Happy 35th Anniversary to The Go-Go’s’ debut album Beauty and the Beat, originally released July 7, 1981.
Today we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Beauty and the Beat, the critically acclaimed debut album from The Go-Go’s, arguably the most popular and successful band to come out of the short lived New Wave era. I often refer to New Wave music as punk devoid of anger with catchy hooks. The group achieved their popularity at just the right time in 1981. MTV would launch one month after the release of Beauty and the Beat and would later prove to be the perfect vehicle for the California based outfit. The level of fame the ladies achieved from this album was unexpected and initially the band was none too pleased about it. Let’s rewind to where it all started.
The Go-Go’s, who were originally and very briefly called The Misfits, got their start in the Los Angeles punk scene. Lead singer Belinda Carlisle, then known as Dottie Danger, cut her early career chops as a member of the legendary punk band The Germs. She left the band before she had the chance to play any gigs with them, however. The original Go-Go’s lineup, in addition to the aforementioned Carlisle, was Jane Wiedlin (guitar, bass), Margot Olavarria (bass), Elissa Basso (drums), and Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar, keyboards), who would later emerge as the Go-Go’s chief lyricist, joined the band in late 1978.
They played their earliest gigs at major Hollywood venues like The Masque and The Whiskey A Go Go, though they quickly gained the unfortunate reputation of a fledgling band who could not play their instruments particularly well. These were low standards even for a punk band. They were little more than a bunch of hardcore party girls who gigged on weekends.
“It was probably the most fun we ever had,” Carlisle recently confided to Billboard. “We had no money, no cares, we were young, living in a big crash pad. I remember getting high on cough syrup because we had no money for beer. It was before the Internet, so we’d write to everybody back home about how successful we were and how great things were."
The Go-Go’s’ fortunes soon changed when Gina Schock was brought in to replace Elissa Basso on drums. Schock convinced the rest of the girls that practicing actually might make them a better band. “I was used to playing clubs, four sets a night, and rehearsing four or five nights a week,” Schock recalled to Billboard. “And they were doing it on the weekends, a couple of times a month. I was like, ‘We’ve got to change this. I came out here to be a rock star.’”
Bassist Margot Olavarria became disenchanted with the band’s slow crawl toward power pop and away from the punk music she was accustomed to. She was eventually replaced by Kathy Valentine, who upon seeing them perform with their original lineup, questioned their legitimacy as a “real band.” When she saw them again six months after that, she realized that the band was much better, largely due to Schock’s influence. Still, no one took them seriously.
In 1980, Madness, and later the Specials, invited The Go-Go’s to England to tour with them. “We quit our jobs, sold everything to come over [to the UK], thinking we’d go back to the States big rock stars,” Carlisle reminisced during a 2014 interview with The Arts Desk. “We were living in 49 Agincourt Road, Belsize Park, a wreck of a house, with the Belle Starrs and some of the other 2 Tone bands. We toured with Madness, lived on cough syrup, white bread and Nutella. We came back a few months later and 50 pounds heavier, each of us, don’t know how that happened. That was the beginning of how the Go-Go’s took off.”
After a grueling three months on the road, they recorded “We Got The Beat” for Stiff Records, who reluctantly released the single after Madness made a convincing case for their tour mates. When the Go-Go’s returned home to the States, the ladies discovered that the song had become a minor club hit, yet they were still in search of a record deal. In her memoir Lips Unsealed, Carlisle writes that Capitol Records told them they couldn’t sign the band because “no female band had a track record worth investing in.”
The only company interested in signing them was I.R.S. Records, the indie label founded by Miles Copeland (brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland). At the time, I.R.S. was mostly known for boasting The Buzzcocks and Oingo Boingo on their roster, and widely considered the label artists went to if they couldn’t secure a deal with a so-called real label. On April 1, 1981, The Go-Go’s signed with I.R.S. and immediately set their sights on finding a producer. Copeland enlisted Richard Gottehrer, a choice that the band endorsed as well due to his stellar work in producing Blondie, among other acts.
Once they were in the studio to record together, Gottehrer told the band that they needed to slow the songs down. Even though this was a further move away from their punk roots, the ladies trusted Gottehrer. The veteran producer had no idea what he was in for. “This was when I learned that girls can be as disruptive and dirty as boys,” Gottehrer admitted to Billboard. “Who knew? It might have been drinking, it might’ve been going out, looking for booty. I’m not sure if they were into their drug phase yet. But that energy and personality came across on the record.” Indeed it did.
Once the album was completed, they listened to it together. Suffice to say the band was less than thrilled with their new, more pop-friendly sound. The girls feared their L.A. peers would think they had sold out. For months, the band did not even speak to Gottehrer, and Copeland accused him of ruining the band by manipulating their core musical disposition. It required a lot of effort by many of their confidantes to reassure them that the record was the right move for their career.
When the album hit number 1 in March 1982, and stayed in that spot for six weeks, the band were finally convinced. The first single from the album was the Top 20 hit “Our Lips Are Sealed,” co-written by Wiedlin and inspired by her former boyfriend, the Specials lead singer Terry Hall. The song gained popularity when it was played in regular rotation on MTV, and it sent the Go-Go’s to new heights of popularity they could have never imagined. Their biggest hit was a re-recorded version of “We Got the Beat,” a song that, more than any other, captured the spirit and frivolity of the band. Although many will most vividly recall the LP’s two massive singles, there’s plenty more to love across the album, with “How Much More,” “Tonite,” “Lust to Love,” and “Automatic” all undeniable highlights.
“People think we were America’s sweethearts,” Caffey insisted to Billboard. “Yeah, sweethearts from fucking hell. I mean, we were just brutal. But fun.” And that’s precisely what this album is. Fun. Having dug through their history for this tribute, it has given me a whole new perspective on the band as I listen to the album once again. The Go-Go’s paid their dues and deserve to be recognized for their place in rock history. They were an all-female band who wrote their own material, had a number 1 album, and indulged in more than a little fun along the way.