Movies

Review: The Go-Go's

Still got the beat.

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Let us now praise the Go-Go's, glittering jewels of the New Wave moment of the 1980s.

Praise has been in meager supply since the band's first album, Beauty and the Beat, streaked up the charts in 1981, fueled by the irresistible hits "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "How Much More," and "Skidmarks on My Heart" (all heavily assisted by the newborn MTV). Today, after nearly 40 years of eligibility for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Go-Go's remain un-inducted.

In the beginning, there was a certain amount of critical skepticism as to whether the group – chief songwriters Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar and keyboards), Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitar), and Kathy Valentine (bass), along with singer Belinda Carlisle and drummer Gina Schock—actually played the instruments heard on their records. But they had started out on the tough LA punk scene; and as a terrific new Showtime documentary, The Go-Go's, irrefutably demonstrates—in period footage from old club gigs and big arena shows—they definitely could play. "We got onstage and happened to be a group of women who really kicked ass," Schock says.

Some notable fellow musicians were impressed. "They had the most important ingredient in musicianship, which is feel," says Stewart Copeland, drummer for the Police, which recruited the Go-Go's as an opening act for a 1981 tour. "They established a groove that worked, that you could lock into. They just created something that exploded on the stage." A little earlier, the English ska group Madness had the Go-Go's open for them on a UK tour. "Their musicianship was second to none," says band member Lee Thompson. "They taught me a thing or two."

The Go-Go's' heyday was brief, for the usual reasons. Despite their sunshiny sound, the group had some dark problems. Carlisle was plagued by decades-long drug and alcohol issues (she recalls the group's "cross-eyed drunk" performance on Saturday Night Live), Caffey was a full-blown heroin addict, Wiedlin was bipolar, and Schock had a heart condition that eventually required surgery. But in the end it was the music business that tore them apart. Their smash-hit debut album kept them on the road for a year, leaving little time to write new material for their second record, Vacation, which got over mainly on the strength of its title track. Their third LP, Talk Show, featured two classics, "Head Over Heels" and "Turn to You," but it didn't crack the Top 10. The magic was leaking away.

But the Go-Go's' main problem, which proved insurmountable, was money. Songwriters Caffey, Wiedlin, and Valentine got most of the song-publishing checks, and Schock—a great drummer and the band's lowest-paid member—grew increasingly resentful. A separate financial injustice propelled Wiedlin out of the group at the end of 1984; Caffey and Carlisle bailed shortly thereafter. And that was it. The Go-Go's stopped speaking to each other for the next five years. "Money wrecks everything," Schock says.

There have been several reunions since that time, though, and the best of them—like a 2001 concert in New York's Central Park, which launched a comeback album called God Bless the Go-Go's—have shown that the old songs still dazzle, and that the band still has the power and precision to put them over onstage. The Showtime doc—a blend of new interviews and old footage wonderfully well-assembled by director Alison Ellwood—is a rousing tribute to the first self-contained female band (they write, they play) to score a number-one album. God bless 'em.

(The Go-Go's premieres on Showtime at 9pm Friday, July 31.)

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  2. Saw them live in 1984.

    And that’s all I have to say about that.

    1. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

    2. It’s better than seeing John Denver dead in 1997.

      1. It’s better than seeing John Denver dead in 1997.

        Now that’s a coincidence. I saw HIM live– believe it or not– in 1995. Radio City.

        And I’m not a heavy concert-goer.

        Think I’ll buy some lottery tickets today.

        1. Sounds like you are a messenger of doom, at least for musicians.

  3. Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedland were the Ginger and Mary Ann of New Wave. Wiedland was adorable.

    1. +1 Joan of Arc

      1. your stepmom is cute though … remember when I asked her to prom?

    2. Mary Ann. Always Mary Ann.

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  5. Despite their sunshiny sound, the group had some dark problems…decades-long drug and alcohol issues…a full-blown heroin addict…bipolar

    Unfortunately those are often the ingredients that fuel the creativity and power in the first place.

  6. Jane Wiedlin and Susanna Hoffs fueled many fantasies back in the 80s.

    1. Include Patty Smyth and Samantha Fox for me.

      1. Samantha Fox is still in my cassette collection.

        1. I have the Touch Me EP on vinyl with the lingerie cover.

          1. beautiful. i always wanted to thank whoever made her a thing.

            1. Page 3 of The Sun, where she posed topless at 16.

              1. Monty Python audition.

  7. >>the Go-Go’s remain un-inducted

    to the extent it matters that’s bullshit.

    GoGos blew it up live. and so much yum.

  8. Good band, some good tunes.
    But they don’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were a pop band. (that hasn’t stopped a lot of other acts from getting inducted, I know.)

    1. Highly recommend watching the Central Park show linked in last graph above…

      1. I took your advice… and it was a fun watch. It brought two thoughts to mind:

        1. The drummer had a point. If anything defines the Go-Go’s sound it is Belinda Carlisle’s lead vocals and the driving 80’s new wave drum sound. The guitars and bass are pretty generic – it is the drum sound that is instantly recognizable.

        2. Their songs are pretty simple and not really that great outside of their initial incarnation and performance. After “We got the beat” there was still a lot of that concert left, so I skipped ahead to see what the closer was. It was markedly different – much more musically interesting right off the bat. Very similar in new-wave style, but also more complex. What is that.. I know that…. Wait! That’s not the Go-Go’s! That’s the Ramones! (a band that I would have been much less interested in at the time, I must confess) So yeah, that performance actually underscored why they are not a HoF group.

    2. Ahem-

      the first, and to date only, all-female band that both wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to top the Billboard album charts.[2] They are widely considered the most successful all-female rock group in history.[3]

      They pretty much broke open the doors for female artist to be considered something more than eye candy or a vehicle for someone else’s designs, even beating Joan Jett to the punch. They opened up the possibility that women could rock and on their own terms. If that is not Hall of Fame material, nothing is.

      Even better: as the current Red Guard rewrite history of how much more sexism women face now compared to their enlightened view-

      “Well, yeah, except for the most successful girl band ever, I suppose you have a point…”

      Checkout Urgh! A Music War. They could lay it down as well as any other band from that period.

      1. They pretty much broke open the doors for female artist to be considered something more than eye candy or a vehicle for someone else’s designs, even beating Joan Jett to the punch. They opened up the possibility that women could rock and on their own terms. If that is not Hall of Fame material, nothing is.

        Nice writeup. Many people at the time were saying the same thing.

        I think there are other groups that might have a bone to pick, even if they were not “all female”. Jefferson Airplane, for one. Grace Slick surely rocked far harder than the Go-Go’s and I have never thought of her work as being “eye candy” or on someone else’s terms. Or how about Tina Turner? Janice Joplin?

        Certainly the role of lead singer / front man for a rock band was open to women at the time, and had been so for … well, forever.

        I suppose the unique thing about the Go-Go’s on that front was the instrumentalists, particularly lead guitar. But their sound was pretty vanilla when it comes to the guitar/bass/keyboards. The drums are pretty hard driving. But they are definitely a vocal-driven group, and you would not put them in the category of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (Prince and the Revolution) from that same time period as instrumentalists. Bonnie Raitt?

        There’s a fairly extensive list of “rocks harder” women from earlier, and a list of instrumentalists … but nobody else put them all in one band together at the same time. People definitely claimed that it was groundbreaking at the time…but I never bought that. The groundbreaking thing for me was that somebody actually assembled an all girl band that was not a novelty act – not the fact that such a thing was possible. But maybe I’m just more cynical about music producers.

        1. the first, and to date only, all-female band

          If it was easy to do, certainly there would have been another all-girl group of the same particulars to top the charts in the intervening 40 years, no?

          And their accomplishments certainly don’t detract from several other talented women in rock, but come on: they are, at heart, a punk band (and viewed through a certain lens, maybe the most successful punk band ever). Are you going to hold The Ramones to the same standards of musicality and musicianship? Pffft!

          I’m not even a huge fan, but the mere fact they accomplished something no other girl group has before or since speaks for itself.

          And again, if that is not “groundbreaking”, nothing is.

          1. Sorry, my point wasn’t that it was not difficult to make a number one album, or that their status as an all girl band with a number one album is not unique…

            My point was that “all girl band” is not a thing. There really is no reason to say “every musician in this group must be a woman” other than as a gimmick. And it is a gimmick with no demand. Nobody cares. Nobody buys an album because the drummer and base player are the first all-Filipino rhythm section in a chart topping ska band. The music is either good or it isn’t. Beyond that, any hook you can find to get noticed is probably a good thing.

            It isn’t actually “groundbreaking” because there was no ground there to be broken. The reason there have not been hundreds of follow-on groups growing int the fertile soil of the ground the broke is that nobody cares if they are all women, or if they have a dude playing bass, or any of it. They don’t want all women, and they don’t want no women. They care if the music speaks to them and if they have a charismatic and entertaining stage presence. That’s about it.

    3. that was basically what I wanted to say. They are nowhere near “hall of fame” status, even as a pop band.

      But that does not seem to matter for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

      HoF status should be reserved for the elite. The best of the best. You have to at least be among the very best of your own era to be a hall of famer.

      Who was better, Go Go’s or other artists on this list of albums from the same year as their classic best:

      AC/DC – For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)

      Black Sabbath – Mob Rules

      Def Leppard – High ’N’ Dry

      Foreigner – 4

      Iron Maiden – Killers

      Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – I Love Rock’N’Roll

      Journey – Escape

      Mötley Crüe – Too Fast For Love

      Motörhead – No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith

      Stevie Nicks – Bella Donna

      Ozzy Osbourne – Diary Of A Madman

      Pretenders – Pretenders II

      Rolling Stones – Tattoo You

      Rush – Moving Pictures

      Van Halen – Fair Warning

      ZZ Top – El Loco

      The Police, Ghost in the Machine

      U2, October

      The Cure, Faith

      Duran Duran, Duran Duran

      Depeche Mode, Speak & Spell

      The Human League, Dare

      Kraftwerk, Computer World

      Soft Cell, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

      Men at Work, Business as Usual

      The Cars, Shake It Up

      There are loads more, but let’s just stop there. Not even all of this list should be in the HoF. But who is Go-Go’s gonna displace over an entire career?

      Well, probably Men at Work. Human League? Soft Cell…

      That’s about it.

      And I didn’t even include other names,

      Devo, Elvis Costello, Oingo Boingo, Adam and the Ants, Stray Cats, Talking Heads, Eurythmics, Grace Jones, Ramones, Spandau Ballet, Joe Jackson, Prince, Gary Numan, Thompson Twins, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, David Byrne, Billy Squier, Genesis, …..

      It is pretty hard to make a case that the Go-Go’s were in the top 100 bands/artists operating at the time, let alone that they are among the elite of the elite.

      Don’t get me wrong… that was a great album and I definitely would have enjoyed being a post-show groupie at the time. But even in a watered down HoF like the Rock and Roll hall of fame, that’s a pretty weak choice.

      1. And all of that is with due respect to Kurt Loder who probably has forgotten more about the music of that era than I will ever know.

        1. Thanks. Btw, James Taylor is in the Hall of Fame…

          1. You’re welcome.

            And what an awesome non-sequitur. I suppose James Taylor is an example of “Not Rock and Roll”? He’s kinda folk-rock inspired pop, maybe? Or folk-inspired pop rock?

            Either way, I’d put JT in the HoF before the Go-Go’s. I saw them both in the 80’s – JT was unquestionably the better show. And I’d guess that he’s a more influential artist – although that’s a tough call in the era of Post Malone and Drake. Yeah.. I have a kid in middle school. I’m not sure that much of what he listens to even counts as music. Which is awesome in it’s own right.

            The stereotype is dad doesn’t like or understand your music. I was worried that my kids would never experience that. Music didn’t change all that much over most of the last 30 – 40 years. I can listen to popular music from the 60’s all the way into the new millennium and despite some style differences, the form is basically the same. Well, that finally changed, just in time for my kids to have their own “music”. Rap like the works of Xxxtentacion, which I don’t really count as either rap or music, being monotonous, repetitive and not having the poetry that drives rap.

            So, like I said, awesome! Because I can say “that crap isn’t even music” and put on something from Ruff Ryders or NWA and say “this is what rap sounds like!” I mean, come on, kids! That stuff you are playing isn’t even up to “fly girl” or “Roxanne Roxanne”.

            And all is well with the world. Dad doesn’t understand his son’s music. The sun rises. The sun sets…

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  10. Thanks for the middle school memories this brought back. The Go-Gos definitely had a better sound than a lot of the other crap of the early-mid 80s. I do not find myself changing the station if one of their songs comes on.

  11. Great girl band. Always liked Gina Schock. Who says girls can’t play drums. She just fit right in to that 80s straight up groove and never missed a note. Perfect for what they were.

      1. Yup she was a ‘wild thing’. Dang that girl could hit.

  12. Who says girls can’t play drums?

    Samantha Maloney subbed in for Tommy Lee with Motley Crue. That’s a pretty solid gig. Kate Schellenbach was the drummer for the Beastie Boys. I’m not sure if that is good or bad, but it is pretty hard core.

    Karen Carpenter was the drummer for “The Carpenters”. They didn’t exactly rock, but they had a load of hits.

    Meg White was the drummer for the White Stripes. If you can pull off being an imitation of Bonham, I’m gonna say you can rock.

    Bobbye Hall played with …. well, everyone in the 70’s. But for rock – she appears on Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”.

    Moe Tucker of Velvet Underground… also on Lou Reed’s solo stuff. That’s about as hard core as it gets.

    And of course Prince had Sheila E. He didn’t countenance anything less than the best from his musicians.

    Yeah, people who said women can’t do percussion must be daft.

    But it isn’t really a new thing. Bennie Goodman had a female drummer back int he 50’s, and they were the biggest band in the country at one point. Here she is, still jamming with her jazz trio in her 80’s. Probably more women drummers performing paid gigs than octogenarian drummers performing paid gigs, but she manages to check both boxes.

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  17. Thanks. Btw, James Taylor is in the Hall of Fame…

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