Austin’s Kathy Valentine on the punk-pop history of the Go-Go’s
Her memoir and a new documentary reveal intimate stories about the ’80s rock legends
Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 30, 2020.
In 1981, “Beauty and the Beat,” the boisterous debut album from the Go-Go’s, hit the top of the Billboard charts, where it would remain for six consecutive weeks. It was a historic achievement. The group represented the first all-female band who wrote all their own songs and played their own instruments to claim the top position.
Though the band would become internationally famous for hooky, new wave sing-alongs and MTV-ready rock, a new documentary, “The Go-Go’s” (premiering Friday on Showtime) places their origins squarely in the heart of the Los Angeles punk scene. There, a group of misfit young women fresh out of high school found the freedom to explore their voices and the determination to make a mark on a male-dominated music industry.
“We hated society and our parents but we supported each other,” guitarist Jane Wiedlin says in the documentary.
Wiedlin and singer Belinda Carlisle, an ex-cheerleader rocking red heels, torn fishnets and a trash bag, convinced Charlotte Caffey, a classically trained pianist who played bass in early punk outfit the Eyes, to come on as lead guitarist. Rough and unrefined, the group, which also included Margot Olavarria on bass and Elissa Bello on drums, fumbled through their early gigs. When they replaced Bello with Gina Schock, a hard-driven rocker from Baltimore, it gave the group a much needed shot of adrenaline.
The final element that made the band star-ready was the addition of Kathy Valentine, a wayward young Austinite who went west to realize her dreams of rock & roll stardom in the summer of 1978, a year and a half before her debut gig with the Go-Go’s on New Year’s Eve in 1980.
Valentine had encountered the Go-Go’s not long after arriving in L.A., and she wasn’t blown away. While the Go-Go’s were muddling their way through their early gigs, Valentine considered herself “some kind of seasoned pro because I had been in several bands by that time,” she said over a Zoom chat in late July. Valentine currently lives in Austin.
But a lot can happen in a year.
Schock made a huge difference, Valentine said. Like Valentine, Schock had left her hometown band in Baltimore, packed up her gear and driven cross-country to make it in L.A.
“She brought not only her experience, but a level of playing that really pulled it together, and she whipped them into shape,” Valentine said. “She made them practice more. And when they practiced more, they got better.”
Before Valentine joined, the Go-Go’s went on a British tour with ska revivalists Madness and the Specials. It was a rough run. The young rockers were berated and abused by belligerent fans of the headliners, who were at the forefront of England’s ska-punk scene, which attracted a motley assortment of skinheads and hooligans. But the experience gave them much needed stage time and cultural cachet at home. By the time
Valentine ran into Caffey in the bathroom of historic rock den Whisky A Go Go during an X concert on Christmas night 1980, the Go-Go’s were happening.
When Caffey asked Valentine to fill in on bass for a run of eight new year shows over four nights, Valentine jumped at the opportunity, even though she didn’t play bass. She was “kind of in this free fall” after quitting her band, the Textones, she said. It seemed like something fun to do. But as she learned the parts from a scratchy rehearsal tape using a borrowed bass over a three-day, cocaine-fueled session, she “fell in love,” she said.
“I started realizing that they had a great collection of songs and the clicking just started in my brain like, ‘You came here to make it. You want to play with women. They have what it takes. This could go somewhere,’” she said.
Valentine came of age in the Austin music scene during the heyday of the Armadillo World Headquarters and the early days of Antone’s. In her new memoir, “All I Ever Wanted,” released in March, she writes that it was “the best musical education you could have asked for.”
She writes about eschewing high school football games to cheer on the likes of Freddie King and Ray Charles and standing “front and center as a guy named Bruce Springsteen scorched the Armadillo.”
“It gave me a really wide spectrum of music to draw from, which you wouldn't think on the surface would serve me in the Go-Go’s, but it actually did,” she said. “I knew when music could swing, I knew when it should be driven. I knew when, you know, a good solid, rock & roll bass line would fit in, so it really served me well.”
Valentine was raised by a free-spirited single mother with loose ideas about boundaries.
“She was struggling. She was a student. She had a full-time job and she was very young,” Valentine said.
When Valentine was in middle school, she and her mother moved from the University of Texas campus area to a then-suburban part of Northeast Austin. She didn’t fit in and found herself flailing. By the time she was 12, she had turned to drinking and drugs to dull the pain.
In the book, she tells devastating stories of abusive early sexual experiences. At school, she became a subject of gossip and lies. Boys she had never met cornered her in the hallway asking her for sexual favors.
“It was dreadfully painful, and the only tool I had to cope with it was, at first, drinking, but then rock & roll,” she said. “When I was looking at the bands that I loved and the artists that I love, they were so far removed from the people that were in my immediate experience.”
“Rock & roll pretty much saved me,” she said. “It really showed me that there was a place in the world for people that didn't fit in.”
When she was 14, Valentine’s mother transferred her to the Greenbriar School, a free learning commune east of Austin. On the school’s lush wooded acres, Valentine began to recover from the ugliness of her early adolescence. It was there she formed her first band with a few classmates.
Once she had her first taste of live performance, she was hooked. Soon she was working to break into the Austin club scene. The men on the scene cheered on the young guitarist in training, with everyone from Doug Sahm to the Vaughan brothers sharing wisdom and offering support, but Valentine’s dream always was to play with other women.
She was captivated by the idea of being first. She looked at bands she loved, everyone from ZZ Top and the Fabulous Thunderbirds to Led Zeppelin and the Stones, and wondered why there had never been a female incarnation of an arena rock outfit. Coming off a lonely childhood, she dreamed of a sisterhood.
“There was something about female power that I craved,” she said.
The dream came true with the Go-Go’s. The chemistry was so strong in the run of shows at Whisky a Go Go that Valentine’s temporary placement became permanent. Though major labels shunned the band, citing the fact that there had never been a successful female band as a reason, the group soon signed to indie imprint IRS Records. The label flew the band to New York City to record their debut, and for two months they lived in a hotel and split their time between long hours in the studio and partying like rock stars.
“A lot of people feel like I would have felt that I had made it and that the band had achieved success when our record went to No. 1,” Valentine said. “Writing the book, what I realized was that I felt like a success from the moment I joined the band.”
With the debut album under their belt, the Go-Go’s hit the road to promote it, packing clubs across the country. But while they had exuberant stage shows and a catalog of catchy earworms, the male-dominated music industry was still slow to sign on.
“It was a very interesting phenomena, because we were on the road traveling around city to city, and every city, the big radio station would want us to come. They would want us to do an interview. They would want us to do their station IDs and meet all the people and sign things. But then we'd leave expecting, you know, quid pro quo that we get added to the playlist, and it wouldn't happen,” Valentine said.
MTV went on the air in 1981, the same year “Beauty and the Beat” dropped, and the fledgling network helped break the band.
The Go-Go’s stood out on MTV’s lineup.
“We were very appealing. We weren't hypersexualized. We weren't pretentious,” Valentine said. The Go-Go’s had a familiarity, an approachability. They seemed like “a bunch of girlfriends out, except that we were playing guitars and drums and writing songs.”
“But the bottom line is the songs did it,” she said. Songs like “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat” were easy sing-alongs that moved millions.
The next few years were a high-flying run filled with international tours, Hollywood parties and two more albums, but they also were hobbled by creative differences, disputes over uneven payouts due to songwriting credits and rampant drinking and drugging. The band came to a crashing halt after a Rock in Rio performance in 1985.
“I was drinking a lot, and I probably was a drug addict, too,” Valentine said. She wasn’t alone. Caffey went into rehab for heroin addiction and Carlisle has talked openly about a 30-year struggle with cocaine addiction. Now sober, Valentine feels like the “overriding factor” behind the band’s demise “was that we were not emotionally mature people,” she said.
“We weren't emotionally mature enough to care, to have compassion, to have empathy, to deal with success, to deal with feelings,” she said.
In the years since the break-up, the Go-Go’s have reunited several times, but, as the documentary notes, they’ve never been inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
“We did have an influence, and we did have an effect, and we did do something that had never happened before,” Valentine said. But she feels like the band has been “overlooked a lot.”
She hopes the new documentary and her book will cast the band’s achievements in a different light.
“I think it's about time that our place was a little bit more respected,” she said.