The only time I ever snuck a boy into my teenage bedroom was so that he could teach me the guitar lead to Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” His unsophisticated high-school-senior moves were thwarted by my steely disinterest in anything but the particulars of that harmonic chord progression; I hustled him out the back stairs and into the Minnesotan winter night with hardly a thank-you once I’d giddily realized I could play it myself. Turns out I already possessed the capability I’d mistakenly believed I needed to borrow from that boy.
The first song I learned myself, from beginning to end, was The Go-Go’s 1980 hit single, “We Got the Beat.” It was a song I had known since childhood, one of my earliest favorites that hadn’t appeared on the flip of Sesame Street Disco. Its playful complexity, the harmonies that make clear it’s not just a single female voice, the alluring cool that made you want to be a part of their “We”—all of it had long been etched in my memory by the time I worked it out on my guitar. The song was seductive: here were these women, clearly having the time of their lives in this band, beckoning “Join us.” I remember seeing them play it on Solid Gold, the TV variety show, in 1982, and being struck by the sight of the band holding their instruments in their hands. I had only ever seen women on the show holding microphones, often swaying in gowns, fully done up, flanked by the leotard-clad Solid Gold Dancers on their platforms, moving in sexy/aerobic syncopation. I was all of six years old, but The Go-Go’s left an impression that felt indelible. They were different girls.
A decade later, I was coming into a burgeoning obsession with punk, driven almost entirely by a revelation that the punk scene was a space where girls could be and look and sing—exist!—however they wanted. Feminism had created a mandate for me, but punk was the opportunity. I plumbed used record stores and thrift-store bargain bins to their depths, looking for signs of weird girls. Often there would be women posed on the covers that caught my eye, but I would be sure to flip over each album to the names, the credits, sleuthing out conclusive proof of women actually making music. Evidence of precedent was scant, even then in 1992.
I soon parted with $3.25 in babysitting savings and nabbed a gently used copy of Beauty and the Beat on vinyl. It was an object of study. In a pre-digital era, often all you had was the thing itself as a source of information. I would put it on and examine the back of the sleeve, where the five Go-Go’s each posed individually in the same bathtub, mountains of foam framing their faces. I decided the portraits portrayed their personalities, their defining interests. Belinda Carlisle, the lead singer, dramatically lifts a long-stemmed rose to her nose, meeting the camera with a sidelong glance. Guitarist Jane Wiedlin holds a phone receiver up to her ear, all drama in her dark hair, eyes, and lipstick; she’s the only one who meets the camera’s gaze directly. Drummer Gina Schock has her Walkman on, her drumsticks disappearing into the bubbles, her lips pursed—is she whistling along, or blowing a kiss? Bassist Kathy Valentine displays the carefree repose of the decadent party girl, a seeming homage to Holly Golightly; she pours Champagne into four coupes perched on the tub’s edge. (Does she have guests?) Charlotte Caffey, lead guitarist, obliviously engrossed, pops a bonbon into her mouth with one hand while the other holds open the pulp paperback H is For Harlot (“Too Hot For The Heroin Hoods To Handle!” screams the cover). Which one could I be?
“We did it first,” Jane Wiedlin reminded me. “We were first and there’s never any taking that away from us, no matter how much history gets rewritten. It will always be the truth.”
These images play with the archetypes of girliness: the romantic, the gossip, the fangirl, the party girl, the housewife. These were the historic roles used to underscore women’s inconsequence, tightly aligned with the frivolity of girldom. The Go-Go’s photos posed the question “You think you know us?” that the album answered with a resounding “YOU DON’T!”
From the jump, The Go-Go’s spoke the lingua franca of LA punk, but it was clear that they were also keen students of rock and pop. In the 1982 documentary Urgh! A Music War, which captures a 1980 performance of “We Got the Beat” at Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go, the footage shows a band invested in joy rather than the typical punk misanthropy. The camera centers on Carlisle, her ultrashort, unstyled hair a foil to the femme of the satiny dark-pink cheongsam she wears; she does a sashaying sort of two-step behind the mic as she holds the crowd’s gaze. She smiles as she surveys her bandmates; she smiles as they sing the bridge in unison. We got the beat! We got the beat!
While cohorts like The Germs, The Weirdos, and The Bags took aim at American culture a bit more squarely, The Go-Go’s had no less earnest an agenda. One of their earliest songs put the LA Times stalwart pop critic Robert Hilburn firmly in the crosshairs; the Go-Go’s brand of critique was sly, subversive, an incision cloaked in the candy paint of chiming melodies.
The success of Beauty and the Beat, and of The Go-Go’s as an all-female band, did have a few cultural foremothers. There had been a wave of all-girl vocal groups a decade or so earlier, but it was only in the mid-seventies that songs written by the women who sang them started showing up on the upper reaches of the charts with any consistency. That female artists could create their own songs, utilizing material from their own lives, let alone find a significant audience, a recording deal, and even fame in doing so was still a pretty novel idea. Yet the women who were summiting these achievements—Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, Joni Mitchell, Minnie Riperton, Patti Smith making it to #13 in 1978 singing of her longing on the Springsteen co-write “Because The Night”—were a galaxy away from The Go-Go’s. The Go-Go’s were not fair Ladies of the Canyon; they were cool, quintessential Hollywood girls.
The novelty of women in a rock band was treated as, at best, a passing fad in an industry run by men who’d long thought they understood the contours of youth culture better than the teenagers who defined it. (The Runaways, the immediate all-female antecedents to The Go-Go’s in the Hollywood scene, were treated as unmarketable, more or less a gimmick.) Though The Go-Go’s had grown a considerable West Coast fanbase since they’d debuted in May of 1978 (by 1980 they’d played the Bay Area as often as they had LA), and had quickly recorded a 7” single of “We Got the Beat” for tastemaking British label Stiff, no one in America initially wanted to sign them to a record deal. IRS, then still a burgeoning punk and new wave label, would ultimately sign them in 1980 and release Beauty and the Beat in the summer of 1981. That fall, they graduated from local clubs to a three-night stand at the Greek Theatre. Within six months, they were playing stadiums, and Beauty and the Beat was the number-one album in America. It was certified double platinum, having sold 2 million copies worldwide, and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
No all-female band had ever scaled those heights before; The Go-Go’s were the first. By the time they initially disbanded, in 1985, they’d have three Top 20 albums and more than half a dozen charting songs. While their gender meant that seemingly every step was some kind of first, their music—their songs—made them an iconic and defining band, full stop: one of the very few to blaze a path from the American punk underground to the pop mainstream. “We did it first,” Jane Wiedlin reminded me. “We were first and there’s never any taking that away from us, no matter how much history gets rewritten. It will always be the truth.”
Despite the distinctions that sorted The Go-Go’s into otherness—their young womanhood, their affinity for making pop—starting out they were no less ambitious and confident than anyone who has ever started a band and dreamed of stardom. As Wiedlin explained to me, “We just thought that we were the bee’s knees—that we were going to be really popular, beyond the LA punk scene. The only reason that we felt that way was because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know the odds against us.” They didn’t wait for the industry to open to them, or for the world to grant them permission. “The five of us were empowered by each other to do something really important,” Wiedlin said. The Go-Go’s helped shift the very ground beneath their feet, creating new archetypes where none had existed.
“Little did we know, forty years ago, when we were writing these songs, that we were writing a Broadway musical,” Charlotte Caffey said.
For all the broad horizons they dreamt up in the band’s cradle days, there was certainly one frontier they never imagined. “Little did we know, forty years ago, when we were writing these songs, that we were writing a Broadway musical,” Charlotte Caffey said. “I am so excited for people to see our songs basically come alive, in a very different way than when they come to see the band.” They’d been approached time and again over the decades about telling the Go-Go’s story, but nothing ever seemed right. Yet HEAD OVER HEELS, they say, connects more directly to the band and their creative legacy than any biopic reasonably could. “There’s the element of fun, which has always been a part of who we are,” Caffey said. “And it’s really smart and outside of the box and a little weird, and that’s who we are, too. That’s why we gravitated toward this idea so quickly and happily—because of how it related to us.”
For Tom Kitt, HEAD OVER HEELS musical director and lifelong Go-Go’s fan, the balance of pure joy and serious songcraft is what made the band iconic to him. “I was seven or eight when I saw the music video for ‘Our Lips Are Sealed,’” he told me. “They go from goofing around to playing a concert. That mixture of having a ball and having a band—I was so struck by that.” More than just being a history-making band, a band with unforgettable hits, a band channeling radical fun—Kitt insists it’s the sum of these parts that make their music so right for this setting. “In the arrangements, there’s a theatrical sound to the band already. Taking that music and putting it into a show, it helps that it’s already gone beyond just a singer and a lyric. Any score for theater needs to be propulsive and melodic and dramatic. The Go-Go’s songs have a strong point of view and great characters—that’s what makes the band’s music such a rich and beautiful place to draw from.”
HEAD OVER HEELS performances begin on April 10th at the Curran. This limited engagement leaves the Bay Area for Broadway on May 6th.
Single tickets can be purchased here. Tickets are also available as part of #CURRAN2018, our first-ever subscription offering, featuring four extraordinary shows: three brand new works and the smash hit DEAR EVAN HANSEN.