When I was a kid, I enjoyed going to L.A. and seeing all the new punk bands. I loved seeing all the greats before they became legends. It was the early ‘80s and there was just something special about punk rock back then. You could be whatever and whoever you wanted and nobody gave you shit about it; that was total freedom.
I can’t tell you how many nights I spent after shows hanging out with my pals in the parking lot at places like Raji’s, Madame Wongs, The Roxy, The Palladium, The Troubadour, The Palomino, Coconut Teaszers, Gazzari’s, or The Whiskey. I was literally having the time of my life while taking in musical history.
My three favorite bands at the time were what I’d best describe as polar opposites; yet they had the same appeal (at least to me). I loved Social Distortion and X… and then there was the all-girl band called the Go-Go’s.
When you think of punk rock, I’m sure lots of images come to mind. I’ll tell you, this band was something… the Go-Go’s were as legit as any of the other juggernauts that called the Sunset Strip home. They had a sound, energy, and attitude that set them apart from everyone. The great bands had a common bond; their energy and connection with their fans would make them legends in their own right.
Back in the day, I could see bands like Black Flag, Social Distortion, Dead Kennedys, The Vandals, T.S.O.L., X, and that touring band from the east coast, The Ramones on any given night.
It was absolutely an insane time to be out at night.
Then there was the Go-Go’s. Don’t let their wholesome image deceive you. I was there…. they were just as loud, just as outrageous and lethal as any of the boys that called the strip their home.
Luckily for of us, some of these bands are still around. Now that we’re in a digital age, we can hear from them directly about what life was really like back then. One of those ways is Showtime’s featured documentary about the life and times of the Go-Go’s. Showtime will air the documentary in August, and it’s an excellent film chronicling the band’s life and legacy.
It starts where all stories should… at the beginning. The Go-Go’s were formed in 1978 at the height of punk rock in Los Angeles. The lineup has always been fairly consistent: Belinda Carlisle (lead vocals), Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar / keys), Kathy Valentine (bass), Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitar) and Gina Schock on drums. By the time it was all said and done these girls were collectively electrifying on stage.
In the early days of the band, the girls didn’t have a ton of experience, but they went to work to learn the craft. Kathy Valentine was the last to join the band, and that solidified the bandmates. About their humble beginnings, Caffey said, “We were pretty crappy in the beginning, but we had these songs that were coming together.” The girls knew this could be huge.
They eventually got enough experience to become the house band at the Whisky a-Go-Go, and they would open for whichever band rolled into town. British ska bands like Madness and the Specials loved them. As a result, their fan base started to take shape. About those early days, Carlisle said, “I never looked at it as we were a girl band, and we didn’t strive to be a good girl band, we wanted to be a good band, period!” Their sonic vision was simple when you think about it; practice and become a very good band.
The Go-Go’s rose to fame and infamy in the ‘80s. They were the first all-female band that both wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. They are part of rock n’ roll history. Along with The Runaways, these ladies were trailblazers that were well ahead of their time.
The girls tore up conceptions as we knew them in 1981 with their debut album, “Beauty and the Beat.” This album had several hits that propelled them to immediate stardom. Tracks included “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “How Much More,” “We Got the Beat,” and “This Town.” The album eventually went Double-Platinum.
Rodney Bingenheimer began playing them on KROQ and that blew them up! They became so big, they were one of the biggest bands on the planet. To get a better concept of what the atmosphere was like back then, compare the girls to modern day Foo Fighters, that’s how big they were.
They were so badass; they were nominated for the Best New Artist at the Grammy’s in 1982.
I recently caught up with John Doe of X and we talked about his books “Under the Big Black Sun,” and “More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk.” I touched on the early days on the strip and asked for his thoughts on the Go-Go’s.
Doe said, “The Go-Go’s were legit! I thought they were a great band and they had a legion of fans that couldn’t get enough of them. They broke the mold and made the male world of record execs pay attention to them.”
So why don’t we equate this band with punk rock? Their label was more pop than punk, so perhaps that’s why. Their demeanor and good looks just didn’t scream out “parents beware!” The truth is that they became more successful, and then they were the band to see…. That put an even bigger spotlight on them.
The girls felt the pressure mounting of what it was to be the “it” band. Wiedlin said, “We were under a pressure cooker, we got countless letters from young girls who looked up to us.” Being they were young women themselves, that was a lot of pressure for them to live up to.
In the end, all was not candy canes and rainbows. Wiedlin has also said, “We didn’t know how to handle some of the pressure, so we did what we knew…. we partied hard. That was the one tool in our arsenal we could control; that and drugs… add some alcohol to that bonfire.”
Adding more fuel to the fire was that they went from playing seedy bars to Madison Square Garden basically overnight.
As you would expect, the documentary has great stories. For instance, it tells the story of when the band bought towels at Macy’s for their iconic spa cover of “Beauty and the Beat.” Then, they had to return the towels because they couldn’t afford them. Perhaps that’s another reason why their fans love them so much, who can’t relate to that?
The documentary also covers a well-kept secret; Charlotte’s heroin addiction. Tour exhaustion, in-fighting, and drug use tore them apart. Three years after hitting it big, the Go-Go’s were Gone-Gone!
LIFE as a Go-Go
I was like the good girl, bad girl, there was no grey areas for me.
The girls went their different ways, each doing something different, yet still mostly successful in their individual endeavors.
Carlisle on the other hand, hit it big as a solo artist. She struck gold again with hits like “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.”
A lot has happened since then and luckily for us, they’re back. Their music has been used on every platform imaginable, film, TV and even Broadway in the play “Head Over Heels.”
They were even on the cover of Rolling Stone, although the caption was a little disheartening for them.
Despite that good-girl image, these ladies could party with anyone, any time at any place. That reputation did not go unnoticed and to some extent they became victims of their own success.
Their music catalog has so many other fan favorites. Songs like “Vacation,” “Lust To Love,” “Cool Jerk,” “Head Over Heels,” “Get Up and Go,” “Fading Fast,” and “Turn to You” just to name a few.
In 2016, fans were literally head over heels when the band announced a reunion. It was the 2016 farewell tour that luckily didn’t stick.
Wiedlin says, “It’s pretty exciting that after 40 years people are still excited over our band.” Chaffey added, “There’s an extraordinary and undeniable bond between us, we’re like sisters.”
The Go-Go’s have come a long-long way since they first decided to play music. Their fans range from every age demographic and come from coast-to-coast and around the world, They represent every race, creed, social economic background and all sexual orientations.
No matter who their fans are or where they come from, they share in this band’s sonic vision. They love the music these ladies created for them. That’s what life and great memories are made of. For their fans, that’s the power of their music.
The ShowtimeGo–Go’s documentary will premiere August 1st at 9 pm (Eastern). I can’t give a better recommendation to catch a film.
The film features interviews with Director, Alison Ellwood | amera, Sam Painter | Editor, Brett Banks | Music, Matt Hauser | and members of the band | Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine.