"C ute, bubbly, effervescent."
In what is for the Go-Go's a three-word mantra of sorts, guitarist Charlotte Caffey has summed up an image that has stuck since its early '80s heyday, much to the band's chagrin. The first all-female band ever to make it big, the Go-Go's were celebrated for their fun-loving charm, for their best-buddies camaraderie and for the garagey pop songs that propelled their first album, "Beauty and the Beat," to a six-week stay at the top of the charts.
"It's not that we weren't that way, but there were other sides to us," Caffey says now, looking back on the Go-Go's misadventures in the image-making game.
Her argument is partly supported by the 1981-vintage "Beauty and the Beat," which had its moments of winking irony to go with the cute, frothy stuff, and it is completely clinched by the darker, troubled tone of the band's third and last album, 1984's critically esteemed but commercially disappointing "Talk Show."
"I'm still trying to sort out in my mind how much we were responsible for it," ventures bassist Kathy Valentine, sitting with Caffey and rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio. "Society was going, 'Here's a successful girl band.' It's almost like we couldn't be accepted and embraced. . . . "
"Unless we were non-threatening," Wiedlin jumps in, finishing the thought. "If we had been angry, it wouldn't have worked."
"That's what's so great now," Valentine resumes. "Women (rockers) are accepted as being sexual, angry, crude--all the things it was acceptable for guys to be all along."
Seasoned by past pitfalls, cognizant of present possibilities, the Go-Go's are back.
The immediate cause of the band's return is the recent release of "Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's," a double-disc retrospective of hits and rarities.
As they did in 1990, when they regrouped for the first time to play an environmental benefit concert and promote the release of a greatest-hits package, the Go-Go's will do a short tour, which includes shows Thursday and next Friday at the Wiltern Theatre. Former Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson will fill in for the pregnant Caffey, who will avoid the rigors of the road until after her February due date.
This time, the Go-Go's aim to keep their reunion going. The members say that touring in 1990 enabled them to get over whatever hurt feelings remained from the band's bitter initial split.
When they heard that I.R.S. Records was preparing a more complete retrospective release, the Go-Go's, who weren't happy with the 1990 hits package, decided to reconvene for the sake of quality control and to add new material.
"This retrospective was going to be put out with or without our involvement, and it was a perfect excuse to get together again," singer Belinda Carlisle said in a separate phone interview.
Besides dipping into personal archives for tapes of early gigs and rehearsals, the band recorded three new songs for the retrospective, all of them catchy, overtly ironic garage-pop fare.
"It inspires us to want to make another record together," said Carlisle. "That's a big possibility down the line."
Is this just another case of fashionable rock reunion-itis?
"The way I keep looking at it, there are opportunities that keep coming to bring us back together, and this time we're not going to fight it," says Caffey, invoking fate.
"The only way we'll know if the Go-Go's have artistic validity or mean anything is to do a record," Valentine says. "We made ourselves really happy with (the new songs) we've recorded."
In their first run, the Go-Go's succumbed to the pressures of being young and suddenly famous. Infighting set in, and Caffey and Carlisle were hampered by substance-abuse problems. Wiedlin was the first to leave, in 1984. Caffey and Carlisle gave up drugs, then decided upon sober reflection that they didn't want to be Go-Go's anymore. They declared the band finis in the spring of '85, to the chagrin of Valentine and drummer Gina Schock.
Now the Go-Go's are in their mid-30s, except for Caffey, a fresh-looking 40.
"We're not putting any pressure on ourselves," Carlisle said. "Getting serious and intense about it is going to take the enjoyment out. I want to have fun with it."
* The Go-Go's play Thursday and next Friday at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., 8 p.m. Thursday sold out, Friday $25 and $35. (213) 380-5005 .