The Most Punk, Irreverent, and Joyous of the Go-Go’s, According to Belinda Carlisle

“It was all about music, all about fun. We didn’t take anything seriously. We thought it was a girls’ club.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by: Melanie Nissen/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

In the early 1980s, the Go-Go’s redefined what women in the music industry could accomplish. After cutting their teeth in the early Los Angeles punk scene, vocalist Belinda Carlisle, lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey, guitarist Jane Wiedlin, bassist Kathy Valentine, and drummer Gina Schock pivoted to pop and ascended to mainstream stardom without deferring to a svengali or outsourcing their musicianship. They became the first all-women band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to have a No. 1 album with 1981’s Beauty and the Beat — a seemingly arbitrary statistic, especially for a record home to classic earworms “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but the feat hasn’t been duplicated in the 40 years since. (Nope, not even with the Chicks or Haim.)

The Go-Go’s have remained intermittently active in the subsequent decades— both with creative pursuits and in-band legal battles over the profits from their music. (They’re now reconciled.) Recently, they released a new single, agreed to a thoughtful documentary about their history called The Go-Go’s, and received their first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination for the 2021 class. Critics and fans alike felt the band deserved the honor 15 years ago, when they first become eligible; Carlisle agrees it’s about damn time. The singer, who now lives in Thailand, walked us through the best, worst, and most influential of the band.

The band’s best song

The lyrics to “Lust to Love” are amazing and it captures our attitude towards romance in those early days, when we were in our late teens and early twenties. And I love the chord progression, how it drops out in the beginning and then kicks in. It’s probably my favorite song to perform live.

Song you wish the Go-Go’s never recorded

It’s no secret to the band, but a lot of the fans would hate to hear me say “Turn to You.” I don’t like singing that song. I don’t like that song. It’s natural to have favorites and also have songs that you really don’t like to sing, but this probably is my least favorite Go-Go’s song. Other band members love it and we’ve done it live through the years, but it’s really weird for me to sing it because it’s a weird melody. And I don’t like the way I sing it. Maybe with somebody else singing it, it might be fine, but with me singing it, it just doesn’t feel right. But I mean, a lot of people love that song and the music video is hysterical. We were in drag.

Song that reminds you most of the band’s punk roots

“Fun with Ropes” was one of the earlier songs that never made it to Beauty and the Beat. I wish it did because it’s a really funny song, and it’s good. But of all the songs that we perform now that actually made an album it would be “Unforgiven,” another that has the power and angst that we would have had in the early days. “Lust to Love” captures it, too; that was one of the first songs we wrote. It’s funny because I work a lot solo, and whenever I try to do a Go-Go’s song, I just can’t capture the Go-Go’s. The Go-Go’s is five people. It’s not any one person.

But those were the best days. I mean, the struggle. I mean, we had no money! Like Gina says in the documentary: When the money and the drugs come along, that’s when it’s not fun. But back then it was fantastic. I’m really, really lucky to have experienced something like that. In all the different scenes in the world, Los Angeles had its own theme. New York might’ve been the junky sort of dark scene. London was angry and political. Los Angeles was various kinds of sunny. California was about art. It was different everywhere, but it was a great, great thing to be a part of.

Song that brings you the most joy performing

“Our Lips Are Sealed” came from such an organic place. I love the chord progression, which is unusual because Jane wasn’t a trained musician, so there were no rules in the early days when everybody was writing. I think that song is really unique in its structure and I love singing it because, melodically, it’s such a fun song to sing. And of course, when you get the reaction of the audience to the song when you do it live, it makes it even better. So that song brings me a lot of joy when I sing it. It was instant love with that and with “We Got the Beat.” But I do remember, in the very early punk days, Jane and I lived in a punk rock commune in an old apartment building in Hollywood, off of Hollywood Boulevard, called the Canterbury. It’s pretty infamous. And I remember going to her apartment and she was writing songs with masking tape on the frets of her guitar. “Our Lips Are Sealed” was one of them.

Most proto-riot grrrl song

Lyrically, “Tonite” sums up our attitude at the time, when it was a lot more innocent back then. I think it’s the Go-Go’s theme song, really. It encapsulated the spirit of the band at that time, with what we were all about as kids and the scenes. I think it’s inspirational: “There’s nothing there’s no one that’ll stand in our way / get dressed up and messed up / blow our cares away.” That was probably the most fun we had as a band before Beauty and the Beat hit the airwaves. It was pure. It was all about music, all about fun. We didn’t take anything seriously. We thought it was a girls’ club.

The energy in Los Angeles at that time was all about music, in the same way that the ‘70s were in Laurel Canyon. Everything was really, really exciting. We loved every minute of it. It was still very intimate, even though we had large audiences. It changed, of course, with the success of Beauty and the Beat. But before that album hit, those are my dearest memories of playing the clubs and going back and forth to San Francisco or New York. It was a great, great time in music.

Best song to blare from an open convertible in the summer

I remember the first time I heard “Our Lips Are Sealed” on the radio was in summer and I was in my boyfriend’s VW Bug. We had little shitty speakers in the car and it came on. It was like, Wow. It was summer and I remember the windows being down in the car. I think it really sums up California summertime, for sure.

Song that should’ve been a single

I think “Lust to Love” would’ve been a hit. We didn’t release it for Beauty and the Beat and we probably should have put it out, but we didn’t want to milk it too much. Even though we came out of the punk scene and those were our roots, we were still conscious about selling out. Well, we were considered sellouts anyway, because when people started hearing our music and we were getting better with the instruments and singing them, you could tell people were thinking Oh, those weren’t punk songs, those are pop songs. [Laughs.] But we still had that attitude, where we got approached for merging this and merging that, and we just didn’t do it because it just seemed cheap. So to milk everything out of that one album wasn’t the thing to do. But in retrospect, we probably should have done it because there were a lot of great songs on the album that could have been singles, “Lust to Love” in particular. I would have chosen that for number three.

Most MTV music video

“Our Lips Are Sealed” for sure. That was our first one. It was right before MTV started, and we didn’t realize what we were doing with the video was really important. We thought it was a waste of time, at the time. Everybody now knows that video in the States. It put the Go-Go’s on the map. It felt like California. And it beautifully sums up the essence of the band. We’re irreverent and self deprecating and you can see that in the video: We just didn’t give a shit, really. I think that’s one of the things about the Go-Go’s that people do respond to. It’s part of the magic of the band.

Favorite irreverent lyrics

Oh my God. Well, people don’t really pay attention to the lyrics of a Go-Go’s song. What they don’t realize is that there’s a real dichotomy between the lyrics and the music. Like with “Head Over Heels,” the lyrics are really dark if you pay attention to them. The most irreverent sort of song the Go-Go’s has is “Club Zero,” which is the newest single we did for the documentary. But “Fun With Ropes” is also really funny. It’s all about bondage. The lyrics are really, really funny and genius. That song has always been fun to sing because it does push the envelope. For a normal crowd, if there ever is a “normal” crowd at a Go-Go’s show, a normal person probably would be a little taken aback by the lyrics because of the subject matter. It’s tongue in cheek and keeping with the Go-Go’s, with what we’ve always been about and not really even thinking about it.

It’s everybody’s sensibilities rolled up into one ball. We do have the same humor and pretty much the same perspective on things, most of the time anyway. I think Gina is the backbone. She’s very, very funny, but very, very serious about that. Funny-serious. Charlotte is nurturing, talented. Jane is a lyrical genius. Kathy, a great musician.

Most irritating misconception about the band

That we were a fluffy pop band with no sort of depth. I think people sort of wrote off the music and didn’t listen to the lyrics. They don’t listen to what’s underneath it all. We were written off as a pop band. What was great about the documentary is that people don’t realize where the Go-Go’s came from. That’s the most interesting part of the story, coming out of that punk scene. The Go-Go’s could never have happened without it, and they couldn’t happen today because music is so much different. The band gained a lot of respect when people realized where we came from and where we put ourselves together. We did everything ourselves. That’s just not done these days, or if it is it’s very rare. I can’t think of anybody that’s come out of that.

Biggest revelation revisiting Beauty and the Beat, 40 years later

I didn’t realize what an incredible album it is because I can’t really be objective about it. [Laughs.] But listening to it now, it really is an amazing album. It was always really hard to listen to my voice because I felt that I didn’t sound great. But I now understand it’s part of the collective sound of that album; the songs are amazing and so are the harmonies. I’ve realized that’s why it’s considered to be an important album. It’s a signature Los Angeles early punk album. And it has that girl group thing, which I always loved and grew up with. Like, I listened to the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles constantly as a kid. We had that element too, the “bad girl” group. When you’re caught up in the recording and release process, you think, Okay, this is a good album or whatever. But having all this time from when we first recorded it, Beauty and the Beat is a great album full of great songs. There’s not one stinker in the bunch.

Significance of the Go-Go’s receiving its first Rock Hall nomination

There’s part of me that’s indifferent, for sure. It was always really annoying not to even be recognized, because I get ballots to vote on every year and I would just stare at them and go, “Are you kidding me?” Some of the names, I’m sorry, do not belong in there. So I would just write the Go-Go’s, check the box, and send it in. They kept sending me ballots! But it’s great to be recognized, and I think if it wasn’t for the documentary that never would have happened because people never knew our full story. But also there were some internal changes within the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself, which I think is a big part of it; John Sykes is the chairman now, and I know he’s a fan of the band. I think there was a lot of misogyny within the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a long, long time. Just by the ratio of men to women in it, that really says it all.

I think that we’re smart-asses by nature, and that somebody said something to somebody. That was always my theory: Who got drunk and said something really offensive to somebody in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? [Laughs.] Because that’s very possible. When people find out what the story of the Go-Go’s is and how we started and put ourselves together, it’s kind of obvious that we do belong in there. So if it happens, that would be amazing.

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