Can't Stop the World
The Go-Go's 'Beauty and the Beat' turns 30
"There was a guy I met in Austin that worked for the Runaways, and when I moved to L.A., he was the only person I knew. He had gone from working with the Runaways to working with the Go-Go's. When their bass player fell ill, he was the one who suggested me."
Kathy Valentine, reclining on a red velvet Louis XV-style sofa in the basement studio of her house in West Lake Hills, nods. On the cushion next to her sits May's 30th anniversary reissue of the Go-Go's multiplatinum 1981 debut, Beauty and the Beat, seminally peerless SoCal power pop. Surprised but with a smile, she points herself out on the cover when asked (third from left).
Today is Monday, Aug. 1. Forty-eight hours from now, she joins the rest of the Go-Go's – singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin, and drummer Gina Schock – to prepare the restart of their Ladies Gone Wild tour, which concludes locally in the Paramount Theatre at the end of the month. No longer is it billed as a last hurrah trek like it was last year before postponement due to knee surgery for Wiedlin.
"Nope. It doesn't appear to be [the last tour]," shrugs Valentine. "It's always hard to tell. If I wanted to see the Go-Go's and never had, I would probably buy a ticket on this tour, because you never know."
Native Austinite and first onstage at ground zero of local punk, Raul's (see "This Town," Feb. 9, 2007), the guitarist settles in to talk about Beauty and the Beat. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Keith Richards look down from framed pictures inside and around the soundproofed space. In the corner overlooking a live band setup, a vintage Go-Go's poster spotlights all five bandmembers in their heyday.
Valentine hadn't been in the group six months when the Go-Go's signed to IRS Records in April 1981. A few months later, on July 7, as overseen by Richard Gottehrer – forever famous for writing "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I Want Candy" as well as producing Blondie, Richard Hell, and later the Raveonettes – Beauty and the Beat took its birth year by storm, and three decades on, it remains iconic, effervescent, and just plain top-down fun.
"Right now, I'm the mom of an 8-year-old and my place is here in Austin figuring out what the hell to do with my second act," explains Valentine, who plays bass in the Go-Go's. "I'm 52, and I want a lot of things to happen as I get up to my 60s. That's where I squarely want to be putting my effort and energy.
"That said, I think all of us in the group want the Go-Go's to be part of our lives. Maybe different ones of us want it to a bigger part. Maybe the percentages are different, but I think we all want the Go-Go's to be a part."
Austin Chronicle: Initially, the band did not like the mix on Beauty and the Beat.
Kathy Valentine: I think that happens anytime you're in the studio. When you're playing back, you're sitting in a control room where the speakers are massive and they're playing it back huge. It all sounds good in the control room. And that's the last time you hear it, pretty much.
For me, the stuff that I was into – I wanted to sound like Blondie or the Ramones. Our record didn't have that cool, slick-attitude presence of Blondie, and it didn't have the power of a Ramones record. It just sounded tinny and thin. And little. That's why I was appalled. When I hear it now, on the radio or anywhere – I mean, I hear this stuff all over the place – it sounds fine. I don't know if Richard was just lucky or he knew this would hold up over time.
AC: When was the last time you saw the video for "Our Lips Are Sealed"?
KV: It always seems they run a little clip of it when they have us on TV. It was very early on in the whole idea of videos. There was no script. Everything was low budget. I remember the car and the driving around and thinking, "This is lame." I remember we pulled up to Trashy Lingerie and thinking, "What does lingerie have to do with us and the kind of girls we are?" And it was our idea at the end to crawl up in the fountain, which was a fountain on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire in the heart of Beverly Hills. Our hope – because there was no story and nothing going on other than us in this car driving around – our hope was that maybe we'd attract attention from the police, and that maybe some candid arresting or hassle moment would get captured. But nobody paid any attention.
AC: The segue from "Our Lips Are Sealed" into "How Much More" is great. Is that Elvis' "His Latest Flame" in the opening to "How Much More"?
KV: Because I was a big Elvis fan, that was the first thing I thought when I learned it. That's the feel I always injected into it. What's weird is that we always, always try to put "How Much More" somewhere else in our concert set lists, and it always ends up second. I don't know if that's because of the record sequencing or that's just where it sounds good.
AC: Lyrically, Beauty and the Beat is obviously about and by women who say what they want. Is rock stardom different for women than men, who invariably dive headlong into the genre credo of "sex, drugs, and rock & roll"?
KV: No. For us, we embraced the sex, drugs, and rock & roll aspects of success. Definitely embraced it, with the added complication that we all had boyfriends. The dynamic of being a girl on the road with your boyfriend at home – there was lots of being downstairs in the hotel lobby on the pay phone, tears streaming down cheeks. Just a lot of complicated dynamics, because on top of the sex, drugs, and rock & roll, you have girlfriends. This is a band of girls, and they're all girlfriends who have boyfriends. And yet, we're acting pretty naughty out there. Whereas with guys, if they have a girlfriend out there, it doesn't matter because they're supposed to be out there cheating. Girlfriends don't do that. I think that rather than going out and trying to notch conquests, we were more like little mini relationships. Illicit ones would develop. But it was still sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
And I wanted to say something about the songs. One thing I've noticed on this, our 30th year anniversary tour, and it's just a phenomenal aspect for me, but there's not any songs on this record that we can't sing as 52-year-olds. I think that's amazing. Because we weren't thinking, "Oh, we might be doing this decades from now." That's the furthest thing from your mind. Yet there's nothing written that can't be sung now. We don't have to go: "Oh no, we can't do that one because it's too 'young.'" I've written songs that I know are for another artist because it's too young for me. I write all the time where I go, "This is cool, but it doesn't suit me. I can't sing this."
AC: "Tonite," "Lust to Love," "This Town" – they've all got this dark vibe somehow where they'd be right at home on the Nuggets compilation next to the Standells' "Dirty Water."
KV: I think it's that Jane wrote the lyrics to both "This Town" and "Lust to Love" and Charlotte wrote the music. I think, and maybe it's just because I know Jane so well, that there's a dark side in her, and I think it just comes out lyrically. It's not like she's writing skull-and-crossbones, cut-out-your-heart [lines]. When anything is written from the heart, it's going to be imbued with a sense of who that person is, and Jane provided that. On "This Town," there's that ominous guitar sound at the beginning. It reminds me of the first time I heard "Sunshine of Your Love," where I was like 10 years old and everything had been "Crimson and Clover" and bubblegum pop. And when I heard "Sunshine of Your Love," it was like, "Bam!" It was the first time I realized music could have this subversive quality to it.
AC: You said before you didn't know whether Richard Gottehrer had simply gotten lucky with the album's overall sound, which has a palpable timelessness to it.
KV: The thing I love most about the Go-Go's is that we're not the most prolific band, as time has shown. Not the greatest musicians. Have not grown very much as musicians. Yet we can still go out, sell out a concert, and satisfy the audience. And it's all because the song is king. All the rest is almost irrelevant. As long as you can rudimentarily play the chords and hit the notes, you're delivering the song. It doesn't need a screaming solo. It doesn't need fancy, augmented chords. It doesn't need lights or pyrotechnics or elaborate staging or dancers doing choreographed stuff. It doesn't need a hotshot mixer that charges $100,000 a song. That's what's the most amazing thing to me: the power of a good song.
AC: Was there a point in the recording of the album that you thought, "This could be a hit"?
KV: I never thought about that. There was a period of time, probably from when I joined the band through the next year, that everything that happened, I would have been fine with if it stopped there. When I joined the band: "$40 a week and unemployment! This is as good as it gets, and I'm good! I'm 21, I live in L.A., and I'm playing in a band that's popular and the clubs are packed every time we play. And I'm making enough money not to have to get a job." That was the pinnacle. So then, to get a record deal: "Well, okay, that was the pinnacle, but all right, all that plus a record deal." And then, "Oh, you're making the record in New York City." I couldn't have cared less if no one heard the record. I got to be in a band at 21 and go to New York City and stay in a hotel and record a record, and Gene Simmons came down and met us. Great! How could it be better than that? And go out every night, and get drunk, and walk around the city – just an Austin girl. And then, "Wow! I get to go on tour and do this." So the fact that it was a hit was just another one of those moments: "Oh, it's on the radio."
AC: That must have changed from the first album to the follow-up, Vacation, whose title track you mostly wrote.
KV: Yeah. Oh yeah. Totally. The first stupid thing that we did was that after the first two singles, they wanted to release another single, and I remember us saying, "They're trying to bleed us while we're hot!" Plus we wanted to make the next record. So we said: "No. No more singles." It was stupid. I don't know what would have been the third single: maybe "Lust to Love," maybe "This Town." Who knows? So I think that was really stupid. I think the record could have sold 8 million if we had let them "bleed" us while we were hot. The fact is we weren't ready for the second record. We were not ready. At all.
AC: How important is the fact that the Go-Go's are cited as the only all-female rock band writing and recording its own material to reach No. 1?
KV: Indisputable fact – indisputable fact: What we did had never been done and has never been duplicated. I think we're overlooked a lot and not given enough credit for that, but it's one of those things no one can take away. And I'm not saying that there weren't people that helped pave the way, but I've never seen it since. I've never seen an all-female band that writes all their own songs, plays all their own instruments, and goes all the way to the top. Never seen it. I would like to see it. I'd like to see more of it. It's one of my causes: Why don't more girls wanna be in bands? And then when I do see them, I think, "God, why don't they get it together to write a good song?"
AC: Your sole writing credit on Beauty and the Beat comes on the last song, "Can't Stop the World," which Charlotte Caffey was instrumental in getting the band to adopt.
KV: I wrote that song soon after I moved to L.A. I guess I had just turned 19. I was really lonely and lost in L.A., and I wrote that song there. It seemed like it could work for the Go-Go's, and I really wanted to be represented on the first record. If that song wasn't on the record, I think I would forever feel a little detached from it. I would really feel like the person that stepped in at the last minute. Having a song on it was hugely important to me, yet I was also really insecure and didn't feel like I was in the same class of writer as Jane and Charlotte. Those songs. That was their moment of Lennon and McCartney. They hit a vein.
So I was aware of the greatness I was up against, and very insecure. Richard said, "We need another song." We didn't have it, but I was too scared and insecure to say anything, so Charlotte was the one that said, "I think we should do this song." I needed that. I was too new. I didn't have the right. I hadn't paid as many dues – in that band. And I think it got shortchanged a little. The band didn't know it and hadn't been playing it for two years. I don't think it's the best performance of the song. It could be better. But the payoff for me, over and over for 30 years, is how many fans tell me it's their favorite song off the record. Exene [Cervenka of X] told me she loved that song. And she didn't even like me being in the band because she was friends with the first bass player!
AC: The reissue says it took nearly a year for Beauty and the Beat to top the charts.
KV: I don't think it took a year. It took like eight months. It went to No. 1 when we started touring with the Police, which was amazing. It was one of those pinnacles where we were playing arenas now. I distinctly remember Sting – and both groups had records on the charts – coming backstage with Champagne saying, "Congratulations girls; your record has passed ours by." And it was No. 1.
The Go-Go's bring beauty and the beat to the Paramount Theatre, Sunday, Aug. 28. Kathy Valentine's picks, Girl in a Coma, open.