SOMEONE must have forgotten to send me the memo. Who exactly could have been responsible I have no idea, but get this... The Go-Go's at some point crossed the threshold from one time wonders to influential rock band.
There's a lot of goodwill directed at them, particularly because they were the first all female rock band to score a pretty much self penned No.1 album and they had a few cruisey hits, in particular Our Lips Are Sealed.
They don't earn the musical respect that Joan Jett, Chrissie Hyde or even The Bangles still do, but that's because their recognition is based on what their success symbolised rather than what they actually produced.
I'm not here to fight the fight for The Go-Go's, as much as I dig their achievements. When they went their separate ways, famously acrimoniously, Jane Wielden made the odd grab for attention, but there was only enough space in the universe for Belinda, and even then not for long.
She was the epitome of the new California girl. Remember in the 60s and 70s how California was portrayed as the land of the free love, of stopping the bomb and shaking up the changes inthe world? In the 80s the depth we associated with California evaporated. It became the kind of sun drenched landscape where deep thought drifted out over the Pacific, and to some extent still remains that way in the public consciousness. Yes, its home to the Silicon Valley, but its still a land of California Girls (and boys).
And so, after the Go Go's made that transition away from Punk Lite to pop, Belinda took the ball and ran with it. She had a couple of lightweight lovelies in the mid 80s; Heaven Is A Place on Earth and Mad About You among them, but when she came back onto the scene in 1989 with Runaway Horses she momentarily found the right mix between guitars, radio inspired rock and mainstream pop and made it her own...and ours.
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Leave A Light On set the scene for the new Belinda in the dying months of 1989. It was rocky, poppy and airy in the Californian vein all at the same time. The video, with its throwbacks to the 50s and 60s, with the starring role played both by the Nevada desert and Las Vegas (before it was cool again) reinforced all of that. She seemed to pick up from where Cyndi Lauper had left off a few months earlier with the brilliant I Drove All Night but she did it in Cowboy boots and Grace Kelly style. This song, and others like it from Runaway Horses announced the arrival of American operatic pop if it hadn't already been done by Cyndi and with Like A Prayer earlier in the year. Full of drama, urgency, track built upon track and those harmonies to push up the force of Belinda's pretty wafer vocals (that somehow are pretty special nonetheless). Runaway Horses was as much Belinda Carlisle's album as it was Rick Nowel's (the main songwriter and producer of the album).
We didn't know it then, but we were about to enter into a period of mainstream pop that would become dominated by the songs of Rick Nowels and Diane Warren. Scan through the charts of the early to late 1990s and you'll see these songwriters time and time again. Sometimes in succession on the charts, you know; the #1 hit, the #2 hit etc etc. They were invisible, but had the kind of commercial clout that The Beatles, Elvis or Michael Jackson had in their hey days.
It was Belinda's first album to mean serious business too. Nifty little minx and her record label realised that it wasn't enough any longer to put out an album that was full of song after song that sounded the same. No Go Go's here! Each had to be a piece of its own, especially one where the singles could be schizophrenic and seemingly unconnected to the album musically, the way that Madonna's True Blue or George Michael's Faith had been before. So, after the pretty booming Leave A Light On we got the pretty tacky La Luna which is like a Mediterranean tribute gone bad. Bad because you don't know whether it is supposed to evoke Spain, Italy, France or Greece. But catchy as hell. Try getting that one out of your head.
The real show stopper on this album was Summer Rain. It is not only the reason to fight the fight, but it was as close as pop got to sheer spectacle back in the day. It was haunting, infectious, poppy, and aided by those pretty special vocals. Irresistible, really good mainstream pop, even if the production all sounded fake and mechanical. Part of the thrill of this one was getting all caught up in the fake nostalgic drama: oh no, baby went to war and never came back; but you go along for the ride, you overcome the synths and the programming because its a song with a heart, a tragedy, a ridiculously over the top moment that you just have to give in to, because it is completely absurd and inoffensive at the same time. You forgive her for dancing in the video and you marvel at how beautiful she is, but you never really think of her as being the new Chrissie Hyde or Joan Jett because in the end, she's a bit lightweight.
And that's the thing about Belinda. As front piece for the Go Go's you couldn't take her very seriously. With her California beauty, her cherubic face and that voice that was designed for pop, of course you are not going to buy into her being punk. Of course that pop centre is going to come to the fore. And of course you are never going to be offended by her because she's a celebration of that breezy, Californian babe ideal we have in our mind.
And that she never made anything as riveting as Runaway Horses is not surprising either, because she seemed to have offered up everything she was capable of in the space of the one album. She had the resources of her label behind her, she got the timing right, and she made the most of it, and she did a pretty good job of it, even if she was never going to change the world for redheads.
Everything that came after felt like a let down or inferior. But it never really was upsetting. Because BC is inoffensive and Runaway Horses is a really enjoyable piece of Californication. And sometimes a bit of lightweight overwrought drama is good for the soul. You need an album to drive on a highway along to sometimes, and as I recently found, BC is good for that. And you can't hold that against anyone. Fight the fight.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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