Music History

The Go-Go's Keep Going

The Go-Go’s formed in Los Angeles in the midst of the city’s rising punk scene, three years before their debut album, 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, shot to the top of Billboard’s Top 200 on the strength of pop hits like “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat.”

“When the punk scene started [around 1976], it was all, like, gays and art students and women and people of color, and it was extremely inclusive, and it was extremely nurturing,” says Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin. “The Go-Go’s could have never existed without that scene, because we didn’t know what we were doing. And we were welcomed, and people were our friends, and it was a very friendly atmosphere. And it was a ton of fun.”

But things started to change by the decade’s end, and testosterone began to take over. “A lot of women backed away from the scene and became kind of disgusted with it as it changed, because it wasn’t a safe environment anymore for women,” Wiedlin says. “It got pretty violent. It was almost all guys, and there was a lot of internal physical fighting.”

The Go-Go’s still subscribed to a punk attitude by the time they recorded Beauty and the Beat, but there’s not a whole lot of evidence of their punk roots on the album. That was partly due to the album’s producer, Richard Gottehrer, who had worked with Blondie, Richard Hell and Link Wray. Gottehrer also co-wrote the Angels’ 1963 hit “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy,” originally recorded by the Strangeloves in 1965 and covered by Bow Wow Wow in 1982.

During the recording of Beauty and the Beat, Wiedlin says, Gottehrer asked the group to slow down some of the songs. And he had guitarist Charlotte Caffey play keyboard on a few.

“We loved the girl groups of the ’60s, [and] that’s what he came out of,” Wiedlin says. “We loved working with [Gottehrer]; we really wanted to make a good record, and we needed someone to guide that ship. He did a great job with what he had, because we weren’t the greatest musicians in the world. But we had some good songs. I think he pretty much brought his perspective to it while still allowing us to be the Go-Go’s.”

Gottehrer also refined the Go-Go’s sound.

“We were definitely a rough semi-precious gemstone, if I can call it that,” Wiedlin says, “and he smoothed us out a bit. The record is very pop. It took a long time for us to be strong and confident enough as musicians to really start sounding how we wanted to sound.”

Then-new guitarist Caffey also brought some pop sensibility to the band. She had been playing bass in the L.A. punk band the Eyes before joining the Go-Go’s.

“Charlotte was a little bit older,” Wiedlin says. “She’d actually studied music. She was a really amazing composer already, and, yeah, she brought a much more refined element to what we were doing than what we previously had.”

The Go-Go’s continued to refine their sound on 1982’s Vacation and 1984’s Talk Show before breaking up in 1985. Five years later, the classic lineup of Wiedlin, Caffey, singer Belinda Carlisle, drummer Gina Schock and bassist Kathy Valentine re-formed for a benefit concert and continued to perform shows on and off for more than two decades.

In 2010, the Go-Go’s were slated to embark on their Happily Ever After farewell tour, but those plans got derailed after Wiedlin fell off a twenty-foot cliff while hiking near her San Francisco home and injured her knee.

“It took a really long time to get better,” Wiedlin says. “It shocks me: You hear about football players getting these terrible ACL injuries like I had, and the thing about football players is, you see them out on the field two months later, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know what kind of wonder drugs they’re giving those guys.’ I had a limp for like two years after that. It’s kind of a big injury, especially when you do what I did, which is basically explode your knee. There was just nothing holding it together; it’s pretty gross. I feel really lucky that I didn’t die, though. I could have just as easily died.”

These days, Wiedlin, who now lives in Hawaii, says she’s doing well — unless she’s attempting something out of the ordinary, like going on long hikes over dry lava.

“We have a lot of live volcanoes here, so there’s always lots of lava action, and whenever the lava gets exciting, everybody wants to go see it, and I’m no exception,” she explains. Last month, Wiedlin and a friend went on just such an excursion, and it turned out to be a twelve-mile hike. “I was so sore at the end,” she says. “But if I avoid doing superhuman stuff like that, I’m fine.”

The Go-Go’s are now in the midst of their postponed farewell tour, with bassist Abby Travis in place of Valentine, who parted ways with the band in 2013. And while this marks the end of touring for the band, the Go-Go’s aren’t breaking up.

Still, Wiedlin says, when they first started discussing plans for the farewell tour, she thought she was going to be really sad.

“I admit I’m slightly bittersweet about it. The thing is, we’ve been doing this for 38 years, and we’ve toured almost every year during that time. And we’ve had a lot of fun, and we’ve brought a lot of fun to a lot of people.

“[But] it has to end at some point,” she concedes, “so I’ve shifted my attitude a bit, and now I just feel like what my goal is for this whole tour is just for every night to do the most kick-ass show I can and appreciate every moment of it and have a blast. If I do that, that’s going to transfer to the crowd, and instead of being sad, they should be happy.”

Thirtieth-Anniversary KOOL Koncert with the Go-Go's, Huey Lewis and the News, Kool & the Gang and the Fixx, 5 p.m., Saturday, August 20, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre, $10.50-$79.50. 
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon