It’s Friday night, December 4, 1981, in Palos Verdes Estates, California, and tonight the Go-Go’s — the Los Angeles band of the moment — are playing your high school. OMIGAWD!

Palos Verdes Estates was probably not a big stomping grounds for the Go-Go’s. A tiny, coastal municipality sheltered from the rest of Los Angeles County by steep hills, it was, as it remains today, a jewel in the crown of “P.V.”, a.k.a. the Palos Verdes Peninsula, an area that also contains the municipality of Rancho Palos Verdes and a handful of gated communities that altogether house about 70,000 residents. That’s very small change for the L.A. area, population-wise, and it happened by no mistake. With its lofty coastal views, craggy cliffs, country club, prime beaches, cool climate, and top-rated public schools, P.V. is one of the poshest residential enclaves in the L.A. area outside the conspicuous wealth of your Bel Airs or Beverly Hills. Unlike those notorious residences, P.V. has never been a Hollywood company town. In Reagan’s America, aerospace was the biggest employer in the Los Angeles County, and P.V. has long been a chief residence for the corporate executives and retired officers who helmed that cold-war industry.

Not that affluent L.A. suburbs haven’t supported an occasional youthquake. Notably, L.A.’s beachside cities gave rise to thrasher skateboard culture in the 1970s when skaters dove board-first into empty swimming pools — and P.V. has always had more than its share of swimming pools. And no doubt many P.V. kids made their way into Hollywood when punk rock burst on the scene in around 1978, and maybe a few Hollywood punks found themselves partying in big P.V. houses where the parents were out of town. But P.V. has generally been too small and too bourgeois to yield its own scene. If the shit rolls downhill, then in P.V. it rolls into the denser middle- and lower-middle class enclaves of the South Bay — Torrance, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Long Beach, San Pedro etc. — and further south into Orange County, the original breeding grounds for hardcore punk rock.

By contrast, P.V. would have been a much preppier scene, and in Southern California that would have been a natural constituency for the new wave broadcast on KROQ and (further south) 91X FM. What was the soundtrack at the time? In 1981, the #1 song on KROQ was Missing Persons’ “Mental Hopscotch”. New British bands like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, OMD, U2 (I know, I know – it’s context, people!), Spandau Ballet, and Adam & The Ants had huge hits, and the next year would see breakthrough albums from Human League, Soft Cell, and A Flock of Seagulls. Locally, Hollywood’s punk scene was pretty much exhausted by 1981, and it was shit-or-get-off-the-pot time for the region’s punk and new wave bands. Look at this remarkable list of albums by L.A.-area bands that were released in 1981:

X – Wild Gift
Black Flag –Damaged
Joan Jett – I Love Rock’n’Roll
Devo – New Traditionalists
Sparks –Whomp That Sucker
Wall of Voodoo –Dark Continent
The Gun Club – Fire of Love
The Blasters – self-titled
The Flesh Eaters – A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die
Oingo Boingo –Only A Lad
The Plugz –Better Luck
Sparks –Whomp That Sucker
Minutemen –The Punch Line
The Plimsouls – self-titled
TSOL –Dance With Me

Of course, at the top of the list commercially is the Go-Go’s debut, Beauty and the Beat. 1981 was the band’s most important year: signing with I.R.S. Records in April; releasing the original “We Got the Beat” single in May, “Our Lips are Sealed” in June, and the debut album in July; and beginning a never-ending tour that sees them opening for the Rolling Stones in Illinois then selling out L.A.’s famous Greek Theater in October, then appearing on Saturday Night Live in November. Finally — OMIGAWD! — they play Palos Verdes High School and film the concert for a TV special.

The Go-Go’s impact on pop culture is unassailable, and with the recent release of the 30th anniversary edition of Beauty and the Beat we’ll hear the claims for their greatness again. Yet the P.V. show, captured on the 1982 video “Totally Go-Go’s,” highlights the contradictions of the band’s ambitions against the metropolitan backdrop. The oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb: the Untold Story of L.A. Punkquotes guitarist Charlotte Caffey: “We didn’t want to be just an L.A. band. That was not our goal. I never wanted to fucking stay in L.A. and play clubs.” But the liner notes on the 30th anniversary edition reports the band’s original dismay at the clean, poppy production that I.R.S. Records imposed on the record. With three decades of hindsight, Caffey makes an observation that almost all the other members repeat in as many words:

[Producer] Richard [Gotterher] had a certain idea of how to produce us. If we’d done it the way we originally wanted, I don’t think we’d have had the career we’ve had so far. What he did was take the essence of the songs and find the melody. At first we weren’t happy with it, but the record did indeed sound like us. We were just a little rougher around the edges when we played live. We played every note on the record, so it was definitely us, but he brought out the cleaner tones as opposed to the more distorted ones.

So too the choice of preppy Palos Verdes High School as the site of the promotional concert. The specific locational reason remains to be discovered, but almost certainly I.R.S. Records pushed them to perform before a well-scrubbed high school — the better to reach the broadest, “all-American” youth audience. Famously, singer Belinda Carlisle was herself a high-school cheerleader, and maybe for that reason “Totally Go-Go’s” presents us with PHVS cheerleaders and jocks in the opening scenes.

But the Palos Verdes Estate setting jars with the L.A. lives led by the band. Native Southland residents Carlisle (from Thousand Oaks, on the other side of the San Fernando Valley), Jane Wiedlin (from Woodland Hills, in the Valley) and Caffey (from inner-ring municipality Glendale) came from bigger suburbs with variably mixed populaces than found in P.V. Willfully throwing themselves into the Hollywood punk scene, their lifestyles and their choices inject a bitter note of sarcasm into the chorus of “This Town” that gets lost in Palos Verdes Estate, where it too easily turns into a cruel boast made by rich kids who’ve never known anything else:

This town is our town 
It is so glamorous 
Bet you’d live here if you could 
And be one of us

Yet if “Totally Go-Go’s” captures the commercial ambitions of the Go-Go’s, and by extension the controversy and backlash they generated from the original punk cognoscenti, the film also, more than any other video document I can think of, presents the band at the peak of their musical powers and cultural relevance. The Go-Go’s never burdened themselves with the charge of authenticity. If this isn’t exactly how they imagined things turning out, they roll with it anyway with infectious enthusiasm.

So far as I know, “Totally Go-Go’s” hasn’t been released on DVD yet. For audio-video fidelity, probably the optimal way to view it is on its original Laserdisc format. Myself, I played the commercial VHS release as a teenager and college student. It drags at times, weighed down by somewhat rote interview segments (made perhaps more interesting by the subsequent revelation on their VH1’s “Behind the Music” documentary that some members were sinking into debauchery by this point) and that glut of minor-chord tunes from the debut album. But it presents the Go-Go’s as I choose to remember them: the massive tom-toms of drummer Gina Schock, the stinging surf-guitar leads of Charlotte Caffey, Jane Weidlin and Kathy Valentine bopping giddily as they propel the tunes forward, and the iconic cool of Belinda Carlisle.  This is all quite evident in their opening number, the great “Skidmarks on my Heart.” If you can’t make it all the way through, at least check out their encore (the last four songs), with its tasty choice of b-sides and covers.

The videos below are sequenced in the original order to give you more or less the entire film. [Thanks to The Go-Go’s Notebook for historical information.]

1. Skidmarks on My Heart

2. How Much More

3. Tonite

4. Fading Fast

5. London Boys

6. Cool Jerk

7. Automatic

8. Lust to Love

9. Can’t Stop the World

10. This Town

11. Vacation

12. You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep

13. Our Lips Are Sealed

14. Let’s Have a Party

15. We Got The Beat

16. Surfing and Spying

17. Beatnik Beach

18. The Way You Dance

19. Remember (Walking In The Sand)