WHEN THE GO-GO’S RULED…AND WHY (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #107)

I just came across this clip from a Go-Go’s’ concert on Germany’s Rockpalast. It’s from smack dab in the middle of their three-year run on the charts. There is much better live footage of them across the years. They look exhausted here, ripe subjects for burnout and Exhibit A of “paying the price for too much too soon” even if it probably felt like a hundred years to them.

But….

I’ve never seen any other clip which demonstrates so clearly why they were the last great rock ‘n’ roll band, even if it turns out the members of the last great “rock” band are waiting to be born.

Except for the Who, no band ever had so many folks fighting for so little space…and the Who thrashed at each other as often as they meshed.

The Go-Go’s had at least three people playing what amounted to lead instruments and two of those were the rhythm section. They traded their licks at a speed that made everybody else who bothered trading licks (not all that many) sound like they were playing underwater. It really shouldn’t have worked and it wasn’t exactly to their advantage that they made it look–and sound–so easy.

And, brief as it is, this is the best look at Kathy Valentine’s hands I’ve ever seen. She’s playing a top ten hit (which she wrote) at Ramones’ speed, while carrying a melody line the Ramones would have killed for….all on a bass guitar.**

And she doesn’t dominate….Because even her hands aren’t faster or more fluid than Charlotte Caffey’s or Gina Schock’s or even Jane Wiedlin’s, all of whom knew a thing or two about carrying the melody and the beat themselves, even if they only had three seconds to do it before they threw it back to whoever threw it at them.

I’ve said it before, I say it again. They were the first and last “all female” band to have a #1 album in Billboard. When folks predicted there would surely be many more such bands, I said: “Not if they have to play like that.”

When there’s only one, there’s usually a reason….it’s worth remembering that now, when we are further removed from them than they were from Fats Domino and still waiting for someone to beat their time.

**To be fair, even the Go-Go’s didn’t write many melodies as compelling as “Vacation.”

PICK THE PUNK (Segue of the Day: 1/30/17)

Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):

“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**

It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of  Tom Petty or Prince.

And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.

But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.

The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.

But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.

Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.

That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.

For a while anyway.

Long enough to become iconic.

Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.

That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.

The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.

I’d love to hear it.

I won’t hold my breath.

**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE…THE LOST YEARS OF THE GO-GO’S EDITION

“Cool Jerk”
The Go-Go’s (1990)
#60 UK
Recommended source: Greatest

“The Whole World Lost Its Head”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
#108 Billboard
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Good Girl”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Did not make the charts
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

“Beautiful”
The Go-Go’s (1994)
Album Track
Recommended source: Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s

Weird.

gogos1

Every once in a while when I’m noodling around, doing nothing in particular, I think of something from days gone by and then, being now properly programmed by modernity, I naturally think again. What I tend to think the second time is “I wonder if it’s on YouTube?”

One of the things I still can’t believe is not on YouTube, no matter how often I’ve thought “surely it must be there by now,” is the Go-Go’s’ MTV video for “Turn to You,” the last great single of their original incarnation, which ended in 1984. One reason I keep hoping it will be there is so I can do a “Not Quite Random Favorites” edition titled “My Favorite Video” because nothing else comes within a thousand miles. (That’s the one where they played a band at a sock-hop…and their own dates. Maybe they really did need a break.)

Anyway, last night I went looking for it yet again and found it still wasn’t there. There’s a mini-doc on the making of “Turn to You”–of course there is–but not the actual video.

Story of my life and all that.

But, this time, clicking around, I started thinking of other things that should be there, none of which I ever thought to look for before.

By which I mean videos from “the lost years”….those years between 1984’s Talk Show and 2001’s God Bless the Go-Go’s, when they popped in and out a couple of times and did what they always did, which was be perfect.

Sometimes, what other people did with and to them wasn’t perfect. Whoever put the extra disco-fied ‘effects’ on this wasn’t perfect. But I’m sure it wasn’t their idea. They were barely paying attention to themselves or each other when this came out in 1990. But having the video finally makes sense of it (in a way its inclusion on their first greatest hits package didn’t). What’s clear hearing–and seeing–it now, at least to me, is that Belinda Carlisle had turned from a singer who was right for her band to a singer who could carry any band. I missed that at the time so a mea culpa is in order.

They were paying a little more attention when they got together and recorded three new songs of their own for 1994’s full-blown retrospective Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s. Almost inconceivably, I had never even wondered if they made any videos attending that little project, so I went searching deeper and found this, for the lead single from the project….which isn’t much of a video (not nearly as good as “Cool Jerk,” let alone what they had done in their heyday) but is a fabulous record. Even if the faint tang of my disappointment in finally realizing that “Boston girls are getting down in bikinis” (a touch of poetry) was really “Muslim girls” (meh) remains, it’s failure to break out still serves as one of the Seven Signs of the Apocalypse…

…And it wasn’t even the best of the three sides they cut for Return.

This, for which they released a single but didn’t make a real video, was better, and has the new-and-improved Carlisle’s finest vocal…

..and I’m not even sure it was the best…depends on the mood I guess. It’s worth reading the quotes at the beginning of each song, but they won’t break any ties.

All in all, that should have been enough to re-start their career.

But it wasn’t.

God Bless the Go-Go’s came out a full seven years later and, instead of really promising more, its final track sealed the whole deal. Years of summer reunion gigs, Kathy Valentine’s departure, and one of those “farewell tours” (at least I think there was only one) formalized it.

But the end was right there in that final track, now commemorated in my favorite “homemade” video.

For some perspective, here’s a nice piece from Goldmine, circa 2011, before Valentine left the band, where, among other things, they debunk any notion that being an all-female band was actually some kind of advantage, post-punk. Turns out that, through no fault of their own, Fanny and the Runaways (both signed by big labels and given major publicity pushes in the decade prior) hadn’t so much blazed a trail as crapped the table.

I’m reading between the lines, of course.

Just more fuel for the argument I made at the time and have made ever since: they didn’t blaze all those trails because it was, as so many argued, “time” for an all-female band. They blazed all those trails because they were the Go-Go’s. It’s only in critical theory that the theories count. In the real world, it’s always the people who matter.

gogos2

(Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Jane Wiedlin, Kathy Valentine)

MY FAVORITE MUSIC TO BREAK RULERS BY…(Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

….By which I mean the kind of rulers you can use for drumsticks if you don’t have real drumsticks….or drums.

I’ve heard there is such a thing as “air-drumming” which I guess is kin to air guitar, but, while I used to play occasional air guitar (like everybody, I hope, who doesn’t play actual guitar), I never could get the point of air drumming. I honestly hope it was all a misunderstanding and it’s never really been a thing.

And, just to be clear, I don’t do much “drumming” of any kind anymore and by “not much” I mean I can’t remember the last time I even held a ruler, let alone broke one.

But I used to do it a lot. I liked to play steady rhythm on the parts of the legs that are just above the knees, though I usually tried to keep a shelf or a wall or a chair handy for the rolls and flourishes.

Because of the knee-and-thigh element, a heavy wooden ruler was not really a good option. I imagine it would have been the same for an actual drumstick (which I wouldn’t have wanted to risk breaking anyway). I wasn’t a masochist, so beating myself black and blue held no appeal. Light plastic rulers were generally useless because they broke too easily. One good session with any of the acts I’m about to mention and, boom, crack, shatter, it was time for a replacement.

That left hard plastic. Something like this…

RULER1

Handy. Because, back in my impetuous youth, just singing, or shouting, along wasn’t always quite enough, and the pain and pleasure (i.e., the amount of damage done to me and the ruler respectively) had to be kept in a sensible balance even if I was temporarily out of my fantasy drumming head.

And, so (with apologies to Keith Moon and the Surfaris, who I could never keep up with though I sure had a lot of fun trying, and to Dino Danelli, who always lost me at the twirl), my top six ruler-breakers–the six that couldn’t be left off–in reverse order.

Drum roll, please….

#6 Artist: The Rolling Stones (1969)
Song: “Gimme Shelter”

drummer1Drummer: Charlie Watts (Honestly, I never cared whether Mick or Merry won the famous battle between Heaven and Hell at the end. I was always too busy trying to keep that weird time….no chance of breaking anything if you lost that!)

#5 Artist: The Righteous Brothers (1964)
Song: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”

DRUMMER2Drummer: Earl Palmer (For the distant thunder at the beginning of the bridge and the explosion on top of your head at the end of it…and for being Earl Palmer.)

#4 Artist: The Clash (1979)
Song: “Death Or Glory”

At the Tribal Stomp II concert.

Drummer: Topper Headon (Surely the greatest licks ever played by a functioning heroin addict..and the other great whisper-to-scream bridge.)

#3 Artist: The 4 Seasons (1964)
Song: “Dawn (Go Away)”

drummer4Drummer: Buddy Saltzman (“Instead of throwing a plate at somebody, I took it out on the drums. You had to get it out of your system.”)

#2 Artist: Sam and Dave
Song: “I Thank You”

drummer5a

Drummer: Al Jackson, Jr. (Really the entire Stax catalog,  where he used to anchor Booker T and the MGs, the Memphis Horns and the world’s greatest soul singers…all at once. But if I had to pick one…)

#1 Artist: The Go-Go’s (1981)
Song: “Can’t Stop the World”

drummer6Drummer: Gina Schock (I should probably mention that all of these numbers used to gain traction by their company on the really great albums I liked to hear them on. Closing an album (as opposed to opening one, like “Gimme Shelter”), was definitely an advantage in this little mind game. Beauty and the Beat made all kinds of breakthroughs for all kinds of reasons, none of which were more important than what I used to say under my breath, with a smile between every cut, as the second side rolled by….”Turn It Up.” I wasn’t referring to volume, just channeling Ms. Schock’s vibe as the leader of the last truly great rock and roll rhythm section….This was the closer. Every time I would bet her fastball couldn’t really get any higher and harder after “You Can’t Walk In Your Sleep” and “Skidmarks On My Heart.” And every time I would be wrong.)

 

MASK OF THE APOCALYPSE (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #51)

From a period TV special: The Go-Go’s assaying the weird combination of elegy and thrash that had taken them to the top, rehearsing an album track for Talk Show, looking and sounding both completely grooved and completely relaxed.

A few months later they broke up.

Further proof, if any were needed, that the world is crazy and the center cannot hold.

And that, in 1984, Gina Schock was the coolest person on the planet.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Go-Go’s Go to High School)

At the moment of their national breakout, in late 1981, the Go-Go’s played a concert at Palos Verdes High School. The concert was released on VHS and Laser Disc and, in an age when few people yet had VCRs, went straight to the cutout bin, where it became a collector’s item, priced well beyond what I was ever willing to spend for anything as technologically dubious as a VHS tape.

A few days ago, I finally found it here…Clear, complete, uncut:

Unless you’re a Go-Go’s fanatic, of course, you probably won’t want to watch the whole thing. But for followers of this blog, I do recommend at least fast-forwarding to the final song of the final encore, where you can see and hear West Coaster Belinda Carlisle (she’s the singer and, until this moment, as beyond awesome as the rest) committing spiritual murder by attempting to render “Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand)” as pure camp.

You can also see and hear the proof that East Coaster Gina Schock (she’s the drummer) was sent by God to drive demons from holy places. Really, you can just turn the sound down if you want, because the whole story is in their faces.

Since I did watch the whole thing (and will certainly do so again and again) I can report that my long-standing suspicion that The Final Battle of the Bands, which I have on secret authority will definitely be taking place at the conclusion of the Great Sock Hop at the End of Time, will come down to the Go-Go’s and whichever three guys Keith Moon decides to show up with has been confirmed.

I did glean one new piece of information.

Now I know who wins.

THE LATEST IN SERENDIPITY…

Just added Greil Marcus’ website to the blogroll in place of James Wolcott’s (which has lost its principal use as a conduit to more interesting blogs by virtue of Vanity Fair making its website virtually impossible for neophytes like me to navigate).

Marcus’ site is a treasure trove…fascinating and virtually endless snapshots of forty-five years worth of pop culture. Enlightening, infuriating, thought-provoking, blood-pressure-raising all the things that make life worthwhile. I’ve been meaning to add it for a while and decided today was the day for it because the latest addition to the site is a “Real Life Rock Top Ten” from May of 1988, where, among other things he recommends House of Schock’s “Middle of Nowhere.”

That I very recently wrote about how much this extremely obscure record meant to me at the time is not even weird.

What’s weird is being convinced for nearly thirty years that you were crazy and finding out you may not have been quite as crazy as you thought.

Never fear. With the help of Gina’s “good smile” I’m coping.

GINA1

GINA’S TRIPTYCH (Memory Lane: 1988)

HOUSEOFSHOCK2

My then twenty-seven-year old self wandered around in the wasteland that was 1988 filled with a kind of wary optimism. I wasn’t exactly inundated with it. Gee, the presidential choice that year (should one put the air quotes around presidential?…or choice?…or both?….sorry, the mind stiffens and refuses to commit) was between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

But if it had been Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln it wouldn’t have been all that much different. Let’s just say that unwary optimism wouldn’t exactly be me.

Well, the intervening years have dispensed with those particular fine distinctions. I’m unburdened by any sort of purely political optimism these days. Goodbye us and all that.

One reason I was still, improbably, optimistic in 1988 was that I was still hearing quasi-subliminal messages in popular music.

Well, really I was only hearing quasi-subliminal messages (that is messages that spoke to the moment and could be read purely and solely between the lines of songs that, for folks living on the standard, government approved wavelength, were certainly about some very ordinary other thing) in music made by ex-Go-Go’s drummer Gina Schock that was only trying to be popular.

One reason it wasn’t too terribly successful at being what it was trying to be might have been its too-numerous mundane aspects: airless, cookie-cutter production (from original Go-Go’s producer Richard Gottehrer, who had been good at this stuff since the Angel’s “My Boyfriend’s Back” and really should have known better), anonymous riffing (where the Go-Go’s–especially Gina Schock–had always substituted personality) and lyrics that were mostly straight from songwriting class, mid-semester, freshman year.

Another reason might have been luck. Because all that other stuff, minus what was good about House of Schock, was all over the airwaves in 1988, not to mention every year since and every year now stretching before us down the long dark road into the deep black night.

See. I told you got rid of all that optimism!

And, what may you ask, was good about House of Shock (which was the name of the band as well as their one and only album)?

Three really good songs (all written, like the bulk of the album, by Schock and band-mate Vance DeGeneres*) and Gina Schock’s voice, that was what.

In those three songs and her nothing-special-except-it-got-under-my-skin voice, I heard enough to write the only fan letter of my life. I don’t remember much about the letter (though I remember enough to really, really hope she never read it!…fan letters are bound to be like that, I suspect, if you are older than twelve at the time of composition and subsequently live long enough to look back from a safely objective twenty-twenty distance). And one thing I very specifically don’t remember is whether I mentioned my curious but heartfelt reading of those particular songs–all that between-the-lines stuff.

I suspect not. My twenty-seven-year old self was cautious about sharing unlikely, far-fetched theories. Not like my fifty-four-year old self at all.

Which leaves us (well, me anyway) with what exactly it was I that I did hear.

Simple enough.

Wary optimism. Fellow traveler (spiritual sense, not dread phony political sense).

That’s what.

An assurance the singer would not only survive but would do so precisely because she possessed an abundance of the old “can-do” spirit that was waiting to be reborn in the national soul.

Coming from just about anyone else in 1988 (let alone now) that would have sounded like a very big pile of what the bull leaves in the pasture.

But it wasn’t coming from just anyone.

It was coming from the woman who had thrown her possessions in the car and driven from Baltimore to L.A. and then walked into a punk club where one of the anonymous thousands of that (or any) era’s wannabe bands was playing out a contract before they broke up and went their separate ways and talked them into staying together, into taking her on as the drummer, into rehearsing (and rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing), into literally battling their way to the cover of Rolling Stone twenty-something months later….some time after said Richard Gottehrer had told bassist Kathy Valentine to watch what the drummer did and the “accidental” result had been the first (and, a mere thirty-four years down the line, so far only) album by a self-contained all-female band to reach #1 in Billboard.

So, for me at least, the can-do spirit coming from that woman was bound to mean….something.

Something more than songs to dedicate to every fourth year’s crop of major party candidates (though boy do they work on that level, then and now).

And under the cover of darkness, where the rebirth of the old “can-do” will now have to occur, if it occurs at all, it still does.

So here’s to the old optimism…

The spirit of the open road…

the spit in the eye…(and one of my favorite vocals of the decade)

and the all purpose dedication to the deceivers among us and those who survive them….

 

HOUSEOFSHOCK1

*Yes, he’s Ellen’s brother. And no, she wasn’t yet famous. I’m sure I was one of at least four people on the planet who, when I first heard of her, thought “Gee, I wonder if she’s related to Vance!”

 

 

HISTORY IN THE MAKING…LOS ANGELES, 1979 (Great Quotations)

Starting to contemplate a long post on my history with the Go-Go’s, so here’s a teaser:

GOGOS3

“They were rehearsing a couple of times a month. I said ‘Guys, you gotta rehearse like four or five times a week if you want to make this happen.'”

(Gina Schock, drummer to the gods, recalling her first meeting with the Go-Go’s. Source: VH1 Behind the Music–The Go-Go’s)

Thirty-two months later (with Kathy Valentine having replaced Margot Olavarria [far right]), the Go-Go’s were the first self-contained, all-female band in the history of popular music to have the #1 album in Billboard.

As of this date, they are also the last.

Like I always say, when there’s only one of something, there’s usually a reason….like maybe the unusual ability to communicate angst as joy: