Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Go-Go's Were A Punk Band (?!)

So here is how much, until approximately a year ago, I knew about the Go-Go's.

The Go-Go's were the first all-female rock band. Not really, but they were the first all-female rock band that anybody gave a shit about, ie. to have major commercial success in the United States and be treated like other, male, rock bands. Popular music had been littered with female rock performers for decades, but never had there been a band composed entirely of females who played all their own instruments and wrote all their own material, and were also, you know, good.

The Go-Go's are often linked and/or confused with the Bangles, the other major all-female rock band of the '80s. While the Bangles were, I would say, equally successful and equally important, the Go-Go's preceded them by several years. Nonetheless, many casual observers have failed to keep the two bands straight. When I rediscovered The '80s Tape and asked my father if he knew the name of the band singing "Head Over Heels," he said, "Oh! This is ... wait, it's either the Bangles or the Go-Go's, I could never remember which was which. And there was Susanna Hoffs and there was Belinda Carlisle, and I think Susanna Hoffs was in the Go-Go's, and Belinda Carlisle was in the Bangles." After doing some quick research of my own, I learned that the song was by The Go-Go's, and that, well, my father had the lead singers backwards. I'm almost positive that he would make the same mistake if I asked him today.

In 1996, I bought a useful CD-ROM created by Microsoft named Music Central. Music Central was sort of like a proto-All Music Guide. In addition to containing album reviews and track listings, the disc also contained about 30 short film clips. Imagine watching brief little videos - on your own computer! One of these film clips was of the Go-Go's performing "We Got The Beat" on the Old Grey Whistle Test. I have found the full performance on YouTube:

I must admit that, at the time, I did not find the clip too impressive. "What was the hell is this?" I thought to myself. "Cheerleader rock?" I had just begun to discover other New Wave artists such as Talking Heads and The Clash, and "We Got The Beat" did not seem as significant or complex as the music of those bands. I wondered if rock critics had overstated the Go-Go's' significance, simply because they were an all-female band, and everybody thought that was so cool? The first thing any reviewer said about the Go-Go's was a comment about their gender, not their music. I didn't care whether they were all girls or all robots or all sex dwarves; was the music any good?

On the other hand, "Head Over Heels" was one of my absolute favorite songs on a tape already full of favorite songs, so I could not dismiss the band based on one clip of "We Got The Beat" alone. That said, a lot of famous bands have released only one song that I really like.

Matters were complicated by AMG's recommendations. First of all, no Go-Go's album received five stars. Stephen Thomas Erlewine's review of their first album, Beauty And The Beat, was highly complimentary, but did he give the album five stars? No. As if I had time for these four-and-a-half star albums! And in his review of their Greatest Hits, he wrote:
"As a brief overview, Greatest Hits is adequate since it does contain all the hit singles, but it's also misleading, since it doesn't capture the group's punky spirit. Nevertheless, it's a cheaper, more manageable introduction than the double-disc set Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's, even though serious fans should choose that collection instead."
Well, I wasn't exactly a "serious" fan who was willing to hear two discs of Go-Go's, but I didn't want to hear a collection that was merely "adequate" either. This was all too much of a bother. Maybe someday I would listen to a Go-Go's greatest hits album, but I wasn't in any hurry.

Fast-forward many years later to my exploration of The Pitchfork 500, which included, somewhat to my surprise, the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed." "Well," I thought, "if Pitchfork thinks the Go-Go's were important, maybe I should think so too."

Although "Our Lips Are Sealed" was apparently a huge hit in the early '80s, I had never heard this song in my entire life. After listening to it, I had to concede that, unlike "We Got The Beat," I ... kinda liked it. I still didn't understand why rock critics might have considered it "significant" or "groundbreaking." On the surface it was a fun, retro, early '60s girl group song that didn't strive toward anything profound, but I felt like the band was fully aware of this and was delivering the cutesy sentiments with a sly wink. I got the impression of a group that was deliberately putting the listener on, sort of "playing innocent," concealing their true persona. It had an air of mystery to it. Maybe a Go-Go's hits collection wouldn't be such a chore after all.

I checked AMG again, and Erlewine's original review of Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's had been replaced by an equally enthusiastic review from Ned Raggett, a writer not known for enjoying mainstream pop:
Of all the various best-ofs and compilations that have come out over time that cover the Go-Go's career, this one is the clearest winner, by a long shot ... the first 11 tracks alone make for an entertaining peek into the band's earliest days, with a slew of live cuts from both early rehearsals and gigs, including a number of songs taped at the legendary SF punk venue the Mabuhay Gardens. Everything's rough, energetic, and merry fun -- while it's no surprise why some compositions remained unheard in later years, it's still worth hearing how the group pureed everything from straight-up punk to spaghetti Western guitar and girl group right from the start.
"All right," I announced to myself. "Two discs of Go-Go's. Let's do it."

But what was all this talk about "punk"? Indeed, in Erlewine's little band bio, he wrote that "the group was an integral part of the Californian punk scene. And they did play punk rock, even if many of their rougher edges were ironed out by the time they recorded their first album, 1981's Beauty and the Beat."

Well, sure, a lot of New Wave bands played "punk," but that doesn't mean they sounded like The Ramones and The Damned. Hell, The Police were nominally considered "punk" at one point, usually by people who didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

So one unsuspecting day, while coming home from work, I started listening to the first disc of Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's. And, readers, I must tell you what I heard.

I heard ... punk.

It sounded like punk. It didn't sound like "Police" level punk, it sounded like ... "punk" punk. It sounded like the Dead Kennedys, or Black Flag. Not only was it punk, it was pretty good punk. And the song titles were punk: "Screaming," "Fun With Ropes," "Blades," "Johnny Are You Queer." I mean whoa, wait a second here. Hold the phone. When did this happen?

In passing, one might think that the notion of The Go-Go's having started out as a genuine punk band might not be so unusual. They are widely known as a New Wave band, and, as I was well aware, New Wave and punk essentially went hand in hand. But still, something wasn't quite right with this picture.

What about the band's aforementioned lead singer, one Belinda Carlisle? I had vague recollections of a certain late '80s solo career that was not very - how shall we say this - not very ... punk. "Mad About You," "Circle In The Sand," "I Get Weak," and what may very well be the catchiest pop song of all time, "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" - the mere titles alone instantly conjuring up a long ago world of pure, shameless, summery pop perfection.

After fully absorbing the Go-Go's collection, suddenly I had a bad hankering for what were, as far as the rock critic in me was concerned, these highly inconsequential and disposable Top 40 hits. Looking over my shoulder, I downloaded Her Greatest Hits. My God, it hit the spot.

Still, I was unable to reconcile the information in front of me. On the totem pole of late '80s pop music credibility, Belinda Carlisle was perhaps a couple of notches below George Michael, and a couple of notches above Rick Astley. Not only did I find it hard to believe that she had ever been a "punk" rocker of any kind; I found it hard to believe that someone like her would have even known what punk was.

Truth be told, I didn't know very much about her. Carlisle's career seemed to be a minor one, of negligible scholarly interest. Was she quirky, was she boring, was she intelligent, was she shallow? Who, precisely, was this former "punk" singer?

Maybe there was an explanation. Maybe the Go-Go's had started out as a punk band, but Belinda Carlisle hadn't been one of the original members. Maybe she was one of those people who found her way into the punk scene "accidentally," but wasn't a serious, committed punk. And just as the Go-Go's started moving toward a more commercial sound and were about to make it big, she finally joined at the last minute. That at least might make some sense. Yes, surely that was it.

Oh, how wrong I was.


Herr Zrbo said...

You'd never heard Our Lips Are Sealed? I swear it's still played on the radio all the time.

The only thing I know about Belinda Carlisle is that she got into drugs, I think she was heavy into drugs around the Heaven is... time period. Maybe she and Carrie Fisher were drug-buds?

Little Earl said...

You still listen to the radio? Where? And why?

Yeah, not sure what cave I was living in, and I must have heard it in passing somewhere, but when I actually sat down and listened to the song, I did not, in my gut, recognize it. This could be the precursor to another series I'm planning, "Huge '80s Hits That I Don't Actually Remember Hearing In The '80s."

Hey, at least I'd heard Toto's "Africa," unlike some people.

Anonymous said...

I think your problem is that you weren't around (old enough or maybe even born) when punk was big, so you don't really have an accurate idea of what it was. It's like my trying to say to talk about how big Elvis or The Beatles were, even though they predated me.

Al Quint said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Al Quint said...

yes, the Go-Go's were originally a punk band. In fact, Belinda was the original drummer for the early LA punk band The Germs, so she has legit punk roots. Michael (aka Micki) Steele from the Bangles was an original member of the Runaways, the band that launched Joan Jett's career. They were kind of a contrived band, created by producer Kim Fowley, but they started long before the Go-Go's.