The Go-Go's, 40 years later: 'We did something cool,' but 'sexism is still alive and well'

Lyndsey Parker
Yahoo Music
The Go-Go’s in 2018: Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, and Gina Schock. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)
The Go-Go’s in 2018: Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, and Gina Schock. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Female music fans of a certain age can probably remember the exact life-changing, magical moment when they first discovered the Go-Go’s.

Maybe it was via the quintet’s cheap and cheerful “Our Lips Are Sealed” music video (released less than a month before MTV made its August 1981 debut), in which the Go-Go’s cruised the streets of Hollywood in a Rent-A-Wreck Buick convertible; shopped at Trashy Lingerie; and naughtily frolicked in a public water fountain without any concerns about smearing their makeup, flashing their skivvies, soaking their secondhand mini-dresses, or getting arrested.

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Maybe it was the group’s garish, parlor-pink Beauty and the Beat album art, depicting the ultimate rock ’n’ roll spa day with the bubble-bath-ing, facial-masked Go-Go’s indulging in bon-bons, booze, party-line chatter, and pulpy page-turners.

Or maybe it was that debut album’s brash, bratty, brilliant girl-gang anthems. When frontwoman Belinda Carlisle saucily sang, “Bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us” in the L.A. ode “This Town,” or “I want to be that girl tonight” in “How Much More,” basically every girl in America agreed with her. Every girl in America wanted to be in the Go-Go’s’ girl gang, wanted to be the sixth Go-Go, wanted to be Belinda’s best friend.

The Go-Go’s were the coolest girls in the world in the ’80s. They were the original squad goals.

For some fans, the most indelible Go-Go’s memory has to be from 1982, when they learned — probably via Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdown show — that Carlisle, guitarists Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, bassist Kathy Valentine, and drummer Gina Schock had made musical history. That year, Beauty and the Beat hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, where it stayed for six weeks; this established the Go-Go’s as the first all-female band that both wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to top that chart. The Go-Go’s still hold that record. That never happened again.

Considering what an impact the Go-Go’s had, it’s incredible that their initial run was so brief: They formed in 1978, put out Beauty and the Beat three years later, and by 1985, after releasing two more albums (1982’s Vacation and 1984’s Talk Show), they’d already broken up. However, their legacy lived on. And since the Go-Go’s first reunited in 1990, even more fans — male and female — have discovered or rediscovered their effervescent, irresistible garage-pop.

But now, as the Go-Go’s celebrate four decades in the business (they played their very first live show at legendary Hollywood punk club the Masque, opening for the Dickies, 40 years ago this week), they’re entering a new chapter in their life — reuniting with Valentine (with whom they acrimoniously parted ways in 2012) and creating a Gwyneth Paltrow-produced musical using a bunch of their songs, Head Over Heels.

Yahoo Entertainment got together with Wiedlin and Caffey to reflect on the Go-Go’s’ legacy — from their punk-rock past to their whirlwind success — and discuss sexism, ageism, and why the Go-Go’s really belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Yahoo Entertainment: The Go-Go’s were the first female band that wrote all their songs and played their instruments to have a No. 1 album in the U.S. And you’re still the only all-girl band to hold that honor. When that happened, did you realize at the time that you were making history? 

Jane Wiedlin: Sort of. I mean, we were really proud that we were the first. I think it became even more significant later, because we had this assumption that everything was going to change. But everything didn’t change. We thought there’d be hundreds of all-female bands playing their instruments and writing songs, and it just never really happened that way — or those bands out there didn’t seem to achieve the success we did. Of course, we were very lucky.

Charlotte Caffey: I remember being told it went to No. 1 and it was really exciting, but as far as sitting there and saying, “Wow, this is historically significant!” — that wasn’t something I was thinking. When we got back together [in 1990], five years after we first broke up, that’s when it really struck me. I remember the very first gig, I believe it was a benefit for the environment, at the Universal Amphitheatre. Seeing these grown men crying in the audience, I was like, “OK, that’s kind of amazing.” I understood in that moment: “OK, we really did something cool.”

Yahoo Entertainment: So now you know!

Caffey: Yes, now I know. But I guess the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t know.

Yahoo Entertainment: Wow. The Go-Go’s have never even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Caffey: Nope! Look, we’re not sitting around waiting or losing any bits of our lives worrying about it. But it’s just obvious [that we’ve been snubbed]. Whatever protocol there is, I don’t understand.

Yahoo Entertainment: Which sort of goes back to Jane’s point, that the Go-Go’s’ success didn’t kick down as many doors as people might have hoped or assumed. Any theories why?

Wiedlin: Well, change comes slowly — and sexism is still alive and well in America.

Yahoo Entertainment: What sort of sexism did the Go-Go’s experience back in the ’80s?

Wiedlin: It’s kind of hard to explain. Things were different then. People were not PC. Radio people would be very vulgar with us, and people would ask us who we had “f***ed to get to the top,” to which the answer was “nobody.” I think [industry] men made a lot of assumptions about us, and a lot of men were threatened by us, because the five of us together was a pretty powerful force. We used to call it the “five-headed monster,” because it was pretty intense to be around us as a pack.

Yahoo Entertainment: Do you think this sort of chart-topping success that the Go-Go’s had — a female rock ’n’ roll band, doing things totally their own way — could happen in 2018?

Caffey: Well, I believe it would be a huge feat of magic or something. For us, it was completely organic. I believe there will be a little sprouting scene somewhere in the world that will bring forth more organic music. I always hold that hope, because I’m old-school. That, to me, is the way I like music: people just organically doing it.

Yahoo Entertainment: What do you think has changed most for women in music between 1981 and 2018?

Wiedlin: What I’m noticing right now is a large percentage of the women performers out there — most of whom don’t seem to be musicians or songwriters — are manufactured and hypersexualized. And I think most of them, when they’re asked about it, there’s this pat answer: “I’m doing this, nobody’s making me do this! I’m a feminist and it’s my choice to be dressing like a stripper!” I don’t know, I find it a little bit difficult to look at, because it’s just so cliché and boring. But whatever. It’s not my career.

Caffey: We were just a group of girls, like any other group of girls. I think that was our appeal, and I’m glad about that. We were just in our thrift-store clothes that we’d been buying for years. That was just who we were.

Wiedlin: For many years, we always just wore thrift-store clothes. It wasn’t until towards the end that we started having money and wearing more designer-y clothes. It was really different then. I see these young performers today and they have Valentino and Gucci dressing them, and I’m like, “Wow!” We had Goodwill and the Salvation Army dressing us.

Yahoo Entertainment: But that definitely was part of your appeal — like in the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video, which seemed unchoreographed, unscripted, and charmingly cheap.

Wiedlin: We got the money for that video out of a video budget left over from the Police. [Editor’s note: Miles Copeland, president of the Go-Go’s’ label, I.R.S. Records, and brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland, managed the Police.] It was $6,000 that we spent. We were kind of just driving around L.A., very informally, and we figured if we jumped into the fountain that was at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvd., that maybe the cops would come and arrest us and we could film it, and it would be like this great ending to the video. So we were jumping around, jumping, jumping, jumping — but the cops never showed up. But it’s still kind of a cute ending. The fountain’s still there. We probably would get arrested if we tried to do it now.

Yahoo Entertainment: Let’s go back even further. I think some more casual fans might actually be surprised to know that the Go-Go’s came out of the late-’70s Hollywood punk scene that spawned bands like the Germs, the Weirdos, and the Bags. What was that era like?

Wiedlin: It was a great scene to be part of. It was very small, and everybody knew each other. It was friendly and inclusive. There were girls in bands, people of color in bands, gays and lesbians in bands — and it was all okey-dokey. It wasn’t a big deal. It was kind of the perfect breeding ground for our little band to come into existence.

Caffey: It was a very creative scene. It was people openly expressing themselves in any which way. Very exciting. I was very fortunate to be a part of that and have that experience.

Yahoo Entertainment: That’s interesting, because I think the stereotype or assumption about the L.A. punk scene was that it was very aggressive and male-driven, and that a girl group would not have been accepted.

Caffey: It wasn’t like that when we were there. It became more like that later. There were a lot of guys, sure. But I didn’t sit there thinking, “Oh wow, these are all guys.” It’s just like, “They’re musicians.” And that’s why, when people ask the question “What’s it like to be in an all-girl band?” — you don’t think that. I’m a musician. We’re musicians. Yes, we happen to be women, and yes, we did put together an all-female band, because, as Jane once put it, that’s all the people that were left! But it’s not really a gender thing. It seems unique [to be all girls], but it’s not really when you’re just doing what we do. We are just musicians, putting in the work.

Yahoo Entertainment: When the Go-Go’s made it big, did any of your L.A. punk peers disavow you, or accuse you of “selling out”?

Caffey: Of course! When you have the band that’s “your” band from your town and then they all of a sudden start going global, you feel like you’re abandoned. But I think it was cool, because there was no one else like us. It was a great thing to have happen.

Wiedlin: Maybe some people from that scene were supportive and happy for us, but I remember at the time that it was more like we were the big sellouts — which happens to everybody, by the way. You take it personally at the moment, but then later realize that it happens to literally any band that gets successful, if they come from a tight scene like we did. … But when [the scene] started getting really male-driven, with all the violent mosh pits and stuff, after a couple years, we were turned off to it anyway. So we didn’t have such a problem moving on.

Yahoo Entertainment: How did the band’s sound evolve from punk to the more powerpoppy sound you became famous for?

Wiedlin: It started when Charlotte joined the band, after we’d really been together for just a few months. Charlotte and I started writing together, and she had a little bit more of a pop sensibility, even though we had all been raised on ’60s pop music. As time went on, we sort of gravitated towards the more melodic songs than the angrier first songs that we had written. And then … we got our record deal and were produced by Richard Gottehrer, who was a ’60s songwriter. [Editor’s note: Gottehrer’s Brill Building hits included “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and “I Want Candy.”] So he brought even more of an element of pop to our sound.

Caffey: I can’t say I changed the sound. What I did was I brought in a song, “How Much More,” that was completely pop and girl/boy — or girl/girl, or boy/boy, or whatever it may be. You know, it was relationship-oriented. I took a big risk by doing that, because bands [in the scene] then were playing things that were a little more hardcore in a sense, like more punky-sounding. But the thing is, we still sounded the same way, we just had a more pop melody to work with.

Wiedlin: [Gottehrer] slowed us down too, because we played everything at like a breakneck speed. We found it hard to listen to when we heard the finished product. We were horrified!

Caffey: When he heard the first mix of [Beauty and the Beat], we hated it! We were crying and cursing it. It was like the worst thing ever.

Wiedlin: We made him speed the tapes up, actually — so when people try to play along to that record, they say, “The keys are really weird.” And we say, “Well, that’s because we sped the tapes up!”

Caffey: Richard, in his brilliance — which we didn’t understand till months later — he featured the song. He wanted the song and those lyrics to shine. [That’s why] he asked us to slow the songs down a bit. Then, when we got songs on the radio, we understood why he did that. And it was the smartest thing ever.

Yahoo Entertainment: Were you prepared for the massive, mainstream success that followed?

Caffey: It was very disruptive. It’s not normal, you know? It’s very exciting, but it’s very disturbing too. We were ordinary people, having an extraordinary experience. And sometimes that’s hard. It was very difficult for me. It was just overwhelming. I didn’t know how to balance things out back then. … And I think it was escalated by what happened to the band. It just provided us a carte blanche to everything … but coming home and drinking is not the answer. You need to balance it another way.

Yahoo Entertainment: How did you get past that?

Caffey: I got sober. I’m 31 years sober. I’m proud of it and talk about it all the time. I’m very open about it. That’s how I managed to crawl out of that place that I was in. But it’s not just about stopping drinking. You change your life in many ways.

Yahoo Entertainment: It seems like your sort of success would be even more difficult to handle in this day and age.

Wiedlin: I liked the career that we had, in the time that we came up. It was a fun time, and it doesn’t look very fun to me when I see the artists of today. They just seem to be under so much more pressure — the intense focus all the time, with social media and paparazzi. It’s really out of control. I don’t see how that could be fun. The level of scrutiny is so ridiculous. I don’t think I could have handled it. … I probably would have killed myself, and I am not even joking. It amazes me, what people put up with, the amount of hate on the internet.

Yahoo Entertainment: Do you guys get any hate on the internet now? Ageism, sexism, anything like that?

Wiedlin: Not really. Sometimes, I guess. So, people think we’re old, yeah. Whatever. Guess what, everybody? Everyone is going to get old!

Yahoo Entertainment: What about the idea of “growing old gracefully”? That someone like you, at age 58, shouldn’t still be dyeing her hair bright blue?

Wiedlin: F*** that! I’m gonna do what I want. Actually, when you get older, it’s the perfect time to dye your hair. When your hair starts turning white, you can just slap any color on it that you want. You don’t even have to bleach it or anything.

Yahoo Entertainment: We’ve talked a lot about female artists coming up today and the obstacles they may face. What advice would you giving rising young female musicians?

Caffey: Stay true to yourself. If you really believe in yourself, and you believe in what you’re doing, don’t give up. Because that’s exactly what we did. We didn’t give up. We wanted to along the way, because sometimes it was so hard. But we’d talk each other out of it: “No, no, let’s keep going till September, and then we can break up!” And then we’d keep going. Really, it’s about tenacity and surrounding yourself with like-minded people.

Yahoo Entertainment: And finally, what influence do you think you’ve had on women in music? Do you have any female musicians telling you that the Go-Go’s have been important or inspirational to them?

Wiedlin: Sure. Veruca Salt, for instance, have said they’re fans, and that’s amazing, because we are huge fans of theirs. But you know, it’s not just girls. Guys liked us too. Like, Billie Joe Armstrong cites us as a reference, and so did Kurt Cobain. And I don’t think it gets any better than that! If I could have anybody say that they were influenced by us, it would be those guys.

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