Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.
In the early ’80s, I had a co-worker at McDonald’s of Brockport who called herself Ramona. It wasn’t her real name, but she wanted to be a punk, so Ramona became her preferred nom du bop. Ramona had an odd habit of walking up to me at work and giving me a kiss on the cheek. I don’t know if she was interested in me or just trying to see what reaction she could provoke, but since I reacted each time with the neutral equivalent of a shrug, nothing ever threatened to progress beyond those chaste little pecks. I already had a girlfriend, and I was serious about that.
Thinking back to my introduction to The Go-Go’s makes me think of Ramona, even though she had nothing whatsoever to do with me becoming a Go-Go’s fan. In fact, Ramona didn’t care for The Go-Go’s at all–The Go-Go’s image was nowhere near as hard-edged as the punk persona Ramona was trying to develop and project–but Ramona and The Go-Gos are still linked in my memory.
Oh, and my nickname at work was “Sid”–I was the only Sex Pistols fan anyone there had met circa 1981.
Like Ramona, I was a self-professed punk; unlike her, though, I was also an avowed pop fan, equally happy listening to The Clash or The Rubinoos. And The Go-Go’s’ chosen image–early ’60s girl-group filtered through new wave–was both welcome and already familiar to me. The Go-Go’s looked and sounded an awful lot like one of my late, lamented Syracuse Fave Raves, The Poptarts.
We’ve already covered The Poptarts in several previous installments of Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) (notably this Poptarts review and this interview with Poptarts guitarist Cathy VanPatten). In the late ’70s, The Poptarts created a working prototype for the approach The Go-Go’s would take to the Top Of The Pops in the early ’80s: a self-contained all-female quintet, dressed in bright colors, cute but not pandering or overtly sexy, playing mostly original tunes, influenced by pre-Beatles girl groups, but also by everyone from The Turtles to The Ramones. The Poptarts broke up in obscurity, undiscovered; The Go-Go’s had hit records (four Top 20 singles, and a # 1 album with their debut LP, Beauty And The Beat). I mourned (and still mourn) the lost opportunity of The Poptarts, but I still loved The Go-Go’s immediately.
I can’t recall the specific circumstances, but I’m certain the first Go-Go’s track I ever heard was some version of “We Got The Beat,” a version predating the hit version on Beauty And The Beat. A Buffalo FM-rock station called 97 Rock (which could be heard in Brockport) had a Sunday night program called Power Rock, devoted to tracks that were (in theory) edgier than the station’s usual AOR fare. I may have heard The Go’s-Go’s original Stiff Records single of “We Got The Beat” on Power Rock. I most definitely heard a live version of “We Got The Beat” on the soundtrack album Urgh! A Music War, a double-LP set that also included live tracks from The Fleshtones, XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cramps, and a host of other left-of-the-dial superstars (before “left of the dial” was even a thing). I played that Urgh record a lot, and “We Got The Beat” was my favorite among favorites.
bought Beauty And The Beat upon its release, and I also picked up the “Our Lips Are Sealed” 45, specifically to get its non-LP B-side (“Surfing And Spying,” a song The Go-Go’s wrote for The Ventures). “We Got The Beat” sounded different without the backing vocals (“they’re walkin’ in time”) I knew from Urgh and (maybe) the Stiff single, but I still adored it anyway. I developed a quick crush on bassist Kathy Valentine, and really fell hard for the music itself. This was such a terrific album, just loaded with unforgettable, hook-filled pop tunes and unconscious rock ‘n’ roll swagger; it was far and away my favorite album of 1981. (At least it was at the time; I didn’t discover Tell America by Fools Face or Drop Out With The Barracudas until a year or two later.)
And I was stunned that so few people seemed to agree with me. A writer in Circus magazine–and yeah, I shoulda known better than to read Circus–dismissed the absurd notion that The Go-Go’s could possibly be considered among the best of anything; granted, the writer was a fan of The Grateful Dead, so, y’know, to Hell with him. But everyone seemed to think The Go-Go’s were a novelty act. Ramona certainly didn’t see their appeal, as she sang along sarcastically when “Vacation,” the title tune from their second album, came on the radio at our company picnic in ’82. Ah, silly Carl and his pop music….
Screw it. I was long, long used to being outside the mainstream–even the alternative mainstream–so why should things change now? I’d been a fan of The Monkees in the ’70s and early ’80s, and I’d already learned not to back down from my convictions. I’d put up my Bay City Rollers poster in my dorm, right alongside my Sex Pistols, and KISS, and Suzi Quatro (and, um, Suzanne Somers in a swimsuit) as an act of defiance; I’d argued with a Deadhead on behalf of Shaun Cassidy; I’d preached the virtues of The Ramones while everyone wanted to listen to The Eagles. I knew I was right about all of these (with the possible exception of Suzanne Somers). And I knew I was right about The Go-Go’s.
“We Got The Beat” and “Vacation” have remained among my all-time favorite tracks ever since their release. I do still prefer the Stiff single version of the former, but any version’s great. The Go-Go’s did one more album–1984’s Talk Show–before splitting, acrimoniously. They’ve reunited on several subsequent occasions, usually just for live appearances, but they did a very nice new album called God Bless The Go-Go’s in 2001. There was yet another acrimonious split a few years ago–my girl Kathy Valentine wound up suing her former co-workers, and the remaining four did a farewell tour with a ringer on bass–but the five ’em recently reunited for a show in New York, announcing the upcoming Broadway premiere of the new play Head Over Heels, which features the music of The Go-Go’s. I regret I never had a chance to see The Go-Go’s live.
I haven’t seen or heard from Ramona in over thirty-five years. In spite of her repeated kisses on my cheek, and her stated interest in collaborating with me to start a new, arty girlie mag she wanted to call McErotica, I still don’t think she had any physical designs on li’l ol’ me. I think she saw me as a friendly foil, someone to bounce off of and riff with about stuff she thought would be too cool for the crowd. She hated The Bongos; I loved The Bongos. We both liked The B-52’s. And she wanted to keep that dynamic going, even though I was technically one of her bosses. Each time her lips brushed the side of my face, she wasn’t making a pass, but reminding me that You could never push me around, Mr. Boss-Man, sir; I wore the tie, and she wore the uniform, but we were both just young punks, and I’d best not forget that. The last time I saw her, we were both on a bus heading out of town; she was going out for a night at a Rochester punk club, and my girlfriend and I were leaving Brockport for good, intent on starting a new life in Buffalo. We exchanged greetings, but didn’t speak otherwise.
After all that, our lips were sealed.