*Above image taken from the internet and likely copyrighed
I am not currently nor have I ever been a huge fan of the 1980’s girl group the Go-Gos. However, I think every woman who came of age in the early ’80s who likes music, loves the Go-Gos. I remember a girl I dated in high school who loved their debut album. It was one of the few albums she owned. Even now, all these years later, the Rock Chick digs the Go-Gos. I think she had their greatest hits CD when I met her. Every woman I’ve ever known loves that moment in “We’ve Got the Beat” when lead singer Belinda Carlisle yells, “Jump Back… Big Time!” I think it’s a chick thing. I have to admit, even though I’m not a die-hard fan of their music I was curious to see the new Showtime documentary creatively titled, The Go-Gos. When I hear their music these days, I admit I smile probably out of a hoary sense of nostalgia, but I smile nonetheless. Their music certainly evokes a specific time and place for me.
The concept of the “Girl Group” is as old as rock and roll itself. You can go back to the 50s to the Shirelles who may have been the first ever Girl Group, as far as I know. They launched a whole Girl Group movement, which ended up being a huge influence on, of all people, the Beatles. Most of the early girl groups were merely vocal groups, they didn’t play their own instruments. There was usually some shadowy producer in the background. Barry Gordy had the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. Phil Spector had the Ronettes. The shadowy producer wrote the songs, hired the session musicians. The “girls” just had to show up and sing. Oh and then go out on grueling tours to perform live.
The concept of an all female band, who played their own instruments came later. I’m sure it was also considered a bit of a novelty at the time as well. I just hear fans saying, “Look girls playing guitar and drums… it’s like a dancing bear.” I can’t help but think of the Runaways – with Cherrie Currie, Joan Jett and Lita Ford – as an early example. They still had the shadowy producer/Svengali in the background, Kim Fowley who wrote much of their early stuff. I think in a lot of ways, punk rock helped take the novelty out of the girl group. Punk attracted and yes, welcomed all the outcasts. It didn’t matter who you were, you could pick up an instrument and play punk rock. There were bands with men and woman members like the Talking Heads or X.
The Go-Gos were, to my ears, always pop or pop-rock. One of the revelations of the documentary for me, was that they formed and grew out of the L.A. punk scene. Lead singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarist Jane Wiedlin, lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey all met at the same L.A. punk club, the Masque. After replacing original bassist Margo Olavarria and original drummer Elissa Bello with Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock respectively, the band’s line up crystallized.
The documentary follows the usual rise and fall narrative. I didn’t realize how quick and one might say, meteoric the Go-Gos rise to prominence was. After touring England they came back to the U.S. and recorded their debut, Beauty And the Beast in 1981 and it was, to put it mildly, a smash hit. I liked that they wrote and recorded their own stuff, no mysterious Producer lurking in the background. The Go-Gos were one of those bands whose rise coincided with that of MTV. The Go-Gos and MTV were made for each other. Many times girl groups were presented as “saintly” or “good girls.” I like that the Go-Gos were never like that. Or at least, I don’t remember them that way. The documentary talks a lot about their drinking and drug use. In my high school mentality, I never thought of these women as cheerleaders, I always thought they were the chicks smoking, drinking and making out in the parking lot.
Eventually the relentless touring, fights over song-writing royalties, and the drinking and drugs took its toll on the interpersonal relationships in the band. Charlotte Caffey’s deepening heroin addiction increasingly became a problem. I was amused to hear how many times reporters asking the group how they were getting along. You never heard people ask the Who that question and they didn’t really get on that well. Reporters always injecting drama. Jane Wiedlin eventually quit in a dispute over song writing credits. The band didn’t last too long after that.
The documentary interviews every member of the Go-Gos from their prime line-up. They also go back and interview the past members. Paula Jean Brown who replaced Wiedlin (although she played bass, Valentine moved to guitar, her first instrument), was also interviewed. Their first manager and their latter day manger Miles Copeland of I.R.S. records are both interviewed. Hell, even Stewart Copeland of the Police, who the Go-Gos opened for early in their career gets his 2 cents in. The documentary came off to me as an advertisement to get the Go-Gos into the Rock Hall of Fame. They do come across cooler than I remembered… hey, if you have a band member on heroin you gotta score some cool points somewhere. I thought it was an interesting and well done documentary. I think its definitely worth watching for any rock and roll fan.
As I watched the documentary, I couldn’t help but think of the time I saw the Go-Gos and actually went backstage, and met Belinda Carlisle. I wish this was a more salacious story, but alas, it’s pretty tame. In the fall of 1984 I had just moved back to Manhattan, Kansas to start my next year in college. The weekend after Labor Day, most of the people in the place where I lived had left for a big, organized road trip. I wasn’t allowed to go on the trip because I was on some sort of “social probation” for debauched acts of some sort, I don’t recall. I was like anybody else in college, I had my clique or my gang. But on this particular weekend, I was sort of all by myself.
There was a guy we all knew, who was a few years older than I was, who I’ll call Dan (named changed to protect the guilty). Dan was a track & field athlete and was actually quite exceptional at his event. He had actually gone to an Olympics. Since he’d gone to the Olympics, his ego was through the roof. In short, he was a colossal asshole. He once came out and played a game of tackle football with us drinking schlubs. Trying to tackle him was like trying to tackle a horse. His knees came up to my chin and at one point his knees treated my skull like a boxer working the speed bag… There was never a weekend where I would have imagined I’d hang out with Dan the Olympian. But, I was on my own, which was never good in those days… there was always trouble lurking. Dan, who liked to say things like, “We’re going to the club tonight, I’ll probably have chicks all over me because I’m an Olympian, you guys will have to fend for yourselves,” burst into the living room where I lived. “Who wants to go to the Go-Gos tonight in Kansas City?” I had nothing else to do so I tepidly raised my hand. The next thing I knew, I was in a van hurtling toward Sandstone Theater – an outdoor venue, referred to in the trade as a “shed.”
I remember drinking a ton of beer in the ride up to KC. I was in the back of the van and wasn’t driving. Dan was driving which was good because he was really straight-laced. It was like going to a rock concert with a narcotics agent. He apparently had an Olympian friend who was romantically linked to Carlisle and she set him up with tickets. True to his word, there were tickets and to my surprise backstage passes waiting for us. We were down in the middle, some 20 rows back from the stage. This was September 7th, 1984 so the Go-Gos would have been touring in support of Talk Show, their third album. They had to be exhausted. I remember Belinda Carlisle danced maniacally. The place was probably 2/3’s full, so even I was dancing in the aisle, there was plenty of room… of course that may have been because we were surrounded by girls. It was a heavy female crowd… which was fine with me.
After the show we went backstage. There was one room that was full of adoring fans. Dan barged into a smaller, empty room where there was a food table – the supermarket trays of veggies and cheeses. I was too afraid to touch anything, thank God. I suddenly realized, we were in the Go-Gos dressing room. When the five band members came into the room, the looked at us with a combination of disdain and exhaustion. If Dan had been cooler maybe there might have been some partying to do here… but we were a bit of a band of misfits. Belinda, very diplomatically, introduced herself and asked us to give the band some space.
We quickly left the dressing room, to the delight of the rest of the band, (Jane Wiedlin, most notably, was aggressively pleased we were leaving), and probably secretly to the delight of Belinda Carlisle. We drove downtown to KC, as directed by Belinda to the Crown Center hotel, a posh spot in midtown. We hung around the bar. A couple hours later, cleaned up and looking lovely, Carlisle appeared. I remember thinking how classy she looked. She was so nice to us and we were nobody. Dan the Olympian was buying in order to impress Belinda so I started ordering Jack & Cokes 2 at a time. You gotta strike when the iron is hot, folks. Sitting there listening to Dan and Belinda chat about their mutual acquaintances who were in Europe somewhere I couldn’t help but think, I’m sitting here with this Rock Star… what should I say? What should I ask her?
I was barely 20. I was young and dumb. I wasn’t a huge Go-Gos fan so I had nothing to ask. All I could think to ask her was, “Do you know David Lee Roth?” That was the best I could come up with? Sheesh! She smiled politely but I think she had to be thinking, who is this moron? “Yes, he’s really intelligent.” She quickly turned back to Dan. I think that was all she said to me. Looking back, knowing what I know now, there’s so much I would have asked about touring, the grind of the road and the music business. But alas, all I could think to ask was a question about Van Halen’s lead singer. I blame the Jack & Cokes. There was no drugs or sex in this story, just stupidity.
You know, come to think of it… I probably would vote for the Go-Gos to get into the Rock Hall… they deserve it just for putting up with Dan, me and our band of rock and roll misfits in Kansas City on a hot September night in 1984.
Hats off to all of you, Ladies! And yes, God Bless the Go-Gos. Check out this Showtime documentary, its B&V approved!