Bassist Kathy Valentine Discusses The Go-Go’s Documentary, Writing Her Memoir, and “Club Zero”

Ginger Canzoneri couldn’t believe it. The band she managed, the Go-Go’s, was one of the hottest groups in Los Angeles, regularly drawing adoring, sellout crowds at top clubs. But despite the acclaim, they couldn’t seem to land a record deal. Even more flabbergasting was the reason why. “I had a file folder of rejection letters from record labels in Los Angeles [saying] ‘Thanks, but all-girl bands just don’t sell records.’” Canzoneri says, still sounding mystified, in The Go-Go’s, a new documentary about the band that recently debuted on Showtime. The quality of the music, enthusiastic audiences, and media raves didn’t matter. It’s a band of girls? Nope!

But as we know, the Go-Go’s and Canzoneri ended up having the last laugh. IRS Records finally signed the group, and their debut album, Beauty and the Beat (1981) became the first album by an all-female band, who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, to top the Billboard charts, with classic singles “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” also rocking the Top 40.

And for most people, that’s where the band’s story starts: the moment they crashed into the mainstream and became “America’s pop sweethearts” (a label that still makes them cringe). But The Go-Go’s, directed by Alison Ellwood (History of the Eagles; Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place), opens up that story, finally putting the band’s history, and all their accomplishments, in their proper context. It’s a film that re-establishes the band’s importance, and their influence; a film that says, yes, the Go-Go’s mattered.

The band’s early period is arguably the most exciting in the film. The Go-Go’s started out as a part of the scene that centered around legendary LA club the Masque in the late ’70s, hanging out with the likes of the Germs and X. “I thought it was common knowledge that the Go-Go’s came from the streets of LA, the LA punk rock scene,” says Kathy Valentine, the band’s bassist, speaking on the phone during a whirlwind day doing press for the documentary. “And I was a little floored when Alison said, ‘No, this is a narrative that I don’t think has been told.’ And then I started realizing – for so many people, their only knowledge of the Go-Go’s is videos, MTV appearances, and pop songs on the radio.”

“There never would have been the Go-Go’s without the punk rock scene in Los Angeles,” Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitar, vocals), says in the film. There’s a riveting clip of the group’s first lineup playing a St. Patrick’s Day gig, vocalist Belinda Carlisle’s black hair, black attire, and fierce glare totally at odds with her sunny, California Girl persona of just a few years later. Torn t-shirts and ripped fishnets were de rigueur; even a trash bag could be a fashion accessory. “The punk scene gave me an outlet to act out and be the badass that I thought I was,” Carlisle observes in the film.

“We saw no reason why we couldn’t be just as good as the boys, or men,” she goes on to say. “We weren’t going to be anything but a great band.” The band’s growing ambition led to original drummer Elissa Bello, who’d refused to quit her job to become a full-time Go-Go, being replaced by Gina Schock (Bello admits her dedication to the band wasn’t as strong as the rest of the group; “I stuck my toe in the water, but I never dove in all the way”).

And then one day, lead guitarist/vocalist Charlotte Caffey brought in a new song: “We Got the Beat.” Despite its obvious strengths, she admits to be “terrified” to bring it to the group because it was so obviously a pop song; “I thought, ‘These guys are going to throw me out of this band.’” But the group recognized its merits, and it indicated a shift in musical direction. Then Wiedlin brought in “Our Lips Are Sealed,” a song she’d written based on a letter from her erstwhile boyfriend, Terry Hall of the Specials, that was another foray into pop. It was too much for original bassist Margo Olavarria, who felt the group was moving away from their raw punk roots, with the motivation now being, she says, “Less about art and more about money.”

But Kathy Valentine, who would end up replacing Olaverria, recognized that the ultimate power of a band rests in the quality of their songs, and that the Go-Go’s songs were built to last. “The thing is, a well-crafted song is a well-crafted song,” she points out. “You could slow down a Buzzcocks song, or you could take ‘God Save the Queen’ — the elements of a good song are there, whether it’s played fast or snarled or pounding 16th notes. So the Go-Go’s, the bones of our songs were well-crafted, hooky, with smart lyrics.”

She credits Richard Gottehrer, who produced their first two albums, with giving their records their trademark sound. “Richard said, ‘Let’s give these melodies some room. Let’s slow it down a little bit.’ That was the big change. And now, when our music gets played, it doesn’t sound dated. And I’m so grateful that Richard knew that this needed to be a classic sounding band that didn’t adhere to some kind of trend of what was going on in studios in the ’80s. And a lot of bands do sound super dated. And I feel to this day, when I hear [our] music, I can’t believe how well it stands up.”

The group was not so happy with how others wanted to market them, once fame arrived. Their discomfort with their first Rolling Stone cover shoot clearly still bothers them nearly 40 years later. They reluctantly agreed to don men’s underwear for the shoot, but were mortified by the juvenile headline slapped on the cover: “Go-Go’s Put Out.”

“It was actually very weird to be sexualized,” says Valentine. “I know that guys had crushes on us and stuff, but it’s not like we were out there  dressing suggestively and gyrating around and grabbing our crotches. We were just kind of hopping around. The whole weird thing with the first Rolling Stone cover was, ‘Here they are in their underwear, and they’re still not sexy!’ Here they are without their clothes on, in their underwear, and it’s still the girl next door. Why isn’t it enough that we could just put our clothes on and smile and take a picture? Why is that not enough for this band? It’s enough for guys to go stand by a wall, or stand on a railroad track, or walk down the road, or all those photos you do with the guys. So that was annoying.” A later cover featured the band fully clothed, but with another questionable headline: “Women On Top.”

In addressing this and other controversial issues in the band’s career, The Go-Go’s allows the band to reclaim their own story on their own terms. They’d all felt that VH1’s Behind the Music episode on the band had been exploitative. “It had the format and structure of a reality TV show, where you form-fit the content that you shoot to fit the structure and narrative,” Valentine says. “Every time the show would go to a commercial it would say, ‘When we come back, more about Charlotte’s dance with the devil!’ I mean, it was so dramatic. It really focused on Charlotte’s drug addiction. They like to focus on the salacious parts.”

Conversely, while the band members openly discuss their substance abuse issues in the documentary, it’s not the focus. Bello and Olavarria get to tell their side of the story about their dismissals, and Canzoneri frankly admits her pain when she was sidelined after the group took on high-powered management. The publishing difficulties that led to the first break-up are also detailed.

Before work could even begin on the documentary, Ellwood had to get all the Go-Go’s together again. Valentine had been fired from the band in 2012, not rejoining until 2018. She used the time away from the group to write All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir, published earlier this year. “In writing that part of my story, I was really able to come to a mindset where I’m not gonna let ugliness taint and ruin for me what was one of the biggest joys of my life,” she says. “So when the band invited me back, and things healed in that regard, it was so much easier for me to let go and forgive and take my rightful place again, because of writing the book.”

Revisiting her past also allowed her to serve as an impromptu fact checker during her interview for The Go-Go’s. “There were lots of times they had to stop the camera, because I’m like, ‘No, no, you got that wrong,’ or ‘No, that date was this,’ or ‘No, this is what really happened.’ I knew my shit, because I had exhaustively documented and researched my facts!”

Though the film packs a lot into its 97-minute running time, it still doesn’t cover the entire story, skimming over the past 30 years since the 1990 reunion. But the ending is in the present day, showing the band at work on their first new single in nearly two decades, “Club Zero.” It’s an instantly catchy song made for the dance floor. But pay attention to the lyrics, and you’ll see this bright and optimistic song is also an anthem of empowerment, a deliberate choice on the part of the band members.

“When we decided to write a song for the documentary, it was a big deal, because we’ve never generated material while living in five different places, so it was challenging,” Valentine explains. “But the first thing we did, was we came up with topics that we felt we could write and sing about that we were comfortable with at this stage, as Go-Go’s in our 60s. And at the top of the list was what was going on with the patriarchy, and #MeToo and Times Up. There was just this strong feeling that, without being preachy, we wanted an anthem that really summed up the attitude of so many people, which is, we’re fed up. Things have to change. And that is the overriding sentiment; there’s large swaths of people that have just had it, whether it’s racial injustice or income inequality or women tired of being marginalized or LGBTQ [rights].” Valentine says the band went for a “Love Shack” vibe, except that Club Zero was a place where, as the lyrics say, zero fucks are given.

“I think the timing is kind of uncanny. It’s really grown on me, and I’ve started to feel like this could be really the right song at the right time,” Valentine says. “I don’t really dial up my expectations ever about anything anymore. I just kind of always expect the worst and hope for the best. But I don’t know, there’s something about ‘Club Zero’ that just feels really right for the time.”

While celebrating the Go-Go’s breakthrough of being the first all-female band to top the US album charts, the documentary also points out that no other all-female band has done so since, begging the question: why not? “I think about it a lot,” says Valentine, “because when I first became a musician, that was my longing, was to see all-female bands at the top. It’s just harder for women. If she gets to that point in her life when she starts a family and stuff, she’s not gonna go leave her kid at home. And unless you’re successful on a level of a Chrissie Hynde or whatever, it’s really hard. It’s a struggle for women in the professional realm all across the board.”

“That doesn’t mean there’s not really cool, awesome female bands out there. There’s tons of them,” Valentine adds. “Probably every city has got a cool female band in it. But for every one female band there must be hundreds and hundreds of guys starting bands.” As The Go-Go’s demonstrates, the band continues to provide inspiration to countless female musicians. “We’re not a super active band now, but I still think we put out a really positive, empowering message for women that as you get into your 60s, you can still be relevant. Maybe not in the way the pop culture defines the way a musician or an artist should be relevant, but there’s something about this band that, if I wasn’t in the Go-Go’s, and I was in my 40s or 50s, I would be inspired by seeing us,” Valentine says.

“The endurance of the band is in itself such an achievement. I’m so grateful that the documentary highlights the endurance, not only of the songs and the music, but of the band,” she adds. “I’m really grateful for what we are and what we have accomplished. I’m really grateful that these women are in my life, and that we are close, and that we care about each other, and that old hurts and betrayals have been forgiven, and that we have healed. That’s what I’m grateful for.”

The Go-Go’s is available now on Showtime.

Girls Rock Santa Barbara Interviews Bassist Nik West about her New LP Moody and Working with Prince

This year, Girls Rock Santa Barbara has developed The Summer of Love Internship, its first ever paid internship for teen girls and gender-expansive youth, which allows the organization to continue to provide a safe, collaborative environment in which to encourage lifelong skills like positive peer bonding and self-confident resilience. The internship, which lasts six weeks and pays each intern $500, offers six exciting and arts-focused disciplines: Record Label, Recording Artist, Social Media, Journalism, Photography, and Podcasting. Audiofemme is pleased to publish the following article, written by Andrea Li and Emma Hogarth, two interns from the Journalism program.

Most of the time, bass players are relegated to the sidelines, calmly keeping a rhythm while vocalists, guitarists – and even sometimes drummers – bask in the spotlight. Not so with Nik West, an iconic female bassist and vocalist who has made a name for herself through her exuberant stage presence and her incredible bass skills. In fact, she has even played bass for pop icon Prince, which just adds to her already lengthy resume. Just a few months ago, she released her sophomore album, Moody, which is full of groovy bass lines and funk influence. Some features on her album include bass legend Larry Graham and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana.

While the world is on pause due to quarantine, we had the chance to catch up with her and ask about her recent release, how her creative process differed from her previous album, and what influenced her spunky persona and funky music. We also had the chance to ask her about things going on in her personal life, like how she’s been dealing with quarantine, and how it felt to release an album that was so close to her heart.

GRSB: I loved your single “Bottom of the Bottle.” The track is so fun and you’re an impressive talent as a vocalist and incredible on the bass. What were your influences on this single?

NW: Thank you! That’s one of my favorites as well. I wrote that with a friend from the Netherlands. It was fun – basically, the song is about forgetting about your worries and just having fun and living in the moment instead of stressing about what you can’t change. The music video also shows the playfulness of this song. I was influenced by Katy Perry and her bright colors and characters for this song.

GRSB: Your latest album, Moody, focuses closely on your personality and your experiences in life. How would you describe the feeling of being vulnerable and exposing your inner thoughts through music?

NW: For me, it was hard. I am such a strong person who sees the best in literally everything and everyone, so when I started writing some of this music, I decided to really let go and let people see who I am inside. I’m strong, yet fragile at the same time. The “fragile” part is the part that has always been hidden, but I brought it to the front on “Tears” and I led with that.

GRSB: Did you learn anything while producing your first album, Just in the Nik of Time? If so, how did you apply that to the writing and production of Moody?

NW: Yes! I learned so much! To be brief, when I did my first album, I had never really recorded bass. I had never been a session player and I realized quickly that it is very different from playing live. You have to be alive yet robotic at the same time so that you really lock into the groove. When playing live, there is a little more room to just be free and not so stuck on perfection.

GRSB: How was your recording and writing process for Moody different from your previous releases?

NW: This time, I wanted to take the reins of the entire creative process. This is my second album so putting all of my ideas and thoughts into it was important. It took me over two years to record it since I was on tour so much. But I’m super proud of it.

GRSB: Throughout your album there are many songs with a heavy funk influence, so much so that you have even been referred to as the future of funk. What does that mean to you?

NW: Well, funk music came from the concept of making something out of nothing. When you take all of the major pieces away that you hear with pop music (vocals, piano, guitar, etc), you’re left with the bare bones: the bass and the beat. That’s what funk is built on. That’s why funk is so heavy with groove. The bass and drums drive the song and those are generally the instruments that make people dance on the dance floor, whether people know it or not. The bass line is in front and it carries the song and it’s what people feel most when they dance.

GRSB: Prince is quoted as saying, “She inspires me. Great visual, great stage presence” about you. Coming from a music icon, what does that mean to you? As a huge fan of Prince myself, I also would like to know how was your experience recording at the famed Paisley Park?

NW: That’s huge! Especially coming from one of the kings of stage presence and inspiration. There will never be another like him. I peed on myself when he first called me (just a little bit). He flew me out the next day to come and jam with him… but apparently, it was really an audition. I was SUPER nervous but he made me feel comfortable and even made me laugh so I got through it. He walked me to his office and told me that if I wanted the job, it was mine. Anyway, that’s the short version, but he was unlike any other person I’d ever met.

GRSB: How would your younger self feel about working with bass legend Larry Graham on the single “Thumpahlenah”? Did you ever expect to work with him on anything?

NW: My younger self wasn’t even into music much! I wanted to draw and paint. I was into fashion and math. Music never even crossed my mind. But I always knew that whatever I did, I’d rise to the top because I’ve always been a hard worker. I wanted to be the top in my class. So I knew I’d get a lot of opportunity by working hard, but Larry Graham and Prince? I never would have imagined that! That was something that you say out loud and then laugh about it because you know it’s so far fetched.

GRSB: What are some ways you’ve been coping with self-isolation during this worldwide pandemic?

NW: I’m so used to touring and never being home (which I love so much) that I never get to follow through with projects that I want to start. So I took the time during self isolation to follow through with some things. I just created an online bass course for beginners. I recorded about 100 video lessons for all of the people that have been asking me to teach them how to play. I’ve also gotten stronger physically. I’ve been working out consistently and I have definitely seen the results. I’ve spent more time with my family as well. So when it is time to go back on tour, I will be happy in knowing I’ve got my projects completed… finally!

GRSB: Many people mention your riveting stage presence – how would you compare your on-stage persona to your everyday self?

NW: My everyday self is crazy. I dream big, I smile big, I go hard, I’m full of energy, and I love fashion and being characters! When I had more time, I did a lot of TV commercials so jumping into character is something I’ve always loved. And being onstage is just definitely just an extension of my natural self.

GRSB: In many other interviews, you’ve mentioned that you’ve had self-doubt throughout your career. How did you overcome this doubt as you grew more popular?

NW: I don’t think the doubt ever leaves, at least for me, but, I just don’t focus on it so much. I still get nervous with certain people. Stanley Clarke wanted to interview me last month, I got nervous. Flea dm’d me and said he wanted to work with me, I got nervous. But I jump anyway. Anytime I’d ever been super nervous and jumped anyway, it’s been a life changer.

GRSB: Can you share your experience as a woman in the music industry? What challenges have you faced?

NW: Being a woman in the music industry has its perks. I have heard horror stories of women facing discrimination and sexism, but I’ve just flown past a lot of it because I have dealt with discrimination my whole life so it was almost as if nothing changed anyway. I walk into a room knowing that I’m the only one that can do what I do… and do it the way I do it. No one else can do me like I can do me. I think that kind of confidence is attractive to everyone. Know your worth and negotiate accordingly. Of course you’re gonna get those guys that just want to try to take advantage of women, but that’s in every industry and it was clear that I wasn’t playing those games. Either they wanted to work with me or not. If it was a no, I was fine with that too. When people sense that you’re fine with or without them, that’s when they want to give you everything.

GRSB: Who are your top three female musical inspirations, and what aspects of their music have influenced you?

NW: I love Rhonda Smith. She was the bass player for Prince for so long. I love how she plays and I love how she performed with Prince. She is so tiny, but she packs a mean groove. I also love Orianthi, she was one of my first friends when I moved to LA. I house sat for her while she was on tour and watched her dogs for months at a time. She is an amazing guitarist and has always been a cool friend. Cindy Blackman-Santana who played drums with Lenny Kravitz for so many years has also been such an inspiration. There’s a sax player named Grace Kelly that I’ve collaborated with that is so dope to me. She gets into character with bright clothes and hair like me, so she’s my Asian sister!

GRSB: What are some goals that you’re hoping to accomplish before the end of 2020, and how has quarantine affected these goals?

NW: Ha! My album was released. We planned a whole campaign and tour around it. I tour in Europe a lot and when you have a new release, it’s a game changer. So we had all of these plans and all of these shows surrounding the album and then I was going to take a break, record some bass lessons, and hang out some more with my family but all of the shows got moved to next summer, so next summer it is! Everything worked out okay.

Follow Nik West on Facebook for ongoing updates.

TRACK REVIEW: Haley Bonar “No Sensitive Man”

Eight years ago, Alan Sparhawk of Low spotted twenty-year-old Haley Bonar performing at an open mic and invited her and her drummer on tour with his band. Since then, Bonar’s been busy: she’s put out five solo studio albums and started a punk side project called Gramma’s Boyfriend, which we hear involves performing in eighties figure skating outfits. Bringing anxious bass lines together with elegant vocal harmony, Bonar brings a songwriting style to each of her albums that’s appealing and complex, with a way of cloaking grisly lyrics in catchy hooks.

“No Sensitive Man” opens with a rousing drum line and dreamy, smeared vocals that seem draped over the music. “Shut your eyes and play me something good,” Bonar sings, sounding exasperated. “I don’t wanna talk. We can get away with anything these days.” It’s a flat, unsentimental meditation with a choppy bass line that sprawls over the track. This is Bonar at her most disaffected– “No Sensitive Man” bristles in a way that’s new for Bonar’s solo material, and though it’s exciting to see her snarl, the self-isolation of the vocals on this track ultimately sound lazy, and disengaged from the rest of the music. In the absence of the sweet, story-telling style that have made her albums so good up to this point, the flat disappointment and dismissiveness that colors this track feels kind of unengaging, especially since the instrumental lines don’t fill out to take over the spotlight from Bonar’s narrative persona. While I like the idea of Bonar taking the thematic bleakness her music has always had and drawing it into the music’s aesthetic a bit more, “No Sensitive Man” lacked focus without Bonar’s vocals front and center.

Bonar’s new album, Last War, will be in stores May 20th via Graveface. Until then, check out “No Sensitive Man” below and let us know what you think!