They were America's sweethearts but they were also badasses who became the first all-girl group to write their own songs and play their own instruments to score a number one LP.
Photo by Carl Timpon
It wouldn't be unfair to call The Go-Go's one of America's most beloved yet underrated bands. In 1981, they became the first all-female group who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to score a number one album when their brilliant debut, Beauty and the Beat, climbed to the top of the Billboard charts. And yet, as band member Jane Wiedlin points out when we call her shortly before The Go-Go's begin their farewell tour, you won't find them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the 80s, when The Go-Go’s were releasing classic new wave bangers like “We Got the Beat," “Vacation," and “Our Lips Are Sealed," they were frequently and often reductively compared to another all-female band conquering the charts, The Bangles. “There was no way that just because the press tried to pit us against each other we would actually fall for that," Jane says today, defiantly. “Because obviously we were all pro-women. And actually, we've had a long history of collaborating with The Bangles. Vicky [Peterson, Bangles guitarist] even played in The Go-Go's when [our guitarist] Charlotte was pregnant." They also looked really fucking cool.
The Go-Go's, who actually emerged from the LA punk scene in the late 70s, split in 1985, the year after they released third album Talk Show. The band's singer Belinda Carlisle would become a huge solo star with hits like "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" and "I Get Weak," but the classic lineup—Wiedlin, Carlisle, guitarist Charlotte Caffey, bassist Kathy Valentine and drummer Gina Shock—have frequently reconvened over the years. In 2001, they released gutsy comeback album God Bless The Go-Go's, which featured an awesome single, "Unforgiven," co-written by and featuring Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, a longtime fan of the band. Like other groups from the era who really touched peoples lives—The B-52's, Blondie, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts—The Go-Go's remain a sizeable live draw, so why are they parking their tour bus for good? Jane chats candidly about this, the band's future, and what she hopes their legacy will be.
Noisey: Why is now the right time for the farewell tour?
Jane Wiedlin: Well, you know, we've been a band for 38 years and so many of our peers are either retired or dead. I feel like we've had a really, really great run. We're really lucky that we're still popular and people still wanna see us play live. But there's other things in life besides touring with The Go-Go's and I think it's just time to move on and try some new stuff. The band is not breaking up— we're just not going to be touring as a band any more. It was a little bit hard to come to this decision, but now that we've made it I'm actually pretty excited about the future and what this opens up for all of us.
There’s something powerful about taking ownership of the situation, rather than letting things diminish or fizzle out.
Yeah, we'd rather do this than wait until we're in our 70s and playing to crowds of hundreds instead of thousands. I think this is probably a really good way to do it, but there's definitely a bittersweet element to it. My personal plan is really to try and enjoy every moment on stage and try to bask in the gratitude of having had such an awesome career and awesome fans and awesome opportunities and lots of laughs. Did I say awesome enough?!
Why do you think The Go-Go's are still popular? Or do you try not to analyze it?
I never used to analyze it but a few years ago I sat down and thought, "OK, most people who have a great career, they usually have a mission statement." So then I thought, "Well, what would our mission statement be?" And I realized that what this band brings to the world is joy. It's an amazing thing to do, especially in these dark times. I think anyone who comes to a Go-Go’s concert knows they're gonna smile and dance and sing along, and then go away feeling really good.
How do you want the band to be remembered? Obviously there’s the fact you were the first all-female group who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to have a number one album.
Well, I don't mind that fact to be honest. There's tons of bands that people connect to and get moved by; any good band does that. But I would like to think we’ll be remembered as female pioneers. I think all too often music historians ignore that fact and ignore what we did. I mean, look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: we're never come close to even being nominated. I think what we did was really important, and the most poignant thing about it was at the time, we thought it would change everything. And obviously it really doesn't seem to have changed anything, because we're still waiting for this big wave of all-female bands who write their own songs to make it onto the charts.
In your essay for John Doe's book, Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk, you say that the history books "erase" The Go-Go's from that scene. Was that because the band became successful, or because you were women?
I think it's a combination, but probably more that we became successful and that we toned down our punk aspect. The thing is, if you come to see us live, you will definitely see our punk roots, but on our records it's more difficult to hear. On our last record [2001's God Bless The Go-Go's) we finally started sounding a bit little more like ourselves. People think artists are always so in control of their records and that might be true for artistic geniuse—people like David Bowie. But for a band like The Go-Go's, we weren’t virtuoso musicians and we didn't always have a firm grasp on how our guitar tones should be and other different elements of our sound. So it was hard sometimes to sound in the studio the way we wanted to sound. That's a really long way of saying, yes, we came from a punk background, yes, punk historians love to ignore us because our records didn't sound punk, and yes, there was also an element of sexism, in my opinion.
At the time, you had this kind of "America's sweethearts" image, but you actually partied really hard. Do you think a band could get away with that now, in the social media era?
I think it continues to happen, but the truth is normally exposed much more quickly these days. Let's say one of the kids from the Disney Machine breaks free and starts acting like a human, but they're still singing sweet and innocent songs, that’s gonna make everyone freak out! I mean, Justin Bieber springs to mind.
What's life on the road for The Go-Go's like now?
It depends on who you ask. Obviously across the board it's way more chilled—there are no three-day cocaine binges and that kind of nonsense any more. If there were, we'd all be dead. But you know, half the band is sober, and half the band is not. I'm on the not-sober side and I praise God that I never had an addiction, but I'll enjoy a couple of glasses of wine after a show. One of the things that really feeds that kind of behavior in musicians is the fact it's an incredible high being on stage and then you come off stage and you've gotta put that adrenaline somewhere. So why is anyone surprised that musicians go on these crazy drug and sex binges? It totally makes sense. On the other hand, when you get older, you just can't do that shit any more. It will kill you, so you have to be more careful.
You said at the start that The Go-Go's aren't actually breaking up. So could there be another album on its way?
I think a whole album would be really difficult because of the fact we are literally spread all over the world. But, you never know... a few songs? Possibly. We talk sometimes about different fun things to do. Charlotte has this idea of possibly recording the original songs we were writing in 1978. Oh my God, it would be so much fun to make a punk album!
The Go-Go's Farewell Tour
Aug. 2 - Clearwater, FL @ Capitol Theatre
Aug. 3 - Ft. Lauderdale, FL @ Broward Center for the Performing Arts - Au Rene Theater
Aug. 5 - Washington, DC @ Warner Theatre
Aug. 6 - Bethlehem, PA @ Sands Bethelhem Events Center
Aug. 8 - Boston, MA @ House of Blues
Aug. 10 - Ridgefield, CT @ Ridgefield Playhouse
Aug. 11 - Philadelphia, PA @ The Fillmore
Aug. 13 - New York, NY @ Central Park SummerStage
Aug. 14 - Asbury Park, NJ @ Stone Pony Outdoor Stage
Aug. 16 - Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall
Aug. 17 - Huber Heights, OH @ Rose Music Center at the Heights
Aug. 19 - Highland Park, IL @ Ravinia Festival Pavilion
Aug. 22 - Saratoga, CA @ Mountain Winery
Aug. 23 - Paso Robles, CA @ Vina Robles Amphitheatre
Aug. 25 - Phoenix, AZ @ Comerica Theatre
Aug. 26 - Las Vegas, NV @ Mandalay Bay Beach
Aug. 28 - Costa Mesa, CA @ Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Aug. 30 - Los Angeles, CA @ Greek Theatre
Nick Levine is a writer and editor living in London. Follow him on Twitter.