The Go-Go’s made history 38 years ago. There’s still more to their story.

By Lindsay Zoladz

In March 1982, “Beauty and the Beat” — that classic, effervescent, catch-a-wave-of-pink-champagne debut by Los Angeles band the Go-Go’s — made history: It became the first record by an all-female group who wrote its own songs and played its own instruments to hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. Thirty-eight years later, it’s hard to decide what’s more of a shock: that it took so long to happen or that it hasn’t happened since.

“People automatically assume we were probably put together by some guy,” lead singer Belinda Carlisle said in Alison Ellwood’s spirited new documentary “The Go-Go’s,” which airs on Showtime this weekend. “But we did it all ourselves.”

Of course, the Go-Go’s were hardly the music industry’s first commercially dominant girl group (with their dozen No. 1 singles, the Supremes rivaled the Beatles’ popularity in the mid-1960s), nor were they the first gang of guitar-slinging women to “do it all themselves” (hippie-rockers Fanny and British punks the Slits were just a few of the feminist-minded bands forging disparate paths in the 1970s). But the Go-Go’s fused those two impulses together most seamlessly for mass consumption. “Beauty and the Beat” was, in the words of bassist Kathy Valentine, “a pop record with a punk rock ethic.”

The “pop” part of the Go-Go’s equation is what’s stayed freshest in our cultural imagination, thanks to the glistening sheen of timeless, still-ubiquitous tunes like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “We Got the Beat” and “Vacation.” (They were the soundtrack to a Broadway musical in 2018.) What’s compelling about Ellwood’s documentary, though, is how thoroughly it excavates the group’s early punk bona fides.

“There never would have been the Go-Go’s without the punk rock scene in Los Angeles,” guitarist Jane Wiedlin said, placing the group within the context of local peers like X, Bags and the Eyes (the band that a mop-topped blonde named Charlotte Caffey would eventually leave to join the Go-Go’s.) While honing their chops, the Go-Go’s toured the United Kingdom opening for underground heroes Madness and the Specials, braving the jeers and spit of angry skinheads. When we first meet Carlisle in the doc, she’s not wearing cheery MTV-ready pastels but a caustic-Elvis sneer and a plastic garbage bag as a dress.

Caffey was “terrified” when she first brought the group a demo tape of a little ditty she’d written called “We Got the Beat”: “I was thinking, man, these girls are going to throw me out of this band, because it was a pop song.” But her bandmates knew a great tune when they heard one, and the track’s aerodynamic momentum perfectly matched the Go-Go’s increasingly skyward ambitions. (The film is a treasure trove of archival footage; one memorable clip shows Carlisle singing an early, punky version of “We Got the Beat” in a dingy club and taunting the crowd to dance: “Come on, don’t be too cool.”)

Plenty of journalists fixated on the creation myth that the Go-Go’s “couldn’t play their instruments” when they started out — though the same sort of scrappy, do-it-yourself energy was often seen as a sign of authenticity for male punk bands. And it wasn’t entirely true: Caffey was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who’d studied classical piano in college; tough-talking Baltimore transplant Gina Schock — the group’s insistent, thumping heartbeat — was a drummer to be reckoned with from the day she joined the band.

“The genuine exuberance of our music gave people an escape and a respite from the meanness and greed defining the era,” Valentine wrote in her excellent recent memoir “All I Ever Wanted,” with the crisp clarity of cultural hindsight. In their casually charismatic music videos, the Go-Go’s offered the allure of rakish, why-so-serious fun. (“We Got the Beat” had the cosmic luck of coming out a month before MTV went on the air.) Their take on gender equality meant not only playing and writing just as well as the guys but partying as hard (or harder) than they did, too. At their most bacchanalian, one inebriated Go-Go received the dubious honor of being kicked out of Ozzy Osbourne’s Rock in Rio dressing room — no small feat.

Ellwood, to her credit, doesn’t avert her eyes from the uglier parts of the Go-Go’s story, like the firing of founding bassist Margot Olavarria, a dyed-in-the-wool punk who objected to the band’s increasingly polished, melodic sound. “It wasn’t just about the music; it was the sense of being packaged into a product,” Olavarria recalls. “It was becoming less about art and more about money.”

Prophetic words. What plenty of people found most “empowering” about the Go-Go’s — they write their own songs! — created, behind the scenes, a complicated power imbalance that accelerated the band’s collapse. Because Caffey, Wiedlin and Valentine were the group’s primary songwriters, their share of the profits were considerably larger than Carlisle’s or Schock’s. That’s probably what motivated Carlisle to pull the biggest power move she could muster: going solo.

“I’ve wondered many times how it would have been if part of the whole deal had been to keep everyone happy,” Valentine wrote in her book. If the group had contributions from all members, “we could have supported each other and granted space for each of us to grow instead of confining ourselves to a formula with a limited shelf life.”

But the same personal chemistry that fueled the group’s rocket ship ascent is also what made them combustible. Since that first split in 1985, the Go-Go’s have broken up and reformed more times than the documentary has time to chronicle. Most recently, Valentine parted ways with the group in 2012, but she’s back in the fold now. The beat goes on.

Why hasn’t another all-female band matched the heights of the group’s mainstream success? The persistence of sexism and double standards are the most obvious answers. But maybe the young girl-rockers that the Go-Go’s inspired also learned from their travails and sought something brasher and thus less compromising than top-of-the-world success.

At one point in “The Go-Go’s,” Kathleen Hanna, a riot grrrl instigator and incendiary frontwoman of feminist punk band Bikini Kill, remembers attending a Go-Go’s concert in 1982. “As a young girl,” she said, “going into a space where women owned the stage and owned it unapologetically, like they were born to be there — to me, it represented a moment of possibility.”

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