Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How To Celebrate Your Number One Album: With A Depressing Coke Binge

To quote George Orwell, "Some number one albums are more equal than others." On paper, the J. Geils Band's Freeze Frame, John Cougar's American Fool, Foreigner's 4, Asia's Asia, and the Go-Go's' Beauty and the Beat all have one thing in common. On paper.

I think music executives and the 1982 listening public could be forgiven for having expected albums by the likes of John Cougar and Foreigner to reach number one. But the debut album by a former L.A. punk rock band on some independent label? As Charlotte put it recently, "Our goal was to sell ... if we could only sell 100,000 records we'd be so happy."

Beauty and the Beat sold two million records.

Maybe it was MTV, maybe it was Solid Gold. Or maybe it was Miles Copeland's idea of having the Go-Go's open for his brother Stewart's band, the Police. "At the end of '81 is when we started touring with the Police, and we opened for them," Charlotte explained, "and ... that's really what blew the lid off of it, when our record went to number one and theirs was still at number six. We were like, 'Sorry, but...'" Yep, Ghost in the Machine. It was no Synchronicity. According to Belinda, "Sting was nice but aloof and seemed to be reading a Sartre book whenever he had free time." Sounds about right.

Here is the big factoid that you will read in any article about Beauty and the Beat, or the Go-Go's as a band: the album was the first, and so far only, album to have been written and performed entirely by an all-female band to reach number one on the Billboard chart. Sorry Sleater-Kinney.

I'm a little bit reminded of baseball statistics, where the announcer will say things like, "And he's the first pitcher to record ten strikeouts in a game for six games in a row in the American League while a Republican was in the White House and the moon was a waning gibbous." On the other hand, it's impressive. But what's more impressive to me than an all-female band topping the charts is an all-female band topping the charts with absolutely no intention of doing so.

They were just fucking around! I mean, sure, they wanted to have some commercial success. But this was ridiculous. Beauty and the Beat didn't just go to number one. Beauty and the Beat was a number one album for six weeks. Sometimes an album tops the chart by slipping through the cracks. But six weeks. And with some slapped-together, low-budget video and a couple of TV appearances for promotion. No, it appears that this was the rare instance of an album topping the charts because people actually liked it.

Here's what I think. At some point, the Go-Go's' status as an all-female band became an attribute rather than a detriment. It's like Barack Obama. Stay with me here. Sure, people wanted a black president, but they also wanted a candidate whom they thought could be elected. So at first, everybody said, "Well, yeah, I like Obama, but there's no way people are going to vote for a black guy." But. When it started to seem like he was actually going to have a chance, and that maybe this could really happen, then everybody came out of the woodwork and piled on and shouted, "Woo hoo, a black president, let's do it!"

And so it might have been with the Go-Go's. At first, everyone said, "Well, sure, I'd love to see an all-girl band succeed as much as anybody, but come on." And yet, once people got the sense that, actually, the Go-Go's were not manufactured or fake but a real band like male bands were, and they were potentially going to make it, what had been a liability suddenly became an asset. In other words, yes, audiences liked the music, but the Go-Go's had extra appeal because they were concrete evidence that we'd arrived at a point in society where a band consisting entirely of women could be good in the same way that male bands could be good, and this wasn't just some case of rock 'n' roll affirmative action. Being a fan of the Go-Go's meant that you were being a part of history. Sure, maybe they would have been popular even if they'd had one or two guys in the band, but I think they became additionally popular because they didn't.

Still, no one, Kanye West aside, can be prepared for that kind of instant, massive success. I believe the appropriate saying is "Be careful what you wish for." And so the success of the album hit the Go-Go's, and Belinda in particular, like a ton of bricks. They didn't even have time to process John Belushi's overdose:
The following day, we were back at SIR and talking about John's death and comparing notes about what we had either heard on the news or from other people, when Ginger walked in with a bottle of champagne. Our album Beauty and the Beat, had hit number one on the Billboard album chart. We popped the cork and screamed ... After partying all afternoon, I went back to my apartment and continued to celebrate by myself until the good times unraveled in a frightening breakdown.

Seated at my dining room table, bent over several lines of coke and puffing on cigarettes, I had no idea I was about to become unhinged. In theory, I was rewarding myself in private for being part of the Go-Go's history-making accomplishment. My face was all over the press, and there were few girls in the world who wouldn't have wanted to trade places with me, and yet at that moment I would've been the first to ask them why.

After doing a couple more lines, I looked at a stack of magazines and newspapers on the table. All of them had stories about the Go-Go's. I sifted through a couple and thought how awful it would be if people only knew the truth about me, the truth as far as I was concerned - namely, that I was a fake and didn't feel like I deserved any of my success. I had no sense of self-worth, and worse, I felt like I was on the verge of being found out ... I had the same feeling I got as a kid when I wanted to run away from home. But now, where was I going to go? I couldn't run away from myself.

Or could I?
Could you, Belinda? Could you???

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