Kathy Valentine is just three credits away from finally earning her college degree. It might sound like an incongruous addition to the freewheeling life of a rock star—Valentine also happens to be a guitarist, songwriter, and bassist for the Go-Go’s, whose catchy, hook-heavy pop songs actually make you want to relive the 80s. But her studies at St. Edward’s University, in Austin, Texas, make all the sense in the world and tell as much of a story as any song she’s ever written or melody she’s ever sung. Maybe even a better one.
For one thing, she knows that pursuing her inter-disciplinary degree in fine arts and English literature sends an unmistakable message to her teenage daughter. “I’m putting myself out there, you know, at an age when a lot of people are pulling themselves back from being out there,” Valentine told me. “I really want to zero in on that messaging to anyone who starts looking at the aging process as something where it means you’re supposed to retire or slow down or get smaller in the world. I feel like I’m getting bigger in the world.”
And, she reckoned, an English degree would provide the right springboard for her ambition to write a book. Her publisher beat her to graduation: University of Texas Press published Valentine’s memoir, All I Ever Wanted, this past spring. Meanwhile, The Go-Go’s, a documentary about the band that premiered in January at Sundance, will air on Showtime on August 1.
40 Years of Rock ’n’ Roll
It’s good to be reminded, in 2020, about what it meant the first time Valentine plugged in with the Go-Go’s, at the Whisky a Go Go, in Los Angeles, on New Year’s Eve, 1980. Rock stars then tended to be men, and the scene was still oriented around guitar gods and the front men that women screamed for—not the other way around, which is what quickly happened with the Go-Go’s, the first major all-women band to write their own songs and play their own instruments. Their 1981 debut album, Beauty and the Beat, climbed to the top of the Billboard charts and stayed there for six weeks. In Valentine’s “Can’t Stop the World,” which closes Beauty and the Beat, they sang, “You can’t stop the world, so why let it stop you?”
The Showtime documentary, directed by Alison Ellwood, offers a relevant look at the sexism these women smashed, along with the chart-topping hits, the drugs, the adulation, the money squabbles, the highs and lows, and everything in between. We watch the band as they mix the punk aesthetic of Patti Smith with the feel-good danceability of the Shangri-Las, and see their dive-bar early-days presentation give way to a more refined, exuberantly melodic sound.
This wasn’t the product of the industry’s men in suits, either. (“Best of luck with your enterprising girl band!” reads one of the many rejection letters that came their way.) The women did it on their own, envisioning themselves as a rebel collective, a 1980s answer to the girl groups of earlier eras. We see how they had to endure booing crowds of skinheads demanding, “Show us your tits!,” and infamous Rolling Stone headlines such as Go-Go’s Put Out—but that only served to emphasize that they didn’t merely resonate, they mattered.
The women envisioned themselves as a rebel collective, a 1980s answer to the girl groups of earlier eras.
A highlight of the documentary is footage of the band working on what would become the first new recording from the Go-Go’s in almost 20 years. That track, “Club Zero,” will be released on July 31, the day before the film airs.
The new song, self-produced by the band and recorded at Lucky Recording, in San Francisco, has a classic Go-Go’s sheen, and is grounded by lyrics that capture the ethos of a band that improbably pulled off the toughest trick in the pantheon of rock ’n’ roll: enduring, in spite of everything. It began with lyrics from Go-Go’s rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin. “I started singing these new lyrics Jane had shown me, and then it grew from there,” says Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey. “Where we got it to is perfect for this moment in time. It’s zero hour.... The next few months are going to determine a lot. That’s what the song means to me.” Go-Go’s drummer Gina Schock says, “After 20 years we knocked that song out in two days.”
In addition to producing new music, the band was also supposed to tour this summer. Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold. “I just know the Go-Go’s remind people of a more carefree time in their life,” says Schock. “And, I mean … God, do we need that now.”
They Got the Beat
Valentine’s first show with the Go-Go’s was a few days before her 22nd birthday. “As a band that was up-and-coming, it felt like we had to really work harder to prove we deserved our place at the table,” she says. “Sometimes, it still feels like we’re overlooked or we’re a footnote, or we’re dismissed as being not significant or relevant.”
If the Go-Go’s were about anything, it was the pursuit of forward motion, an idea baked right there into the group’s name. Whether breaking through the constraints of institutionalized sexism or returning to school at an age when many people wouldn’t dream of it—just keep going. “We got the beat” was a rallying cry, wrapped up in the cheery pop perfection of perhaps the group’s most well-known song, and for Valentine in particular it remains an ideal for living.
“I just enjoy being a musician,” she said. “I feel really blessed. That’s another thing I try to insert into my daughter’s life, just how much we have to be grateful for every day. Because I really feel it. I feel it so strongly.”
Andy Meek is a writer in Memphis whose work has appeared in The Guardian and Billboard