It can be tempting sometimes to write off the ’80s as a decade of bouncy pop music that doesn’t run much more than surface deep. Peel back the layers of any one of the decade’s gorgeous glossy hits, however, and you will almost always find not only fascinating music, but fascinating stories.
A great example can be found in Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” which hit No. 1 on Dec. 5, 1987, and was as anthemic a single as the decade ever produced.
Her career in music had begun a decade before, when she signed on as the drummer of the Germs, only to catch mononucleosis and be prevented from ever actually performing with the iconic L.A. punk group. Not one to be held down by misfortune, she resurfaced almost immediately, this time as the vocalist and founding member of the seminal all-woman band the Go-Go’s in 1978.
They’re often remembered as a new-wave power-pop band, the Go-Go’s initially arose out of a much grittier scene. Carlisle had been raised in tough circumstances in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, and the no-holds-barred ethos of the punk sound then sweeping into America from England appealed to her, as it did to the rest of the group.
Back then, she and guitarist Jane Wiedlin “lived in a punk-rock commune in an old apartment building in Hollywood,” playing played gigs at befittingly seedy and notorious venues like the Whisky a Go Go and the Masque, Carlisle told Vulture in 2021.
They stood out as an all-female group smashing their way through a male-dominated music scene. “We just had a blast; it was a girls’ club,” she told The Guardian in 2021. “No guys allowed, no boyfriends. We had girl roadies, female management.”
Watch Belinda Carlisle Perform in Concert
By 1981, the Go-Go’s were opening for the Police as their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, went double-platinum and topped the U.S. charts for six weeks. They became stars, while also serving as an inspiration to girls everywhere: The Go-Go’s were the first all-female band to have a chart-topping album, and are still the only one who writes their own songs and plays their own instruments to accomplish that feat.
Their initial run came to a halt in 1985, however, and the Go-Go’s split up. Carlisle embarked on a solo career, and her first album, Belinda did well. It was certified gold and the first single, “Mad About You,” reached No. 3 on the charts. But Carlisle wasn’t yet a household name, despite fronting one of the most important bands of the decade and achieving the success most musicians can only dream of.
That all changes with the September 1987 release of “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” the title-track first single from her second album. The single reached the top of the U.S. charts a couple of months later, then hit the top of the charts in the U.K. in January, and repeated the feat in numerous countries around the world.
Suddenly, the song was on the radio everywhere, and Carlisle was starring in a music video directed by actress Diane Keaton. It all happened so fast, that she was moved to her husband “if it was real or if I was dreaming,” she said in the 2010 autobiography Lips Unsealed. “It seemed like a mistake.”
As her husband reminded her, however, Carlisle was there because she had put in years of hard work. It’s glaringly evident in the song that sent her to superstardom.
“Heaven is a Place on Earth” was written by Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley (who also sing backup vocals on the track), along with songwriter Diane Warren, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, and Chynna Phillips of Wilson Phillips. The result is a perfectly crafted and executed piece of ’80s power pop.
Watch Belinda Carlisle’s Video for ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’
The song opens with Carlisle – her voice both angelic and teasing – singing the chorus, seconded by background vocalists in a chorus and a couple of beats on a base drum. “Ooh baby, do you know what that’s worth?” she asks, “ooh, heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first – we’ll make heaven a place on earth.”
So the question is about the value of love itself, and the answer is the promise she’s making: Their love is so powerful that it’s going to turn earth into heaven. As soon as the listener registers this, “Heaven is a Place on Earth” kicks in with that classic ’80s sound that repetition and radio-play may dull into familiarity but can’t ever truly diminish. It’s all here: the big, sweeping guitar chords backed by a synthesizer, the straight-ahead, snare-driven drum beat, and the Andy Summers-style arpeggiated lead guitar work.
Over the top of it all runs Belinda Carlisle’s voice, matching a befittingly ethereal quality that belies her roots in the punk scene with a sensuousness that equals any vocal of her career.
“Heaven is a Place on Earth” remains Carlisle’s signature song, and rightfully so. It’s one of the best No. 1 hits from the ’80s. But this is more than just a great song; it also represents the hidden complexities of that decade. “Heaven is a Place on Earth” illustrates how the era’s best artists wove their way through scenes and genres to create pop masterpieces.
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