A new documentary about the Los Angeles band explores the punk roots that came before its pop sheen, and the power dynamics that led to its split.
In March 1982, âBeauty and the Beatâ â that classic, effervescent, catch-a-wave-of-pink-champagne debut by the Los Angeles band the Go-Goâs â made history: It became the first record by an all-female group who wrote its own songs and played its own instruments to hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. Thirty-eight years later, itâs hard to decide whatâs more of a shock: That it took so long to happen, or that it hasnât happened since.
âPeople automatically assume we were probably put together by some guy,â the lead singer Belinda Carlisle says in Alison Ellwoodâs spirited new documentary âThe Go-Goâs,â which airs on Showtime this weekend. âBut we did it all ourselves.â
Of course, the Go-Goâs were hardly the music industryâs first commercially dominant girl group (with their dozen No. 1 singles, the Supremes rivaled the Beatlesâ popularity in the mid-1960s) nor were they the first gang of guitar-slinging women to âdo it all themselvesâ (the hippie-rockers Fanny and the British punks the Slits were just a few of the feminist-minded bands forging disparate paths in the 1970s). But the Go-Goâs fused those two impulses together most seamlessly for mass consumption. âBeauty and the Beatâ was, in the words of the bassist Kathy Valentine, âa pop record with a punk rock ethic.â
The âpopâ part of the Go-Goâs equation is whatâs stayed freshest in our cultural imagination, thanks to the glistening sheen of timeless, still-ubiquitous tunes like âOur Lips Are Sealed,â âWe Got the Beatâ and âVacation.â (They were the soundtrack to a Broadway musical in 2018.) Whatâs compelling about Ellwoodâs documentary, though, is how thoroughly it excavates the groupâs early punk bona fides.
âThere never would have been the Go-Goâs without the punk rock scene in Los Angeles,â the guitarist Jane Wiedlin says, placing the group within the context of local peers like X, Bags and the Eyes (the band that a mop-topped blonde named Charlotte Caffey would eventually leave to join the Go-Goâs.) While honing their chops, the Go-Goâs toured the United Kingdom opening for the underground heroes Madness and the Specials, braving the jeers and spit of angry skinheads. When we first meet Carlisle in the doc, sheâs not wearing cheery MTV-ready pastels, but a caustic-Elvis sneer and a plastic garbage bag as a dress.
Caffey was âterrifiedâ when she first brought the group a demo tape of a little ditty sheâd written called âWe Got the Beatâ: âI was thinking, man, these girls are going to throw me out of this band, because it was a pop song.â But her bandmates knew a great tune when they heard one, and the trackâs aerodynamic momentum perfectly matched the Go-Goâsâ increasingly skyward ambitions. (The film is a treasure trove of archival footage; one memorable clip shows Carlisle singing an early, punky version of âWe Got the Beatâ in a dingy club and taunting the crowd to dance: âCome on, donât be too cool.â)
Plenty of journalists fixated on the creation myth that the Go-Goâs âcouldnât play their instrumentsâ when they started out â though the same sort of scrappy, D.I.Y. energy was often seen as a sign of authenticity for male punk bands. And it wasnât entirely true: Caffey was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist whoâd studied classical piano in college; the tough-talking Baltimore transplant Gina Schock â the groupâs insistent, thumping heartbeat â was a drummer to be reckoned with from the day she joined the band.
âThe genuine exuberance of our music gave people an escape and a respite from the meanness and greed defining the era,â Valentine wrote in her excellent recent memoir âAll I Ever Wanted,â with the crisp clarity of cultural hindsight. In their casually charismatic music videos, the Go-Goâs offered the allure of rakish, why-so-serious fun. (âWe Got the Beatâ had the cosmic luck of coming out a month before MTV went on the air.) Their take on gender equality meant not only playing and writing just as well as the guys, but partying as hard (or harder) than they did, too. At their most bacchanalian, one inebriated Go-Go received the dubious honor of being kicked out of Ozzy Osbourneâs Rock in Rio dressing room â no small feat.
Ellwood, to her credit, doesnât avert her eyes from the uglier parts of the Go-Goâs story, like the firing of the founding bassist Margot Olavarria, a dyed-in-the-wool punk who objected to the bandâs increasingly polished, melodic sound. âIt wasnât just about the music, it was the sense of being packaged into a product,â Olavarria recalls. âIt was becoming less about art and more about money.â
Prophetic words. What plenty of people found most âempoweringâ about the Go-Goâs â they write their own songs! â created, behind the scenes, a complicated power imbalance that accelerated the bandâs collapse. Because Caffey, Wiedlin and Valentine were the groupâs primary songwriters, their share of the profits were considerably larger than Carlisleâs or Schockâs. Thatâs probably what motivated Carlisle to pull the biggest power move she could muster: going solo.
âIâve wondered many times how it would have been if part of the whole deal had been to keep everyone happy,â Valentine writes in her book. If the group had contributions from all members, âwe could have supported each other and granted space for each of us to grow instead of confining ourselves to a formula with a limited shelf life.â
But the same personal chemistry that fueled the groupâs rocket ship ascent is also what made them combustible. Since that first split in 1985, the Go-Goâs have broken up and reformed more times than the documentary has time to chronicle. Most recently, Valentine parted ways with the group in 2012, but sheâs back in the fold now. The beat goes on.
Why hasnât another all-female band matched the heights of the groupâs mainstream success? The persistence of sexism and double standards are the most obvious answers. But maybe the young girl-rockers that the Go-Goâs inspired also learned from their travails and sought something brasher and thus less compromising than top-of-the-world success.
At one point in âThe Go-Goâs,â Kathleen Hanna, a riot grrrl instigator and the incendiary frontwoman of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill, remembers attending a Go-Goâs concert in 1982. âAs a young girl,â she says, âgoing into a space where women owned the stage, and owned it unapologetically like they were born to be there â to me, it represented a moment of possibility.â
News – The Go-Goâs Made History 38 Years Ago. Thereâs Still More to Their Story.