By Gillian G. Gaar
In July 1981, The Go-Go’s released “Beauty and the Beat,” the band’s debut album. Seven months later, it made music history, when it became the first (and, so far, the only) album by an all-female band to top the Billboard charts.
It was a great accomplishment, and the 30th anniversary of the album’s release was celebrated in two ways: an expanded reissue of the album, and a summer tour that took the group around the country, a welcome return for the fans who’ve come to expect seeing the band (who officially split in 1985) on the road every few years.
“In 1990 we reunited, and ever since then we’ve been pretty consistent with it,” says Charlotte Caffey, the group’s guitarist. “With the passage of time, we’ve all grown up a little bit. And 30 years later, you hopefully aren’t harping on about anything that happened 30 years ago, because that would be really sad.”
Certainly The Go-Go’s have come a long way in 30 years. Though best known for infectious pop hits like “We Got The Beat” and “Vacation,” the band actually got their start in the fertile punk scene of L.A. in the late ’70s. It was a scene that provided the inspiration to become musicians in the first place.
“The whole punk scene is, of course, responsible for the Go-Go’s ever getting created,” agrees Jane Wiedlin, another of the band’s guitarists. “Because before punk rock happened, you couldn’t start a band if you didn’t know how to play an instrument. But when punk happened it was like, oh, it doesn’t matter if you can play or not. Go ahead, make a band. And that’s exactly what The Go-Go’s did.”
Though small, the L.A. punk scene drew together like-minded fans who hit the clubs, hung out at record stores and devoured rock publications like England’s “Melody Maker” and “New Musical Express.”
“It was very, very exciting,” Caffey recalls. “I worked at a hospital during the day, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there and rehearse or play or whatever we were doing that evening. I was very inspired; I was in the mode of inspiration for that whole time, because all I did was write and watch bands — The Ramones, Blondie, whoever came to town. It was so incredible, that time.”
It was natural that these fans would soon get interested in creating music themselves.
At a party one night in 1978, Wiedlin and fellow music fan Belinda Carlisle were approached by Margot Olaverra, who asked them to join a band she was putting together with Elissa Bello; Olaverra played bass, Bello drums, Wiedlin took up guitar and Carlisle became lead singer.
The name The Go-Go’s was chosen over The Misfits, and the aspiring band’s first songs were “Overrun” (by Carlisle) and Wiedlin’s “Robert Hilburn,” about the music critic at “The Los Angeles Times,” an early indication of the group’s sense of humor.
Before they’d even played a show, Olaverra and Carlisle asked Caffey to join, having seen her play with local bands The Keys and The Eyes.
Caffey liked Carlisle’s outrageous appearance (outfits made from garbage bags, purple hair), and readily agreed; “I was like, OK, this looks so freaky, yes, yes!” she says.
For their part, the other band members appreciated Caffey’s experience.
“When I first went to my first rehearsal, they didn’t even know how to plug in their instruments,” Caffey recalls. “So I was trying to be all kind of, ‘Well, you do this…’ And not try to be all snotty, just trying to be helpful.”
Caffey and Wiedlin quickly formed a songwriting alliance.
“The first song we wrote was ‘How Much More,’” says Wiedlin. “It took us, like, 10 seconds. That’s an exaggeration, of course. But really, the chemistry between us was so clear. Charlotte and I definitely had a really good connection when it came to writing.” The group quickly became a local club draw, then began touring outside of L.A. Bello was replaced by Gina Schock, a drummer from Baltimore who had previously played in a band backing Edith Massey, who starred in John Waters’ cult films. While on tour in England in 1980, the band released its first single, “We Got The Beat,” on Stiff Records.
It was Caffey who wrote The Go-Go’s signature hit “in five minutes,” she says. “Literally. I mean, it was just one of those songs. It came to me, and I pulled out a tape recorder — I have the tape somewhere down in my basement somewhere. And I started playing, and as I did, it popped in my head. The whole thing, just like I channeled something, it just — pfft! — came out.”
The song’s celebration of dancing makes it something of an ’80s equivalent to “Rock Around The Clock.”
“It’s a great song, and definitely showcased our strongest weapon in our arsenal which was Gina Schock’s drumming,” says Wieldlin.
“Yeah, that intro with Gina’s drums, it’s thrilling,” says Caffey. “She’s such a powerful hitter, and her timing is so perfect. You can use a drum machine, and obviously it will have perfect mechanical time. But a real human doing that, there’s something about it that just feels good.”
But even as the band continued steadily gaining in popularity, it couldn’t make the move to a bigger label. The Stiff deal had been a one-off, and The Go-Go’s were looking for something more permanent. Oddly, what was holding them back wasn’t their musical capability, but the fact the band was all-female. While being all women hadn’t been important in the punk scene (“We got fairly good support really early on because it was such an inclusive movement,” says Wiedlin), it was a factor in attracting major-label interest.
“It was an obstacle getting signed, for sure,” says Caffey. “They basically said, ‘No, we can’t sign you because you’re an all-girl band.’ Literally said that. That was the ultimate obstacle.” Undeterred, the group persevered. “We were of one mind,” Caffey explains. “One focus. It was such a great testament to like positive thinking and manifestation and all of that stuff. And we kept on working.”
“We would get discouraged and someone would be, like, ‘Let’s just do this one more show,’” Wiedlin adds. “‘Let’s just take it another month. Though I do remember my parents sitting me down right around the three-year mark and saying, ‘Look Jane, it was a great dream, but now it’s time to let it go and get a real job.’ And I’m glad that I didn’t listen to them. My dad to this day still apologizes and says, ‘I’m sorry I gave you that lecture; I was so wrong.’”
But there was one more change in store before The Go-Go’s would get the break they’d been waiting for. When Olaverra fell ill before a series of shows, the group tapped Kathy Valentine to fill in on bass. Valentine was a skilled guitarist who had become a musician after seeing Suzi Quatro on “Top of the Pops” while visiting England.
“It blew my mind,” she recalls. “It just didn’t occur to me that a female could be a rock star. I came back [to Austin, Texas], and I got an electric guitar and an amp. And I thought I was the only 16-year-old girl in the world, or in the United States, that was doing that.”
On a later visit to England, Valentine had briefly played with another all-female band, Girlschool. Valentine later moved to L.A. and played in The Textones. She had seen The Go-Go’s on the club circuit, but was initially unimpressed.
“The first time I saw them, I didn’t take them seriously at all,” she admits. “But then I saw them maybe a year later, and Gina had joined the band, and she made a big difference. And they had a big crowd, which certainly got my attention — when a band can sell out a club, it gets people’s attention.”
Valentine borrowed a bass, and Caffey gave her a cassette of the band’s songs.
“As I was learning the songs, I realized that they were really good, and that I would like this to be more than a temporary replacement if I could do anything about it,” says Valentine. “And basically, I didn’t have to do much about it. It was just a really good fit; they liked me. For whatever reasons, they had been unhappy with their bass player, and when they asked me, about three weeks after that gig, if I would consider joining. I just said, ‘As long as I can be one of the songwriters.’ And they were really happy to have another songwriter in the band.”
As Carlisle later described the band’s first show with Valentine, “Onstage, she played as if she had been doing it for years. I looked at her at one point and thought, ‘We have to keep her.’”
A few months after Valentine joined, Miles Copeland signed The Go-Go’s to IRS. They were soon at work on their first album in New York, co-produced by Rob Freeman and Richard Gottehrer, the latter of whom was known for writing hits like The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and had more recently produced Blondie.
“For once, we had someone professional on our side to help make the decisions,” says Wiedlin. “I don’t want to say that Richard was our puppetmaster or anything, because that certainly isn’t true. But he was super helpful in putting together a really cohesive group of material.”
The final album had a re-recorded “We Got The Beat” and 10 other songs. The album mixes faster-paced power pop like “How Much More” and “Tonight” with more brooding material like “This Town,” a cynical portrayal of life in the L.A. fast lane, and “Fading Fast,” a kiss off to a former boyfriend. The album also opened and closed with tracks that, while sounding optimistic, told another story lyrically. While “Our Lips Are Sealed” is light and breezy pop, the lyrics stress the importance of maintaining a sense of discretion (something even more timely in the Internet age); Valentine’s “Can’t Stop The World” concerns the struggle to overcome bad times.
“That record’s really something,” says Caffey. “If I remove myself from being in the band and just look at and listen to it, it’s really cool. It comes from a really honest place.” Wiedlin also describes the record as an “honest album. It has a certain charm that is still apparent after all these years. It’s an album made by young people with a lot of passion, enthusiasm and innocence, and I guess people still respond to that.”
“And we draw more from that record than any other record, live,” Valentine points out. “So I think it’s one of those classic albums, like The Pretenders’ first record, where there really isn’t a clinker on the track list. I just think it’s the chemistryand the uniqueness of The Go-Go’s; it was the right record, the right songs, the right people. Everything was just right.”
But it took time for the album to catch on, with the first single, “Our Lips Are Sealed,” only reaching No. 20. At first, the band again faced derision for being female.
“I remember going early on to local radio stations, and the DJs would just be, like, ‘Girls? What a joke,’” Wiedlin recalls. “It was crazy sexist. I mean, the things people used to say to us, a lawsuit would be started over today.” “And even when we started to be on the radio, they would have just one slot for the girl rocker or the girl singer,” says Caffey. “No kidding — on the stations, there’d be, like, one spot. ‘We’re already playing this; we can’t play that.’ It was really cuckoo in the very beginning.”
The Go-Go’s fought back the best way they knew how — by continuing to work hard.
“We never stopped touring that whole time,” says Wiedlin. “We did a club tour, and then we did a little bit bigger club tour, and then a small theater tour. And then we opened for The Police, which was really what cracked the nut for us, because they were playing stadiums. That was insane. When we opened for them at Madison Square Garden, it was unbelievable. I mean, in looking back on it, it didn’t even seem real to me; it just seemed like a movie I saw.”
The album’s sales were also buoyed by “We Got The Beat,” which reached No. 2. Suddenly, it seemed like The Go-Go’s were ever present — on the radio, on the road, and on the newly launched MTV (a sentiment L.A.-based singer/songwriter Phranc put in her song “Everywhere I Go I Hear The Go-Go’s”). Their second album, “Vacation,” was rushed out in 1982, reaching No. 8 (the title track reaching the same position).
Wiedlin recalls the band’s first flush of fame being “a big blur. And my main regret in life is that when we did get so big, we never really sat down and enjoyed it. It’s just we were working so hard, and the more popular you got, the more stuff there was to do. There wasn’t a lot of time to sit there and go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe all these years of hard work, what are the odds that this would happen?’ Well, there was none of that. It was just a lot of, ‘OK, you’re doing 50 interviews and a TV show and a concert …’ I mean, I’m not complaining. It was awesome. But we were kept so busy, it sort of seemed that one minute we were the top of the charts and the next minute we were breaking up.”
Burnout, personality conflicts, and (as detailed in Carlisle’s 2010 autobiography “Lips Unsealed”) substance abuse issues all helped drive the band members apart. After the release of “Talk Show” (which reached No. 18) in 1984, Wiedlin left the group, with a full-fledged break-up the following year.
“That was a rough time,” says Caffey, “because it was very sad. It just wasn’t working. We weren’t working as a band.” Five years later, The Go-Go’s reunited to play a benefit concert for a California ballot initiative; a new version of “Cool Jerk” appeared that same year on a greatest hits collection. Three more new songs appeared on the 1994 set “Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go’s,” and a new album, “God Bless The Go-Go’s,” was released in 2001.
The group also toured occasionally, though a proposed tour last year was announced as a farewell engagement, as Carlisle was less interested in performing with the band. But the tour was canceled when Wiedlin needed a knee operation, and this year’s tour didn’t have the word “farewell” attached to it (it was referred to as the “Ladies Gone Wild Tour”).
“It could be the farewell tour,” says Valentine. “I don’t really know. When you have a band with the format that there’s a lead singer, they kind of get to call the shots. And if the lead singer doesn’t want to go on a tour or record a record, there’s not a whole lot the band can do about it.”
But Wiedlin, for one, thinks there will be new music.
“Especially because nowadays you don’t have to put out a whole album, which is basically a nightmare for this band, because we all live in different places in the world,” she explains. “But we could put out one song at a time on the Internet. You can do it yourself. That’s the scene I grew up in; it was DIY, and I’m happy to get back to that.”
Until then, fans can content themselves with the previously unreleased material on the new edition of “Beauty and the Beat,” including a previously unreleased show from 1981 on the two-CD set, and a digital edition with more live tracks. But even if the band’s subsequent albums come out in expanded editions, “Beauty and the Beat” will remain its defining work.
“I think we hold up because there’s no one like us,” says Valentine. “There’s never been anyone like us, and there isn’t anyone like us. I mean, if you try to say, ‘Oh, The Go-Go’s, they’re a lot like…’ — what would you say? Who are we a lot like? I don’t think there’s anyone like this band. We’re just a very different breed; there’s something unique and special about The Go-Go’s. And ‘Beauty and the Beat’ is what put us on the map, so despite our inactivity, I think there could be interest another 10 years from now, another 20 years.”
And, along with their musical accomplishments, The Go-Go’s continue to be seen as a group that provides some much needed inspiration for future generations of women in rock.
“That’s happened quite a bit in our career,” says Wiedlin. “And it’s especially exciting when someone who’s actually a famous musician tells you that. Nowadays, the biggest thrill we get is when we do shows and we see people that were obviously fans of us back in the day, and now they’re bringing their kids to see us. And you see these girls out there that are 8, 10, 12, and they’re singing along to your songs. Just the idea that we are still having an impact on girls is incredible. It’s super heartening, and I’m really proud that my band does that.”