In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The musician: A founding member of the Go-Go’s, Jane Wiedlin wrote or co-wrote some of the group’s biggest hits, thrusting them into the charts in an era when an all-female band was, for better and worse, still a novelty. For three glorious years in the early 1980s, the band’s superficially breezy yet sometimes lyrically dark songs ruled the airwaves, as well as the nascent medium of music television. Their image was squeaky-clean, all slumber parties and water-skis, but their roots were in Los Angeles’ punk scene, where they built up an audience for years before forcefully going pop. After breaking up and reforming several times, the Go-Go’s were set for a farewell tour last year when Wiedlin suffered a hiking accident—she literally fell off a cliff. Now, with a 30th-anniversary edition of their landmark album Beauty And The Beat in stores, the Go-Go’s have decided to keep things going; they’re still touring, but not saying goodbye just yet. When she isn’t being a Go-Go, Wiedlin is a prolific solo artist and songwriter-for-hire—she and bandmate Charlotte Caffey contributed to the excellent soundtrack of the Josie And The Pussycats movie—as well as a comic-book writer, fetish model, and animal-rights activist.
“Robert Hilburn” (unreleased, 1978)
The A.V. Club: The Go-Go’s had a whole life, and repertoire, before the Beauty And The Beat era. There are bootlegs of you playing at the Whiskey A Go Go as far back as 1978, including several songs that never saw the light of day. Do you remember “Robert Hilburn,” which slagged off the music critic of the Los Angeles Times?
Jane Wiedlin: Oh, nice one! Of course. I remember all those songs. I mean, I had just become a songwriter. The Go-Go’s were like my first babies. Robert Hilburn was a sort of L.A. legend. He was a rock-music critic. “Robert Hilburn” was a scathing song about him. It’s kind of a dumb move for a young band trying to get somewhere, to actually criticize Robert Hilburn, but I don’t even know if he ever heard about it. Or if he did, by the time he heard about it, we were doing so well that he didn’t dare not like us.
AVC: What did he ever do to you guys?
JW: No, no, he didn’t ever do anything to us, I think it was more me observing as an outsider. It wasn’t that he actually criticized us. I was just saying he was a poser—which, back in the ’70s, was the biggest insult you could put on someone.
AVC: You also called him old, which is just as bad.
JW: Well, the first line of the song is “Robert Hilburn wants to be young.” [Laughs.] It was “Robert Hilburn wants to be young / Robert Hilburn has his tongue-in-cheek pose down real pat, wonders what it’s like to have fun.” That was the first verse. Can you believe I just pulled that out? Come on.
AVC: That’s impressive. I had to look the lyrics up on the Internet, since they’re hard to discern on the bootleg.
JW: There are lyrics of it on the Internet somewhere? That’s awesome.
“Living At The Canterbury” (1979, released on 1994’s Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go’s)
AVC: It’s striking how much of the retrospective Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go’s is devoted to the band’s punk days, well before you cut your first single. Was there a desire to correct the record?
JW: I think that yes, we have always had a compulsion to try to make people aware we did exist before we became America’s sweethearts, that we came from a very, very specific scene that we were an integral part of. People can call us pop wusses all they want, but basically, we started that band with no experience, no education, no hopes of getting anywhere. To me, it’s a real American success story that we got somewhere, and we like to honor our roots.
AVC: “Living At The Canterbury” is explicitly about that scene.
JW: I can’t believe I remember this too, because I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast, but I remember the lyrics to that song. It was “Living at the Canterbury, fighting off the roaches / like living in a dormitory until rental due approaches / Don’t know how we’ll get the cash, we spent it all on beer / I don’t know, but sometimes it’s better not to care, and sometimes I don’t like to care.” Something like that. Anyways, yes, it was a very punky anthem. Here’s the thing—when we started, I was all about the punk anthem and criticizing other people and the word “angry” and all that stuff. I’m still pissed off and stuff, but I just kind of got over criticizing people in songs, and we naturally started progressing to being, I don’t know, I would say more personal and introspective and much less political, even though, in my personal life, I am more political than ever.
AVC: Who was living with you at the time when you were writing that song?
JW: In my apartment, I was living with Terry Graham, the drummer of the Bags. Belinda lived with Lorna Doom [of the Germs] in another apartment in the building. Was it just us two? I can’t remember if Margot [Olaverra], she’s the [Go-Go’s] original bass player, ever moved into the Canterbury. I remember her living in a place around the corner. But the Canterbury was completely filled up with punk rockers. It was like, one of us got in, and all of us moved in. And the other people living in the building with us were people on SSI, which I don’t even know exists anymore, but it was money you could get if you could prove to the government that you were crazy homeless people living on welfare, bag ladies. There was this bag lady, she was crazy, she had to be in her 80s or 90s. She wore this weird thing on her head that made her look like a pinhead. She had a tall pointy head. This is so awful, but it’s funny, too. When she died, I was sad that she died—I mean, she was this little old lady—but face it, people die. And as a punk rocker, I snuck into her apartment and stole some of her clothes. I still have one of those dresses.
AVC: At least it’s served you well over the years.
JW: I know. If I believed in hell, I’d definitely be going there.
AVC: If that’s the worst thing you’ve done, you’re in good shape.
JW: She was dead, it’s not like she could take it with her.
“How Much More” (from 1981’s Beauty And The Beat)
AVC: Was there a song that changed the direction of the band?
JW: Yes, totally, I remember the moment, too. Charlotte [Caffey] wasn’t in the band the first few months. Each time we got a new permanent member—Charlotte, then Gina [Schock], then Kathy [Valentine]—it really radically changed the band. When Charlotte joined, she first of all was a real musician; she’d gone to college, musical college, studied piano, she knew how to read music, all this stuff that we didn’t know how to do. But she also brought with her a pop sensibility she wasn’t afraid to show. I mean, I’d grown up loving pop, but once the punk movement started, I was fully committed to punk, even though of course, there still was always that pop-punk blend like Buzzcocks, which we worshipped. Anyway, Charlotte comes in, and Charlotte and I immediately click on a writing level, and immediately start writing together. The first thing we write is “How Much More,” which is still one of our all-time poppiest songs. After that, it became a mixture of pop and punk, and I think by the time we made our record… I mean, nowadays, everyone would hear those records and go “There’s nothing punk about it,” but believe me [Laughs.], at the time, it was still punky. Then the media came up with the term “new wave,” which described poppier but new music that came post the beginning of the punk phase.
AVC: How do you and Charlotte Caffey write together?
JW: It was super-magical, because she would have had some chord progression or guitar line in her head, and I would have had some lyric idea in my head, and we would just sit down and barf the ideas out together, and they would just meld together magically. The melody would just kind of create itself bouncing between the two of us, and we would write those songs in minutes, you know? My whole career, I’ve said this over and over, the best ones just come right out of you really quick. Like a good poo. That’s so gross.
“Lust To Love” (from 1981’s Beauty And The Beat)
AVC: Where did that one come from?
JW: Where it did it come from? I don’t remember, some boy I was obsessed with. I was a very romantic, overly dramatic young lady, which served me well as a songwriter. Especially as someone who had to focus on lyrics and melody, because if you’re a dramatic and romantic person, lyrics come easy, and you turn every single short-term relationship into the biggest Romeo-and-Juliet story ever. To be honest, I don’t even remember who I fell from lust to love into, it happened so often. [Laughs.] I do remember the song “He’s So Strange.” I still like that song a lot. It’s broodier-sounding than a lot of the Go-Go’s songs. I remember that one was about this guy that both Charlotte and I were seeing, but we didn’t really know we were both seeing him. He was a very dark, mysterious punk rocker. One of the punks, and unfortunately became a heroin addict, and he’s actually dead now. But I was very attracted to that darkness, and bad boys, even though luckily I never became a drug addict. Praise dog.
AVC: There’s a dark quality to “Lust To Love” that’s easy for people to overlook if they just listen to the songs and not the words.
JW: One of the trademark writing styles of the Go-Go’s is that we like to take pretty melodies or poppy, upbeat-sounding melodies and pair them with down lyrics. People would always tell us how good we made them feel, and we’d be like, “Really? Because that’s kind of a depressing song.” If you really listen, the lyrics are all us just being depressed and stuff. [Laughs.] But then it’s really happy, so that’s fine. It’s good to mix stuff up. I was going to say—and this is a really dumb analogy, but I’ll just say it anyways—it’s like with clothes. If you wear really tight pants, you should probably wear a bigger shirt. Or if you wear a really tight shirt, you wear baggy pants. It shouldn’t all be tight or all be baggy. And it’s the same way with music.
“Fun With Ropes” (1979, released on 1994’s Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go’s)
AVC: “Fun With Ropes” plays very differently in retrospect, now that you’ve done cover shoots for Fetish magazine. Is that what was going on in that song at the time?
JW: Yeah. I discovered I was pervy as a teenager, and for a long time, I was very ashamed of it and held it in. In fact, the only public evidence of that is that song, because I thought I was a freak. Then at some point in the ’90s, I met some people that were outwardly kinky, and totally proud to be it, and I discovered the whole world of the fetish lifestyle, and I was like, “Oh, so I don’t have to be in the closet about being kinky.” So I’ve been an outward kinkster for a while now. But yeah, definitely, “Fun With Ropes” is all about bondage, and a super-funny song that was still loved. Belinda still loves to sing that song, which I adore about her.
AVC: It’s funny and edgy. Bringing the Cub Scouts into it, I’m sure they were delighted about that.
JW: [Laughs.] I don’t know if they ever heard about that. Maybe I should send it to them.
AVC: Was the song giving voice to something you couldn’t put your finger on before then? Did it crystallize things for you, or did you know what you were writing about?
JW: Oh no, I knew what I was writing about. I think it’s pretty obvious I knew what I was writing about. I think, though, at the time, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have admitted it. It would have been like, “That’s just a story.” Like I said, I was really in the closet about all that stuff at the time. It was a lot naughtier back in the ’70s. That stuff was really, really something people didn’t talk about. But that’s sort of the punk ethic too, to bring up uncomfortable things.
AVC: In the context of the punk scene, there were a lot of people saying things like that just to shock people, and not necessarily revealing anything about themselves.
JW: Exactly. And I think that’s where I had my comfort level, that I could just claim it was shocking, and just a story.
“Our Lips Are Sealed” (from 1981’s Beauty And The Beast)
AVC: The “Hush, my darling” bridge in “Our Lips Are Sealed” is probably the most purely beautiful moment on any Go-Go’s record.
JW: It’s so sparkly. Every time we get to that part, I get this image in my head of multi-colored sparkly fairies flying around. [Laughs.] What’s your question?
AVC: You co-wrote the song with Terry Hall, singer of The Specials, and it’s essentially about the fact that he was cheating on his girlfriend with you.
JW: Yeah, well, I have to give credit to Terry Hall, because he’s the one that started the lyric, and I picked up on it and finished it and wrote the music and stuff. But it wouldn’t have happened without him. And it is kind of interesting that it’s about both of us, and both of us had a hit with it, and yeah, it’s kind of cool. When I think back on my life, sometimes I’m like, “Wait, that’s really my life?” Because that’s something I would totally admire in somebody else’s life, that they did that, or that they had that in their life. So I’m lucky. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was it strange to have a song that’s so personal end up on the radio everywhere?
JW: No, actually, that’s a good point. Because what I’ve found—and the older I get, the more I understand this and stand behind it—is, my whole life has been an exploration of telling the truth. It’s scary to be truthful, and it’s scary to reveal yourself, and I’m very attracted to doing things that scare me. I think when you take chances and do things that you don’t want to because they’re frightening, that things happen as a result. Exciting things, or you glow. There’s usually good consequences, unless you’re scared of jumping off cliffs and you jump off a cliff, which of course would be incredibly stupid. It’s psychologically and emotionally scary things, not physically dangerous things.
AVC: How’s your leg doing?
JW: Oh, I still have a limp, but whatever, I’m alive, and that’s the main thing, right?
“But For The Grace Of God” (from 2001’s Keith Urban)
JW: Oh, nice one. I never, of course, would have met Keith Urban, because, first of all, he’s from Australia, and second of all, he’s a country artist. But my husband at the time worked for his managing company, so that’s how I got the chance to write with him. “Grace Of God” was written in 15 or 20 minutes. He is possibly the finest guitarist/singer I’ve ever worked with. The guy is musical right down to his flesh and blood. Music is him. And so it’s super-easy to work with him. I just sort of worked out the lyrics, and he worked out—Charlotte was there too, I don’t want to sound so mean. The three of us, we just sort of bounced these ideas off, we came up with the song. He promptly forgot about the song, because he was working with dozens and dozens and dozens of people at the time. He was making his first solo record. It wasn’t until they were almost finished with the album and they needed one more track to fill out space that his publisher said, “Oh what about that song you wrote with those Go-Go girls?” And they pulled it out, and he decided, “Okay, let’s give that one a try.” I mean, I don’t think he thought anything, and then the next thing you know, it was his first hit, and it went to No. 1. So go figure.
AVC: Lucky for him.
JW: And lucky for me.