To mark its 30th anniversary, the Go-Gos' debut album has been remastered and reissued. But does the band’s distinctive brand of west coast pop-punk still stand up?
The Go-Gos: Beauty and the Beat returns
Three decades before Katy Perry impressed upon us just how "unforgettable" California Gurls really are with a somewhat innovative use of a quantity of whipped cream and a piece of custom-made clothing, a bunch of LA punks achieved much the same result without squandering a single drop of dairy product.
On March 6, 1982, Beauty and the Beat the debut album by the Go-Gos became the first LP written and performed by an all-female act to top the US album charts. It would stay there for six consecutive weeks. Now, to mark the 30th anniversary of its first pressing in July 1981, the band's landmark release has been "digitally remastered and expanded", acquiring a bonus disc of previously unreleased live recordings from the same year.
The Go-Gos bolted out of the blocks as a slipshod, semi-novelty punk combo - in those days, frontwoman Belinda Carlisle was still insisting on calling herself "Dottie Danger". The band cut their chops on the live circuit in Los Angeles, then opened for Madness on both sides of the Atlantic and crystallised their classic five-piece line-up (Carlisle on vocals, Charlotte Caffey on lead guitar, Jane Wiedlin on rhythm guitar, Kathy Valentine on bass and Gina Schock on drums). They signed to IRS Records in April 1981.
Spotting potential in their combination of irresistible pop hooks and girlish effervescence, IRS cleverly teamed the Go-Gos with a pair of producers who could mould their sound to their "America's Sweethearts" image.
Richard Gottehrer and Rob Freeman had previously worked together on the first two Blondie albums, while the former's pedigree extended back to My Boyfriend's Back, a song he'd co-written for The Angels, and one that is acknowledged as a classic of the girl-group genre.
The twosome's tactic was to smooth the band's rough edges, partly by stemming the tempo at which they played, from a punky thrash to a friendlier new wave bounce. However, the finished product so disappointed the Go-Gos that they implored their producers to speed up the tapes. They relented but the results - which left the songs just slightly off-key - didn't please everybody. Discussing Beauty and the Beat in a recent interview, Wiedlin admitted: "I have never been a huge fan of the sound of that record, but I love the songs and the enthusiasm of the performances."
So, were Gottehrer and Freeman overzealous with the rock producer's equivalent of coarse-grade sandpaper?
That's a question of personal preference, but it's difficult to deny that they captured the youthful exuberance of the group, while also highlighting the quality of its tunes. Beauty and the Beat houses 11 glistening nuggets, only two of which were written with outside assistance, just one of which tiptoes over the four-minute mark, and none of which fails to supply a sweet-but-lethal pop chorus.
The album's lead single, Our Lips are Sealed, cracked the US top 20, while its follow-up, We Got the Beat, only missed the top spot thanks to Joan Jett's love for rock 'n' roll. Somewhat surprisingly, there would be no third single from Beauty and the Beat. "We didn't want to milk our fans," Wiedlin recently recalled. Had the Go-Go's been less reluctant to plunder their pop-punk treasure chest - one whose bounty they would never quite manage to recreate - they could have excavated at least three more singles. The scorching Skidmarks On My Heart would have been the prime contender in this category, on which Carlisle lets rip at a friend's boyfriend who was more interested in servicing his car than his supposed sweetheart: "You say get a mechanic, I say get a shrink!"
Skidmarks On My Heart is typical of much of Beauty and the Beat. It gives us a glimpse into the band's early Eighties lives - and while Tonite and We Got the Beat are straight up party cuts, the lion's share of Beauty and the Beat deals with relationship issues that are as pertinent now as they were in 1981.
In fact, the record runs the romantic gamut from the frustration of unrequited love (How Much More), to the confusion caused by a friendship developing into something more (Lust to Love), to the relief and release of moving on (Fading Fast).
Our Lips Are Sealed, meanwhile, was inspired by Wiedlin's clandestine liaison with Terry Hall, then frontman of The Specials and later to record the song with Fun Boy Three. "Pay no mind to what they say," the chorus urges, "It doesn't matter anyway."
However, Beauty and the Beat's most resonant lyrics could be its darkest. The brilliantly pithy This Town paints a less than flattering portrait of early Eighties Los Angeles - a place populated by "catty girls and pretty boys"; where the streets are littered with "discarded stars like worn-out cars".
We learn all of this before Carlisle deadpans on the sardonic chorus: "Bet you'd live here if you could and be one of us". Nearly two decades later, lifelong Go-Gos fan Courtney Love would filter similar insights through her cherished prism of self-mythology on the title track of Hole's Celebrity Skin album. Incidentally, one of Love's collaborators on that album was none other than Charlotte Caffey.
Back in 1981, early viewers of MTV (the channel will celebrate its own 30th birthday next month) who bought Beauty and the Beat after watching the popular Our Lips Are Sealed promo clip - which featured the band frolicking in a fountain in Los Angeles - might have been surprised by This Town's dark subject matter. But if the Go-Gos seemed as wholesome as apple pie, theirs was a pastry that came laced with a much harder punch.
The Go-Gos would release two further records, the spotty-but-not-a-wash-out Vacation in 1982 and the glossier, more grown-up Talk Show in 1984, before splitting amidst the typical issues of addiction, creative conflict and ego collision. However, the musical and interpersonal sparks that once ignited the five-piece refused to expire - even when Carlisle became an arena-filling solo star with hits like Heaven Is A Place On Earth and Leave A Light On.
The classic line-up has reunited regularly over the years, even cutting a lively comeback platter called God Bless the Go-Go's in 2001 - and in fact, these self-styled "Ladies Gone Wild" are currently touring the US in support of this reissue. It's pleasing to think they might just be following their own advice from Beauty and the Beat's very last song: "Can't stop the world ... why let it stop you?"
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.