Original bass player Margot Olavarria (far left), Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Belinda Carlisle
The Go-Go’s hit songs from the early ‘80s have been Disneyfied to death over the past decade, but that unfortunate fact doesn’t diminish their influence as one of the most important bands to emerge from L.A.’s early punk scene.
However, their early history was as fraught with drama as any other band from the same period and place. In fact, the cutthroat machinations prior to their mainstream success alienated many friends and fans from their punk days at the Masque.
The first lost Go-Go, founding member bass player Margot Olavarria, was “a Valley Girl with dyed day-glo hair and chola make-up whose friends called her ‘Popsicle Head.” After seeing The Sex Pistols perform in the U.K. as a teen-ager, she returned to L.A. with the intention of starting her own band. She was introduced to drummer Elissa Bello and the two of them started the first incarnation of the band, briefly called The Misfits (no connection to Glenn Danzig’s early band in New Jersey), in 1978 with—according to Elissa—Margot choosing guitarist Jane Wiedlin and singer Belinda Carlisle. Guitarist Charlotte Caffey was added a few months later.
Later versions of how the band formed skim over the original line-up and Margot’s role entirely, even though to this day there are original L.A. punks who still earnestly describe her as the heart and soul of the band.
Elissa Bello was fired and replaced by Gina Schock in late June 1979. The band’s manager, Ginger Canzoneri, later claimed that the band “just weren’t happy with Elissa’s abilities as a drummer.” Elissa went on to play in other bands like Sexsick, Alarma!, Castration Squad, The Boneheads, Interpol, Suave Bolla, and Pasional. In an interview shortly after her firing from The Go-Go’s she said:
I was chucked out on my ass. I was dating this girl (Kari Krome of The Runaways) whose ex-girlfriend (Ginger Canzoneri) decided to become the new manager of The Go-Go’s. She just happened to know a drummer who had been playing for years and had her own truck, and great equipment, etc. Plus her father made her these great drum cases.
I never joined The Go-Go’s, as you can see. Margot and I put the band together. Although it was Margot who picked the girls. I wasn’t too happy with some of her choices, but Margot was relentless. I think she may have regretted those choices later on…
Margot lasted another year and a half.
The Go-Go’s toured the U.K. with Madness and The Specials for three months in 1980. In their absence the L.A. punk scene had shifted to hardcore and a predominance of angry white boys, but The Go-Go’s were developing more of a pop sound. Margot objected to the turn the band was taking, particularly since they had originally aspired to a sound similar to The Buzzcocks. She was increasingly estranged from the others and became ill with Hepatitis A in late December. As a result of her illness and the contagiousness of the disease, everyone else had to get shots right along with her. To make the year an even worse one for her she was also arrested for buying cocaine for someone else. X drummer D.J. Bonebrake kindly bailed her out of jail.
While Margot was ill, the others began auditioning supposedly temporary bass players to fill in for six sold-out shows at the Whisky a Go Go. They settled on Textones guitarist Kathy Valentine, who, despite no experience as a bassist, acquired a bass and learned their songs in a few days. She fit in well with their new disarming, fun, cleaner, de-fanged style, and the three Go-Go’s decided to allow her to replace Margot permanently. The band sent their manager Ginger to break the news to Margot, since they were too cowardly to do it themselves. This decision angered and alienated many people from the early L.A. punk scene, not least of all friends of Margot’s like Exene Cervenka and Pleasant Gehman, who thought she was treated shabbily.
The Go-Go’s debut album on I.R.S., the iconic Beauty and the Beat, was released July 8, 1981, with no mention of or thanks to Margot in the liner notes. The only person credited with writing “We Got the Beat” was Charlotte Caffey. Margot had appeared on the original single version of “We Got the Beat”, recorded for Stiff Records and released in the U.K. July 27, 1980. The re-recorded album version was released as a single in the U.S. on January 16, 1982, and is the one most listeners are familiar with.
In Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz’s book We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk Margot said:
I had no indication that it would be that successful. My mind wasn’t set on those heights. I was really pissed off. Beauty and the Beat was number one and I was squatting in an East Village apartment full of holes. I was still being recognized in the club scene as a Go-Go. That sucked, it really sucked.
Margot sued the band in 1982, but the case was settled out of court in 1984. Meanwhile she had moved to New York City, where in 1983 she joined drummer Martin Atkins’ first post-Public Image Ltd. band, Brian Brain, replacing Pete Jones on bass. Martin described Brian Brain as: “early punk/anarchic performance art meets disco madness…Brian Brain was pretty wild.”
Martin later told Opening Bands:
I started a label called Plaid after I left PIL, and I had a band called Brian Brain, which was my self on drums and vocals, Margo from the Go-Go’s, she was the original bass-player for The Go-Go’s and she co-wrote ‘We Got the Beat;’ and this guy Jeff [Geoff Smith, Margot’s husband] on guitar. We did a four song EP, put it out on Plaid, we had a distribution deal with a company called Greenwall, they went bankrupt, with 5,000 of our EP’s and that was it.
Margot appeared on Brian Brain’s 12” singles, EP’s, and one album (Time Flies When You’re Having Toast) until Martin moved on to other projects in 1987. Still a friend of Martin’s, Margot (now a PhD), edited and contributed the essays “Roadies,” “Detained for No Reason,” and “Grrrrrrl’s Guide to the Road” to in his 2007 book Tour: Smart.
The Go-Go’s, still with Margot, in Urgh! A Music War:
The Go-Go’s live at the Whisky, 1979: