Getting The Band Back Together

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 03.30.12 in Spotlights


The Go-Go's

Few things spawn more ire from idealistic fans and music journalists than the rock reunion. Naysayers cynically view the trend as an attempt to cash in on the past. In a recent book interrogating today’s obsession with the past, pop critic Simon Reynolds dubs this phenomenon “retromania.” Considering it from a feminist perspective gives me pause. Women in rock are often viewed as marginal figures: Even though we’ve been around since day one, we are still largely absent from official historical accounts. Despite the backlash against the trend of the reunion tour it is, by contrast, culturally legitimate for female rockers to get back together and hit the road. It’s the one sure way to tell our own story from center stage.

In the early ’80s, I saw Tina Turner in concert. I didn’t know who she was at the time — I went with my family — but I was blown away by her electric and infectious live show, which included costume changes in the middle of songs (some of which involved gold fringe), wild choreographed dancing and fearlessly raunchy stage banter. I recognized “Proud Mary” (I knew The Osmonds’ version) and “Honky Tonk Woman,” but the rest of the songs were new to my young ears. My parents, on the other hand, were less impressed; they thought it was “kinda schmaltzy.” Today, comparing YouTube videos of that tour to Turner’s earlier live shows proves they weren’t wrong. Ultimately, what we saw that night was a theatrical, medley-driven Las Vegasshow tune version of Tina Turner’s early rock ‘n’ roll act. But my experience was entirely in the moment — not a simulation, or a lesser version of something from another era. For a younger audience being introduced to her for the first time, the show was authentic and, in my case, formative.

After witnessing Tina Turner as an assertive, sexy, female rock ‘n’ roll goddess in action there was never any question in my mind that girls belonged in rock ‘n’ roll. I was not surprised to later find out that she taught Mick Jagger how to dance. I might think of her solely in terms of this footnote if I hadn’t seen her live but what I saw with my own eyes and felt in my body is something I will never forget: Tina Turner is the living history of rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s no denying her central place in the canon. By taking her show on the road, she put herself back on the map, which led to new opportunities. Private Dancer was released a few years later, solidifying her place in rock history.

In 1982, the Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat, their debut, held the No. 1 spot for six weeks in a row, and would go on to sell 2 million copies. According to Rolling Stone’s Book of Women in Rock, they were “the most commercially successful self-contained all-girl band in history.” Inspired by Gina Schock from the Go-Go’s, I started playing drums when I was 12. I went to see them live, I joined the fan club (I still have the Let’s Have a Party newsletters) and I bought their records the day they came out, standing outside in the rain waiting for the record store to open. To this day, I have a framed, autographed copy of Beauty and the Beat hanging above my stereo.

But despite legions of devoted fans and massive chart success the Go-Go’s were not well respected. Critics complained that they couldn’t play their instruments. Guys judged them solely by their appearance and their female peers put them down. On the whole, the prevailing attitude was dismissive. As a young girl drummer, this angered me and awakened my feminist consciousness. It motivated me to fight against double standards in rock and build a community of support between girls in bands, which eventually led to helping found the riot grrl movement in the ’90s, an international grassroots feminist network of punk girls who made fanzines and encouraged one another to start bands.

One of the biggest honors of my life occurred when my band Bikini Kill was asked to open for the Go-Go’s at one of their reunion shows in ’94. I was thrilled to get to thank them personally for inspiring me to start my own all-girl band in high school. More importantly, their performance that night was a collective affirmation of their legacy. By reuniting in a decade when their massive contribution to the history of rock ‘n’ roll was celebrated, the Go-Go’s assumed their rightful place in history as groundbreaking trailblazers for female musicians.

Oh, in case you’re wondering: No, Bikini Kill is not getting the band back together.

Not yet, anyway.

Tobi’s Top 10 Tunes for March

1. Ike & Tina Turner, “Mojo Queen”
2. The Puppets, “Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart”
3.Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”
4. The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb”
5. The Go Go’s, “How Much More”
6. The Pretenders, “Precious”
7. L7, “Shove”
8. The Breeders, “Iris”
9. Sleater-Kinney, “Let’s Call It Love”
10. Dum Dum Girls, “Just A Creep”