Beauty And The Beat At 30: Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin Interview
Go-Go’s collage by Dean O. Hillis
When Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Shock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin––collectively known as the Go-Go’s––announced their farewell Happily Ever After tour last summer, I was devastated for several reasons: the music world being deprived of a great collaborative and ground-breaking talent, the tragedy of knowing that I had actually never seen them live as a whole band before, and financial prospects of seeing their final tour live were all but a pipe dream.
Unfortunately no one would be seeing them live as their tour was cancelled when disaster struck. Rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin had an accident and tore the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees after falling off a cliff during a late night hike in the Corona Heights Park hills above San Francisco. The Go-Go’s sadly have never played Utah. I once traveled to Vegas (in September of 2002) to see them––twice––after their last studio recording, 2001’s God Bless The Go-Go’s, but sans a very pregnant Kathy Valentine, replaced by her BlueBonnet’s band mate Dominique Davalos on bass.
While these shows were fun and energetic, they were not quite the same thing as seeing the original line up. As fate would have it, this spring, in conjunction with the thirtieth anniversary remastered rerelease of their classic debut, Beauty and the Beat, last year’s cancelled Happily Ever After tour has been gloriously rechristened as the Ladies Gone Wild tour with no signs of “retirement” in sight. I recently chatted with Jane about the tour and the anniversary of one of the finest and most legendary debuts in pop history. It was the first album completely written and performed by an all-female band to top the Billboard charts, where it remained for an astounding consecutive six-week reign. A feat, incidentally, never reached before or since.
SLUG: Hello Miss Jane Wiedlin! I know you’re a very busy person these days so thank you so much for granting SLUG this interview. The very first thing I’d like to ask you is how are your knees doing these days?
Jane Wiedlin: My knee is doing pretty well. I limp sometimes and it gets very stiff, but at least I’m walking!
SLUG: Beauty & The Beat really was a landmark on so many levels. I’d like to ask you about the process of recording that first album. Obviously you couldn’t have known about what legendary heights you were about to achieve with its release, but did any of you realize this was unique at the time of recording it?
JW: I had the bravado of naivete. I really thought we were going to become big rockstars and we did! Looking back, it seems like a miracle.
SLUG: The album, to me, never sounds dated, and while it and the band will forever be linked to the era it was released in (the ‘80s) it has always sounded unlike anything that came before it on radio. Even Vacation and Talk Show sound quite different to it. How would you assess B&TB’s uniquely specialized sound?
JW: I have never been a huge fan of the sound of that record, but I love the songs and the enthusiasm of the performances.
SLUG: Tell me about producers Richard Gottehrer and Rob Freeman. Was working with them something that was suggested to you or did I.R.S. Records [their original label] set this up? Did you guys have any say in the matter?
JW: I.R.S. set it up. We didn’t really know how to pick a producer, and Richard seemed like a good idea because of his experience with ‘60s girlgroup pop.
SLUG: Obviously the Stiff Records version of “We Got The Beat” and that great early version of “How Much More” sound dissimilar to the final album versions. I’ve read online that it was Gottehrer’s idea to slow your initial raw “punkier” sound down so the melodies could be heard. Is this true and was this a turning point during the recording process?
JW: Yes, Richard insisted we slow down our music a little bit. Having said that, after he mixed the record, we heard it and thought it was so slow we made him speed up the tape. Dumb idea!
SLUG: Was that hard for you as a songwriter? Did this also change the way that you approached writing songs?
JW: No, it wasn’t hard for me. I am not just a “punk songwriter.” I’m a writer, period!
SLUG: How long did it take to make this record? Can you remember what your initial advance was or the conditions? Since you recorded in New York and lived humbly, it can’t have been much, especially divided between the five of you. I.R.S. certainly made their money back, but how does that work for a band after something becomes a hit?
JW: Charlotte says the record took six weeks to make. She has a much better memory than me. We didn’t get an advance, we got a budget of $25,000 to make the record. It ended up costing $60,000 which seemed crazy expensive to us at the time because we were so poor! A record budget has to be repaid by the artist (us) to the label (I.R.S.) through record sales, so we didn’t start making money till we paid back the $60,000 and whatever other money the label fronted on our behalf.
SLUG: Do you remember how many songs were intended for B&TB that possibly didn’t make the cut? As a music fan, I’m always in awe of b-sides, and how some of them become favorite tracks by those I idolize, including you guys. “Speeding” especially is an all-time favorite, with “Good For Gone” coming in a close second. How do you choose b-sides?
JW: B-sides are normally a combination of songs left over that didn’t survive the culling process for the bum, and sometimes an attempt to even out publishing money, hence “Good For Gone” which was written by Gina and Kathy.
SLUG: With your upcoming tour and the re-release of B&TB, is there a chance that any of these gems will get toured? You guys often do “Surfing & Spying,” but I would be thrilled to hear some of these others live.
JW: With five people having opinions about what they are willing to perform live, the field gets narrow very quickly!
SLUG: Vacation––like many sophomore albums––seemed to be rushed out, arriving only a year after B&TB. Was there a lot of pressure from I.R.S. for a follow-up? I think the iconic imagery from this time period still holds up very well today. I know there was already turmoil in the band then, but were the video shoots (especially for the title track) as fun as you made it look?
JW: If I remember correctly, the label wanted to keep putting out more singles from B&TB and we refused, stating we didn’t want to “milk our fans.” That’s a more accurate reason why Vacation came out so quickly.
SLUG: I wanted to ask you about the aesthetic of actually hearing each individual’s contributions, especially musically, on your recordings. Besides Belinda’s vocals, you can really hear and identify Gina’s drumming, Kathy’s bass, Charlotte’s guitar and keys and your own rhythm guitar. It is quite powerful and almost seems like a novelty today, but was that a conscious decision on anyone’s part? Truly being one of the bands’ strengths, what would you say most influenced or influences this?
JW: Any well-mixed record will allow everyone’s musical contributions to be heard. It’s just common sense!
SLUG: Obviously all of you practice and worked your asses off in a sexist industry for many years before achieving major recognition for your efforts. You really were pioneers to so many female bands and artists that have followed. Do you think the industry has changed that much from when you first entered it?
JW: No, the industry hasn’t changed a lot. It has changed a little. I’d like to know where all the successful all-female bands are hiding!
SLUG: Speaking of the struggling industry, I’m thrilled that this re-issue is on both CD and vinyl. I think most of us that have been fans from this period probably have this on vinyl, but not the “hot pink” variety. Today’s download-only generation probably doesn’t realize the thrill of picking up an album and taking it all in as an “entire” package. As an artist, how do you feel about this digital age in regards to your music being distributed this way?
JW: I like how easy it is nowadays to purchase a favorite song, but I really miss shopping at record stores. When I was a teenager, I discovered many bands because I would go to the store and purchase albums based on the album artwork! That’s how I found Sparks.
SLUG: I am absolutely thrilled to be seeing you at the Fillmore in August and was over the moon about the VIP package. Having waited in vain many times to meet someone, this is such a great idea, especially for the fans. Would you agree with this? Is it difficult to give so much for a performance and then have to do the fan thing afterwards, especially when on the road?
JW: We do the meet and greets before we perform, and it is fun but very tiring. It’s like doing a wedding reception line every day where we are the bride and then doing a 90-minute aerobic workout afterwards (the actual concert)! But it is great to meet, close up, people who love us so much!
SLUG: Speaking of the Fillmore and your upcoming tour, I was elated when the “farewell” part from last summer’s cancelled tour was removed. Does this mean that there will be more new material at some point? Or even an album?
JW: It’s hard to say. I am interested in recording the odd track and putting it out on our website or through iTunes. This sounds more doable and less stressful than trying to make a whole album, when everyone is scattered around the globe.
SLUG: On a tour, is there any song or songs that you guys refuse to play or get tired of playing? I was wondering what has happened to good ole Turn To You as of late?
JW: Babe [Belinda Carlisle] doesn’t like “Turn To You” and if anyone really dislikes a song, we don’t perform it live.
SLUG: In regards to God Bless The Go-Go’s and its accompanying tour, were you surprised by the public’s reaction to it? Artistically, did you expect it to be more popular and did its relatively modest success hinder future recordings? Has this stopped you guys from making another album?
JW: I don’t think “the public” HAD a reaction because they didn’t know it was out there! Our record company/management (the same people) sucked at that time. Oh well!
SLUG: The reissued B&TB’s CD version has a bonus live disc from this time period which I’m quite excited about, but I was wondering if you have the desire to record an updated “live” album at some point? Do you record your shows?
JW: We do record our shows, not sure if I’d want to release one, though!
SLUG: As a songwriter, when you compose a new tune or even complete a song, do you know if it is a “Go-Go’s” tune or one to keep as a solo track? This makes me wonder if you can speculate on how many unreleased Go-Go’s tracks there are in existence?
JW: I only assume a song is a Go-Go’ s song if I write it with another Go-Go. Even then, it isn’t necessarily for the band. It takes a certain spirit.
SLUG: I’ll never forget saving and scraping money to buy Talk Show when it first came out on vinyl and the pretty purple-tinged translucent quality to it and package as a whole. Your artwork and media presentation was always and has continued to be fairly seamless. Did you guys have a say in the covers?
JW: Yes of course! The first album cover was Belinda’s idea. The God Bless artwork was my idea. We are very very hands-on when it comes to anything creative.
SLUG: You are still the most successful all-female band in history, and yet there still seems to be some sexism and prejudice towards you. Would you agree? As a fan I can’t help but be extremely frustrated by your recent rejection for the exhibit of Women Who Rock for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Do you think you have been properly acknowledged for your music?
JW: No, I do not believe we get our propers, but I hope someday we will.
SLUG: Lastly, are there any plans in the works to reissue the Vacation or Talk Show albums respectively this way, too?
JW: Not that I know of!
SLUG: Well, Jane Drano, it has been a sheer pleasure corresponding with you! Thank you for your time. I hope we can chat again about the plethora of solo things you have your talented hands in at another time. Best of luck with the B&TB reissue celebration, the band’s upcoming Hollywood Hall Of Fame Star, and especially the tour! I can’t wait to see (and meet) you guys in San Francisco in August!
JW: Thank you!!
The thirtieth anniversary remastered Beauty & The Beat is available now on double CD, in various download configurations and on hot pink vinyl. The Ladies Gone Wild tour continues this summer.