You know "We Got The Beat," "Vacation," and "Our Lips Are Sealed," but do you know the story of the all-girl band behind the hit songs? The Go-Go's were omnipresent in the early '80s, belting out the peppy pop jams that made millions dance, swoon, and sing along. Yet as fast at they rose to the top of the charts, they fell prey to a rock n' roll lifestyle of substance abuse, big egos, and in-fighting.
Behind the beaming smiles, cheeky tutus, and ear-catching choruses, The Go-Go's were hiding a dark side and a tender core. Yet theirs is not a cautionary tale for would-be rocker girls. It's ultimately one of survival, friendship, and keeping the beat alive. Here is their story.
1. The Go-Go's formed because of one of the worst rock shows in history.
Founding members Belinda Carlisle (lead vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, background vocals), Margot Olavarria (bass), and Elissa Bello (drums) were teenagers in the emerging punk scene of late 1970s Los Angeles. So, when the Sex Pistols hit San Francisco, L.A. punks flocked to the seminal band's show, frenzied in anticipation. However, it had been a rocky American tour, and by the time the Sex Pistols hit California, they were over it. Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten offered a sloppy, phoned-in performance, then the latter ended the concert by heckling the crowd with, "Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?"
In the in-depth 2020 documentary The Go-Go's, the band spoke extensively about their origins and beyond. Wiedlin recalled this pivotal moment, saying, "These guys are our heroes. And they kind of sucked!" Yet this disappointment made the idea of forming a band far less intimidating. In 1978, the foursome decided to become an all-girl band, like the Sex Pistols meets The Chantels. There was just one problem ...
2. The Go-Go's didn't know how to play their instruments.
To the LA punk scene, this didn't matter much. The rawness of the music was part of the appeal. However, the band leveled up when they brought in Charlotte Caffey, who had played piano since the age of 4 and had studied at a music school. When Carlisle first approached her, the fiery frontwoman was wearing a cocktail dress made out of a garbage bag. Caffey was in awe of her, and said yes to joining as a guitarist … even though she didn't play guitar. She played bass. In The Go-Go's doc, Caffey shared her rationalization, saying, "It's a couple of more strings. It'll be okay!"
Funny enough, the band later brought in Kathy Valentine to play bass. She only knew how to play guitar, but lied to get the gig. Determined to keep up with a band she admired, Valentine learned all their songs with the help of a cassette tape of a Go-Go's rehearsal, a borrowed bass, and a three-day cocaine binge. In the aforementioned documentary, Caffey remembered this as being "badass."
3. Creative differences led to some changes within The Go-Go's lineup.
The first major shake-up came in 1979, when Bello balked over the others' requests that she quit her survival gig to focus on the band. That's when Gina Schock joined. She was so dedicated to her drummer dream of playing rock arenas that she'd traveled from Baltimore to Los Angeles with "$2000 and two grams of coke," as well as a deep dedication to practicing daily. In The Go-Go's documentary, the women agree it was Schock who whipped them into shape as musicians.
Another major shake-up came after the band's first tour, when they considered becoming a pop band. A die-hard for the punk scene, Olavarria hated the idea. However, in the winter of 1980, she got sick and had to beg off a few gigs. Enter Valentine with her charismatic smile, tireless dedication, and willingness to play pop songs. This quintet clicked, so Olavarria was kicked out. Together, Carlisle, Caffey, Schock, Wiedlin, and Valentine would become known as the "classic Go-Go's line-up."
4. The Go-Go's first tour was a trial by fire.
The Go-Go's reputation grew in Los Angeles, thanks to their standing gig as the opening act at the legendary Whisky a Go Go. There, they played before English bands like Madness and The Specials, who were so impressed that they invited the women on a UK tour in 1980. The Go-Go's first manager, Ginger Canzoneri, was so determined to secure this incredible gig that she sold her car and pawned her jewelry to pay for their flights to London.
The band was elated to travel to the homeland of punk to perform. However, they soon realized it wasn't the dream they expected. Skinheads were turning up to the shows, and Nazi punks were not impressed by American chicks belting their first single, "We Got the Beat." They were catcalled, heckled, and spat upon. "They hated our guts," Schock said in a 2016 group interview with Billboard. "Belinda would walk offstage completely covered in spit. I remember walking offstage a lot of times and we’d all be crying."
It was tough, but they band was tougher. "We were determined. We were going to show those f***ers," Caffey recalled in The Go-Go's. "Every night, we'd get on stage and we'd be so belligerent in our playing, just being more of who we were."
5. Sexism made it difficult for The Go-Go's to get a record deal.
Canzoneri took advantage of the London tour and the band's booming LA reputation to reach out to record companies about signing The Go-Go's. Repeatedly, she was told in no uncertain terms that there was no faith that an all-girl band could make a hit album. The establishment didn't get their appeal. However, I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland III saw The Go-Go's as an act that would appeal to a new generation of music lovers. So he signed them, leading to the creation of their first album, Beauty and The Beat.
Still, they had to be scrappy about the record's production as they weren't stars yet. For the cover album's photoshoot, the band wore beauty masks and white towels as if enjoying a spa day. However, those towels weren’t cheap. Canzoneri bought them from Macy's in New York City, then promptly returned them once the shoot wrapped. Which means someone out there might have a piece of rock n' roll history in their linen closet.
6. The Police were big supporters of The Go-Go's.
We're talking the band, not the police force. Miles Copeland was also the manager of the UK New Wave act. So when The Police made a music video that came in $6000 under budget, Copeland shifted those funds to The Go-Go's to make their first music video, "Our Lips Are Sealed." The video followed the women frolicking around Los Angeles and trying to get arrested for trespassing in a fountain. The band thought that'd make an exciting end to the video. However, the actual police didn't pay attention to them, so the dramatic finale never came to pass. Still, the video blew up on MTV.
From there, The Go-Go's toured as the opening act for The Police, who were huge at the time. It was during this tour that The Go-Go's debut album hit #1 on the Billboard Charts, passing The Police's latest record along the way. Far from jealous, Sting celebrated, bringing them a bottle of champagne to reveal the good news. "It was actually very gentlemanly of them to do that," Wiedlin remembered in The Go-Go's, "and not kick us off the tour!"
7. The Go-Go's made history with their debut album, but fizzled fast.
Beauty and the Beat was one of the few debut albums in rock history to top the charts. This accomplishment put The Go-Go's on the same page as The Beatles and Elvis. Plus, they were the first—and remain the only—all-women band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to reach number one on the Billboard charts. Major moments would follow, like headlining their own tours; performing on American Bandstand, Solid Gold, and Saturday Night Live; and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone.
"We were in the pressure cooker of this really quick rise to fame," Caffey told People in a 2018 interview. "And it was really kind of cuckoo." Between 1981 and 1984, The Go-Go's released three albums, and by the time they toured for the third, Talk Show, they were on the brink of breaking up.
8. Publishing rights and personal drama brought The Go-Go's down.
Tensions rose once the pay disparity between members became known. Caffey, Wiedlin, and Valentine weren't only being paid for records and concerts, but also publishing rights for the songs that they wrote. This meant Carlisle and Schock were making way less, which sparked infighting. Things came to a head while the band was making Talk Show.
By 1984, all of The Go-Go's were pushed to the brink by the pressure not only to perform, but also to seem bubbly and beautiful to an insatiable public. All of them turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. In particular, Caffey was struggling with heroin addiction. Schock and Carlisle were feeling threatened about their place in the band, and Wiedlin was frustrated over the production of the deeply personal song, "Forget That Day." She'd asked to sing lead vocals on it. The group rejected the idea, which smarted.
Making matters worse, the group's new management team declared the publishing rights for this record would be split equally among its members. Having already put a lot of work into writing the lyrics for several tracks, Wiedlin rejected this proposal and ended up quitting the band over it. However, she was still contracted to do the promotional tour. This meant that the whole band had to smile and act as if everything was fine for the press and the public. In the documentary, Wiedlin referred to this as "Robo Go-Going," essentially going through the motions of being a fun and friendly girl group. To this day, Wiedlin refuses to listen to Talk Show.
9. The Go-Go's reunited and are still rocking.
After Wiedlin left the band, Carlisle and Caffey decided to break it up altogether. Each Go-Go went her own way, forming new bands or going solo. Yet they couldn't stay away for long. By 1990, Caffey, Carlisle, Schock, Valentine, and Wiedlin had reunited for a benefit concert. In 1994, they turned out the compilation album, Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's. By the end of the '90s, they were touring together regularly, and in 2001 they released their first studio album in 17 years, God Bless the Go-Go's.
They toured throughout the 2010s, yet difficulties continued to pop up. Schock and Valentine each sued the others at different points over contract disputes, and the latter briefly quit the band in 2013. However, they've ultimately embraced these ups and downs as part of their journey. After rejoining The Go-Go's, Valentine explained in 2018 interview with the Los Angeles Times, "We’re all complicated human beings, and we were married for a long time. Then we had an acrimonious divorce. But we had a kid, which was the Go-Go’s. And maybe the kid does something good, gets a Stanford scholarship or something, and the parents get back together and find out they loved each other all along."
Since then, the classic Go-Go's lineup has teamed up for the acclaimed documentary about their life and work. Plus, they planned a 2021 tour.
10. The Go-Go's hit Broadway and made (more) history.
On July 26, 2018, The Go-Go's debuted Head Over Heels, a jukebox musical-comedy that featured a slew of their songs. Loosely based on Sir Philip Sidney's 16th century prose romance The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, the show unfurls a fairytale about love, sexuality, and gender fluidity amid a rockin' royal court.
The stage musical received mixed reviews, and ran for only six months. However, it scored four nominations for the Outer Critics Circle Awards and two from The Drama League Awards. Plus, Head Over Heels proved historic with its casting. By playing the role of non-binary oracle Pythio, RuPaul's Drag Race star Peppermint became the first trans woman to originate a principal role on Broadway. As she's featured on the show's original Broadway cast recording, The Go-Go's had another groundbreaking album to add to their legacy.