Composing the set list for the three-night stand the Go-Go’s finished off on at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday cannot have been too mysterious a process. Their body of work is such a happy jumble of crowd-pleasers that you could hardly go wrong simply turning the song box upside down and letting the hits fall where they may.
One knew that their highest-charting hit, ”We Got the Beat,” would have a key role in the set, but the buzzy, full crowd that turned up were mostly under-informed as to what extent the show would include contributions from the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West (under the aegis of the L.A. Philharmonic). Yet they roared diligently when the extravaganza shoehorned in a lusty barrage of fireworks that shot up from behind the stage between the set-closing “Head Over Heels” and the encore.
Much like that set list, a career overview of the Go-Go’s doesn’t require deep cogitating. Mellifluous-voiced Philharmonic (and this show’s) conductor Thomas Wilkins summed it up in his intro of the band’s “True L.A. Story.” Formed 40 years ago as the first all-female band that wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and scored such an array of chart successes, the Go-Go’s impressive 7 million in album sales proceeded largely from 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, with its three top 10 singles and a six-week tenure in first place on the 1982 Streets Talkin 200.
When she first came out in a sparkling sequined shirt and lavender slacks, singer Belinda Carlisle offered a rather demure “Good evening,” which may at some ironic level have been a reminder that these gals were, for a minute circa 1978, a punk band fronted by her in a duct-taped trash bag ensemble.
Surely even in an era of substitute frontpersons, Carlisle is irreplaceable. Most fans will remember the slight startle felt when she began the solo career that was partly the result of (since-resolved) internal band squabbles. Over time she completed a metamorphosis from the pleasingly rounded sprite of the early hits to the zesty Ann-Margret-style chanteuse heard (and much seen) in “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” in 1987 and the soigné, chiseled-cheekbone goddess of 1986’s “Mad About You”; she had the looks and the ebullience of a young (but thankfully not doom-ridden) Marilyn Monroe.
In fact, from the opening notes of the twangy, Ventures-style guitar of “This Town,” Carlisle danced to the microphone with clear purpose, her confident vocals and moves assuring us we were joining her in a pure pop world — one where she’d throw in some classic moves ranging from the hully-gully to the pony to the swim and on through tidbits from rock and roll dancing’s half-forgotten repertoire. “They all look great,” marveled a fashion designer gent who was sitting nearby — although he found Carlisle’s slacks a bit too “mom.”
Well yeah, if your mom is a model-pretty Invoker of Lots of Fun. Shaking her tresses and all the rest with enthusiasm, the singer early and often brought a commitment the audience clearly bought into.
While their surprise-success first album and the entire arrival and early triumph of the band properly established their sprightly debut as a cornerstone of the New Wave movement, the Go-Go’s, like most embraceable pop phenomena, were a product of their own best impulses and never seemed overly calculating in their approach. In fact, as Charlotte Caffey told Rob Tannenbaum in his compact but colorful oral history, writing “Beat” took “two minutes — I didn’t labor over the lyrics.”
The group had resisted even putting the tune out, but drummer Gina Shock’s piston-pumping intro sold first the band, then the world of AM-radio pop, on it. That was their second hit, of course — the earlier “Our Lips Are Sealed” had started as a somewhat brooding plaint (and still muses, “We’re all dreamers, we’re all whores…”), but in the studio it got reworked into the sing-along it became, as the gang transformed from punkettes to reminding us that politeness counts.
Jane Wiedlin, long the self-deprecating one in the band, had herself peeped out a “hi” to the crowd, followed by, “All right, let’s do this,” and she would throw in a few of her trademark twirls, proto-twerks, and even some (again, reminiscent of their roots in the punkier local clubs) pogo’ing. “It’s so amazing to be back in our hometown of Hollywood,” Jane offered, “thank you for all your loyalty over the last 40 years.” After a slight pause she added, “Some of you weren’t even born, but whatever.”
Notably encouraging about the entire enterprise was how diligently Wiedlin and fellow players Kathy Valentine and Charlotte Caffey sang their harmonies on Carlisle’s hit, as well as the somehow upbeat love-stinks messaging of “How Much More” and “Skidmarks On My Heart.” Such harmonies have always been a not-so secret weapon in what Caffey described to Streets Talkin as the nascent band’s “new sound: melodic but raw.” Her mistress-of-chops string plucking on “Tonight” was poised neatly between garage-band roots and the sophistication that came with her classical piano training.
The female-ness of the entire enterprise having been cited by Wilkins, the band barely acknowledged it. While name-checking Shock, missing the gig due to recent surgery, Carlisle introduced stand-in drummer Chris Arredondo, who “saved our ass” by taking a temporary promotion from drum tech.
Two covers embodied the span of the band’s inspirations. First, a buoyant ride through “Cool Places” (by Sparks) caught some of that male group’s vibe of nothing-matters-and-what-if it-did. (Somehow the sight of Stormy Daniels' attorney Michael Avenatti in the crowd enhanced that thought.) Next, the crowd’s willingness to follow the Go-Go’s chosen flow led to some boogie fever in the seats with the next number, the Capitols’ funky 1966 hit “Cool Jerk,” which appropriately dipped into dance-craze days.
Though the three-day stand may have looked from a remove like some sort of paycheck gig, that thought was banished early on by the group’s obvious enjoyment in playing. Both Carlisle and Wiedlin touted the current Broadway show based on their music, but chat was kept to a minimum as what had been sporadic dancing spread through the crowd and the show headed for home with “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Head Over Heels.”
The presentation tipped slightly sideways when a high school marching band and the orchestra came back out at the encore break, and despite some booming Sousa marches and the crazily crackling fireworks above, there was a faint sense of irresolution until the band strolled out one more time and plowed through “We Got the Beat.” As this group has long realized, that’s pretty much all you need to provide some real rock 'n' roll pleasures on a summer night.