THE TRIUMPH OF THE GO-GO’S
No group of women could be more deserving of a fresh and fair shake
The Go-Go’s Streaming, Crave
Documentaries are doing a bangup job lately of helping women reclaim their stories. Earlier this year, Nanette Burstein’s absorbing four-part Hulu docuseries Hillary turned a trove of unseen 2016 campaign footage into a surprisingly frank rumination on the life and career of Hillary Clinton, this time viewed through the prism of the sexist double standards that dogged her the entire way.
Nina Simone, Jane Fonda, Joan Rivers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Lorena Bobbitt — thoughtful documentaries about each have helped push the biographical format well past its standard of reverent clip jobs, perceiving their subjects in a more truthful and encompassing light.
In the pop-music world, no group of women could be more deserving of a fresh and fair shake than The Go-Go’s, whose success/implosion story in the MTV era still resonates with anyone who loved them in the 1980s, as well as the fans who’ve come along since.
Emerging from a Los Angeles punk scene that was more giddy than gritty, these five musicians — Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin — remain the only all-female rock act to write and play their own songs on a debut album (1981’s Beauty and the Beat) that reached No. 1 on the sales charts.
The Go-Go’s spent their heyday rolling their eyes at any suggestion of feminist strides; clip after clip of media interviews at the time show them emphasizing their frivolous, party-girl image, claiming they just wanted to play their music and make lots of money.
Today, as women in their 60s, there has been a reckoning with the man-made barriers they stared down 40 years ago.
There are two stories to tell here: One is the usual rise and fall (and rebirth) of a rock band, replete with substance abuse, bruised egos and money squabbles. The other story, existing just beneath the surface, is about five women who were under extreme pressure to make more hits and pretend that the discriminatory obstacles in front of them were all just fun and games.
The story itself is quite a rocket ride (fuelled by a lot of booze and blow), beginning in glad rags and garbage bags in clubs along Sunset Strip, circa 1978. Wiedlin, the band’s lyricist, opens up about her suicidal tendencies as a teen (and, much later, her diagnosis of bipolar disorder). Wiedlin and her friend Margot Olavarria decided to start an all-girl band. They invited Carlisle to join as singer. Joined by Elissa Bello on drums, The GoGo’s debuted at a club called the Masque with a repertoire of two songs, which they played badly.
Random luck and determination followed. A classically trained pianist and songwriter, Caffey left her own punk band to join The GoGo’s. By 1979, the band found a devoted manager, Ginger Canzoneri.
“I love communities of women,” Canzoneri says in the film. “This band caught my interest for that reason.”
The Go-Go’s dumped Bello in favour of Schock, a fierce drummer from Baltimore who drove to L.A. “with $2,000 and two grams of coke” and supplied the beat that tightened the band’s sound.
A British ska band called the Specials caught The Go-Go’s act and invited the band to open for them on a 1980 tour in England. Previous iterations of The Go- Go’s story have cast this as an adventurous launching point.
At the shows, however, the band faced crowds of white-nationalist skinheads who spit at them, threw bottles and demanded to see their breasts.
They returned to L.A. with all kinds of buzz, but no record labels would sign them. Miles Copeland, who managed his brother’s hit band, the Police, signed The GoGo’s to his boutique label, I.R.S. Records. Olavarria, punk to the bone, started to chafe at the perkier, janglier sound that emerged with songs like Our Lips Are Sealed and We Got the Beat, both of which became Top 40 and MTV breakout hits.
“It was the sense of being packaged into a product — less about art and more about money,” Olavarria says, so she left. She was replaced by Valentine, a guitarist from an Austin band called the Textones, who taught herself to play bass over a manic weekend and “basically learned all their songs on a coke binge.”
After the second album and a gruelling world tour, the bloom began to fade. Canzoneri was thrown overboard for a new executive management team — “All men, not that mattered,” she recalls, with clear sadness.
As soon as they became famous, The Go-Go’s seemed fated to fold. In their fouled atmosphere and deepest addictions, the women managed to make what many believe to be their best album — 1984’s Talk Show.
The Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine, left, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Charlotte Caffey and Belinda Carlisle are featured in a new documentary about the rise and fall of the band.