Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Irony Of Talk Show: While Attempting To Sound Like Huge Rock Stars, Go-Go's Make Their Least Successful Album

Talk Show, Talk Show. What are we to do with you?

In some ways, one could say that Talk Show is better than Vacation, in that it has a more unified feel, isn't just a regurgitation of the album that came before, and it shows the band's sound evolving. On the other hand, it's also the sound of the Go-Go's becoming more conventional, more streamlined, and dare I say it, a little more ... boring? Just look at some of these song titles: "Forget That Day," "Turn To You," "Capture The Light," "You Thought," "Yes Or No." Did they just start picking random titles out of a hat? Where's my "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"? Where's my "Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict"? Granted, song titles aren't everything, but in retrospect, this particular batch is indicative of one element that is noticeably missing from Talk Show: an overt sense of humor. I think by this time, the members were feeling so hostile toward each other, and yet were experiencing so much external pressure to pretend that they were still super best buddies, that they started taking things a bit too seriously. On the plus side, all this tension meant that, like almost all of the Go-Go's' output, at least none of the songs on Talk Show came out particularly happy or optimistic. Even so, Talk Show is the one Go-Go's album that sounds most like it was recorded in the '80s. It's their Heartbeat City, with Martin Rushent doing his best Robert "Mutt" Lange impersonation.

The thing is, if you squint your eyes, Talk Show feels like a great Go-Go's album. Or rather, if you asked me to name the "bad" songs on the album I'm not sure I could; I certainly wouldn't call any of them terrible, and if anyone suggests that any of them are, I will personally spit in their french fries. But, as with Vacation, I tend to listen to certain songs rather than listen to the album proper. Part of the reason is that, oddly, for years Talk Show wasn't available on CD, and I think the copy I downloaded was actually ripped from vinyl, so it sounds kind of crummy. I suppose I could try to download another version, but that would take, you know, effort. Still, I'm not sure a higher quality version would change my mind. In his AMG review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine does a nice job of summarizing the album's strengths and weaknesses:
For their third album, the Go-Go's abandoned all pretense of being punk, or even new wave, and went for an unabashed mainstream pop masterpiece. They nearly achieved their goal with Talk Show, an album filled with great pop songs but undermined by its own ambition. Talk Show has a sharper sound than its predecessors, with bigger guitars and drums, which helps drive home the accomplished pop hooks of "Turn to You," "I'm the Only One," and "Yes or No." However, the record is cluttered with half-realized songs and an overly detailed production which occasionally prevents the songs from reaching their full potential. But when the production and song are teamed well, the results are incredible, such as the surging "Head Over Heels," another classic single. Unfortunately, those moments don't arrive frequently enough to make Talk Show the new wave classic that it wants to be.
Although he sounds disappointed, I did notice that when AMG published their "All Music Guide Loves 1984" blog article a few years back, Erlewine listed Talk Show as one of his favorite albums from that year, which suggests that his three-star rating may no longer accurately reflect his true affection for the work. A-ha! Here's another writer who thinks the album might be underrated: Belinda Carlisle. From Lips Unsealed: "In many ways, it's remarkable we were able to make an album given the nonstop drama. Even more remarkable, I think it's the best Go-Go's album. There's no doubt that when we were in sync, the five of us had a special chemistry and spirit."

I don't know about "best" Go-Go's album, but I'm glad she likes it. In particular, she singles out "Head Over Heels" and "Beneath the Blue Sky," the latter which she calls "a beautiful song whose vocals were, unfortunately, too complicated for us to ever do live." Hey, that never stopped Queen.
Hey over there what's going on
Where I am they say you're wrong
When my sun is setting
Yours is breaking dawn
Say over there I want to talk
I wonder if we think the same thoughts
What do they teach you
How much have you bought

These days I feel too wise
I think we're sharing the same lies

Beneath the blue sky we're all alone together
The calm hides stormy weather
And if we stand apart we'll kiss goodbye
Beneath the blue sky

Almost sounds like an epitath for the band, does it not? "The calm hides the stormy weather," AKA "It may look like everyone's having a great time, but actually, at the moment, we hate each other's guts." Or as Smokey Robinson once put it, "People say I'm the life of the party/'Cause I tell a joke or two/Although I might be laughing loud and hearty/Deep inside I'm blue." By the time I.R.S. released the last single from the album, "Yes Or No," I think the band had all but announced its break-up, and the label barely bothered to promote the song (it peaked at a whopping #84). As a result, the video is just a cheap montage of concert footage and home movies somebody took of the Go-Go's dicking around by a pool, obviously with all the coke-snorting scenes edited out.

Amusingly, the band quietly hoped that the album's stratospheric commercial success would alleviate their interpersonal conflicts and wash away all the tension like a magical '80s potion. They were in for a rude awakening when Talk Show peaked at #18 and failed to even go gold. What the hell happened? I mean, yeah OK, it wasn't Thriller, but it was at least good enough to sustain some of the momentum, right? Maybe the public had simply become bored with the Go-Go's in their endless quest for the Next Big Thing. "The Go-Go's? Oh my God, they're so ... 1982!" This was 1984, and female pop singers were becoming weirder, wilder, sexier, more controversial, more provocative. That old water-ski schtick just wasn't going to cut it anymore. Even to this day, Belinda still wonders why the album didn't do better, but, in her own special way, manages to blame herself:
A Los Angeles Times review a few days after the album's release called it "awkward," noted the absence of catchy pop hooks, and said "the songs demand more work from the listener, and the elaborate melodies certainly demand more of singer Belinda Carlisle." Unfortunately, I agreed. Deep down I knew that I had bitten off more than I could chew on that album. Unlike the other girls, I hadn't worked on my craft as hard as I should have ... I would develop into a decent singer later, but at the time I didn't improve as much as I would expect myself to if I was able to go back and do it over again.
"Decent"? "Decent"?! The sweetest voice my ears have ever heard, and she calls herself "decent"? Oh, the modesty. She does sound a little lost on "I'm With You," but other than that, she should give herself a freakin' break. Although she does a nice job on the anguished closing track, "Mercenary," I actually prefer some of the stripped-down live versions the band performed during their first reunion tour in 1990 (one of which is included on Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's), which do slightly make Belinda's case for her claims of vocal development. Or maybe Gina's eccentric martial drumming wasn't quite the touch the surprisingly bitter song needed:
He's crying inside
Can't tear the hurt out
Life's rushing by
Like and old movie backdrop
The radio's blasting
Song after song
About the big romance
That went all wrong

She says, I just wanted to make you
I never meant to break you
He says, have some mercy on me
Do you have to be
Such a mercenary

She's scheming inside
Can't stop the wheels turning
Been through it before
There's no profit or learning
She's not really bad
Just a gold-plated heart
So scared to be alone
It rips her apart

Bottom line: as imploding break-up albums go, Talk Show is pretty respectable.

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