The Go-Go’s were an anomaly in the late-’70s Los Angeles punk scene. An all-female band playing instruments? Such a thing was practically unheard of, and even questionably welcomed.
Over time, however, the Go-Go’s grew to be inevitable, tightening up their playing and songwriting. After several personnel changes, they settled on an unbeatable lineup of singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarists Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, drummer Gina Schock and – the final piece of the proverbial puzzle – bassist Kathy Valentine.
Ready to take on the world, they signed with I.R.S. Records in 1981. Two particularly pleasing aspects of their deal with the label were the location where they’d be recording the debut album Beauty and the Beat (New York City), and the production team (Richard Gottehrer and Rob Freeman) assigned to them.
For five musicians who enjoyed having a good time, the Big Apple was a big playground. “The Go-Go’s hit New York like we owned it,” Valentine remembered in her book All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir. “Our energy and excitement gave us the kind of edge Manhattan embraces.”
That “kind of edge” included finding some of their favorite indulgences in a new locale.
“We were either drinking and partying in the studio or hungover from the night before,” Carlisle recalled in her memoir, Lips Unsealed. “Kathy and I went to clubs every night and stayed out until all hours. When the clubs closed around 2AM, we rounded up whoever was left and went to the after-hours joints where we sang, played drinking games, and flirted until we crawled out at around eight in the morning.”
According to Wiedlin, the band’s accommodations were perfect for their party-forward vibe during their time in New York City.
“That hotel was super-run down, but the rooms were huge. All the rooms were like suites,” she told Vulture in 2021. “At the time it was pretty seedy, but it was close to everything. … Belinda, Kathy, and I were constantly in search of boys. If somebody brought a boy home to their hotel room, we would drag a mattress into the hallway. [Laughs.] That was a signal not to come in.”
Watch the ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ Video by the Go-Go’s
The band members’ physical condition from their late nights couldn’t help but seep into their work environment. “Having the time of our lives came close to overshadowing our reason for being there – oh yeah, to make a record,” Valentine added. “We were hungover and distracted, impatient and cheeky, in love and in lust, indulgent and hungry, anticipating only what might happen later in the night.”
Their work was guided by songwriter, producer and Sire Records co-founder Gottehrer and engineer/co-producer Freeman, who had worked on debut albums by the Ramones, Blondie and Richard Hell. (Gottehrer also produced the latter two.)
One of the issues Gottehrer focused on with the Go-Go’s was the breakneck pace of many of their songs – a great asset in the clubs, but one that did not translate so well onto a record.
“He was a good teacher and taught us a lot about recording,” Schock told USA Today in 2021, “and the first thing he said was, ‘Gina, you need to slow down all the songs because everything is so fast I can’t appreciate the great melodies.'”
Their producer “wanted the songs to be played slower, so the melodies and hooks had room to breathe. We understood his approach and agreed,” Valentine concurred in All I Ever Wanted. “When he could, he divided the guitars up, separating the two identical strumming parts Jane and Charlotte often played, getting one or both of them to do mechanical ‘stabs’ on a beat instead, like on the song ‘Tonite.'”
Gottehrer selected 10 songs from the band’s repertoire, and they set about tracking them for Beauty and the Beat. There were some obvious choices, right off the bat.
“‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ was a gem that we’d played for a year,” Carlisle said in her memoir. “Jane had gotten involved with [ska band] the Specials’ lead singer Terry Hall when we’d been in London, but he had a girlfriend. After we left, he sent Jane a letter about their complicated situation. She set some of the lines from that letter to music, added some lyrics of her own … and voila, she had ‘Our Lips Are Sealed.’ I knew it was a hit as soon as I heard it, and I was right.”
Listen to ‘Tonite’ by the Go-Go’s
Another obvious selection for Gottehrer was the group’s biggest hit, “We Got the Beat,” though the Go-Go’s initially balked at having it on the record. An earlier version of the song, released as a single on Stiff Records in the U.K., had been a modest hit, and the band was initially unsure about rerecording it for Beauty and the Beat. They proceeded to whiff on the first take.
“I remember everyone having trouble laying down the basic tracks for ‘We Got the Beat,'” Carlisle recalled, “which we were redoing from the U.K. version. Everyone’s timing was a little off. We took a break, ordered in pizza, and tried it again. We nailed it on the first take. Food always worked with us.”
The defiant “Our Lips Are Sealed” and propulsive “We Got the Beat” became Top 20 U.S. hits, but there are treasures aplenty to be found throughout Beauty and the Beat – treasures the band’s members are only too happy to point out.
Caffey praised the regret-laden “Lust to Love” in the liner notes of the 1994 compilation Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s. “I love this song,” she wrote. “Jane showed me these ultra-cool lyrics and I just happened to have this guitar riff and some music that fit her lyrics perfectly. That seemed to happen a lot.”
Carlisle singled out “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can’t Sleep)“: “[A] Charlotte and Jane collaboration, [the song] was about Jane’s problem with insomnia and occasional tendency to sleepwalk.” The track’s manic, quasi-“Bo Diddley” rhythm is exactly the kind of beat that would keep one up at night.
“I was proud of the varied subject matter of the songs,” Valentine noted in her memoir. “Even the songs dealing with relationships or romance weren’t sappy love songs. ‘Lust to Love’ and ‘Fading Fast’ portrayed strong women who knew what they wanted.”
When the Go-Go’s finished tracking the 10 songs Gottehrer selected, he told them they needed one more to round out the album. Gottehrer suggested a cover of a song by Ellie Greenwich. She’d co-written some of the great girl-group anthems in pop music history, including hits by the Crystals (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me”), the Ronettes (“Be My Baby”), the Shangri-Las (“Leader of the Pack”) and others. Still, the band declined. “Richard has spot-on instincts, but the band took a united stand against him,” Valentine remembered. “Not because the song lacked anything – but because everyone felt strongly that only our own songs should go on the record.”
Watch the ‘We Got the Beat’ Video by the Go-Go’s
Caffey suggested they add “Can’t Stop the World,” a song Valentine had brought to the group. “When everyone agreed it belonged on the record,” Valentine said in All I Ever Wanted, “the Go-Go’s became my family, the only thing that mattered to me.”
Another key component to Beauty and the Beat was its cover art – a shot of the band members wrapped in towels sporting face cream on the front, with photos of each in bubble baths on the back. Art direction is credited to Michael Doud, who designed iconic album imagery for Led Zeppelin‘s Physical Graffiti, Supertramp‘s Breakfast in America and Heart‘s Dog and Butterfly), among others. But Carlisle claims ownership of the idea.
“I came up with the concept for the album’s front and back cover before we ever left L.A.,” Carlisle wrote in Lips Unsealed. “I thought putting us in face masks and wearing only towels was a look that would be timeless. Take away our identities and clothes and we were women who would be just as current in 25 years as we were then – and I think I was right.”
Schock added that “those towels on the cover had a lot to do with the fact that we had no money. Our manager, Ginger [Canzoneri], went to Macy’s in New York and bought those towels. We used them for the photo shoot and after that, she brought them back.”
Recording completed, the Go-Go’s headed back west and began preparing to unleash their debut on the world. They were rehearsing in a Los Angeles studio when a copy of Beauty and the Beat arrived from I.R.S.
“We ran out excitedly to the parking lot and listened to it from start to finish in someone’s car,” Carlisle remembered. “Our hopes were so high and before we pushed the play button we were all shushing one another. Then the drums kicked into the first cut, ‘Our Lips Are Sealed,’ and we quieted down. We let the next 10 tracks play without too many comments either way and finally, after about 35 minutes, we just looked at one another for reactions.”
The band’s response was muted, at best.
“We weren’t happy – or as happy as we had hoped,” Carlisle continued. “In the studio, we had thought we were making a great punk album. On hearing the final version, it sounded more pop than we had anticipated. … Everyone had little criticisms. In my case, I was horrified by my vocals. They had been sped up and I found it painful to hear myself race through those songs.”
Listen to ‘Fading Fast’ by the Go-Go’s
They went back to Miles Copeland, president of I.R.S., and asked for the album to be remixed. He declined, telling the Go-Go’s he loved the record and that it sounded exactly the way he had hoped it would.
Carlisle noted her and the band’s opinions of Beauty and the Beat mellowed quickly. “[A]s a wider audience responded positively to the album,” she wrote in Lips Unsealed, “all of us began to change our opinion and think, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.'”
Beauty and the Beat finally reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart on April 6, 1982, some eight months after its release. The slow, steady climb to the top was a result of MTV exposure and relentless, high-profile touring.
The Go-Go’s were opening for the Police on the massive Ghost in the Machine tour when Beauty and the Beat hit No. 1. One might think the headliners would react negatively to their support act outshining them on the charts, but Carlisle said that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“Their album dropped back to No. 6, and we were opening for them,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Sting came into our dressing room with a bottle of champagne and said congratulations. They were really gracious and sweet about it.”
Wiedlin told Vulture that the Police “were great gentlemen about it. It was nice because they could’ve been buttheads or kicked us off the tour. [Laughs.] They were very nice about it. But they were so popular that I don’t think they had anything to worry about.”
Fast forward nearly four decades as the Go-Go’s earned induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Beauty and the Beat was still somehow the only album written and performed by an all-female rock band to hit No. 1 – a fact that surprised Carlisle.
“I don’t understand why there aren’t more,” she told Rolling Stone. “You would think after the Go-Go’s, you would have a lot more. You had the Bangles, you had L7 and others. There should be a lot of bands like the Go-Go’s out there but there aren’t.”
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