I'm watching some fucking commercial on television where there are multiple David Bowies running around," exclaims singer Bobby Harlow. He and his bandmates in the Go just rolled into Los Angeles; they're now licking their wounds and counting their losses after a bout with debauchery in Las Vegas the night before.
"What the hell? It's like a commercial for bottled water or something," Harlow continues, clearly enthralled. "No, wait, it's for Bowie's new record. He's walking through a house -- modern Bowie in a suit -- and he's seeing himself dressed up like every different era of Bowie. He's sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal as Ziggy Stardust, and then he sees himself on the floor with half a dog's body, like on the cover of Diamond Dogs. And wait... The Man Who Fell to Earth Bowie is at the bottom of the stairwell." He pauses, then says philosophically, "I guess that's pretty much his whole life right there."
If there were a TV commercial for the Go's latest, self-titled full-length, it might go something like this: A zit-faced Jeff Beck straight from the sleeve of a Yardbirds 45 feathers his bangs in the breeze while straddling the back of a bronze-gilt dragon piloted by Marc Bolan. Below, on the sticky blacktop of Gotham, the New York Dolls are waging a gang war against the Sweet, stack heels glittering like bayonets in the summer heat. As song titles such as "Blue Eyes Woman" and "American Pig" start to scroll down the screen, music bubbles up like fleeting memories of sex and laughter and bad trips and breakups that never actually happened but feel no less real because of that. Finally, Randy Bachman, with an orchestra of guitar solos reaching climax behind him, holds up a sign with ordering instructions: Call within the next five minutes and receive a bonus acoustic track that sounds as if Ray Davies were gargling "Yellow Submarine" through a half-empty bottle of Beefeater.
The Go is proudly, unapologetically a product of its influences. Formed in 1995 by Harlow, guitarist John Krautner and drummer Marc Fellis -- three longtime friends from Royal Oak, Michigan -- the group solidified in Detroit with the addition of Dave Buick on bass and Jack White on guitar. Yeah, that Jack White. By 1999, the Go had released its debut on Sub Pop -- Whatcha Doin', a disc that made absolutely zero sense at the time. It was Detroit garage rock right before the big, hyped revival; equal parts innocent pop and sleazy rock, its disparate halves threatened to annihilate each other like matter and anti-matter. Feeding freely off the sounds and visions of the '60s and '70s, Whatcha Doin' consolidated all the fear, horniness, joy and absurdity that once made rock and roll so mighty.
"With the first album, we all just went into the studio and did what we did live," Harlow notes. "And that was with Jack and John both playing the guitar, with lots of different ideas coming out. We've always been in love with songwriting, the artistry of it, rather than just making a lot of racket. I mean, there's that, too, the thrill of just plugging in an instrument and making a lot of noise."
Whatcha Doin' is as simultaneously boneheaded and sublime as its title suggests. If the Ramones once advocated the sniffing of glue, the Go circa 1999 was the spokesgroup for huffing industrial-sized cans of gold spray paint. The songs sift love, hate, good and evil through a kaleidoscopic, bubblegum-scented haze.
"I don't know if that's a balance we look for, exactly," muses Harlow. "That's just how it works. It's funny; even though we're from Detroit, we discovered the MC5 and the Stooges later than we did all the pop influences. We were into the earlier stuff like the Animals and even the Beatles. That's where we learned to write, under that kind of influence. Or the really great songwriters like Harry Nilsson -- we were listening to Nilsson first and then falling in love with the Stooges afterward.
"When you read an interview with Iggy Pop," he adds, "he'll cite all the English pop bands as being major influences on the Stooges. You usually think of them as being really violent, the antithesis of all that pop stuff, but those guys in the Stooges all wanted to be great songwriters. No matter how heavy the guitars are, you've got really catchy songs underneath. It all comes down to that. As much as I really love the MC5, I don't think their songs are that catchy. I mean, I'll get really wasted and crank Kick Out the Jams at top volume and totally appreciate it, but it's not something I'd listen to when I'm, you know, sober."
Sobriety apparently wasn't much of an influence on the Go's second release, Free Electricity. Recorded in 2000 after White's amicable departure to start the White Stripes (James McConnell now plays guitar in the band, while Krautner has switched to bass), it signaled a shift in the group's sound from leather-sheathed rock to the pharmaceutical-soaked strains of psychedelia. Unfortunately, Sub Pop seemed about as stoked as G. Gordon Liddy about the whole idea.
"Everything was going pretty well after the first album. We got a lot of attention," Harlow remembers. "But Sub Pop wanted something different for our second record -- Whatcha Doin' Part Two, I suppose. I think they wanted us to copy the first one, only this time give it a real pristine, slick production job. But we just can't operate that way. We'd like to think that we can go, 'Ah, shit, we'll just knock out the songs,' but we're at the mercy of inspiration. So at that point in time, we decided to record a psychedelic record, because that's where the band was at. Sub Pop just didn't think it was a good idea. So we kind of said, 'Fuck off.' What could we do at that point? We weren't going to change the record; that's the record that needed to come out."
And yet it never did. After months of wrangling to escape the Sub Pop contract, the band moved on, forging a more cohesive mix of garage, glam, blues and pop that eventually manifested itself in The Go, released late last year on England's Lizard King imprint. Meanwhile, Free Electricity languished in the vault -- where it sits to this day. "We just haven't found an opportunity to put it out yet," Harlow says.
But before Free Electricity gains a reputation as the great lost album of Detroit garage rock, its maker wants to set the record straight. "We haven't really subscribed to the religion of garage," says Harlow. "I've heard a lot of bands that are mostly influenced by the Nuggets garage thing, where so many songs end up sounding like very early Rolling Stones or the Seeds or something, which is cool, but we don't want to set those kinds of boundaries for ourselves. We feel like we could do whatever. There's just too much great rock and roll out there to pull from."
Harlow doesn't balk when asked about the White Stripes, which has taken the Go on tour, or the scene in Detroit, which the group still calls home. "I don't mind," he says. "It's our thing." Still, the Go doesn't milk these credentials, either, perhaps recognizing that it doesn't need a pigeonhole or pedigree to stand out like a lit pinwheel in a field of monotone garage imitators. One reason is the act's ever-changing lineup: No fewer than four guitarists have been employed by the Go since its inception -- five, if you count Harlow himself, who strums the six-string in the studio and occasionally on stage. "Every time we get a new guitarist, depending on what his strengths are, it sways the music in a certain direction," Harlow explains. "But it's fun for John and I as songwriters to sort of put on different disguises."
So while the Go is an outfit with its own agenda and identity, that can sometimes be as chameleon-like as, say, David Bowie's. "The first time I saw Bowie, I was in shock. I was just a kid. It was something on cable television, I think, some concert from the Serious Moonlight tour," Harlow says, slowly pronouncing the phrase "Serious Moonlight" as if he's savoring its inherent dumbness. "But 'Let's Dance' came out, and that song was totally awesome; that just blew my mind. Each incarnation of his has been total insanity, totally extreme. And he does it so well. I wonder if he'd be a cool guy to hang out with or if he'd just be schizophrenic and weird."
But until the Go finally reaches the level of gods like Bowie, Harlow is content to serve the church of rock and roll as a faithful and devoted follower.
"Everything's derivative," he sums up. "You can go way back and talk about Miles Davis being influenced by Dizzy Gillespie. We aspire to that. We hold certain records in high regard, and that's what we're trying to do. We want to make records that we can fall in love with ourselves. Of course, we could go on forever and probably never be satisfied with one of our own records the same way we are with something like Beggar's Banquet. But who knows? Maybe in the pursuit, we will."
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