The Go-Gos vs. The Bangles, Part 2: Fame and Fights

“Am I only dreaming?”
go-gos80sAfter signing with I.R.S. Records, The Go-Gos released their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, in 1981. A re-recorded version of “We Got the Beat” preceded the album, becoming a huge hit in the United States and Europe. The album went to #1 on the Billboard chart, becoming the first— and, to date, the only— album written and performed by an all-female band to reach that position. A second single from the album, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, became the band’s biggest hit later that year. Beauty and the Beat was a fine example of the New Wave sound, and the songs were consistently good. The band’s look, a hybrid of pop and punk, was fresh and exciting. Young girls around the world found inspiration in the story of five girls who joined together to conquer the pop universe.

The crush of tour dates and personal appearances didn’t leave much time for the band to write the songs for their follow-up record, so when Vacation was released in 1982 the reviews were not as positive as those for Beauty and the Beat. The album and its title track both made the top 10, but failed to repeat the success of their earlier efforts. Band members were beginning to disagree more often, and drug use was becoming an issue for the band. They continued to tour, with great success, and took more time to work on their third album. Talk Show, released in 1984 to positive reviews, sold even less than Vacation. “Head Over Heels” just missed the top 10, despite its high quality. The strain within the group had reached unbearable levels, and Jane Wiedlin left the group in 1984. The other band members replaced her, but quickly realized that they did not want to continue on with the group. The Go-Gos officially disbanded in 1985, but it was not the end of their story.

bangles80sThe Bangles’ career took a little longer to get started. After signing with Columbia, they released All Over the Place. The album received great reviews for its jangly pop sound (see “James”), and mixed covers of classic 60s songs with Bangles originals. The album was not a commercial success, peaking in the lower rungs of the charts, but it did win one very important fan: Prince. After hearing The Bangles, Prince became enamored of Susanna Hoffs; in an effort to meet her, he offered The Bangles a song called “Manic Monday”. The band released the song along with their second album, Different Light, in 1986. This album placed less emphasis on the band’s 1960s influence, although they still covered some classic songs. “Manic Monday” shot up the charts and into the top 5, while the album reached #2. A second single from Different Light, “Walk Like an Egyptian”, was released later that year and became a phenomenal success, topping the charts around the world.

The next year, The Bangles scored again with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter”. Of all the Bangles’ singles, this one came closest to capturing their original sound, and it reached #2. In 1988, they released Everything. The album missed the top 10, but “In Your Room” was a top 5 hit, and “Eternal Flame” was a number one smash. With millions of young fans around the globe, many of them girls, the band was poised for even more success. Unfortunately, in-fighting and the record label’s elevation of Susanna Hoffs to lead singer status left some of the band members feeling neglected. It was all too much, and the band broke up…for the time being.


Read Part One, “Origins”


Cover Girls: “Hound Dog”

bigmamaBig Mama Thornton did not suffer fools gladly. Known for her growling vocals, harmonica skills, and performing with her handbag in tow, she was always determined to do things her way. At a 1952 recording session with famed songwriting duo Leiber & Stoller, she was unimpressed with the duo: “They were just a couple of kids, and they had this song written on the back of a paper bag.” The song in question was “Hound Dog”, which had not yet been recorded by any artist. Big Mama took the song as it was, added her own interjections and distinctive rhythm, and a classic was born. The track rose to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart, and stayed there for 7 weeks. “Hound Dog” would prove to be Big Mama’s biggest hit. She later wrote “Ball and Chain”, which was covered to great effect by Janis Joplin. She continued to perform for the rest of her days, but her heavy drinking contributed to a heart attack that claimed her life in 1984. She was 57.

Big Mama is seen here performing “Hound Dog” with famed blues guitarist Buddy Guy in the 1960s. Clutching her purse in one hand as she enters, she punctuates the song with a terse, “And bow-wow to you, too.”

So, how did Elvis get his hands on “Hound Dog”? The song went through a slight rewrite in 1955 at the hands of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, who changed some of the phrases (for example, “snoopin’ round my door” became “cryin’ all the time”). They hoped that the revised version of the song would appeal to a “broader” (read: white) audience, and their recording of the song became a regional hit. At one of the Bellboys’ 1956 shows in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley caught their act. Elvis was still a new artist, and when he asked Freddie Bell for permission to record their version of “Hound Dog” he agreed. Elvis’ recording would go on to become one of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, shooting straight up the charts to number one. Elvis’ first televised performance of the song, on the Milton Berle Show in 1956, was also the first time he had performed without his guitar. Free to move for the first time, his charged performance stunned the studio audience and led to much controversy, as his movements (halfway through the song) were labelled “obscene”:

Video Stars: The Women of Lilith Fair

sarahWhen Sarah McLachlan organized the first Lilith Fair traveling music festival in 1997, the concept was groundbreaking: three stages, dozens of performers…all of them women. Sarah had grown angry at the conventional concert promotion wisdom of the day, which stated that two female performers should never be featured back-to-back (because the audience would presumably lose interest). In 1996, she went against this advice and organized her own tour, which featured a new artist named Paula Cole. The tour was hugely successful, and the next summer she expanded this idea and Lilith Fair was born. The festival was so beloved by fans and critics that it returned in 1998 and 1999, with a reunion in 2010. The early Lilith Fair years coincided with a flood of hit songs and videos by female performers, causing music writers to claim that 1997 (and 1998) was the “Year of the Woman” in the music industry. The late 90’s was also the peak of the importance of the music video, and the Lilith Fair performers made their share of interesting clips to promote their songs.

Sarah McLachlan’s album Surfacing was released in the summer of 1997, just as the first Lilith Fair tour was picking up steam. The album was one of the biggest hits of the year, with four of its songs reaching the Top 40. Its first single, “Building a Mystery”, set the mood for not only the album, but the entire Lilith Fair experience: thoughtful lyrics, expressive singing, and the assurance that the listener was about to hear something amazing:

Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home” launched the somewhat obscure singer into the mainstream, landing in the top 10 and winning a Grammy award for song of the year. The song’s dark subject matter, about a woman who burns down her home in order to break with the past, went over the heads of many listeners on the radio, but was made obvious in the video:

Sheryl Crow’s album The Globe Sessions, her third, began with the single “My Favorite Mistake”. A story of heartbreak and betrayal, the song was rumored to be written about Sheryl’s ex-boyfriend Eric Clapton, although she has always denied this. The video was shot on vintage film, and featured Sheryl in her then-trademark leather pants, playing her favorite guitar:

“I Do” was the featured single from Lisa Loeb’s album Firecracker. At first listen, the song appears to be about a relationship, although Lisa eventually revealed that she directed the lyrics to her record company, who pressured her to write “radio-friendly” songs: “We were almost finished recording the album, Firecracker, and the record company told us that we still needed a single. I decided to write a song that sounded like a song about a relationship but was actually about the record company not ‘hearing’ a single on the record already. You can hear it in the lyrics, ‘You can’t hear it, but I do.’ The song ended up being an expression of strength and power even when someone’s not treating you right.” The video was a fixture on MTV:

Sixpence None the Richer had released quality music with little fanfare for half a decade before their single “Kiss Me” burst onto the scene in 1998. The band made two videos for the song; the second received a great amount of airplay on MTV and featured the band performing the song while sitting on a bench. The original video, however, was a tribute to the classic French film Jules et Jim:

When Natalie Merchant left the band 10,000 Maniacs in 1993, she immediately began to work on a solo album. Her hard work and eloquent lyrics served her well, and her 1998 album Ophelia became her biggest success yet. The single “Kind And Generous” reached the top 10 while Natalie was touring with Lilith Fair, proving how invaluable a spot on the tour had become by its second year of existence. The video featured Natalie as a member of a carnival:

The Go-Gos vs. The Bangles, Part 1: Origins

“Can you hear them? They talk about us—telling lies, that’s no surprise…”

The triumph of all-girl bands The Go-Gos and The Bangles in the 1980s meant record-breaking success for women artists, but today the two bands seem to be interchangeable in the minds of many. In actuality, the groups were very different from each other, and followed two distinct paths.

go-gosearlyThe Go-Gos formed in 1978, and were originally a hardcore punk rock band. Consisting of members Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, and Gina Schock, the band played venues in Los Angeles as part of the growing west coast punk movement. Belinda Carlisle was featured as the lead singer, while their songs were largely written by Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin (separately and as a team). Caffey and Wiedlin wrote catchy songs, and their early hardcore sound slowly evolved into something slightly poppier. After a tour of England in 1980, their early, primitive recording of “We Got The Beat” became a minor hit there. In 1981, they signed a recording deal with I.R.S. records, and their fortunes (and image) were about to change.


bangsThe Bangles also got their start in Los Angeles, forming in 1981. Originally called The Bangs, their sound placed them in the Paisley Underground movement, and they were heavily influenced by 1960s L.A. bands like The Mamas and The Papas, The Merry-Go-Round, and Love. The band frequently covered songs by these and other vintage bands in their live shows, and on future albums. Members Susanna Hoffs, Debbi Peterson, Michael Steele, and Vicki Peterson generally shared lead vocal duties and songwriting credits. Their early songs were collected and released on an E.P. in 1982, and they shot a video for their song “The Real World”. These songs brought the band to the attention of major record labels, and soon The Bangles were signed to Columbia Records. Their success would take a little longer to come, but the band was ready to go.


Sweet Inspiration: Renée Fladen-Kamm

“And when I see the sign that points one way, the lot we used to pass by every day…”

leftbankeIn the summer of 1966, radio listeners were treated to a heavenly slice of baroque-flavored pop when the song “Walk Away Renée” hit the airwaves and became a Top 5 smash. The group responsible, The Left Banke, was formed in New York City the year before. Keyboardist Michael Brown, who was just 16 years old, wrote the lyrics about bass player Tom Finn’s girlfriend, Renée. Michael later said of her, “I was just sort of mythologically in love, if you know what I mean, without having evidence in fact or in deed…But I was as close as anybody could be to the real thing. My hands were shaking when I tried to play (during the recording), because she was right there in the control room. There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later.” One year after the release of “Walk Away Renée”, the Four Tops recorded it and the song once again reached the top five.

reneeMichael’s love for his bandmate’s girlfriend inspired him to write another hit song for the group: late 1966’s stunning “Pretty Ballerina”. It also climbed the pop chart, peaking at number 15.

Michael Brown departed the group after their first album, and later worked with the band Stories. Renée Fladen-Kamm became a singer and vocal coach, working mainly in medieval music. The rest of The Left Banke soldiered on and recorded one more album before calling it quits. Their influence can still be felt in the use of orchestral instruments in pop music today. 

Janis Joplin: “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!”

Janis Joplin: soul singer?

janis2Janis’ death at age 27, just two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, shocked music fans around the world. It also ensured her legendary status, and cemented her reputation as the stereotypical hippie songstress, perpetually high on various substances, her voice surrounded by screeching guitars—so some would believe. Listeners who take the time to delve into Janis’ small output (three albums) will find an artist with considerable range, as each album she released featured a completely different sound. After she’d left Big Brother and the Holding Company’s psychedelic rock sound, but before she moved on to the roots-rock style of her third & final album Pearl, Janis recorded a soul album: 1969’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!

janisThe record’s striking cover image was markedly different than covers from other female artists in the 1960s: it announced, right up front, that this was a woman who did not care if she looked pretty. She was here to sing, to bare her soul, and to connect with her audience, whomever they might be. The vibrant color of her hair and the intensity born out on her face as she sang were revolutionary.

The album contained a couple of songs written by Janis, along with covers of blues and R&B songs. The artist who most inspired the sound of the album was not a woman, but soul singer Otis Redding. Janis’ cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”, a song written by the Gibb brothers for Redding (who died before he could record it), is a testament to his influence.

“Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” put a rock spin on the soul sound, while “One Good Man” and “Work Me Lord” featured bluesy riffs peppered with Stax-style horns. The title track, “Kozmic Blues”, just missed the Top 40, becoming the album’s highest-charting song. Joplin’s voice is in top form throughout, and her amazing control is fully evidenced by her elegant cover of “Little Girl Blue”. But the album’s biggest success is “Maybe”, a cover of an already-soulful girl group classic from ten years before. In Janis’ skillful hands, the song becomes something so much more, and the listener is left to wistfully imagine what might have been.

Janis’ legacy has made her unforgettable, but it has also overshadowed some of her musical contributions.  Kozmic Blues may not be the typical soul album, but it is a soul album nonetheless. Aside from the obvious signifiers (the distinctively Stax/Volt-influenced guitars and horns), the emotion poured into each song should guarantee its spot in the soul music canon.

Cover Girls: “Always Something There To Remind Me”

Sandie_ShawFirst recorded in 1963 as a demo by Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic “Always Something There to Remind Me” landed in the lower regions of the charts the next year for Lou Johnson. It wasn’t until England’s Sandie Shaw recorded a version later in 1964 that the song reached #1 in England. Known for performing barefoot, Sandie enjoyed several other major chart hits in Europe after the success of “Always Something There to Remind Me”, including “Girl Don’t Come” and “Long Live Love”. She found further success with her own clothing line in the late 6o’s.

In 1983, with her fame largely behind her, she received a letter from Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, urging her to collaborate with them and record some of their songs. Sandie ultimately recorded three Smiths songs: “Hand in Glove”, “Jeane”, and “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, the latter written especially for her by the duo. The Smiths appeared with her to perform the songs on “Top of the Pops”, and the band performed barefoot in homage to her earlier career. The single with The Smiths reached the top 40 in England, but she wasn’t able to duplicate the huge success of  her first hit:

In 1983, just as Sandie was in the midst of her collaboration with The Smiths, a new band called Naked Eyes was hitting it big with a synthpop cover of “Always Something There to Remind Me”. This time, the song would have its biggest success on the U.S. charts, where it hit the top ten. The fame of the Naked Eyes version would far exceed any other in the states, where none of Sandie Shaw’s songs had cracked the top 40 and she was largely unknown. Vocalist Pete Byrne, a lifelong fan of the Sandie Shaw version, recorded his vocal in one take.