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From Punk Rock to Sugar Pop: Tracing the Music and Style of the Go-Go's

Drugs, boys, over-accessorizing, and sweet sweet tunes: this is the Go-Go's story.

When I think of the Go-Go's I don't really think “Punk.” I think of pastels and America's sweethearts and puffy shoulder pads. Five young women singing about “having the beat,” which I think is what happens after the rhythm gets you—hey, GLORIA WARNED US, GUYS – who wrote songs called “Vacation,” the video for which saw them in lip-syncing in bathing suits on matching water skis doing choreographed arm movements. Wait, I feel like I'm being pithy and snobbish, let's start again.


The Go-Go's are fucking amazing. As their Wikipedia proudly states they are the first, and, to date, only all-female band to play their own instruments and write their own songs to top the Billboard charts. Their first album, Beauty and the Beat was number one for six weeks and went triple platinum. It’s universally acclaimed. They've sold over seven million records. Their single, “Speeding,” off their second album was used in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, arguably the teen film that birthed the idea that teen films should show teenagers as they really are, a notion Hollywood still profits from to this very day. The Go-Go's reformed in 1999 and still tour. In fact they've played shows every year since 2010. You could have seen them this summer. I repeat, the Go-Go's are fucking amazing.

But back in the 80s, in the midst of all that success and with their white picket fence public image, the Go-Go's were doing drugs and sleeping with male groupies and falling out with each other over and over again. As guitarist/vocalist Jane Wieldlin said, “We were cute and bubbly. We were also crazy twisted, drug addict sex fiends.” They were also wearing a lot of Lycra and they were wearing it well.

Belinda Carlisle grew up fitting pretty perfectly into the blonde cheerleader stereotype, living in California's BBQs ‘n’ backyard pools suburbia, and spending a lot of time at the beach. But she was also the eldest of seven with a rebellious streak and like all good rebels she’s aid she tried to make life as hard as she could for her parents. She left home at 19 after seeing the cover of Raw Power by Iggy Pop, an album that introduced her to a whole other world, and the following summer she became a punk, wearing trash bags, berets, kohl, and band pins. She decamped to Hollywood—for the punk not the silver screen—and spent a short stint playing drums for The Germs under the name Dottie Danger.


That's her third from the left.

It was at a show in Hollywood that she met Jane Wiedlin, also a punk. They became best friends, whiling away two years on cocktails and clubbing, and then in May 1978 they decided to start their own band. Their motivation was mainly meeting boys—classic— hoping for little more than to be the coolest punks in the scene. At the time Jane had aspirations of working in fashion:

“I was studying design and was working in a factory in downtown Los Angeles, in a sweatshop, basically, and I was a pattern maker. I remember taking my patterns and writing lyrics as they came to me, all over the patterns, which I wish I had today, because that would be a super thing, a piece of memorabilia to own.”

Now I'm picturing clothes covered in writing, like Angelina's wedding dress, or Carrie Bradshaw's newspaper print dress, and I can't get those images out of my brain.

go-go's jane

Oh hi Jane.

They recruited their friends Margot Olavarria and Elissa Bello to play bass and drums and started the Go-Go’s (they almost called themselves the Misfits—wow). They had no idea what they were doing. Jane couldn't tune her guitar let alone play it, and Belinda couldn't sing. It was a rough, raw, hot mess. A journalist said of them at that time, “The Go-Go’s are to music what botulism is to tuna.”

Their first show was at the Masque Club in Hollywood, the basement of a porno theatre, which was notorious for its crappy toilets that would break all the time and flood the place with foul-smelling liquid. Clothes-wise they were going for full on California punk. Belinda had short dyed black hair and wore a huge T-shirt on stage usually with patterned socks and high heel pumps, while Jane wore a lot of lime green and loved her pink Lycra trousers.


Their memories of their first show aren't great. In an interview with VH1's behind the music Belinda said of it, “We played three songs, the second song twice and I remember people were either laughing hysterically or looked absolutely mortified.” Not that they were put off, they simply made it their mission to get better. They started taping their shows to learn from them, which was actually just sort of depressing: Belinda realized she sounded terrible and desperately needed singing lessons. In September of 1978 they asked Charlotte Caffey. who could actually play her guitar, to join the band. She said yes instantly, and they started to make the first signs of progress. They were still focusing on their partying though and they moved to a run down apartment complex called The Canterbury on the crappy side of Hollywood; it’s nickname was Disgraceland. They'd get drunk all the time and created The Booty Club, which was basically calling up boys just for their bootay.

Jane reminisced about this time in an interview: “The Canterbury was completely filled up with punk rockers. The other people living in the building with us were people on SSI [which] was money you could get if you could prove to the government that you were crazy homeless people living on welfare… There was this bag lady, she was crazy, she had to be in her 80s or 90s. This is so awful, but it’s funny, too. When she died, I was sad that she died—I mean, she was this little old lady—but face it, people die. And as a punk rocker, I snuck into her apartment and stole some of her clothes. I still have one of those dresses.”


Everything really started happening for them in 1979 when they sacked their drummer and replaced her with Gina Schock, pictured above with Jane, in a Go-Go's T-shirt. (Is it gauche to wear your own band t-shirt, or is it really, really punk?) I also like Jane's intense eyebrow shape and blingy necklace. Gina was an extremely skilled musician. She made the Go-Go's good, partly because she encouraged them to rehearse more than once a frickin' month. Seriously ladies, come on. (Click here to hear what they sounded like live back in 1979.)

Jane explained to The AV Club why Charlotte made so much of a difference to their sound. “First of all she was a real musician; she’d gone to musical college, studied piano, she knew how to read music, all this stuff that we didn’t know how to do. But she also brought with her a pop sensibility she wasn’t afraid to show. I’d grown up loving pop, but once the punk movement started, I was fully committed to punk, even though of course, there still was always that pop-punk blend like Buzzcocks, which we worshipped. Anyway, Charlotte comes in, and Charlotte and I immediately click on a writing level, and immediately start writing together.

“The first thing we write is “How Much More,” which is still one of our all-time poppiest songs. After that, it became a mixture of pop and punk, and I think by the time we made our record… I mean, nowadays, everyone would hear those records and go, ‘There’s nothing punk about it,’ but believe me [Laughs.], at the time, it was still punky. Then the media came up with the term “new wave,” which described poppier but new music that came post the beginning of the punk phase.”


Their sound was becoming tighter and faster and more structured, but they were still kicking around in their punk gear, Charlotte with her blonde bob, shirt and tie, Belinda with even shorter hair was still a fan of baggy jumpers and leggings. Meanwhile Jane had discovered Doc Martens. In photographs of this time taken backstage in shitty venues they look like rowdy kids, staring with dead eyes down the lens, messing around: They're a gang you want to be a part of.


Jane doing the praying pose links up nicely to when she played Joan Of Arc in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure.

go-go's belinda carlisle

Note the overalls on Jane, and the pedal pushers, and the now-blonde Belinda Carlisle. I feel like when she went blonde it was the end of their punk style profile. Here's a close up of her blonde bandana and jewelery because I know you're going to want to see that: And look, Belinda really liked pedal pushers and peasant tops for a while.

In December 1979 the Go-Go's went to the UK for the first time to support Madness and Busboys. They were excited about it till they stepped off the plane and realized what Britain was like, and how little their money was going to go. They were living on £2.50 a day, stealing milk from people's front steps in the morning, and drinking cough syrup because they couldn't afford beer. The shows themselves were pretty horrendous. They were playing to skinheads, who hated these Californian punk sellouts. They were constantly dodging bottles as they played, and every night Belinda would walk off stage drenched in spit.


The tour lasted three difficult months, and they were obviously relieved to get home. Belinda described that time in an interview with The Arts Desk. “We quit our jobs, sold everything to come over to the UK, thinking we’d go back to the States big rock stars. We were living in a wreck of a house, with the Belle Starrs and some of the other 2 Tone bands. We lived on white bread and Nutella. Stiff Records did not like the Go-Go’s for whatever reason, but Madness pleaded with Stiff to release “We Got The Beat.” They did us a favor. We came back to the US a few months later and 50 pounds heavier, each of us, don’t know how that happened.”


I love their style around this time, they were wearing T-shirts and shirts covered in cartoons—Daffy Duck and Batman, and oodles of glittery eyeshadow and glossy lipstick. Their bottom halves were all party too, stripy trousers, check skirts, and polka dots. Basically they were throwing as many patterns and random earrings at themselves and seeing what would stick. Answer: all of it.

“We Got The Beat” went on to become a top 40 single in the US but they still couldn't get a record deal. They would go to meetings with label bosses who would explain, pathetically, “We can't sign you, you're all girls.” After months of this they finally got an offer from IRS Records, a small new label who fell in love with their energy, excitement, and their colossally massive hooks.


Being on small label meant they had little money behind them and had to cut corners wherever they could. Perhaps the most famous and successful example of their thriftiness was their look for the cover of their debut EP. In the shot they're wearing towels and face masks—the classic sleepover wardrobe—but this was only because they couldn't afford to buy new clothes. They went out, bought the towels, put them on, took the photo and then returned the towels to the shop. Someone, somewhere, owns the towels the Go-Go’s are wearing on this cover. Here's the cover and an untouched photo from that shoot…


One thing that was always important to the band was to employ as many women as possible. Belinda explained to The Arts Desk, “We were a completely female operation, we didn’t have a Svengali, we were self-taught, we wrote our own songs, there were even female roadies, female management, we never sold out, actually, everything was totally authentic.”

As they became more successful and people finally started to take notice of their songs they became frustrated with bassist Margot. Once upon a time she had given them attitude and punk credibility, but in this new dawn of family friendly Go-Go's there wasn't really space for that. Margot disagreed with where they were headed, and with the other members of the band burning with steely pop ambition, Margot had to go-go. They replaced her with Cathy Valentine, a woman who already had a hard rocking profile. Jane explained, “She had a lot of intrigue about her, she knew all these famous people when we were still little gutter rats.”


Their first proper single in the US was “Our Lips Are Sealed” which was written by Wiedlin and Terry Hall of The Specials. The Go-Go's were playing at The Whisky on Sunset Strip and The Specials came to see them and asked them to be the opening act on their UK tour. Jane and Terry started a romance, despite him being engaged to another girl. After the tour he stayed in touch with Jane writing her endless tormented love letters, one of which contained lyrics to “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Jane finished writing the song in her childhood bedroom at her parent’s house and it became their first US single from their debut album, landing them a national club tour and a support slot with fellow IRS Records act, The Police. They were getting more and more radio play till pretty soon they were playing in front of 30,000 people a night.

Their second US single was a re-recorded version of “We Got The Beat,” which was released in January 1982. This track was noticeably more poppy than anything they'd done before and it quickly became a favorite on the LA dance scene. At their first show, after it's release at the Starlight in LA, the line to see them wrapped round the block. Brian Wilson became a fan, and in March 1982 “Beauty And The Beat” became the number 1 album in America and stayed there for six weeks, scoring the band a Grammy nomination.

the go-go's

Here they are at the Grammys in 1982. As you can see with their new found success they decided to conduct a Go-Go's makeover, re-modeling themselves as girl-next-door sweethearts, pink and pristine, sweet and innocent.
See? I'm talking ra-ra skirts, bright colors, pearls, fluffy highlighted hair and everyone in high heels. The more metallic, the better.


This looks like one of those famous daytime parties women were always having in the 80s, with sailors posing on plinths by the windows. Classic Tuesday afternoon fun.


Or what about this day (on the right), when they all HAD TO WEAR SOMETHING RED OR THE WORLD WOULD END? I think this shot on the right is is my favorite picture of them from their makeover period. So cute. I swear there's a photo of me aged about six looking very similar to Jane after rifling though my dress up box and stealing my mum's make-up.

People were always making them do weird cute/kooky poses, sometimes they went along with it and looked kind of happy to be dorking around:

Like here, where Jane is wearing SO MANY BRACELETS.
Or here where they're doing a masterclass on 80s color blocking and off the shoulder sweaters. Why are they riding a weird metal bar though?


But sometimes they just looked super pissed to have to stand there and pose with dumb balloons. (Gina and Charlotte didn't get the memo that this was supposed to be a moody balloon photo).

The girls were keeping up a squeaky clean front, but in reality they were still foul-mouthed beer-guzzling girls. Their main priority was selling records, so in interviews, photo shoots and at shows they played it sweet, but shuddering analogue video exists as evidence of the real Go-Go's (a.k.a. normal women not the Perfect Pop Princesses they felt their audiences required). In it you see Belinda and Cathy backstage after a show in Atlanta, completely with a roadie and some male groupies, with Belinda instructing the viewers at home, “If you can't get sex then the perfect thing for you to do is jack off”.


In an interview with The Gay UK, Carlisle explained how much easier it was to have a perfect public persona back in those days: “We couldn’t get away with now what we could back then. There’s just no way, there’s too many cameras around. There’s still lots of drugs but back then it was a bit more innocent and I thought I was invincible.”

Fame caused them all to freak out. Majorly. Charlotte grew more reclusive: for years she was a hardcore heroin addict, while the other members of the band were somehow completely unaware. Born into Hollywood royalty, her dad was a director of TV shows including Chips and The Dukes Of Hazzard. Charlotte felt intense pressure to be someone and was doing drugs in her early 20s, long before the Go-Go's. By 1982 she was injecting and would try and balance out the heroin with cocaine. Perhaps the reason the other members of her band didn't notice is because they were also developing troublesome habits. In fact it became hard to distinguish who the one with the problem was because they were all doing it: Belinda had a $300-a-day cocaine habit and kept a shoebox of it in her wardrobe, even doing some on Christmas day before church with her family.

Here is a photo of them during their Cocaine-At-Christmas period.

The drugs didn't help with the in-band bickering over those classic famous people conversation topics such as “Who is earning more?” and “Who is more famous?” It started to bug them that Belinda was always the one people wanted to interview and slowly they began socializing with different groups of people. Their second album, Vacation was sorta slapdash. Charlotte wasn't really present for most its creation, and since she was a crucial factor in the band’s songwriting process her absence is keenly felt on this album. It was released in August 1982 and stalled at number 8 in the charts. At the time Jane was all, “Whatever, they just don't GET IT,” but she’s since said she thinks the album isn't very good. Nevertheless at the time they were so wrapped up in their private band dramas that they didn't realize, or care.


After their manager told them they weren't allowed drugs on tour they ignored her and she quit, just disappearing from their lives one day. They began to hate their audiences, with Jane telling VH1, “Oh not another goddamn show for another god damned 10,000 geeky fans, who needs it? We'd be out there smiling but in our heads we were thinking I can't wait till the show is over so I can go get laid or go get chalk, or whatever it was.”

Their on stage style around this time was more grown up, with Belinda trying out this spangly sequined t-shirt that I'm certain my mum wore to a New Years Eve party when I was two.


Jane was also exploring the exciting world of fabrics that shimmer, for instance this peachy orange metallic dress. The other women favored more classic “rock” looks: sleeveless vests and t-shirts and a nod to Nigel Tufnel with their haircuts. I feel like they were all experts in that famous hair technique known as “teasing.” It was the 80s; you had to be.


Wow there are so many shades of neon pink in this photo, I need shades. Was it really necessary to also have them lit from behind with a pink neon light?

I think we should also discuss the time Belinda wore this green satin dress. I like her facial expression which explicitly says: “Well what? You got something to say about my leprechaun prom dress and matching gloves?!”


Also was powder back then really heavy? Their faces are all so pale in comparison to the rest of their skin. Actually, this is how I look in all photos from around 2002 when I started wearing Touche Eclat and basically painted it all over myself.


What's that? You want to see a photo of Jane in a top hat? Well if you insist…

The hair stylist must have seen Jane's hat and realized she would have to make the rest of the band's hair equally massive. This look is all very Suddenly Susan/Working Girl.

Still, they look pretty wholesome. They were good at covering up their off-stage naughty behavior. “It was all one big outrageous moment blurred into another outrageous moment but I don’t have them any more so much. We were in our early 20s, we were famous, we were rich, we had no responsibilities, we weren’t married, so we went wild, as we should, and we took advantage of the circumstances,” Belinda Carlise told The Gay UK.

During the filming for the video to the lead single of “Vacation,” you know, the jet ski one, they were pretty drunk. This is how Jane told it to Songfacts:

“We were at the A&M sound stage, and it was a big budget video, because by that time we were really popular. It was fun, but it was a way of working that we weren't accustomed to. I remember it being a 14-hour day and about eight hours into it we all were getting really bored and restless, so we started drinking. But by the time they actually shot the scene where we're on the water skis, skiing one-handed and waving and stuff, we were all really looped. It's so funny, if you look at us, look in our eyes in those parts, we're all like cross-eyed drunk.”

Watch closely…


In 1983 they went to the UK to record their third album, Talk Show. This was also around they time they got really in to very brightly colored eyeshadow.


During the writing of the album Jane asked to sing lead on a song she had written and the rest of the group said no. DENIED. Belinda explained, somewhat insensitively, that she was the lead singer and that's just the way it was. Jane was enraged, although her anger was soothed slightly when she discovered that since she and Charlotte did most of the songwriting on the first and second LPs they had made the most in royalties. Gina called their accountant and asked how much each of them made in the band that year and on finding out she made less than Jane and Charlotte she was livid and asked the two big earners to divide all income equally.

Jane said they would do it on the fourth album as Talk Show had just been finished and she'd written most of it. This lead to pretty violent physical fights and Jane left the band in October 1984. Charlotte was left lost and hopeless, missing her song writing buddy. She checked herself into rehab and finally managed to quit her darkest of excesses, inspiring Belinda in the process who also went into recovery. The downside of their new drug-free clarity was Belinda realized the band wasn't going to work any more.Together with Charlotte she told the others that the dream was over. Kathy was pretty mad at the fact she'd had to put up with them being strung out all those years and now they were finally clean but the Go-Go's were finished.

After the split Belinda had an insanely successful solo career, with several singles topping the charts worldwide, recording an entire album in French, with some of her music videos getting directed by Diane Keaton—all despite the fact she was back on drugs, including prescription pills, hallucinogens and, most damagingly, cocaine. In fact she was still doing cocaine well into her 40s, when she did her Playboy spread. She has said of it, ‘You

don't have to be stick thin and blonde and in your twenties to be sexually viable. Some of the photos are really airbrushed.’ My friend said, ’God I wish I had a butt like that,’ I said, ‘So do I, cos it's not mine.’” Eventually she quit the drugs completely, discovered yoga and went to India a whole bunch. Now she lives in Paris and is sober and serene.

Charlotte meanwhile wrote a hit song for Keith Urban, and a rock opera about Linda Lovelace, and Gina has written songs for Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. Jane had a moderately successful solo career, but was pretty happy when the Go-Go's reunited in the 90s. She’s super keen that the public know the whole story: “We have always had a compulsion to try to make people aware we did exist before we became America’s sweethearts. We came from a very, very specific scene that we were an integral part of. People can call us pop wusses all they want, but basically, we started that band with no experience, no education, no hopes of getting anywhere. To me, it’s a real American success story that we got somewhere, and we like to honor our roots.”


They're the best. Just look at Jane wearing two belts and hanging onto that wall for dear life.

Elizabeth Sankey is also a talented musician and one-half of the band Summer Camp. She's on Twitter - @sankles.