Hallelujah, The Go-Go's are with us once more. Sure, they've regrouped a few times in the past, but what makes this reunion a cause for celebration is that for the first time in 17 years, there is also a new record, the lovingly titled God Bless The Go-Go's. The album manages to combine the mature lyrical content of the group's last album, Talk Show, with the energy and pop hooks of the best songs on The Go-Go's debut smash, Beauty and the Beat. It's also the result of a concerted effort to heal the many wounds the band members inflicted upon each other during the group's first go-around.
So, are The Go-Go's better prepared for this round with the music industry and themselves?
"Hell, everybody's smarter now--we know what's important and we're not going to let anyone fuck it up ... I hope!" says drummer Gina Schock with a laugh, during a phone interview last week. "I know I'm a different person. I try to be as gracious as I can about things I may not agree with, whereas before, nobody cared. It was 'fuck you' and all the fighting. It was not polite. If an issue comes up that's really difficult, now everybody is very conscious about what comes out of their mouths."
Back in early 1978, who could have predicted the massive success that lay ahead of The Go-Go's? Formed by Hollywood punk scene fixtures Jane Wiedlin (guitar), Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Margot Olivarria (bass) and drummer Elissa Bello, The Go-Go's early garage-punk sound could best be described as "loose." By that fall, the band had added guitarist Charlotte Caffey (a bassist by trade, she lied and said she could play lead guitar), giving the band a boost in the songwriting department.
"The first time I saw them play, I thought, Oh my gosh, they're horrible musicians, but the melodies are great and the harmonies are really cool ... and they were having so much fun," Schock recalls. The Baltimore transplant met Wiedlin at a party in the summer of 1979 and replaced Bello the very next day. An experienced, powerhouse drummer, she instantly took The Go-Go's sound up several notches. By the time ex-Girlschool member Kathy Valentine took over for Oliverria in 1980 (who left either because of illness or her dislike of the 'more pop, less punk' direction the band was taking), The Go-Go's were sounding like a real band.
In early 1981, The Go-Go's signed to Police manager Miles Copeland's I.R.S. Records. Soon after, they headed to New York City to begin work with Blondie producer Richard Gottehrer (who also wrote the Strangelove's classic "I Want Candy"). "Richard had a lot of participation in arranging the songs and helping us," Schock says. "We were playing 'Our Lips Are Sealed' and 'We Got The Beat' really fast and he was trying to get us to slow everything down, saying, 'I want to hear the melody, it's all flying by way too quickly.'" The Go-Go's, as studio neophytes, deferred to their producer. "I wasn't too thrilled with his production skills, but thankfully the songs really shined because they were great songs," Schock says.
They were great songs, but was the world ready for five women dressed in thrift-store finery playing their own brand of bouncy, '60s-inspired guitar pop, at a time when AC/DC, REO Speedwagon and Journey ruled the airwaves? Beauty and The Beat, released in July 1981, would go on to sell millions of copies and spawn two hit singles: "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got The Beat." The Go-Go's also became the first all-female rock 'n' roll band to achieve the kind of success previously known only by male-dominated bands. In January of 1982, The Go-Go's hit the road with one of those bands: The Police.
As the tour marched on, Beauty was flying out of stores at twice the speed of The Police's then-current album, Ghost In The Machine. "The guys in The Police were so nice. They brought us champagne and roses when our record went to No. 1," says Schock. "They were genuinely happy for us."
Yeah, but weren't they a little embarrassed, being shown up by their support band?
"Nah," she laughs, "I'm sure Sting wasn't shaking in his boots." Maybe not, but The Police weren't named Billboard magazine's 1982 Artist of The Year. That title belonged to The Go-Go's.
Suddenly recognized as full-blown pop stars, The Go-Go's were quickly swept up in a manic whirlwind of recording and touring that didn't cease until the band's acrimonious dissolution in 1985. But the hits kept coming. Beauty's follow-up, Vacation, went top-10, as did Talk Show, which contained the hit singles "Head Over Heels" and "Turn To You." Despite the "America's Sweethearts" tag that had been hoisted upon them, things were not that cheery in Go-Go land. VH1's recent Behind The Music episode on the band revealed it all: the hard drinking, drug abuse, selfishness, jealousy, ego problems, battles with their record company, and, most damaging, the battles between The Go-Go's themselves. What VH1 neglected to include was one very serious event that actually brought the five women closer together.
Schock, just before the release of Talk Show, in 1984 was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and underwent open-heart surgery. "Yeah, we were a mess." Schock recalls, "but when that happened we all came together. That was the first time everyone stopped all the bullshit and said, 'This is the real deal, this is serious.' I don't know if VH1wanted to show something good," Schock says. "They interviewed each of us for five hours--and they brought that up to everyone--and [then] they didn't put it in the fucking show."
But this rallying of the troops was to be short-lived--Wiedlin ended up leaving the band soon after the Talk Show tour. "It was difficult to lose Jane," says Schock. "We tried our best without her (Kathy Valentine moved over to guitar and Paula Jean Brown was brought in on bass), but it was completely different. When one element of this band is missing it doesn't sound or feel the same." The group--sans Wiedlin--signed on to play the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil, but, once there, the girls' behavior was quickly out of hand. "That was the height of everyone's drug abuse--and I say 'abuse' not 'use,'" she says, adding, "This sort of sums it all up: Ozzy Osbourne kicked Charlotte out of his dressing room!"
Despite protests from Valentine and Schock ("I was wishing we could keep it together"), The Go-Go's officially ground to a halt in May 1985. Individually, the members remained active into the late '80s, with Schock and Wiedlin both releasing solid solo albums (Wiedlin scored a top-10 hit in '88 with her single "Rush Hour"). Valentine and Caffey both formed new groups, but only Carlisle, as a solo act, attained wide recognition outside The Go-Go's.
The band reformed very briefly in 1990 to promote a greatest hits album, but it was "too soon" according to Schock. "It was really difficult, because we hadn't talked everything out--that and the second time." In 1994, they again tried to regroup to promote Beyond the Valley Of The Go-Go's--a two-CD retrospective. By that time, lawsuits over songwriting royalties were pitting band member against band member. When Schock returned from the 1994 tour, she'd had enough. "After we got together that time I said, 'I am never doing this again, I don't give a shit about them, I have my own life and I am so over this thing,'" she says.
But outside influences seem to conspire to bring the band back together. "We keep getting thrown together somehow," Schock says, laughing. "It's not by our design. There will always be this outside thing where someone calls up one of the girls about some new opportunity." This time, it was a movie that got the ball rolling, according to Schock. The film is a planned Ted and Amanda Demme-directed biopic based on a Go-Go's tell-all book currently in the works. The film and book projects proved to be the impetus for a much-needed dialogue among the five Go-Go's. "We got back and started talking about business," says Schock. "Then immediately, we realized we needed to talk, and we did." One thing lead to another and soon the band was discussing the possibility of a new Go-Go's album.
Composing songs for the new album was easy, according to Schock, especially compared to the rushed pace of the band's previous records. "It was done at a reasonable pace. Vacation sure wasn't and neither was Talk Show," she says. Schock is philosophical about her limited role as a songwriter in The Go-Go's. "This band is used to working a certain way. Belinda is used to singing songs that have been written for her, and it makes sense. I know I'll never have a lot of songs on a Go-Go's record, because I write differently. I can write as much as I can for this band, but the truth is that Belinda is very comfortable with Jane and Charlotte's writing, and Kathy was incorporated a bit more this time. It doesn't make me crazy. It made me crazy years ago!," she cackles. That said, "Automatic Rainy Day," a great slice of modern pop-rock Schock co-wrote with Wiedlin, is possibly the best song on the album.
In late 2000, the band convened in North Hollywood's Sound City (where much of Nirvana's Nevermind was recorded, as well as the hilarious studio footage in the film Boogie Nights) with the production team of Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie (Hole, Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo). The experience was quite different from what Schock endured while making Talk Show with English producer Martin Rushent. "He told me not to bring my drums," says Schock, laughing. "That was when all that synth stuff was coming in big and he didn't want me to play drums on it--he wanted to program all the drums." She struck a deal with Rushent. "I said, 'Until I can't play it as well as the machine, then I get to play drums.'" The dreaded machine makes brief appearances on only three of the album's 11 tracks.
The recording climate was much more hospitable for God Bless The Go-Go's. "Sean and Paul have such an organic approach," says Schock. "For me, the whole process was really awesome--it was the four of us playing in this huge room; I hadn't done that in a long time," she says, adding that for the first time, they were able to capture the energy of their live performances in the studio. "It really feels like the way the band sounds, not someone else's vision of what we should sound like."
God Bless The Go-Go's shows a band that is at once more mature ("Vision Of Nowness"), a little angry ("Unforgiven," co-written by Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong, and slated as the first single), introspective ("Daisy Chain," a band bio of sorts) and playful ("La La Land, " a wake-up call most likely directed at themselves). Slade and Kolderie's punchy yet sympathetic production pushes the band's trademark surf-influenced pop to a new, more rocking place. And most importantly, these new songs more than hold their own when stacked up against anything in The Go-Go's back catalog.
But the music industry has changed since The Go-Go's last studio release. In 1984 the band was a proven commodity with gold and platinum albums, several hit singles and sold-out tours. When asked about her band's chances in 2001--competing with the likes of Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears and Ricky Martin--Schock is circumspect, maybe given the fact that the group had just returned from a dizzying blitz of the country's most important radio stations (an experience Schock describes as "way worse than being on tour, because at least when you go out and play for people you get something back"). This time, she says, it's more difficult because they have something to prove.
At the same time, The Go-Go's have all established their own careers outside the band. (Wiedlin and Caffey co-wrote country star Keith Urban's recent No. 1 single, "For The Grace of God.") "You can't let this band be everything or it will wreck you," says Schock. "I feel blessed by anything that comes my way and I've learned to appreciate it all. I love doing this."
These days, it's an older, wiser group of women that'll be hitting the road this summer, according to Schock. "We were kids growing up together and we had a lot to learn. Hopefully, we've all learned our lessons and can continue to treat each other with respect."
It really does seem like the five women are, as Wiedlin recently remarked, destined to be together. "Yeah, I don't know what the hell that is all about," says Schock laughing. She pauses, then adds, "The problem is that this is like family. You don't like your family all the time ... but you do love them."