Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Kathy Valentine
Nine Songs
Kathy Valentine from The Go-Go's

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and now an acclaimed author, Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s talks Alan Pedder through the songs that mean the most to her.

08 April 2022, 08:00 | Words by Alan Pedder

It’s hard to overstate the impact and long-reaching influence of The Go-Go’s, particularly on young girls of the MTV generation.

Their 1981 debut Beauty and The Beat made them the first all-women rock band to top the Billboard albums chart, and – quite incredibly – they remain the only all-women rock band to have done so, more than 40 years later.

Thanks to the newly launched music video channel, the feelgood, empowering “Our Lips Are Sealed” became The Go-Go’s first chart hit, quickly followed by the even bigger “We Got The Beat”, which went head-to-head for US #1 with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Jett may have won that race, but The Go-Go’s momentum was too colossal to be slowed. “We Got The Beat” became the band’s signature song, embodying their irresistibly bratty take on new wave, and propelling Beauty and The Beat to multi-platinum status.

One impressionable fan was 7-year-old Drew Barrymore, who, in a breathless speech inducting The Go-Go’s into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame last year, described the women as her “personal heroes” who, in 1981, “sounded like pure possibility”. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill had a similar awakening as a young girl, while others indebted to The Go-Go’s pop-punk include Haim and Hayley Williams, who spoke with Vogue in 2020 about the band’s enduring legacy.

After Beauty and The Beat, the five women – Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schlock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin – put out another two records before internal tensions and substance use issues drove The Go-Go’s into the ground after just 5 years in the spotlight. In her incisive and often heart-breaking memoir, All I Ever Wanted, Valentine describes the frictions between the band as like “trying to keep smoke behind a door”. Darkness, she says, “just kept finding a way in.”

The Go-Go’s have reformed several times over the years, with the intervening breakups (as recently as 2013) largely blamed on royalty disputes. But with a hit documentary in 2020, their Hall of Fame induction in 2021, and an arena tour with Billy Idol starting in June, their cultural stock has not been so high since the ‘80s.

To mark the UK release of her memoir, Best Fit got Valentine on the phone from her home in Austin, Texas, to talk about the soundtrack of her life. Surprisingly, for someone who writes so keenly about music, Valentine says she can find it “really challenging” to talk about it. Growing up in 1960s Texas in a single-parent family and with no brothers or sisters, for a long time Valentine’s only musical input came from the radio. “I was into Top 40 and all that bubblegum pop stuff,” she says, but it was her cousin AJ playing a blues song in the summer of ’68 that, as she writes in her book, “unlocked something inside me I didn’t know existed.”

A rock and roll fan by the age of 12, Valentine’s first rock concert was seeing fellow Texans ZZ Top – her favourite band at the time – except she didn’t end up seeing them because she got too drunk to stand up. At 14, she began to learn folk songs on acoustic guitar, but it wasn’t until she went to visit her mother’s family in England later that year that she discovered that women, too, could rock.

“Suzi Quatro was the first woman I saw not just being a lead singer but leading a band too,” she tells me. “It had never occurred to me that I, as a woman, could do that.” From that day on, her path was set. “It took a little while for me to get an electric guitar but I pursued my goal to be like Suzi with a very single-minded attitude. I wanted the whole look too – the hair, the voice.”

These days, Valentine is most likely to discover new music during spin class or from her 19-year-old daughter Audrey. “Through her I’ve been catching up on 40 years of hip hop, which I’m really enjoying. She turned me on to Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler The Creator and Chance The Rapper. She’s got excellent taste, and she knows my taste so well. I’m glad I’ve discovered The Line Of Best Fit. Now I have some new things to send her!”

“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye

“Listening to the radio as a kid, the songs that would really stand out to me were the ones that had a little bit of mystery. Songs that captured some sort of situation that I could only fantasise about. I remember hearing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and it made me ask questions, like, ‘Is that what being a grown up is about? People don’t do the right thing and you just… hear about it?’

“And of course I loved Marvin Gaye’s voice, especially the way he’d hit those high notes. He was an icon to me. As I wrote in my book, I actually got to hand him an award at the American Music Awards and I just couldn’t believe that I was on stage standing next to him.

“Something I’ve noticed is that when I have an initial reaction to a song, it often feels like I go to that same feeling every time I hear it. So when I hear “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, I still get that same emotion in my gut. It’s never gone away. It was just so different in the context of the other music that I liked, and of course it’s really catchy. The Gladys Knight version is also amazing, and Creedence Clearwater did it too, but the original is the version that gets to me the most.

“It's funny, because when you look back as an adult, you think ‘How could I have been that into music as a child?’ But when I became a mum, I saw how children react intensely to music from a really young age. So that validated the big responses I had as a child to music. Now I know that you can be very profoundly affected by music, even at a young age.”

“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

“I love Chuck Berry. There is so much humour and irreverence in his songs. It was actually quite hard for me to choose one of his songs over a Little Richard song, because I love them both. But I’m pretty sure that this was the first song I ever learned to play on electric guitar. I learned how to do bar chords and how to get a sense of rhythm because of “Johnny B Goode”, so it had to be on the list.

“That said, I’ve never been able to play it and sing it at the same time, and that drives me crazy because I have really tried. My vocals just start doing the exact same thing as my hands and it’s just incredibly frustrating. So that has made me respect Chuck Berry even more, that he can sing in that off-the-cuff way while holding down the rhythm.

“Music is funny, because it kinda hurts your feelings when someone doesn’t like your haircut or your shoes or something, but if somebody doesn’t like the songs you like, most of the time it doesn’t bother you that much. But there are some songs that are so critical. If you don’t like “Johnny B Goode” I don’t know if we could even, like, hang out.

“The first time I met Chuck Berry I was with James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders. We were so thrilled to meet him, but the performance was honestly a let-down. He was really phoning it in. As I understand it, rather than pay a proper band he would just hire a different one in each town, because every town has musicians that can play Chuck Berry songs. And I hear that he was kinda grumpy and mean to the players and insisted on being paid in cash. There’s this whole mythology about him, so I guess the musicians probably knew what they were getting into. Well, as I say, the show didn’t appeal, but meeting him afterwards, any bad feeling went right out the window.

“I didn’t put this in my book because it happened much later, but I actually met Chuck Berry a second time, at LAX airport. I saw this guy wearing a chartreuse leisure suit and I said to my friend, ‘Wow, look at that incredible guy.’ Only then did I realise it was Chuck Berry. I’ve never once approached anyone and asked for their autograph, but I had to do it for him. And you know what? Not only did he give me his autograph, he gave me his freaking address and phone number! I never dared to called him, but that was such a huge thrill.”

“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones

“I had to put the Stones on my list because they have had an indelible effect on me. They were my absolute favourite band for so long. The first Stones album I had was Sticky Fingers and then Exile on Main Street. This song is earlier, from Beggars Banquet, and I think I first heard it at a friend’s house.

“I’m a big fan of a lot of dumb rock and roll so when I hear rock and roll that’s smart, that feels like it was written by someone who’s well read and can tell a story, it really grabs my attention. That’s what I really liked about “Sympathy For The Devil” – it’s smart and subversive, and unique. I mean, how do you even write a song like that? How do you even think of it, conceptually? It’s epic in everything, from the production, the background vocals, the refrain. Every element serves the song, and it’s awe-inspiring.

“Along with Chuck Berry, Keith Richards is one of my big guitar heroes. And a lot of that is because he made it seem possible. When I was just starting out on guitar and I was looking at people like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Jeff Beck, it just seemed out of reach. Like, maybe I’d get there with 20 years of practice. But Keith made it seem a lot more accessible, like if I had good taste and a good sound, I could maybe get to where he was as a guitarist. And then the next logical step was punk rock, which made me feel like I could be a real guitarist in a week.”

“Can the Can” by Suzi Quatro

“I talk about Suzi a lot in my book, because I don’t think her influence can be stated enough. It’s not just me, but leagues of young women became musicians and started playing in bands because of her. I first saw Suzi playing “Can the Can” on Top Of The Pops when I was a young girl, visiting the UK with my mother, who is English. Unlike in America, the Brits would have women like Suzi on the TV, on the radio, and it’s that thing where if you can see it, you can be it. It was so empowering.

“If it hadn’t been for discovering Suzi at the age of 14, maybe I would have started a band eventually, inspired by The Runaways or whoever came through town. Or maybe I would have just stayed in my room strumming “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Wildwood Flower” on acoustic. But Suzi was the one I saw, the one who made me think, ‘I can do that – and not only can I do that, but I’m going to do that.’

“It’s funny, I met Suzi’s producer Mike Chapman in Los Angeles after The Go-Go’s broke up, and he offered to produce some solo stuff and make me into “The next Suzi”. As it turns out I was not ready or able to do that, but for a minute there the idea of working with Mike Chapman and following in her footsteps sort of gave me a reason to go on in what was a very low, beaten-down time in my life.

“I adore that Suzi is still doing her thing. It’s interesting, because we have seen blues guys get old and we’re used to country singers and jazz singers of retirement age. But to see rock and roll people getting old? It’s hard for all of us who love and play this music that’s so strongly associated with our youth. So honestly, I am grateful to see that. People like Suzi are not stopping just because they are older. And hopefully they are normalising that for the rest of us.”

“Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie

“Bowie was so different from everyone else, and yet there was no mistaking that “Rebel Rebel” and the rest of Diamond Dogs was completely rock and roll. When I heard this song, I knew I wanted to be the person he was singing about. And if I couldn’t be that person, I wanted to be friends with that person.

“It felt like he was singing about my life and the life I wanted. When I was younger and felt like I didn’t fit in the world, Bowie was the one who showed me that there was a place for people like me, and that good things could be in store. A lot of rock and roll icons have done that for me, but Bowie more than anyone.

“When The Go-Go’s were invited to open for Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour, it came at a very low point for the band. We had really been struggling, not getting along. All the fun parts of being a band felt very overshadowed by the difficulties of being in the music business, and the different issues that people were having. But when this opportunity came along, we just rallied and pulled it together. I mean, what band in their right mind would not pull it together given the opportunity to share a stage with Bowie?

“It was a once in a lifetime thing. And meeting him was insane. I’m rarely starstruck, but with Bowie I couldn’t just treat him like he was a regular person. It was special.”

“Oh Bondage Up Yours!” by X Ray Spex

“I actually don’t know much about X-Ray Spex and I’m not that familiar with many of their other songs, but this one, Oh my god. That freaking saxophone line! I had never heard a sax played like that, and certainly not in the context of punk music.

“I love a lot of punk music, though I tended to lean towards the more light-hearted pop-punk stuff more than the angry stuff. But when I heard this “Oh Bondage! Up Yours”, and Poly Styrene sounded so pissed off, it just really spoke to me. I felt like hers was a message I could really get behind. To have written and performed a song like this, and to know that it will stand on its own for eternity… honestly, I’m speechless.”

“I Want You to Want Me” by Cheap Trick

“To clarify, the live version from Cheap Trick At Budokan is the one I heard first, because everybody had that album. Everybody. But really any version of the song belongs on the list. Structurally, it’s a very well-crafted song. I feel like it takes you on a little journey and I respect that so much. It kind of pushed the boundaries of where you can take a song, so to me as a songwriter, as a musician, this song – and everything about Cheap Trick – was really the perfect gateway.

“To be honest, if I wouldn’t have joined The Go-Go’s, I would have loved to be in a band exactly like Cheap Trick. No one else at that time was able to be so hooky and catchy and rock so much at the same time. They really pulled in everything that I love about music and funnelled it into this amazing sound.

“The manager of my first band, The Textones, arranged a 21st birthday party for me at a little club in Los Angeles, and Robin Zander of Cheap Trick was one of the guests. I thought it was going to be this small thing with a bunch of bands just jamming, but it ended up in Rolling Stone and in all the local magazines and newspapers. I really felt like it was proof that I was going to make it, that I was headed to the top. I wasn’t even in The Go-Go’s yet, but I felt like I was in the right place and going where I was meant to go.

“It’s crazy how when you are working hard to succeed, it feels like everything takes a really long time. But when I was writing the book, I realised that my concept of time was way off. Things that I thought stretched out over years actually happened within a few months of each other. Like, I played my first gig with The Go-Go’s in December 1980 and by April we were making a record in New York City. I thought it was much longer.”

“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinéad O'Connor

“I can start to cry just thinking about this song and the way she sings it, it’s an immensely powerful performance. I think it’s even more powerful now, given what’s happened with Sinéad and all the difficulties she has faced in her life. It moves me so deeply. And maybe a part of that is having felt the same way about someone, or having wanted to.

“Those words – “Nothing compares to you” – are so direct that they sound almost flat on paper, but Sinéad O’Connor really sells it with every ounce of her feelings. It’s just an incredibly emotional thing for me. I heard the original Prince version, but it does not have the same effect.”

“Round Midnight”, all versions

“I was burned out on music for a while and stopped listening to rock and roll, but by the time the ‘90s rolled around, I felt ready to discover music again. I happened to be dating a guy that loved jazz, and one of the first things he did was to give me Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Well, that album opened me up and for several years after it was the only music I cared about.

“There was an amazing jazz trio playing locally, so I was able to go every week to hear it live, which is such an important part of getting turned on to jazz. I felt like my mind was continually being blown, going from Coltrane to Charlie Parker, and somewhere there I stumbled across Thelonius Monk. Wow. I heard “Round Midnight” and honestly it’s become my favourite piece of music of all time. When I am on my deathbed, that’s what I want someone to play me. I want my last breath to be to that piece.

“I wrote ‘all versions’, because as much as I love Monk’s piano, when I heard it played on guitar it hit me even harder. I heard Kenny Burrell play it live and I was sobbing. I listened to the Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery version not long ago and, again, I started sobbing. And it’s not because I’m sad, it’s just because it provokes so many feelings that I don’t what to do with them. Laughing just doesn’t seem right, so the feelings come out as tears. The feelings of just being completely and utterly moved in a way that rock and roll usually doesn’t.

“This song just makes me feel very alive, in all the ways of being alive, like grateful and hopeful, sad and aware. All those grown-up things about being alive that we cherish and yet there’s so much sadness, you know?”

All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Memoir is out now through Jawbone Press
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