Go! With the Spirit
The other day I happened, to my great surprise, to walk by a cheerleading camp, a small army of kids with words like "TIGERS" emblazoned across their trim, peppy asses. Sometimes I forget that real, nonironic cheerleaders, who are very serious about what they do, exist -- and not just on high school football fields.
Which brings us to Brighton's the Go! Team, six de facto cheerleaders who are staging a massive musical pep rally, focusing all their hyperactive energy on making sure you, the listener, are as psyched as they are. Their debut, Thunder, Lightning, Strike, is peppered with high-octane shout-outs to a diverse lineup of artists, genres, and great moments in pop music history.
But don't mistake these musicians' perkiness for frivolity, or their pop-culture pastiche for inconsequential kitsch. They've got spirit, yes, they do, but they've also got a certain sophistication; they make bouncy pop with finesse and a firm finger on the pulse of decades of pop culture. The band balances silliness with savoir-faire, stealing fun back from the clutches of the mundane halftime-show blitz and reinvigorating the all-too-often staid, humorless underground rock world with bells, whistles, and spanky pants -- well, okay, matching tee shirts.
"Go team," according to MC/vocalist Ninja, is also the name for "the crew that clears up wreckage after a plane crash," which is an apt description of the way pop-music artifacts are scavenged and tidied up into something brand-new again on Thunder.
Head cheerleader Ian Parton created the Go! Team in his bedroom with a four-track, a handful of instruments, and a very busy sampler. His original squad included, among others, samples and sound bites of banjos, glutinous Bacha-rockin' strings, Jackson 5-style bubblegum funk, wistful girl-group vocals, jump-rope rhymes and beats, and Shaft's thwacka-thwacking guitars, but no true human members. In the U.K., this pottage went down easy, but in the U.S., it smelled like fresh kill for copyright lawyers. So Parton had to do some legal and musical tweaking, delaying the American release of the album for several months.
The resulting stateside version still smacks of that strange combination of curio and candy shop. Parton borrows Schroeder's piano from Peanuts and does a little "Moon River"-style duet with a harmonica on "Feelgood by Numbers," for example. On "Bottle Rocket," an old-school MC rhymes like a female Reverend Run over a horn section that sounds as if it could have been nicked from any TV show starring Lee Majors. "Huddle Formation" seems at first to lean slightly more toward conventional indie rock, all shoegazing synths and guitars, but then it gets hijacked by a crew of girls spitting rhymes like they're doing "Miss Mary Mack" next to the tetherball court.
The production quality is intentionally low-grade, as if Parton wanted each of us to feel as though we'd unearthed a little-known rarity ourselves. All the samples are obscure yet familiar, their original sources just out of reach in the back of your mind, so as to drive you nuts trying to think of them. It's enough to bury any music geek in his dustiest stack of thrift-store 45s for days.
But Parton wasn't content to play the geek god hiding behind his library and laptop in concert. "He wanted to actually perform it live," says Ninja. "So he actually recruited the rest of the Go! Team." Bassist Jamie Bell heard one of the singles Parton released on a U.K. indie label and contacted him, asking to join. Guitarist Sam Dook and drummer Chi were friends of friends, and Parton found second drummer and multi-instrumentalist Silke through an ad she had placed looking for a band. Ninja found the group through an ad Parton ran for an "old-school hip-hop rapper."
The freshly formed Go! Team played its first show together at Sweden's Accelerator Festival last year. If Thunder sounds manic and frenzied, the stage version is meant to stir up an even more turbulent storm. "The live show's a lot noisier . . . It's designed to be really in your face, brash, loud," says Ninja. Onstage, the two drummers make every effort to crack the sound barrier, musicians swap instruments mid-song, and Ninja, official keeper of the Go! Team spirit stick, frenetically works the crowd, adding lyrics and vocals on top of the already chaotic instrumental tracks.
"We do all come from different backgrounds, and we all bring a little something extra to it," she says. Parton might have put together the music for Thunder by his lonesome, but perhaps his most brilliant creation is the Go! Team itself. Six cute, bouncy twentysomethings, three boys and three girls from wildly different musical and cultural upbringings: Chi is from Japan, Silke is German, Ninja is black with a hip-hop pedigree, and the boys are all avid students of various British and American schools of rock.
At times, that pitch-perfect diversity of sound and identity starts to feel too flawless, its adamant variety a bit forced and homogenized. The very unpredictable nature of the album becomes like the predictable chewy center in the middle of each track, and after a while, it all just tastes like irresistible but indistinguishable sugar.
The Go! Team, however, isn't interested in becoming the music industry's teeth-rotting flavor of the week. Its members are staunchly anti-commercial, having already turned down offers for their music to be used in ads for, among others, McDonald's and Grolsch beer. And while their upbeat musical collage inevitably brings to mind words like "buoyant" and "sunshiny," don't think for a minute that these aren't serious musicians making sincere music. "[The sounds] just happened to be [Parton's] influences, things that he enjoys . . . he didn't make it to be happy music . . . he just wanted it to rock, to just be something that is really enjoyable," says Ninja.
She also claims that while the band's sonic and cultural variety wasn't intentional, it serves the Go! Team's larger goals quite well. "Hopefully the fact that there's so many different things in the music will attract loads of different people . . . I'd love us to one day kind of have a Michael Jackson crowd, where you've got old people, young, black, white, from every country on Earth -- everybody."
Taking over the thoroughly dethroned King of Pop's empire seems like a weighty goal for an endorsement-resistant, nuts-and-bolts indie band that makes Pitchfork-approved pop gobbled up by petulant hipsters. And as Jackson himself has been kind enough to regularly demonstrate for us, that kind of balance between infectious pop epidemic and integrity isn't easy to maintain. But with its expertly eclectic combination of fluff and finesse, the Go! Team seems to be well equipped to handle the very serious business of having fun.
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