WASHINGTON — They bill themselves as the most successful all-female rock band, holding the distinction as the first — and only — all-woman band to write their own songs, play their own instruments and top the Billboard charts.
Now, decades after “giving us the beat” and influencing other artists to rock out, The Go-Go’s are going on permanent “vacation” with a farewell tour that hits D.C.’s Warner Theatre on Friday night.
“I think 38 years is a really good long run,” frontwoman Belinda Carlisle told WTOP.
“We all have other things going on, and there’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead. Especially it’s different for women in music … but it’s something we all feel that this is the right time. There’s no acrimonious reason. Everybody is just I think done. We’re all in our late 50s, early 60s, so we have other things in our lives. So this next tour is basically about the celebration of the legacy.”
The farewell tour will feature the band’s four remaining members — Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, vocals), Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar, keyboard) and Gina Schock (drums) — each of whom brings a special element to a group whose whole was always greater than the sum of its parts.
“Gina’s rhythm, she has The Go-Go’s sound, the drumbeat of the drummer sets the style of the band,” Carlisle said. “Jane has her lyrics; she’s an incredible lyricist. Charlotte writes amazing melodies and is a songwriting genius. And I think my voice — although it’s not the best voice in the world — it’s definitely distinguishable. … There’s definitely a chemistry that’s carried us through the 38 years.”
Born during the L.A. punk scene in 1978, Carlisle and Wiedlin originally founded the group with Margot Olavarria on bass and Elissa Bello on drums, before replacing Bello with Schock on drums, trading Olavarria for Kathy Valentine on bass, and adding Caffey on lead guitar and keyboard.
Together, their breakthrough came in July 1981 with the seminal album “Beauty and the Beat,” which topped the Billboard album charts for six consecutive weeks, selling three million copies. It caught fire with the smash hit “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which hit No. 20 on the Billboard singles chart.
“‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ started as a letter between Jane in our band and Terry Hall from The Specials, because they were having a love affair,” Carlisle said. “They both put it to music and actually it was a hit for Terry’s band after The Specials [called] Fun Boy Three … then it was a hit for The Go-Go’s in the States a little bit afterward with a whole different set of chords. So there’s really two versions.”
Carlisle says she’ll never forget the first time she heard “Our Lips Are Sealed” on the radio.
“The first time I heard it on the radio I turned it up — and I still turn it up, by the way,” Carlisle said. “I remember being in my boyfriend Buster’s beat-up VW and coming from I think it was San Pedro. We were on the freeway and it came on K-ROCK and we were like, ‘Oh my god!’ It was pretty magical.”
Still, the biggest hit from the “Beauty and the Beat” album was easily “We Got The Beat,” which hit No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart. The catchy jam was etched in pop culture history when it kicked off the opening credits of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), serving as a time capsule to an era.
“That movie is classic California and we were classic California,” Carlisle said. “Charlotte wrote that song when she was watching ‘The Twilight Zone.’ She was just like stream-of-consciousness writing, which sometimes some of the best songs are written like that. … She wrote it in a few minutes.”
“That was a time in The Go-Go’s career when everything just fell into place,” Carlisle said. “We could make no mistakes. It just happened for us. We went from not knowing how to plug our instruments into amplifiers … to being the No. 1 band in America three years later. It was just a magical story.”
In 1982, the red-hot group earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist, losing to Sheena Easton. This set the stage for the sophomore album “Vacation” (1982), the title track of which reached No. 8 on the Billboard singles chart. While the album was certified gold and earned a Grammy nod for Best Packaging, Carlisle says the effort underperformed the band’s expectations.
“That was actually not a very big success for us,” Carlisle said. “We were under a lot of pressure to come up with material. They put us in the studio right away. We should’ve probably taken a couple of years off to write more songs, but they say you have 20 years to write your first album and you have two to write your second. … It was a difficult time … but there’s a few good songs on that album.”
Their third album, “Talk Show” (1984), peaked at No. 18 on the U.S. albums chart, launching more radio hits with “Head Over Heels” (No. 11), “Turn to You” (No. 32) and “Yes or No” (No. 84). Co-written by Wiedlin and Caffey, “Head Over Heels” embodied the band’s behind-the-scenes turmoil.
“Lyrically, that song is pretty sophisticated,” Carlisle said. “The thing about Go-Go’s songs, they have sweet melodies, but if you really dig deep … a lot of the lyrics are pretty dark. That song lyrically was about how we were all feeling being under this microscope, having so much fame, the confusion, the self-sabotage. We started to implode a bit. So that song really captures all that in a very Go-Go’s way.”
After the group disbanded in 1984, Carlisle took her signature voice and launched a solo career with her debut album “Belinda” (1986). The album reached No. 13 on the U.S. albums chart thanks to the strength of radio hits like “Mad About You,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart.
“The band broke up before I recorded my first album,” Carlisle said. “That wasn’t the reason why the band broke up; it broke up because of the classic rock ‘n roll reasons: drugs, ego, publishing. … But I knew that I had the opportunity to make a solo album, so I did within a year of the band breaking up.”
Carlisle’s sophomore album, “Heaven on Earth” (1987), would make her a global star with “Circle in the Sand” (No. 7), “I Get Weak” (No. 2) and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” (No. 1). To this day, you can hear folks singing, “Ooh baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.”
“It just sounded like one of those songs in my experience that could be a No. 1 song,” Carlisle said. “I knew that if I ever had a chance to have a global No. 1, that was it. That song did establish myself as an international recording artist. The Go-Go’s were only really big in the States, had a cult following maybe in France, Australia and Japan … but that song was universal. So it was a big deal for me.”
What’s more, few people realize the music video was directed by actress Diane Keaton.
“She’s great,” Carlisle said. “She had just come off a documentary she directed called ‘Heaven,’ so it kind of made sense. We had a lot of mutual friends and she was into the idea of doing a music video, so it was just a matter of asking her. She was great to work with. … She also directed ‘I Get Weak.'”
While Carlisle continued to crank out solo albums — “Runaway Horses” (1989), “Live Your Life Be Free” (1989), “Real” (1993), “A Woman and a Man” (1996), “Voila” (2007) — The Go-Go’s reunited as a group for live events before cutting a long-overdue fourth album, “God Bless The Go-Go’s” (2001).
“In 1990, we got back together for an environmental initiation in California that Jane Fonda put together,” Carlisle said. “So we got together and we’ve been working ever since, pretty much every summer. We took a couple years off recently, but we’ve pretty much been working every summer since. We have a really large, loyal, amazing following that has been with us through the years.”
That legacy has only grown in the new millennium. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named “Beauty and Beat” one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and in 2011, The Go-Go’s received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yet, for some reason, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame remains elusive.
“I don’t understand why we’re not,” Carlisle said. “We came from a garage, we put our stuff together, it was an all-girl operation, management, roadies, it’s an amazing story. I’d like to think that one day we will. I don’t understand why we’re never on the ballot, but whatever, I think it’s only a matter of time. I’d like to see the band get in because, if I may so myself, they really do deserve to get in.”
Click here for ticket information to Warner Theatre. Listen to the full interview with Belinda Carlisle below: