Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Go's

by Carl Wiser

When we did this interview in the summer of 2010, the Go-Go's were set to start their farewell tour, leaving a legacy as the first successful all-girl pop band that wrote their own songs. That tour was thwarted when Jane Wiedlin fell off a cliff (literally - she fell off a 20-foot cliff while hiking and badly injured her knee), but in the brief window when the band was doing press, we jumped at the chance to speak with Charlotte Caffey, the creative force behind the Go-Go's and also the most averse to interviews.

Charlotte is the band's lead guitarist and a key songwriter. She's the one off to the side while Jane and Belinda and Kathy grab some spotlight, and that's just how she likes it.

Most of the Go-Go's barely knew how to play in 1978 when they immersed themselves in the sweaty L.A. punk scene and poached Charlotte from her band The Eyes. Those early days were uncomfortable but exhilarating, and three years later, they had a record deal and an album that hit #1.

The Go-Go's made just two more albums before breaking up in 1985; they re-formed in 1990 and have been on-and-off since. As Charlotte explains, fame can be very unsettling.
Photo: Arnold NeimanisPhoto: Arnold Neimanis
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Charlotte, did you know that you could look online and retrieve all these interviews you guys did from 1980?

Charlotte Caffey: No. Tell me how.

Songfacts: It's a Website where a bunch of rock journalists got together and put these online, and we do some work with them (Rock's Backpages). I was able to read some interviews you and the girls did.

Caffey: (laughing) I would like to see what I said.

Songfacts: The press loved you guys. And we're talking 1980 here, before you even released anything.

Caffey: Well, yeah, because we were really fun. And we were really real. It was no pretense. We were hysterical, and we still are together.

Songfacts: You chose to become a Go-Go when you already knew how to play, and it's interesting how you were drawn to this band that had no idea how to play, and was just winging it.

Caffey: Just an instinct. Belinda came up to me that night at the Starwood, I was playing with my punk band The Eyes; it was The Jam, The Dickies, and The Eyes, and we would play two sets a night. Of course, I can't imagine that today. (laughs) But it was between sets, Belinda and Margot (Olaverra, their original bass player) came up to me and they looked so freaky to me, because I was pretty normal looking. I think Belinda had purple hair and she was wearing a trash bag, and spikey heels with ripped stockings.

Now it's no big deal, but back then it was freaky. And Margot had pink and green hair and all this freaky makeup. And I thought, Well, this sounds like fun. They were talking about starting an all-girl band, and I thought, Wow, okay. It was kind of winding down with The Eyes, and I felt like, time to move on. And that's just what I did.

Songfacts: Will you be watching American Idol tonight?

Caffey: Probably not.

Songfacts: I guess where I'm going with that is you had to work really hard to get your success. And I don't think any all-girl band has achieved what you guys have since then. How do you feel about that?

Caffey: It's surprising. But then again, being in a band, whether you're a girl or guy, it's a lot of work. You've got to be really dedicated. You've got to be willing to give stuff up, and in retrospect, we didn't work that hard. I mean, we had three years of working. There are bands that work for 10 years. We felt like, Wow, this happened really quick. (laughing) It wasn't like, "We worked for…" We just always had fun doing it, and I think that's really the key.

Songfacts: You were in bands for a while before this got going, and then – boom! – you're famous. That had to be a little weird for you.

Caffey: It was very weird. Very unsettling. What I loved was people loving the songs I wrote. That, to me, meant everything. But the other stuff was very, very unsettling. Being all of the sudden treated differently.

Songfacts: What's an example of what was unsettling?

Caffey: The amounts of people at shows, and the adoration. I mean, I get it, because I loved the Beatles, I understand that. But I felt like an ordinary person having an extraordinary experience. That, to me, sums it up. But it was unsettling because it was over the top, and of course you don't really have a life, you give up everything. And at 20, a lot of people don't know how to have balance in their life. So it was unsettling, for sure.

Songfacts: It seems like, as opposed to the other girls, you don't crave attention.

Caffey: No. (pause…laughs) I mean, I love it when someone loves a song I write. That, to me, is – yes! That's what I love doing the most. With all due respect for the rest of the girls, if they want it, go for it. That's just not me.

Songfacts: Yet you were very much drawn to being on stage and being a musician.

Caffey: I love playing, yeah. Playing on stage is… I don't know how to describe it. It's like an amazing experience. And it's spiritual in a lot of ways. You know, it's not just, "Ooo, there's a lot of people clapping for me." I love it, and I feel comfortable there. And I'm different on stage than when I'm walking around in my normal life. I just come alive, something switches on, and it's really fun to do. I enjoy it.

Songfacts: When you're playing these punk clubs, it looks very uncomfortable, and you just talked about how you enjoyed that very much.

Caffey: So much.

Songfacts: So then when everything becomes kind of comfortable, how do things change?

Caffey: It's just different. You know? And we were partying harder. If you could take that away and put a little bit more maturity in the situation, it could have been amazing, but that's not who we were back then. But The Masque [sweaty Punk club in LA] was incredible. It was filthy and dirty, it was incredible. There was a feeling… I don't even know how to explain it. It was electric. And, oh, man, it was a really great thing to experience. But I love being on a bigger stage, too, because I love playing. It's all about playing and writing for me.

Songfacts: When did the self-destructive behavior begin?

Caffey: Probably when I was really young.

Songfacts: You were into some bad stuff?

Caffey: Of course. I mean, it was more of a rebellion. I hadn't gone through my rebellious teenage years, and this was the perfect platform to do it in. I don't know what to say about it, other than it's just brought me to where I am today, and that's a pretty good place. So I have no complaints.

Charlotte's songwriting contributions to the Go-Go's include "We Got The Beat," "Vacation" and "Head Over Heels." She is a huge part of Belinda Carlisle's solo success, writing and performing on many of her songs. She's written for TV shows, played on Jewel's Pieces of You album, and co-wrote Keith Urban's #1 country hit "But for the Grace of God."
Songfacts: You worked in a hospital for a long time.

Caffey: Uh-huh.

Songfacts: And, when you were doing that job, were you plotting your course, working on your songs?

Caffey: Oh yeah. I worked at the hospital for nine years, and it was not my lifelong dream to stay at the hospital. I'd go to work and know it wasn't my life's calling, and I'd get off work and go be creative. That's when I was on fire, being able to get out and know that there was something else out there for me, and I had a huge passion – obviously my passion was writing and performing and being in a band. I'm really glad I had that job, because it was a huge contrast.

Songfacts: How do you typically write your songs?

Caffey: There's no set way. I can start with a title, I can start with a guitar hook... Go-Go's stuff I would sit down and just noodle on the guitar and come up with guitar ideas. Like "He's So Strange," I had that little guitar part in the beginning. On "This Town," I believe I had a guitar part to start out with. Or maybe Jane would show me some lyrics, or Kathy; there's no set way, it's always different.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing "We Got The Beat."

Caffey: I thought it would be very clever to do "Going To A Go-Go." I thought, Well, let's try working this out as a cover song. Which is really funny when I think about it. I was listening to it a lot one day, and later that night, the song came to me within 5 minutes. I don't even know if it has anything to do with listening to that song, but this whole idea came to me. It was one of those things that just went right through me and came out my hand; I wrote it down, recorded it a little bit, and then brought it into rehearsal a few days later.

Songfacts: How about "Head Over Heels," how did you come up with that?

Caffey: I played piano and I had never utilized it, really, in the Go Go's and I thought, Well, maybe it would be a cool idea to try something with the piano, just get a little different tonality happening other than just guitars. I sat down and came up with the hooky part in the beginning, the 8th note-y part. I wrote it, and I asked Kathy if she wanted to finish it with me. I started on something and worked on it for a while, and then we worked on it together, and then we finished it. I had maybe ¾ of the song written, and then Kathy came in and helped me finish it.

Songfacts: What was the song "Turn To You" about?

Caffey: Probably about some guy (laughing). Who knows? Yeah, I think so, I can't remember. That's a long time ago. Many songs have been written in between, Carl.

Songfacts: What's the song you really connect with when you're playing on stage?

Caffey: Oh my God. Let me think. "This Town" is the first one that came to my mind, because I just think it's a cool song.

Songfacts: Tell me a little about that song.

Caffey: I had a guitar part, Jane wrote all the lyrics, and it just came together in a really cool way. It has a 2/4 little part that was so different. We were always just 4/4/4/4, or eighth notes. And this one little 2/4 bar that comes in, we were really proud of ourselves (laughs). You know, back then, it was just like, "Oh, my God! Is this prog rock?" No, this is not prog rock. But it was fun to do.

I have a very strong connection to the first record, because that record was written without any kind of pressure, and we were having the time of our lives back in Hollywood in that little punk scene, it was so exhilarating and fun, and just… Oh my God. I don't live for that, and I don't wish I was still there. All I know is it was an amazing experience to have early on in my writing career. I was on fire writing and just all the time consumed with music.

Songfacts: When did you first start learning how to write songs and how to play music?

Caffey: I played piano when I was a little kid, like four years old, and then I stopped when I was in 6th grade. Then I took classical – I went to college and I got a bachelor of music, just that's all classical, it has nothing to do with writing songs. But I started writing songs when I was about 14 or 15, didn't show them to anybody until I was maybe 18. My best friend, Joe, he was a songwriter, and we were in a band together. And he forced me to show my songs – I was really, really, really shy about it, and really insecure. Then I showed him stuff and from there I was able to let the cat out of the bag, to write openly and not be so afraid of it. It was a strange start, because I just started doing it. I didn't learn how to do it, it just happened.

Songfacts: Was your family musical?

Caffey: Yeah, some of them are.

Songfacts: You have 12 brothers and sisters, right?

Caffey: Yeah. And I think everyone's musically inclined, but some more than others.

Songfacts: I'm trying to reconcile your sweaty punk days with your phenomenal polished songwriting and playing skills that ended up turning into hits not only for the Go-Go's, but for Belinda.

Caffey: Let me put it this way: when I brought in the songs to The Go-Go's for the first time, they were very melodic and very pop. And it was terrifying to bring them in. Because I was like, Oh my God, they're gonna shoot me down, this is gonna be horrible, blah blah blah. But what we did with them was kind of brilliant. We took those pop songs and those melodies and, with our beginning kind of inability to play, still made them great.

You know, like maybe an early Green Day, there's maybe a roughness, even though they play very well. But there's like distorted guitars playing really pop melodies. That's exactly what we did. And so I never wavered in my songwriting. We were just a beginning band trying to find ourselves, and then that first record was produced a certain way that we weren't happy about in the beginning, but then we were fine with afterwards.

Songfacts: Just to let you know, in one of these old interviews, you say that you want to buy the Griffith Park Observatory.

Caffey: Still do.

May 10, 2010
Get more Go-Go's at
Also check out our interview with Jane Wiedlin.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 7

  • Ray from PennsylvaniaI was sure I was a Go-Go's fan in '84; then the video for "Head Over Heels" came on MTV at my grandparent's house, and my grandmother said, "I really like those girls!" Now, if that don't bake your cookies... I mean ...GRANDMA likes the Go-Go's. I attribute it to the "punky-tonk" piano. I hold NO copyright on that phrase. Thank you and all the Go-Go's for one of my all time favorites.
  • Jim Lenahan from ArkansasI lived in L.A. for a long time. I'm a musician, too. Unfortunately, I didn't have the same opinion as Jason Newhouse.
  • Richard from Tiffin, OhI used to work in a Liqour store at the corner of Yucca & Las Palmas. Do you remember that place I delivered from there to you girls and Pandora Box ???
  • John from CaliforniaTo David from Portland: I don't believe Sleater-Kinney ever had an album number one on the Billboard 200 that also went 2xPlatinum.
  • David from Portland"And I don't think any all-girl band has achieved what you guys have since then." just though I'd mention Sleater-Kinney.
  • Doughboy from Over The RainbowLoved the article. Charlotte was always my favorite Go-Go. Without her, the Go-Go's would have been a footnote in the LA punk scene. They all had some talent, no doubt about that. But Char was the one that got them going.
  • Jason Newhouse from PhiladelphiaI actually know Charlotte personally, and she is one of the most brilliant, grounded, and wonderful people in the world. It always bothered me that she never got "in the spotlight" but she genuinely never cared one bit. I haven't talked to her in a while, but I certainly still keep up with her and them. Was sad to hear of a farewell tour.
see more comments

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