In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover The Go-Go’s Beauty And The Beat, which went to No. 1 on March 6, 1982, where it stayed for six weeks.
Few people took The Go-Go’s seriously. Not the Los Angeles punk scene that spawned the band, because The Go-Go’s were staggeringly incompetent—even by punk standards—in the early days and too pop and careerist once they got their shit together. Not the major labels, which had never earned enough of a return on an all-female band to justify the investment. Not the press, which tended to sound condescending even when it praised the group. For a while, all that the five members of The Go-Go’s had was one another and a manager who more or less happened into the job.
Turns out that’s all they needed. Four years after the band formed while sitting on a curb at a party, The Go-Go’s would be on top of the Billboard charts for six weeks, becoming the first female group that wrote its own songs and played its own instruments to do so. Beauty And The Beat would sell 2 million copies and begin a career marked by tumult that continues more than 30 years later.
The Go-Go’s formed in the spring of 1978 but didn’t really cohere until 1979, when drummer Gina Schock joined. Her playing gave the music a more forceful punch, and her insistence on frequent practicing helped move the band from novelty to contender in the L.A. scene. In 1980, British ska band Madness invited The Go-Go’s to England for a punishing three-month tour that left the band dispirited, broke, and exhausted, but while there, it recorded “We Got The Beat” for Stiff Records. The song became a hit at home, but The Go-Go’s still had trouble finding a label.
“All the labels knew about us, and I am positive we would have been signed right away or perhaps even earlier if we had had a guy or two in the band,” writes Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle in her memoir, Lips Unsealed. “Joe Smith, the head of Capitol Records at the time, personally told us that even though he adored us, he couldn’t sign The Go-Go’s because no female band had a track record worth investing in.”
The only label that expressed real interest was an indie called IRS Records, then known mostly for the Buzzcocks and Oingo Boingo. As the famous 1982 Rolling Stone cover interview with The Go-Go’s noted, “IRS was where you went if you couldn’t get a deal with a real label.” But label founder Miles Copeland was “a music-industry powerhouse and visionary,” as Carlisle says in her memoir, and he had connections—his brother, Stewart, played in The Police, who later took The Go-Go’s on tour and played an important role in breaking the band. And, most important, he was the only one willing to take a chance. The group signed on April 1, 1981, though, “In private, we shared disappointment that we weren’t getting a million-dollar advance from a big label, which had been our dream and probably would have happened if our band hadn’t been all female,” Carlisle writes.
From that point forward, everything moved quickly. Beauty And The Beat would hit shelves only three months later, and there were three weeks scheduled to lay down the tracks with producers Richard Gottehrer and Rob Freeman. Gottehrer had a long history that stretched back to the Brill Building; he had co-written “My Boyfriend’s Back” and co-founded Sire Records, but he returned to New York in 1975 and started working with CBGB bands. He’d produced Blondie’s 1976 self-titled debut and 1977’s Plastic Letters, as well as Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ Blank Generation.
At the three-week deadline, not even the basic tracks had been completed, because the band was too busy living it up in New York. They stayed in the Wellington Hotel, or at least they slept there. As Carlisle writes, they closed the bars every night then went to after-hours places, before returning to the hotel to sleep briefly before going to the studio at 8 a.m. “We were either drinking and partying in the studio or hung over from the night before,” she says.
They weren’t totally unprepared, though. Carlisle says they had too many songs, but they eventually settled on the 11 that make up Beauty And The Beat. Guitarist Jane Wiedlin wrote album opener “Our Lips Are Sealed” based on a letter she received from former flame Terry Hall, singer of The Specials. (Hall is credited as a co-writer on the song.) “I knew it was a hit as soon as I heard it, and I was right,” Carlisle says in her book. For her part, Carlisle only co-wrote one song, “Skidmarks On My Heart.” Although the song just seems to be about a guy who’s more interested in his car than his girlfriend, Carlisle notes in her book it’s about her brother, her cat, and her first car. Guitarist Charlotte Caffey, the primary songwriting force of The Go-Go’s, wrote eight of the songs (many with Wiedlin), and bassist Kathy Valentine also wrote one, “Can’t Stop The World.” The songwriting was as diffuse as it would get in The Go-Go’s, and Beauty And The Beat produced some of the band’s best and most loved songs: “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “We Got The Beat,” “This Town,” “How Much More,” “Lust To Love.”
Gottehrer was a pop guy, but The Go-Go’s thought they “were making a great punk album,” Carlisle notes in her memoir. The band members worried the songs sounded “too happy” while they were recording—they even insisted the album be sped up a bit to increase the tempo—and their worst fears were realized after Gottehrer and Freeman mixed the album. Carlisle describes the scene in her memoir: The band was rehearsing for some upcoming gigs, and the label sent a copy of the album to the practice space via messenger. They ran out to someone’s car and listened, going quiet as the drums opened “Our Lips Are Sealed.” “We let the next 10 tracks play without too many comments either way, and finally, after about 35 minutes, we just looked at one another for reactions.”
They weren’t happy. This was no punk album. For a band that came up in L.A.’s dingy punk scene, even a band with pop aspirations, Beauty And The Beat was jarringly pop. The Go-Go’s wouldn’t speak to Gottehrer, and they asked Copeland for a remix. He liked it, so he said no—and as the months passed, the growing success of the album proved him right. A four-star review followed in Rolling Stone that October, and that same month, Greil Marcus wrote an effusive essay on Beauty And The Beat that employed some of the familiar descriptions of The Go-Go’s—cute, bright, cheery, bouncy—while undercutting them:
“But if the music announces itself as all bounce, after a few listenings, ‘slap’ seems like a better word… Beneath the surface of this music—rather, rising to the surface—is a lot of pathos, nerve, toughness, some bitterness; in a word, experience. Beauty And The Beat sounds innocent mostly because we have learned to associate innocence with the sound of joy; if the album has a message, it’s that it takes toughness and nerve to make that sound.”
The praise changed the band’s attitude toward the album. “As a wider audience responded positively to the album, all of us began to change our opinion and think, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad,’” Carlisle writes. “Had we done it the way we originally wanted, I don’t think we’d have the career we’ve had so far,” says Caffey in the liner notes for the album’s 30th-anniversary reissue.
In August of 1981, the band started a long tour with The Police, which would continue into the following year. By March of ’82, Beauty And The Beat had reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for six consecutive weeks, until the soundtrack for Chariots Of Fire unseated it. By August of 1982, The Go-Go’s were on the cover of Rolling Stone, in a famous Annie Leibovitz portrait that put all of them in white underwear. A plan to begin recording a new album right away was put on hold so the band could get the most out of the attention.
That Rolling Stone article typified the media’s attitude toward the band: “The Go-Go’s are safe, wholesome, and proudly commercial,” wrote Steve Pond in the piece’s most infamous line. The Go-Go’s may have appeared on Beauty And The Beat’s cover in towels and facial masks (Carlisle’s idea) and in bubble bath on the back cover, but they weren’t exactly wholesome. “We were cute and bubbly, but we were also twisted, crazy, drug-addict sex fiends,” said Jane Wiedlin in Behind The Music. Caffey and Carlisle developed serious drug problems; in Carlisle’s case, they’d last well into the 2000s. “The whole sex thing was uncomfortable for us,” Carlisle told Spin in 1987. “[The Rolling Stone cover] caused a lot of shit, but the thing was, we were laughing at the typical way a female band could be packaged.” In We Gotta Get Out Of This Place: The True, Tough Story Of Women In Rock, Valentine notes, “There was a real desire on the part of the media and society for us to be nonthreatening and wholesome… We could have done more to try to control the way our image was thrust on us, but for some reason, that had to be part of the package in order for us to be accepted.”
They definitely weren’t accepted by their former peers. In a short, dismissive chapter of Marc Spitz’s oral history We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of L.A. Punk, associates like former bassist Margot Olaverra noted their “seriousness to make it at whatever cost,” and writer Pleasant Gehman said, “The Go-Go’s had to cut off their past to [succeed].” Former manager Ginger Canzoneri was even more pointed, saying, “Belinda always had her eye on the prize and wanted desperately to succeed.” The chapter ends with a quote of Carlisle saying, “We wanted to be rich and famous.”
They succeeded, while, as is often the case, sowing the seeds of their eventual undoing. Carlisle and Caffey’s drug use became problematic, Wiedlin wanted some of the spotlight, and the band’s inner dysfunction would sabotage it again and again for three decades. The Go-Go’s would forever live in the shadow of Beauty And The Beat, but time has proven that’s not a bad place to be.
Next: Blink-182 puns its way to the top with Take Off Your Pants And Jacket.