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The Go-Go’s: L.A. Punk-Rockers Turned ‘America’s Sweethearts’ Dish On Their New Documentary and Transcendent History
In so many ways, The Go-Go’s owned the 1980s.
Born out of the Los Angeles punk scene, the band quickly became “America’s Sweethearts,” as guitarist Charlotte Caffey recalls to Rock Cellar, on the heels of the hit singles “We Got The Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed,” anthems that drove the near-24/7 rotation the band enjoyed on the then-all important MTV, before the cracks began to show as the decade wore on.
It’s all there in the excellent new Showtime documentary The Go-Go’s. Directed by Alison Ellwood, the film premiered on July 31 and chronicles the ups and downs of one of the most beloved — if misunderstood — bands of the MTV-era.
This month, singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin and bassist Kathy Valentine recall earliest days of The Go-Go’s in L.A. and touring the U.K., making the 1981 breakout album Beauty and the Beat and its follow-ups, the rancor and reconciliation in the years that followed, plus the making of the documentary and new single “Club Zero.”
Rock Cellar: The punk origin story is an important part of The Go-Go’s history, and it has been glossed over as far as the public at large is concerned. The documentary goes a long way toward showing that you weren’t just MTV darlings, doesn’t it?
Belinda Carlisle: The early punk days are probably the most important part of our story.
Without the punk days in the late-1970s, The Go-Go’s would never have happened. You could be in a band and be terrible and it was great!
You could learn as you went along. It’s an incredible success story; a big success that happened against all odds. The biggest obstacle being we had no idea how to play instruments or write songs.
Jane Wiedlin: I can’t even tell you how many fights I’ve gotten in online with snarky commenters saying “The Go-Go’s aren’t punk.” You’re arguing with a 20-year-old, and it’s like, “Dude, you weren’t there. I’m in the band and I’m telling you, we were punk.”
So it’s really good that now I can say, “Okay, here’s the footage.” That made me really happy to see all that. Of course, it brought back lots of old memories, too.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about the U.K. tour, because that seemed like your Hamburg moment, so to speak. That was a big move, to decamp from L.A. to the U.K. for not a big money tour. You were really grinding it out. What do you remember of the decision and the tour, as well as the aftermath?
Jane Wiedlin: We were obsessed with England. England was Mecca. We all wanted to go there really badly, so this was our chance. Of course, we didn’t have the money to get there, so our manager Ginger (Canzoneri), who had a really nice car because she had worked at CBS Records as a graphic artist, sold it to buy us cheap tickets on Freddie Laker’s airline, and put us on an allowance of £2 a day each.
We couldn’t afford food! We couldn’t afford drugs. [laughter.] We were living on bread, basically. My birthday fell during that trip, and at that time British cough syrup was kind of a narcotic, so we bought cough syrup to celebrate my birthday.
Belinda Carlisle: It was tough in so many ways, but it was a dream come true. We’d dreamed of touring in the U.K., as that is where we looked for our inspiration. As Jane said, London was punk rock Mecca.
Charlotte Caffey: Even though it seemed daunting, we all jumped at the opportunity to go to the U.K. and tour with Madness and The Specials. We played shows consistently for two months and dealt with anything and everything that was thrown our way.
Belinda Carlisle: We never felt any doubt that it was the right thing to do.
Charlotte Caffey: We were a much tighter band when we came back.
Kathy Valentine: The scene was incredible because it was very inclusive and about the music. It was this huge, diverse scene and wasn’t contingent on looking a certain way or being a certain way. So I was enamored of the scene when I moved to L.A. from Texas. When I met Charlotte, the band was six days shy of a four-night engagement, and they still didn’t have anybody lined up to take Margot’s place, which is mind-blowing when I think about it now. I was just laughing with them saying, “Now we would rehearse for weeks and weeks for a tour. Back then for four nights at the Whisky we did two rehearsals. And I had never played the bass! I’d left the band the Textones, but I needed to be in band.
And then as soon as I heard those songs, as soon as I started deciphering on the cassette they’d given me, I was like, “Okay, wait a minute. This band is good. Not only are they popular and can sell out the Whisky, but these songs are good.” I was no dummy. I could hear how this band could go somewhere. I figured it out real quick. I thought, “This is why I moved here. This is what I always wanted. I always wanted to be in a band with like-minded girls.”
From the minute I saw Suzi Quatro and picked up a guitar and, I was like, “Why are there no females in these bands that I love?” So when I met The Go-Go’s, it was like, aha. This is what you’ve been looking for.
People always say, “Oh, you must have known you were successful when you had a number one.” And I’m like, no, no, no. I thought I was successful when I didn’t have to have a fucking day job and I was playing in a band that packed clubs. When you’re 22 years old, and you’re playing eight sold-out shows at the Whisky, and you don’t have to go back and look for a job? That’s success! And then we headed to New York to record? That’s success. Then we got to go on tour and every town we pulled into, whether it was Detroit or Atlanta or Minneapolis, there was chaos and we were sold out? That’s success.
So, for me, it was the realization and manifestation of a dream at every level and every step of the way.
Rock Cellar: One of the things that isn’t in the documentary is that during the making of the first album you all were a little bit shocked at how poppy the first record ended up sounding. You were at ground zero in the L.A. punk movement. How did you reconcile that? People did say you were selling out, and yet that wasn’t really what was going on. We see the same songs being played fast and then sort of the recorded version. They’re very different animals. And you had a producer and a record label and you all wanted to sell records, too, and have more people hear your music. How do you recall that time?
Charlotte Caffey: I never cared about anyone thinking that we had sold out. I never wanted to be just a band that played LA. We wanted to work with Richard Gottehrer because he’d produced Blondie’s debut record.
Belinda Carlisle: Coming from the punk scene in L.A., we were very aware of how people felt about us, especially when Margot (Olavarria, original Go-Go’s bassist) was fired from the band for not being on the same page as everyone else creatively and being somewhat of a disrupter. We were never going to win with them no matter what we did.
Jane Wiedlin: I don’t think, as far as the sound and the production, it was calculated to sell records. I mean, every band wants to sell records, whether they’ll admit it or not. But we’d had never had a real experience in a real studio with a real producer. The first thing he did was slow everything down. So right there, just that one decision, made it sound way more pop.
Charlotte Caffey: Making the record was thrilling. We recorded in New York at several different studios, the last one being The Record Plant where John Lennon did all his work.
There was a perfect storm of events and people that led to radio stations adding our first single, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” It took Michael Plen, from IRS records, seven months of relentless persistence to get the song added to radio.
Belinda Carlisle: But I don’t think it was possible to be objective about the music, since we were so close to it. I remember not really objecting to Richard Gottehrer’s opinion that everything should be slowed down. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, or I’d remember it.
Kathy Valentine: As the record kept selling, what began to dawn on me was that my perspective wasn’t important. Me thinking that it sounded too sterile, me thinking it didn’t rock as hard as the Ramones or sound as slick as Blondie — these are the bands I’m comparing us to, the bands that I loved — that didn’t stop millions of people from wanting to own a copy of that record. After a while, I realized, “Okay, we were a little harsh on Richard, and his vision was the absolute right vision, and thank goodness no one was listening to us in terms of that.”
Because the record company, they knew we were disappointed. But nobody was bending over backwards, saying, “Well, let’s go remix it,” or, “Let’s go re-do it.” There was no budget for that, anyway. Richard had gone into his pocket when we went over budget. We had a $40,000 budget, and Richard had to go into his pocket to finish the record. So there was no option of redoing anything, and the record company wasn’t concerned in the least. They were happy. Besides, it’s amazing we even got our parts recorded. We were having a good time!
So when we gathered together to listen to the record and we noticed they had sped up a couple of the songs, because Richard realized they’d been recorded too slow, it sounded sped-up and we were disappointed. But Richard was right.
I’m so proud that when I hear our songs, on the radio or in the supermarket. I don’t think, “Oh, listen to that gated snare drum,” or, “Listen to those synths.” Because it doesn’t sound eighties, it sounds classic.
So I’m proud that our music has held up and that Richard had the foresight and the chops as a producer, because of where he came from as a writer and having hits in the sixties, to do it his way.
Belinda Carlisle: I do remember, though, listening to the final product and not being happy. It didn’t live up to my expectations — those being that it should have more of a punk sound. And I hated my voice. But now, in retrospect, I realize it was the best possible result, and that Richard was right, and so was Miles Copeland, our manager.
Jane Wiedlin: I always like to compare The Go-Go’s to the amazing Buzzcocks — although I would never say we’re as good or better than them — but because those were completely pop songs done at a breakneck speed. And no one ever told them they weren’t punk. But I think it was a natural progression happened. We were shocked by the record when it was done, and we listened to it. We did make him speed up the tapes a little bit. Even so, Richard really did bring out the pop side of our pop-punk sound.
Rock Cellar: I saw you with The Police in New Haven. You were getting heavy rotation on MTV and the excitement on stage and also in the crowd was much more obvious to me when you guys were on stage than when The Police were onstage. I had seen The Police before that, and they were a different animal earlier on. But it’s funny to me how in the documentary you all say how really nice to you they were. It’s not that you were upstaging them, but there was a different energy when you were onstage. And they didn’t seem to care. What do you remember of that tour and that time, when everything started to explode? You had the number one and they were six, but Sting brought you champagne and they were so gentlemanly.
Jane Wiedlin: That’s the exact word I was going to use! It was very gentlemanly of them to congratulate us passing them in the charts. That was a very kind moment that I’ll never forget.
Kathy Valentine: I talk in my book about how I’ve always found nothing but support and encouragement from the male musicians that I have encountered from the minute I picked up the guitar. I saw that pattern when I wrote about it, and I was so happy to point it out, and The Police were part of that pattern, in my personal experience. One of the things that made me most happy is that Andy Summers, who has a book out now, and Stewart Copeland, who of course appears in our documentary, really respected us. I had no idea at the time the amount of respect they had for us.
Just the fact that they were having us open for them should have been enough, but I’m sure I thought, “Oh, Miles is their manager, and he’s making them do it.” It never occurred to me that they really saw what they saw. The things that they said, both Andy in his book and Stewart in his interview, made me feel great, because they were truly great musicians, bringing it every night, and they thought we delivered on every level. But that time, when Sting came into our dressing room to congratulate us for our album passing theirs, it was an unforgettable and stunning moment. It really felt like, “Okay, anything can happen.”
Charlotte Caffey: We will always be grateful to Miles Copeland (who ran I.R.S. Records, The Go-Go’s label, and who also managed The Police) for having the foresight to have us open for The Police. We went from playing clubs to huge venues. When we went onstage we were so electrified by the energy of the audience. It pushed us to be our very best. But our lives went into hyper mode. Everything was changing so quickly. And as exciting as it was, it was overwhelming and a bit unsettling.
Jane Wiedlin: The Police were at the top of their game. They were huge all over the world. So the idea of us — these little, young, women upstarts — I don’t think it ever occurred to them that we could upstage them. They were very confident, world-class musicians. That definitely puts you in a position where you’re not going to worry about your opening act.
Rock Cellar: There was a real rush to make the second album, not to mention the third and fourth albums. You were on that music business treadmill. Do you look back at that and do you wish you could tell your younger self, “Slow down, stand up to management, stand up to the label?”
Jane Wiedlin: Absolutely. We were under the impression that if we didn’t keep the songs coming fast and furious, that we were going to fade away. And the reality is that if we had taken our time, and had time to write stronger songs, then I think things could have been different in that we would have done better work. And better work, in the end, is more important than how quickly you put stuff out.
Charlotte Caffey: Actually, the band should have listened to the label. IRS wanted to put out another single after “Our Lips Are Sealed” but we didn’t. That would have definitely given us more time to write new songs!
Kathy Valentine: The way I recall it is it’s all squarely on our heads, and it’s our fault. We rushed ourselves. The label wanted to release another single, and possibly more. And we said, “No. We’re tired of doing this. You’re trying to bleed us while we’re hot. We want to do more.”
It was a case where somebody should have put their foot down and said, “No, you just had a number one. You just opened for The Police. Let’s put you out on the road again, then take a few months off and then hit the road again headlining bigger places.” Hindsight, that would’ve been the move, because then, with more singles, we would’ve broken bigger in Europe and England. So that’s squarely on our head, and a case of us feeling like, “Hey, nobody’s being the puppet master with us. We call the shots. We’re in charge.”
I wish somebody had told us to shut up and take some time off and then go out on the road again. Because we were not ready for the second record. I think we did a good job, considering, and there was enough on there to keep our career on track, but it wasn’t a smart business move. We had a very fledgling label. There had never been an indie label like I.R.S. that had had a number one. People don’t say it, but the Ramones were on Sire, Blondie was on Chrysalis and The Police were on A&M. They weren’t even on I.R.S.! People always talk about “the first all-female band …” and that’s fine and dandy, but we were also the first band to have an album on an indie label to go to Number One. That was huge for I.R.S., and I think Sub Pop and a lot of those huge indies that came up in the wake of our label were due to that success.
Rock Cellar: You glossed over the fact that without “Vacation,” that second album is a much different record.
Kathy Valentine: Oh, yeah. If it wasn’t for “Vacation,” it would’ve been the end of our career. We had to have another hit. If we made a second record without something that could get on the radio, that would’ve been it for us. The same with Talk Show. Without “Head Over Heels,” it would’ve been over.
So thank goodness we were able, despite falling apart at the seams, to generate “Vacation” and “Head Over Heels” and some smaller singles, with videos that were catchy, and other good songs that still hold up to light.
Rock Cellar: In my mind, I subtitled the documentary “Alliances, feuds, and making amends.” In the full arc of the story there are so many twists and turns. I think what made you guys unique and different was not just your drive but the conflict. That fueled the creative process, don’t you think?
Jane Wiedlin: I love your little subtitle, because it’s very apt. One of the things I love about this documentary, which is in marked contrast to the Behind the Music documentary about us, is that it’s not salacious. It’s not, “Ooh, sex and drugs!” That’s so boring, because that’s such a template. You can literally put any rock band into that template, and it would be the same.
What supposedly made our story more interesting when they did the Behind The Music is that we were women, and I just reject that. For the new film I feel Alison dug deeper and really brought out the heart of this band. When I saw it with the band in a theater with a bunch of people, it hit me really hard what a great story and movie it is, and how Alison put all the pieces together and created this whole arc.
I think it’s so good and it’s triumphant, too, at the end. You’re like, “Yes!”
Kathy Valentine: It’s just surprising to me the length of time that old hurts can stay. Everybody is a different, complex individual, not in this band, but in general, and everyone has different things that just kind of settle in. So it amazed me that we could get to such a deeper level of healing and re-bonding and forgiving and letting go. It’s still ongoing.
Even after the documentary came out, because it’s inspired conversations between us that helped chunks of things float away. It’s quite remarkable, and it wasn’t something I expected. I really thought that the documentary would be a way for us to have a little bit of say and control in our narrative, which I felt had been unfairly focused on strife and acrimony without celebrating the accomplishments and the joy.
In the midst of addiction and exhaustion, we were also managing to have a really fucking good time.
And that seems to stay out of the picture a lot. Bands are like marriages and families, and things from long ago can settle in and just kind of sit there. I didn’t expect the documentary to reveal and heal as much as it did for us as a band.
Charlotte Caffey: Conflict was never an inspiration for me. It was my drive, my obsession, my love of writing songs that fueled my creative process.
Kathy Valentine: I think sobriety helps. I think also you get to a point in your life where your perspective and your priorities and your values do change. Just living through the pandemic has given us all a whole other level of looking at priorities and values and being able to pivot or let go or deal with loss and embrace our resilience. If you’re lucky to live long enough and have some self-awareness, you grow, you change and it all plays into your relationships; especially the important ones, like in the band.
Because there was a time in the nineties, when the show Survivor first came out, where we’d be doing press, I’d say, “This band is like Survivor.” It’s not like that now.
Rock Cellar: The record you made in 2001 was a good record. But then you went out and interviewers just wanted to talk about nostalgia and the early hits. This feels like a different moment. The new song both has a nostalgia element to it, and a punky element to it, too. But it’s also of this moment. And the documentary feels like a very of this moment statement. It doesn’t feel retro or nostalgic. Why do you think this moment is different than the moment for that record, for instance?
Kathy Valentine: I agree that God Bless the Go-Go’s was a great album. But it just wasn’t our time.
Charlote Caffey: I believe Alison Ellwood’s storytelling has everything to do with why this moment is different. She really gets us. She was able to showcase who we really are, not the way the media, who dubbed us “America’s Sweethearts” back in the day, saw us. Maybe some people weren’t willing to let that go in 2001. But the truth is we are five really smart, funny, intense, powerful women.
Jane Wiedlin: The God Bless the Go-Go’s record was released just weeks before 9/11 happened, so that became the biggest story in the world and consumed our country, and that’s how it should have been. But it buried the record. I really stand behind that record. I think the songwriting is good, so it’s very unfortunate to me that hardly anyone ever heard that record. On the other hand, this song, I think, because we’re older, we’re wiser, and because nobody was thinking, “Oh, we’re going to put out a record and we’re going to be on top again,” it was a different mindset. It was one song for a very specific reason, that we wanted to gift something to this documentary that showed that we’re still alive and doing well.
Kathy Valentine: The Go-Go’s was always a very organic thing. You can write a great body of material, and you can put together the most cracking, charismatic, cool band, and yet, there got to be a synergy with timing and what’s going on culturally. I wrote in my book that I thought the Reagan era — a very dark era, where a lot of ugly, bad stuff was happening — helped make The Go-Go’s a real antidote to that; a real band-aid, and a soothing thing. We showed there was still joy in the world, even though all this horrible stuff was happening. And there’s a lot of horrible stuff happening now. I remember saying when we were talking about the documentary, “It’s crazy to me that we get this kind of exposure and publicity at a time where we might be just the thing that’s one of the only good things at this time.” Because you can’t really create all that. You can be prepared with the material and the chops and the band, but man, you can’t create the circumstances. And we were very lucky and we had the songs.
Rock Cellar: It’s amazing to me that with this documentary and the Broadway show, you’ve come full circle. It is remarkable to see the scope and the arc of the story, and then see you working together on stage at the Whisky, working out the new song like it’s just as easy as the early days; maybe easier, in some ways. Can you step back from it and appreciate it? Is there any acrimony that remains? As sober adults, are you able to deal with each other on a different level now?
Jane Wiedlin: There’s still a lot of touchiness around songwriting because songwriters get extra glory. Plus, it was difficult, because we were working in all different pairs of people to come up with the song for this documentary. So it was hard to choose. But I was so in love with “Club Zero,” and the whole idea behind it, and we didn’t really have anything else like it. I really campaigned for it, because the record company, the management, the filmmakers, and even to a certain extent the band, were like, “We don’t get it. What is ‘Club Zero?’” And for me, it all came down to the line, “zero fucks given.” And there was a lot of debate about removing that line, and I remember saying, “This is the heart of the song. It must remain!” Because it actually is. I explained that, and everyone got it. And then everyone was on board.
Kathy Valentine: I started my book when I’d been kicked out of the band and it gave me a way to work through my hurt and focus on the joy. It was hard to hold a grudge or be angry when I was writing about the joy of making Beauty and the Beat and being 22 years old in New York City with my best friends. It really helped me heal. So when I got back in the band, and we started talking about the documentary, and we got to play some shows, and the musical was out, I could go back without bitterness and anger, because I’d been able to really celebrate the band when I was not in the best place, and it helped me go into the documentary with a lot of information, for one thing, because I’d done a lot of research, and it was really helpful for me personally. So I’m glad we did it when we did it.
Rock Cellar: That magic in still there in “Club Zero.” Like Kathy said earlier, you can get together great session players, and they can make great records, but any band that is about a collaboration and about that kind of unquantifiable magic is a different thing. Tell me about the new song and how it came together.
Charlotte Caffey: Jane showed me some lyrics. I just happened to have some music I had written a few months before with my sister-in-law Anna Waronker (of that dog.) that fit Jane’s lyrics perfectly. Then Kathy, Jane and I rewrote the lyrics six times before we felt like we had it. When you see us in the documentary working on the song-that is the first time we ever played it.
Jane Wiedlin: We hadn’t recorded it yet, and we had never played it together. It was written long distance. I had come up with the idea, I brought it to Charlotte, and it went through so many iterations. I have to tell you, we beat the hell out of it just writing and rewriting. Because we wanted everyone to be super happy with it. And for me, because it started out with me, it was my baby, so I was very passionate about it. And after many iterations, we ended up bringing Kathy in, and she helped with the bridge and a few of the lyrics. So then, we showed it to the band.
We had other songs written, but I campaigned vigorously for the song, because I really wanted The Go-Go’s to say something to women, and to the world, and have it be a strong message. I was super glad that we ended up doing the song. And as far as the part of film where we play it goes, we had not been together for a really long time, and we had never played the song together, or even listened to it together. But the mark a good Go-Go’s song is that when we do get together to play it, how quickly and smooth that process is. That’s always a sign that it’s a Go-Go’s song, in my mind.
I’m just so proud of it, and I feel like it’s really of the moment for the song, but it’s also something that I think is important lyrically and always will be. Plus, to do something a little bit musically harder and more defiant was important to me. And once you put Belinda on there, with here silky-smooth, melted chocolate vocals on top of it, then it just becomes super Go-Go’s!
Rock Cellar: You had, I think, tour plans. We’ve got the pandemic going on, and it’s the Black Lives Matter moment. Where do your tour plans and the future of the band fit into the new world order?
Jane Wiedlin: We’ve rescheduled for a year from now. Who knows what’s going to be going on in a year. I certainly don’t know. I don’t even know what’s going on tomorrow! I would love the tour. And we’re all really disappointed we didn’t get to do tour this year, because we have so much more fun together now, and I think the documentary was a huge part of that. It was really healing to do the documentary together.
We really realized why we were all friends, and what’s important, and how much everyone contributes to the band.
September 16, 2020
September 10, 2020