Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go's Recalls the Moment Her Band Topped the Charts in 1981
Austin born and raised, Valentine and the girls reigned with Beauty & the Beat – as excerpted from her new memoir All I Ever Wanted
Beauty and the Beat was mixed, mastered, and finished. All of the Go-Go's assembled for a listening session at the IRS [Records] office. Track after track, we listened in frustrated despair to the result of our hard work. The album had not turned out as expected.
The live Go-Go's sounded raucous, full of attitude and energy, not wimpy and clean like this. Some tracks had been recorded too slow, so they had sped them up, making the vocals sound higher and thinner.
"I sound like a chipmunk," Belinda said, disgusted.
Our shot had been blown, and I didn't even know who to blame. Surely not [label head] Miles [Copeland] – he had left us alone to make the record. Not us – we had shown up with a pile of great songs and a brash rock & roll spirit.
We blamed the producers.
We put our trust in Richard [Gottehrer], and then he had gone and turned us into a Sixties lightweight watered-down pop group! Miles and the record company staff were unconcerned with our dismay. The letdown felt monumental, but I was in no position to do anything about it. None of us were.
I rolled back my expectations for the record and focused instead on the upcoming national Beautify America Tour. For IRS the tour was all about promoting the record, but for me hitting the road meant I got to do what I loved more than anything: have the time of my life rockin' out onstage with my best mates.
Night after freaking night.
Yeah, the record was a disappointment. So what? I still got to go on tour.
The first single, "Our Lips Are Sealed," backed with a bonus track, "Surfing and Spying," dropped at the beginning of June. Of all the songs, this one suffered least from what I perceived as the failings of the production. The song is a perfect pop tune with an atypical structure, unexpected chord changes, smart lyrics unlike any other song, and tons of hooks. Jane wrote it by herself but gave credit because of the inspiration: a love letter Terry Hall from the Specials wrote her. The Go-Go's put our distinctive stamp on the arrangement and music.
The parts fit together like the links of a chain, from the chugging chord intro, solid beat, and rolling bass to Charlotte's chiming arpeggio guitar notes. Instead of a common stand-alone chorus, the key lines come as a refrain at the end of each verse. Belinda sang with authority and exuberance, and the lyrics told a relatable story – it could be about friends, coworkers, or lovers. The bridge is a short, shining interlude, with guitar and bass interplay behind Jane singing. It sets up perfectly the soaring verse and chorus to end the song.
For nearly six months this song helped push our van, and eventually our tour bus, across the country. "Our Lips Are Sealed" brought us to Canada, the UK, and finally Australia, where it reached No. 2. In the United States, the song stayed on the charts for almost six months, finally getting to the No. 20 spot on Billboard, the industry bible, by the end of the year. It took close to 90 live shows and countless interviews, concert and record reviews, radio station visits, television appearances, and photo sessions to get it there.
After months of work didn't do the job, IRS Records hired an independent radio promotions guy to push it. They believed in the single too much to let it wither off the charts. Even with that extra push, enormous resistance from major radio programmers blocked every effort. It seemed like nothing was enough to prove our band worthy of radio airplay. If not for the college stations and rogue DJs, the public might not have heard the Go-Go's on the radio at all.
There were other places to hear and see the Go-Go's, though, the most significant being MTV. With much annoyance and reluctance, the band agreed to make a music video. I couldn't believe I had to spend a rare and precious day off on this dumb waste of time. The video had no concept other than Belinda behind the wheel of an old convertible Buick from Rent-a-Wreck, driving her bandmates aimlessly around and stopping at random places.
I found it incredibly embarrassing and argued vehemently against pulling up in front of the "Trashy Lingerie" shop on La Cienega. What the hell did this place have to do with us? Parked in front of the store, the band is presumably shopping for lingerie while Jane sings her "hush, my darling" part sitting in the convertible. Belinda couldn't be bothered to exit the car and can be seen ducking down in the front seat – my favorite part.
As the driving sequence continued, we had the idea to get out and splash around in the Beverly Hills fountain at Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards. If the cops or authorities interfered, then at least something exciting might happen. No one came to arrest us, so the band danced and got soaked while the camera captured every mindless minute.
When the director set us up to perform on the stage of the Central (now the Viper Room) on Sunset, I felt better about the video. At least it would show us being a band playing and singing together. All my doubts about the importance of videos were quickly erased.
"Our Lips Are Sealed" went into high rotation at MTV, just as the music station grew powerful legs, about to stomp all over music business norms and break bands all through the Eighties. The video cost practically nothing – Miles used the leftover Police budget from A&M Records. But for all it lacked, our video did the job it needed to do: present the Go-Go's to the public without any airs or gloss.
With an MTV playlist heavy on Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, Journey, and Rod Stewart, the Go-Go's stood out. Even cooler bands like the Pretenders, the Cars, and Blondie looked super slick next to our music video. The Go-Go's couldn't claim to sound like punk rock anymore, but we were a true indie band making records and videos void of excess and theatrics. When bands like R.E.M., the Replacements, and Husker Dü became kings of an industry-tagged "alternative" genre, we could have easily gotten credit for helping to pave the way.
We were also the first all-girl band that countless kids, teens, and young adults had ever seen. I had been around for the Runaways; I'd played with the gals in Girlschool. There had been others before us, but we were the band MTV put in people's living rooms. We were five women having a good time like a bunch of girlfriends might do, except we played guitars and drums and wrote catchy songs. It was revolutionary.
"Our Lips Are Sealed" also launched Belinda as a star and not just for her photogenic looks. Our singer had the charm, magnetism, and voice to take us to the top. Our band had the songs and chemistry to make it an electric rise getting there.
The album came out a few weeks after our first single. The initial pressing had a weird peach-colored cover: Par for the course, I thought – not only did our record sound bad, it looked bad. After we insisted on a new version, eventually all copies of BATB were blue.
In time, what we thought had been a too-sterile production stopped bothering us. My opinion changed proportionally with the increasing sales. Whether colored peach or blue, sped up to chipmunk vocals, or lacking grit, it didn't stop several million people from wanting to own a copy over the next year.
None of the stuff we disliked stopped our first album from being one of the most successful debuts ever.
Sometimes I've wondered what it would be like to re-record Beauty and the Beat the way I would like it to sound, with thick, full tones and texture. Then I remember the ephemeral spirit infusing the recording process, the anticipation and joy of a fleeting time, and I know something else was captured that could never be reproduced.
A homecoming show at the Palladium celebrated the release of the record. The venue sold out in hours. Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times gushed, saying our single was, "A delightful mix of the sly innocence of Sixties girl-pop and the snappiness of today's new-wave style."
The Go-Go's had conquered Los Angeles again, to a greater extent. Friends, local musicians, and our entire record company and team swarmed the backstage, everyone drunk on our good fortune. Recklessly overjoyed, I ended up at a party in Laurel Canyon and decided it would be fun to take some LSD.
Having done a fair amount of hallucinogens in Texas as a teen, I thought I knew what to expect. But the mescaline, mushrooms, and acid I had tried proved to be amateur stuff compared to this shit. It fucked me up majorly.
At a peaking point, the band tracked me down at 8am. I had forgotten about our very first in-store appearance, at Licorice Pizza Records on the Sunset Strip. A limo would be picking me up in an hour.
Introducing panic into an acid trip is a really bad combination.
I threw on a Go-Go's T-shirt and a pair of red patent leather stilettos and tried to freshen up my makeup from the show the night before, with clownish rouge and smudged lipstick. The car came with the band inside, everyone extremely annoyed. Belinda finally snapped at me.
"I can't believe you were so stupid to do acid."
It made me cry. I couldn't believe I had let down my band like that either. Crying and tripping is also a really bad combination.
At Licorice Pizza, the exhilaration and delight of seeing 1,000 people lined up was completely overshadowed by my freaking out. Somehow, I had to get through this. Signing records for hours should have been a dream come true, but being completely out of my mind on acid turned it into a nightmare.
I would ask a fan her name, then spell it all wrong, like "Brino" for Robin. I'd pass it on to Char and she would look up at the girl and say, "Brino?" Folks kept saying "Have a nice trip" in passing as we were leaving on tour the following day. "How do they know?" I wondered, in a panic.
The acid trip lasted 36 hours, long after the event had ended. The car dropped me off and I fell asleep, only to awaken with peaking waves of psychedelic rushes snaking around my brain. I lay perfectly still to calm down; I ran in place to move it through my system. I worried I would never come down, lost at sea forever in an LSD ocean.
The last psychedelic trip of my life is one I could have done without for sure, but the story became one of our epic favorites.
As much as the Go-Go's were determined dreamers, driven to make our mark, not one of us thought the record we had made in the New York spring months could possibly end up being the No. 1 record in America. When we embarked on that first national tour to "Beautify America," selling 100,000 copies seemed like a lofty goal. Miles believed in breaking a band over several albums, like the Police had done, so we were in it for the long haul.
Our long haul began in a white Econoline van. The five of us, our luggage, and four crew guys filled the van, while our equipment bumped along behind us in a U-Haul trailer. The crew humped and set up gear then split up to do sound, lights, and stage tech for the gig.
We drove from city to city, playing clubs from San Francisco to Cleveland, from Boston to Houston. I became adept at falling asleep in contorted positions any time of day or night with the clamor of voices and music for a lullaby. Soon the van reeked of unbathed crew, food wrappers, cigarettes, and stale beer.
Scrawling all over the interior with magic markers relieved our resentment for the stinky vehicle. That van, or one like it, should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum. There's no better symbol of determination, discomfort, and dues-paying than a band in a van.
Every night brought a cheap hotel, two to a room, taking turns so a fifth girl could have her own room for a break. I didn't like having my own room. The tour checked off every slumber party and summer camp and birthday party box I had never gotten, with rock & roll, booze, and some sex and drugs thrown on top. I didn't want to miss a second because of needing some time to myself.
I was the girl always up in everyone's business, scared some kind of fun might slip by me.
Nonstop rock & roll, playing music to a jammed club of grooving fans, is intoxicating. Enough to make me, at 22, a little cocky and sharp, ready to cut open the rest of the night and let it bleed all over the place. I was willful: I could do anything I wanted.
Fuck it, I could even do anything I didn't want.
On a night in Atlanta, I didn't want to go back to the hotel and crawl in bed. Right after a show, the high feels precious; it's something you own, that no one else can touch or take away, and you don't want to let it go, not yet. Connecting with my band, executing our parts, locked together, a part of a whole. Connecting with the crew, making sure everything goes smoothly. Connecting with the audience – everyone rocking out together.
I had wanted this kind of connection for so long.
It was early in the tour and I was trying to live the part to the fullest. I was raring to go, looking for trouble, drunk and high on beer and blow, and someone had some quaaludes. Not used to downers, the combination left me close to incoherent. I stumbled into a party in one of our crew's rooms, where Kent, a pro at road stunts from his years working with the Runaways, had set up his video camera.
The things that happened in that room would have been forgotten if not for that recording. I had no recollection of the night until I saw the tape. And what I saw the next day filled me with horror and shame.
Excerpted from All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ’n’ Roll Memoir by Kathy Valentine, ©2020, published with permission from the University of Texas Press, and available from BookPeople on Bookshop.org and select ATX record stores.