The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat blazed a trail for new wave

The Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat

When inducting The Go-Go’s into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Oct. 30, 2021, actress Drew Barrymore divulged a secret: the new wave band’s 1981 album, Beauty and the Beat, changed her life when she heard it at age 6. She told the crowd she “spent hours staring at (the) cover and the backside, all of them in the bathtub.”

To a 6-year-old girl like Drew, the vinyl album cover must have given an air of decadent glamour. Set against a cloudy blue background, the front features the all-female punk quintet in white towels and face masks, applying nail polish (they later returned the towels to Macy’s.) On the back, band members are in bubble baths–talking on the phone, pouring Champagne and reading trashy novels.

But it’s what was inside that really mattered. When Barrymore first heard Beauty and the Beat, women in music were often seen as glitzy accessories, or not at all. The trailblazing group Fanny set the bar in the early ‘70s, but not everyone got the memo. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the only women-fronted punk rock groups were bands like Blondie and the all-girl outfit The Runaways. One shortsighted headline would describe The Go-Go’s as “Five beauties with a beat.” Sure, women were playing music, but could an all-girl band change the face of rock?

The Go-Go’s, however, had plenty to say. With the 40th anniversary of their landmark debut Beauty and the Beat in the rear view, and on the heels of their long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Go-Go’s are finally receiving the long overdue recognition they’ve so rightly deserved since emerging from the L.A. punk scene and onto the national stage.

The Go-Go’s earned their place in rock history early on, being the first all-female band with a chart-topping album of songs written entirely by the band. Guitarist Jane Wiedlin, bassist Kathy Valentine, drummer Gina Schock, vocalist Belinda Carlisle and guitarist / keyboardist Charlotte Caffey also arranged and performed all of their own music. Beauty and the Beat landed them at the top of the Billboard album charts, stealing the hearts of music fans with their happy-go-lucky attitude and youthful charm. Their accomplishment was unheard of back then. No other all-female band has pulled it off since.

And while the buoyant, fast-paced music inside Beauty and the Beat fits the mold of other pop albums of its time, its punk/DIY crossover aesthetic crystallizes its universal, timeless enjoyability. Beauty and the Beat is 10 tracks of joy and freedom that came from unlikely places. It was forged in the sweaty trenches of the L.A. punk scene, where booze-covered floors met dank, graffiti covered hallways and reckless energy; it was nurtured in the haze of romantic flings and the sting of social alienation; and it was time-tested on stage, where, at least for a while, no one expected them to make it.

Before they had a record deal, The Go-Go’s were an all-girl band in a male-driven world. The band’s core aesthetic–learn as you go, fuck the haters–was in full force at the start. Wiedlin, Carlisle, and original bassist Margot Olavarria met on the L.A. punk show circuit in the late ‘70s. All three witnessed the Sex Pistols’ disastrous final performance at Winterland in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1978.

Carlisle was thoroughly unimpressed with the Pistols’ self-absorbed style. “These guys are our heroes. And they kind of sucked!” Wiedlin agrees. But it got them thinking: If these guys can get on stage, then why can’t we?

Like all great bands, the women who became The Go-Go’s began at the bottom. “We were absolutely rotten when we started,” Wiedlin once said. But what they initially lacked in technical talent, they made up for in tenacity, culling inspiration from their surroundings and mastering their chosen instrument.

The stories about how The Go-Go’s stitched together Beauty and the Beat on stage and on their own are legendary, and they help certify the album as a must-have, new wave classic. And each Go-Go brought something special to the table.

Drummer Gina Schock was determined to make it as a rock star, and practiced her instrument religiously. To recognize her dream, she drove from Baltimore to LA, allegedly with “$2,000 and two grams of coke.” Her musical background began with the punk / exploitation band Edie and the Eggs, an offshoot of the John Waters cult universe. Schock’s work ethic helped drive the band and give them structure.

Falling in love with The Animals and The Beach Boys at age 10 may have saved Belinda Carlisle. She grew up amid an unstable home life; in high school, she was a cheerleader and basketball player who started experimenting with drugs. Before joining The Go-Go’s, she was briefly a member of The Germs as “Dottie Danger,” though she never played a set with them. Carlisle was her own fashion maven, meeting Caffey for the first time while wearing a garbage bag dress.

Guitarist Kathy Valentine was already on her third band by the time The Go-Go’s found her. While with the Austin post-punk group The Textones, Valentine had penned the upbeat and female-forward “Can’t Stop the World,” which ended up on Beauty and the Beat; as well as a later well-known Go-Go’s hit, “Vacation,” off the album of the same name. To catch up with the rest of the band, Valentine taught herself the bass and learned all their songs on cassette tape.

Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin had an affinity for ‘60s R&B and bubblegum music like The Archies and Tommy James. Their style and influences would contribute to The Go-Go’s pivoting from punk, to new wave and power pop.

Wiedlin was directionless through high school and college until she discovered the nascent Southern California punk scene. She found a home there, along with countless others who identified with the messages bands like X and The Germs were pumping out. While working in an L.A. sweat shop, Wiedlin began writing song lyrics on little patterns of fabric and eventually made punk clothing under the name Jane Drano. It was her love affair with a British singer that later led to the band’s debut American single.

Unlike Wiedlin, before joining The Go-Go’s, Caffey was already playing two sets a night with The Eyes. One night she was performing at the Starwood music venue in West Hollywood (“It was The Jam, The Dickies, and The Eyes,” she recalls) when Carlisle and former member, bassist Margot Olavarria, approached her.

“They looked so freaky to me, because I was pretty normal looking. I think Belinda had purple hair and she was wearing a trash bag, and spiky heels with ripped stockings. And Margot had pink and green hair and all this freaky makeup. And I thought, ‘Well, this sounds like fun,’” she says.

Caffey’s early contributions to the band stemmed from unlikely musical and pop culture pairings. Though Caffey had a classical piano background, she was also a fan of ‘60s R&B. Caffey infused the band’s rock roots with that Motown flavor, but in an oddball way. She wrote “We Got the Beat” while watching the sci-fi horror series “The Twilight Zone,” and weaving in fragments of the Smokey Robinson & The Miracles song “Going To a Go-Go.”  

Comparing the two songs side by side, it’s easy to see the connection Caffey created. The Go-Go’s version keeps the drumming pattern The Miracles created, but speeds up the beat. They also skip the brass section and instead add buoyant guitars and a danceable bassline that bobs up and down with each verse. Both songs have infectious grooves and a repetitive chorus that invites everyone to join in on the vibrant, happy mood. More importantly, “We Got the Beat” helped put the band on the map.

But before all that could happen, the young band had to hone their growing talent by playing countless sets at L.A. spots like the Whisky A Go Go and The Masque, and releasing a five-song demo in 1979. In spring, 1980, they got another big break – British two-tone ska bands The Specials and Madness invited them to support their UK tour

They were beyond thrilled, though it wasn’t the glamorous gig they had imagined. Band members were sometimes spit on or asked to show their “tits.” They did not. But the hostile crowds gave them the backbone they needed to handle any live audience.

While touring in the UK, Wiedlin struck up a “kind of a romance,” she says, with The Specials’ vocalist Terry Hall. The pairing was meant to stay hush-hush because Hall “had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff. So it was all very dramatic,” Wiedlin says. That fleeting relationship would factor into The Go-Go’s growing success once they came back to the states.

But they still had a lot to prove while in England. In 1980, they cut an unpolished version of “We Got the Beat” for UK label Stiff Records. This version features more harmonization from band members and vocals from Carlisle that were more raw than the album version. The British EP was a conduit, becoming a sleeper hit on the Billboard’s U.S. Top 40 dance chart, and when they returned to California, sold-out shows and a new, more robust fan base awaited them.

Though Wiedlin’s relationship with Hall stalled once the tour ended, Hall wrote lyrics about their clandestine affair and mailed them to Wiedlin. She added music and more lyrics to the song, which later became “Our Lips Are Sealed,” The Go-Go’s debut U.S. single, which they released in June 1981.

But even after their British tour, and  all the success around “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and “We Got the Beat,” the band still couldn’t get signed, and they knew why. Most rock labels couldn’t seem to envision a future where women were in charge. One rejection letter stated that while the label admired their work, they weren’t the “type of band” they were interested in signing. “Best of luck with your enterprising girl band!” they wrote. 

I.R.S. Records, where indie bands like R.E.M., The Cramps and The English Beat got their start, finally took a chance on The Go-Gos in 1981. Beauty and the Beat finally reached number 1 on the album charts in March, 1982, arriving just as MTV was reaching restless high school kids stuck in the vacuum of suburbia. 
In their video clip for “Our Lips Are Sealed,” the band, all smiles and sunglasses, tours the streets in a used 1960 Buick convertible on a blazing hot day, dancing around in a fountain and showing a carefree energy that hinted at a brighter future and a bigger space for women in rock music.

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