The Go-Go's emerged from the late '70s Los Angeles Punk/New Wave scene to become a Pop sensation and MTV darlings. They write their own songs, which reflect their personality: quirky, fun, exuberant. Jane Wiedlin is the band's rhythm guitarist and a primary songwriter. We'll start with the Punk to Pop transition, the meaning behind "Our Lips Our Sealed," and what was going on in the "Vacation" video.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I've been fascinated with The Go-Go's ever since I saw a picture of you guys wearing garbage bags on stage.
Jane Wiedlin: (laughs) That's an old photo.
Songfacts: Well, you were part of a really intense punk scene, and I just find it very fascinating how you guys went from being really authentic punk material to incredible pop superstars. And I have to think a great deal of that has to do with your songs.
Jane: Well, yeah. We, from the beginning, were always kind of enamored with the pop/punk style, like our favorite band, the band that we always tried to emulate was The Buzzcocks, who had that great pop song done in a punky style. So that was kind of what we were going for from the beginning. And for the first few years when we were just learning how to play, I think we sounded probably a lot worse than we meant to, just because we didn't know what we were doing. And then, slowly as we learned to play, the songs started coming out more and more. It was always trying to sort of straddle the line between pop and punk. And now so more than ever, I think, because if you see The Go-Go's live today, I think we really finally have gotten to the point where we all have gotten good tones for amplifiers, and now to me it really sounds like we were always into a sound, which is big, powerful, great distorted guitar tones, great pop songs on top of that.
Songfacts: When did you guys start writing your own songs?
Jane: Right from the beginning. Actually, we kind of started writing before we ever played. It was my first band, so it was the first time I'd ever written songs, so it was a really exciting time for me. I'd always been a creative person, and I was in college studying design – I wanted to be a fashion designer, and I was working in a factory in downtown Los Angeles, in a sweatshop, basically, and I was a pattern maker. I remember taking my patterns and writing lyrics as they came to me, all over the patterns, which I wish I had today, because that would be a super thing, a piece of memorabilia to own. But, yeah, as soon as we decided to make the band, I was just so turned on by the idea of being in a band that I just felt really creative right from the start. So the songwriting was not that hard, even though I hadn't written before.
Songfacts: So at The Masque (a sweaty little club in L.A.), you're performing your own songs?
Jane: Yeah, right from the beginning.
Songfacts: Okay. And at some point, "Our Lips Are Sealed" came about.
Songfacts: And something happened. So I take it there are some songs we probably haven't heard, that you guys wrote that you were performing in punk days at The Masque.
Songfacts: And did any of those ever make it onto Go-Go's material?
Jane: Oh, yeah. The first song Charlotte and I ever wrote together was "How Much More," And that was on Beauty And The Beat. Let's see, "Our Lips Are Sealed," that was written in 1980, so we'd been together about two years when I wrote that. Some of the songs from the very beginning were songs that ended up part of our repertoire. Others fell by the wayside.
Songfacts: Well, "How Much More" must have sounded very different when you were performing it originally.
Jane: Well, it was faster, but I wouldn't say it sounded a ton different.
Songfacts: So, with "Our Lips Are Sealed," can you tell me about how that song came about?
Jane: Sure. Let's see, in 1980 we were playing at The Whisky on Sunset Strip, and The Specials were in town from England, and they came to see us, and they really liked us and asked us if we would be their opening act on their tour. I met Terry Hall, the singer of The Specials, and ended up having kind of a romance. He sent me the lyrics to "Our Lips Are Sealed" later in the mail, and it was kind of about our relationship, because he had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff. So it was all very dramatic. I really liked the lyrics, so I finished the lyrics and wrote the music to it, and the rest is history. And then his band, The Fun Boy Three, ended up recording it, too - they did a really great version of it, also. It was a lot gloomier than the Go-Go's version.
Songfacts: Well, there's a song that could be recorded a whole bunch of different ways. And the lyrics to it, depending on what you do to it, can be in so many different styles. So at that point, what do you think it was that gave you that ability to turn this thing into this incredible pop hit?
Jane: Oh, I don't know. Luck. I remember when I wrote it, I was really afraid to show it to the band in case they didn't like it and all this stuff. But luckily they did like it.
Songfacts: And that was the first single, right?
Jane: That was the first single in America. But before we got our record deal with IRS, we actually put out one single in England so that when we toured we had something to sell, and we had like a one single deal with Stiff Records, who were the record company that had signed The Specials and Madness - we also toured with Madness in England. And then that single was a previous version of "We Got The Beat." So I guess technically that was our first single.
Songfacts: Do you remember how "We Got The Beat" came about?
Jane: Well, Charlotte wrote it, but she tells me that it was late at night, she was watching The Twilight Zone, and it just came to her. And she had been thinking about the song "Going To A Go-Go" and how much she liked those great Motown beats and everything, and that's sort of how it happened.
Songfacts: One song I really think is interesting when you just look at the lyrics to it is "Vacation."
Songfacts: It seems like a bit of a break-up song, and a song that might be misinterpreted sometimes. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Jane: "Vacation" was Kathy's song, and Kathy was the last Go-Go to join. She joined at the beginning of '81 and she brought that song with her from her band, The Textones. We really loved the song, but it didn't really have a chorus. So Charlotte and I ended up working with Kathy a little bit more on the song, and sort of Go-Go-fying it, basically adding the chorus. But that storyline was one about having a summer romance, thinking that it was all just for fun and games, and then later realizing that you actually love. So that's what that one's about.
Songfacts: Do you remember making the video for that song? (we can't embed it, but you can see it here)
Songfacts: What was that like?
Jane: Well, we were at the A&M sound stage, and it was a big budget video, because of course by that time we were really popular, because it was our second album, and our first album had sold like, I don't know, over 2 million copies or something. So we had a lot of money to do the video, which was the first time for us, because the other videos we just spent, like $5,000 on or something. And it was fun, but it was a way of working that we weren't accustomed to. And I remember it being a really long day, like a 14-hour day, and about 8 hours into it we all were getting really bored and restless, so we started drinking. But by the time they actually shot the scene where we're on the water skis, skiing one-handed and waving and stuff, we were all really looped. It's so funny, if you look at us, look in our eyes in those parts, we're all like cross-eyed drunk.
Songfacts: I thought maybe you guys were thinking this is the cheesiest thing I've ever done, and you just started making fun of it.
Jane: Go-Go's always made fun of everything. So yeah, of course, we were making fun of the whole thing all along. And we were very resistant to following orders, or to acting, because we weren't actors. But yeah, even though we had become America's sweethearts, we were still basically punk rockers at heart.
Songfacts: Yeah, but your songs were so darn catchy, and you guys were so likeable.
Jane: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, you could say the same thing today about Green Day.
Songfacts: What about the song "Forget That Day"?
Jane: "Forget That Day," I was having a romance with this Euro-guy, he was from Holland, I think. They were an opening act for The Go-Go's, and it was as usual for me at the time, another dramatic, tumultuous, everything-has-to-be-high-drama kind of relationship. And it was all taking place on the tour from town to town. I remember that song was written about the town of Lyon in France. And I kind of remember being on a tower with him, and birds were flying around us, and it was raining - it was all very Wuthering Heights. But it's funny, because, you know, I was pretty young when most of these songs were written. I'll still write a dramatic song these days, but my life has become much less dramatic than it was then. One good thing about being young is you have lots of fodder for writing.
Songfacts: Yeah, there seems to be a lot of heartache types… like "How Much More," for instance. That seems very heart-wrenching.
Jane: Yeah, and to be honest, I don't even remember who we wrote it about. (laughs) But I'm sure at the time it was very heart-wrenching, like you said.
Jane left The Go-Go's in 1985, and the group disbanded soon after, with Jane contributing to some of Belinda Carlisle's solo efforts and releasing her own material as well. In the early '90s, The Go-Go's reformed and have been together as a band ever since. A farewell tour was planned in 2010, but that had to be cancelled when Jane injured her knee in a hiking accident - she literally fell off a cliff. So there has been no official closure to the Go-Go's and we might have to wait a while before we get the inevitable Runaways-style retrospective. If a girl band that didn't have any hits and didn't write their own songs can get a movie, surely Jane and the rest of the girls deserve one too.
Songfacts: And even when you did your first solo stuff, for instance, was "Blue Kiss," I believe, your first one?
Jane: Uh-huh. That was my first solo single.
Songfacts: So what do you remember about that?
Jane: That song, I had a friend, Randall Kirsch, he's like one of my brother's college roommates. He was a great songwriter, and he sent me this tape with like 1,000 songs on it. I mean, the guy was so prolific. And I just loved that song "Blue Kiss." So I asked him if I could do it. I ended up adding some parts to it, and some lyrics. It was really basically his song, though. But I was really attracted to the melody of that song, and also he had these stacked harmonies I thought were really beautiful, and that's why I wanted to do that song.
Songfacts: Your big hit as a solo artist was "Rush Hour." What's the deal with that song?
Jane: I was working with my friend Peter Rafelson, who was a great songwriter and producer. We had a great chemistry going on for writing. We would write our songs really quickly, definitely under an hour, which I always think is the mark of a good song - when it just flows out of you quickly without a bunch of struggle. And I'd been driving around L.A. and getting caught in traffic, and just kind of musing about how the expression "Rush Hour" sounds like it would mean the opposite of what it is. It sounds like it would be something that was a rush, but really it's like a drag. So then I start playing around in my head with the idea that it could be a song called "Rush Hour." And so I went to him with the title, and we just whipped that puppy out. I like that song a lot, though. I'm really, really into true 100% pop, pop songs. I'm super influenced by the bubblegum music of the '60s. Like The Archies and Tommy James, and there's all this great music being written, and just super great pop singles. That's something I've always aspired to write, and I think "Rush Hour" comes close to being a song like that.
Songfacts: That's really interesting to hear from somebody who also is constantly questioning authority, and once wore a garbage bag on stage.
Jane: Right. But a lot of the punk scene, at least in L.A., a lot of it was inspired by the '60s. A lot of the fashion – not the garbage bags, but other things. And a lot of the tones. A lot of stuff was taken from the '60s.
Songfacts: Well, I'm starting to see how, despite whatever the genre is, R&B or pop or punk or whatever – that a good song is a good song.
Jane: Oh yeah, of course.
Songfacts: So it's kind of transcendent. But it's interesting to hear that your heart is kind of in the bubblegum, the pop songs, which I think a lot of people are afraid to admit.
Jane: Yeah, I guess because I'm a woman it's not hard for me to admit that. (laughs) I don't care. One of my great quotes that I ever said, if I can quote myself, was I once compared The Go-Go's to Twinkies. And I said, "Everybody loves Twinkies, but they're ashamed to admit it." I always thought The Go-Go's were that kind of a band, so I'm not surprised that the music that inspired me, as a kid, anyways, is the same kind of music, the music that no one will admit they love.
Songfacts: I once asked the woman who sang the Betty/Veronica parts on "Sugar, Sugar" if there was a subversive element in that song. And she scolded me.
Jane: What did she say?
Songfacts: She said, "No, not at all. That was completely innocent."
Jane: (laughs) Hmmmm….
Songfacts: In the earlier days of the Go-Go's, how did the songwriting work? What was the process?
Jane: It really wasn't much of a process. It would kind of just burst out of us. Quickly on, when Charlotte joined the band, we discovered that she and I had a great team pairing, the two of us. Because she found it really easy to come up with chord progressions, and I found it really easy to come up with lyrics. And we both found it easy to come up with melodies. So it made it incredibly fun and simple to write songs together. I mean, she would like just start to do something, and I would already have an idea that would fit in it. It was pretty uncanny, actually, and that's how most of the early stuff happened. Once Kathy joined the band, it added a new dimension to it, because she's actually a really good writer, too. So then it became more complicated. But to me, the classic core of the writing, because of that first album, is going to be the Charlotte and Jane combination.
Songfacts: Would you two just get together and then start writing?
Jane: Yeah. One of us would be like, "Oh, I have this chord progression idea," or, "I have this title idea," or whatever. And then it would just happen.
Songfacts: All right.
Jane: I know that there's a lot of great artists out there who do amazing work, much better than mine. And that they struggle at it and stuff, and you know, they would say I was crazy for saying that music is easy. But my personal experience has always been that the really good things I've done have been easy.
Songfacts: Some people have said that their most inspired work happens very, very quickly. And then they spend all this time trying to get that inspiration again, which is the challenge to it.
Jane: Yeah. It's funny, I always think that it isn't really the person writing the song, and I of course don't know what it is, where the song comes from. But to me, it always seems like the song is just out there in the air, and I just happen to be the lucky one whose brain opened at the right moment to receive it.
Songfacts: Interesting way to look at it. And it's just a matter of opening your brain so more of those can enter it.
Jane: Yeah. That's why I think anybody could be just as good of a songwriter as anyone else if they had that access to opening up their brain. But I wouldn't know how to tell you how to do that.
Songfacts: That was going to be my next question. So you just answered that.
Jane: How do you open your brain, short of surgery?
Songfacts: I would love to know. "The Whole World Lost Its Head." I believe that's a '90s Go-Go's song. And it's got some rather interesting lyrics. Tell me about that.
Jane: I think '94, Kathy Valentine and I wrote that. We were sitting around just sort of musing about how nutty the world has become, and I think Kathy said, "Well, what about this line for a title: The Whole World Lost Its Head"? And I was like, hmmm, seems kind of worthy. I was actually kind of unsure about it as a title, because it just wasn't that easy to say and stuff. But then we just started, for fun, writing all these silly lyrics - silly but true, and topical. The next thing you know the song was written and it was really just sort of an exercise in having a good time as writers. So we went back to it and said, "Okay, well, this is actually a real song now. So let's hone it a little." So we ended up taking out some of the silliest lines. Sometimes I regret it though, because I know we had one line - because I'm such a Star Trek fanatic - about plastic surgeons giving everyone Spock ears. And we ended up taking that one out, but now I wish we'd left it in. I still crack up when I think about that line.
Songfacts: You're allowed to make Star Trek references.
Jane: I do it a lot now with my own stuff. But with the Go-Go's there, they're not so tolerant since they don't share… I don't blame them, either, kind of annoying. But we wrote that one, and it was fun, too, because we had broken up in '85, and I think it was '94 that came about, and it was sort of the first writing we'd done together since almost a decade. So it was a lot of fun to do it.
In 2000, Jane released Kissproof World, a very rewarding album that didn't get the audience it deserves. The songs are very personal, which leads to an enlightening discussion about re-evaluating religious beliefs and her take on forever love.
Songfacts: When I listen to some of the stuff on Kissproof World, the difference is really incredible from some of your earlier stuff. Can you tell me what you think is maybe the most interesting track on that album?
Jane: I happen to be sitting in front of it. Lucky me, because I'm really bad at remembering song lists. Okay. Wow. I love that record. The song "Icicle," I just still really, really love. And I really, really love the production and the arrangement and stuff that we did on it. That song was about someone just using numbness as their way to protect themselves. Of course, I can totally relate too. It was about me. But I think a lot of people do it, so I was hoping it would be universal. But no one really ever heard the record, so I'll never know.
Songfacts: But it's a good record.
Jane: I love that record, and there's a lot of Charlotte Caffey/Jane Wiedlin songs on that record. To me as a solo artist, what happened over the years was when I first became solo I had just that second quit The Go-Go's, and I was just really trying too hard to prove to myself that I'm much different than The Go-Go's, and I tried too hard to do something that was really, really different. And then I listen back on that record and I wish I had taken a year or two to really think about it before I just dumped this record out. Because I think it's very flawed. And then to me, as the years went on, and as I've gotten older, and I've gotten to care less and less about external things, like record companies and people and the public, I just write for myself, and if I really love a song, and if I get enough of those songs, I'll make a record, and I don't really have expectations about it anymore. And when you get to that point in life, to me, it actually becomes a truer representation of the writer.
Songfacts: Can you tell me a little bit about where you get your spirituality?
Jane: Well, I was raised Catholic. And then when I was a teenager, all of a sudden, my whole family just decided we really didn't believe it anymore. Including my parents. So I went from being a really spiritually and traditionally based religious person, to not knowing what the heck was going on. And kind of feeling probably agnostic, then I became atheist, because I was disillusioned for a long time. And then in the last 10 years or so, I sort of softened up my stance on that, and now I'm back to being agnostic. I really think in this day and age, there's no way to really know, spiritually, what the heck's going on. I am a person who has strong morals, and I believe in morality and being a good person. But as far as literal spiritual beliefs and religious beliefs, I don't see how anyone could know for sure. To me, the only stance a rational person can take is that they don't know. People that tell me they know for sure, I think they're either arrogant, or not so bright. Because if you're so right, what are you saying? What billions of other people are wrong? That's the part of it that makes no sense to me. That's kind of my current take on religion.
Songfacts: Interesting. So, pick another track on Kissproof World that you really like, and tell me about it.
Jane: Let's see, I love the song "The Good Wife." Another song about me: I think I was 12 years into a marriage at that time, and I tried really hard to be a good wife, and just had come to the conclusion that I just couldn't do it. A lot of times, I think, at the end of a relationship you do become sort of disillusioned with the idea of forever love and romance, and marriage itself. And that song kind of addresses it. It's kind of a self-loathing song, too, because it's like, "I'm just a piece of crap who can't keep it together." (laughs) But I really like that song, because it really represents what I was going through at the time.
Songfacts: Yes, and that's important. What's your favorite Go-Go's song?
Jane: That's tough. Whoo. Well, I always have a soft spot for "Our Lips Are Sealed," because it has been so good to me and it's kind of made my career as a songwriter. And even as a solo person it continues to help me, which is awesome. I guess if I was choosing one that I didn't write, I would probably say, "Head Over Heels." I just think it's just a classic. Like a little pop truffle of chocolate that's just completely delicious. Kathy wrote it.
Songfacts: Now, do you remember how your relationship with Terry Hall ended?
Jane: Like I said, he had a girlfriend in England, and they were talking about getting married and all this stuff. So I don't know how I got in the picture. And, you know, that's something that I did as a teenager, maybe I was 20. That's something I would never do now, knowingly enter into a relationship with someone who was with someone else. I mean, it was completely screwed on my part. Although I think when people do that, you really have to look at the person who's in the relationship, and they have to take the burden of the responsibility as well. Anyways, it was one of those things with the tragic letters, "I just can't do this." You know, "I'm betrothed to another." All that kind of stuff. And I think he ended up marrying that woman, and having kids, and of course now they're divorced, so… (laughs)
Songfacts: You have your new album that you're working on now?
Jane: I am. I'm working on a new record. I didn't really mean to, but I haven't made one for so long, and I have lots of songs that I really like, and earlier this year I returned to Wisconsin, which is where I'm from. I came back here to do this songwriting week that a friend of mine asked me to do. And I met all these great writers and musicians in Wisconsin, and basically the whole experience just totally turned me on again to making records. So I decided to make one. And I actually put together a band of people in Wisconsin to play with, so I'm recording it here, which is where I am right now. So yeah, I'm super excited... I've always had such a love/hate relationship with music, because the business end of it is so hard and frustrating. But I love music so much, and love making it, love writing it and playing live. I love it. I can't walk away from it, even though I keep thinking, I can't do this, it's just too much bulls--t. But when I think about the alternative, like working at McDonald's or something, I think, God, you don't know from bull--t.
Songfacts: Or the sweatshop.
Jane: Exactly. I have such a great life, and I am really grateful. So, back to making another record, and that's just the way it is.
Jane played Joan Of Arc in the movie Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, and an ill-fated singing telegram girl in Clue. She's done lots of voicework and has had more excellent adventures that you can learn about at janewiedlin.com.
This interview took place October 22, 2007