Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Belinda Carlisle Was In The Germs (?!)

So here is how much, until I started learning about the Go-Go's, I knew about the Germs.

The Germs were arguably the first L.A. punk band. Now, there were three major punk scenes in the late '70s: New York punk, British punk, and L.A. punk. I prefer British punk the most, and also have quite a fondness for New York punk, but L.A. punk is probably my least favorite of the three. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes in his review of the Rhino compilation We're Desperate: The L.A. Scene (1976-1979), "the Los Angeles scene wasn't nearly as rich and diverse as those in New York and London. New wave pop didn't have a stronghold in the L.A. punk community, which tended to favor raw, hard, amateurish punk." In other words, L.A. punk kind of stank like a smelly sock.

The best part about the Germs was probably the band members' stage names: Darby Crash, Pat Smear, Lorna Doom, and, briefly, a young woman going by the name of Dottie Danger (who unlike her band mates, would eventually become known to the world under a different moniker).

Darby Crash was their Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious all in one, antagonizing the audience with his lead singing a la Rotten, and becoming a raging junkie a la Vicious. During concerts he would smear himself with peanut butter and salad dressing. He also had a hard time singing into the microphone.

The Germs recorded one album (produced by Joan Jett!) before Crash came back from a trip to England proclaiming that his new musical hero was Adam Ant. Not long afterward, he intentionally overdosed on heroin, the day before John Lennon was assassinated. Nice timing.

In the end, I might like the Germs' story more than their actual music. But what I think of them is really not important here. What you need to know is this: the Germs were about as gritty, raw, credible, and influential as L.A. punk got. In other words, later (and better) bands started out wanting to be the Germs.

So, I'm reading the Wikipedia entry on the Go-Go's and I come across this: "They were formed as a punk band and had roots in the L.A. punk community; they shared a rehearsal space with X, and Carlisle (under the name 'Dottie Danger') had briefly been a member of punk-rock band The Germs."

Cue the sound of a needle being ripped from a spinning record. Did I just read that Belinda Carlisle had been in the Germs? Not "the" Germs? Perhaps they meant a different Germs? Perhaps they meant a different Belinda Carlisle? Maybe someone was pulling a Wikipedia prank? Surely this couldn't have been true, under any circumstances. I checked the Germs' Wikipedia article:
In April 1977 the band added Lorna Doom (Teresa Ryan) on bass, with transitional member "Dottie Danger", later famous as Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go's, on drums. Carlisle never actually played with the band, owing to her being sidelined by a bout of mononucleosis for an extended period, and she was replaced by her friend Donna Rhia, real name: Becky Barton, who played three gigs and recorded their first single. Carlisle remained a friend and helper of the band throughout (she can be heard introducing the band on the Germicide: Live At The Whiskey recording, as produced by Kim Fowley), only leaving because her new band, the Go-Go's was becoming popular and, as she put it, "I was really disturbed by the heroin that was going on."[4]
Umm ... hold on a minute here. Did Wikipedia mean to tell me that the sweet pop princess responsible for "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" used to hang out with ... Darby Crash? Meaning, if you went up to Belinda Carlisle and asked her, "So what do you think about Darby Crash," instead of saying, "Who the hell is that?" like any reasonable person would expect her to say, she would say, "Oh yeah, we were friends back in the late '70s."

No. Way.

"Dottie Danger"?

This was good. This was really too good.

OK, you're saying, big deal. So the lead singer of the Go-Go's used to be in some punk rock band. But you don't understand. You don't know what this means.

For starters, it means that not only had Belinda Carlisle been a genuine punk rocker; she had been in one of the most "punk" punk bands in all of Los Angeles! At one point, she had been more "punk" than people who actually cared about being considered "punk"!

This instantly became my favorite piece of celebrity trivia of all time, trumping other former champions such as:

* Waylon Jennings played with Buddy Holly, and almost ended up on the plane that crashed with Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper on it!

* Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty are actually brother and sister!

* Neil Young and Rick James were once in the same band together, before either had become famous!

* Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones were college roommates!

Now, those are all amazing and weird, but ... Belinda Carlisle in the Germs! This was more than just a mere piece of "trivia." I was not content to simply let this go. No, readers, I smelled blood. I needed answers. How does someone go from being in the Germs to being ... Gloria Estefan? Listening to her solo career, you'd think she'd never even touched a germ in her life. It would be like someone coming up to me and telling me, "Hey, did you know that Debbie Gibson used to be in the Circle Jerks?" Why no. No I did not.

In other words, you don't simply end up in the Germs by accident. My God, this changed everything. My assumptions about Belinda Carlisle's personality needed to be vastly reassessed. Why, anyone who could be in the Germs must also possess some awareness of the darker, edgier side of life. This was not apparent in Carlisle's solo career. At all. In any way. She wasn't some "mainstream rocker"; she was Whitney Houston - without the grit. It's like sitting next to the boring preppie girl in English class who has a boring preppie boyfriend, and then one day you peak into her backpack and you see DVDs of Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange in there. Wait a minute, she's not supposed to know about those kinds of movies.

Why, if I lived in a world where Belinda Carlisle could have been in the Germs, then ... maybe I wasn't quite so alone after all.

Thus began the Great Belinda Carlisle Mystery of 2011.

Most punk musicians were actively against mainstream pop. To them, punk wasn't just a musical style; it was also a political point of view. Most punk rockers thought long and hard about the direction of their careers - whether what they were doing was ethical, whether it was culturally challenging, etc. etc.

Most, not all.

And yes, many artists who started out in the punk world eventually crossed over into the Top 40. But not, as far as I know, quite so thoroughly. Indeed, the Go-Go's are one of three artists to appear on both the Pitchfork 500 and my '80s Tape (the other two are David Bowie and Hall & Oates). Also, not too many artists from the L.A. punk scene eventually graced mainstream radio. With New York and London punk it was much more common: Blondie, Talking Heads, The Clash, Billy Idol - hell, even Patti Smith had a Top 40 hit! But L.A. punk was hardcore. I'm amazed anyone from that scene actually wanted to go pop. And Belinda Carlisle didn't just go "pop." That's like saying Tarantino movies are "violent."

I suppose if I knew Belinda Carlisle back in her punk days and watched her dive headfirst into the cheese, I might have called her some sort of sell out. Instead, because I originally thought of her as a tame pop singer and then discovered that she used to be a wild punk rocker, I suddenly thought she was awesome, and getting even more awesome by the minute. Besides, one of the most annoying aspects of punk culture is its obsession with "purity" and "authenticity."

Still, I wanted to know: why? Why would a singer so committed to punk rock go so thoroughly ... yuppie? After further research, I came across my potential answer.


Anonymous said...

The Go-Gos were actually considered somewhat punk in the beginning. The first album was pop-ified by the producer. Allegedly the first time the Go-Gos heard the mix, they thought it sucked. Then "We Got the Beat" became a hit and they decided it wasn't so bad afterall. I saw them in their heyday after they got huge and they had an edgiER sound than they did on record - the drummer was pretty solid (if not spectacular).

Anonymous said...

I seen the Go Go's open for the Mentors.

Anonymous said...

Watch the Go-go's behind the music... its awesome. they talk about this party or the girls just hanging out talking about sex issues. Here is a little behind the scenes on that video.


Anonymous said...

Debbie Gibson actually did perform a version of "I Wanna Destroy You" with the Circle Jerks in the 90s. And he Go-Gos were definitely punk when they started out, but the record company made them tone it down. Check out any YouTube video where Belinda is still fat, you'll see.

jack said...

Not hard to imagine for those of us that were there

Ladoga Street said...

BIG '10-4' to that, Jack.