3. The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat
Trouser Press wrote: “Refreshing dose of pop insouciance. Also the new wave chart invaders of the year.”
The previous subject of the College Countdown feature, 90FM’s Top 90 Albums of 1989, was presented on air on New Year’s Eve, with the process of getting to the top of the list intended to occupy the entire programming day. The way the countdown was structured, however, required a little something more to help fill out the time. Luckily, CMJ, the trade publication that served college radio, was celebrating its tenth anniversary and had sent the station a handsome paperback book highlighting some of the finest music of the decade of their existence, including a tally of the ten strongest charting albums during the publications existence. Since all of the releases on that list had copyright dates in the nineteen-eighties, I treated it as a de facto “Biggest College Radio Albums of the Eighties” chart and we dropped in songs from those various records during the course of the day.
I don’t remember every album on that list–and the original CMJ anniversary book is something that’s long gone, though I’d love to get my hands on it again–but I do recall that R.E.M. was well-represented and Life’s Too Good by The Sugarcubes was the most recent album to rank among the ten. I also remember that the album at number one was Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s. This countered all my expectations and predispositions about the “coolness” of music that succeeded on college radio. I expected the album that had the landmark status of being played more than any other during what was arguably the medium’s most prosperous decade would have been one of the icons of hipper-than-thou, ragged magnificence: The Replacements, The Cure, Hüsker Dü, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths, Elvis Costello. It certainly didn’t make sense to me that it was the debut release from The Go-Go’s, an album that topped the Billboard album charts for six weeks and spawned hit singles so ubiquitous that they could be held up as an adequate description of mainstream music. Where was the outlaw flipped bird to the dictates of the music industry in playing that record?
That was my own short-sightedness, I suppose; falling into the common trap of viciously rejecting the music industry’s attempts to dictate what I should like to such a degree that I reject any record that’s experienced a little success–or a lot of success–out of hand. I defined The Go-Go’s not by the quality of their music, but by the sheer amount of times I saw their music videos blaze across MTV and other similar outlets. The band was so successful that I even lost sight of the not insignificant detail that Beauty and the Beat was issued by an independent record label, I.R.S. Records, and wasn’t handed down from a major label mountain destined for success because some bigwigs decided on it. There were even shards of glass ceiling that needed to brushed away from the album cover since this was the first album to top that Billboard chart from a rock band entirely comprised of women who also handled all of the songwriting duties. Thirty years later, that achievement remains singular: no other all-female band that took similar charge of the creative process has landed at the top spot.
I’ll admit that the album’s buoyancy and gloss still doesn’t particularly enliven me, though I am newly impressed by the aptness of Trouser Press‘s description of “pop insouciance.” Despite the girl power achievement of the commercial accomplishment of the band and album, there’s not a whole lot of overt feminist fervor to the music. It lacks the implied “fuck you” snarl of The Runaways, whose every chord seemed a repudiation of any jerkface who dared to think he could put them in their place. Instead, The Go-Go’s actually lean on a certain pajama party celebratory spirit, a girlish playfulness that almost comes across as an acceptance of a gender-driven confinements. Girls, as it would be explained a couple years later, just want to have fun. That lip gloss cheeriness allowed the band to deliver doses of self-assurance and empowerment on the sly. “Tonite” may be about little more than turning boys head during a fun night on the town, but there’s something about the lyrics “There’s nothing/ There’s no one/ To stand in our way” that sticks. And “Fading Fast” upends the heartbroken tropes of a fleet of girl group songs to allow the woman to discard a caddish boyfriend with a plainspoken strength, a quality bolstered by Belinda Carlisle’s vocal performance, which has a emotional fullness reminiscent of Kate Pierson of The B-52’s. It’s by far her best moment on the record.
There are plenty of weak points on the album–“You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can’t Sleep)” is as dopey as the title implies–but I can now appreciate why it would have captured the intense interest of college radio programmers in 1981 (which was also a time, it should be noted, when the borders were drawn hazily enough that the likes of Phil Collins and The Moody Blues were also the beneficiaries of significant left of the dial airplay). Not every revolution requires that machines be raged against. Sometimes lulling them into submission with glistening hooks delivered with a happy smile is a better way to go. If it didn’t pass my own arbitrarily-conceived coolness test a few years later, so what? For those kids at the start of the decade–my predecessors in the college radio air chair–it was good enough to set them dancing in their seats and keep reaching for it again and again.
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story