The Go-Go’s: Punk Rock Feminists and Under-Appreciated Los Angeles Rock Legends
The Go-Go’s were, are, one of my mom’s favorite bands. She saw them growing up in Orange County in the 80s, and when I hear anything about them, when I think of them, I ostensibly think of my mom. She even has a picture of us, her holding me as a baby, her in overalls and wearing Belinda Carlisle’s signature bandana headband look -- here, in the center.
And maybe, if you’re like me and only ever associated them with sunny 80’s pop rock from their hits like Vacation and We Got The Beat, you might not exactly think about their roots in the LA punk scene — or even think they would belong with that crowd.
Showtime recently released a documentary about The Go-Go’s that was a particular treat for those of us who have grown up with this band, but never truly known their impact. They were the first all-female band to write their own songs and play their own instruments, to reach number one on the Billboard charts. Regardless of how you feel about the charting system and it’s relevance to popularity, that is a huge achievement for five women who set out to change something in the system.
The documentary follows the members of the band from their origins meeting through the Los Angeles punk scene in the late 70’s, with Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin meeting Margot Olavarria and Elissa Bello. Carlisle was the oldest of seven and from all appearances, was the perfect Southern California child with her bleach blonde hair and tan skin from days at the beach. And then she left home at 19 and ended up Hollywood and started playing drums for the Germs -- although she never actually played a show. Belinda met Jane at a show in Hollywood in 1976, wearing a trash bag because punk, and two years into their friendship they decided to start a band themselves.
Jane didn’t even know how to tune a guitar and Belinda had no idea how to sing. They recruited their friends Margot to play bass and Elissa to play drums and mainly just wanted to play music to meet guys. That kind of honesty alone deserves respect.
Their first shows were famously terrible, as they threw themselves into the fire and started playing shows even when they only had two songs to play. Their music was loud, fast, and largely hard to understand, as most punk was those days, but they were among the first women to do it in LA and actually keep at it.
The band went through a couple more member changes before they finally found their groove, but they always remained fully female, with Gina Schock coming on to replace Elissa Bello and Kathy Valentine eventually replacing Margot Olavarria. Valentine even stated pretty plainly in the documentary that she had never played bass before and essentially went on a days long cocaine bender to learn it and all of the band’s songs after being asked to join. Schock was primarily the one to push the band to practice more than once a month.
Their achievement as the first all-female band to write their own music and play their own instruments and reach number one on the Billboard charts is easy to overlook these days. There’s tons of female artists who write their own music and play their own instruments — one of my favorites just achieved her seventh number one album. It was The Go-Go’s that paved that path, though, for other women to be successful in the world of rock and roll.
One of the members of the band even says in the documentary that maybe at the time they didn’t consider themselves feminists, but their actions and their drive back then was definitely rooted in a feminist passion to prove themselves as equals in the world of punk, and then the larger world of rock and roll. Even as their fame and popularity grew, they made it a point to live life as the rock stars they were and show that maybe the types like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones weren’t the only ones that could have groupies and enjoy partying. Just wait for some of the polaroids that Wiedlin took throughout that time to show up in the doc.
“If ‘pop sweethearts’ did acid at Graceland, threw up on the floor at fancy restaurants, cheated on their boyfriends, took nasty Polaroids, made out with girls, watched fringe porn, and stayed up all night writing songs and playing guitars, well, maybe their stupid label might fit,” Valentine wrote in her autobiography, “All I Ever Wanted: A Rock n’ Roll Memoir.”
The documentary was a wonderfully honest storytelling of the existence of the Go-Go’s, complete with frank recollections of their drug usage and partying ways. Compared to other documentaries that have been released this year, (looking at you, MJ) it was refreshing. There’s a distinct feeling of some details being left out simply for the fact that some stories are better left unsaid.
Truthfully, the best thing to be learned from the doc is that the Go-Go’s are a underrated representation of feminism. Feminism is ultimately about not just being able to buck the double standards that hold women to certain behaviors as opposed to men, but it’s about being able to be all the things that we want, that we’re able to be. The Go-Go’s were able to be punk, and the perfect example of the punk attitude, that angry “I don’t give a fuck what you think about me” ethos by still writing songs that they love despite the pop label. Despite what others might think, they were always authentically them, regardless of whatever label media and society wanted to put on them. They weren't perfect, and never pretended or claimed to be.
That representation was huge then, and is even huge now. The Go-Go’s proved that their practice of punk rock feminism is doing what they want, being the band that they wanted to be — DIY, drugs, parties, and all. Whatever you think of punk, the clothes, the music, the parties, etc, true punk transcends that. True punk is in the attitude, and these women are role models of that. They set out to break stereotypes and double standards, and have fun while they did it. It is going against the grain, against what people think you should be and making a space for yourself, and finding a community of others that are doing the same.
The Go-Go’s made their own path, and forged a path for female artists long after them. Punk, pop, country, hip hop, whatever. They proved that women can be punk in their attitudes, sing their pop songs, and be successful. That’s what makes them legendary.
And frankly, they deserve way more appreciation than they get.