In the early to mid-1980s, The Go-Go’s were like lightning in a bottle. They were everywhere. With three hit albums in a row, spawning classic songs we still hear over and over on repeat today – “Vacation,” “Head Over Heels,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” “We Got the Beat” – the band (the first to feature an all female lineup who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to have a number one album) couldn’t be stopped. But it did, abruptly. After the success of their album Talk Show, Jane Wiedlin quit. Then Belinda Carlisle embarked on a solo career, talking Charlotte Caffey with her as her songwriter. When you watch Alison Ellwood’s new documentary on the band (which premieres this Friday night on Showtime), it’s the voices of drummer Gina Schock and bassist/guitarist Kathy Valentine that stick out the most because they both kind of still seem as bewildered as we all do.
But Valentine’s voice is unique because she was the last of the core members to join the band, and had been writing a memoir, All I Ever Wanted, so her recollections were acutely clear. Valentine, who wrote the band’s biggest hit, “Vacation,” joined The Go-Go’s prior to their first album, replacing bassist Margot Olavarria who didn’t like the direction the band was going away from punk. In the film, Valentine is literally introduced as, “a badass musician,” who learned all The Go-Go’s songs “on a three day bender on coke.”
The film is a fascinating look at a band that had piles of success. But disputes over money, and the perils of addiction, led to the breakup of one of the era’s great bands. Ahead, Valentine looks back at her career with The Go-Gos (which still continues today; pre-pandemic they had scheduled a tour in support of the new film), why she thinks the band isn’t in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and about that time she suggested hiring Rob Lowe for a Go-Go’s video.
It’s always tricky talking to the subject of a documentary because you never know how they feel about it.
Well, I was really happy to do this and excited that we were going to have a documentation of the band that really uplifted us and celebrated our achievements and everything we accomplished and also conveyed, I think, just the journey that we took. So, it was really exciting. And I think Alison Ellwood, the director, she did an amazing job. Because we weren’t walking around with video cameras and certainly didn’t have cell phones and phone cameras, so there wasn’t a huge amount of content. It took a lot of talent and artistry to make such a great narrative without the amount of content that you might want as a filmmaker.
You have a great intro into the narrative. When you join the band you’re literally described as a “badass musician.” That’s a good way to enter a story.
Oh, thank you. Because sometimes I felt a little bit like a footnote. So thank you for saying that. I’m glad that’s the impression you got.
Oh, no. I thought your perspective was one of the most interesting parts of the story.
Well, I had an advantage because I released a memoir in March.
I’ve read many excerpts from it.
Oh, cool. Well, I had been writing that book for several years, so I was pretty steeped in Go-Go’s, the timeline, and I’d really explored my feelings. And so, I had kind of that advantage.
I had always wondered why the band broke up so, what seemed, abruptly. I remember when the third album came out, Talk Show, I was young and had just started listening to Top 40 radio. “Head Over Heels” was on the radio that whole summer. I remember being like, “Why would they just go away?” I couldn’t figure that out.
Yeah, I got that impression while watching the film.
I didn’t understand it either.
Do you watch this film and thing about what could have been if you kept going?
Well, but in a way, it did keep going. And it kept going for decades much longer than a lot of other bands.
Oh, sure. But there’s a big gap in there.
Well, I think the shame is that by the time we kind of started healing and coming back together to doing things, I think it’s one thing to be in your 20s and in a band and you can just go on the road forever. You can go do all this stuff, but it’s a lot harder when you have families and pets and homes and you live in different cities. So, I think that the biggest loss is that there hasn’t been a lot of creative output from the band. But in terms of just keeping something intact, there’s something remarkable that there is any intactness at all to this band. And I think the documentary really celebrates that. We have endured. And even without a massive amount of creative output, what we did does hold up over time. It’s classic, it’s not dated. We can play the songs without feeling silly to play them even in our 60s. None of it was childish or so youth-oriented that it can’t be done now. You know?
The things that we accomplished are strong enough and worthy enough that they have endured, which I think is remarkable. And I’m glad that the documentary kind of embeds that in the consciousness of people that are interested in, or curious about, the band.
“We Got The Beat” lives forever opening Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is still on cable nonstop…
Well, I mean all of the hits, I hear all of the time in different ways. I hear “Vacation”, “Head Over Heels,” “Our Lips Are Sealed” constantly. But when it came out, we were just really happy, because we loved the film. We thought it was a great film, and I think it might’ve been the first time that we had anything in a movie. And that was kind of at a time when, of course, you had amazing soundtracks with music of rock and pop bands.
I’m not just saying this because you wrote it, but I think “Vacation,” that’s the one I think I hear the most in just daily life, back when we had daily life. You could just be at a bar and “Vacation” would come on.
Yeah, I still get excited when I hear a Go-Go’s song. I mean, I could just be walking around in the supermarket and I kind of want to go, “Hey, that’s me!” And I’ve been doing this a really long time. So for people that wonder what it feels like, I can tell them it feels really, really cool.
I think you have full right to do that next time the world is normal and you hear a Go-Go’s song in a supermarket. I don’t think anyone would frown upon that if you celebrated something like that.
Well, we’ll see. If I could get a discount, I would do it.
Well, see? There you go.
“Hey, that’s me. How about 50 percent off?”
“You’re playing my music. Could I at least get half-off this Lean Cuisine?” Or whatever you happen to be buying that day.
Exactly. Given the way things are. I might need it.
My favorite shot in the “Head Over Heels” video is of you with the plane going behind you. Was that a difficult shot to get? Because you have a look on your face like, “Oh, I think we just pulled it off.”
Well, I mean, everybody got to have a little kind of solo thing and I liked that mine was off the location. And driving out to the airport and finding a place… and there wasn’t the technology there is now, so they had to, I don’t know what they did or how they got it so that it was in slow motion. So it was pretty awesome. And my favorite part is when Gina’s head peaks in the frame, like she can’t let me have my moment. She has to get in there. It reminded me, at my wedding, we were doing family wedding pictures, and Gina photobombed the family wedding pictures. And she photobombed me on my solo in the video.
I’m always surprised at how many people don’t know the video for “Turn To You.” That video is amazing. And Rob Lowe is in it, strangely. I don’t know why it isn’t more popular.
I don’t know either, because it was the first time that we had a major director, too. All of our videos before felt very kind of, I don’t know, kind of crappy almost? Just like, I don’t want to say amateur, because that sounds mean, but they just didn’t seem slick. You know what I mean? So when we got Mary Lambert, she’d done Madonna and stuff.
And she directed Pet Sematary.
Yeah. So this was before that. She directed “Material Girl.” And when she gave us a storyline, where we actually got to play roles and be in drag, oh my God, we were just so thrilled. And it was actually me that suggested Rob Lowe, because he was a friend and I saw that there was a part for a “heartthrob” kind of guy at the party. And I was like, “Oh, I know just the version.” And he loved the band, so he was friends with all of us, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Making videos are… it’s not a short day, that’s for sure, so it’s always a pain in the ass to some degree.
You should get a lot of credit for suggesting Rob Lowe. That wasn’t like you suggested this person we’ve never heard of today.
I know. I don’t know why he’s not more proud of it. He should put it first and center of his resume.
That should be on his Twitter profile. “Hey, by the way, check out this video I’m in.”
Exactly. I know.
In the film we learned “Mad About You” was written for The Go-Go’s before it became a solo hit for Belinda Carlisle. I watched a clip of her performing that on Late Night with David Letterman with Charlotte. Is that a tough moment for everyone else?
Well, when I was writing my book and I wrote about being sober, it wasn’t until I got sober that I realized why it would have been impossible for Charlotte to continue on in the band when she got out of rehab for heroin addiction. I mean, I didn’t go to rehab. I just stopped drinking, and I could do very little other than sit on the couch for three months. I was scared to go to a restaurant. I didn’t think I would be able to go out and have fun or have a meal. So I was almost immobilized with the change in my life. So to have expected Charlotte to get out of rehab for heroin addiction and to just dive in to making an album with people that had a lot of dysfunction and toxic energy, by that point, it would have been detrimental to her survival. So I had to get sober before I understood why she couldn’t do it anymore.
And Belinda just, she wasn’t having fun anymore. And we also had managers that knew that they had a successful act in the star, whether the band survived or not. So there was a lot of forces working against us. And of course, looking back, I think it absolutely needed to happen. And I think that I don’t know what the outcome would have been if we hadn’t. Who knows what it would have been? But it is what it is.
And the main thing is that for decades now, despite ups and downs, and we broke up twice, we’ve had people be seriously on the outs, we’ve had a lot of nasty fights and stuff, but we’ve endured and there’s a bond between us. And the documentary has given us a lot of healing and forgiveness, and we are in a better place than we have been since we were young and hungry. We’re probably in the best place we’ve been since the early days, which is really nice. Really, really nice. Because there’s people from bands who don’t speak to each other. We’re in touch multiple times a week. And this is after decades of all that other stuff happening. And more than anything, our music has endured.
In the film, it’s pointed out how The Go-Go’s aren’t in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Because this year, Pat Benatar got the second most amount of fan votes, but she didn’t get in. From from an outsider’s perspective, is this obvious sexism? Or is it something else? Because it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her or you.
Well, I think that there’s a committee in place that has one viewpoint, and I’m not sure what they use for their viewpoint. But I would argue that there are bands that might not have been as successful or artists that are women that have not been as successful as some of their other inductees, but that are still very, very relevant to women in rock and roll, going back to Suzi Quatro or to Fanny. I mean, these bands and these artists might not have had number one records or sold millions in the United States, but they were absolutely influential and did something that hadn’t been done before, just like The Go-Go’s did.
So, I think they have to look at women’s role in music with a different lens other than what they are using for Janet Jacksons or other people who do get in. That’s one way: somebody sold piles of records and are popular. And all the tourists that come to Cleveland are going to know that artists. That’s one thing. But if you’re truly a museum that is archiving and presenting to the public a historical perspective, there are very accomplished women from the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s and onward, that I think it’s just, maybe they need a different lens than sales or popularity.
A couple of years ago Def Leppard got in. And I like Def Leppard. But there are a lot of bands that had their mark on culture like that, just like The Go-Go’s did, and maybe aren’t at Janet Jackson level, where it seems like women get the short end of that lens, as you put it.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t have a problem with Def Leppard either, but where’s the MC5? It’s very arbitrary. I know that the people that actually run the Rock Hall of Fame are good people, and they are advocating for more representation of women. But I don’t think that they make the decision. It’s a certain committee, and the committee members are very secretive who’s on it, because obviously they don’t want to be lobbied or harassed or whatever. So I don’t know who they are. They’re the gatekeepers.
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