If the music industry is just high school on a larger playing field, the Go-Go’s were the popular girls who cut fifth period to get drunk with the upper-classmen.
Frontwoman Belinda Carlisle mixed Dusty Springfield-style glamour with the cheekiness of Freddie Mercury. Gina Schock let her drums do the talking to produce the distinctive beats that defined the Go-Go’s sound. Guitarist Charlotte Caffey infused her love of ’60s beach music into every melody she wrote, while Kathy Valentine’s bass lines made sure they stuck the landing with verve. And even when bouncing around the stage like a punk-rock pogo stick, Jane Wiedlin played her rhythm guitar with spellbinding ease.
When the Go-Go’s formed in 1978, the concept of an all-female band that played their own instruments and didn’t have their hits crafted by a team of songwriters was still novel. The Runaways might’ve had a cult following, but “girl groups” still conjured images of Diana Ross and the Supremes cooing about unrequited love in perfect sequined harmony.
That all changed when the band’s debut album Beauty and the Beat dropped during the summer of 1981, mere weeks before MTV launched with the now-iconic video of the moon landing. The band stopped playing smoky clubs and began selling out arenas on a tour that doubled as a global victory lap around their critics - of which there were plenty. The hits came back-to-back as the Go-Go’s ponied and Watusied their way to #1 on the charts, where the album stayed for six weeks.
Listen to Beauty and the Beat now and you’ll remember what summer is supposed to feel like. The energy bouncing off the recording suggests the band performed it roller-blading down the Santa Monica boardwalk. Four-part harmonies soar across eleven skipless tracks of New Wave bliss - oscillating between the spun-sugar melodies of their pop hits (“Our Lips Are Sealed”) and the high-voltage punk of fan favorites (“Skidmarks On My Heart”).
In 2020, an enlightening new documentary, called, simply The Go-Go’s,premiered on Showtime: It applies a wider lens to the Go-Go’s history, which runs deeper than the image of five towel-clad vixens with Noxzema smeared across their faces might suggest.
Beauty and the Beat remains the first and only album written and performed by an all-female band to hit #1. Rolling Stone crystalized their image with a 1982 cover story that declared the Go-Go’s “international, filthy rich, jet-setting rock- and screen-star bitch goddesses.” Sure, but they were also a group of plucky twenty-somethings who started a band without knowing how to play any instruments. Four decades after the band ushered in a bold new era for rock, Vogue plunged into the valley of the Go-Go’s for an oral history with the key players who brought Beauty and the Beat to such indelible life.
LET’S START A BAND
An oft-cited remark by composer-producer Brian Eno notes how the Velvet Underground’s debut sold very few copies – but that everybody who bought one started a band. Belinda Carlisle was a Conejo Valley cheerleader when she first heard the album among other alternative records, most of them British imports, that offered a respite from the soft-rock anthems dominating California radio in the '70s.
Belinda Carlisle (lead singer, The Go-Go’s): If it wasn’t for the punk rock scene, the Go-Go’s never would’ve happened. Bottom line.
Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitarist, The Go-Go’s): The punk-rock scene in Los Angeles was a haven for misfit toys. It was this super inclusive home for me and a lot of other people who never would’ve found one otherwise. It was only over the next couple of years that it morphed into that aggressive, hyper-masculine bullshit everyone assumes it was.
Carlisle: In high school art class I started hanging out with this gang of kids who would bring in records by Roxy Music and Iggy Pop. I was immediately hooked and started buying British music magazines. I fell in love with the Sex Pistols.
Wiedlin: I was studying fashion to become a designer when I read a Women’s Wear Daily article about the British punk rock scene. To me it was all about the look. I along with every punk rocker I ever met started in the glitter rock scene. I was drawn to people like David Bowie mostly because it’s great music and secondly because it was rebellious and parents hated it.
Carlisle: My best friend in high school was Lorna Doom, the bass player for one of the seminal LA punk bands, the Germs. I was actually in the band briefly as a drummer that never played but I started going to clubs and meeting all the rejects from other schools.
Pleasant Gehman (punk historian/performer): I met Belinda in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel when we were both trying to meet Freddie Mercury. I started seeing her around the Rainbow parking lot, which was where all the rockstars hung out to score quaaludes.
Carlisle: There were only about fifty kids in the scene and everyone was in a band. We’d all go to shows at the Whiskey a Go Go or the Starwood and just meet one another. Each city’s scene was a little bit different, but LA’s was about art until the hard drugs came in.
Wiedlin: I didn’t even know there was a scene in LA until I started making punk-rock clothes and sold them at a store called Granny Takes a Trip. I freaked out.
Gehman: Jane walked in to sell these collared shirts that had two zippers sewn onto the chest so you could show off your bra or your boobs. She’ll always say I was the first person to tell her about punk rock and the Masque.
Martha Davis (lead singer, The Motels): The Masque was this very punk place beneath the Pussycat Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and it was dis-gusting. It was under a porno house so god knows what was happening above you or what substances were on the floor.
Gehman: We’d wander around the Sunset Strip every night going to clubs. We were underage but nobody carded us. The Whiskey had a policy where you could get in for free if you knew the manager and had a report card proving you had below a C average.
Wiedlin: I was intimidated by Belinda because even back when we had no money she still managed to make everything look chic. When I met our original bassist Margot [Olavarria] her hair was five colors like a sno cone.
Carlisle: One night in 1978 we were sitting on a curb at a party in Venice and just decided to form a band. Margot said “I’ll play bass!” and Jane said “I’ll play guitar!” We had no idea how to do anything but I’d always fancied myself a singer.
Lori Majewski (host, SiriusXM 1st Wave): People think of Belinda as this glamorous superstar but she started out wearing garbage bags onstage. She’s a punk rocker, and it’s that DIY spirit that gave the band their start. Without punk behind them, the Go-Go’s probably never would’ve made it.
Wiedlin: I hadn’t thought about being a writer but we needed material so it happened organically. Eventually it just made sense for us to wanna be in a band because every single one of our friends in the scene were in one, if not multiple. Nobody else knew what they were doing, so why can’t we not know what we’re doing too?
Carlisle: Margot had a friend named Elissa (Bello) who was a drummer and that’s how the Go-Go’s started. We asked Charlotte to play guitar a few months in since we knew she could teach us how to plug our instruments into an amplifier.
Charlotte Caffey (lead guitarist, The Go-Go’s): I was more of a surfer girl and never really that punky. My whole world up until punk was this total repressed Catholic lifestyle. The freedom of punk really appealed to me because I came from the rules and regulations of studying classical piano.
Gina Schock (drummer, The Go-Go’s): When I left Baltimore I put everything I owned in my dad’s pick-up truck and drove cross-country to make it as a rockstar in LA. My friend let me set up all my drums and PA equipment in his living room. It was nuts but when you’re that age anything goes.
Wiedlin: Charlotte was super ferocious on the bass, but Margot was already our bassist so she played guitar with me. Charlotte was an experienced musician who’d studied music theory and we already had a small group of songs when she joined that were really rudimentary and angry.
Schock: I went to see the Go-Go’s on a Saturday night in ‘78 and had the best time. I was so serious about the way I played but they were having a blast. They weren’t quite ready, but man there was something special. The girls just needed someone to push ‘em a little and I eventually pushed.
Kathy Valentine (bassist, The Go-Go’s): I saw them before Gina was in the band and remember telling my friend they had a ways to go. I didn’t mean to be dismissive, but it’s pretty obvious when someone is just starting out. The songs were all New Wave at a time when punk could be anything from the Sex Pistols to Elvis Costello.
Wiedlin: Once Charlotte and I started writing together, melodies and harmonies suddenly became very important. I grew up learning all the harmonies to the Beatles and always loved singing harmonies to stuff on the radio like Tommy James and the Shondells. I was drawn to those unbelievable pop hooks and Charlotte’s brain was the same so suddenly that beast was unleashed and the songs became poppier. We still had crappy equipment though so it sounded like trash.
GINA JOINS THE BAND
Unable to quit her day job and fully commit to the band, Elissa Bello with replaced by drummer Gina Schock. With the Baltimore native joining the lineup, The Go-Go’s began coming together even if the critics weren’t impressed. An early review declared “The Go-Go’s are to music what botulism is to tuna.” The inexperienced but enthusiastic Ginger Canzoneri was impressed enough to convince the Go-Go’s to let her manage them as some of their earliest hits started coming together.
Schock: I went to a party in Santa Monica where some of the Go-Go’s mentioned they were looking for a drummer and asked if I was available. I said sure even though I was in two bands but I didn’t give a shit. I was in the Go-Go’s the next day.
Gehman: Their early shows were a total mess, but most punk shows were. It was always on malfunctioning equipment with 20-year old amps that were bought at a garage sale and never rewired. Even when the Go-Go’s sucked everyone loved it.
Wiedlin: Charlotte and I had this magical relationship with writing where we’d each have parts of songs and put them together to make a whole. We were able to come up with the best material because we weren’t worried about hurting each other’s feelings.
Caffey: We clicked on an artistic level heavily. “Lust to Love” came from three songs that I thought were just okay but had individual parts I liked. One had a great chorus, another had a beat section, and one had a verse. I put them together and Jane just so happened to have these lyrics that knocked me down with a feather.
Wiedlin: Charlotte and I always said that we wanted to be the female Buzzcocks. You couldn’t be any poppier while still being punk. I didn’t know enough about songwriting to achieve that, so without Charlotte things would’ve been very different for this band.
MADNESS IN THE UK
With Schock whipping the band into shape at rehearsals, the Go-Go’s became the house band at the Whiskey a Go Go, opening for acts that passed through. After Madness played the club in December 1979, the English ska band invited the Go-Go’s to open for them and The Specials on a UK tour the following spring. Although desperate to visit ground zero of the British punk scene that birthed them, the band wasn’t particularly well-received by audiences across the Atlantic.
Cherie Currie (lead singer, The Runaways): Punk in America was very different than punk in the UK, I’ll tell you that much. Punk was a new word in LA and The Runaways thought we were rock and roll. When we got to the UK and saw what real punk rockers were, it scared the hell out of me. People with pins in their faces were spitting on us and beating each other in the aisles.
Schock: We thought we’d go to England and be huge because they’d totally get us. They hated our guts.
Caffey: That experience was gonna make or break anybody. We hadn’t toured before so that in itself was really taxing, and on top of that we were constantly partying and getting crap thrown at us.
Wiedlin: You’ve gotta be on your game when you’re playing to audiences of National Front Nazi skinheads. Ska had that type of following in London even though Madness and The Specials were not that.
Schock: Those crowds didn’t give a shit about seeing five California girls. We weren’t ska! They hated us! At first we’d run offstage crying but after a while we screamed “Fuck you!” right back. We toughened up because we had too. We didn’t have a choice.
Carlisle: I wouldn’t wish what we went through there on anybody. But that tour made us try harder. We honed our skills and it prepared us for what was to come.
CAN YOU HEAR THEM?
While the Go-Go’s were getting spat on by British punks and digging through Madness’s trash for dinner scraps, their manager shopped around a demo to UK labels that featured an early version of “We Got the Beat.” Canzoneri made a deal with Stiff Records to release it as an import single in the states while the band was overseas. “We Got the Beat” became a minor club hit, but bassist Margot Olavarria was already showing distaste for the band’s new direction.
Valentine: They were a completely different band after London. They really gelled having Gina on the drums. They’d gone through the paces quite a bit and they were selling out every club.
Schock: If we could get through London then we could handle anything. We got back to LA and unbeknownst to us, “We Got the Beat” had started getting played in clubs and became a tiny hit. Kathy was around as a guitar player so she knew the ropes.
Michael Plen (head of promotion at I.R.S. Records, 1980-1986): I saw them at the Whiskey for their performance in this concert film and was pretty knocked out. Jane had a poppy, funny way about her and Belinda had this odd confidence. It sort of vacillated between I don’t care if I’m gonna succeed but I’m gonna do it anyway.
Carlisle: We gained a bunch of weight in England and each came back to the states forty pounds heavier. When “We Got the Beat” was released as an import single on Stiff Records it started climbing the dance charts on Billboard. We were more popular than ever.
Gehman: I was sitting in the balcony at the Whiskey for their first LA show after coming back from London. I vividly remember thinking “My god, you’re all gonna be really famous.”
Valentine: From the moment I started playing guitar I wanted to feel like women could be up in the echelons of culturally meaningful bands. Even though I was a new bass player I had a lot of experience playing and understood that the Go-Go’s weren’t just one thing.
HOW MUCH MORE?
In December 1980, Margot Olavarria fell ill with hepatitis A before a series of gigs at the Whiskey a Go Go, so Valentine filled in for her on bass. Olavarria’s frustration with what she perceived as the Go-Go’s divergence from their punk roots had reached a boiling point when the band decided to replace her with Valentine. With the Texas native rounding out the quintet, the Go-Go’s were ready for a record deal. The only issue was that no label in Los Angeles was interested in signing a “girl band.”
Valentine: When I met Charlotte she gave me a cassette tape with their songs five nights before the Go-Go’s had some gigs at the Whiskey. She asked if I could fill in for Margot. As soon as I sat down with that cassette to start learning the songs, I felt like it was what I came to LA for in so many ways. It was a lot of favorites we still have today that ended up on the Beauty and the Beat. “How Much More,” “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed.” It was a really hard cassette to learn how to play from and I was a guitar player learning to play the bass parts so I was learning a new instrument as well. I knew I wanted to be in this band so I learned all nineteen songs in four days.
Davis: The Motels ended up sharing a rehearsal space with the Go-Go’s at the Masque. They’d put their stuff on one side of the room and we’d put our stuff on the other. I’d come in and all the mics would be lowered way down with Day Glow lipstick smudged all over them. They were so fabulous. Just incredibly excited and ready to rock.
Schock: We were so poor. Every item of clothing came from a thrift store. I ate a lot of Taco Bell tacos with just the cheese and lettuce and tomato - no meat. I worked at this little grocery store in Beverly Glen and the guy that handled all the meats felt so sorry for me that he would cut up steaks into a plastic bag and throw it in the trash so I could bring them home after work. I’d invite the girls over for a BBQ where we’d have a big ol’ party drinking wine and eating filet mignon.
Carlisle: Every label said they couldn’t sign us because there hadn’t been a band with a proven track record that looked like us. We were told “We love you and we can see that everybody loves you but there’s never been a successful all-female band.” The Runaways were so great and had some success on a cult level but nobody wanted to be cult. They wanted to be a success.
Davis: We got signed first and when we told them they were so excited for us. One of them said “We’re gonna move our equipment to your side of the room and maybe we’ll get signed too!”
Schock: All the clubs we played were sold-out. There were lines around the block and we were ready to go because we’d been playing our asses off. We were ready to get a real record deal but nobody would give us one. We got a thumbs-down from every label. But you gotta keep the faith, man. You gotta hang in there and be tenacious.
Carlisle: We were expecting someone to come along and offer us a multi-million dollar deal because everybody loved us, but that never happened. It was like that for quite some time until Miles Copeland came along.
WELCOME TO I.R.S.
Miles Copeland managed his brother Stewart’s band The Police before co-founding I.R.S. Records in 1979. Copeland and I.R.S. viewed the Go-Go’s as a terrific punk band rather than the novelty act that others had passed on. The indie label was a genre-less breeding ground for alternative acts, releasing early albums by everyone from R.E.M. to Dead Kennedys. Valentine said as much to Rolling Stone, describing I.R.S. as “where you went if you couldn’t get a deal with a real label.”
Valentine: I always cringe reading that because I don’t remember feeling that way. I loved I.R.S. and really loved the people there. They were so enthusiastic about the band.
Plen: I.R.S. put out records that were eccentric. At the time people had such an opinion of punk rock. If you mentioned the Buzzcocks to a radio promoter they’d think you were asking them to play a giant penis with teeth. Miles had his convictions about the Go-Go’s so we signed them.
Richard Gottehrer (record producer): Miles told me about the Go-Go’s and I checked out their show at the NYU student center and just loved it.
Carlisle: I.R.S. turned out to be the best thing for us because Miles really got us. He understood the band and what it could be from the beginning.
Gottehrer: They were the absolute of what a great band is. A great band doesn’t have to have virtuoso musicians, they just need to make an interesting sound when they play together that makes you wanna learn more about them. Blondie weren’t virtuoso musicians but they were a great band, and so were the Go-Go’s. So, I agreed to do the record.
THE GO-GO’S TAKE MANHATTAN
The band signed with I.R.S. on April Fool’s Day in 1981. Under strict a deadline to cut their debut in three weeks, the label sent the Go-Go’s to Gottehrer’s home base in New York City to record the quintessential California album. That deadline would get pushed back as the band hit the town for a two-month party.
Caffey: We were so fucking out of control it wasn’t even funny.
Valentine: It was one of the greatest times of my life. Who gets to stay in a hotel for two months? It felt so exotic. I was just a 22-year old living it up with my best friends in the world.
Wiedlin: We were like a pack of rabid dogs. We were so excited to be living in this ramshackle hotel.
Caffey: We stayed at The Wellington on 55h and 7th. Jane and I were in room 1012 and - I know, I have a ridiculous memory - Gina, Kathy, and Belinda were in room 1518.
Gottehrer: They went through their typical punk-rock “wild girls in New York” lifestyle.
Schock: It sorta felt like us against the world. All these people had turned us down and we thought “We’ll show you! Watch what we can do!”
Carlisle: The recording of the album was magic. I mean five girls in New York? Even when we were in the studio we had fun.
FIVE GO-GO’S WALK INTO A RECORDING STUDIO
As for the actual music, Copeland entrusted Gottehrer with translating the Go-Go’s raw charm into studio recordings. The producer’s career began in the ‘60s co-writing bubblegum hits like “I Want Candy” and “My Boyfriend’s Back” before eventually finding his groove in New York’s emerging punk scene as a producer for Blondie’s first two albums. Gottehrer’s job was to recreate that magic with the Go-Go’s.
Gottehrer: I.R.S. was an independent label that managed budgets very meticulously. They gave me a moderate budget for Beauty and the Beat, around $35,000. I had to shop around for budget studios and found Sound Mixers, which was mostly used by musicians for commercial work.
Wiedlin: We would work for hours in the studio and then go out all night, every night. It was insane. We had so much energy and everyone poured their hearts and souls into that record.
Schock: I was exploding every goddamn minute in that studio. We were just some punk band in our first professional setting.
Valentine: We were able to deliver because we had the songs already and didn’t need to go “Quick we need another hit! Now we need a ballad, someone write a ballad!” We brought the songs and we knew our parts.
Carlisle: We had two or so years to get that material together, which is still a relatively short amount of time given what a first album represents for a band.
Wiedlin: These were classic pop songs and you can hear that on “Our Lips Are Sealed.” That transition from being purely punk into more of a pop band was gradual but also really natural. People like to say “They just did that so they could get famous,” but it didn’t really happen like that.
Gottehrer: They had decent instruments but I rented a series of proper amplifiers and different vintage guitars. We’d switch them out to liven up the sound so all of the instrumentation wouldn’t sound the same. I always say that drummers are different from other musicians because all they wanna do is go out and work. It was true of Clem (Burke) in Blondie and it was true of Gina.
Schock: I’m not interested in any kind of solo bullshit. All I wanna do is make a song better so thank god we had Richard. He taught us the value of a great song and how to make it shine. I was playing way too fast and you couldn’t appreciate the melodies.
Wiedlin: We’d never really worked with a producer and Richard was a legend. He’d written these great pop songs from the ’60s so we were lucky to have him. He toned us down a little bit, but not too much. The main thing he did was slow the songs down. That was huge because if you’re playing music at breakneck speed all the time, people aren’t gonna hear it.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
George DuBose has shot over 300 album covers throughout his career but was still assisting Manhattan photographers when he got the opportunity to shoot a rising all-female rock band. Even after getting signed to a label and flown to New York to record their debut, the Go-Go’s were so strapped for cash that after shooting the cover for Beauty and the Beat, their manager had to return their wardrobe of fluffy white towels back to Macy’s.
George DuBose (photographer): I had a relationship with Andy Warhol developing all of his nightlife photos and visited Michael at I.R.S. Records to ask if I could shoot the Go-Go’s for Interview Magazine. He said they didn’t have time because they needed an album cover, so I stepped into the right place at the right time.
Carlisle: I don’t particularly remember how [the title] Beauty and the Beat came to me, but we all thought it was great.
Caffey: We shot the back cover with the individual shots of us in the tub in mine and Jane’s bathroom at the Wellington. It was like a total party.
DuBose: There were lots of bubbles and a lot of water getting splashed around on the floor. I was getting concerned about being electrocuted by my strobe lights. The Go-Go’s shot the front cover at my studio in Manhattan. They wanted to wrap themselves in towels and pancake their faces with cold cream. The first compound they tried dried up and started cracking right away so we switched to Noxzema.
Caffey: Belinda had this great idea to wear towels and face masks on the front cover so we wouldn’t have to wear clothes. It saved us from that fear of deciding what we were gonna wear and sorta marks you in time. Unlike our third record. That cover is fucking horrifying.
Carlisle: It was a play on the title of the album to have us in towels and face masks like we were getting beauty treatments. You can’t date it from any of the fashion. It’s rather timeless.
Caffey: We were just laughing and eventually annoyed because it was taking so long. Then the Noxzema started burning our faces.
DuBose: After about ten minutes the band started complaining about the Noxzema burning. They started howling in pain and that promptly ended the photoshoot. I barely got enough black and white film with just enough color film to deliver something to I.R.S.
Carlisle: They were very strong visuals. It just felt so classic while also keeping in line with the sense of humor of the band. One of the Go-Go’s strengths over the years has been its sense of humor about itself. We’re pretty much all about self-deprecation.
DuBose: I’ve had to manipulate artists’ ideas to make them work for the camera, but I had no issues with the Go-Go’s vision. They’re all beautiful women and I was just happy to work with them. The only disappointment was when the album went platinum because I was paid such a small fee, but that’s the way it goes.
GOTTEHRER AND THE GO-GO’S
The producer got on well with the Go-Go’s even when they passed their three-week deadline with I.R.S. breathing down their collective necks for a finished product, pressing the band to rework a song he saw hit potential in.
Gottehrer: When it came time to record “We Got the Beat” they were reluctant because in their eyes it had already been a hit as an import single. It sold well by punk standards - around 50,000 copies or something - but they didn’t realize this song could be an actual hit, so I made them do it again. I slowed it down, made it more precise, and doubled the drum parts because if you’ve got a good beat, the more the better. What you hear is the Go-Go’s leaning into the process of turning good songs that some people liked into something more precise that enabled their sound to spread wider.
Wiedlin: We needed to get a really great version of “We Got the Beat” and kept playing it over and over and over again but nobody was playing together so we were getting frustrated. We stopped and ate a pizza then went back into the live room and recorded something like the eleventh take that ended up being on the record.
Valentine: Richard said we needed one more song and he didn’t feel like any of our suggestions were strong enough. He brought in an Ellie Greenwich cover but we nixed that option because we only wanted to record our own material. I’d shown Charlotte a song I wrote for my previous band the Textones called “Can’t Stop the World” and she really liked it.
Caffey: Kathy showed her song to me and it felt so much like a Go-Go’s song. I wanted to hear us play it, so I suggested and really pushed for it to be on the record.
Valentine: Belinda sang it for the first time and everyone figured out their parts on the spot. I’m just grateful I got a song that holds up with that collection. It turned out to be a great closer.
Gottehrer: By the end of our time together they were ready to get out of New York, they’d had enough. Whatever sort of mental and emotional persistence they needed from substances they found. I don’t know how much they portray their wild times, but that’s between you and them.
“HOW COULD YOU RUIN THIS BAND?”
After the Go-Go’s went home, Gottehrer finished mixing Beauty and the Beat with audio engineer Rob Freeman at the Record Plant at the start of summer 1981. Having used up the entirety of his approved $35,000 budget, Gottehrer asked I.R.S. for more money to complete it but got shot down.
Gottehrer: I paid something like $7500 out of pocket to finish Beauty and the Beat and I never got it back, but I got a lot of royalties so it didn’t make a hell of a difference. After I made sure all the little bits and pieces were all organized and cleared up, I sent it over and everyone hated it.
Plen: It was probably a little more pop than what I.R.S. and the Go-Go’s wanted, but that’s what Richard did best. I don’t think I personally ever felt he over-popped the band. The label wouldn’t have put it out had they not got what they wanted.
Gottehrer: I remember Miles saying “How could you ruin this great punk band? What are you giving me this pop shit for?” The girls didn’t speak to me for six months.
Carlisle: It’s a perfect album in a lot of ways but we were upset at first. When we got the final result we were not happy with it. At the time we didn’t understand what Richard was going for.
Wiedlin: We were just playing and getting recorded. We didn’t think about how the record would sound because we weren’t listening to the tapes. When we first heard the album we were shocked by how slow everything sounded, and you have to understand that it wasn’t slow at all. We were just used to playing a million miles an hour.
Gottehrer: It was the same case as those Blondie albums - how do you take something special in its purest sense and make it a bit more cohesive? The crudeness of the Sex Pistols was pure punk but they were still studio musicians who produced a semi-refined recording. I was surprised by their reaction.
Wiedlin: We recorded on tape back then so you could literally just make it faster. We were so upset that we made Richard speed it up, so the entire album is a semitone off. If you try to play along to Beauty and the Beat, a song written in G has to be played in G-sharp to keep up.
Carlisle: I still have a hard time with the way my voice sounds on the record. Everything was sped up a little bit so I sound like a chipmunk!
Wiedlin: Not only was I mad that the songs were too slow, but also that I sounded like Minnie Mouse.
Schock: “What has he done to the Go-Go’s? He’s destroyed us! I hope we never see that man again!” Then six months later when it hit #1: “Richard is brilliant! Incredible producer! He made us the best we could ever be! Greatest guy in the world!”
MEET THE GO-GO’S
Beauty and the Beat dropped on July 8, 1981, preceded by the release of the first single “Our Lips Are Sealed” several weeks prior. It didn’t chart for several weeks before eventually debuting at #186 in August. If they weren’t global superstars yet, they were certainly becoming hometown heroes. “Cute. That’s what I thought two years ago when I first saw the Go-Go’s,” wrote Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “Great. That’s what I thought after seeing the Go-Go’s concert Friday night at the sold-out Hollywood Palladium.”
Plen: I.R.S. thought the album had potential to give the Go-Go’s a career but nobody said Beauty and the Beat was gonna be a million-seller without being intoxicated.
Caffey: Our dear radio man Michael Plen spent months trying to get “Our Lips Are Sealed” played. We finally started getting added because DJs were so sick of him.
Plen: I.R.S. didn’t have a lot of money for expenses but American Airlines offered this promotion where you could travel to 60 cities for 60 days in a row for $600 flat. So I went city-to-city trying to convince stations to play “Our Lips Are Sealed.” The initial response was always the same: Did you say a girl band?
Valentine: The Go-Go’s started touring again immediately after recording. We climbed into a van and started hitting clubs across the country. It was one thing being the Whiskey’s house band but another selling out the local punk club in any city we pulled into.
Plen: Rodney Bingenheimer in LA is more responsible than anyone for breaking the Go-Go’s. He loved playing local bands so KROQ played “Our Lips Are Sealed” a hundred times a week like it was Top 40.
Gehman: This teenage girl lived above Belinda and if she liked a single she’d play it nonstop for hours every day and one summer it was “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Belinda was literally in tears holding a pillow over her head. It felt like she was being waterboarded with her own voice. Our roommate Ann McLean’s really helpful suggestion was “Why don’t you smear some cold cream on your face, put a towel on your head, and go tell that bitch to shut the hell up?!”
VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR
MTV launched on August 1 barely three weeks after Beauty and the Beat dropped. The shiny new toy of the music industry was written off as a novelty by many, but I.R.S. saw the future. Unaware of the impact the platform would have on music, fashion, and culture at large, the Go-Go’s treated the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video shoot like most other things: a party. They only jumped into a Beverly Hills fountain hoping they could capture footage of cops arresting them for the video.
Mark Goodman (MTV VJ, 1981-1987; host, SiriusXM Volume): When MTV launched, people viewed us as saviors of the industry. We ended up playing more left-of-center artists not necessarily getting radio play because they were the ones making videos. It was a lot of British New Wave acts but also a lot of Styx and Reo Speedwagon. The Go-Go’s were one of our earliest bands when videos were still in their infancy and they were massive.
Majewski: MTV was such an exciting time to be a young girl. Pat Benatar was the second video played and artists like the Go-Go’s followed with “Our Lips Are Sealed.”
Bruce Patron (Go-Go’s tour manager, 1982-1985): The girls made great efforts to make sure it wasn’t “Belinda Carlisle and the Go-Go’s.” Despite this they always complained about doing press. I went to Belinda and suggested she do all the interviews, so nobody had to talk to journalists. She was fine with that but when I told the band they changed their tune very quickly. “No way! Nuh uh, I’m doing every single interview!”
Goodman: They were a pop band with this subtext of darkness because they came out of the punk scene. Female artists at that time weren’t playing their own instruments so it caught a lot of people’s attention. Watching them cruise around LA in that Cadillac and splashing around in a fountain in the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video gave such a strong impression of who they were. You wanted to hang with these girls.
PUNK & POP & ROCK & NEW WAVE
As Beauty and the Beat picked up steam on the heels of MTV, 1981 became something of a haze. Performances on Top of the Pops and American Bandstand paired with nonstop touring propelled “Our Lips Are Sealed” into the top 20 while “We Got the Beat” was prepped as a follow-up. But with newfound success came detractors from the very community that birthed the Go-Go’s.
Gehman: Everyone in the early punk scene was really happy for each others’ success but a few people said the Go-Go’s were sell-outs once MTV started playing them.
Carlisle: We put ourselves together, we didn’t have a Svengali pulling all the strings. It was a total DIY operation. Once we started becoming more proficient with our instruments we started sounding like a pop band. People thought we were sellouts because we were getting successful on a bigger scale.
Currie: As far as I’m concerned, anybody that’s gonna call you a sellout has zero credibility. None. You can never sell out. You are who you are and you do what you do to the best of your abilities. If that’s a sell out, then I think someone who would say that is cowardly and couldn’t make it themselves. It comes from a place of jealousy and shouldn’t be taken seriously in any way.
Wiedlin: There’s something to be said about the psychic toll of being popular. I was never a popular person. I wasn’t popular at school and even as a punk rocker I was one of the quieter ones. I think I was 22 when we got to #1 and I didn’t have any experience. The Go-Go’s were my first band and all of a sudden the pressure was so high and we’d already been working so hard for so long to get where we were.
Gehman: Some thought the Go Go’s might not have been deserving but they weren’t paying attention to how hard they’d been working. Anyone who said they weren’t a punk band didn’t care a few months earlier when those same songs were selling out the Whiskey.
LIVE FROM NEW YORK
On November 14, 1981, Bernadette Peters hosted the sixth episode of Saturday Night Live’s seventh season. Performing “Our Lips Are Sealed” - seen here - and “We Got the Beat” as co-musical guests with Billy Joel, the Go-Go’s were having such a blast backstage that they could barely stand up straight once they hit Studio 8H.
Valentine:SNL was the first time that television really captured the vibe of a generation. I was a huge fan so to be booked was massive.
Caffey: I don’t think we fully understood what the implications could be when we found out we were doing SNL.
Christine Ebersole (SNL cast member, 1981-1982): Everyone was totally jacked that the Go-Go’s were coming. They had just barely started becoming a smash and having such a current act on the show is exactly what SNL was known for.
Valentine: We finished all of our blocking by noon and then had to stay cooped up in the greenroom all day until showtime. There was some wine and it became this backstage party atmosphere that got out of control. It’s not like we were destroying anything but we definitely got more wasted than we realized.
Caffey: We got a little too tipsy so then someone got us some blow and that was a really bad decision because we were so high during that show.
Valentine: You know that moment at a party when you stand up and fully comprehend just how messed up you are? We realized it when we were walking onstage to perform, 12 hours later.
Caffey: If you look closely we’re all wearing plastered smiles, but we were also completely plastered. Right before we went on somebody on the crew yelled “Remember: you’re playing live in front of 60 million people!”
Plen: If they were too polished then it wouldn’t be the Go-Go’s.
Valentine: It all sank in and was so terrifying. We weren’t really in the moment and enjoying it because we were trying to focus and not make any mistakes on TV. It felt like a really spiritless, flat performance.
Ebersole: Nothing seemed off at the time. That was just the style in those days and just another night on SNL. It’s not like the Go-Go’s were trying to be the Temptations.
With the Go-Go’s transitioning into megastars seemingly overnight - including a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (the award went to Sheena Easton) - the band wasted no time giving fans what they wanted. Music videos and concert footage are valuable cultural relics, but they only hint at the energy of the live Go-Go’s performances that made their fans lifelong devotees. The Go-Go’s connection with their audiences are what got the Go-Go’s their start and eventually carried them to #1 while opening for one of the biggest bands in the world.
Schock: When I left Baltimore, I told everybody I was gonna be a rock star the next time they saw me and I was.
Patron: Touring back then was so different. There was no glam squad and they did their own hair and make-up. We didn’t even have security, it was just the six of us. They loved to be inappropriate and I had no problem with that. That’s when I learned that girls tell dirty jokes and talk about guys’ penis sizes.
Schock: Beauty and the Beat was sorta lukewarm until SNL happened. Then “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat” exploded on MTV and we started selling a ton.
Caffey: When “We Got the Beat” got put out it was such an overwhelmingly massive hit that I.R.S. didn’t even bother making a video and just released an excerpt from a concert video we did called Totally Go-Go’s. We had this idea of a video set at a roller derby that would’ve been so amazing but we didn’t have the time to make it happen.
Goodman: Initially their fanbase was anyone who listened to college radio or went to clubs because it was all New Wave. But they were also a trendy band that young kids loved.
Wiedlin: The Go-Go’s were bright and bubbly but that’s not all we were. We could’ve just as easily chosen the “sexy” box but it wasn’t in any of our natures. We were just a gang of young girls out having fun and at that time the media had to choose their box for us, so they chose “girls next door.”
Carlisle: It was already weird for us playing to so many people that we had no idea how far-reaching our music was. And to see people all over the world singing along to us was surreal. Just two years before we were rehearsing for three-song sets at the Masque.
Caffey: We’d come out terrified telling ourselves it was still just a stage only with millions of people in the audience now.
Schock: Touring the country in a van was tough but when you’re young you can handle anything. Miles decided to put us on tour with the Police and suddenly we went from clubs to 20,000 seaters.
Carlisle: We had a certain degree of comfort on the Police tour that we never had previously. Especially compared to our first experience touring the UK.
Caffey: The Police were the biggest band in the world at that time and we told Miles we didn’t wanna open for anyone because we were headlining clubs. But then he said we’d get a tour bus and thankfully we came to our senses. We went out just playing and partying day after day after day.
Patron: You’d hop on the bus, do the gig, hang at the hotel, repeat. There was a lot of boyfriend drama. This was before cell phones so they always racked up massive phone bills. I’d have to tell Kathy “You spent $95 to have an argument with Danny, is it really worth it?”
Carlisle: At one point Sting came into our dressing room with a bottle of champagne saying “Congratulations! You’re #1!” We were so confused.
Plen: Somebody ran backstage with the Billboard charts screaming “The Go-Go’s passed The Police!” Their album went from #3 to #1 and The Police had stayed at #6. They didn’t care, they were thrilled for the girls.
Valentine: The Police were very supportive and thought we were a great band. Getting that validation early on from a major act was important. They had control over who their opener was so it felt like getting a stamp of approval.
Caffey: I was immediately stressed and my mind went to thinking about how there was only one way to go from there: down. Isn’t that so sad? (laughs) But we stayed there for six weeks! I always marvel at that.
Schock: Those were heady times. We sold a million units and went platinum by the time we finished touring with the Police. Then we went right back out to play all the big arenas we’d just opened for only now we were the headliners. You feel like you’ve made it when you sell out the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden.
AND THE BEAT GOES ON
Beauty and the Beat stayed at #1 for six weeks shortly followed by “We Got the Beat” peaking at #2 in the spring of 1982, a thrilling high point. Their debut would go on to sell over 2 million copies, many by young women and men just like them who couldn’t figure out how to plug in their instruments but didn’t let that dissuade them from starting a band anyway.
Caffey: Subsequent Go-Go’s albums had the added stress of writing new material but we went into Beauty and the Beat having already figured out which songs worked. We were developing who we were as a band and it got reflected in this timeless piece of work.
Gehman: It sounds as fresh when you hear it now as it did in a crappy little basement club with bad speakers. It’s a classic in the same way that anything by the Shangri-La’s is because the themes are universal while still being authentic and female-oriented. Who doesn’t hate being gossiped about and sing along to every word of “Our Lips Are Sealed”?
Gottehrer: We’re talking about a band of five women who wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and had a female manager. I can only imagine the influence it had on young girls to see they weren’t just limited to being folk singers.
Bethany Cosentino (lead singer, Best Coast): When I got into my teens and really got into punk, I started diving deeper into the Go-Go’s discography and thought they were just the coolest band in the whole world. They were the first all-girl band I saw at an age where I had no idea that women could play their own instruments and front their own band.
Majewski: People like me came of age watching them and thinking that there was nothing women couldn’t do. Maybe the Go-Go’s didn’t feel that way, but we did. The fact that they were on Rolling Stone in their underwear is a mere footnote.
Hayley Williams (lead singer, Paramore): One of the coolest things about the Go-Go’s and their music, for me, is how fun they make femininity feel. They’ve never undermined their own identities to placate any notion that rock genres have to feel a certain kind of “tough”. They’re so badass. It took me a long time to regard my own feminine identity as crucial to my output.
Wiedlin: I think we were afraid of being labeled feminists, you might as well have called someone a pedophile. But actions mean more than words and we controlled ourselves, took what we wanted, and didn’t get successful based on hypersexuality as so many people have I feel been forced to do. That in itself makes us feminists.
Plen: The Go-Go’s were the original girl power, and I can say that because I also broke the Spice Girls. I wound up head of promotions at Virgin Records when they were trying to crack America in the world of grunge. I think it gave me more cred with them that I worked on Beauty and the Beat. I went out on the road for seven months basically doing the same thing I did with the Go-Go’s begging every DJ to play “Wannabe.”
Danielle Haim (lead singer, Haim): The Go-Go’s music is deeply in our DNA. It was playing a lot around the house as kids. I’ve always loved that they were an all-girl rock band - of course - but also how interconnected they are with punk subculture. As I got to know a bit more about their history I can’t help but feel it informed a lot of my goals and ideals.
Currie: I remember listening to an interview the Go-Go’s did where Belinda brought up me and the Runaways as influences. I was shocked because we’d been completely forgotten at that point. It was nice to get that little shot in the arm at that time in my life and I still appreciate it to this day.
Gottehrer: If you sit back and look at the Go-Go’s compared to other acts from that period, they’re all still having a good time making music and Vogue is still writing about them forty years later. That’s pretty remarkable if you ask me.
WAITING FOR THE HALL TO CALL
When the Go-Go’s broke up in 1984, most of the members were convinced they’d never speak to each other again. Continually sold-out tours, a Broadway musical soundtracked by their catalogue, and now a critically-acclaimed documentary have proven otherwise. With the release of “Club Zero,” the Go-Go’s first original song since 2001, the band has never felt more confident in their legacy.
Wiedlin: In the beginning we were a gang of girls out to have a good time. Then we got famous and instead of being the Go-Go’s against the world it became the Go Go’s against each other. The band imploded, everyone got super resentful of each other, and there was zero sense of gratitude. I think it took a long time for us to see what was so great about each other and how important that time was to us.
Carlisle: There’s a lot of karmic ties in this band. We’ve been in each other’s lives all this time, it has to be to work out something in this lifetime. It’s been forty-five years and I still haven’t figured it out.
Schock: When I had to have heart surgery in 1984 it was a really horrible time for the band because everything was falling apart. But everyone came together at that moment because I was sick. Interestingly enough, with this pandemic we’ll go weeks without talking then all of a sudden we’re texting everyday.
Caffey: Kathy and I were on the phone yesterday laughing our asses off about something completely random. I need them for that because they make me laugh and I make them laugh and that’s important right now.
Valentine: We have a chemistry when we get together and there’s a dynamic right away. It’s essentially been a 40-year marriage between five people.
Carlisle: It’s always been more than friendship. The dynamics are really complicated but there’s something holding us together at the end of the day. We might not always get along but like any family, we love each other.
Wiedlin: Maybe if all those boy bands would’ve fought more they would’ve stayed together. Everyone talks about how much the Go-Go’s fight but nobody seems to mention that we’re still together, fuckers!