The bad news: During my research of Call the Doctor I encountered several reviews written by men that I found quite annoying and two in particular that I found absolutely infuriating.
The best news: I can blame my fury on my father! Suck it up, Dad!
The story begins long, long ago in the midst of the Nixon-Ford recession in a small flat bordering the Mission District and Noe Valley, where my parents were completing their tax returns at a small kitchen table they’d found at a yard sale. Due to the collapsing job market, my father had only managed to turn his MSW into a half-time job with the City while my mother had become an early gig worker, taking on several short-term language translation assignments. When my father totaled up their incomes, he was dismayed to find out that his wife made more money than he did—and even more dismayed that it bothered him.
Since my parents agreed to never keep secrets from one another, he shared his feelings with my mother. “Get over it,” she advised. “But how do I do that?” “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” Her response may seem flippant, but she felt strongly that she was not in a position to cure him of his sexism. He had a problem with all women; working things out with just one woman wouldn’t address the underlying issues.
He read some feminist literature but nothing that really pierced his heart and soul. Sometime during this period, he heard about a course in Women’s Studies at San Francisco State, one of the very few courses on the topic available back then. Not wanting to go through the whole admissions process, he decided he would unofficially audit the class and hope that the professor wouldn’t notice.
He really didn’t need to worry. Except for a couple of sneers on the first day of class, the professor and his fellow students—all women—completely ignored him. At no point during the semester did anyone in the class speak to him, ask him a question or acknowledge his existence. As far as they were concerned, he was a non-person. Every week for sixteen weeks he caught a Muni bus to SF State, slipped into one of the chairs in the back of the class and sat there in virtual isolation. I asked Dad to summarize his experience for me in an e-mail:
“The atmosphere wasn’t just charged. It was like the aftermath of an earthquake and I was surrounded by crackling power lines. There were about thirty women in the room and their collective anger was off the charts. The professor ran the class as if it were group therapy, which was a good call on her part because those women needed to vent and no power on earth was going to stop them. There was very little in the way of formal teaching; either the professor or a student would raise an issue from one of the readings or bring up something that happened in the news and for the next hour it was barely controlled chaos. Everybody had an opinion and they expressed those opinions with force and rage. Most of their anger was directed at men, so yeah, it was very uncomfortable, but it was kind of like the penance I had to go through to get my head straight (once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I guess). Since as far as they were concerned I didn’t exist, all I could do is just shut up and listen. I finally came to understand the extent of the oppression women experience every day, how that oppression feels, the pain in being less than a person and how I had taken advantage of my entitlement as a man in dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The stories they told were deeply personal, so it was impossible to lump them all together and demean their experience by putting it into a convenient category. But the thing I remember most is the anger. It wasn’t irrational anger but rightfully held anger. I had to work really hard to not get defensive or take their anger personally and really listen to their stories so I could face what I had done to fuel similar anger in the women in my life. Listening to those women was a cleansing experience like no other: a cleansing experience where you use Lava soap on the skin, under the skin and into the soul. Man, there was a lot of bullshit in there I had to clean out.”
Confirmation that my father’s enlightenment was permanent came later from my high school girlfriends, who would ask me, “How come your dad isn’t an asshole like all the other fathers?” Those other dads treated teenage girls like tempting jail bait or dumb shits who weren’t worth the time and trouble. My dad talked to them the way he always talked to me—like an adult. He engaged them in conversation, took their opinions seriously and never came close to expressing anything in the vein of “you’ll grow up someday and see things differently.” His experience had made him aware that women go through their whole lives having to deal with men who feel they have the god-given right to dismiss what women have to say, so he did what he could to make each of my girlfriends feel that they mattered.
Moving on to compare-and-contrast, allow me to share a couple of snippets from the criticism that pissed me off. The first comes from Jason Ankeny of AllMusic:
Sleater-Kinney’s masterful sophomore effort Call the Doctor fulfills all the promise of the group’s debut and more, forging taut melodicism and jaw-dropping sonic complexity out of barbed-wire emotional potency. The emergence of Carrie Brownstein as an equal shareholder in Corin Tucker’s vision is the key — her four contributions (particularly “Stay Where You Are” and “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”) are stellar, while her harmonies complete Tucker’s equally superb lead turns by reading between the lines to verbalize the naked aggression at the core of the songs’ polemic power. Forget the riot grrrl implications inherent in the trio’s music — Call the Doctor is pure, undiluted punk, and it’s brilliant.
Translation: Pay no attention to their hopeless effort to dismantle the patriarchy or the ludicrous attempt to achieve true equality, because we all know it ain’t going to happen. Instead, enjoy the meaningless drivel I’ve written that offers no insight whatsoever but reflects my sacred entitlement as a man to come up with clever and empty phrases like “taut melodicism” and “jaw-dropping sonic complexity” and get paid for it!
The second comes from a retrospective review from Tom Breihand of Stereogum:
More important than all that, though, it’s the first album that really captured Sleater-Kinney’s full fury. If you were so inclined, you could hear the band’s entire career as the slow refinement of what Tucker did on Call The Doctor . . . hearing Call The Doctor for the first time, it was clear that Tucker was the force powering this whole enterprise, at least early on. Her second “damn you!” on the intro of the breakneck “Little Mouth” might still be the single most vital moment in the band’s entire career.
Translation: You can save yourself a lot of time and energy and learn everything you need to know about Sleater-Kinney by ignoring Carrie Brownstein and playing a two-second clip of Corin Tucker almost kinda sorta swearing. Play the clip for your friends and dazzle them with your supernatural insight! And don’t forget to give me credit for my ability to distill an entire body of work into two tiny words! Female fury! The ultimate in titillation!
There’s a word on the tip of my tongue, damn it . . . ah, there it is. . . blockheads. Both of these guys thought that because they identified female anger that they understood female anger. The truth is they felt so uncomfortable with female anger that they either had to redefine it (Ankeny) or turn it into a sound byte (Breihand). They can hide behind “critical detachment” all they want, but in doing so they trivialize the messages in the music, displaying that special arrogance of the entitled male that allows him to ignore anything and everything a woman has to say. I’ve yet to read a review of any Sleater-Kinney album written by a man where the writer pushes past that discomfort and engages in even the slightest bit of introspection concerning their role in propagating female oppression—and that really pisses me off.
Just my luck to wind up with an enlightened father who imbued me with unreasonably high standards for male behavior.
Dad, it’s all your fault! Damn you!
As both Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were playing in other bands at the time, Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous debut album was more of a side project than a full-on artistic commitment. After those other bands decided to call it a day, Sleater-Kinney became the pair’s primary artistic outlet, making Call the Doctor their first “real” album. The drums on the album were handled by a talented Australian multi-instrumentalist by the name of Laura (sometimes Lora) Macfarlane, who also played guitar on one track and contributed a few vocals. While Macfarlane’s drumming on Call the Doctor was adequate, the truth was she needed more room to display her diverse talents and Sleater-Kinney needed a drummer with a broader repertoire of chops. Macfarlane would leave the band immediately after the recording and go on to lead the indie band ninetynine (no caps), giving Corin and Carrie the opportunity to bring the supremely talented Janet Weiss into the fold.
The band on Call the Doctor reflects the punk stylings of many a riot grrrl band, relying heavily on raw energy to get their message across. The sound is somewhat rougher than what you hear on Dig Me Out, but the sense of urgency and excitement generally compensates for the lack of polish. What separated Sleater-Kinney from the punks and other riot grrrl bands was the mind meld that developed between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein that spawned their innovative approach to guitar and vocals:
Despite the no-frills approach to recording, the songwriting on Call the Doctor brought in characteristics that came to define our sound. On the title track, Corin and I each sang a melody on the chorus. She was louder than me, so her vocal was the lead by default, but we never really considered one a background part to the other. It was a conversation we were having: she had her perspective and I had mine. Or I was emphasizing her point, retelling it even as I was singing along with her. And our guitars did the same thing, augmenting and counteracting each other. We would get to the chorus, and intuitively you’d think this is the time for us to all sing together, that there should be a cohesion, but instead we would split apart. It was almost an anti-chorus. We weren’t trying to form a solidarity with anyone but ourselves. Could you sing along to Sleater-Kinney? Sometimes. But we’d just as likely shout over you. And good luck trying to sing along with Corin. Trust me, I know. It’s nearly impossible. As a listener you have to decide what to follow in the song, which vocal, which guitar.
This way of writing and of singing was something we tacitly understood. We never discussed it; we never mentioned countermelodies. We didn’t want to sing harmonies. Our songs weren’t pretty, nor was our style of singing. It sounded scarier to not sing together, rarely allowing the listener to settle into the music. Everything inside the songs was constantly on the verge of breaking apart—Corin’s voice, the narrative, the guitars, so few moments provided any respite at all. If we did sing together on the chorus, it was only after a strange, uncomfortable verse. Yet the result was forceful; it sounded like a tightly bound entity, fragments clinging to each other for dear life—if you pulled one thing apart, it wouldn’t even sound like a real song. It was a junkyard come to life.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (pp. 107-108). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Later in that chapter, Carrie described the experience of listening to the playback of the entire album for the first time as “it felt like anthems we’d written for ourselves.” Retrospective reviews of Call the Doctor tend to overrate the album (as retrospective reviews often do); like many a maiden effort, Call the Doctor is a mix of strong and weak material, just as one would expect from a band still in search of an identity. “Call the Doctor was not our best record, but it was the last one written before any sense of external identity or pressure,” wrote Carrie. That freedom from expectations allowed them to establish the fundamental components of what would become their signature sound, so in that sense, Call the Doctor has to be qualified as a successful effort.
“Call the Doctor,” with its non-standard structure of Verse Form A1-Verse Form B1-Verse Form A2-Verse Form B2-Chorus-Verse Form B3, is most anthemic in Verse Form A, where Corin addresses the systemic threats. The opening verse (A1) certainly draws distinct battle lines in the struggle against a patriarchy that considers women just another piece of property—lumps of clay suitable for mythological molding:
They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you
Corin delivers the first two lines over a dissonant grunge guitar duet in a tone of bitter sarcasm, playing off the traditional notions that women are expected to be sugar and spice and everything nice and “above reproach.” For the third line, Corin raises her voice and shifts her tone to impart the dangers inherent in dignifying women (putting them on a pedestal where they can do no harm and have no life), analyzing women (because men know best) and finally, terrorizing women (which may mean rape, domestic abuse or simply denying women the right to choose how to live their lives). The über-message is that women are creatures who need men to mold them into shape, changelings who can be transformed from virgins to whores on command. The use of the word “they” identifies the enemy as the collective weight of rules and restrictions summarized in the word “patriarchy,” and not “all men.” The written record shows that Corin and Carrie were not “man-haters,” but implacable foes of the patriarchy and the unreasonable roles assigned to both genders.
The first appearance of Verse Form B follows; these verses are marked by Corin and Carrie alternating lines (what Carrie referred to as an anti-chorus). The impact of this form is somewhat diminished on Call the Doctor by muddy production that makes it a challenge to make out what Carrie is saying. These B verses are one-sided conversations Corin has with another woman or with three separate women; one could view the progress depicted in the conversations as the growth trajectory of one woman or three women at different levels of development. The variations in each B verse are subtle but loaded with meaning:
- B1: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or shake me/I’m your monster, I’m not like you/All your life is written for you.”
- B2: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or break it/I’m your monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before you.”
- B3: “This is love and you can’t break it/in a formula or make me/I’m no monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before me.“
I can’t help but interpret those lines personally, based on my experience in trying to “feel out” women to learn whether or not they’re interested in woman-to-woman sex. B1 is absolutely hopeless; she thinks lesbian sex is sinful. Carrie’s response, “I’ll never show you what’s in here” is spot-on. B2 is a woman in denial about her attraction to other women. B3 is on the brink, giving me more confidence that sharing my tendencies won’t freak her out. I would go one step further and announce the discovery of a B4, a woman who is ready to rock but gets turned off when I tell her I’m bisexual.
I can’t begin to describe how happy I feel that I have a regular partner and never have to go through that shit again.
Moving on to Verse A-2, Corin steps out of character and assumes the role of “spokesperson of the patriarchy” in the first two lines, mocking the absurd notions that women are nothing more than baby factories and that to challenge that “truth” is an act of sacrilege.
Your life is good for one thing
You’re messing with what’s sacred
She then returns to the Cassandra role, warning that transforming women into simple beings with limited choices is, ironically, the ultimate act of sterilization:
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you
This brings us to Verse B-2, which ends on Carrie’s sarcastic line, “Call the doctor, miracle—she can talk!” We then hear an interruption in the chord pattern over a drum roll that quickly flings the band into hyperspeed mode where Corin shouts “Call the doctor!” eight times. I interpret the line to mean, “Call the doctor—there’s something wrong with this broad—she can speak her own mind! Oh, the horror!” If you haven’t figured it out by now, I think “Call the Doctor” is an amazing song with exceptional musical and emotional build, and a great way to kick off the album.
“Hubcap” opens with ragged, dissonant guitar and an equally ragged vocal from Corin, as if she’s watching the clock as it creeps towards closing time in the camera shop where she worked. She tries to forestall the boredom by writing on the side, hiding the paper when her boss shows up in his suit and tie. “You’re my co-pilot, not my god pilot,” she says to herself while considering her boss, and though she would love to share his “calm belief” in his work, there’s no question she doesn’t belong there. One of the aspects of Call the Doctor I find appealing is that both Corin and Carrie were still working day jobs to support themselves while hoping the music thing would work out, and the experiences they describe in several of the songs on the album ring true for all of us who have to deal with the ennui of the daily grind.
“Little Mouth” is another such song, and it must have felt quite liberating for Corin to express the rage that burns hot when you’re working a shit job far below your capabilities:
Smile pretty take take the money
You know me well oh don’t you?
Smile pretty take take the money
You know how to sell?
The music captures both the expressed rage in the intense all-hands-on-board bash and the seething rage when they ease up a bit as Corin repeats the phrase “damaged goods.” Carrie wrote about the grim reality of retail in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: “So much of working customer service is about self-erasure, subjugating and then selling yourself in order to sell the product, merging with the commodities until you feel like one. Like many young women, we felt like we were on display.” No wonder Corin’s vocal sounds like she’s millimeters away from her breaking point—but since the song ends with another “Damn you,” we can assume that at least at this point in time, that “Damn you” remained safely inside in her head because she needed the damn job.
Continuing the theme of “self-repression as a survival tactic,” Corin’s opening line in “Anonymous” is “She’s worried, she’s worried, she’s worried she said too much.” It’s pretty obvious that living on the edge has resulted in a full-fledged case of neurosis, as Corin alternates between first-person narrative and an out-of-body experience where she observes her public self with the harsh judgment of a woman confronting her doppelgänger:
Feel safe, inside, inside those well drawn line
Boyfriend, a car, a job, my white girl life
She swallowed a spider to catch, to catch that fly
But I don’t know why, why she swallowed that lie
The music is classic two-chord punk riot with the verses in C# and the chorus in Bbm (allowing for Sleater-Kinney’s drop-down tuning), moving from steady drive in the verses to let-it-the-fuck-out in the chorus. Corin is more than up to the tasks of keeping her voice a couple of notches below manic in the verses and crossing the line into temporary madness in the chorus. At this stage in her life, she has a deep desire for anonymity so she can be “Not enough for you to know/not enough for you to own.” She closes the song by admitting that at present, she hasn’t found a satisfactory solution to her dilemma: “These words are all I have/These words are who I am.” Having gone through a similar experience in my early twenties, I relate more to this song than any of the other songs on the album and find it strangely comforting—I don’t think anyone ever gets their shit together completely, but I know I’m not the ungrounded mess I was back then.
I love the rough guitar duet of “Stay Where You Are,” but find the repeated lyrics a bit dull and inadequate; the theme of identity struggle is addressed much more effectively in “Call the Doctor” and “Anonymous.” What follows is much more interesting, as “Good Things” is the least riot grrrl song of the lot and deals with one of the most common themes in rock: relationship failure. What makes this song stand out is that this particular failure likely involves a homosexual relationship, where the loss of a partner is intensified by the vulnerability you already put on the line when you entered a homosexual relationship in the first place. It may have been more true in the ’90s, but it’s still true today: most people who enter a homosexual relationship begin in the closet, and you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feel especially vulnerable. I certainly felt more vulnerable in the States and had many unpleasant experiences there when my partner and I held hands or kissed in public; in Europe, it’s more common for women to hold hands and walk arm-in-arm, whatever their sexual orientation, so it’s a bit easier . . . but we still have to accept that there are limits when it comes to public displays of affection.
I have to use the qualifier “likely,” for Corin never identifies the gender of the lost partner and, like me, she is bisexual, so anything is possible. I just hear something in her voice that gives me that impression—something I’ve heard in other voices who have ended a relationship with a same-sex partner. The positive aspect of avoiding gender identification is it makes the song universal; everybody can relate to the soul-searching and self-doubt Corin sings with such poignancy:
Try to make it good again
Is it worth it?
Will it make me sick today?
It’s a dumb song
But I’ll write it anyway
It’s an old mistake
But we always make it — why do we?
The hardest part is things already said
Getting better, worse, I cannot tell
Why do good things never wanna stay?
Some things you lose, some things you give away
Though performed with electric guitar in the Sleater-Kinney tradition, “Good Things” is actually quite lovely on acoustic guitar with its pleasant E-C#m-Ab-C#m chord combination (an A major chord is introduced in the transition from verse to chorus to keep things interesting). I love this song so much that I actually took the time to submit a chord correction to Ultimate Guitar—tedious work, but I felt it was worth it.
The most popular song from the album is “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and as is often the case, I’ve found the interpretations in various reviews to be slightly off. I doubt very much that Corin thought she had a shot at becoming the “queen of rock and roll” at the time the song was written—she probably just wanted to put that shopping mall job in the rearview mirror. While she obviously understood the sexual potential of rock star power, her motivations at this moment involved getting a babe to move away from her devotion to male rock stars and love her with the same intense passion she projected onto lifeless posters of Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore:
I wanna be your Thurston Moore
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Wrestle on the bedroom floor
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Always leave you wanting more
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Throw away those old records
Adding squeals in the chorus was an inspired choice—not only for the excitement they bring to the performance but also because they tell us that Sleater-Kinney had “passed the test”:
“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” was a test for ourselves, to see what it felt like to give yourself the smallest amount of power, and to put that power on display, to be unafraid and unafraid of yourself. So in Sleater-Kinney, we sang a lot about a world that we wished we could access without the added explanation or justification. We sang about playing and performing, as if in singing about it, we could really live it, free of judgment or the feeling that we were interlopers.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (p. 110). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
That statement certainly reflects Carrie’s lyrical responses to Corin, indicating she’s moved beyond idol worship and now is starting to think “that could be me up there.”
I swear they’re looking right at me
Push to the front so I can see
It’s what I thought
It’s rock and roll
I love the contrast between the moody verses and the ecstatic chorus, and if there’s one song on Call the Doctor that proves Sleater-Kinney really didn’t need a bass player, it’s this one.
We head back to the mall where Corin is still brooding about her shit job in “Taking Me Home.” The aspect of retail reality that she explores here is pretty straightforward: like the merchandise on the shelves, the sales clerk “merges with the commodities” and finds herself on display for all the horny guys who assume that it’s okay to hit on the hired help. Corin plays out their mating fantasies to the nth degree, even to the point of imagining marriage:
A dozen red roses
A cute little house
A cheap little ring
The deal is cut, now
She emphatically rejects that alternative reality, in all-caps: NOT FOR SALE/NOT YOUR GIRL/NOT YOUR THING. The music on this one is a bit tiresome, though, weakening the message in the process.
The music is not the problem with “Taste Test,” where the forward drive of the chorus and the clearest double-lead vocals on the album make for some exciting moments. The lyrics, which apparently involve a shaky relationship between two very confused people, simply fail to register on the coherence monitor. The same is true for “My Stuff,” a dark, grungy tune best captured in the line: “Such an easy thought and now I had it but I lost it.”
Things get a whole lot better with the blatantly sexual (yay!) “I’m Not Waiting.” Songs celebrating the delights of lesbian sex were extremely rare in the mid-90s but Corin holds nothing back—her voice is drenched with the erotic tension of a bitch in heat, her words completely unapologetic and free of shame:
I’m not waiting
‘Till I grow up
To be a woman
To be a woman
Honey baby sweetness darling
I’m your little girl
Your words are sticky, stupid
Running down my legs
Laura Macfarlane’s drumming is excellent here, punctuating the simmering choruses with the primitive sound of tom-toms and going full-on nasty in the verses. The second verse finds Corin in a particularly naughty frame-of-mind as she commands her partner to fulfill a specific fantasy, her voice made edgier through the application of a lo-fi filter:
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit on
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit . . .
The next round of the chorus ends with Corin squeezing every last bit of passion out of the word WOOOOOOOO-MAN, cueing the band to remove all restraints and accelerate to an orgasmic climax. Passion spent, Corin gives us two rounds of “I’m not waiting/’Till I grow up,” affirming her deep and guilt-free satisfaction with the experience of loving another woman.
Call the Doctor closes with a mid-tempo tune from self-confessed hypochondriac Carrie Brownstein, “Heart Attack.” This confessional reveals Carrie’s hyper-awareness of mortality (a subject she would return to in “The Size of Our Love” on The Hot Rock) and her associated fears that “Something’s bound to give me a disease.” What’s important is how her high-strung nature interferes with her chances of connecting with other people:
Stress case undone preplanned no fun
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
High strung let go loss of control
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
Though technically it’s not a fit with the larger themes of Call the Doctor, the willingness to reveal one’s quirks and anxieties has a humanizing effect, ironically minimizing the distance between musician and listener—for we are all mortal and we are all at least a little bit weird.
In parting, I want to share one more review, this one from my bête noire, Robert Christgau, The Dean of American Rock Critics:
Like the blues, punk is a template that shapes young misfits’ sense of themselves, and like the blues it takes many forms. This is a new one, and it’s damn blueslike. Powered by riffs that seem unstoppable even though they’re not very fast, riding melodies whose irresistibility renders them barely less harsh, Corin Tucker’s enormous voice never struggles more inspirationally against the world outside than when it’s facing down the dilemmas of the interpersonal–dilemmas neither eased nor defined by her gender preferences, dilemmas as bound up with family as they are with sex. As partner/rival/Other Carrie Brownstein puts it in an eloquently tongue-tied moment: “It’s just my stuff.” Few if any have played rock’s tension-and-release game for such high stakes–revolution as existentialism, electric roar as acne remedy. They wanna be our Joey Ramone, who can resist that one? But squint at the booklet and you’ll see they also want to be our Thurston Moore. They want it both ways, every which way. And most of the time they get it.
Can anyone tell me what the fuck that man is talking about? Well, at least he was one of two critics (Greil Marcus was the other) who identified Sleater-Kinney as the best rock band in the world, so there’s that. I appreciate the compliment but loathe the use of the superlative—I’ll just say that Sleater-Kinney would indeed become a fabulous rock band and Call the Doctor was the blessed event where they laid the foundation for a truly remarkable journey.
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.