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POP : BACK TO THE BEAT : The Go-Go's Battle Those Bubbly Media Tags to Return, Nine Years After the Breakup

November 17, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Playing media tag is one of the prerogatives of being a rock star.

But once tagged with a simple "it," a snappy, easy-to-digest image suitable for mass-retailing, "it" may be all the star is perceived to be.

The Go-Go's were rock's "it" girls of the early '80s: the first all-female band ever to make it big. They were celebrated for their fun-loving charm, for their best-buddies camaraderie, and for the garagey pop songs that propelled their first album, "Beauty and the Beat," to a six-week stay at the top of the charts.

Looking back, Charlotte Caffey, the lead guitarist, reduces the Go-Go's defining "it" to three words that she mouths with a blend of frustration, irony, and what-can-you-do-about-it resignation.

"Cute, bubbly, effervescent."

The words practically hang there in quotation marks above the cushy gray couch where Caffey sits in a North Hollywood rehearsal room, flanked by two fellow Go-Go's, rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin and bassist Kathy Valentine. In front of them on a wooden coffee table lies the Aug. 5, 1982, edition of Rolling Stone magazine, the one with the cover photo of five young women horsing around in chaste white undies, like junior high school girls at a slumber party. The headline, blocked out in pink letters, reads, "Go-Go's Put Out." It might as well have said, "Tag, You're It."

The Go-Go's are not reluctant to dissect their past misadventures in the image-retailing game.

"It's not that we weren't that way, but there were other sides to us," Caffey says. The argument is partly supported by the 1981-vintage "Beauty and the Beat," which had its moments of winking irony to go with the cute, frothy stuff, and it is completely clinched by the darker, troubled tone of the band's third and last album before their breakup in 1985, the critically esteemed but commercially disappointing "Talk Show" (1984).

"I'm still trying to sort out in my mind how much we were responsible for it," ventures Valentine. "Society was going, 'Here's a successful girl band.' It's almost like we couldn't be accepted and embraced . . ."

"Unless we were non-threatening," Wiedlin finishes the thought. "If we had been angry, it wouldn't have worked."

"That's what's so great now," Valentine resumes. "Women (rockers) are accepted as being sexual, angry, crude--all the things it was acceptable for guys to be all along."

Seasoned by past pitfalls, cognizant of present possibilities, the Go-Go's are back.

While the three guitar-playing members expounded last week during a pre-rehearsal interview, drummer Gina Schock, who had brought in the Rolling Stone copy so the band could autograph it for a friend, stepped out for a long break after concluding that they were having no problem handling questions without her. Singer Belinda Carlisle, who emerged as a glossy, slick-sounding pop diva after the Go-Go's broke up, had an excused absence: she had just flown in from France, where she now lives with her film producer husband and their toddler son, and was being given the day off to recuperate from jet-lag.

The immediate cause of the band's return is the recent release of "Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's," a double-disc retrospective of hits and rarities. As they did in 1990, when they regrouped for the first time to play an environmental benefit concert and promote the release of a greatest hits package, the Go-Go's will do a short tour, which begins Sunday at the Coach House, and also includes shows Dec. 1 and 2 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Vicki Peterson, the former Bangles guitarist, will fill in for the six-months'-pregnant Caffey, who decided it would be best to avoid the rigors of the road and concert stage until after her February due-date.

This time, the Go-Go's aim to keep their reunion going. The members say that touring in 1990 enabled them to get over whatever hurt feelings remained from the band's bitter initial split. When they heard that their old label, I.R.S. Records, was preparing a more complete retrospective release, the Go-Go's, who weren't happy with the 1990 hits package, decided to reconvene for the sake of quality control, and to top off the album with new material that brings the story of the band full-circle.

"This retrospective was going to be put out with or without our involvement, and it was a perfect excuse to get together again," Carlisle said in a phone interview the day after the missed rehearsal. The band members dipped into their personal archives for tapes of early gigs and rehearsals, thereby casting fresh light on the Go-Go's origins on the Los Angeles punk scene in 1978-79. They also wrote nine new songs and recorded three of them for the album: "Good Girl," "Beautiful," and "The Whole World Lost Its Head," which has been made into a video. All are catchy, overtly ironic garage-pop fare; the revived band features a Carlisle who sings in a more burry and expressive voice than she could muster a decade ago.

Pleased with the results, the five Go-Go's say they want to press on.

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