The enormous commercial success of Beauty and the Beat in America was not only a welcome breakthrough for new music, but proof that an all-female band could make it big under its own steam and on its own terms, without resorting to an image grounded in male fantasy, be it sex kitten or tough leatherette. On their first album, the Los Angeles quintet of ex-Germs drummer (“Dottie Danger”) Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Wisconsin expat Jane Wiedlin (the former “Jane Drano”; guitar/vocals), Baltimore native Gina Schock (drums), Austinite Kathy Valentine (bass) and ex-Eyes bassist Charlotte Caffey (guitar) enthusiastically shed the punk harshness of their beginnings for a harmlessly charming mix of tuneful pop and energetic rock. Besides containing two bona fide hit singles (“We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed”), a couple of enduring anthems (“This Town,” “How Much More”) the album offers a refreshingly different point of view on some familiar themes (“Lust to Love,” “Skidmarks on My Heart”).
If not as exuberant or confident as its predecessor, Vacation is at least more ambitious. The quintet sounds distinctive and skillful, but the sophomore disc’s songs generally fall short of those on Beauty and the Beat. The exceptions, however, are delightful: the crisp, wistful title track, “I Think It’s Me” and the bubbly, modernized girl-group sound of “This Old Feeling.”
Talk Show exchanges the wise punk-pop production hand of Richard Gottehrer for a more challenging experience with Martin Rushent. He attempts a major revamp, turning up the rock energy on all fronts: Schock’s drumming receives new prominence in the mix while guitars blaze with added bite. There are, characteristically, a few great singles (“Turn to You,” “Head Over Heels” and “Yes or No,” the last co-written by Wiedlin with Ron and Russell Mael), plus a lot of forgettable filler. After all that, the first album remains the band’s best.
At that point, Wiedlin — who was one of the band’s main songwriters — opted out for a solo career. The group pressed on without her for a while, but disbanded for the first (not the last time) in May 1985.
Wiedlin’s first album is stylistically eclectic to a fault, and stresses goody-goody lyrical concerns too bluntly. But it’s also substantial, attractive and joyously reflects her newfound artistic freedom. “Blue Kiss” is an adorable love lament; “Somebody’s Going to Get Into This House” is sturdy dance-rock. “Where We Can Go” could have been a Go-Go’s song, while the moody “Modern Romance” would better suit the Motels. Wiedlin isn’t the world’s strongest vocalist, but her enthusiasm and sincerity largely compensate.
With perky synth-pop production by Stephen Hague (ex-Naked Eye Rob Fisher played and programmed the keyboards), the similarly diverse Fur moves Wiedlin into a slickly modern mainstream, relying on her sweet, vulnerable voice to balance the impersonal arrangements. Aspirations to be a junior dance diva (on the pro-animal title song) and suave ballad crooner (on “The End of Love,” “Whatever It Takes”) are futile; the album’s winners are bouncy fizz-pop — “Inside a Dream,” “Rush Hour” and “Give!”
In 1989, Wiedlin made an adorable screen appearance as Joan of Arc in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventureand then cut her third album. Tangled is an unsubtle attempt to make a woman — artistically speaking — of her, with an unclothed cover photograph, lusty lyrics (on the idiotic title track and “World on Fire”) and loudly generic rock backing. Wiedlin’s desire to shake her innocent little-girl image is understandable, but she sounds adrift and embarrassed here.
Joined by Caffey, Belinda Carlisle also struck out on a solo career. Belinda is a mixed-up debut. While the cover shows the newly glamorized singer striking a stylish Cyd Charisse pose, the mock-girl groupisms, misbegotten Motown take-offs and lush quasi-Ronstadt rock are easy on the ears but utterly lacking in conviction. Carlisle’s unsteady voice was never the Go-Go’s’ strongest feature; with training, her skills have improved over the years, but she has never become the diva of her dreams. Dull material and unimaginative production adds little to her first bid for acceptance as an adult artist.
Carlisle’s second album — an absurd but stylistically focused big-budget studio concoction on which hit-bound rock-pop production numbers like “I Get Weak” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” mingle with such bizarrities as a lame cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” — turned her into a huge, meaningless star. The limits of Carlisle’s voice are obvious on some songs; producer-mastermind Rick Nowels’ slim repertoire of ideas (mainly loud electric guitars thrown against synthesized strings and heavenly backing chorus) is also a problem. The album’s only hint of wit is Carlisle’s credit for air guitar.
Again directed by Nowels, Runaway Horses is another hollow melodrama of contrivance and cliché. The record’s calculated hooks are hard to resist, but Carlisle’s studied delivery — check the exuberant title track, the pseudo-Latin “La Luna” and the idiotic “Leave a Light On” (to which George Harrison adds inappropriate slide guitar) — has all the come-on sincerity of phone sex.
For her brief solo career, Gina Schock sings and co-wrote the songs on House of Schock with bassist Vance DeGeneres; the backing trio surprisingly includes a drummer who takes her place on half the tracks. Richard Gottehrer’s deft production provides a bright, appealing sound, but Schock’s limited voice and songs, both equally inoffensive, are easily forgotten.
Apart from Carlisle, Caffey, Gia Ciambotti and future solo star Meredith Brooks formed the Graces, an obviously sound idea ruined by commercial ambition. Rather than let the group find its own use for three complementary voices, executive producer Jimmy Iovine threw an army of producers (including Carlisle’s svengali of schlock, Rick Nowels), songwriters and session pros at the project, burying Perfect View in a slick but ineffectual wash. If the Graces had personality, you’d never know it from this bland piece of product.
In 1990, after reuniting for a one-off charity performance, the Go-Go’s decided to give it another try together. By year’s end, they were on the road again, accompanied by a needless compilation, Go-Go’s Greatest. The highlights of their three albums scarcely demand an entire CD. Beyond the certified hits (“Our Lips Are Sealed,” “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” “Head Over Heels” and “Turn to You,” which are great enough to stand behind), “This Town,” “Lust to Love,” “How Much More” and maybe “Skidmarks on My Heart” are all the Go-Go’s anyone needs to remember. Nevertheless, Greatest (which manages to omit “Skidmarks”) lays on second-tier album tracks and a wretched new recording of “Cool Jerk,” the Capitols’ dance oldie they first covered on Vacation.
After a short tour, the dysfunctional group retreated to neutral corners, and Carlisle resumed her solo career. Live Your Life Be Free is another big mess of overproduced song-factory pop, heavy on the light Madonna syrup (Nowels’ “You’re Nothing Without Me” comes closest, although the emotional abandon of “I Plead Insanity” is strictly a male fantasy). She also released a greatest hits collection, having bested the group with six Top 40 singles, including “Mad About You,” “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” and “I Get Weak.”
Then Belinda broke the mold with the aptly titled Real. With Caffey as her creative partner, pre-stardom pals from Redd Kross and the Germs on hand and Nowels nowhere to be found, Carlisle brought herself back to earth, shouldering some of the songwriting responsibilities for the first time and trying on a relatively straightforward rock-pop sound. Pat Smear, Steven and Jeff McDonald and Vicki Peterson are wasted in a record free of sharp corners or irony, but some of the romantic angst songs (the worst of which, “Lay Down Your Arms,” underscores Carlisle’s Madonna dreams) aren’t bad. Belinda sings with all the conviction missing from her other records — and then some. Against the pretty backdrop of Bangles-like harmonies, she emotes herself to the point of overbearing frenzy on the edgy “Tell Me,” “Windows of the World” and “Here Comes My Baby,” erasing years of careful composure in an amateurish lack of control.
As Wiedlin sat on the sidelines, her label assembled a very generous compilation of her three albums, augmented by “Cool Places” (a percolating 1983 collaboration with Sparks) and a spartan acoustic remake of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which she had written back in the day with then-Specials singer Terry Hall. Despite some swell tracks (“Blue Kiss,” “Tangled,” “Give!”), the album’s prime value is Jane’s liner notes and the extensive discography.
By 1994, the Go-Go’s were all but frozen in the memory banks between A Flock of Seagulls and Men Without Hats when the fivesome unexpectedly gathered to help assemble the music and artwork for Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s. Part self-parodying scrapbook, part outtake anthology and part serious history, the 36-track double-CD starts with rehearsal sessions and live performances from 1979, includes most of the essential items from Greatest in their original form and ends with a souvenir from the ’90 tour and three new songs written and recorded for the occasion. A lurid, unruly history that repeatedly goes out of its way to show the group in a less-than-flattering light — and is therefore a most illuminating and impressive document — Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s boasts such car-wreck charmers as the punk racket of the long-forgotten “Party Pose” and “Fashion Seekers,” a sloppy live “Johnny Are You Queer?” (written for, but never released by, the Go-Go’s; Josie Cotton got it instead), a ripping live rendition of Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have a Party” and a high-intensity outtake of “Lust to Love” produced by Paul Wexler. “Surfing and Spying,” a Caffey instrumental, and the beat-rocking “Speeding” — both reclaimed from early B-sides — are typical of the gems unearthed here. The live stuff doesn’t improve the group’s mediocre standing in that realm, and “The Whole World Lost Its Head” is the only new creation truly worth the bother (although “Beautiful” has a catchy enough chorus), but emptying closets to find buried treasure has its risks. This is one the band did well to undertake.
The Go-Go’s toured to promote the compilation and threatened to stick together long enough to record a new album. Not this time. Carlisle went solo again. In 1994, Valentine formed the Delphines, a trio with singer-guitarist Dominique Davalos (and, for a time, Schock). Caffey joined a band called Astrid’s Mother before starting a record label, Five Foot Two Records, with her sister-in-law Anna Waronker, in 2002. (The women had each married one of the two Redd Kross McDonald brothers.)
Wiedlin’s story continued with her formation of froSTed. Cold, the quartet’s lone album of enthusiastically roaring guitar pop, may have liberated her punky verve, but it also squishes her voice into a tiny squeak that can’t compete with the wall of barre chords. The best tunes were co-written by Wiedlin and Caffey (there’s even a good’un, “Praying,” they crossed the tracks to write with ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs), but the overzealous presentation does the material no favors. While the title track and “My Boyfriend” are toned down to improved effect, the songs aren’t strong enough to matter. (In a bizarre but happy career footnote, Jane and Charlotte topped the country charts in early 2001 with “But for the Grace of God,” a song they had written with, and for, New Zealand-born Nashville star Keith Urban.)
Jane got much better results producing herself (with her manager, Tim Anctil) on the more sonically temperate and personally revealing Kissproof World. Glamorously clad with a bit of kink (including mild bondage-and-domination images and a topless photo of the artist), the engaging and rich album lets it all hang out in stirring reflections of painful self-criticism. In the giddy singsong chorus of “Fallen,” she’s chasing the dragon, burning bridges and falling over the edge. “So many years I thought I knew it all,” she muses, “I never dreamed I’d fuck up … I hit the wall.” In “Die Now! Pay Later!,” she wonders, “When will my real life begin?” But Jane really lets herself have it in post-marital “The Good Wife” – “Now I know I won’t be a mother / Now I see I make a bad wife …’Cause I’m sweet on the outside and rotten within … I need a miracle.” Or at the very least a hug.
Two decades after their groundbreaking debut, the older-and-wiser Go-Go’s (by then able to laugh about their lurid VH1 Behind the Music episode, which revealed that Charlotte Caffey had been the band’s unlikely junkie; Belinda’s then-impending Playboy pictorial was another matter entirely) got back together long enough to record a complete new album. Produced by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade, God Bless the Go-Go’s sounds right (familiar but not out of date, upholding old values without hiding in the past), despite the evident tension of Carlisle’s mannered pro singing against her bandmates’ audible desire to relive their spunky youth. The commendable winners (“Unforgiven,” co-written by Bill Joe Armstrong of Green Day; “Stuck in My Car”; “Throw Me a Curve”; and the ballad “Here You Are,” produced by Rick Neigher) more than make up for the sodden duds. A welcome, albeit not entirely necessary, return.