The Go-Go's: Ladies First

The pop group hits the top with hard-nosed rock & roll

The Go-Go's perform on stage in Copenhagen, Denmark, on January 5th, 1982. Credit: Jorgen Angel/Redferns/Getty

THE GO-GO'S HAD MADE IT TO GERMANY. Their nerves were frayed, their tempers on edge, but what would you expect after six months on the road? Half a year of staring at cheap blue hotel wallpaper and floral-print bedspreads can do bad things to a band's psyche, especially when its members call the smoky, funky confines of Los Angeles clubs their home. So, by the time they hit Hamburg, catty barbs were being exchanged with feline quickness, and the tension...well, the tension was getting thick.

What's a girl to do? Somehow, the Go-Go's always seem to know. They walked into their dressing room, a Teutonic masterpiece of five perfectly matched and aligned dressing tables, each topped by a perfectly centered and spotless mirror. Across from these pristine vanities was a buffet table laden with infuriatingly symmetrical platters of food. So the band's manager, Ginger Canzoneri, did the only sane thing: she snatched a grapefruit off the groaning board and hurled it. No further prompting was necessary. In minutes, the entire buffet was dripping off the wall.

That's when guilt made its entrance –– Catholic guilt to be precise, except for Belinda Carlisle, whose guilt was of the Southern Baptist variety. It's the kind of guilt that waltzes in when you least expect it and prompts the sort of behavior Van Halen would be ashamed to even think about. The Go-Go's had trashed their German dressing room –– but when they were finished, they tried to clean the whole thing up.

"We looked around and thought, 'Oh, God, this is terrible,'" says Belinda, laughing. "So we got little towels and scooped all the crap into piles against the wall." And then she adds, with almost a trace of sorrow, "It didn't work."

AMERICA AND THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, meet the Go-Go's: International, Filthy Rich, Jet-Setting Rock- and Screen-Star Bitch Goddesses, or something like that (it was last winter's in-joke, and they've long since forgotten exactly how it goes). They're cute, they're bubbly, they throw nice little tantrums and then clean up after themselves, everybody loves them, and they're the biggest all-female band in the history of rock & roll.

Sure, the Supremes could probably argue that last claim, but when was the last time Diana Ross picked up a guitar or wrote her own songs? In the year since their debut, the Go-Go's have racked up a Number One album, Beauty and the Beat; two Top Twenty singles, "Our Lips Are Sealed" and the gold "We Got the Beat"; an initial tour that found the then-unknown band selling out every show; and, after swallowing their rapidly expanding pride and consenting to be an opening act, a crucial stint with the Police, where they went out and broke things wide open.

It's your standard Bright New Act Makes Good story, but it's also more than that. It's the story of five women in their twenties (mostly early twenties) who've provided heroes for the little sisters of the longhaired guys who play air guitar at Foreigner concerts. The group's hit music is conceived, written, arranged and performed almost entirely by women; peer behind the full skirts and teased hairdos, and you won't see the lurking presence of a guru like Phil Spector or Kim Fowley, or even a Mike Chapman, Peter Asher or Chris Stein. Look directly at those skirts and hairdos, and you won't see them flaunting their sexiness a la the Runaways or ignoring it like Fanny did; they're simply comfortable being female and playing the rock & roll songs they write.

The Go-Go's are safe, wholesome and proudly commercial; the operative image is bubble bath and sweet innuendo. It's an image they know they need –– a tease that gives the peppy pop music a twist and a hook –– but it's not what sells 2 million albums. That's happened because they're a good, tough little band: the evidence is there on Beauty and the Beat and the new LP, Vacation. For me, it was best presented one night last February in Detroit.

Mind you, this was nothing like Los Angeles, where a Go-Go's show means wading through a sea of teenage girls dressed to kill in enough short pastel party outfits to make East Michigan pall. This ain't the Whisky, they could have sung, this ain't no foolin' around. This was just another stop in seven months of touring, another night opening for the Police (and their fans), another identical backstage dinner of chips, dip and apple wedges. But it was also a chance to set aside memories of some initially shaky Go-Go's shows –– their Saturday Night Live spot, an unfortunate example –– and prove they could be powerful and cohesive from the start.

Drummer Gina Schock is the most angelic-looking Go-Go with her shiny blond hair and toothsome grin, but she's also the bluntest and most outspoken member, the one who gripes at photographers and the only Go-Go you'll never see in a miniskirt. Onstage, she pounded out a beat as direct and no-nonsense as her hard-nosed urban speech patterns. The plastic shrunken head bouncing off her bass drum testified to a taste that runs to such films as Pink Flamingos and to such books as Hollywood Babylon.

Dressed in black and looking punkier than her colleagues –– looking, in fact, like the spiky-haired Shirley MacLaine –– was Kathy Valentine, who plunked away with basic, rock-solid bass lines seemingly inspired by years of immersion in the Rolling Stones. Still, the generally soft-spoken bass player focused on amiable front-row fans and flashed broad smiles their way.

At opposite ends of the stage stood – or hopped – the band's most effervescent members, the guitarists whose quick jests dominate group interviews: Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey. Wiedlin has a close-cropped pixie haircut and a little-girl voice about an octave higher and shriller than Bernadette Peters', with an equally piercing giggle; this makes it nearly impossible to concentrate when she utters the band's most serious, thoughtful comments. Squeezed into a soft green minidress –– replete with Tinkerbell fringe– – she spent her time onstage bouncing around with cheerful abandon. Nearly as talkative is the blond, all-American Caffey, the oldest member and the one most prone to interrupting the band's giddiest extremes with such lines as, "We're not always this silly, really!" Onstage, Charlotte was quieter, generally staying put while she supplied sparkling lead lines.

Though there's no real star in this quintet, the potential for stardom is clear in lead singer Belinda Carlisle. Offstage, however, she's soft-spoken and even withdrawn, which could be why she's been the Go-Go to attract rumors like flies: the rock & roll grapevine notwithstanding, she never died of a drug overdose, and no, she isn't married to Blasters drummer Bill Bateman. While she's more openly insecure about her work than the other members, the audience spurred Belinda to shine with a glow that could easkly turn into charisma. It pops out at other times, too. When the band first arrived in Detroit, Belinda strode into the hotel lobby in a knee-length fur coat with her tangled dark blond hair swept back; for a moment, she had the regal quality of a 1940s movie queen.

By the time the Go-Go's closed their Motor City show, the crowd was cheering with a fervor that equaled anything the headlining Police were to hear. And the applause wasn't for five comely girls but for a first-rate rock band.

But by the time the band members were back on the bus and on the way to their rooms, a transformation had occurred. As they ran through a giggly, screechy medley of terrible songs –– "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Afternoon Delight" –– the Go-Go's were resolutely rumpled and decidedly non-chic, more like the high-school girls who didn't go to the senior prom. And in fact, most of them didn't. If you want to find male groupies and conniving vixen, look somewhere else; a Go-Go's tour is "like being on the road with five little sisters," says their road manager, Bruce Patron.

"You know what the best part of this is?" said Charlotte, laughing, clearly delighted to debunk another myth. "It's that people naturally assume we slept our way to the top."

More likely the Go-Go's stopped every night along the way to phone their boyfriends. "For one thing," continued Charlotte about the noticeable lack of male hangers-on, "they never get back to meet us. If they do...well, we can astonish guys by talking dirty, but it's just talk. We have our blowouts and get drunk, but as for anything else...."

"I wouldn't do it if I weren't a musician," added Kathy firmly. "Why should I do it now?"

Charlotte perked up. "But next tour, we get our own private rooms instead of having to share. Maybe then we'll have some dirt for you. For now, though, it's the furthest thing from our minds. Besides, I think we intimidate guys. They don't know how to take us –– they used to think we couldn't be serious, but now that the album's done so well, they're finally beginning to believe that we have been serious all along."

The message is getting out: along with their buoyancy, there is enough determination to startle the observers who assume that beneath the froth is more froth. "It bothers me when people say we're cute, bubbly girls," said Belinda with a sigh. "My God, it makes us sound like a bunch of air heads. Fun is not the only thing we think or write about."

"The bottom line is that the songs are fun," admitted Jane. "But the lyrics aren't soppy. I like to have a dichotomy: set a serious subject to light music, or write serious music with not-so-serious lyrics.

"We laugh a lot, but when we're together we have to giggle. It puts everything on a more superficial level, but it's the only way to deal with the pressure. It'd be torture if we couldn't goof off."

So they goofed off, turning a postconcert bus ride into a rolling sweet-sixteen bash with their godawful medley and a round of "Wasn't that guy cute?" gossip. But Charlotte slipped out of the party long enough to add a typical disclaimer: "You must think we're real nut cases, but we usually aren't," she pleaded. "We're just happy. The focus, everything about this band is so strong. I was thinking about that today, and it makes me real happy."

From the front seat of the van, Gina turned, grinned and spit out a question: "Yeah? How happy are you?"

Charlotte put on a blank, dazed smile and answered in her best dumb-blond voice. "This is like a fairy tale come true," she said with cloying sweetness. "I'm so fucking happy I want to throw up."

HAPPINESS, OF COURSE, CAN BE A SOMETIME thing. When there's a blizzard, for instance, you're stuck in a hotel and the airports are closed. But there's always TV. And one evening this winter all the band members' sets were blaring and CHiPs' Larry Wilcox was onscreen looking confused. "I don't get it," he said. "It's not like they're from the ghetto...." Erik Estrada looked over with a blinding grin. His biceps rippled, straining at the thin fabric of his California Highway Patrol shirt. "Punk rock," he explained with the calm certainty only a true sex symbol can muster, "is a convenient excuse for troublemakers to mess up the system."

Tonight, CHiPs is a killer: our intrepid heroes stopped a deadly punk-rock band from decimating the Starwood, while Estrada entered the club's talent show and let the dirty little bastards see what a good time really is.

For the Go-Go's, CHiPs carries a special resonance; the band members paid their dues on the Starwood stage and on others like it across the L.A. basin. And when they got together four years ago, the Go-Go's themselves were punks: the music of the Sex Pistols, the Adverts, the Ramones and other such bands pulled them together, and the insular, defiant camaraderie of the early L.A. scence kept them going when nobody else would listen. Given the members' backgrounds, it was an unlikely place to begin.

It wasn't really so long ago that Belinda was a cheerleader at a Conejo Valley high school, near L.A. But friends from art class exposed her to the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music, and they lured her into Hollywood clubs each weekend. She moved into town at the age of eighteen and nearly joined the seminal L.A. punk band, the Germs, but "too much of everything" sidelined Belinda instead.

Jane, meanwhile, gradually lost interest in the fashion-design career she'd been pursuing at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. She would steal the new English import singles from a local record store once a week, and whenever she returned home with her hair dyed this month's color, her mother would cry and suggest a visit to a psychiatrist.

Along with their punk pals, Belinda and Jane stayed at places like the Canterbury Hotel, journeyed en masse to San Francisco to see the Sex Pistols and watched one another onstage at the Masque, a dank, claustrophobic basement club in Hollywood. "Music had always been faraway and mystical," says Jane, "until I went to the Masque. Then it was a foot away, dripping sweat on me."

Soon, Belinda and Jane –– together with Margot Olaverra and Elissa Bello –– picked up instruments they'd never before played and formed the Go-Go's. When they needed help plugging in their amps, they turned to an acquaintance in their crowd, Charlotte Caffey, a trained musician whose first heroes were the Beatles, TV art instructor John Gnagy and Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot. Although she had studied classical piano and received a bachelor of music degree from Immaculate Heart College, Charlotte had graduated to guitar, first in folk clubs and then as a member of several fledgling punk bands. (One of those was an outfit that played USC on the same bill as then folk singer Patti Davis Reagan; Charlotte says Patti had them kicked off because the lead singer liked to coat underwear with bread crumbs and fry it onstage.)

Without Charlotte, the Go-Go's made their debut at a party at the Masque for the Dickies, playing a now-legendary one-and-a-half-song set. They made it all the way through "Overrun" ("It's about punks taking over the world," says Jane, who went by the name of Jane Drano),but "Robert Hilburn" –– a diatribe aimed at the Los Angeles Times rock critic –– sputtered to a premature halt when Jane forgot the chords. For an encore, they repeated "Overrun."

"Everyone went crazy, and I thought, Oh, God, we're really good,'" says Belinda. "I figured we were famous already." Success seemed imminent: Jane still has a summer of '78 diary with such entries as the one that boasts, "I just know we're going to be signed any day now." Sort of the American dream, punk style: "It was Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and 'Hey kids, let's do a show!'"

In fact, the girls were riding high –– in their own minds –– until after the band's second performance. Then, an excited friend of Belinda's played her a tape of the show; each new tuneless screech and lurching tempo change added to her embarrassment. Says Charlotte, who by then had moved over from a proficient but underappreciated group, "We stank."

So, soon the Go-Go's began rehearsing in the Masque amid broken toilets and the stench of urine. A year of gigs later, they were still being labeled a novelty act and were at what Belinda calls "a real Go-Go low" when they replaced Elissa with Gina Schock, who'd just moved west from Baltimore. A drummer since age fifteen who'd convinced all her high-school friends she was going to be a rock star, Gina sang the likes of "Rocky Mountain High" in one hometown outfit, bounced from one band to another and finally wound up in a Baltimore New Wave group, Scratch'n' Sniff. After a brief tour with old friend Edie Massey (the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos), she and a friend piled into Gina's dad's truck and moved to the West Coast.

The Go-Go's had found a new instrumental punch, and they slowly toned down their Day-Glo punk look. "They'd come to rehearsal and say, 'Somebody bugged me on the bus today!'" recalls Charlotte. "As if pink hair were normal."

"We got tired of making an effort to be weird," says Belinda, "and I got tired of hair dye coming off on my pillow every night." Like punk style, punk music was, she says, a passing phase: "We always wanted to play pop music, but we were so terrible it came out like punk rock."

They plugged away, tightened their sound and made some big musical strides when they went to England, even though their expectations of conquest turned into months of poverty and indifference. Ultimately, the group began winning over the British crowds, and when they came home, they were far better. Everything looked promising: the record companies still weren't biting, but the Go-Go's had a disco hit with Stiff Records' import single "We Got the Beat," and their tape of "Cool Jerk" had become and L.A. favorite.

Then, just before four New Year's 1980 sold-out nights at the Whisky, Margot came down with hepatitis. The band members rarely talk about this; it seems they would rather forget that founding member. But things came to a head with Margot's illness: frustrations over her negative attitude, seamier stuff. "I'm still pissed," says one band member. "If she'd wanted to be in the band, she'd still be in the fucking band." Loyalty meant a lot, but when push came to shove, success meant more to the other Go-Go's. Margot was out.

Her departure sealed the band's estrangement from the hard-core crowd that had nurtured them. "As soon as she left," says Gina, "we were no longer cool with the X crowd." But they gained another solid professional, Kathy Valentine, who'd been playing guitar in Austin, Texas, since the age of fourteen and had become interested in punk on a trip to England during which she performed briefly in an early lineup of Girlschool. Back in Austin, Kathy formed the city's first punk band; she then moved to L.A. and played in the Textones, who recorded an early version of "Vacation," the title song on the new Go-Go's album. To prepare for the group's New Year's Eve engagement, Kathy went on a four-day crash course in bass playing, and she signed on soon afterward –– when, she remembers, they were earning forty dollars a week.

And on April Fools' Day, 1981, the Go-Go's finally signed a record deal –– with IRS Records, a small, New Wave-oriented outfit", whose chief, Miles Copeland, had been pursuing them ever since they'd returned from London. They'd all heard unflattering rumors about Miles, and Kathy figured that IRS was where you went if you couldn't get a deal with a real label. Still, IRS was persistent, and the band got its contract. Every victory, of course, extracts its price: as the band and the label hammered out a deal inside, the cops towed manager Ginger's car from the street outside.

PRODUCER RICHARD GOTTEHRER flailed away at a Centipede video game down the hall from the room where the Go-Go's were wrapping up Vacation; as he jumped up and down and yelped excitedly, it was hard to tell whether he got more passionate zapping spiders or listening to Go-Go's playbacks. This was the third studio they'd been in and things were running late, but there was an easy, relaxed atmosphere here. Though it was taking forever to get the last few vocal overdubs onto the chorus of the title track, everybody figured things were bound to fall together soon enough –– so the Go-Go's could go ahead and make plans for the evening. Jane was taking her boyfriend and her unnervingly cute Alaskan Eskimo spitz (named Kitty Igloo) to her parents' house for a birthday dinner, while Belinda was planning to see Raiders of the Lost Ark yet again (she's taken a fancy to Harrison Ford).

It's all a far cry from the first album, where they worked in Richard's territory, New York, from a home base of two crowded rooms in the Wellington Hotel. They were supposed to cut that album in three weeks; by then they hadn't even finished laying down the basic tracks. Worse, they were terrified of and acquiescent to Richard, a fear that ended when they heard the basic tracks and knew it was time to speak up. "The tracks sounded too happy," says Gina. "We said, 'Richard, we gotta do it like this,'" and they thought they'd reached a compromise. But when Richard and coproducer Rob Freeman completed the final mixes alone and sent the album to L.A., the Go-Go's heard it and wept. "They wouldn't even talk to Richard," says Ginger. "Now they all love the album and say he's their favorite producer."

The perfect summer album, Beauty and the Beat didn't hit Number One until late winter. But by that time, the band already knew what it wanted out of round two: a fatter, heavier guitar sound and fewer insecurities. "We were really freaking out for a while," says Charlotte. "We were on tour, trudging through the snow drifts back East and wondering if the album could be as good as the first one. But when we heard everybody's songs, it all fell together. Some of them give me chills –– I'd wonder, 'Where did they come from?'"

"I think lots of people figure we're a fluke," adds Kathy. "But I can't imagine anyone listening to this and still thinking that." Indeed, the new album straightens out a lot of what the band feels were the first record's shortcomings: the sound is fuller, the guitars muscular rather than subdued, and the pronounced drums are even more prominent. It also sounds more like the band than does much of Beauty and the Beat: on such highlights as the title track, the three-year-old "He's So Strange" and Jane's new "The Girl of 100 Lists," Belinda's vocals are far more confident and less doctored than they are on parts of the group's debut album.

And to all outward appearances, there's not a vestige of doubt about this album. "I hope the rest of the album sounds this good." I casually mentioned to Gina as she sat in the studio listening to the other members laboriously overdub the "Vacation" vocals. "I think you'll like it," she replied with an offhand shrug. Then she caught herself, and the casual shrug turned into a direct stare. "What am I talkin' about?" she said. "Of course you're gonna like it! It's gonna be a great album, and we both know it!" Case closed. Thanks, Gina.

THE PRESSURES OF BEING AMERICA'S rock & roll sweethearts catch up with the Go-Go's regularly now. Caught in too many buses and vans, interviews and hotel rooms, they complain to Ginger. Loudly. They've raised this practice to sublime heights –– and near the end of the last tour, recalls Ginger, they put on a virtuoso performance.

"I said to them, 'Isn't this what we all wanted, what you said you'd do anything for? How big do you want to be, anyway?'" Ginger says they thought about it for a minute before answering: "We want to be bigger than Abba. Bigger than the Police. Bigger than Sting!"

Nervy band here: Jane, who says she's always been convinced that a Go-Go's album could be the "biggest thing since Swiss cheese," has also boasted that she wants to be bigger than REO Speedwagon. And the trappings of success are piling up: the platinum album, the lavish L.A. party to celebrate that award, new apartments for Gina and Jane (the latter finally living away from her parents), new cars for all, more clothes money than they've ever been allotted before and such honors as a Grammy nomination for best new artist. They lost to Sheena Easton at that ceremony, but they didn't mind; they were just happy at the chance to break out the crinoline and black lace, get their hair done, have a night on the town and meet a few stars. But they also wanted to share a little tipsy gossip after the award was presented, so they made it out to the lobby, figured there was no sense in hanging around for the rest of the show and made a beeline for the nearby party A&M, their distributor, was throwing for them. The recording academy, the band later heard, was not amused at the abrupt exit.

But the Grammy brass will get over it, the Go-Go's will continue to be the first ones to arrive at their own parties, and the possibility of topping REO Speedwagon seems more reasonable daily. And what if all this actually happens?

"I don't know," says Jane with a laugh. "I guess then we'd want to be bigger than hamburgers. Sometimes, I think that after a while we'll want to move on. Belinda wants to be in movies. I'd like to be successful in country music, where you can grow old gracefully, because I can't see myself hopping around the stage in a miniskirt when I'm forty. Or maybe we can be like the Beach Boys," she says, looking down the hall to make sure she isn't being overheard by any of that band, who are currently using the same studio. "Maybe in ten years we can all be fat, and people will still like us."

These days, the Go-Go's don't have to worry about being liked –– they've got other annoyances, such as the snowed-in day in Detroit last winter, when they all tried to evade the growing numbness: Kathy and Charlotte writing songs, Belinda in her room watching television, Gina down in the bar and then back in the room she was sharing with Jane, aiming her Canon AE-1 at the snowbound cityscape outside. As Gina snapped away, Jane finished a midnight phone call to her boyfriend and groused, "Sometimes, this is like working at McDonald's. I wish I could call in sick." Then she caught herself in midgrumble. "But I have to kick myself when I say things like that, because people will read it and say, 'How can she possibly complain with what she's got?'

"I had a big argument once with one of the guys in the Specials. He said that you have to take rock & roll off the stage and make people realize it's just music. I told him that people want to think musicians are glamorous and exciting, and it's stupid to try to take that away from them. There are so many childhood emotions and things tied up in rock & roll that even when the logic hits you in the face, it doesn't always sink in. And, shoot, it still is glamorous and exciting to us –– there's always something to keep us excited." Or on edge.

Consider the critics. Though, as Kathy says, "I think you really have to work hard not to like this band," not all the key music writers have always been kind. But it's coming: earlier this year, a Village Voice national rock-critics poll voted the group's debut album a tenth place among the 1981 releases.

In Detroit, Jane hadn't yet heard of this latest showing; when I told her, she said quietly, "I think a lot of critics have trouble with us. We're not like X, which is real...." Her amazing Barbie-doll voice trailed off as she grabbed a pillow from the head of her bed. "I like X, but it's just so romantic to like the underworld heroes X.

"The Go-Go's are different, I think. Admitting you like us is kind of like admitting you like Twinkies. Maybe Twinkies taste good, but, my God –– Twinkies? Who are you kidding?"

Jane rolled over, bunched the pillow underneath her and laughed an exuberant, satisfied hee-hee. Watch out, REO Speedwagon, the laugh could be saying that sometimes, it's pretty wonderful being a Twinkie.