Searching for something to watch recently, we came across The Go-Go’s, a 2020 documentary about the ‘80s pop phenomenon that is part meteoric success and part cautionary tale.
Fronted by Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin, with Gina Schock on drums, Kathy Valentine on bass and Charlotte Caffey on lead guitar and heroin, The Go-Go’s were, arguably, the first all-female rock band. (One could make an argument for The Runaways, Fanny or The Shaggs, I suppose.) In the then-nascent MTV era, their pioneering act stands out amid the “glass ceiling” that had long existed for women in rock music.
When punk wannabes Carlisle and Wiedlin started playing in LA clubs around 1978, they had to take their fair share of male abuse and disdain. Punks would lob spit at them, and their songs were less than memorable, but British ska bands Madness and The Selector took a shine to them (after they dumped half their band members and replaced them with Caffey, Valentine and Schock).
A lucky tour opening for Madness in England plus a record deal at Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. Records meant they now had to deliver the goods: so they segued neatly from in-your-face punk (Carlisle’s lyrical bursts against the standard three chords) to a polished pop-punk confection.
Caffey recalls that watching a late-night Twilight Zone episode inspired the opening guitar riff to We Got the Beat, Schock supplied the killer Motown-inspired opening drum rumble, and the rest is history.
The 1982 album “Beauty and the Beat” became a worldwide smash, and follow-up “Vacation” was nearly as huge. What could possibly go wrong?
You know how it goes: drugs, jealousy, money battles, solo careers and breakups. The Go-Go’s brings it all home, peppered with band members’ present-day reflections on their wilder days, plus great archival footage and photos from the LA punk scene.
Well, in The Go-Go’s, we see that the clichés and perils of rock band self-destruction are not defined by gender. Caffey had a well-hidden heroin habit, perhaps worsened by the pressure of having to write the “next” hit song; Carlisle started developing diva tendencies, calling herself the “voice” of the band whenever Wiedlin piped up about wanting to sing her own songs for a change (such as the megahit Our Lips Are Sealed).
And despite all the downward spirals, this one has a fairly happy ending. Caffey cleaned up, the band patched things up, they launched a jukebox Broadway musical based on their music (Head Over Heels) that ran for two years. And now, as the final scene shows, the girls are back together again writing and playing new songs, sounding amazingly similar to their old days — even outliving the existence of MTV and record stores.
Watching The Go-Go’s reminded my wife and I of another near-cult classic flick released around the same time as the band rocketed to fame. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982) is a mockumentary well ahead of its time, starring the very young Diane Lane and Laura Dern as members of a would-be punk phenomenon called The Stains.
If the thought of Lane in Bowie-like makeup and pre-Madonna attire and Dern sporting a skunk-like hairdo isn’t enough to hook you, the satire also manages to parlay the talents of two former Sex Pistols (drummer Paul Cook and Steve Jones, playing some very Pistols guitar), a Clash member (Paul Simonon), a couple of Tubes (Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick) and a young, pre-heavy Ray Winstone — sporting actual cheekbones!
The Fabulous Stains came through the pipeline of rock producer Lou Adler, so some of it has a gritty, realistic feel. There’s Waybill as the obnoxious singer from dinosaur “heavy rock” act The Metal Corpses, with the attendant drug OD problems and groupie clichés thrown in; there’s Winstone fronting agit-prop punk band The Looters (touch of Johnny Rotten here, bit of Joe Strummer there), whose big song is We’re the Professionals, a song that Stains lead singer Corinne Burns, played by Lane, promptly nicks as her own.
Rewatching the film, I’d forgotten one important key plot point: this all-girl group can’t actually play! They lack a drummer, and any noticeable knack for their instruments.
But what The Stains lack in skill, Corinne makes up for in chutzpah, rage and style consciousness. Starting up the band with her friend Jessica (Dern) to ditch their dead-end middle-American town, she hops on a bus with other bands to make her big statement onstage. And that statement?
It’s a doozy, even in our “woke” times: “Suckers!” she snarls, pointing a finger at the women in the Holiday Inn-type venue where they’re gigging. “Be yourselves! These guys are laughing at you!” She then sheds her overcoat and emerges in see-through blouse and fishnet stockings: “I’m perfect! But nobody in this sh*thole gets me, because I don’t put out!”
Thus begins The Stains’ ascent to semi-cult status among young teen girls who want to look like ‘em, dress like ‘em, and hoover up their merch. It’s a fairly explosive, viral sort of political message, and decades ahead of #MeToo, until it all gets eaten up by the (male-dominated) pop machinery and repackaged as empty punk protest.
Of course, things do work out for The Stains in the end, even after the tour implodes and it’s revealed that Corinne does have a heart beneath that see-through blouse and glam eyeliner (she gives the band’s gig money to their Rastafarian bus driver, Lawnboy).
In the credits sequence, we see the band poised for the Next Big Chapter in rock history, which is the MTV era that birthed Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles… and, yes, The Go-Go’s.