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Head Over Heels

Among the greatest tragedies that the advent of music videos brought with it was that the amazing visual power of the medium, especially in its early years, was so strong that often the images it left behind were so indelible they tended to obscure the more important truths about the music playing behind them.

For many bands, the lasting image of a carefully coifed hairdo has given them far more fame than their talents would otherwise have warranted. Yet there are others who have suffered a reverse fate: groups whose music is worthy of praise and critical reassessment--but whose contributions have been slighted, or even ignored, simply because they emerged from the video era. Perhaps no group's reputation has suffered more from this than the Go-Go's. Writing and playing their own material, the band combined elements of surf, punk and shiny '60s pop to create a unique formula resulting in a string of hit singles and platinum albums. More important, they served as a catalyst, creating a template for modern girl guitar groups ranging from Luscious Jackson to Veruca Salt.

As Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins noted, the Go-Go's were "not only a welcome breakthrough for new music but proof that an all-female band could make it big without a man pulling the strings and without resorting to an image grounded in male fantasy, be it sex kitten or tough leatherette." The Go-Go's were a living, breathing embodiment of girl power long before the term was co-opted. Yet faded images of the band frolicking in a fountain, or those portraying them as happy, tiara-wearing cuties on water skis are the ones most people are left with.

As the decade draws to a close, the Go-Go's have reunited to tour once again. And although this is the third such reunion since their breakup some 14 years ago, it seems the band members have come to the same realization about their legacy and are eager to reclaim their small but crucial place in rock 'n' roll history.

Although it was unfairly ignored upon its release in 1994, the two-CD retrospective Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's is an insightful musical document tracing the history of the female pop pioneers. With 36 tracks spanning 15 years, Valley helps to explain the disparity between the Go-Go's broad musical identity and the one ingrained in the public consciousness. It's a situation that the group's original--and somewhat limited--discography (including a questionably chosen 1990 greatest-hits collection) was never able to correct.

Essentially, Valley stands as a kind of confirmation that before receiving the proverbial major-label makeover, the Go-Go's were genuine "blue haired punks" inhabiting the same decaying ground that was home to the late-'70s/early-'80s Los Angeles punk/New Wave movement. Even now it's hard to reconcile the band's later sound with the screeching shambolic noise evidenced on early material like "Screaming," "Johnny Are You Queer?" and "Fun With Ropes."

Taken mostly from rehearsal tapes or live recordings from odd venues (including Palos Verdes High School and San Francisco's famed punk palace the Mabuhay), this early material finds the group struggling to fit into their tattered punk clothing. It would only be later when the group found a more suitable musical identity that they would have their greatest impact. Still, it's hard to deny the charm of the group's more primitive efforts. Even if Go-Go's front woman Belinda Carlisle never had the dangerous punk essence of the Avengers' Penelope Houston, the group's confrontational humor and slash-and-burn musical ethos were very much in line with the sensibilities of their West Coast contemporaries.

The fact that the band didn't seek to publicize their early punk roots (at one point they even shared a rehearsal space with L.A. proto-punkers X) at the time is understandable. Mall-dwelling teens and wanna-be Valley girls didn't want to be told that their shiny pop princesses were borne of the same chaotic and notorious scene that spawned the Germs and the Zeroes.

More important than simple stylistic concerns, the Go-Go's were a new breed of female performers: self-sufficient writers and musicians who embodied the truest spirit of the feminist ideal. In the end, their greatest success was not measured in album sales or chart positions but by the fact that they had helped liberate their gender in the male-dominated field of rock 'n' roll armed with only a Telecaster and a Fender amp.

While their influence within musical circles has not diminished, the tendency among the general public is to lump the Go-Go's in with a growing legion of '80s one-hit wonders currently cashing in on the wave of nostalgia for the era. The band's musical reputation hasn't been helped by the availability (or nonavailability) of the bulk of their catalogue. That situation will soon be remedied as Universal (under the banner of its newly formed Chronicles imprint) is set to release remastered versions of Vacation and Talk Show.

"Those have been out of print for a while," says Go-Go's guitarist Charlotte Caffey. "Vacation has been out of print for a really, really long time. I mean, I only have one of each of those records. You know, it's like, 'Jeez, I'd like to be able to get some copies of those.'"

Speaking from Los Angeles, where the band has been rehearsing, Caffey says the initial impetus for this latest Go-Go's reunion began last September when the group inked a deal with director Ted Demme and his producer/wife Amanda Scheer Demme to develop a feature film about the group. "It kind of started because we were all talking about the movie and we talked about doing some dates," recalls Caffey. "Then [I.R.S. Records founder] Miles Copeland came up with a tour and we thought, 'Oh, well, let's just do it.'"

Although the film's premise has yet to be determined, the Demmes promise that the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" aspect of the band's early-'80s excesses will be well-documented, whatever shape the final script takes. As for the film, Caffey and company are less concerned about a warts-and-all portrayal than having their celluloid story become a cliched rock 'n' roll stereotype.

"We don't necessarily want to do a bio-pic," she says. "Mostly because it's like, 'Big deal. Band gets together and gets big. Then the excesses come and they fall apart.' It's one of those things that you've seen a million times. What we're trying to do is find the story within the story. We want to try and narrow it down and maybe just look at one weekend or something."

Caffey admits that the film has been progressing at a somewhat sluggish pace. If the typical moviemaking delays have come as a surprise, it's been nothing compared to learning about the cutthroat nature of the film industry, one which Caffey says makes the music business look tame by comparison. "It's been an interesting process getting to know Hollywood. I mean, I've never felt luckier to be in the music industry. Because Hollywood is much more competitive--it's just really hard-core. But this is a whole other avenue of creativity, and if we get to do it, I think it'll be a blast."

A separate project also in the works is a tell-all book authorized by the band and set to be penned by longtime Go-Go's confidante Pleasant Gehman. Caffey says fans shouldn't expect a serious, thought-provoking tome. "It's going to be a lot of pictures, a lot of stories. Mainly we want trash. We would like it to be a book that you pick up at the airport and go, 'Ooh, this looks trashy, let me take it on the plane.' We want it to be one of those ones that you don't want to put down."

Another project of a somewhat more reverential nature is Unsealed, a new Go-Go's tribute album from 4 Alarm records featuring interpretations of some of the group's best-known songs by indie bands like Figdish, Truly, and Season to Risk. "I haven't heard it yet, but there's an AOL Go-Go's board, and the fans on there are kind of appalled by it," says Caffey with a laugh. "Maybe I have a more eclectic sense of music, but I'd be interested to hear bands like the Frogs and the Chainsaw Kittens to see what they do with the songs."

Although the summer tour will visit only a dozen cities, the group is planning to record several of the shows for the purpose of compiling a live album to be marketed and sold through their newly launched Web site.

Amid the various projects, the one question that keeps coming up is whether the tour is merely a one-off event or if the temporary re-formation will lead to something more permanent--possibly a resumption of their recording career. Caffey isn't quite sure what the future holds in that regard, but points to Blondie's rebirth with this year's No Exit (the group's first new album in 17 years) as an obvious source of inspiration.

"They set the tone doing what they did. I think it's so great. The thing about Blondie that people ask is, 'Is this like an '80s thing?' Well, no it's not. A lot of music written at that time was passionate. There was a lot of passion going on and a lot of intensity in that punk movement. So much so that it's still valid today. It's almost like they're new songs. There's something about them that makes them as vital today as it was then."

Although there's certainly more resonance in the work of Blondie or the Go-Go's than, say, A Flock of Seagulls, the biggest concern of any group attempting a "comeback" is whether they can assemble an album that isn't merely a rehash of their previous material. Caffey is hopeful that the group members' transition from wild twentysomethings to mature 40-year-olds will prove to be an artistically rewarding one.

"The thing I've always said is that I'd love to see where we are. We've all had a lot of experiences outside the band. At least on a playing level and a musical level, we sound better than we've ever sounded. So it would be interesting on a writing level to see how everyone's changed as well.

In an era where music and entertainment are increasingly targeted toward the youth market, Caffey doesn't think the band's age or past reputation will matter if they decide to record again. "I think a good record is a good record, regardless of who puts it out, how old they are, and what century it is. If it comes out and strikes a chord with people, then it's a good record," says Caffey.

Unlike other bands that have reunited to the collective groan of the public, the prospect of a new Go-Go's album is considerably more appealing. Although the tracks on the group's swan song may not have been as fully realized as their earlier material, it's difficult to argue against the notion that the Go-Go's ended their original run too early. While one could debate the relative merits of Talk Show versus Beauty and the Beat, there's little doubt that the group was at or near their creative peak when the combination of guitarist Jane Wiedlin's departure and increasing chemical addiction within the group forced them to halt the band after just three albums.

Although Caffey says the group hasn't been writing songs for an album as such, the idea of resuming as a working unit is clearly on their minds. "Yeah, we've talked about it. We haven't started that process yet mostly because we just haven't had the time. Also Belinda's in the cycle of starting a new solo record."

Judging solely on the basis of the three new songs written for the Valley retrospective (two of which Caffey co-wrote), there seems to be more than sufficient potential for the Go-Go's to follow Blondie's lead back into the recording studio. "I would love to see what would happen when we sit down and try to write stuff, just to see what happens without any pressure," says Caffey. "Because that's the best place to be. When you're not having to worry about a record deal and you're not like, 'Oh my God, we have to do this.' But for me the bottom line is the material would just have to be phenomenal."

Since the band's breakup, Caffey has been active with a variety of projects. In 1989, she formed the Graces (a group that included future "Bitch" rocker Meredith Brooks), which released Perfect View, an overproduced and largely ignored album for A&M. More recently, Caffey received a co-writing credit on "Reasons to Be Beautiful," a track from Hole's critical and commercial hit Celebrity Skin. The album owes an obvious debt to the well-crafted Southern California girl-pop sound that Caffey helped pioneer. Caffey says it wasn't coincidental that Hole front woman Courtney Love enlisted her help writing songs for the project. "I think Courtney knew exactly what she wanted to do when she worked with me," says Caffey, laughing.

"Originally I had approached her when I went to the Nirvana taping of Saturday Night Live. This was before Live Through This came out or anything like that. I had heard Pretty on the Inside and I thought this might be an interesting collaboration. Because I like to search out collaborators who can bring something different than what I could do. And I'd say she has far more angst than me--at least on the outside.

"I had another band called Astrid's Mother, and Courtney came to one of our shows in 1995. She came backstage and said she really wanted to write together. So I worked with her and Eric [Erlandson] in New York a little bit and came up with several ideas. She also came over to my house a few times and worked. It was great. I was so thrilled that one of the ones we worked on made it on the record--because it's always kind of a crapshoot."

In addition to her recent work with Hole, Caffey also appeared on Jewel's multiplatinum smash Pieces of You, arranging and playing piano on the song "Foolish Games." Caffey has also worked frequently with her former Go-Go's bandmates, both as a longtime contributor to Carlisle's solo albums as well as co-writing several cuts with Wiedlin for her ill-fated group Frosted. Although she's been away from the regular grind of touring and recording for several years, Caffey (who's married to Redd Kross founder Jeff McDonald) says the creative opportunities she's been afforded have been more than fulfilling. "I really love the behind-the-scenes stuff. I still love playing live, and I love doing records, but writing songs is my main thing."

While both the band's previous reunions have been filled with rumors of backstage fighting and ego clashes similar to those that marked the band's original breakup, Caffey (who was pregnant with daughter Astrid and forced to miss almost all of the 1994 tour) chalks up the inevitable squabbles to band chemistry. "The thing that makes us great is the thing that also makes each other crazy. But that's good, because that makes us do what we do--and do it well."

For her part, Caffey says the birth of her child has brought her a new sense of stability and understanding. "I'm only speaking for myself, but having a kid has put everything else in my life in perspective. Having a kid is getting a certain kind of freedom in a way because you can't be self-obsessed anymore. And when all of us start acting like little kids and brats, I'm thinking, 'Wait, Astrid is the kid here--I'm not.' So it puts it all in perspective."

Ultimately, Caffey is confident that whatever the future holds, the current tour will be the key step in restoring their slightly tarnished legacy by proving that the Go-Go's are first and foremost a great rock 'n' roll band. "My experience this time being around the girls is very different than it has been in the past. We've just kind of . . . it's weird because we keep getting these opportunities to get together, and I'm starting to look at it from a spiritual standpoint now. It's like, 'Hey, I think we're supposed to be working this out and trying to leave something more behind.'"

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr