The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Go-Go's

"Girl groups," or female vocal trios, had been a part of American pop music for most of the 20th century, but it took until 1981 for a rock band consisting entirely of women, who played their own instruments and wrote their own material, to score a number one album. The record: Beauty and the Beat. The history-making band: Los Angeles punk combo-turned pop-rock outfit the Go-Go's. Singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin, bassist Kathy Valentine, and drummer Gina Schock ruled the early 1980s with irresistibly catchy, radio-friendly rockers like "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips are Sealed," "Vacation," and "Head Over Heels." The band also made a splash in the early days of MTV with its cool, funny videos, but by 1985, the Go-Go's were over and solo careers were underway for most members, particularly hit-making pop star Carlisle.

The Go-Go's reunite often, offering up nostalgia with their tightly-crafted '80s classics. Behind the scenes, however, the bright and sunny-sounding California band endured the frightening and troubling history of a band far more metal. Here's the sometimes out of control, out of sync story of the Go-Go's.

Founding bassist Margot Olavarria got sick and was fired

According to Billboard, the Go-Go's was created in 1978 in the midst of a burgeoning Los Angeles punk rock scene. The founding members were all punks — singer Belinda Carlisle was briefly a member of the notorious Germs, guitarist Jane Wiedlin went by the punky name Jane Drano, and bassist Margot Olavarria resisted and protested when the band grew more competent and leaned toward becoming a top 40 pop-rock band, calling it a "cutthroat drive for commercial success." 

"She hated it. She was like, 'I don't wanna be a f****** pop band. I'm in a punk band! And I think the rest of us were like, 'This is evolving, so f****** get with it or get out," drummer Gina Schock said in the documentary The Go-Go's (via the New York Post). But Margot Olavarria didn't leave the Go-Go's voluntarily. In 1980, she contracted hepatitis A and took some time off from her band to get better. When she was ready to return, she learned that she'd been replaced by new bassist Kathy Valentine. Olavarria sued the Go-Go's in 1982 (a matter settled two years later) while she and Carlisle, once close friends and bandmates, never spoke again.

Fame led to an eating disorder for Belinda Carlisle

Belinda Carlisle was the lead singer of the Go-Go's and so also, its face. Media outlets that covered the band fixed on Carlisle's appearance. "[They] mentioned how much I weighed — so I was 'cute and chubby,' 'pretty and plump.' It was always about my weight," she told Deseret News. Carlisle had been long self-conscious about weight issues; in her memoir, Lips Unsealed, she recalled being called "fat and stupid" by her family.

Go-Go's bandmate Jane Wiedlin first spotted Belinda Carlisle in L.A. punk clubs because she skipped the usual uniform of skimpy miniskirts in favor of vintage dresses. "At the time, I thought it was just extraordinarily hip. Now I know it's because she thought she was heavy," Wiedlin told Rolling StoneDuring Carlisle's time in the Go-Go's, an eating disorder took hold, which in turn led to a dependency on drugs, which she found helped keep her weight lower. Carlisle also struggled with cycles of binge-eating and overcorrecting. "I had a terrible relationship with food," she told ABC News"If I did eat something wrong, I would be on the treadmill for hours and hours. And where I would beat myself up, and thought, well if I ate a bite of that cookie then I would just eat as many calories and count them as I went along, up to five and six thousand a day."

Belinda Carlisle was addicted to cocaine and alcohol

A lot of rock stars get involved in cocaine because it helps them get high and stay there for hours on end. That wasn't necessarily so for the Go-Go's singer Belinda Carlisle, who'd started dabbling in drugs at the age of 14, per The Daily Record. "One of the reasons that I got into cocaine was because it was an appetite suppressant," she told Fox News. But then, addiction set in. According to The Guardian, Carlisle struggled with an extreme dependency on the drug for about three decades. "I can't believe I'm not dead," she said. "I should actually look like the Phantom of the Opera with just two holes in the front of my face."

Not just addicted to cocaine, Carlisle also drank alcohol heavily for years. Even in 1992, while pregnant with her son, Mason, she imbibed daily. "I didn't notice and I didn't pay attention," Carlisle said when others would see the visibly pregnant singer drinking. "I only noticed what I cared to notice." In 2005, at age 47, Carlisle got sober.

Kathy Valentine had a rough childhood

Bassist Kathy Valentine lived a life befitting a rock star, one of excess, instability, and a lack of boundaries ... and yet a lot of that went down when she was a child, well before she was ever a member of the Go-Go's. According to The Statesman, Valentine's father, an airman from Lubbock, Texas, split around the time the future rock star was three, leaving her mother, Margaret, to raise the child alone. Kathy Valentine didn't have a lot of structure from her mother — it was the 1960s and Margaret embraced the decade's wild spirit, giving her daughter free rein to do whatever she wanted, according to her memoir All I Ever Wanted (via Washington Post). 

By age 12, Kathy Valentine was sexually active, going to bed for the first time with a high school-age boy. It resulted in a pregnancy, and as termination was illegal in her home state of Texas at the time, she and her mother drove to California to obtain the procedure. A year later, Valentine was hitchhiking and wound up at an apartment of two young men, one of whom assaulted her. She also did drugs (sometimes with her mother) and rarely attended school. In her freshman year of high school, Valentine dropped out of school to attend an alternative institution called Greenbriar, and shortly thereafter, things improved greatly when her mother's boyfriend — a drug dealer who'd escaped prison — taught her how to play the guitar.

Charlotte Caffey's wrist issues led to a lot of problems

In mid-1983, the Go-Go's were one of the biggest bands in American music but weathered major tensions from guitarist Charlotte Caffey's health crisis. Just as the Go-Go's began work on third album Talk Show, Caffey realized she couldn't move several fingers on her left hand. Caffey had been stressed from life in a successful band as well as a legal fight with the band's managers. The strenuous way she held and played her guitar led to a diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome, characterized by an inflammation of the cartilage around the wrist. That cartilage put pressure on Caffey's hand muscles and nerves, making it tough if not painfully impossible to finger notes on a guitar's fretboard. 

"It was supposed to last two weeks," Caffey told Rolling Stone, "and it went on for four months. Band members came to resent Caffey being unable to participate in band activities, and at one point, she stopped showing up for rehearsals. "It got to be a very tense situation — people trying to get you to work when you can't. I think we came very close to breaking up." Charlotte Caffey said it led to feelings of guilt and depression, and physical therapy eventually improved her situation, but she still had to give up a lot of lead guitar work on Talk Show to bandmate Kathy Valentine.

Charlotte Caffey was addicted to heroin

Shortly after joining the Go-Go's in 1978, guitarist Charlotte Caffey traveled to England with her boyfriend, Leonard Phillips of punk rock band the Dickies, which is where she ramped up her consumption of substances from more pedestrian fare to heroin. In the book More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk (via Billboard), Caffey wrote that she "snorted something the size of a matchstick tip" and didn't think she would experience any effects. Instead, she "instantly became addicted" and spent nearly seven years dependent on heroin, keeping it a secret from the other Go-Go's.

After the band was signed to IRS Records in 1981, Caffey thought six weeks in New York — away from her drug suppliers — to record Beauty and the Beat would help her kick the habit, but she instead trolled around the city's seedy Alphabet City neighborhood in search of heroin. As the Go-Go's became more successful, Caffey added cocaine and fair amounts of alcohol to her daily habits and would frequently drive under the influence. All the while, she remained the band's most active songwriter. In 1984, at the suggestion of new Go-Go's bassist Paula Jean Brown, according to the documentary The Go-Go's (via the New York Post), Caffey checked into a rehabilitation program.

Gina Schock underwent heart surgery at the peak of the Go-Go's fame

Around the time that the Go-Go's finished their third album, Talk Show, according to Rolling Stone, 26-year-old drummer Gina Schock went to a doctor for a routine checkup, who spotted something wrong with her heart. Outfitted with a monitor and electrodes to monitor her heart's activity during the day, tests revealed that Schock had a pebble-sized hole in her heart. Determined to be a congenital birth defect, it wasn't urgently fatal, but if left untreated, within 15 years, Schock would have trouble performing basic tasks without getting exhausted. The drummer decided to go ahead and get a corrective operation as soon as possible, and she turned down the customary rounds of post-op prescription painkillers to speed up her recovery.

The idea of the very young Gina Schock dying of a heart problem — or on the table during the open heart surgery she needed — brought the band together in support of Schock. That included a pre-surgical Palm Springs getaway weekend "in case she croaked," guitarist Jane Wiedlin explained in the documentary The Go-Go's (via the New York Post). They gave her alcohol, Valium, and psychedelic mushrooms, but wouldn't allow cocaine, in case that triggered a heart attack.

Belinda Carlisle and Charlotte Caffey broke up the Go-Go's but didn't tell the others

The Go-Go's loom large in '80s rock, but the band's time at the top was extremely brief. Their first album, Beauty and the Beat hit stores in 1981, and the third and final album (not counting a 2001 reunion record) came out three years later. According to singer Belinda Carlisle's memoir Lips Unsealed, guitarist Jane Wiedlin told the band that she'd be leaving the Go-Go's after their final tour dates in October 1984. She'd apparently "had enough and needed to do her own thing," and had entertained the notion of leaving the band even earlier. The Go-Go's continued on, briefly, with bassist Kathy Valentine moving to guitar to replace Wiedlin and hiring new bassist Paula Jean Brown.

But for Belinda Carlisle and guitarist Charlotte Caffey, the band was out of steam and they didn't have the energy to force it to keep going. And so, in 1985, those two chief creative forces in the Go-Go's broke up the band. But they didn't tell other veteran members Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock, or even let them vote on the idea. According to Valentine in her memoir All I Ever Wanted (via the Washington Post), she and Schock were called to their managers' office, where they were coldly informed of the Go-Go's ignominious end.

Gina Schock sued the Go-Go's

When a successful band breaks up, the aftermath is far more complicated than its members simply not writing or recording songs together. It's more like the closing of a business, with legal and financial contracts and agreements officially dissolved. That's what happened when the Go-Go's split up in 1985 — the band's company, the Go-Go's Partnership, which once actively oversaw the management of the group's catalog and finances, shut down. 

After that happened, former Go-Go's drummer Gina Schock alleged in a 1997 lawsuit (according to MTV News), that band guitarist and songwriter Charlotte Caffey received substantial amounts of Go-Go's related money and "failed to distribute it" properly to her former groupmates. In other words, Schock believed that she was owed royalty payments and that Caffey sat on them. In the suit, the drummer alleged, among other crimes, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and fraud. Seeking $100,000, the suit was quietly settled, and according to the Seattle Times, Schock and Caffey signed an agreement to not discuss the case any further.

A reunion tour was cancelled when Jane Wiedlin tore her ACL

The Go-Go's aren't all that active of a band anymore as far as recording new material goes. The group released little more than three albums in the '80s, a reunion LP in 2001, and the one-off single "Club Zero" in 2020. The Go-Go's of the 21st century earn a comfortable living playing the old hits, live and in concert, to its throngs of adoring fans. The band toured in 2011, 2012, 2013, but not in 2010. A series of concerts were scrapped when guitarist Jane Wiedlin suffered a severe enough injury that prevented her from touring.

According to a post on the website of her comic book Lady Robotika, Wiedlin was hiking near her San Francisco home in May 2010 when she tumbled down a 20-foot cliff. "I knew something was terribly wrong with my knees as I rolled down the mountain, because there was a horrendously loud popping noise, like champagne being uncorked," Wiedlin said. After two days of bed rest, an MRI on her left knee revealed an "exploded ACL," or the tendon that joins the leg together in the knee. She required surgery and a year off from live music to fully heal, but that was just on the left one. "I don't even know yet what is wrong with my right knee because my insurance would only pay for one MRI at a time," Wiedlin wrote.

Kathy Valentine sued the Go-Go's

In the summer of 2012, the Go-Go's reunited for a tour to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the release of its breakthrough album Vacation. But it wasn't a full reunion, unfortunately — bassist Kathy Valentine couldn't participate because she couldn't play, requiring surgery on the distal radius bone in her wrist, as No Treble reports. The tour coincided with her recovery and rehabilitation period, and she hoped to join up for the second leg of the road trip. That injury set off a bad chain of events for Valentine and her band. 

"The Go-Go's have parted ways with bassist Kathy Valentine, citing irreconcilable differences," the group said in a statement (via No Treble). Valentine didn't offer up any additional details at the time as to the reason for her abrupt and formal departure, but two months later, things became a bit more clear. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Valentine sued the other four Go-Go's after they reorganized the band's corporate structure in a move that reduced Valentine's profit-sharing from 20 percent to 2 percent, costing her in the neighborhood of $1 million. Valentine additionally alleged that the band conspired to keep her off of a summer 2013 tour. Fortunately, by 2018, according to the Los Angeles Times, the lawsuit was resolved (settled out of court) and relationships mended enough for Kathy Valentine to rejoin the Go-Go's for concert dates.