Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The Two Things the New Go-Go's Documentary Got Wrong

The Go-Go's are receiving a lot of much-deserved recognition since Alison Ellwood's documentary was released on Friday. It's a great film, filled with thrilling rare footage and fascinating insights from two early members and one replacement. (Manager Ginger sold her car to support them!) My only quibble is that I wish it had done a better job to not promulgate two misconceptions about the band: that a new generation of female musicians failed to come along to follow in their footsteps and that they were some one-off success story, neither of which is really accurate.

The Go-Go's were total trailblazers. But their efforts were certainly not as much in vain as they have been made out to be by focusing on the number of all-women bands that have come since them. Perhaps the main reason there haven't been that many is because women musicians aren't seen as a novelty anymore -- in large part because of the Go-Go's. So girls and women join bands of all different gender configurations. That's progress. Off the top of my head I can think of more than a dozen bands the Go-Go's helped pave the way for, including the Pandoras, Throwing Muses, the Breeders,  Luscious Jackson, Bikini Kill, L7, Veruca Salt, Hole, Sleater-Kinney, Belly, Le Tigre, the Donnas, Murmurs, Heavens to Betsy, the Like, the Muffs, Pussy Riot, Best Coast, Haim, Bleached ... and the list goes on.

And then there's the Bangles. The Go-Go's and the Bangles are nothing alike and have been unfairly compared for decades. But if we're lamenting that the Go-Go's were the first but "still the only" all-female band to write and play their own instruments to have a No. 1 album we should also remember they're not the only ones to come from DIY beginnings to achieve great success.

Although "Beauty and the Beat" does indeed hold that distinction 40 years later -- having spent six weeks at No. 1 and being certified double platinum for sales of two million plus -- the Bangles' "Different Light" reached No. 2 and was certified triple platinum for sales of three million plus.

The Go-Go's "Vacation" was certified gold and "Talk Show" sold fewer than 500,000. The group's "Greatest" album also sold less than 500,000 copies.

The first Bangles album, "All Over the Place," wasn't a big hit but did spend 30 weeks on the Billboard albums chart. I've mentioned the second album's being certified triple platinum. Their third, 'Everything," was also a million-seller in the U.S., as was their "Greatest Hits."

"Different Light," "Everything" and "Greatest Hits" were also certified platinum in Australia, U.K., and Canada, a much lower bar than in the U.S. but impressive nonetheless. The only Go-Go's album to be certified outside the U.S. was "Beauty and the Beat," which went platinum in Canada.

The Bangles had two No. 1 singles, two No. 2 singles and eight Top 40 singles overall. The Go-Go's had one No. 2 single, one No. 8 single and five Top 40 singles overall.

This isn't a competition. But it is progress that another all-female band came along and sold twice as many records shortly thereafter. And then the Breeders and Hole had platinum albums and Belly and Luscious Jackson went gold. The Go-Go's helped pave the way for all of this. Also might be worth noting that the onetime-Dixie Chicks have sold at least 33 million albums in the U.S. alone, according to RIAA, and have three No. 1 albums.

As a side note: The Bangles are often maligned for recording "so many covers," whereas the Go-Go's only recorded one for an album. First of all, I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. The first Rolling Stones album was all covers. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ziggy Stardust and Paul Simon did covers. Blondie released "Denis" off "Plastic Letters" and did three covers on their classic "Parallel Lines." (In fact, "Hanging on the Telephone" was written by the guy who co-wrote "Tonite" with Charlotte Caffey.) Madonna's first two Top 20 hits were songs she didn't write. (When they finally released one of hers, it went Top 5!) None of these things discredit their artistic abilities. (The Go-Go's developed a following and got signed via their live shows, which included covers of "Johnny, Are You Queer," "Let's Have a Party" and "Remember [Walking in the Sand]," all of which I'd have preferred over some of the filler on "Vacation.") 

And even this is exaggerated, exacerbated by the fact that the Bangles' label chose to release several covers as singles. (Like Blondie and Madonna, sometimes you have to go along with what the label tells you to do.) Of the five Bangles albums the band wrote 54 songs and did nine covers. They also wrote the A and B sides of their debut standalone single (that they released as the Bangs on their own label); wrote four songs on their debut EP and did one cover; wrote original songs for "The Goonies" and "Austin Powers" soundtracks and did a cover for "Less Than Zero"; and wrote one original B-side, one original new song for "Greatest Hits" and did one cover on a B-side. And while none of the Go-Go's singles were certified, three of the Bangles' were -- and their biggest of all was written by Susanna Hoffs.

If what the documentary was trying to say is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has (thus far) been unfair to the Go-Go's, then I fully agree. But no one should come away with the idea that women musicians haven't flourished because of their achievements.

P.S. Make that three things!

Operator: 911, what's your emergency? 

Me: I'd like to report an anachronism.

1 comment:

Jay said...

Finally saw the doc, and unfortunately was a little disappointed. It felt to me the focus was on the origins and lead-up to BATB. But I would have loved more insight into their thoughts on Vacation (not as good as BATB, but not as bad as many believe, IMO), and Talk Show (a really strong effort that’s ignored). Also would have liked to know more about the reunions and splits in the last 35 years. To say “it left me wanting more” sums it up - not bad, but very lacking.

Agree that The Bangles were the more successful group, but with a similarly short shelf-life, so a pretty close call.