The Enduring Beauty And The Beat Of The Go-Go’s: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Special

Skidmarks On Their Hearts:
– Skidmarks On Their Hearts:
The Go-Go’s pictured on tour in Germany, awaiting the next gig.
Belinda Carlisle remembers running down the back stairs at Hollywood’s decidedly funky Canterbury Apartments with Jane Wiedlin, shrieking, “We’re gonna be rich and famous. We’re gonna be rock stars…” It was the ‘70s. Punk was a tiny movement; everyone starting a band, writing songs and making art on their own terms.
It was a galaxy away from the double- platinum, six weeks at No. 1 Beauty & the Beat first album, the platinum Vacation. Light years from playing Rock In Rio alongside Queen and Rod Stewart. Heck, it was even six counties over from giving punk a girl power edge that makes space for girls to be girls.
But back at 1746 N. Cherokee, the roach-infested old Hollywood apartment building was overrun with young people determined to thrash, swerve and create a scene. Not just Carlisle, briefly known as Dottie Danger, and Wiedlin, then going by Jane Drano, but Alice Bag, Pat Smear and the Germs’ Lorna Doom were among the resident transients. Somehow between the ramshackle apartments and rehearsal spaces under the Pussycat (porn) Theater, a scene was born.
They Got The Beat:
Gina Schock
– They Got The Beat:
The Go-Go’s soon to be on top of the world, pictured in 1981, the same year they had a surprise smash hit with the LP Beauty And The Beat and one year before touring with The Police.
If finesse was outstripped by energy set on blast, fear not. The Go-Go’s – like X, the Weirdos, Dickies, Cramps and Plugz – were looking to explode. Hauling their gear to shared rehearsal space under the Pussycat, Charlotte Caffey laughs. “We shared a rehearsal space with the Motels. The scene was completely freedom of expression. No rules! We grew up in this very smart punk movement of the late ‘70s, maybe 50, 100 kids. And we’d see each other everywhere. It was pure self-expression, no holds barred.
“Just this new art form springing into the world, where Ground Zero was the Masque. Everyone was there. You were in your rehearsal room, and you’re hearing all the other people, and the energy. I was writing all the time, I was so inspired. It was electric.”
Drummer Gina Schock, who’d been playing with John Waters’ icon Edith Massey in Edie & the Eggs, remembers, “You’re just that age, exploding with energy, and you have the time to devote to what you love. You’re finding out who you are…You just could feel it.”
“It was rebellion versus the establishment!” guitarist/lyricist Wiedlin offers. “It was creative, inclusive, fun and a little bit scary. I was a little girl with a baby voice – and I was a rebellious, angry, fucked-up teenager who loved the power of seeing people cross the street when I was walking towards them. 
“But the scene welcomed people who knew nothing. It was about the creativity… amazing bands, songwriting, looks, attitudes.”
It was also about the spirit of friendship, the possibility of the moment. Carlisle marvels looking back. “We just wanted to be cool on the scene and get lots of boyfriends. Everybody was really creative, breaking boundaries and a lot of diversity. If London was really political and angry and New York was more dark and junkie, the L.A. scene, because it was California, was more about art and the influences, surf and pop, a lot of rockabilly, too.”
Hard to believe, they were on track to make history. From being the band no one would sign – Wiedlin recalls, “People kept telling us, ‘There’s never been a popular all-girl band, so there never will be.’” – to spending six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart, the first and only all-girl band to do so to becoming one of the most enduring bands of the last half century. By refusing to buy into conventional wisdom, they blazed a trail. They also refused to surrender; whatever life handed The Go-Go’s, they just kept going, creating new opportunities and absorbing new influences.
Faced with original bass player Margot Olivarria being sidelined due to illness on the brink of high-profile New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day shows at the Whisky, Charlotte Caffey ran into a musician she’d seen playing around town with the Textones. It was Christmas night. Asking if she could play bass, they hit it off. Though Kathy Valentine was a guitar player, she liked what she’d heard of the buzz band’s sound; she said “yes,” figuring two less strings couldn’t be impossible to learn.
The Go-Go’s:
Noam Galai / Getty Images
– The Go-Go’s:
Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin perform during a celebration of Broadway’s new musical ”Head Over Heels” at Bowery Ballroom on Jan. 29, 2018, in New York City.
“With Gina in ’79 and Kathy in ’80, that was the thing that locked us in,” Caffey explains. 
“When I joined,” Schock continues, “I really focused on being a tight-knit band, having the beat and the energy, but really driving. This band can catch you both ways: Rhythmically, it was very catchy and exciting, but with melodies and the lyrics, too. It’s a combination of both, so Kathy and I really worked on the beat and grooves that would lift the songs.”
Whether the truculent “Robert Hilburn,” an early “We Got The Beat,” the frenzied “Blades” or the noir pop Hollywood homage “This Town,” the lyrics were sharp, smart and taut, buoyed by girl group harmonies in places, counter melodies and surf guitars in others.
“Jane and I were writing these songs, and her lyrics were outrageous,” Caffey explains. “Jane’s lyrics were dark and exciting, then I had this music that was light and uplifting, so it was a little deceptive.  “You listen and it feels good, then you really listen, and it’s ‘Oh…’”
That misdirection made The Go-Go’s every bit as snarky, as kitten with whip subversive as any act emerging from L.A.’s punk scene. Kathy Valentine thinks about that spirit, “I’d always remembered the camaraderie and laughter. No one has ever made me laugh more than with The Go-Go’s. It’s like being in a club. There was a manic almost way of being – and the joy of some of those highs was incredible…”
Ginger Canzoneri, the band’s original manager, met them before their first show was ever played. Attracted by their brash exuberance at the Masque, she recalls, “They were like a gang! Belinda used to say, ‘Let’s start a girl gang,’ which is really what they did. They were very genuine; they weren’t put together, but did it themselves… never salacious or tawdry, or cheap! And they weren’t afraid of anything.”
“We were the girls next door, but the girls next door who were cool,” Caffey remembers. “We were who we were, shopped at vintage stores, dressed for ourselves. We were all different sizes and shapes. We weren’t model skinny. We wrote songs about that.”
Both Wiedlin, who was in fashion design school, and Carlisle agree fashion was part of it. But in the found sense of Army Surplus stores, cut-up T-shirts and Carlisle’s infamous garbage bag dress. 
As Carlisle reflects, “We never worked it! It would’ve been the antithesis of being Go-Go’s!
“I think men were afraid of us, actually. The Go-Go’s were, like Charlotte said in the documentary, a five-headed monster. Together, we were (the five individuals, then the group made) six, so men left us alone.” 
The Go-Go’s:
George Rose / Getty Images
– The Go-Go’s:
(L-R) Belinda Carlisle (lead vocals), Gina Schock (drums), Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar), Kathy Valentine (bass), and Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitar), pose in 1985 in Hollywood, Calif.
Schock agrees about the fury and the music. “We were kids, growing up and writing about what we were thinking and feeling. Our influences came through, whatever we were attracted to. When we first heard Madness (The Go-Go’s toured the West Coast, then England with them), we all went, ‘THIS is great.’”
That UK tour was pivotal. With no money, existing on 5 pounds a day, the band devoured everything, soaking up culture and recording an early “We Got The Beat” for Britain’s punk powerhouse Stiff Records. Canzoneri, who sold some of her jewelry to keep them afloat, remembers sensing the difference, “The Specials had Black guys and white guys but, most importantly, they were all about the beats. Punk was starting to fade, and they made a shift.”
The Los Angeles Times ran a Jan. 5, 1981 story headlined, “Why Can’t The Go-Go’s Get A Record Deal?” Once they did, they never looked back. Miles Copeland III signed them to indie IRS, home of the Buzzcocks, the Cramps and John Cale, then sent the quintet to New York to make an album with Richard Gottehrer, who’d written “I Want Candy” and helped stake out Blondie’s era-spanning new wave. 
“No other 22-year-old girls ever were doing that,” Valentine says of the thrill of making Beauty & the Beat. “(The writing encapsulated a time that would never be again), that seeped into the record; I know it did. We were like newlyweds, everything was so heightened.”
The young women, who’d previously sold out the Mudd Club, the Peppermint Lounge as well as anywhere they played on the West Coast, got back in the van. They knew taking the music to the people was critical; they didn’t realize they were starting a revolution.
Not in a tear the culture apart sense, but more the empower young women reality check. They played their own instruments. They wrote their own songs. They brought their own zest for life. So busy building the dream, they didn’t realize Beauty & the Beat – with its mask-slathered-face cover – was headed to No. 1 on Billboard’s Albums chart, nor did they realize songs like “Skidmarks On My Heart,” “Vacation,” “Beatnik Beach,” “I Think It’s Me,” “Yes Or No” and the gender-flipping, Mary Lambert-directed “Turn To Me” video – with a Rob Lowe cameo – offered a quirkier take on how real girls see the world.
“There were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of teenage girls dressing like us, looking up to us and relating to the songs,” Wieldin says. “We became this band that was wholly our own. Young women saw that, they responded.”
Kurt Cobain played L.A.Times critic Robert Hilburn an early recording of the song that bore his name. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong co-wrote “The Unforgiven” from 2001’s God Bless The Go-Go’s, which peaked at No. 22 on the Adult Top 40 chart. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, HAIM, Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani, Paramore’s Hayley Williams and so many girls who picked up instruments, wrote songs and found their own way sprang from the river of The Go-Go’s.
Bassist/guitarist Melissa Auf der Maur, who’s played in Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, explains, “I’ve a lot of respect for those ladies: emerging from the L.A. punk scene and being radical by writing bubblegum pop, which everyone loves somewhere inside.”
Carlisle and Valentine have published memoirs; Schock’s “Made in Hollywood” is where this story’s images were sourced. Their music drives the Broadway musical “Head Over Heels.” And at 6652 Hollywood Blvd., in front of the Bettie Page Store and former home of the Masque, there is a star proclaiming “Go-Go’s” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The Go-Go’s
Donna Santisi / Redferns
– The Go-Go’s
play the famed Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood in 1980.
“Music’s changed a lot, but people really respect authenticity,” Carlisle surmises. “We thought if we sold 100,000, we’d done our job. We had no idea it was going to be what it was. It was so uncool to be successful, and it became a runaway train. 
“We were out there working, and it hit us on the Police tour. The album went to No. 1, and they were No. 6. It was crazy! For a moment, we were the biggest band in the country. There was such love for The Go-Go’s out there, which still exists. We almost transcended the music. It was an innocent time. We were California and freedom. It was a moment in people’s lives they don’t want to forget…”
The videos of five young women cavorting, zero concern for the male gaze, were transfixing. Whether made from $6,000 left over from a Police video or captured against blue screen to fake waterskiing, the joy of being a Go-Go was fun in a way normal people could experience. That they and Canzoneri navigated with such a femmecentric compass may be the secret to their success.
“People still focus on the fact we were the first all-girl band to top the Album chart, have the No. 1 single,” Valentine says, looking beyond gender. “But people forget we were the first indie band to do it, too! The Police were on a major label; Blondie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, all had majors behind them. We didn’t. IRS was a little label. There was no SubPop yet. So, it was a huge victory on that level, too.”