Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Music Box: The Singular Adventures of the Go-Go's

While time has surely confirmed that the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts, the post-breakup endeavors of all five Go-Go's have been a series of interesting -- if uneven -- outings that any non-former-Go-Go would kill to claim as her own. As serious fans know, things began to unravel for the band back in early '84 while working with product Martin Rushent in England on "Talk Show." Jane had gotten a taste of the spotlight (and a bit of a big head) after singing "Cool Places" with Sparks the previous year (which just missed the Top 40, but was a huge "new wave hit") and wanted a more prominent position in the Go-Go's. When the band ruled against her desire to sing lead on "Forget That Day" -- one of her seven contributions to the album (it turned out Charlotte Caffey was whacked out on heroin, so that left Jane to do the heavy lifting in the songwriting department) -- she made up her mind to bolt when the tour for the album was over. At the time it seemed reasonable that she was denied her request -- Belinda was the singer, after all. But in retrospect it seems stupid that a group would end up being destroyed over something so petty. It wasn't going to be a single anyway, and it's not like dozens of bands haven't occasionally let other members sing lead from time to time ("Superman" by Mike Mills of R.E.M. and "Drive" by Benjamin Orr of the Cars immediately come to mind). But Jane probably had bigger plans for herself anyway, so leave she did.

The following year she released her eponymous debut album. Although it received a lot of publicity, the audience was largely unreceptive ("Blue Kiss" stalled at No. 77 and the album peaked at No. 127). While I was "mad" at her at the time for ruining the Go-Go's, I remember the album rather fondly because of outstanding songs like "Modern Romance," "Forever" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Unfortunately, the album also confirmed that Wiedlin -- as is nicely displayed on "Our Lips Are Sealed" -- is best served in small doses. The aptly named third song on the album, "Sometimes You Really Get on My Nerves," almost seems like an ominous bit of foreshadowing -- and I'd be lying if I didn't confess to renaming "Somebody's Going to Get Into This House" as "Somebody Put a Lid on This Mouse" by the time the album nears completion (you can only handle that helium voice for so long!).

We all know that Belinda was next out of the gate ("Mad About You," which was co-written by Jane's replacement, Paula Jean Brown, still ranks as one of my all-time favorite singles) and her lengthy solo career has been an entertaining -- if not formulaic -- one.

The year after Belinda shot to megastardom with "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," Jane released the glossier "Fur" and she too hit the Top 10 with her summery confection, "Rush Hour." The album had a number of great pop songs -- such as "Give," Inside a Dream," "One Heart, One Way" and "Lover's Night" -- but despite the hit single, it didn't sell much better than its predecessor.

What was the biggest surprise of 1988, though, was that Gina Schock would be next to "go solo." As a drummer with few songwriting credits to her name, the butch from Baltimore seemed like the Go-Go Least Likely To, yet she managed to channel her inner Phil Collins and teamed up with bassist Vance DeGeneres (Ellen's brother!) to form House of Schock (Chrissy Shefts on guitar and Steven Fisher on drums rounded out the band). Although the project proved to be short-lived, the album was produced by Richard Gottehrer (the genius behind Blondie's debut and the Go-Go's classic, "Beauty and the Beat") and had a charming, Holly and the Italians working-class charm to it. The single "Middle of Nowhere" should have been a HUGE hit (it was heard in the film "The Accused"!), "Just to Dream" ranks high on my fave post-Go-Go solo tracks of all time and "This Time" had Top 40 written all over it.

In 1989, Charlotte Caffey, who had been working closely on Belinda's solo project, finally emerged with the all-girl trio, The Graces. Charlotte had been the singer in the punky band The Eyes ("Don't Talk to Me" is a classic) and a solo artist (her demo of "Fading Fast" brings a vacantness to the song that only a heroin addict could love), and before joining the Go-Go's, so she seemed like a shoo-in for a solo career. Yet she chose a more Bangles-ish arrangement where she rotated lead vocals with new bandmates Meredith Brooks (of later "Bitch" fame) and Gia Ciambotti. (Chrissy Sheft would later replace Brooks when she went solo.) The Graces sole album is full of strong quasi-folk-inspired pop songs that should have been hits -- "Perfect View" is my favorite, and the brilliant "Lay Down Your Arms" and "Should I Let You In" were wisely covered by Belinda later on -- although I find I tend to favor Charlotte's vocals, which makes for a slightly more uneven experience than it should have been given how strong the songs were. ("Perfect View" = perfect song.)

In 1990, Jane's third solo album came out on the heels of her song "Tangled" being included on the HUGE "Pretty Woman" soundtrack. The album, also called "Tangled," is without question Jane's masterpiece. Unlike her previous efforts, her voice never becomes annoying, but serves as complete asset to avalanche of gems she'd written. From the romantic opener "Rain on Me" and the power pop of the title track, to the heartwrenching "Paper Heart,"the giddy charms of "99 Ways" (sort of the antithesis of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover") and the anthemic "Euphoria," the album is a classic.

Throughout the 1990s, Kathy Valentine -- a former Textone in her own right (ever hear the original "Vacation"?) -- played around the L.A. scene with her blues-inspired band the BlueBonnets. I never made it to any of their gigs, but my friend Mark tells me that they were absolutely unbelievable, perhaps the best post-Go-Go show in town. But Mark says things were never the same once singer Pinky Villandry left the group over the standard "creative differences" (not sure if he ever saw replacement Shannon Moore, but that didn't last long). What the remains of the BlueBonnets -- Kathy and Dominique Davalos -- became was the Delphines, and after various line-up changes and an EP, I finally heard them on their 1996 self-titled debut album and instantly fell in love. Winning pop melodies with a bit of a garage feel to it, "I Want You the Way I Want You, Not the Way You Are," "I Am Not Your Loved One," "Thrill of It" and especially "Crazy" and "Down Underground" (which sounds like a discarded early Blondie gem) are must-haves. I'm not sure why, but I never bothered to get their 2001 followup, "Cosmic Speed," and was mostly horrified by Kathy's solo debut, 2005's "Light Years," which sounded like an especially bad Debbie Harry solo album. ("Re-Debravation"?) Valentine's pre-BlueBonnets work included an attempt at a band with Gina and Holly Beth Vincent (one of my all-time faves), plus the famed World's Cutest Killers (featuring Kelly Johnson, who had replaced Kathy in Girlschool way back when), who seemed destined for stardom but never secured a recording contract.

Which brings me to perhaps the most unexpected solo outing: Frosted, the "punk-pop" band Jane formed with three young guys (former members of Fizzy Bangers and Ex-Idols), that put out one kickass album in 1996, "Cold." Although the album suffers from some of the same problems as Jane's solo works (that voice takes a toll), there really are some wonderful 1990s alt-rock songs here -- "Dis-integrated" and "Call Me Crazy" to name two -- which, if they'd been sung by Courtney Love back in the day, would have been Billboard Modern Rock chart-toppers instead of a cutout classic. (The band quickly broke up after the album's release.)

All of this fell by the wayside when the gals reunited in 2001 for "God Bless the Go-Go's" (how was that for a reunion that didn't miss a beat?). In recent concerts, the "new" songs blend in seamlessly with their old catalogue, which may make it seem like they've remained stuck in an era that's gone by, when it fact it just illuminates how timeless their original music -- unlike some of the ensuing solo projects along the way -- was all along.

  • Read all Music Box posts HERE.

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    Dave in Texas said...

    Wow! What a great Go-Gos in a nutshell piece! I will say that Jane's Blue Kiss is a favorite of mine. God Bless The GoGos was pretty good - Unforgiven should have been a big hit and I loved Apology. Beautiful from Return To The Valley Of The GoGos is another good song (as was The whole World Lost Its Head). I've never seen them in person, but perhaps someday.

    charles said...

    I am too young to really remember the Go-Go's (though I do remember jamming to "Rush Hour") but I love these posts!

    That was such an exciting time for music.

    Sean said...

    Luv the post - am a big fan of the GoGo's saw them back in the day at Jones Beach and even saw Belynda there solo. They were great on the God Bless the GoGo's Tour - saw them in DC.

    How's this for timing - as I'm reading your post a commercial comes on for Nutrisystem and Belyndia stating she's lost 20 lbs! She looks good.

    carl said...

    You have to buy "Cosmic Speed." It's even better than the first Delphines record. And actually the Delphines shows in LA,back around 2001-02,was some of the best live shows I have ever seen. And I agree about Kathy's solo album-LAME.

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