Issue: Winter 2024
The Go-Go's: We Got the Beat...of LA!
Many say the musical face of LA is The Doors, Van Halen, Guns and Roses, CSN or the Beach Boys. While their body of work is not as all encompassing, I am going to nominate the Go-Go’s for that position. Yes, the Go-Go’s—the most successful female rock band of all time.
Say that again and let it sink in.
Their first LP, “Beauty and the Beat,” sold north of three million copies and cemented them in their meteoric rise to the top. Thirty years later, almost to the day, they got their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, coincidentally next to the site of their first gig. This meteor peaked with their 2021 inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The five girls have done it all, but mostly, they spoke for and about their hometown with more emotion than many.
The most successful female rock band of all time.
We at Discover Hollywood want to shine a light on Los Angeles’ true face of music. Randy Newman might “love LA,” but to the Go-Go’s, this was their town.
Charlotte Caffey featured on lead guitar and keyboards, Belinda Carlisle on lead vocals, Gina Schock on drums, Kathy Valentine on bass and Jane Wiedlin on rhythm guitar. They wanted to be punk rockers, dress that iconic punk style and play punk clubs but—in reality—they couldn’t suppress their power pop inclinations. Good thing, because the angst-ridden LA teen scene needed a band they could bounce to, dance to and sing to.
When they returned from their brief England tour opening for the Specials and Madness, they were well-honed, much like the early Beatles returning from Hamburg. And they would sign with an LA label, I.R.S. Records, cut their first official album and within a year have the No. 2 song in the country, We Got the Beat. The album Beauty and the Beat topped the Billboard album chart No. 1 at that time, and remains the only girl band that wrote its own music and played its own instruments to do so.
That was the Go-Go’s formula. Simple songs, with power arrangements, and tight harmonies. Their effervescence was their calling card. They had that new wave bounce in all their moves. One reviewer even said Wiedlin bounced around the stage like she was on a “new wave pogo stick.” And while they talked a big punk game, when push came to shove, they abandoned their punk desires and even jettisoned their last punk remnant, bassist Margaret Olavarria who wanted to remain true to the cause.
When they did return from England and had their live performance down, they signed with Miles Copeland from I.R.S., a subsidiary of A&M Records. Copeland hired producer Richard Gottehrer, who had his hands in such monster pop hits as My Boyfriend’s Back, I Want Candy, and the ever-huge, Hang On Sloopy by the McCoys. Gottehrer brought Rob Freeman onboard to co-produce and engineer, fresh from his success with Blondie and the Ramones.
This is where this story gets interesting because I was chief engineer at Jon Voight’s and his brother, Chip “Wild Thing” Taylor’s studio in White Plains in the 1980s and who brings a new band in to record while the Go-Go’s are top of the charts? Rob Freeman. I reached out to him for inside scoops on what it was like back then.
“They were amiable, funny, hard-working, and determined,” Rob offered, reminding me that this was their first recording experience. “Like many young bands hearing themselves on excellent control room monitors for the first time, I think they were surprised—and clearly pleased—by what they heard, marveling at how different they sounded in the studio (New York’s Penny Lane) from the way they imagined themselves to sound. Everybody worked really hard to record solid, powerful basic tracks—drums, bass, two guitars, and scratch vocals—before adding a round of overdubs including guitar solos, percussion, keyboards, backing vocals, etc.”
Rob worked hard at recording them in a new way. LA had this reputation for close-miking everything. Listen to any Steely Dan record and you’ll hear what I mean. Doesn’t make it bad. It makes it dry and close. Meanwhile, engineers like Rob and his contemporary, Eddie Kramer (Hendrix, KISS, Zeppelin) were utilizing a more “English” style of recording—live. They would put the drums in the big room and place microphones everywhere to get a bigger sound.
Rob also revealed that he helped Belinda Carlisle improve her vocals. These were the days before “Auto-Tune” but a good engineer working in step with a vocalist could get very good results. In his words he “soloed her vocals for her—after everybody else had left the studio—in order for her to hear the nuances of what she was doing.”
But it wasn’t all work with no play. As Rob remembers, “Most of the Go-Go’s sessions began after 6pm and would go well past midnight. At the conclusion of many of those sessions, the band members would all line up and do the “booty dance” out the door as they headed out into the NYC night.”
Many VIPs would drop in during the recording to check the girls out. “Notably, members of Elvis Costello’s band, The Attractions, and members of Springsteen’s E-Street band, as well as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and others from Saturday Night Live would come by to check out what we were doing.
“So, the question I had to ask was, did you realize that this was going to be the mega hit it became? By the end of the project, both the band and the production team were brimming with confidence and excitement about the record we were making, though I doubt anyone could have anticipated the huge success and lasting impact the album would have over the years.”
Rob was wonderful and gave Discover Hollywood everything I asked for.
Finally, an inside “fun fact:”
“The single mix of Our Lips Are Sealed was actually a late-night 10-minute rough mix I did after an overdub session at Record Plant. I ran the song through, made a few quick tweaks, ran it through a second time, and then did a razorblade edit between the two at the bridge, just before “Hush my darling…”. That quick mix sounded so good!
Although we tried to top it as part of mixing the rest of the album, we somehow never captured the same magic, so we just went with it. Yes, the hit version that was aired on the radio was actually a ten-minute rough mix.”
There you have it. From the lips of the producer (that weren’t sealed) about one of rock’s iconic power pop singles.
So, Los Angeles, keep the Go-Go’s in mind when the discussion comes up on who represents LA more. Keep repeating: The most successful female rock band of all time. DH
Recording engineer and record producer, Chris Cassone is a songwriter (Billboard #9 with Ace Frehley of KISS,) an off-Broadway musical writer. His “Stomp Box Art” a coffee table book about guitar effects pedals is coming soon. He lives in Los Feliz with his childhood sweetheart wife.