Music News

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.