They Got The Beat

Long ago, I mentioned how my brother, on returning from a long-stint working overseas, had returned to England, retrieved all of his belongings from storage, and promptly decided that he no longer needed his CD, DVD and vinyl collection, and donated them to me.

For the past couple of years, delayed and interupted by my having to evacuate my flat whilst structural work was done last year, I’ve been sorting through it all, integrating it into my own collection, seeking out the duplicates which at some point will make their way to a charidee shop.

At the time I said I would write about some of the records I’d inherited, but to date I think I’ve only managed one. About time I redressed that, I think.

This has been prompted by watching a documentary about today’s featured band which is available on NOWTV, should you be so inclined. But more of that later.

First, back to the mid-1980s, when my brother went to stay with family we have over in the good ol’ US of A. I’ve mentioned my aunt, uncle and three cousins before, as the source of the Looney Tunes album I’ve dipped into many times on here, and it was them with whom my brother went to stay,

They live and work on a blueberry farm, and my big bro spent a few months over there, helping out on the farm and then socialising and absorbing the culture in his down time.

Consequently, when we collected him from Heathrow on his return, his appearance had changed. On the way out, he was dressed like any other rock kid from the 80s;on his return he was resplendant in denim jacket, off-red skin-tight jeans, a tan to match his brown tan cowboy boots.

And of course, amongst his luggage a plethora of records he had picked up on his travels. One – Def Leppard’s Hysteria album – was a present for me (I was also a proud rocker at the the time, so gratefully accepted this gift of a record by a group I’d never heard of, from…um…Sheffield), the rest were all his.

Amongst them, the first two albums – Beauty and the Beat and Vacation – by The Go-Go’s, an all-girl group who (as the documentary I mentioned earlier goes to great lengths to stress) wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. Actually, although it sounds like one of those tiresome world records people try to claim, The Go-Go’s were the first all-girl band, who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to have a #1 album in the US. And when you think about it, that’s pretty massive. And a searing indictment of the music scene that it didn’t happen until 1981.

We had nothing like them in the UK at the time, so it’s surprising that they never really had that much of an impact over here. The closest we had was Banarama, or The Belle Stars. I love Banarama, but they are not renowned for writing their own songs, playing any instruments, or even attempting to sing in anything approaching harmony. Similarly, The Belle Stars did play their own instruments, wrote some of their own songs, but only had one really great one. I recently picked up a vinyl copy of the album its on, and can report that it’s no suprise a follow-up hit never happened:

The Belle Stars – Sign of the Times

Nothing else to see here. Move along please.

So there was a gap in the market for a band like The Go-Go’s, but for reasons which I’ll never really understand, they just never happened over here.

Many years later, with the advent of the internet, I located both of these albums, downloaded them and burnt copies off which I gave to my brother. He seemed distinctly non-plussed, like I’d reminded him of a particularly embarassing time in his life, before he went Goth and those tan cowboy boots got blacked-up an integrated into his Goth uniform.

Scroll forward another couple of years. Very aware of The Go-Go’s reputation for being hell-raising party girls, I purchase lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s autobiography, which promises to tell the whole story. It is disappointingly bland. I mention this to my brother, who gives me one of those “What are you, stupid?” looks, and says “What did you buy that for? What did you expect? What are you stupid?”

I was genuinely perplexed by these responses. After all, it was he who had brought The Go-Go’s into my life, for which I was eternally grateful, and yet he seemed so dismissive.

This weekend, we were due to meet up and visit our parents, but alas my train got cancelled so I won’t be attending. But I received a WhatsApp message from my brother, asking if I’d watched the documentary, imploring me to do so if I hadn’t, because he had realised that whilst he had considered them a guilty pleasure until now (I know, I know, I’ll have a word…) he now thought they were “…the first cool thing I knew about”. Yes, bro. Been trying to tell you that for years.

Anyway, if you’re able to watch the documentary, I’d thoroughly recommend you do so. It really does tell the warts-and-all story – the partying, the habitual cocaine use, the cracks appearing when the non-songwriters realise how much more than them the actual song-writers are earning, the heroin addiction (of one member), the splits, the re-grouping – everything which is missing from Carlisle’s auto-biography is there.

Here’s the trailer:

And it’s really quite uplifting, the way these five women are able to bury the hatchet and work together again. They had a mini-comeback in 1994 with compilation album Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s, another in 2001 with God Bless The Go-Go’s and another in process right now. New material, one song of which is featured at the end of the documentary. I’d love to tell you it’s any good, but….*sighs*…it really isn’t.

Those first two albums though, the ones my brother brought back from America, are great examples of post-punk power-pop. While neither album is perfect, they both have enough on each to regularly bother my turntable. Here’s my pick from each:

For a starters, that’s one strong iconic sleeve, right there.

Secondly, the first track is this, one which i have posted so many times before, and genuinely believe it to be one of the greatest pop records ever made. The documentary tells you more than I ever knew about how it came about: the UK tour supporting The Specials; guitarist Jane Weidlin’s dalliance with Specials main man Terry Hall:

The Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed

If you can start your debut album off with that as a first track, you deserve to be noticed.

I’d love to tell you the rest of the album is as good as that opener, but it’s not. It can’t be.

That said, the rest of the tunes really aren’t that far behind, all power pop riffs, cooing backing vocals, songs about love, betrayal and youthful infatuation, such as this, which has a teensy bit of the riff nicked from Elvis’ (Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame:

The Go-Go’s – How Much More

Much is made in the documentary of this next song being a turning point in the band’s history, and rightly so. It’s a call to arms, a clarion call, a statement of intent:

The Go-Go’s – We Got the Beat

That song always reminds me of the first time I came to London and saw Hel DJ’ing. At the time she was part of a three-girl DJ collective (I hate to use the word “girl” there, they were women, all in there 30s, but somehow “girl” sounds better. Sorry.) and We Got The Beat was the first record I heard her play “out”. I’ve never worked out whether she played it because she knew what a boss record it was, or because she knew I was there and loved it (bit vain, that last hope, I admit). I’d like to think it was a combination of the two, but expectations have been dashed on lesser things, so it matters not.

Finally, album closer, and this is a really great, much-overlooked tune, which sets the tone for the band seemingly trying to get the word “World” into at least one song title per album:

The Go-Go’s – Can’t Stop the World

On to the second album, Vacation. Second album’s are tricky: do you give people more of the same, or try to develop your sound?

More of the same please! Save progress for the difficult third album!

And to kick it off, a perfect juxtaposition of happy, holiday music against the sorry tale of a woman needing to get away:

The Go-Go’s – Vacation

Next-up a song which I can only assume was written to show these girls were just normal like any other girls (and that’s not a bad thing):

The Go-Go’s – Girl Of 100 Lists

Then comes this, which if it isn’t trying to recreate We Got The Beat

The Go-Go’s – Get Up And Go

…then the cover following it almost definitely is:

The Go-Go’s – Cool Jerk

Before it’s off back to the beach, for a much happier time than we were having at the start of the album:

The Go-Go’s – Beatnik Beach

…and then it’s into wistful, final song territory, with the obligatory “world” thrown into the title:

The Go-Go’s – Worlds Away

And that’s yer lot.

Both albums are worth checking out in full, as is the documentary if you’re able to watch it.

Next time: Rick Springfield. I’m not even going to wait for a documentary. I sense it might be a long wait.

Or, to put it another way: More soon.