40 years ago, America fell head over heels for a band unlike any other. From SoCal punks to New Wave darlings, the five women distinguished themselves by writing their own material, playing their own instruments, and thriving in male-dominated spaces. They broke through alongside the emergence of MTV, becoming hitmakers and Grammy nominees. Along the way, they’ve fought, split, reunited, created side-projects, and influenced the generations that came after them. Now, as they celebrate four decades since the release of their first album, the band is on the verge of October enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is why The Go-Go’s keep going.
The original version of the group formed in L.A. in 1978. Vocalist Belinda Carlisle, guitarist/vocalist Jane Wiedlin, and bassist Margot Olavarria were there from the beginning; as the line-up changed into 1979, multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Caffey and drummer Gina Schock would join. Over time, theirharder punk approach evolved into a poppier, and the band scored gigs opening in Europe for acts like Madness and The Specials. After a December 1980 illness, Olavarria was replaced by Kathy Valentine. Despite their growing popularity, only indie label I.R.S. Records (who would also sign the likes of R.E.M., Fine Young Cannibals, The Dead Kennedys, and Berlin) was willing to take on the group. It was no joke when they signed on April 1, 1981.
All of the songs on the first album, Beauty and the Beat, were written or co-written by members of the band, with Caffey and Wiedlin doing the bulk of the writing. Caffey wrote “We Got the Beat” and Wiedlin (with Terry Hall of The Specials) co-wrote the lead-off single, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” “Sealed” was released ahead of the album in June and went to #20 in on the Hot 100, #10 on Dance, and #15 on Mainstream Rock. The song hung around on the charts until March of the following year, powering the album when it dropped this week in July of 1981. When “Beat” was released in January of 1982, it was even bigger. It went #2 on the Hot 100, and the album went all the way to #1. Reviews for the album were generally positive (it was in the top ten of the annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll), and its reputation has only increased over time, with the All Music Guide referring to it as “one of the cornerstone albums of New Wave.”
1982 was filled with furious activity for the group. As they toured as the opening act for The Police, Beauty held the #1 spot for six weeks. The album broke internationally, and the band found themselves nominated for Best New Artist at The Grammys. From March to May, they recorded their second album, Vacation. Valentine, Caffey, and Wiedlin co-wrote the title tune and both it and the album topped out at #8 on their respective charts. The group put everything on pause for a while as Schock had heart surgery for a congenital defect. While Vacation wasn’t as big as Beauty, it still went Gold in the U.S. (over 500,000 copies sold) and the single and its subsequent video kept the band visible all year.
“Head Over Heels” (Uploaded to YouTube by Official GoGos)
Recorded throughout 1983, Talk Show would wind up being the final album for the first cycle of the band’s career. The disc yielded the #11 hit “Head Over Heels,” but the album itself didn’t perform as well. Tensions within the band came to a head over songwriting royalties, and Wiedlin quit in October. Paula Jean Brown joined the band for a pair of 1985 shows, but the band ultimately decided to split in May of that year.
For the next several years, the five members of the classic line-up dispersed into new band and solo projects. The most visible was Carlisle, who became one of the major hitmakers of the latter half of the 1980s. Her 1986 solo debut, Belinda, produced the #3 “Mad About You,” but 1987’s Heaven on Earth sold a million copies in the U.S., three million in the U.K., and contained three Top 10 hits (“Heaven is a Place on Earth,” “I Get Weak,” and “Circle in the Sand”). 1989’s Runaway Horses featured two more Top 40 hits, “Leave a Light On” and “Summer Rain.” Wiedlin had her own solo success, the peak of which was her #8 single from 1988, “Rush Hour.” Caffey formed a new band, The Graces, with Gia Ciambotti (who would later back Bruce Springsteen) and Meredith Brooks (best known for her ’90s hit, “Bitch”); their excellent single “Lay Down Your Arms” was a Hot 100 hit but didn’t crack the Top 40. Schock’s band, House of Schock, released a self-titled album. Valentine went back to school and would form others acts throughout the 1990s.
The dawn of the 1990s saw the group re-unite to play a show in support of the California Environmental Protection Act. They also oversaw a Greatest Hits compilation that included a newly-recorded cover of the 1960s tune “Cool Jerk.” In 1994, the group got together again for Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s, a compilation album that also featured three new songs; “The Whole World Lost Its Head” saw the band welcomed onto various Alternative and Modern Rock playlists. The band mounted their first tour in years, though Vicky Peterson of The Bangles filled in for the pregnant Caffey at several shows.
Since 1997, the band has maintained ongoing activity and a number of tours. Despite occasional lawsuits over royalties and apparent “farewell tours” that morph into just another tour, the band keeps coming back together. Their 2000 album, God Bless the Go-Go’s, was their first all-original disc since Talk Show. A musical featuring the group’s music, Head Over Heels, debuted in 2018. A 2020 documentary directed by Alison Ellwood, The Go-Go’s, has scored rave reviews and led to a much wider acknowledgement of the band’s importance as a group of women that wrote and played their own material. On July 31, 2020, the band dropped a new song, “Club Zero,” in association with the film’s release.
In a way, the movie was just the opening act for one of the most important things to ever happen to the group. After being nominated for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band was officially voted in with the Class of 2021; the induction ceremony will take place on October 30. Responding to the news on Billboard, Wiedlin attributed the timing of their induction to the documentary, saying, “That film really hammered people on the head about how we were the first all-female band that wrote their songs, played their own instruments and went to No. 1. I agree that people who do things first should be remembered in these sorts of hall-of-fame places. The fact that it’s actually happening is f–kin’ crazy.” For her part, Schock offered a mirthful expectation for the ceremony, cracking, “I hope we get in a really big fight on stage, in a fistfight or something, that they talk about for ages.”
Despite any temporary division, The Go-Go’s always find a way to get back together. The simple truth is that their songs continue to hold up decades after being committed to vinyl. The band exerted an influence on acts like Green Day and were godmothers of the Riot Grrrl movement. They’ve had struggles with fame and excess just like any other successful band, but their ground-breaking position as women in a male-dominated field make them unlike anyone else. It’s fitting that 40 years after their first album, The Go-Go’s keep on going.
Featured image: s_bukley / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now