Critical Mass

CRITICAL MASS: How The Go-Gos found themselves in L.A.'s punk scene

The classic Go-Gos lineup, circa 1982: Charlotte Caffrey (from left), Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock.
The classic Go-Gos lineup, circa 1982: Charlotte Caffrey (from left), Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock.

We can do what we want

We can say what we please

We can be who we want

Being poor's okay by me

Proud I don't have no TV

-- "Living in the Canterbury," The Go-Gos

When Jane Wiedlin was 12 years old, her mother signed her up for six weeks of acoustic guitar lessons at a local park. She learned to play "Tom Dooley," "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and "Kumbaya." A handful of basic open chords she could strum around a campfire.

It was fine, she liked music, but she didn't perceive any particular gift for it. She especially liked Sparks, the quirky, intellectual southern California glam rock band fronted by brothers Ron and Russell Mael.

She was just another Los Angeles teenager, maybe a little more privileged than most (growing up in the San Fernando Valley, her father an oral surgeon at a Los Angeles-area Veterans Administration hospital), intelligent but only vaguely attuned to the possibilities of an onrushing adult world. She felt the angst in the air the same as everyone else and has spoken of attempting suicide at 15.

Like a lot of kids, she didn't know what she was other than vaguely artistic. After graduating from high school in 1976, she signed up to study fashion design at a local trade school.

"A few months into college, I was reading the fashion newspaper Women's Wear Daily when I came upon an article on punk rock fashion," Wiedlin wrote in the "Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk" (edited by X front John Doe, Da Capo, 2016). "At this time I was still pretty immersed in the whole glitter-rock thing (which, like punk rock, was equal parts look, music and attitude). Music was everything to me, though I never dreamed I could actually be in a band. I was going to be a famous rock'n'roll clothing designer.

"Anyway, that day, looking at the photos of these wild-looking kids on the King's Road in London, I was instantly smitten. Suddenly everything changed for me. I started making my own punk rock clothes and dressing in them, much to the chagrin of my teachers, to whom I'd previously been a pet. I still had my 4.0 grade point average, but now everyone labeled me a nutjob."

One weekend she took some of her designs down to a boutique on the Sunset Strip called Granny Takes a Trip -- a name appropriated from a London store that specialized in vintage clothing and had its heyday in the Swingin' '60s -- that had started to carry punk fashion. They liked Wiedlin's designs, but more importantly Granny Takes a Trip was where she met a like-minded young woman named Pleasant Gehman who introduced her to the small but burgeoning Hollywood punk scene.

Gehman gave Wiedlin a flyer to a new club called The Masque, which was in the basement -- a one-time nuclear fallout shelter -- of the Pussycat Theater, which focused on screenings of "Deep Throat." The entrance to The Masque was semi-secret, located in an alley off Hollywood Boulevard.

"It was dark, filthy and smelly," Wiedlin wrote. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The first show I saw was the Alley Cats and the Controllers. There were about 40 kids there. I knew right away I'd found my home."

It was 1977. Wiedlin would soon move out of her family home and into the Canterbury, a 1920s apartment building a block away from the Masque. She had found her tribe, a group of 50 or so kids who, like her, were transitioning from glittery glam rock and suburbia to an urban punk aesthetic.

The Canterbury was overrun with punks, who lived on ramen noodles and Kraft Mac & Cheese and left their doors open at all hours. Wiedlin had a job at a downtown sweatshop; she wrote punk poetry, smoked crystal meth and saved coins to buy food. It was the best time of her life.

"Yup, the Canterbury was like a dormitory – a dormitory with heroin, rape and plenty-loud punk rock music," she wrote.

The music was the glue that held the community together, and it seemed that everyone was forming a band, regardless of whether they had any facility on a musical instrument or could carry a tune. In a way, it was better if you couldn't play or sing; it was more democratic. Virtuosity was a symptom of bourgeois decadence.

In Penelope Spheeris' remarkable documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization," which core-sampled the Los Angeles punk scene in 1979, there's an anecdote about the Germs, a seminal punk band whose members included Pat Smear (who these days plays guitar in Foo Fighters) and the doomed Darby Crash (born Jan Paul Beahm) who is kind of an American analog to Ian Curtis, the Joy Division singer who was 23 years old when he hanged himself in May 1980. Crash was 22 when he intentionally overdosed on heroin on Dec. 7, 1980 -- the day before John Lennon was murdered and eight months before "The Decline of Western Civilization" was released.

Anyway, after Crash and Smear formed the band that became the Germs, they decided they needed "untalented girls" to fill out their rhythm section. One of Wiedlin's friends from the Canterbury, Belinda Carlisle, intended to audition, but came down with a bout of mononucleosis and withdrew from consideration.

So, while she sat in with them occasionally, Carlisle never realized her dream of becoming the drummer for the Germs.

Jane Wiedlin — who had just taken up her instrument — and Belinda Carlisle perform in the early days of the Go-Gos. That’s a A-flat seventh chord Wiedlin’s concentrating on.
Jane Wiedlin — who had just taken up her instrument — and Belinda Carlisle perform in the early days of the Go-Gos. That’s a A-flat seventh chord Wiedlin’s concentrating on.

Alison Ellman's new documentary that's now playing on Showtime, titled "The Go-Gos," is the most entertaining thing I've seen in weeks. It's full of cool clips, candid photographs and frank, straightforward conversations with all the band's members and many peripheral figures. It's a worthy tribute to an underrated band, one we are repeatedly told was the first all-female band to write their own songs and play their own instruments to reach No. 1 on Billboard charts (though one shouldn't overlook the contribution of venerable hit-maker Richard Gottehrer, who produced their first two albums).

"The Go-Gos" is great TV. It flies by.

Even so, it just scratches the surface, following the strictly chronological "Behind the Music" template of formation, the Pete Best-ing of early members for fellow travelers, the influence and jettisoning of managers, early success, the ennui and bonding induced by constant touring, misadventures with drugs, financial arguments, breakup, post-band solo pursuits and the inevitable reunion.

That it's hardly groundbreaking or seriously in-depth is likely the source of its charm -- in just under two hours it provides a surprisingly satisfying "Behind the Music"-style survey of the career of a fascinating and criminally underrated band.

We don't get bogged down in too much heavy stuff, though we understand there was heavy stuff (and even though the canonical members have all made amends and done the obligatory reunion shows, some rifts will never be completely repaired). Instead, we're allowed to bask in the adorableness of the most adorable pop-rock band ever (unless that title goes to the Tina Weymouth-Chris Frantz project Tom Tom Club).

On the other hand, even longtime fans of the band might be surprised at some aspects of the story. Like Wiedlin, Carlisle and drummer Gina Schock, I graduated from high school in 1976. (Kathy Valentine, the bassist in the classic lineup who switched to guitar after Wiedlin left the band, was a member of the class of 1977; Charlotte Caffrey, the band's chief songwriter and most thoroughly trained musician with a degree in classical piano, was a few years older than the others, having graduated from Immaculate Heart High School in 1972, though some early '80s publicity materials listed her birth year as 1957, not 1953.)

I remember seeing them when they opened for the Police on the tour that was their first big break in 1981, and was impressed with their energy and the buoyancy of their songs.

I knew a little bit about their roots in punk rock, having watched "The Decline of Western Civilization," and heard some of their original demo recordings (collected on the 1994 box set "Return to the Valley of The Go-Go's," which kicks off with a rehearsal tape version of Wiedlin's "Living at the Canterbury," then stalls out and lurches into a Caffrey composition called "Party Pose").

But I had assumed The Go-Gos were an assembled band, put together by some manager (likely IRS Records head Miles Copeland, manager of the Police and brother of that band's drummer Stewart) because they were cute. I didn't hold it against them -- I can and will at the slightest provocation make a case for the prefabricated Monkees as a genuinely great rock 'n' roll band -- but figured someone had selected the young ladies for the band, seen they were given lessons in elocution and how to hold a bass guitar, prettied up, powdered up and sent out to conquer the world.

I didn't realize that the band came together organically, from that crowd of 50 or so punks who hung around the Masque and the Canterbury, a scene that was to grow exponentially over the next few years, with Beach Brats infiltrating their haunts and a brand of hardcore punk that emphasized the shouted plaints of angry white boys becoming a genuine sub-genre that attracted the attention of real record companies. By 1981, the L.A. punk scene was testosterone-driven, and the early female and gay-friendly vibe was endangered. Actual violence, as opposed to mosh-pit carousing, was becoming part of the scene.

One day Billy Zoom of the band X, who had moved to L.A. in the '60s and worked as a session guitarist under his birth name Stuart Tindell, showed Wiedlin how to plug one end of a cable into an electric guitar and the other into an amplifier. He showed her the two basic barre chord forms, and explained that all she needed to do was to move the shapes up and down the neck to have all the chords she'd ever need to write songs.

"Eventually it became painfully obvious that you needed no prior knowledge to form a punk band and that we were the only kids left who hadn't done so," Wiedlin wrote. "So Belinda, Margot Olavarria and I decided we were going to be a band too. Hey, why not? We were perfectly capable of being just as incompetent as everyone else. No matter that we didn't know how to play our instruments -- we were going for it!"

There's a counter origin legend we need to entertain here. Olavarria, the original bass player, who would leave the band in 1981 and sue the other members and their manager Ginger Canzoneri for wrongful termination (the suit was settled in 1984), has always claimed that the band was her vision, and that she and original drummer Elissa Bello had invited Wiedlin, Carlisle and later Caffrey to join.

Bello was fired in 1978 to be replaced by Gina Schock, who'd recently arrived in town from Baltimore. Whether Bello was chucked out because the others weren't happy with her playing -- Schock was a professional, having played New York's CBGB with a band that included John Waters' diva Edith Massey and who had moved to L.A. with the intention of becoming a star -- or because Canzoneri thought that Schock's truck and other equipment might prove useful to the band is a matter of contention to this day.

Olavarria's departure is similarly debated in some quarters -- some remember her as the band's driving force and undisputed leader -- but it's clear that she wasn't happy with the poppier radio-friendly sound the band was gravitating toward. Olavarria was a punk; by her own admission, she wasn't interested in pop stardom.

Her departure opened the door for Kathy Valentine, another professional musician (she had previously been in the Textones, another important L.A. band) to join, setting the classic hit-making lineup.

This  Polaroid  photograph  was  taken  by  Go-Gos  manager  Ginger  Canzoneri during a break from a photo shoot for the cover of the band’s second album, “Vacation.” Sitting, from left, are an uniden-tifiable Go Go, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock.
This Polaroid photograph was taken by Go-Gos manager Ginger Canzoneri during a break from a photo shoot for the cover of the band’s second album, “Vacation.” Sitting, from left, are an uniden-tifiable Go Go, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock.

I also never knew Caffrey was a heroin addict, and that she battled addiction throughout her tenure in the band.

I'd heard about the 1980 U.K. tour they did with British ska bands The Specials and Madness, and the first version of "We Got the Beat," which was issued as a single by Stiff Records in the U.K. (and it's pretty terrific).

I also could have sworn The Go-Gos were in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "The Go-Gos" points out they're not, and offers a plausible explanation why. In August 1982, Rolling Stone magazine ran a story on the band, and on the cover ran a photo of the women posing in white cotton underwear with the caption "Go-Go's Put Out."

The band didn't like it (though the image is, in retrospective, totes dorb) and it fell to Canzoneri to complain to Jann Wenner, the magazine's publisher. Wenner told her she should be thanking him for putting the band on the cover and hung up on her.

Wenner became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation a year later and is rumored to have kept a number of artists out of the Hall of Fame based solely on his personal animus to the band. The band speculates that the Go Gos aren't in because Wenner carries grudges.

Famously, Wenner is rumored to object to the way the Monkees were put together, cast first as actors on a TV sitcom. He is said to object to the fact that they were packages, that they didn't organically come together as aspirational amateurs.

Like The Go-Gos did.