During the induction of the Go-Go’s at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on October 30, 2021, actress Drew Barrymore spilled a secret: the new wave band’s 1981 album, The beauty and the Beastchanged her life when she heard it at the age of 6. She told the crowd that she “spent hours watching (the) cover and back, all in the tub.
For a 6-year-old like Drew, the vinyl album cover had to give off an air of decadent glamour. Against a cloudy blue background, the front features the all-female punk quintet in white towels and face masks, applying nail polish (they later returned the towels to Macy’s.) The back features the band members in baths foamers – talking on the phone, pouring champagne and reading trashy novels.
But it was what was inside that really mattered. When Barrymore first heard The beauty and the Beast, women in music were often seen as glitzy accessories, if at all. The pioneer group Cat set the bar in the early 70s, but not everyone got the memo. In the late 70s and early 80s, the only female punk rock bands were bands like Blondie and the all-female band The Runaways. A short-sighted title would describe The Go-Go’s as “Five Beauties with a Rhythm”. Of course, the women played music, but did a all-girl change the face of rock?
The Go-Gos, however, had a lot to say. With the 40and anniversary of their landmark debut The beauty and the Beast in the rear view, and on the heels of their long-awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of FameThe Go-Gos are finally receiving the long-awaited recognition they’ve so rightly deserved since breaking out of the LA punk scene and onto the national stage.
The Go-Gos earned their place in rock history early on, being the first all-female band with an album of songs written entirely by the band. Guitarist Jane Wiedlin, bassist Kathy Valentine, drummer Gina Schock, vocalist Belinda Carlisle and guitarist/keyboardist Charlotte Caffey also arranged and performed all of their own music. The beauty and the Beast landed them on top of the Billboard albums, stealing the hearts of music fans with their carefree attitude and boyish charm. Their achievement was then unknown. No other all-female group has been successful since.
And while the dynamic and fast music inside The beauty and the Beast fits into the mold of other pop albums of its time, its punk/DIY crossover aesthetic crystallizes its universal and timeless pleasure. The beauty and the Beast is 10 pieces of joy and freedom from unlikely places. It was forged in the sweaty trenches of the LA punk scene, where booze-covered floors met dampness, graffiti-covered hallways and reckless energy; he was nurtured in the haze of amorous adventures and the sting of social alienation; and it proved its worth on stage, where, at least for a while, no one expected them to.
Before getting a record deal, The Go-Go’s were an all-female band in a male-dominated world. The core group aesthetic – learn as you go, fuck the enemies – was in full force early on. Wiedlin, Carlisle and original bassist Margot Olavarria met on LA’s punk show circuit in the late ’70s. All three attended the Sex Pistols’ disastrous final performance at Winterland in San Francisco on January 14, 1978.
Carlisle was completely unimpressed with the Pistols’ self-absorbed style. “These guys are our heroes. And they cracked up a bit! Wiedlin agrees. But it got them thinking: if these guys can get on stage, then why can’t we?
Like all great bands, the women who became The Go-Go’s started at the bottom. “We were absolutely rotten when we started,” Wiedlin said. But what they initially lacked in technical talent, they made up for in tenacity, drawing inspiration from their surroundings and mastering the instrument of their choice.
The stories of how The Go-Go is stitched together The beauty and the Beast on stage and alone are legendary, and they help certify the album as a must-have new wave classic. And each Go-Go brought something special to the table.
Drummer Gina Schock was determined to be a rock star and practiced her instrument religiously. To acknowledge her dream, she drove from Baltimore to Los Angeles, allegedly with “$2,000 and two grams of coke.” His musical journey began with the punk/exploitation band Edie and the Eggs, an offshoot of John Waters’ cult universe. Schock’s work ethic helped lead the group and gave them structure.
Falling in love with The Animals and The Beach Boys at age 10 may have saved Belinda Carlisle. She grew up amid an unstable family life; in high school, she was a cheerleader and basketball player who began experimenting with drugs. Prior to joining The Go-Go’s, she was briefly a member of The Germs under the name “Dottie Danger”, although she never performed with them. Carlisle was her own fashion expert, first meeting Caffey while she was wearing a garbage bag dress.
Guitarist Kathy Valentine was already in her third band when The Go-Go’s found her. While with Austin post-punk band The Textones, Valentine wrote the upbeat, forward-thinking “Can’t Stop the World,” which ended on The beauty and the Beast; as well as a later well-known Go-Go hit, “Vacation”, from the album of the same name. To catch up with the rest of the band, Valentine learned bass and learned all of their songs on tape.
Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin had an affinity for 60s R&B and bubblegum music like The Archies and Tommy James. Their style and their influences will contribute to The Go-Go’s shift from punk to new wave and power pop.
Wiedlin was directionless in high school and college until she discovered Southern California’s burgeoning punk scene. She found a home there, along with countless other people who identified with the messages bands like X and The Germs were spreading. While working in a sweat shop in Los Angeles, Wiedlin began writing song lyrics on small fabric patterns and eventually crafted punk clothing under the name Jane Drano. It was his romance with a British singer that later led to the band’s first US single.
Unlike Wiedlin, before joining The Go-Go’s, Caffey was already playing two sets a night with The Eyes. One night she was performing at the Starwood concert hall in West Hollywood (“It was The Jam, The Dickies and The Eyes”, she remembers) when Carlisle and former member, bassist Margot Olavarria, approached her.
“They looked so weird to me, because I looked pretty normal. I think Belinda had purple hair and was wearing a trash bag and pointy heels with ripped stockings. And Margot had pink and green hair and all that weird makeup. And I thought, “Well, that looks like fun” she says.
Caffey’s early contributions to the group stemmed from unlikely musical and pop cultural associations. Although Caffey had a classical piano background, she was also a fan of ’60s R&B. Caffey infused the band’s rock roots with that Motown flavor, but in a weird way. She wrote “We Got the Beat” while watching the sci-fi horror series “The Twilight Zone” and weaving together fragments of the song Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. “Go to a go-go.”
Comparing the two songs side-by-side, it’s easy to see the connection Caffey created. The Go-Go version retains the drum pattern created by The Miracles, but picks up the pace. They also skip the horn section and instead add dynamic guitars and a dancing bass line that rises and falls with each verse. Both songs have infectious grooves and a repetitive chorus that invites everyone to join in the vibrant and joyful vibe. More importantly, “We Got the Beat” helped put the band on the map.
But before any of that could happen, the young band had to hone their growing talent, playing countless sets at Los Angeles spots like the Whiskey A Go Go and The Masque, and releasing a five-song demo in 1979. In the spring of 1980 they got another big break – British two-tone ska bands The Specials and Madness invited them to support their UK tour.
They were beyond thrilled, even though it wasn’t the glamorous concert they had imagined. Band members were sometimes spat on or asked to show their “boobs”. They do not have. Corn hostile crowds gave them the backbone they needed to handle any live audience.
While touring the UK, Wiedlin struck up a “sort of romance,” she says, with Specials singer Terry Hall. The pair were supposed to stay quiet because Hall “had a girlfriend back home and all that kind of stuff. So it was very dramatic,” Wiedlin says. This fleeting relationship would factor into the growing success of The Go- Go once back in the United States.
But they still had a lot to prove in England. In 1980 they cut a raw version of “We Got the Beat” for the British label HDDs. This version features more harmonizing of the band members and Carlisle’s vocals which were rawer than the album version. The UK EP was a conduit, becoming a dormant success on Billboard’s Top 40 American Dances, and upon their return to California, sold-out shows and a new, more robust fanbase awaited them.
Although Wiedlin’s relationship with Hall ended once the tour ended, Hall wrote lyrics about their clandestine affair and sent them to Wiedlin. She added music and other lyrics to the song, which later became “Our Lips Are Sealed”, The Go-Go’s first US single, which they released in June 1981.
But even after their UK tour and all the success around ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ and ‘We Got the Beat’, the band still couldn’t get signed, and they knew why. Most rock labels didn’t seem to imagine a future where women were in charge. A rejection letter stated that while the label admired their work, they were not the “type of band” they wanted to sign. “Good luck with your group of enterprising girls!” ” they wrote.
IRS Records, where indie bands like REM, The Cramps and The English Beat got their start, finally tried their luck on The Go-Gos in 1981. The beauty and the Beast finally reached number 1 on the album charts in March 1982, arriving just as MTV reached restless high schoolers stuck in the vacuum of suburbia.
In their music video for “Our Lips Are Sealed,” the band, all smiles and sunglasses, cruise the streets in a used 1960 Buick convertible on a scorching hot day, dancing around a fountain and showing a carefree energy that portends a future and greater space for women in rock music.
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