Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Go-Go’s Movie | Lefsetz Letter

MTV broke the Go-Go’s.

As late as the seventies, there were two Americas, the cities and the rest of the country, the hip and the non-hip, the clued-in and those out of the loop. But MTV started the long march towards unification, cable TV and the internet completed the journey, and now nobody is big, nobody reaches everybody, despite having the infrastructure to achieve this.

If you lived through the Go-Go’s ascension in Los Angeles this movie is not news. This was post Elvis Costello. Post Sex Pistols. Even post Blondie. The highest calling in America was to be in a band, a successful band. And they were bands, if you didn’t play an instrument, if you didn’t write your own songs, you were a pop singer, on the AM, and were considered culturally irrelevant, even if you had some financial success. But all the action was on FM, supported by print media. If you cared, you knew, and a lot of people cared.

You had to go out as opposed to stay in. You could read about it, but the only way of participating was to go to the clubs and see for yourself. Whether it be the Whisky or the Masque. The scene was not hidden. All you had to do was pick up the “L.A. Weekly” and you were plugged-in.

And the “Los Angeles Times”… This was before you could get the “New York Times” delivered daily in Los Angeles, that didn’t happen until the mid-eighties. The L.A. “Times” ruled. And not only did it have its tabloid Sunday “Calendar” section, providing more music news than any other newspaper in America, far surpassing that in the “New York Times,” there were multiple writers, if you had any traction, you got ink. And my point here is the Go-Go’s were not an unknown quantity in Los Angeles. They’d been kicking around for years. First as amateurs…and then it took a long time for them to shed that image. I could cite band after band from the late seventies who never made it nationally who everybody knew in Los Angeles. Many even got record deals, even though their albums stiffed. But the Go-Go’s didn’t get signed.

But then they did. On IRS. Which was seen as a tertiary label distributed by A&M. For English acts that couldn’t get releases in the U.S., for nothing that broke big.

Until the Go-Go’s.

So, the band got signed and their initial record was produced by Richard Gottehrer. He’s the unsung hero of the band’s success. He gets some footage in this documentary, but when he was announced as the producer of the band we all scratched our heads. The guy responsible for the Strangeloves “I Want Candy,” and a cowriter on “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Hang on Sloopy”? Talk about looking in the rearview mirror… Sure, Gottehrer produced the first two Blondie LPs on Private Stock, but the band didn’t break through until it switched to Chrysalis and engaged the Commander, Mike Chapman, to produce it. Mike Chapman was not interested in the Go-Go’s, not Roy Thomas Baker, not Nick Lowe…this was not an album destined for success.

And then it came out.

We were aware of “We Got the Beat.” We heard it on KROQ. Interesting, but not a home run.

And in L.A. “Beauty and the Beat” did not slip out unannounced, there was as much promo, as much hype on the album as there was on anything released, it was a hometown band, of girls, this was not 20/20 or Great Buildings, this was the Little Engine That Could…could it?

And then we heard “Our Lips are Sealed.”

Yes, the story was about the album cover, the making of the record, but what broke the band was an indelible single you only had to hear once, that melded the best of AM and FM, catchy yet without a mindless sensibility, you had to own it.

And I did. And seemingly everybody else in Los Angeles did too.

Never underestimate the power of a hit single.

And there was nothing quite as good on the rest of the LP. There was a cleaned-up version of “We Got the Beat,” and “This Town” and a bunch of songs that could play in the background, that could amp you up, but nothing as catchy as…

Richard Gottehrer had worked his magic. It was a sixties girl group, but it sounded positively fresh, definitely eighties as opposed to what came before.

And in the movie, they talk about opening for the Police. But that was how you broke a band in the seventies, in the eighties…

The record business had collapsed. Corporate rock was overbaked and disco failed and CBS Records had to fire a zillion people and then came…


MTV. You’ve got to know, at the beginning, prior to Michael Jackson, MTV was like an FM rock station, Bob Pittman said as much, but suddenly everybody in the WORLD was exposed to this music. And the funny thing is technology worked in reverse. Cable had made inroads in the hinterlands, initially to combat bad over-the-air signals, but subscribers signed up for HBO and then when systems were offered MTV…they picked it right up, the battle was in the metropolis, where cable systems made real money, and with limited bandwidth operators were not about to sacrifice a channel to music videos.

Ergo, the “I Want My MTV!” campaign! One of the most brilliant of all time. Sure, it ended up overused and hackneyed, but at first to be able to see household name musicians on TV, albeit in promos, had a huge impact, usually you had to go to the gig to see them, or they were on canned shows like “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” Kirshner was never hip, he thought it was about him, not the acts, as if he were Ed Sullivan in a different era, but suddenly there was a whole channel controlled by the youth, it was SNL on steroids.

And “Our Lips are Sealed” was one of the first videos MTV played.

Few were making clips when the channel launched. What it aired were oldies, mostly performance videos made by English acts to penetrate the continent, where it was hard to get on the radio. So, the Go-Go’s video stood out.

And most people did not have MTV. So, if you went to the house of someone who did…you watched it endlessly. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that A&R people stopped having MTV on a 24 hour loop in their offices, if you wanted to know which way the wind blew, you watched MTV.

And since Miles Copeland and IRS always did things on the cheap, the video for “Our Lips are Sealed” was made for bupkes, but somehow it contained the essence of the band, their camaraderie, their sense of fun, their willingness to break the rules. Sure, in the movie they talk about wanting to get busted for romping in the fountain, but everyone at home knew this was taboo…did they get permission, did they just do it? YOU WANTED TO HANG WITH THESE GIRLS! With the utterly amazing song.

This was not a studio concoction. This was not Cher. We had not seen regular girls/women on TV like this, certainly not playing music, they were UNFILTERED, there was MAGIC!

And as MTV grew, so did the Go-Go’s, they became a household name.

Now if you were really into “Our Lips are Sealed,” you also had to own the version by Fun Boy Three, I certainly did. It was a funny era, singles were taboo, but now you’d buy a 12″, you had to have the sound at your fingertips.

The rest of the Go-Go’s story?

Had little to do with the fact they were women.

It’s hard to keep a band together.

First, it’s nearly impossible to get a seat on the roller coaster. But you can’t get off once you’re on. The ride is zipping along, and your handlers, those who built you, say the only way off is to die, and if for some reason you choose to jump off, you will never make it again, it’s all over, you’re toast.

Kinda like the ousted bassist in the Go-Go’s and their original manager. This was their one and only shot, it was now or never.

So, riding high, the band continued to…

Stay high, go on the road, act outrageous and go into the studio with…little material, almost none of it of hit quality. You see the machine doesn’t care about you, it just needs fuel. And if you can’t provide it, someone else will.

Then there’s the money. You’ve been in a whirl for years, you must be getting rich, right?

But that’s not the story of rock and roll. Someone else is always getting the money. Usually the label, sometimes the manager, but if it’s other band members…

Believe me, few understood publishing at this time, everybody was just eager to get a deal. Sure, the big time artists now self-published, but if you were punk or new wave you just wanted a seat at the table, you’d sacrifice just about everything. But Ginger was smart enough not to cough up the rights and when the bills were paid…the songwriters got rich, everybody else did not. It’s kinda like finding out your parents left most of their estate to another sibling, you can never get over it. And then there are power struggles and one band member leaves and then…it’s over.

It has nothing to do with the Go-Go’s being girls. That’s just the way it is. The difference with the Go-Go’s was they had a HIT, which was written by the band, a few, in fact. They did not comb the catalogs for covers, they were originals. They were all in it together until…

The money. As they say in the music business, it’s not about the money…it’s about the money.

So, Belinda Carlisle has single hits, just like Alice Cooper, the front person always has a leg up when the band breaks up.

But then that success runs out. Rock and roll is a young person’s game. At least through the eyes of those who control it. And those who age don’t own it, they lie about their birth date and act like they’re twenty, even though everyone knows the truth, that they’re acting like children.

So, the Go-Go’s reunite, and are successful on the reunion/oldies circuit…you’ve got to pay those bills. And on stage is the only place you can get that hit, that attention, that adulation and then…

There’s one big promo play. In this case, literally a Broadway play and a movie and a single…

Which cannot succeed. Doesn’t matter how good the track is, today’s business will not allow the oldsters to play.

It’s not the seventies anymore. Only one format matters, Top Forty, and instead of being rock, like it was at the advent of MTV, it’s mostly hip-hop with a little pop. So you can put it out, but few will hear it.

So let’s get back to MTV.

MTV minted worldwide stars. And record companies, despite bitching about the cost of the clips, which they charged to the acts anyway, made more dough than they ever had in their existence. Because of the worldwide reach of superstars and the profits in the newfangled CD.

But then MTV went pop. And then it went hip-hop. Videos were expensive and if you weren’t great-looking… Those were the complaints in the nineties, all the rock acts getting closed out. Actually, at first there was the Seattle Sound, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but as the decade wore on, there was no room for them on MTV either.

And then came the internet. And soon MTV aired fewer music videos, and then none at all! And the bitching!! God, it was like artists complaining about Spotify today. Everybody said MTV was the enemy. When the truth is music video had become an on demand item online and MTV’s only way to survive economically was to go to shows, whether they be reality or scripted or game…it became just another TV outlet, it even removed “Music” from its name, and I’ve got to ask you, when was the last time you even watched MTV, when was the last time you even COMPLAINED ABOUT IT??

Then the enemy became the public, those file-trading on Napster and its clones.

Then, supposedly Steve Jobs was the savior, when he got people to buy files, even though they were no longer required to buy complete albums.

And then Spotify and streaming came along and revenues went back up and…

Once again, many artists were left out, behind. When the truth is almost every act’s career atop the chart is brief, and thereafter they’re an oldies act, releasing music for the hard core only. Hell, have you even listened to the past few Bruce Springsteen albums? Maybe you did, but most people did not. Only two tracks on “Western Stars” exceed ten million plays on Spotify, when number 50 on the Spotify Global Top 50 chart had 1,507,297 streams JUST YESTERDAY! Yup, Springsteen owns boomer mindshare, gets all the ink, but in reality it’s all about the old stuff, not the new, no matter how good or bad it might be. Meaning, maybe Spotify is not the devil, maybe your time has passed.

Oh, maybe you’re young and make music and are still complaining.

Well, chances are you’d have been completely closed out in the MTV era. You had to be good-looking, are you? And there were very few slots, probably you could not get one at all.

Big wheel keeps on turnin’, Proud Mary keeps on turnin’, as the business floats down the river while what’s left behind struggles to stay afloat, or drowns.


Maybe you saw that story this week, about the life of old songs, whether kids remember them:

“How We’ll Forget John Lennon”

Everything has its window. Elvis memorabilia is tanking in the marketplace, because his fans HAVE DIED!

So, if you want to know the way it was, watch this Go-Go’s documentary. At the end, I was worried it was devolving into a “Behind the Music” episode, focusing on the Broadway play and the new single, but that footage turned out to be very brief.

This is a story about a band that was willing to sacrifice everything to make it. And funnily enough, the only member who had graduated from college, the straightest of the group, guitarist and songwriter Charlotte Caffey, was the one who got hooked on heroin. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

But there was an era where even to be an amateur you had to dedicate all your time. Promote yourself online? Maybe you could tack some posters to telephone poles, and would people even come if they’d never heard of you or your music? Usually no.

It was a big risk. And most didn’t make it. And you had to live at home. And you were broke. As your friends started to make money and… Not get that rich, nobody was that rich in that era, that didn’t come until Reagan legitimized greed, the boomers sold out and the techies arrived. Tech is MTV on steroids. You create a product that can reach EVERYBODY! It’s like shoes. Only there’s no physical and reaching Prague costs the same as reaching Peoria.

So, right now, we’ve got a very narrow pipe. Only a few things are successful, and they’re far less successful than they were in the MTV era. Everybody knew the Go-Go’s, does everybody know Drake? Parents knew the Go-Go’s, the world was smaller and we were all paying attention to MTV. There was a slew of gatekeepers. And if the one, and it was frequently just one, at MTV, didn’t cotton to your sound AND IMAGE, good luck!

But those who passed through, those who made it, were bigger than bankers, politicians and CEOs. Musicians were our gods. And the funny thing is the usual dues didn’t matter. Who your parents were, where you went to school? IRRELEVANT! It was a flat world where everybody started in the same place.

Well, assuming you were in Los Angeles. Assuming you had the hunger. Assuming you had the beat.


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