Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why Beauty And The Beat Is The Greatest Album Of All Time

I used to keep a list of all my favorite albums by year of release. It was quite a sight to behold. I think 1969, 1970, and 1973 were the overall champions, but even so, I had at least one album per year for every year from about 1964 through 2001. Every year, that is, except for one: 1981. Once I thought I had it when I added The Clash's Sandinista! to the list, but nope - released in December 1980. Damn. Well, the moment I heard Beauty and the Beat, I knew: I had finally found my 1981 album.

Some albums alter the course of popular music forever. Some albums tie up everything that came before them and influence everything that comes after. Some albums shake the very foundation of rock 'n' roll to its core.

The Go-Go's' Beauty and the Beat ... is probably not one of those albums.

But some albums manage to capture the energy of life in all its chaotic splendor. These albums are made by artists who are too busy actually living their lives to stop and realize just how skillfully their music is expressing their feelings. Beauty and the Beat is the essence of being young and confused and excited and terrified and bitter and hopeful all at once. Beauty and the Beat is the sound of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. Beauty in the Beat is the sound of God and Satan making love in your living room.

On the surface, the album is a collection of seemingly conventional pop songs. If someone put a gun to my head and demanded to know just what makes this album so amazing, I'm not sure I could explain it in a word or two. I would also probably run for my life and call the police. But the point is, Beauty and the Beat is not great because it explodes the boundaries of rock 'n' roll. You want boundaries exploding? Try Remain In Light, or Closer. No, Beauty and the Beat is great because every song is fucking great.

At some point, when not ingesting animal tranquilizer and tying up unsuspecting teenage boys in their basement, Charlotte and Jane happened to turn into a terrific songwriting duo. They complimented each other perfectly: Charlotte with her classical training, and Jane with her primitive, intuitive, "I don't even know how to plug in my amplifier" approach.

Indeed, I'm a sucker for the underdog. That's partly why I love the Beatles, or Elvis, or Ray Charles, or ABBA, or Oasis, or any number of acts whom no one at the time expected would achieve the success they did. No, the Go-Go's did not know that the album was going to be successful while they were making it. But I know that the album was going to be successful, and somehow that influences my affection for it.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that the album is "infectiously cheerful pop" and radiates "an exuberant sense of fun." "Infectious" and "exuberant" perhaps, but "fun" and "cheerful"? Clearly Mr. Erlewine wasn't listening closely enough. Nearly every song on Beauty and the Beat is full of angst and anguish.  If this album had a motto, it would be, "Let's party really hard so that we don't have to think about how depressed we are."

Although only two measly cuts were released as singles (as Erlewine writes, "So big were these two hits that they sometimes suggested that Beauty and the Beat was a hits-and-filler record, an impression escalated by the boost the Go-Go's received from the just-launched MTV"), to these ears at least, every track is pretty much an A, except for maybe "Automatic," which is about a B+ (still, a B+ is pretty good). That said, I'd like to write about four songs in particular.

The third song on the album is the Go-Go's' addition to the immense catalog of songs named "Tonight", featuring works by David Bowie, Elton John, Def Leppard, The Soft Boys, Nick Lowe, Ozzy Osbourne, The Raspberries, and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, among many others, although the Go-Go's actually named the song using the less common variation, "Tonite," so you've got to hand it to them (let's also not forget Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" and Genesis' "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" while we're at it). But none of those Tonites sounded quite like this one:
The street lights are shining bright
The billboards are shedding their light
And my crowd's hanging around tonite

There's a charge in the air
It's kind of electric out there
And we're all out on the town
Action - gonna track it down
Gonna turn some heads tonite

There's nothing, there's no one to stand in our way
Get dressed up and messed up, blow our cares away
Our mind's set on seeing this night through till day
We rule the streets tonite, until the morning (light)

Although the lyrics seem to suggest triumph and escape, what I really hear, the way the band performs it, is mostly desperation and self-destruction. But the great thing about the song is that it's a little bit of all of that. As the user who published the clip on YouTube put it, "The Go-Go's just make you want to party with wild abandon and give in to all your hedonistic desires."

Another of the album's raging downers is "Fading Fast," sort of an '80s version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Walk On By." In an interview clip in the Totally Go-Go's concert video, Belinda stares blankly into space and explains, "I sorta like 'Fading Fast,' 'cause, um, I can relate to that about ten times over in my life, like getting rid of people that I don't want to see anymore and that keep on haunting you. I can relate to that one pretty much." Yeah I'll bet.
You thought that I was on your side
And I'd do anything for you
But you found out yesterday that you were wrong
I opened up the door, I said we were through

And now you're calling me
You want me back again
But I've just got to turn my head
And start to pretend
I've never seen you
You're someone I don't know
Are you just another boy
That I met long ago

You can talk about old times
They don't mean a thing to me
You're fading fast, out of my memory

So basically she dumps the guy, but she still feels like shit. This is "bright and fun," eh?

At any rate, you're probably wondering, did Belinda ever actually do anything in this band besides cast spells on boys with her menstrual fluid and snort coke? Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you "Skidmarks On My Heart."

Although Charlotte composed the music to "Skidmarks On My Heart," the lyrics were written by none other than our inimitable lead singer. The words may not be particularly intellectual or profound (and some of the rhymes are a bit of a stretch), but as a pastiche of early '60s hot rod songs, they are, in their own way, rather brilliant:
You sure know how to hurt a girl
Fewer hugs and no more kisses
Just water for your carburetor
And bearings for your pistons
Rev her engine for your pleasure
Caress and fondle her steering wheel
When you moan and hug her gear shift
Stop! Think how it makes me feel

Skidmarks on my heart
You've got me in fifth
You're burning rubber like my love

I buy you cologne
You want axle grease
You say get a mechanic
I say get a shrink
I need promises
You need Motor Trend
Our love needs an overhaul
Or this may be the end

Bravo, Belinda, bravo.

Almost all the tracks on Beauty and the Beat are, on the surface at least, some variation of a love song. But there is one track, "This Town," that expresses larger cultural commentary. The town in question, of course, is Los Angeles.
We all know the chosen toys
Of catty girls and pretty boys
Make up that face, jump in the race
Life's a kick in this town

This town is our town
It is so glamorous
Bet you'd live here if you could and be one of us

Change the lines that were said before
We're all dreamers, we're all whores
Discarded stars like worn out cars
Litter the streets of this town

Ladies and gentlemen: irony! See, the catch is, although the Go-Go's seem to be saying that their town is "so glamorous" and that you should want to live in L.A. and be one of them, what they really mean is that L.A. is phony and sleazy and you do not want to live there and be one of them.

And here is where Belinda is the Go-Go's' secret weapon. No, she didn't have anything to do with the writing of this song. But every single vocal choice she makes in this particular performance is perfect. I mean perfect. The first time she sings "It is so glamorous," she sings it as if there's a period after every word, like "It. Is. So. Glamorous." You can practically feel the sarcasm dripping from her supposedly sweet and innocent California lips. The implication is, "You see this image, and you think you want to be exactly like me. But believe me, folks, you don't want to be anything like me." And I believe her. And the way she sings "bet" right afterward, with a little snarl - I can practically taste the self-loathing. And on the last go-round of the chorus, she does some other wonderful things like add these aching high notes to "it's our town" and then does some funky scanning with "I'll bet you'd live here ... ifyoucould and be oneofus." Yes! Yes! Yes!!!

There's something extra poignant about these five supposedly healthy and attractive young women already being so cynical and jaded about life in Los Angeles and the world in general. You mean I wasn't the only 22-year-old who thought everyone was full of shit? And this was only their first album. Didn't anybody tell them they were supposed to wait until their second album before they started complaining about how much L.A. stinks?

But there's another emotion I get from "This Town" beside self-loathing and cynicism, and that's pity. Not pity for themselves, but pity for an American culture that elevates the lifestyle Southern Californians are supposedly living to such desirable heights. It's like they're saying, "We wish life really wasn't this way. We wish our culture valued other things. But it doesn't." There's a tremendous sense of waste.

And yet, the Go-Go's manage to say all of this by not saying this. And that, my friends, is why I proclaim, only half-jokingly, that Beauty and the Beat is the greatest album of all time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written and well said! Beauty and the Beat's awesome, and I wish that The Go-Go's would get more recognition these days.