Saturday, August 24, 2013

Vacation: Recycled Beauty And The Beat Leftovers ... But You Say That Like It's A Bad Thing!

And so the Go-Go's basically slapped together a bunch of Beauty and the Beat leftovers and called it an album. Well yeah. But an album of Beauty and the Beat leftovers sounds pretty good to me! Vacation is the Go-Go's' Strange Days, their More Songs About Buildings and Food, their Communique. It's a sophomore album by a band that had a long gestation period, a deep concert repertoire, sudden success, and plenty of unused material left over.

Although I'm sure there are some weird, wily fans out there who just want to be contrarian and will say otherwise, let's get real here: Vacation is not as good as Beauty and the Beat. On the surface, all the same winning elements are there; the album even sports the same producer (Richard Gottehrer). It's hard to put my finger on it, but the magic just isn't as ... potent. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes, "the album has an appealing, radio-ready sound, but it's at the expense of the giddy sense of fun that made Beauty and the Beat such a vibrant record." It's missing that certain ... hunger, that certain ... urgency. While no one would mistake their debut for progressive rock, it was, in its own way, a kind of a concept album. Vacation just feels like a bunch of unrelated songs.

But disappointing Go-Go's albums are like disappointing days at summer camp: even when they're bad, they're good. Erlewine gives the album three stars. I'd go with four-and-a-half and call it a day. In their 2004 album guide, Rolling Stone gave it one-and-a-half stars, which is just absurd. A sub-par Go-Go's album is like a sub-par Velvet Underground album: there are only so many. Although Erlewine writes that "half the album is padded with filler," I can honestly say that, on an individual basis, I like every song on Vacation. And yet, I rarely actually sit down and listen to the album as a whole.

What does the lead singer have to say on the matter? From Lips Unsealed:
Unlike Beauty and the Beat, I liked Vacation when I first heard a mastered version of the entire album. I thought it was a good, strong, fun effort with one caveat: I hated the way my voice sounded. I could hear where I had difficulty singing and felt guilty that I had spent too much time partying and hadn't given it my all.
In other words, "I thought it was a great album, except my voice sounded like shit and I couldn't sing for shit and I was just a big, raging fuck-up and I felt like shit. Other than that, it was great!"

For reasons that I can't quite fathom, "Get Up And Go" was released as the second single from the album. To these ears, it mines the same Bo Diddley beat the Go-Go's had already mined to better effect on "How Much More" and "You Can't Talk In Your Sleep (If You Can't Sleep)," but hey, somebody at I.R.S. must have liked it. I think the public agreed with me, though, since the song only peaked at #50 (question: if a single peaks at #50, would you consider that a "hit"?). There was also, as Belinda puts it, "a hideous video with me wearing an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and headband, a look that predated Flashdance - yuck." The clip used to be up on YouTube but it looks like someone has "blocked it in [my] country on copyright grounds," or possibly on "embarrassment grounds"? Instead, here's a clip from Solid Gold, featuring Belinda in her Sheena Easton phase (and here's a version of the song with audio that doesn't sound like it's coming from the apartment next door).

"Girl Of 100 Lists" is a Jane number that Belinda found really cute and clever but the rest of the band thought was kind of wimpy and juvenile. The song is probably all of those things. It's the kind of subject matter that people who didn't really know about the Go-Go's would assume was the main subject matter of every Go-Go's song, although to be fair, the list-keeping protagonist does seem to be tearing through men at an unhealthy rate:
Ghetto blasters, phony jewels
Cathedrals, castles, making up rules
Trashy novels and leather gloves
This is a list of the things I love

I am the girl of 100 lists
From what shall I wear
To who I have kissed
Check items off
Let nothing be missed
Sing I to myself and my 100 lists

Pick up your laundry, doctor's at ten
We're out of toothpaste, rehearsal again
Stop by the bank and cash my pay
These are the things I must get done today

Ricky and Danny and Terry and Jim
Dean lasted six months, don't forget him
Perhaps some day this list will end
Till then I tally my gentlemen friends
This particular YouTube clip has excerpts from some sort of hilarious Go-Go's fanzine comic strip called "Motel Madness" ("C'mon Go-Go's, this is important. You've got to go the mall! The mayor's wife is expecting you!" "You lured us here under the pretense of a pajama party and now you tell us this! C'mon, girls, let's split!").

"Beatnick Beach" was another one of Belinda's amusing attempts at writing lyrics, but it lacks the despondent edge of "Skidmarks On My Heart," and with its campy '60s references ends up being a little closer to "We Got The Beat." As with that song, I think Gina manages to elevate "Beatnick Beach" through the sheer power of her energetic drumming. The opening "One, Two, G-O, G-O!" chant may be the most cartoonishly girl power-ish moment in the band's entire discography:
Dance to the poetry
It's gonna be just you and me
We'll groove on that groovy beat
It'll be boss keen neat yeah

The gang they'll all be there
Join the fun and don't be a square
We'll lip sync a go-go
Just like the Lloyd Thaxton show yeah

Beatnik Beach
It's really neat
Limbo down
Hit the ground

Put on your paisleys
Put on your black beret too
Join all us beatniks
Nothing better could happen to you yeah

Well, keep working on it BC. Like all good Go-Go's albums, Vacation ends on a dreamy, desperate, and slightly delusional note with "Worlds Away," which was name-checked to nice effect by Bret Easton Ellis in Less Than Zero. I can definitely see Clay, the novel's tortured protagonist, lounging by the poolside, strung out on coke and alcohol, staring into the crystal-clear water, trying to figure out whether he last slept with a boy or a girl, zoning out to this song on his headphones:
Walking around it's clear
I'm worlds away
Thinking with only half my mind
Found myself wanting
To be sleeping
To be dreaming
To be worlds away

Slip into bed the sheets are
Cold and smooth
My tension melts to a quiet warm
Find myself waiting
To be sleeping
To be dreaming
To be worlds away

I wanna be worlds away
Apart from the day to day
I know I'll be okay
When I get worlds away
Worlds away
Worlds away

There are a couple of other great songs on Vacation I need, and I mean need, to talk about, but I've decided to work them skillfully into a few of my upcoming posts. In the big-screen movie version of Lips Unsealed (which you know I must some day make), there are certain songs that are just tailor-made to be playing on the soundtrack alongside specific moments in this woman's life. For Belinda Carlisle, you see, life and art were one and the same.

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