This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | January 16, 2024 | 16 minutes (2,000 words)

We’re delighted to publish an excerpt from Lisa Whittington-Hill’s new book, The Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat. Here, we’re featuring chapter 3, “From Punk to Pop.” For more of Lisa’s incisive cultural commentary, check out “The Women Who Built Grunge” and “Live Through This: Courtney Love at 55.”

The Go-Go’s signed to Miles Copeland’s label I.R.S. on April 1, 1981. It’s fitting that the band would sign their record deal on April Fool’s Day since for many record execs the idea of women playing music was nothing more than a joke. After signing their deal, the Go-Go’s headed to New York City to record their debut album. Copeland hired Richard Gottehrer to produce the album. Gottehrer was a songwriter and producer who had success with songs like “Hang on Sloopy,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and “I Want Candy” by the Strangeloves. Gottehrer also started Sire Records with Seymour Stein and the label had helped launch the careers of bands like Blondie and the Ramones, which appealed to the Go-Go’s and their punk roots. Gottehrer had even produced Blondie’s 1976 self-titled debut album.

Gottehrer wanted to polish the band’s sound, slow down their songs so you could hear the lyrics, and make their music more accessible to a pop audience. “I told them they had to slow down, put the songs into a groove. The songs deserved to be treated with respect,”1

Gottehrer told Billboard in 2016. He had a small budget of $35,000 for the recording and ended up going over budget by $7,500, which he paid for out of his own pocket (not to worry, he later made it back in royalties). The Go-Go’s didn’t want to record a new version of “We Got the Beat” for the album. They argued they already had the Stiff Records version and people seemed to like it, but Gottehrer felt Beauty and the Beat needed a new recording of the song and finally convinced them. The album also included the hit single “Our Lips Are Sealed” for which Wiedlin wrote the lyrics and music. The song’s lyrics were based on lines from a love letter sent to Wiedlin by Terry Hall from the Specials, as Wiedlin and Hall had been romantically involved, while the Specials and the Go-Go’s were touring with Madness in the UK. Hall’s band Fun Boy Three would also end up recording a version of the song.

While Gottehrer tried to slow down the band’s songs, what he couldn’t slow down was the Go-Go’s partying. The girls made the most of their time in NYC, taking advantage of the city’s nightlife and everything it had to offer. “This was when I learned that girls can be as disruptive and dirty as boys. Who knew? It might have been drinking, it might’ve been going out, looking for booty—I’m not sure if they were into their drug phase yet. But that energy and personality came across on the record,”2 Gottehrer told Billboard. When the Go-Go’s heard Beauty and the Beat for the first time they cried, but they weren’t exactly tears of joy. They thought they were making a punk record and expected the record to sound like the band did live. Their punk sound had been given a pop polish by Gottehrer. “A couple of us were concerned about how our peers in L.A. perceived us. With the small amount of success we’d had, people said we sold out, we weren’t punk after all, blah, blah, blah. Hearing the album made us feel like they were right—we sounded like we sold out,”3 Carlisle told Billboard in 2016. The Go-Go’s were not the only ones who were upset upon hearing the album. Copeland thought Gottehrer had ruined the band by delivering a pop album. Like the band, Copeland was under the misconception that Gottehrer was delivering a punk album. Later, when the album went to the number one spot all was forgiven. Suddenly, Gottehrer was being heralded as a genius and the best producer ever by both the band and Copeland.

When it came time to shoot the cover for Beauty and the Beat, photographer George DuBose got the job, accidentally. DuBose wanted to shoot the band for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine but was told the Go-Go’s didn’t have time because they needed a cover for their new album. He ended up photographing the cover. The band wanted a timeless feel to the Beauty and the Beat cover. They also wanted a cover concept that would save them the trouble of having to decide what to wear; the cover featuring the girls in white bath towels and face masks achieved both these goals. They tried several things on their faces but ended up with Noxzema because it was the only thing that didn’t crack immediately. The back of the album featured individual shots of the band members in the tub, shot in the bathroom of Wiedlin and Caffey’s room at the Wellington, the hotel they were staying at while recording Beauty and the Beat. The cover received criticism from journalists like New York Rocker’s Don Snowden who wrongly assumed record execs, and not the Go-Go’s, had developed the concept. “It’s a long way from the motley crew pictured on the Stiff single but if the Go-Go’s want to come across as new wave cutie-pie heart-throbs, that’s their business . . . But c’mon, the images—pouring bubbly in bubblebath, chocolates and trashy novels, hand on the telephone, the phallic rose—strike me as some 40-year old marketing exec’s fantasy,”4 Snowden wrote of the images on the album’s back cover.

The album cover was the first time I saw what the Go-Go’s looked like. I could finally put faces to my new heroes. In the days before social media, videos, and the internet, it was a lot harder to learn about your new favorite band. MTV would soon change that, but it wouldn’t launch until a month after Beauty and the Beat was released. Years after I first discovered the Go-Go’s, I was packing some records to move and noticed the similarities between the Beauty and the Beat cover and the cover of Cut, the debut album from the Slits. The Slits were naked except for loincloths and covered in mud, not Noxzema, but there was still the idea that both bands wanted to rebel against stereotypical, hypersexualized notions of what women should look like on an album cover. They were both powerful images that the bands chose themselves, which subverted the idea of how women should market their music. There was also the idea that the women wanted to conceal themselves, whether with face masks or mud, to keep a part hidden, especially from a music industry that wanted women to reveal themselves, and all of themselves, if they wanted to sell records.

As soon as the album was done, the Go-Go’s hit the road. The tours and the venues kept getting bigger. The band went from being the house band at the Whisky and playing small clubs to opening for the Police for their Ghost in the Machine tour in less than a year. Miles Copeland also happened to be the manager of the Police. His brother, Stewart Copeland, was the drummer for the band. Not only would the Go-Go’s end up on tour with the Police, but some extra money left over from the budget for a music video by the Police—$6,000 to be exact—paid for the Go-Go’s first video, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” The Go-Go’s didn’t understand the importance of video at the time; but when MTV launched in August 1981, they saw the difference it made. The girls goofed around in the video, driving around Los Angeles in a convertible, and splashing in a fountain. They hoped to get arrested for playing in the fountain, which they thought would make an exciting end to the video. The police didn’t care, but the video would be played nonstop on MTV.

The album cover was the first time I saw what the Go-Go’s looked like. I could finally put faces to my new heroes. In the days before social media, videos, and the internet, it was a lot harder to learn about your new favorite band.

While the band was opening for the Police and playing sold-out stadiums, Beauty and the Beat went to number one on the Billboard album charts and would stay there for six weeks. Beauty and the Beat had passed Ghost in the Machine by tourmates the Police, which was at number six. Sting brought the girls a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Finally, the police were paying attention to the band, just not the ones they had hoped when they frolicked in that fountain in the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video. “We Got the Beat” went to number two and “Our Lips Are Sealed” to number twenty. The Go-Go’s were everywhere, and Beauty and the Beat would go on to sell more than two million copies, making it one of the few debut albums to top the charts and putting the band on the same level as the Beatles and Elvis. Beauty and the Beat made the Go-Go’s the first, and to date only, female band to have a number one album, who not only wrote their own songs but also played their own instruments. The album was not only a success, but “also a harbinger of what rock would become, and a bridge between punk, the movement whose rebelliousness had quashed the excesses of classic rock, and the genre-fusing music of the 1980s,”5 said Hilary Hughes in her introduction to NPR’s oral history of Beauty and the Beat.

On November 14, 1981, the Go-Go’s appeared on Saturday Night Live with host Bernadette Peters and Billy Joel. Having to wait around the studio all day to play, the Go-Go’s passed the time with alcohol and cocaine. By the time they took the stage, they were so drunk they could barely play. A clip of the performance is available online and worth the watch. The girls could not only hold their liquor on live TV, but the performance helped them sell a lot of records. All this attention helped to move the band’s fan base beyond just college radio listeners and new-wave clubgoers. The band’s fan base was now younger, especially attracting teen and pre-teen girls, who worshipped the band and didn’t know what punk was, let alone about the band’s punk roots. When the Go-Go’s started they dreamed of spitting on Valley Girls, but those girls would soon be part of the band’s fan base and the band would be part of a film that featured those girls they wanted to spit at. “We Got the Beat” would end up being the opening theme to the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that would popularize Valley Girls, mall culture, and Southern California teenage adolescence in the 1980s. The film launched Amy Heckerling’s career, as well as the teen comedies of the 1980s from Sixteen Candles to The Breakfast Club.

Get the Longreads Top 5 Email

Kickstart your weekend by getting the week’s very best reads, hand-picked and introduced by Longreads editors, delivered to your inbox every Friday morning—and keep up with all our picks by subscribing to our daily update.

A 1981 Village Voice poll put Beauty and the Beat in the number ten spot. Revisiting the album for an October 2019 review, Pitchfork gave it an 8.3. “Though it was a far cry from The Canterbury, Beauty and the Beat is about what’s underneath the surface of pop music. Rather than relishing the California sunshine, the Go-Go’s evoke their Los Angeles, a glittery, gritty place where punks rule the streets after dark.”6 Reviewing Beauty and the Beat in November 1981 for Musician magazine, Toby Goldstein said, “Beauty and the Beat is the album those of you who were embarrassed by pop music can use to say that pop’s okay.”7 Wiedlin agreed with Goldstein’s assessment. “One of my great quotes that I ever said, if I can quote myself, was I once compared The Go-Go’s to Twinkies. I said, ‘Everybody loves Twinkies, but they’re ashamed to admit it,’”8 she told Songfacts in 2007.

“I remember thinking if we sell 100,000 copies, that would be amazing. We had no idea it would do what it did. I look back even now and say wow. We went from zero to one hundred in about two years. And what happened with the album—its success—was beyond any of our expectations,”9 said Carlisle. And while I don’t like reducing the Go-Go’s to sugary, sweet baked goods, that’s a lot of Twinkies.

  1.  Rob Tannenbaum, “The Go-Go’s Recall the Debauched Days of Their Hit ‘We Got the Beat’ 35 Years Later,” Billboard, May 20, 2016.
  2. Tannenbaum, “The Go-Go’s.”
  3. Tannenbaum, “The Go-Go’s.”
  4. Don Snowden, “The Go-Gos Go!!,” New York Rocker (1980). The Go-Go’s. Rock’s Backpages. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  5. Hilary Hughes, “How The Go-Go’s Perfected Pop-Punk,” NPR, August 5, 2020.
  6. Quinn Moreland, “Beauty and the Beat: The Go-Go’s,” Pitchfork, October 20, 2019.
  7. Toby Goldstein, “The Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (IRS),” Musician (1981). The Go-Go’s. Rock’s Backpages. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  8. Carl Wiser, “Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s,” Songfacts (2007). The Go-Go’s, Jane Wiedlin. Rock’s Backpages. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  9. Audrey Golden, “The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat: A 40th Anniversary Celebration,” Louder than War, July 8, 2021.

© Lisa Whittington-Hill, 2024. From The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat by Lisa Whittington-Hill published by Bloomsbury Academic on September 7, 2023.