For the Go-Go's, their beat goes on

Release: With a new CD and new attitude, the group hopes to find a new rhythm.

May 15, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

The Go-Go's are born again.

The party girl band of the '80s, torn apart by drugs, backstabbing and general immaturity, returns today with a new album and a new perspective. The party is over, they say, and now the real fun begins, 17 years later, with "God Bless the Go-Go's."

"It took a lot of time to heal old wounds, and we've all gone through a lot," says guitarist and songwriter Jane Wiedlin. "It felt like the right time to do this."

In the early '80s, pop music was all Bananarama and the Bangles, sweetness and quirkiness wrapped in fluffy clouds of pop and New Wave. And then there were the Go-Go's: punky girls in spiky hair, faces streaked with sweat and mascara, who overcame a lack of musical skills to crank out hits.

Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine, Gina Schock and Charlotte Caffey were "America's sweethearts" after their debut LP "Beauty and the Beat" topped the charts in 1981 and went double-platinum. They were the femme fatale who made the '80s course with life. But that life took its toll.

With "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "Vacation" becoming anthems for overworked and underpaid yuppies everywhere, the Go-Go's sang the soundtrack to a less-than-zero decade. And they crashed in a torrent of drugs, infighting and promiscuity. (The Go-Go's ranked No. 19 in Spin magazine's 100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock issue for their tit-for-tat objectification of male roadies and opening acts.)

The Go-Go's were groundbreakers - the first all-female singing and songwriting group to hit No. 1 - who were themselves broken by the gyrations of pop stardom. It's no wonder they became part of VH1's "Behind the Music" rotation - they define the formula of rise and fall and rise again.

They've been able to hang onto a loyal following despite having only three original full-length albums under their belts before breaking up in 1985. Because of several reunion tours in the past decade - as well as constant play at '80s-oriented clubs such as Baltimore's Have a Nice Day Cafe - most folks probably thought they were just on a break.

But the band was simply trying to break from its past.

"It was the summer tour of 1999 - we made a pact not to play again until we had new material," says Wiedlin.

The bad girls of the '80s had to grow up.

And apparently they've channeled that maturity into their new tunes. Gone is the girlish exuberance of "Beatnik Beach" and karaoke-quality of "Turn to You." Gone is the repeatability of their 1990 "Go-Go's Greatest" album, but in its place is a time-appropriate sequel to 1994's "Talk Show" album. "God Bless the Go-Go's" would sound fine on any alt-rock playlist in the country.

The band's first new single, "Unforgiven," co-written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, is rife with references to the past and the dawn of a new era: "Always tryin' to clean up my catastrophes / Taking full responsibility / Living my life like every day is the last / Remodeling the wreckage of my past."

"We sound better. We've had 17 years to work on our chops, and we're all more confident singers," says Wiedlin, who has had four solo albums since she split with the group. "We didn't know what we were doing [in the late '70s]. We decided we wanted to start a band, then we learned how to play."

With that confidence has come a more focused voice, a readiness to speak out against the pressures thrown on them as women and as rock stars. They air their dissent to the reed-thin status quo in the clever and catchy "Throw Me a Curve": " ... but I'd rather be a pin-up girl than zero size / throw me a curve not a straight narrow line /throw me a curve and I'll show you mine." Carlisle will soon be showing the whole world hers in Playboy.

Besides that bit of titillation, they're still capable of getting a rise out of the powers that be in other ways. The Catholic League won't be giving the Go-Go's their blessing anytime soon, condemning the group for tagging religious iconography to their new release. Their CD cover and Web site angered the group with sections like the confessional, which features a green-haired priest, a Hail Go-Go's version of the Lord's Prayer and the five band members draped in different poses of the Virgin Mary.

Though it's all tongue-in-cheek, the group is serious about its rebirth into women, who have gone through rehab, divorce and motherhood (Carlisle and Caffey).

"There's a lot less excess, less partying, less drama," says Wiedlin. "We still fight a lot, but it's clean fighting. ... No more sneaking around and backstabbing like in the old days. It was horrible, awful behavior, and I can't live like that anymore."

This new self-awareness shows in the new song "Daisy Chain," which reads like an epitaph to the Go-Go's of old:

Punk rock girls with some noise to make

Hollywood 1978

Babe said, "Let's start something great"

We couldn't wait

Char said, "I've gotta go nonstop

"Gonna stay up 'til we hit the top'"

Soon the other stiletto would drop

For the Sweethearts of Pop ...

"I think we've learned to appreciate real good moments, that this is the greatest job in the world," Wiedlin says. "Before, we were just so jaded."

The Go-Go's appear at the DC101 Chili Cook-Off on Saturday. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT, or go to www.dc101.com for more details.

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