paul is in a heap of trouble.
Things get worse as he runs “through wind and rain, around this place amongst streaming sunshine,” then gets all sweaty-and-yuck while his “bowels turn to water.” Soon he feels “hot breath whisper in my ear,” and the dreamscape changes to Vandella-land where there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He tries closing his eyes but “This feeling’s much too real to ever disappear.” In response to the horror around him, he starts to chant a sort of mantra: “But it’s a tough, tough world and you’ve got to be tough with it.” That mantra tells me that the dream is no dream at all, but the fake “pretty world” of daily existence, which can be a very scary place indeed. “Dream Time” is an unusual song but I have to give Weller tons of credit for re-creating a nightmare world that many of us have experienced as our brains try to process the confusing messages we get from real life.
Before I get to the meat of the very Kinks-like “Man in the Corner Shop,” I’d like to express my deepest appreciation for Bruce Foxton’s outstanding bass part, a masterful mix of melodic counterpart and rhythmic thrust, a “side” contribution that is so damned good that I often tune out the rest of the song to focus solely on what Bruce is up to (kinda like what I do when I tune out the motley crew on early ELO records and just listen to Bev Bevan’s drum parts). This one is right at the top of the list of favorite bass parts along with Entwistle’s performance on “The Real Me.”
As for the song that Bruce supports, it’s a 60’s baroque pop number that features the signature sound of a Rickenbacker, vocals spiced with splashes of harmony and a nice, easy beat. The lyrics deal with class distinction, particularly the endless desire to raise one’s status no matter how high up you are on the human food chain. The guy at the factory envies the guy who owns the corner shop because he gets to be his own boss; the guy at the corner shop sells cigars to the factory guy’s boss who isn’t satisfied with low-level supervision and wants to own a factory someday. All involved are reassured and given hope via the sacred notion that “God created all men equal,” which the characters take to mean that they have a legitimate shot at rising to a status higher than someone else. “Man in the Corner Shop” is a brilliant and succinct indictment of a system that claims to support equality but instead instills the desire to one-up the competition.
I have no idea what the boys were thinking with the largely instrumental “Music for the Last Couple,” but it doesn’t seem to me like they weren’t thinking at all. The song feels out of place musically and thematically, sort of like a primitive version of off-night Devo. Skip it and move on to “Boy About Town,” a bouncy little number with a nifty horn arrangement about a boy who desires to go with the flow of life rather than trying “to be somebody,” rather like John Lennon in “I’m Only Sleeping.” But while Lennon luxuriates in privacy, this boy has to deal with the crowds who view his fancies with utter disdain:
Oh like paper caught in wind
I glide upstreet, I glide downstreet
Oh and it won’t let you go
‘Til you finally come to rest and someone picks you up
Upstreet downstreet and puts you in the bin
The boy responds with similar disdain, reflecting Lennon’s take on the insanity of modern existence: “Everybody seems to think I’m lazy/I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy/Running everywhere at such a speed/’Till they find there’s no need”:
Oh I’m sitting watching rainbows
Sitting here watching the people go crazy
Oh please leave me aside
I want to do what I want to do and
I want to live how I want to live
Let me say right here that the obvious echoes of Revolver in Sound Affects don’t bother me in the least. Revolver was a great album that should have spawned dozens of Revolvers. Kudos to The Jam for absorbing that influence, refusing to apologize for it and offering a fresh take on mid-60’s pop rock.
Sound Affects does not end with anything resembling “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but a vigorous defense of idealism and hope combined with an equally vigorous attack on the cynical attitude pedaled by John Lydon of Sex Pistols fame. The dark soundscape of “Scrape Away” is marked by an ominous bass riff from Foxton and excellent rhythmic management from Buckler, who punctuates the song’s stuttery beats with plenty of rim shots. In a tone that brooks no denial, Weller condemns those who believe life is a Dantean hell and live by the motto, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Your twisted cynicism – makes me feel sick –
Your open disgust for ‘Idealistic naive’
You’ve given up hope you’re jaded and ill
The trouble is your thought’s a catching disease . . .
What makes once young minds get in this state
Is it age or just the social climate
You’re talking like some fucking hardened MP
You’re saying power’s all!
And it’s power you NEED!
The fade features the voice of one Laurent Locher, bass player of Les Lords, a band of punks-turned-mods from Caen who drew a bit of attention during their brief existence but never really caught fire in La Belle France (or anywhere else, for that matter). Weller brought Locher into the fold to translate the last two lines quoted above into French: “La puissance c’est tout, c’est la puissance dont tu as besoin.” Though it sounds like something Louis XIV could have come up with, I could find no evidence to connect the quote to anyone other than Paul Weller. While some may consider “Scrape Away” kind of a downer ending, I think calling bullshit on cynicism is a beautiful thing indeed.
Sound Affects marked the end of Paul Weller’s love affair with mid-60’s rock. The Gift features a more eclectic approach involving multiple styles, including funk, soul and splashes of jazz. The album found favor with the listening public and became the only Jam album to reach #1. I have no plans to review The Gift because to me it sounds squishy, like most ’80s music . . . squishy like The Police . . . like U2 . . . like mid-stage Elvis Costello and a host of others. The Jam of All Mod Cons, Setting Sons and Sound Affects was the antithesis of squishy—powerful, intentional, exceptionally tight and noticeably spirited.
That’s The Jam I choose to remember, and I don’t want anything or anyone to mess with that memory.
Based on faint signals from the endless stream of subliminal chatter that makes up most of the 21st-century information deluge, I discerned that something was going on with The Go-Go’s.
First, a musical featuring their songs (Head Over Heels) opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. A “farewell tour” (yeah, right) followed quickly thereafter in 2016. This was followed by a performance in 2018 in support of the announcement that Head Over Heels had made the great leap and would soon appear on Broadway. A documentary about the band appeared on the screens of Sundance right before the pandemic hit earlier this year (now available on Showtime and quoted extensively in this review). Though COVID-19 scuttled any plans for an oxymoronic farewell tour sequel, the band has optimistically rescheduled the concerts for 2021. Then, completely out of the blue, The Go-Go’s released their first new single in nineteen years on July 31, 2020 (lifted from the documentary).
The marketing side of me couldn’t figure what all this activity was about. It looked like your classic partially-planned, partially-serendipitous publicity campaign, but to what end? If the master plan was to build some buzz for a future on the casino circuit, it seemed like overkill. What were these girls up to?
The fog cleared through a piece that appeared on Spin just a few days before I started writing this review: “Dear Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Induct the Go-Go’s Already.” I then traveled back in time and found an article on LGBTQ Nation (written by one James Duke Mason, who happens to be Belinda Carlisle’s son) that celebrated the documentary and bemoaned the Go-Go’s exclusion from the Hall: “The glaring omission of the Go-Go’s in the 2020 list of inductees to the RRHOF is a testament to the institution’s irrelevancy.” There seems to be a burgeoning groundswell of support on behalf of The Go-Go’s—there’s a Facebook page promoting their candidacy, while Gold Derby, a site that publishes odds on the major American entertainment awards, identified the group as favorites for the honor in 2021.
Having long believed that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was as irrelevant as irrelevant gets, I found it hard to believe that anyone would invest the slightest bit of energy into a campaign to gain entrance to such a thoroughly corrupt institution. I hope the Go-Go’s get the call and tell the Hall they can shove the award where the sun don’t shine.
That won’t happen because The Go-Go’s are a group of Second Wave feminists who fought for inclusion within the current system and not Third Wave feminists who advocated revolution against the patriarchy (Belinda Carlisle made this very clear in the documentary). Second Wave feminists (like Hillary) wanted to prove that “anything men can do we can do.” The Go-Go’s did that with Beauty and the Beat: the first album by an all-girl band who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs to top the charts (for six weeks, no less).
Let me be clear: that was a big deal. There wouldn’t have been a Third Wave if it weren’t for the women who had the courage and patience to break the endless maze of glass ceilings that constitute the patriarchal structure. The Go-Go’s proved that girls could do it, inspiring an entire generation of women to fulfill their potential in the field of music. Kathleen Hanna said it best: “As a young girl, going into a space where women own the stage, and own it unapologetically, like they were born to be there — to me it represented a moment of possibility.” There is no question that the female rockers who followed the Go-Go’s owe them a debt of gratitude; ergo, they qualify for induction under the loosey-goosey standards set by the Hall itself: “Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” I happen to think that clearing the way for more than half the human population was pretty damned significant.
The argument against their induction is the simple truth that they didn’t last that long—after three studio albums marked by declining sales, the group splintered. Part of it was the usual stuff—drugs, alcohol, internal conflicts, the usual downsides of fame—but they also facilitated their own destruction by buying into “common industry wisdom” and refusing to move on from the formula that led to their breakthrough. Replacing the intensely dedicated Ginger Canzoneri with an “executive management team” was certainly a no-win deal with the devil; even worse was the rigidity of the other band members in denying Jane Wiedlin’s request to sing one of her own songs on Talk Show because they couldn’t get their heads around someone other than Belinda Carlisle doing the lead vocals (?!). This short-sighted decision led to Jane’s departure and a full collapse shortly thereafter. Their insistence on continuing to call the same old plays in the playbook with the same old players tells me they wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway—bands that fail to grow rarely last, and if they do, they find themselves playing to a shrinking fan base.
But hey, if Del Shannon (a two-and-a-half hit wonder) could make the Hall, so should the Go-Go’s.
It’s important to note that the criteria cited above contains no reference whatsoever to the quality of the music. So, if a shit band captures the hearts of the mindless masses, sells tons of records and spawns a slew of shit-band imitators, Shit Band #1 belongs in the Hall.
Though it won’t have much influence on their chances of successfully completing their quest for enshrinement in the hallowed halls of Cleveland, I shall now proceed to my evaluation of the quality of Go-Go’s music based on the evidence provided by their most popular and most highly-acclaimed work—their debut album Beauty and the Beat.
The Go-Go’s began life in the highly active, exceptionally inclusive and DIY-supportive L.A. punk scene of the late ’70s. “Anybody could do whatever they wanted—it was total freedom,” remembered Belinda Carlisle. The original members had very little in the way of musical experience or training, and though adding Charlotte Caffey to the lineup gave them a member with some classical piano education, Charlotte had been drawn to the punk scene in defiance of that education: “All this music theory, rules, had to be thrown out the window.”
As the band gelled and developed more confidence, they replaced their original DIY drummer with Gina Schock, who not only had a great punk name but had worked hard to shape herself into a solid rock drummer and expected her new band pals to adopt an equally strenuous work ethic (“It doesn’t hurt to rehearse, it only makes you tighter”). Eventually the Go-Go’s became the house band at the Whisky a Go Go, where they connected with the English ska/punk bands Madness and The Specials, leading to a U. K. tour that served as their Hamburg experience. They left the Mother Country a much tighter band with a low-budget single on a British indie label (“We Got the Beat”) that garnered some L. A. radio airplay. At the height of their local success, they once again emulated The Beatles by making a controversial change in the lineup, replacing bassist and punk devotee Margot Olavarria with one Kathy Valentine, a guitarist with no experience on the bass (a condition Ms. Valentine quickly corrected by going on an extended coke binge and immersing herself in the band’s lo-fi demo tape). The change coincided with a gradual but steady turn towards more pop-oriented tunes. While that shift did not sit particularly well with the punk purists, the Go-Go’s were determined to broaden their appeal in order to secure a big label recording contract.
Despite the growing buzz, the major labels, having learned nothing from the infamous Decca-Beatles fiasco, unanimously decided that “All-girl bands just don’t sell records” and left the Go-Go’s out in the cold. When a paradigm is stuck in neutral, only an outsider can shake things up; fortunately for the Go-Go’s, they found one in Miles Copeland III, manager of The Police and brother of drummer Stewart Copeland, who had co-founded I. R. S. records with the intention of signing cutting-edge, boundary-pushing artists.
What qualified the Go-Go’s as boundary-pushers may appear to have more to do with their essential dicklessness than their music. Anybody can listen to the Go-Go’s and pick out the obvious influences (punk, British Invasion, 60’s girl groups and surf music), recall their DIY origins and understandably assume that Go-Go’s compositions are simple, derivative efforts. Your average anybody could then plop his ass in front of the stereo, experience the music going down nice and easy and say, “Yep, pretty simple stuff.”
Hand that anybody a guitar and ask him to play along with “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep” and “This Town,” and I guarantee you that in a couple of minutes his fingers will be tied up in knots as he shouts, “What the fuck?”
Although the Go-Go’s made it sound easy, you have to look under the hood to appreciate the complexity of their music and rhythms. Some of their chord patterns would have thrown Mozart for a loop, and even when a song calls for very simple chording, they instinctively knew how to manipulate time and rhythmic expectations to create all kinds of surprises. Though producer Richard Gottehrer successfully coaxed them into slowing some of the high-speed punk tempos they used when playing live, several of the songs on the album are still pretty damned fast, making for some high-quality chord change practice if you’re up to it.
Once Gottehrer taught them the basics of recording, the Go-Go’s developed a signature sound that was bright and tight, the result of a rock-solid rhythm section and well-executed vocals. On Beauty and the Beat they convey infectious energy, not unlike the more harmonic bands of the Invasion. In contrast to the glaring pomposity and deadening overproduction you hear on the supergroup monstrosity Asia (the only album to outsell Beauty and the Beat in 1982), the Go-Go’s come across as girls who are having the time of their lives and want you to join in the fun. What is very clear from listening to Beauty and the Beat is that the Go-Go’s believed in themselves and their ability to beat the guys at their own game.
Beauty and the Beat lives up to the album name with the introduction to “Our Lips Are Sealed,” featuring the sound of Gina Schock’s steady drumbeat (a greeting that will be used to kick off a third of the songs on the album). Jane Wiedlin helps strengthen the beat with her contrasting eighth-note attack on rhythm guitar, followed by the sweeter texture of Charlotte Caffey’s guitar arpeggio, which in turn cues Kathy Valentine to enter the fray with her thumping bass. Kathy’s entry is somewhat dampened by the simultaneous appearance of a synthesizer, a superfluous addition that serves two purposes: 1.) to let future audiences know that the record was produced in the synthesizer-crazed ’80s and 2.) to give idiotic critics like Stephen Thomas Erlewine an excuse to attach the fake genre label “new wave” to Go-Go’s music. I find the synth annoying as fuck and would have preferred more open space to highlight Kathy’s marvelous picking.
My pique is mollified by Belinda Carlisle’s attitude-laden soprano, delivered in a girlish tone of slight cockiness that reminds me of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las but with a more melodic quality. The connection with the girl group era is further strengthened with the inclusion of the line, “It doesn’t matter what they say,” a rather prominent piece of lyric in The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You.” It’s important to note the lyrics were written by Jane Wiedlin’s temporary love interest, Terry Hall of The Specials and Fun Boy Three, who mailed Jane the lyrics from the U. K. and asked her to tweak them and come up with the music. Not knowing any better (translation: not having been subjected to classical music theory), Jane came up with a chord combination that makes no sense whatsoever but works like a charm—that out of place A# chord and her subtle departures from the A major scale really enrich the listening experience (as does Jane’s sanctioned lead vocal moment on the arpeggiated intermission).
The lyrics, based on Jane-and-Terry’s somewhat illicit relationship (he had a girl on the side), essentially renew the time-tested rock ‘n’ roll story of facing down the [fill-in-the-blank] (parents, friends, teachers, clergy) who frown upon one’s choice of steady squeeze. Rather than giving into dad (“Leader of the Pack”) or taking a posture of sultry defiance (“Baby It’s You”), Jane and Terry conclude that the best option is to “pay no mind to what they say,” shut the fuck up and enjoy what you have. As a woman who has had more non-standard relationships than most, I heartily endorse this advice.
The ladies harmonized exceptionally well on “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but they take it up a notch on the bouncy British Invasion tune, “How Much More.” Though the chord structures and harmonies recall the sweeter upbeat songs of the invasion, Gina Schock’s near-punk-speed drumming would have blown the Brits to smithereens—just compare her thumping toms on the chorus to Dave Clark’s chorus work on “Glad All Over” and you’ll have to admit it’s Gina by a landslide. Belinda imbues the lead vocal with sweet sincerity and power while the guitarists provide gorgeous three-part harmony support on the verses and richer four-part harmony on the chorus. The only thing I’m puzzled about is why “How Much More” wasn’t one of the singles—it’s a great tune that can change my mood from sourpuss to sweetness-and-light-and-strawberries-and-cream in a heartbeat.
“Tonite” doesn’t quite turn me back into a grump, but I find the rhythms rather clunky and the connection between Gina’s drums and Jane’s rhythm guitar out of whack. Party songs in minor keys generally don’t work unless you’re providing background music for the wake of a person everybody despised. One could say that the carpe diem lyrics foreshadow one of the major causes of the Go-Go’s relatively speedy decline:
There’s no one
To stand in our way
Get dressed up
And messed up
Blow our cares away
I don’t think the use of the word “blow” here was an accident on the part of the Caffey-Wiedlin-Peter Case songwriting team. Cocaine is right up there with cheesy synthesizers on the list of “Things I Will Never Understand About the Eighties.”
“Lust to Love” involves an important evolutionary step in women’s history—the era of unbridled lust that followed the delightful realization that The Pill was not just about birth control but about women gaining the right to fuck whoever they wanted to fuck whenever they wanted to fuck. Hooray! We can use guys as sex objects just like they used us! Yay, freedom!
The thing is . . . unless we’re talking about a woman with strong dominant tendencies possessed with the discipline and desire to control wayward emotions AND a male partner who seriously and sincerely gets off when she dominates with intentional coldness and distance . . . you’re going to run into a problem common in the fairer sex. Women generally have an ample reserve emotional intelligence and there’s nothing that gets in the way of objectifying a sex partner as thoroughly as empathy . . . or worse, feelings of tenderness towards the intended object. That’s the dilemma facing Belinda Carlisle’s character in “Lust for Love,” and man, is she pissed off about it:
It used to be fun was in
The capture and kill
In another place and time
I did it all for thrills
“Love me and I’ll leave you”
I told you at the start
I had no idea that you
Would tear my world apart
And you’re the one to blame
I used to know my name
But I’ve lost control of the game
Cause even though I set the rules
You’ve got me acting like a fool
When I see you I lose my cool
I love the drama of the song—the open space featuring only Belinda, pizzicato guitar and (later) ominous tom from Gina recall some of the Shangri-Las more dramatic moments.
I have no evidence to support the hypothesis that Jane Wiedlin was referring to Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” when she wrote “Change the lines that were said before/We’re all dreamers, we’re all whores,” but my Irish grandmother used to read me that poem when I was a wee lass and dammit, this is my blog and I’ll cite lines from my favorite poems whenever I fucking feel like it:
We are the music makers,And we are the dreamers of dreams,Wandering by lone sea-breakers,And sitting by desolate streams; —World-losers and world-forsakers,On whom the pale moon gleams:Yet we are the movers and shakersOf the world for ever, it seems.
Whatever her reference point, it’s pretty clear that Jane was thinking about Los Angeles, but her experience there spawned a different take:
Change the lines that were said before
We’re all dreamers – we’re all whores
Like worn out cars
Litter the streets of this town
Litter the streets of this town
This town is our town
It is so glamorous
Bet you’d live here if you could
And be one of us
In other words, stay the hell away from the City of Angels.
The song is noted for its abrupt time signature switch—three measures of 4/4 followed by a single measure of 2/4—executed perfectly by the band. However, there’s a lot to love about this piece—Belinda’s clean and clear vocal, delivered in a tone of slightly bitter cynicism, marked by pauses of varying length as she spits out the words “this town”; the spot harmonies that appear throughout; and Charlotte Caffey’s fabulous lead guitar work that lies somewhere between surf and secret agent. Two minor key songs in a row can be kind of a downer, but the combination of “Lust to Love” and “This Town” confirm the notion that the Go-Go’s were a group of very talented women willing to break both societal expectations and musical norms.
Side Two opens with their well-known anthem, “We Got the Beat.” I expect I’ll get the same kind of flak from commentators that I received when I pronounced the B-52’s “Love Shack” one helluva song—something along the lines of “I can’t stand this song—the DJ’s played it to death!” Well, tough titties, folks, because I think the Go-Go’s nailed this one and it fully deserves its status as a timeless rock classic. Belinda’s vocal is even more girlish as she moves to the upper part of her range, but the unique quality of her voice is perfect for this kind of song (and her status as an ex-cheeleader certainly helped on the “YEAH!”). Charlotte strengthens her cred as a great surf guitarist while Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin wisely avoid the tendency to overplay their rhythmic parts, delivering a strong, danceable beat with just the right amount of punctuation. The stop-time-let’s-all-clap-and-do-the-fucking-Watusi part is a perfectly executed crowd-pleaser.
I do have one nit to pick regarding both “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Both songs are tuned to different pitches, so if you follow the published chord patterns, your opening A chord is going to sound bloody awful. I don’t mind “We Got the Beat” as much because the guitars are tuned a half-step higher, so all you have to do is slip a capo on the first fret and you’re good to go. Unfortunately, you have to tune down a half-step for “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which is a pain in the ass, especially if you don’t have locking tuners and you have a cheap-ass Strat like mine that goes fucking crazy whenever I try to use alternate tunings.
You’re welcome for the PSA.
“Fading Fast” is a good cool-down song after the heat of “We Got the Beat,” a song where Belinda Carlisle rises above the pedestrian you-lied-you-bastard lyrics and delivers a rich vocal that manages to express both the ragged feelings of relational exhaustion and a deep inner conviction that she’s strong enough to withstand the loss of this loser. I also love how Kathy Valentine’s bass plays a more prominent role in the mix, as she always manages to fulfill the rhythmic support role while finding opportunities for harmonic enhancement. Hmm. Now that I think of it, the two best bass players I know personally were both ex-lead guitarists, so maybe that’s where you should look if your band is suffering from the all-too-common Flaky Bass Player Syndrome.
I think I’m the only person I know whose favorite song on Beauty and the Beat isn’t “We Got the Beat” or even “Our Lips Are Sealed” but the third and only non-charting single from the album, “Automatic.” With its dark tones, Charlotte’s sinuous minor-key guitar riff and sudden bursts of silence, it’s the perfect dramatic vehicle for Belinda to nail her audition for a spot in the 1920’s Berlin cabaret show. Her deliberately mechanical clipping of the syllables (aut-o-mat-ic-ic-ic) reflects the values of the modernistic thread in Bauhaus whether she was aware of it or not. Given the cinematic possibilities of the song, I was surprised that they didn’t produce a supporting video with Belinda in drag, surrounded by smoke, performing for an audience of gender-flexible guests. I think the Go-Go’s could have used an erotically sophisticated video to offset the girls-having-fun routine on the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video and thereby earn some cred with the artistic types.
The Go-Go’s opted for the Bo Diddley beat for “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (When You Can’t Sleep),” but their performance here feels more obligatory than fully invested. The primary value of the song is to confirm my deep suspicion of songs with unnecessary long titles. I think they began with a decent concept on “Skidmarks on My Heart” (men loving their cars more than their girls) but their fascination with the concept led to metaphoric diarrhea that gets quite tiresome in short order.
As they approached the finish line, the Go-Go’s found themselves short one song. Richard Gottehrer recommended they shy away from their standard playlist and perhaps consider doing a cover song. The ladies weren’t too keen on that option, and rightly so—a cover song would have eliminated the concept of an all-girl album filled with songs written (or co-written) by the girls themselves. Fortunately for posterity, Kathy Valentine offered up a song she had written when she first moved to L. A. (the first song she had ever written) and her bandmates jumped at the chance to record it.
Given the three-year space between Kathy composing the song and its unexpected emergence in the studio, it’s amazing how the song perfectly captures both the obstacles the Go-Go’s faced and the determination to overcome anything and everything that stood in their way. According to Songfacts, “She was living in a ramshackle apartment with dim prospects when she took out the guitar and came up with the song, which is about not giving up.” Set to an exuberant high-speed beat peppered with syncopated thrusts, “Can’t Stop the World” is also a melodic-harmonic Invasion-oriented delight. Belinda gives us one of her strongest vocals and the band plays and sings with genuine enthusiasm. The enthusiasm is understandable, as they all had to deal with the unique difficulties women face in trying to define themselves in a society that would prefer to limit women to a predictable, supportive role—difficulties of both internal and external origin that Kathy described so effectively in the song:
I gave up looking for a reason
To live with things just the way they were
I came around
Used to be easy to get to
So they got to me just about every way
Caught with no cards up your sleeve
Not much to choose from
Grew up all along just thinking that you couldn’t lose
Don’t want to live without that security
You think that with a little bit more you’ll be alright
Can’t stop the world
Can’t stop the world
Can’t stop the world
Why let it stop you
Why let it stop you
Why let it stop you
While “We Got the Beat” may be the anthem for the fans, “Can’t Stop the World” does a much better job expressing what the Go-Go’s were all about. They had come to a point in their lives when they weren’t about to let anyone or anything stop them—not the men, not tradition, and certainly not the classic female struggle with self-doubt.
Though Beauty and the Beat was a slow bloomer, taking seven months to reach the top of the charts, the Go-Go’s eventually pulled off the miracle. It may have been only one moment in time, but it was a vitally important moment for women and for music in general—greater inclusion meant greater diversity and different perspectives on music. And while I admit I don’t think the honor is all it’s cracked up to be, the Hall is pretty much all we’ve got in the way of recognizing such significant contributions to music, so I’ll be very happy if the Go-Go’s finally get the recognition they deserve.