Was it worth standing in the rain for three hours Thursday night at Coney Island to see the Go-Go’s? Hell yeah! That the most refreshingly original band of 1981 would still be together, and touring nationally, and arguably sounding better than they did thirty-two years ago might be more improbable than their success as one of the best-loved new wave bands. In the time that’s passed, they’ve regrouped and toured sporadically; this time out found them trading the guitar jangle for a raw roar. Watching them play a brief, barely 45-minute set to a patient and adoring crowd of probably fewer than five hundred diehards seemed akin to seeing them in a small club at the moment before their classic debut album, Beauty & the Beat, defied all odds and went platinum.
They were just as fresh and unselfconscious and unscriptedly fun here as they were then (plenty of live footage from that era has surfaced at youtube and elsewhere). Frontwoman Belinda Carlisle was just as snarkily funny as always and hits the notes closer to head-on than she used to. Guitarist Jane Wiedlin has traded her Fenders for Gibson SG’s, on this tour at least, for extra firepower, and the band is now wisely relying on her beautiful high soprano voice more than ever. Drummer Gina Schock served as emcee and is more down-to-earth and funny than you would imagine after having seen her photo on the first album’s sleeve. Bassist Kathy Valentine’s absence left enormous shoes to fill, but the band had the good sense to get the obvious choice to replace her, Abby Travis, whose wicked chops and spot-on vocals blended in lusciously. Along with their hits, the band played that one Carlisle hit that still gets airplay on easy-listening radio; it would have been nice if they’d done one of Travis’ brilliant, harmony-rich, artsy songs as well. But with the rain, there wasn’t time.
They opened with Vacation, which at this point in time might be their biggest hit. In concert, they used to do the trebly but irresistible pop hit as a lush, crescendoing art-rock anthem; this time out, it was fast, burning punk-pop. Travis propelled their cover of Cool Jerk with a slinky pulse as the audience clapped and swayed, lost in the groove. The best song of the night was a rich, resounding version of How Much More, done as they might have if that track had been on their 1983 powerpop masterpiece, Talk Show, instead of the first album. A pummelling punk/powerpop cover of Paint It Black drew on the Avengers’ version, followed by an unexpected, rare treat, the sardonic Cool Places, lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey switching from Fender Jazzmaster to woozy, bassy synth. She murdered her electric piano with a stiletto staccato on a rapidfire Head Over Heels; the band closed with Our Lips Are Sealed, then We Got the Beat with Kiss’ I Wanna Rock N Roll All Night in the middle and then encored with I Wanna Be Sedated, a shout-out to “the band that made us want to do this,” as Wiedlin told the crowd.
And as unselfconscious and unassuming as they are, the Go-Go’s didn’t bother to mention that they were the first successful all-female rock band. Hard to believe as it may seem, back in 1981, it was rare to see women on electric guitars, bass or drums. At the time, the Go-Go’s were considered a novelty act by an awful lot of people. Three decades later, the joke’s on them.
And apropros of nothing related to the performance, there was a bizarre incident straight out of a Stanley Milgram experiment. As the audience waited, and waited, and waited for the rain to end, there were persistent calls to “open up the seats, Marty!” But Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz – who thankfully was in slightly less bloviating mode than he usually is at these concerts, a pet project which he insists on emceeing even as his senility gets more and more obvious – did no such thing, nor did the security staff. See, these concerts are ostensibly free. But if you want a seat, admission is five bucks. Otherwise, you either have to bring your own chair or stand in the back. By eight PM, it was obvious that the rows and rows of empty seats in the front section were not going to be taken and could have easily accommodated the few dozen people who’d been waiting patiently in the rear section. As minutes turned to hours and the rain came down steadily, repeated entreaties to open up the seats continued to go ignored.
Finally, after the concert had begun, a member of the security crew slowly made his way to the back and quietly told a few people that the front seats would be opening soon. There was no formal announcement over the PA that everyone could hear, but this worked anyway. A ragged line of tired people formed – and then, instead of simply opening the gates and letting the maybe fifty spectators in the back into the seating area, security slowly began handing out wristbands. And what might have taken thirty seconds for this small crowd to choose from among hundreds of empty seats ended up taking at least a quarter of an hour as each person in the back was given a wristband, and were then checked to make sure they had a wristband before being let into the seats! And not a single one of the security staff acted as if they knew how ridiculous and absurd this was. Were they afraid that if they didn’t follow protocol, as idiotic as it was, they’d be fired? Why didn’t a single one of them choose to exercise ordinary common sense? Is there an overboss responsible for this idiocy? If so, he or she should be forced to stand in the rain on the hard pavement here for three hours – and then be given a wristband, and then made to wait another fifteen minutes before being allowed a seat.
It’s tempting to say that if this had been the pre-Giuliani era, the crowd would have thrown down the gates and taken the seats, regardless. But in reality, there wouldn’t have been any gates at all and everybody would have had a seat – and security wouldn’t have cared less. Folks, this is how the Nazis got their start. First by instituting seemingly meaningless but punitive restrictions, until those random measures became so commonplace that nobody questioned them. Then they went after the Jews.