Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Lust To Love" AKA How The Go-Go's Transitioned From Punk To Pop

From Lips Unsealed:
We were back in L.A ... when the label messengered a copy of the finished album to us. We ran out excitedly to the parking lot and listened to it from the start to finish in someone's car. Our hopes were so high and before we pushed the Play button we were all shushing one another. Then the drums kicked into the first cut, "Our Lips Are Sealed," and we quieted down. We let the next ten tracks play without too many comments either way, and finally, after about thirty-five minutes, we just looked at one another for reactions.

We weren't happy - or as happy as we had hoped. In the studio, we thought we were making a great punk album. On hearing the final version, it sounded more pop than we had anticipated.

We weren't going for anything as hard as Margot had wanted, but we'd had more of an edge in mind. Everyone had little criticisms. In my case, I was horrified by my vocals. They had been sped up and I found it painful to hear myself race through those songs.

We took our case to Miles, who said no. As he explained, he got exactly what he wanted from us.
I can see Miles now, leaning back in his leather chair, cigar in hand: "It's great, I love it, shut up, get out of here!"

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where the Go-Go's had remained a little more punk. Occasionally I am of the opinion that they lost something in the transformation. For instance, on Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's, there is a terrific early rehearsal version of "He's So Strange," featuring some wild and grungy guitar work from Jane and Charlotte, and what is arguably the most intense and unhinged singing performance you might ever hear from Belinda Carlisle. Although I can't find that version on YouTube, here is a somewhat similar performance filmed at New York's Peppermint Lounge in 1981, where Belinda twists around on her knees, trying to do her best Iggy Pop impersonation. The band re-recorded the song on their second album, Vacation, and it sounds noticeably tamer. I can't really listen to the later version without wishing it sounded more like the earlier version.



But then there are songs like "Lust To Love."

Before signing with I.R.S., the Go-Go's recorded a demo version of "Lust To Love," which appears on Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's, and like "He's So Strange," this is the version I heard first. I thought it was infectiously catchy and fun, even though it sped by in one big blur and the lyrics were completely incomprehensible. What the hell were they singing, anyway? "Lost In Love"? What was this, Air Supply?



Then I heard the version on Beauty and the Beat. The album was produced by Richard Gottehrer, who was in many ways a perfect match for the Go-Go's: he'd written '60s pop songs such as "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I Want Candy," and had also produced Blondie's first two albums. The first thing Gottehrer told the band to do was to slow down. "Slow down? Why would we want to do that?" But I think Gottehrer was on to something.

Some of the Go-Go's still aren't sure. Here's what Gina says in the booklet for the 30th Anniversary edition of the album:
We were a punk band in many ways, but when we got into the studio with Richard, he slowed everything down. Instead of our songs being a minute and a half long, they were two and a half minutes. You could really feel the pop influences, and we all have very, very different influences. Richard is a great songwriter himself, so naturally he really focused on the songs, the arrangement and making sure they were in the best form they could be. At first, we didn't like the way it was recorded, but the songs were so good, they really did shine through, and you just couldn't keep that record down.
In other words, she still hates the production, even today! Charlotte's not sure either:
Richard had a certain idea of how to produce us. If we'd done it the way we originally wanted, I don't think we'd have had the career we've had so far. What he did was take the essence of the songs and find the melody. At first we weren't happy with it, but the record did indeed sound like us. We were just a little rougher around the edges when we played live. We played every note on the record, so it was definitely us, but he brought out the cleaner tones as opposed to the more distorted ones.
In other words: our producer wanted to sell some fucking records! Well, too late the change it now. I almost wish the band had recorded punkier demos of every single song on the album so that I could see which ones might have suffered or improved with the change. But in the case of "Lust To Love," I think the change was welcome. First of all, in this later version, I could actually hear the lyrics:
It used to be the 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 lost control of the game
Even though I set the rules
You've got me acting like a fool
When I see you I lose my cool

Lust to love
Was the last thing I was dreaming of
Now all I want is just to love
Lust has turned to love
Whoa. Dude. This is actually kind of ... heavy. It's like a dark, doom-laden ballad. This girl just wanted to goof around and have fun, but now she's being sucked in by more serious feelings ... and she doesn't like it! You know, now that I could actually comprehend the lyrics, I really dug them!

But that's not all. Charlotte, possibly at Gottehrer's suggestion, added a nice piano overdub and, if I'm not mistaken, even a little keyboard overdub between the first chorus and the second verse, all of which is completely absent from the earlier version. These seemingly insignificant touches, in my opinion, give the song quite a bit of extra drama and grandeur. It's like New Wave opera!

But the best change of all is how slowing the song down improved Belinda's vocal performance. My three favorite moments:

1. (0:18) "In another puu-lace and timmmmme" - the enunciation, so precise!
2. (2:12) On the "I" in "I used to know my name," she lets out this little squeal - oh God, the squeal!!
3. (3:44) She goes for the big finish on that very last "Luuuuu-huuuuve," her voice smothered with echo, fading into the dark, brutal night.

We've come a long way from aimless screaming, folks. Goes to show what a little studio time can do. On the demo version, when the chorus comes around, Belinda sounds like she can barely keep up with the speed of the whole thing. It's like, wait, is this song about something? Suddenly, on the album version, you can taste the despair, you can bask in the agony of this poor young woman. It's not hard, of course, to guess where the emotion came from; all Belinda probably had to do was to think of her fucked up childhood for about five seconds, and presto.



Listening to the early demo version, the Go-Go's sound like a fun Buzzcocks-style punk-pop band that might deserve a nice little cult audience, but certainly wouldn't sniff the Top 40.  Listening to the album version, the Go-Go's sound like a band that should be blasting out of your car radio on streets all across America. Even the backing vocals are better, for God's sake.

At any rate, I don't believe in alternative universes. The Go-Go's left their punk roots behind, and that's that.

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