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 out 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 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 contain 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 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 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 a steady squeeze. Rather than giving in to 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 in the verses and richer four-part harmony in 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 recalls 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” confirms 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-cheerleader 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.