Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go's

by Carl Wiser

Valentine overcame a traumatic childhood to become the bass player and a primary songwriter in The Go-Go's, the first all-female band with a #1 album in America.

Kathy in the early '80s and today. Left photo by Catherine Sebastian, right by Christopher Durst.

In 1973, Kathy Valentine went with her mom to England, where she saw Suzi Quatro play "Can The Can" on Top Of The Pops. For the first time, she realized a girl could be a rock star. Eight years later, she became one with the Go-Go's.

After moving from Austin to Los Angeles, Valentine formed a band called The Textones, which recorded her song "Vacation" in 1980. When their forward momentum stalled, she left the band and accepted the Go-Go's offer to become their new bass player on the condition that she also contribute to the songwriting. Their first album, released in 1981, became the first album by an all-girl band to hit #1 in America. Their second includes the Go-Go-fied version of "Vacation," an MTV favorite thanks to the loopy water-ski-themed video that showed their drunk and irreverent side.

The fissures formed when the royalty checks came in. Drummer Gina Schock and lead singer Belinda Carlisle got a lot less because they didn't write songs. It got petty and rigid: Wiedlin wrote a very personal song called "Forget That Day," but wasn't allowed to sing it. Their third album didn't do so well, and the backslide began. They went from headlining Madison Square Garden to playing Lubbock, Texas. Wiedlin left after that tour, Valentine switched to guitar, and Caffey went to rehab. In 1985, Carlisle and Caffey broke up the band to launch Belinda's solo career. Valentine, left in the lurch, formed a rock band called World's Cutest Killers with Kelly Johnson of Girlschool, but they didn't get far.

In the '90s and '00s, the Go-Go's repeated a cycle of re-forming and farewell, but at this point seem to have accepted their bond. In 2018, they got a jukebox musical called Head Over Heels; in January 2020, they showed up at Sundance for the premiere of their documentary. They'll be touring this summer.

Jane Wiedlin went easy on me when I accused the Go-Go's of being likable, but that's a line of questioning they don't appreciate. As Valentine explains in her memoir, All I Ever Wanted, they were written into a "girl next door" narrative that dulled their edges. They were just as dedicated and debauched as the guys, and hated these cutesy characterizations. The debauchery gets plenty of attention in the book, which mostly takes place in '80s Los Angeles and features cameos from the likes of Rob Lowe, Jodie Foster, and tragically, John Belushi. In this interview, Valentine offers further details and talks about some of the Go-Go's biggest hits.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When we spoke with Jane Wiedlin about songwriting in the Go-Go's, she said, "Once Kathy joined the band, it added a new dimension to it because she's a really good writer." What did you bring to the band as a writer?

Kathy Valentine: Just more source, another provider of material and musical creativity. They had written a great collection of songs prior to my joining, but it was helpful as the band continued to make records to have more writers involved.

Kathy performing at the Roxy Theater in 1981. Photo by Pam Martinez.
Songfacts: Please tell us about your approach to songwriting.

Valentine: I really like to have a title, a concept that I want to write about. I will constantly be jotting down ideas, phrases, lyrical bits, but until I have the title and direction I want to take those ideas, they kind of just sit about.

I don't have one approach. Sometimes I write a page of freestyle lyrics, then look at them while I mess about on guitar, seeing what music they inspire. Sometimes I sit down and start playing, or will hear in my head a melody, and I'll immediately want to put words with it. I may think of them on the spot, or I may go through my books and documents looking for things that fit.

Songfacts: Which Go-Go's song do you most connect with?

Valentine: Well, there are different types of connection. Musically, I really connect with the performance of certain songs like "We Got The Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," and "Head Over Heels" because I know the bass part I'm doing is adding an indispensable instrumental element. I really like "Tonite" because it captures an era of brash youthfulness that I think defines the rise and success of the Go-Go's, so I connect with that one as being a quintessential Go-Go's song.

Emotionally, I don't know if I connect so much anymore. I can't really think of any that capture the maturity or mindset of where I am now. They are just classic, good songs that I never tire of performing.

Songfacts: Please tell us about the lyric to "Head Over Heels," a song you wrote with Charlotte Caffey.

Valentine: This is one where I had a lot of phrases I'd written down, and they started connecting. Things like "One hand is reaching out, and one's just hanging on," and "Seems like my weaknesses just keep going strong" were really about self reflecting and a dawning awareness that the band and certain areas of life were getting kind of out of control.

Valentine wrote "Vacation" after a visit to Austin where she hooked up with a guy she met at a club (one of many short-term flings recounted in the book). She wrote the lyric on napkins during her flight back to Los Angeles.
Songfacts: Did you ever see the guy who inspired "Vacation" again?

Valentine: A few times, yes, and he knows I wrote about him in the book!

Songfacts: With the documentary and the musical, it seems like the Go-Go's legacy is moving in the right direction. When do think the Runaways-style biopic and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction will come?

Valentine: I have no idea! Not sure a biopic is a good idea, and the RRHOF is probably a given at some point, but who knows when.

Songfacts: Many of us keep our most traumatic memories buried, but you had to confront them for All I Ever Wanted. Please describe what that was like, and which memory was the most difficult to revisit.

Valentine: I did a lot of grieving, and still am. Some of the songs from the soundtrack to the book make me cry every time I sing them, just practicing at home. I don't want that to happen in public!

Unpacking the sorrow of being raped at 14, when for decades I basically wrote it off as being just me putting myself in a bad situation and "allowing" him so he'd leave me alone has been wild. I have mourned and grieved a lot over that, 46 years after it happened. I also came to terms a lot with my mom and her failings, which also allowed me to see more clearly how and where she didn't fail me. And finally, I cried a lot about my relationships in the Go-Go's, how the past has affected years and years that passed since then.

Songfacts: What was the biggest challenge the Go-Go's faced that male bands did not?

Valentine: I suppose if one went back to the early days, the biggest challenge we faced was being told that we weren't being signed or our record wasn't being added to a playlist because "there had not been a successful all-female band before."

Songfacts: When you made the interview rounds on your first tour, what questions did you hear over and over?

Valentine: What is it like to be a girl in an all-girl band?

Songfacts: I'm intrigued by the "unlicensed blues bar" Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had in New York City, where Meat Loaf served drinks. Can you tell us more?

Valentine: I don't remember a whole lot! It was downtown, and kind of an in-the-know type place. I only went at the invite of John [Belushi]. I don't think it was somewhere you just showed up.

Songfacts: In the book, you give a great breakdown of "Our Lips Are Sealed" ("a perfect pop tune with an atypical structure, unexpected chord changes, smart lyrics unlike any other song, and tons of hooks"). What's your musical analysis of "We Got The Beat"?

Valentine: I think of "We Got The Beat" as an anthem. It's very trance-like, so you combine that trance factor with the beat and the anthem nature and it's very unique.

Valentine was a guitarist when she got recruited to play in the Go-Go's, filling in on bass for founding member Margot Olavarria during a 4-night stand at the Whisky A Go Go starting on New Year's Eve, 1980. It was short notice: She had just a few days to learn the songs from a cassette on an instrument she didn't play. "I had never sustained such an undiluted, deep focus," she writes in All I Ever Wanted. "Getting some blow helped." (Kathy's rehab gets its own chapter later.)

The Whisky gigs went so well, the Go-Go's made the arrangement permanent. When Jane Wiedlin left the group in 1984, Valentine switched to guitar, but the band broke up soon after. In her post-Go-Go's band World's Cutest Killers, she played guitar.

Valentine is left handed, but plays both guitar and bass right handed, which is how she learned. She says it's easier to play chords that way. The photo below is from the third night at the Whisky, January 2, 1981. She's playing a Fender Mustang bass she borrowed from a friend. Photo is by Catherine Sebastian.

Songfacts: What is the best bassline in rock history?

Valentine: If you blur the lines as to genre, what is or isn't rock, I'm quite partial to "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" and "Walk On the Wild Side" for best bass parts.

Songfacts: What is the best guitar riff in rock history?

Valentine: That's a tough call. I think I'm gonna go with "Layla." Or "Purple Haze." But it's hard to pick the "best" as different bests inspire different feelings.

Modern-day Go-Go's

Songfacts: What's the hidden gem in the Go-Go's catalog?

Valentine: I can't think of any hidden ones. I think we play all the real gems. "Apology" is still one of my favorites that we rarely do, and also "Daisy Chain."

February 26, 2020
All I Ever Wanted is set for release on April 9, 2020. You can order it here. Here are our interviews with Suzi Quatro and Charlotte Caffey.
Photos 2,4 by Ruby Matheu.

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Comments: 2

  • Keith Newhouse from Charlottesville, VaI think Apology is a brilliant song - wish they did it more often. I think it would have been a great hit. I just adore Kathy Valentine.
  • Jami King from Pennsylvania the Go-Go’s are an anthem to DYI and anyone who wants to dream big and believe it. They believed in themselves when no one was giving women the respect they deserved. They proved that with their longevity and respect for one another as talented musicians
see more comments

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