It’s not easy being a pioneer, especially if you’re a woman. Growing up idolizing The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Led Zepellin, when Kathy Valentine joined The Go-Gos as bassist in 1980, the band embodied something they hadn’t seen at the time: an all-female band who played their own instruments. Today, a band made up entirely of women is more of an anomaly than reality, yet the role women have within the music industry has expanded immensely since the earlier days of The Go-Gos.
Now more than 40 years since the band released their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, and follow up Vacation in 1982, The Go-Gos reemerged in 2020 for the first time since 2001 album God Bless the Go-Gos, around the Alison Ellwood-directed documentary on the band. The band also released a new song “Club Zero” and were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year later.
Valentine, who wrote the band’s hits “Vacation” and “Head Over Heels,” with guitarist Charlotte Caffey, has made her own mark as a songwriter and producer, releasing her 2005 solo debut Light Years (All For One) and her later imprints with The BlueBonnets and The Delphines in the ’90s.
“For me a lot of times, songwriting is a form of therapy,” says Valentine. “It’s like a friend to me. I have many songs that will probably never get heard because they served the purpose of helping me process difficult experiences.”
To accompany her 2021 memoir All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Memoir, Valentine wrote a collection of songs centered around her stories of sex and drugs and rock, growing up in Austin, Texas and becoming enamored with being a rock star.
Today, Valentine is still moving and set to kick off the first all-female Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp, featuring Nancy Wilson, Melissa Etheridge, and Orianthi in May 2022, and in the midst of playing a string of shows with The Go-Go’s.
Valentine spoke to American Songwriter about the women who influenced her, where she’s found her muse writing now, and how things have changed (and stayed the same) for women in music.
American Songwriter: For women, the music industry was another beast when The Go-Gos were starting in the ’70s and blowing up in the 1980s. Times have changed, but what still hasn’t shifted for women in music?
Kathy Valentine: I don’t see as many bands that are comprised all of women. I see a lot more musicians and women working in the music industry, but there doesn’t seem to be as many bands. If you think of bands, anyone from Green Day to U2, they’re all guys. I don’t see as many women and that doesn’t seem to have changed that much. It doesn’t seem to be that many women are wanting to start bands with other women, and I’m not sure why that is.
AS: It’s interesting because on the surface it seems like more women have been coming together, but when it comes to music, you can’t find many bands. Do you think this has something to do with the fact there isn’t a stronger community of women within music?
KV: In terms of female solidarity, there’s the MeToo movement and everything happening around reproductive rights… It’s a reflection of where we are as a society in general and that we’re all very divided and polarized. I don’t think women are finding that any easier to overcome. It’s systemic, from music to politics to community.
AS: Women are definitely in a more powerful place in music now than they were 30 or 40 years ago.
KV: Change is very slow. You’re seeing more women in the studio who know their way around recording and mastering and producing. Obviously, we’ve always been songwriters. It’s just a slow thing. It’s always a numbers game. If you have 100 males and 100 females, there’s the percentage of males that are likely to go into a career that’s more non-traditional. For women, there’s going to be fewer in that realm, and that’s why I’m always very interested in visibility and making sure that the women who do choose a less-traveled road are seen in the media and held up. In the ’50s and ’60s, I think women started seeing that they didn’t have to be homemakers and mothers and that they could have all kinds of careers, but they had to see that happen before it entered their minds. My mom was in England and young teenage girls were never expected to go to college. When she married and moved here, and she was in the United States she saw women her age going to college.
AS: Things have transformed tremendously from the time The Go-Gos were making their way. You mentioned #MeToo, and it’s hard not to think of how prevalent sexual harassment was within the music industry, particularly when The Go-Gos were starting. Did you have any personal experiences with this?
KV: I was lucky, I didn’t experience that sort of thing. There was the culture of the A&R guy back in the ’80s. It was hard partying, almost like a stereotypical agent, like Ari [Gold] in Entourage. That’s kind of like how the A&R guys were like. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the women. We saw very few women. We would travel and tour and meet the local rep in every city and it was never a woman. We were lucky. We had some women at IRS records that were awesome, but in general, there wasn’t a lot. Alice De Buhr of Fanny was at A&M [Records], and it was always a pleasure for us when there was a woman in the business. Even the program directors at the radio stations—all men.
AS: I read what you recently wrote about Ronnie Spector, and I know Suzi Quatro was an immense influence for you. Who were some other women that pushed you toward music?
KV: Ronnie really had the same street elements. I always have to mention Suzi Quatro. I owe my music career to Suzi Quatro, because she was the first woman I saw fronting a band, and not just being the lead singer but playing an instrument and leading the band. There were a lot of bands in the ’60s that we now can find on YouTube or blogs and fanzines, but back when I started playing in the ’70s, there wasn’t any of that stuff, so I didn’t know about them. It was only by chance that I saw Suzi Quatro on TV in England, so I owe a huge debt to Suzi.
Debbie Harry was was really important to me because she was a songwriter, and I’ve never seen anyone be so likable to women, but still very sexy, and very street and urban. It was a very interesting cool sexuality that wasn’t cheesy or gratuitous. It seemed like an extension of who she was. It didn’t seem manufactured. That was never my thing. I didn’t even think I had any sex appeal or attractiveness but just seeing it was was cool… and knowing that you could be sexy and be attractive.
I think a lot of women were inspired by Chrissie Hynde—just her delivery, her voice, her songs, her toughness. She was super tough. Again, it was okay to be how she was, and it didn’t feel like a put-on or a persona. It was very much like Debbie in that way. It wasn’t like ‘I’m going to be the tough girl’ and ‘I’m going to be the sexy girl.’ It felt more like I can be who I am.
AS: Aside from Suzi, Ronnie, Chrissie and Debbie, who are some other women that continue to stick with you?
KV: The first female rockstar I was really aware of was Janis Joplin. I’m from Texas, and she spent some time in Austin—even though Austin and Texas didn’t really support her, they certainly claimed her once she was successful. It seemed like she was always portrayed in a kind of cartoonish way in terms of being a hard-partying, hard-living rockstar, whereas Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison were considered these romantic poets. Janis was always portrayed almost like this cartoon for doing the same shit the guys were doing.
It wasn’t until I read Holly George-Warren’s t biography about Janis Joplin called “Janis” [“Her Life and Music”] that I even knew how in control of her career she was. She was in the studio. She didn’t just go in and sing her parts and leave. She was in there. She was picking songs. She was working with writers to make sure she was really in control of what she wanted to present as a singer and as an artist, and I never knew that about Janis Joplin. That book presents her as more than just this fuck up with a great voice and a wild sense of style, which is all I knew before.
Later on, I really began embracing my roots in the ’90s. The Go-Gos had kind of obliterated everything. Once I became a Go-Go it just became everything to me, and it took me several years to say ‘let’s just go back to square one—the music that I was listening to and playing guitar in Austin, Texas. So I started a blues band [BlueBonnets] just because the Stones and the bases in the Yardbirds, I just thought of all the bands in the Beatles that started with kind of American roots and blues and then kind of followed that lead that kind of helped form their direction and I was lost musically so I did that.
AS: Who were some women you discovered in blues?
KV: I never knew about Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and I’ve never seen Bo Diddley, so I didn’t know that Bo had women playing guitar. It speaks to what I mentioned earlier—that visibility thing. It’s a shame that the girls that were 15 and 16, like I was looking up to Led Zeppelin and the Stones and The Beatles, didn’t know about all these women. And it’s because they weren’t famous like Led Zeppelin, or they weren’t famous like The Rolling Stones, but they were there, and they were doing it, and it’s too bad. I guess books would have been the only way to know about them back then. I was blown away to think how revolutionary it would have been to be in the 1930s, to be a black woman earning a living as a guitar player. Then that led me just to seeing some of the big bands that were women and just tearing it up.
I think we [women] have a fascinating history in music as songwriters. Women have always held their own and been recognized as such. I was always in awe of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and all the icon women in the ’60s and ’70s that were writing songs and delivering them and succeeding. They were huge. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but again it was seeing that we weren’t absent.
AS: Being a songwriter for some time now, how do songs tend to come to you these days? How does it translate into the other things you’re writing?
KV: I always have my antenna out. I’m always receptive. I’m always receiving and phrases, titles, lines, melodies, so it’s always there. My muse tends to be leaning more toward being a writer of literature and short story. In my memoir, I wanted to make a foundation that could open the door for me to be viewed as a writer as well as a musician. I have nothing but gratitude and feel enormously blessed for my career, but having said that, I don’t want my life to be about being the bass player in the Go-Gos, I’m way more than that. I’m a great producer. I’m a really good songwriter. I’m a really good guitar player, and I’m a really good writer.
I don’t want the sum of my life to be that I played on Beauty and the Beat and played the bass on “We Got the Beat,” and I wrote “Vacation” and brought that to the band. These are wonderful accomplishments, and maybe for some people, that’s it. That’s all you get—go retire. But that’s not what I want. I feel like I’m way more than that, and that was a long time ago. I’ve been very active, probably more since I got sober, in pursuing my education, getting a college degree, making records, learning software, making videos, and just doing things I’m interested in. I do miss writing songs. For me a lot of times, songwriting is a form of therapy. It’s like a friend to me. I have many songs that will probably never get heard because they served the purpose of helping me process difficult experiences.
AS: I don’t think the journey ever really ends. And now you’re leading the first-ever all-female Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy Camp with Melissa Etheridge, Nancy Wilson, Orianthi, and others. How did this come together?
KV: I had been aware of it for many years and it always seemed very focused on men and very focused on a genre that was leaning towards hard rock and heavy metal. I was really pleased during the pandemic when they approached me to do a Masterclass [with Rock Fantasy Camp], and they were really open to me doing however I wanted. If it was going to be on a Zoom, I didn’t want to just sit there and talk about the bass, so I wanted to do a Masterclass that just covers everything, writing songs, playing the guitar, playing the bass, being in a band—just everything that I’ve been doing. I’ve been in bands since the age of 16. I’ve never not been in a band. So I did it and it sold out and we added another one. In each Masterclass, there were probably five to 10 women that were in their 50s that were just starting out and they felt safe with me. It was really wonderful to be able to encourage that and say to a beginner; I can tell you something that took me a long time to get to and just enjoying it for the sake of doing it, and being proud.
I made a record in 2005 [Light Years (All For One)] that probably sold 3,000 copies, but God, I’m proud of it. I don’t need to sell 30,000 or three million. I’m so proud of my record. I’m proud of the songs I did. I thought, what a wonderful thing to get to the point where you create something. I’m like that with my short stories. If I wrote a short story and it never gets published, I’m just proud. It’s fun to tell people that are starting out to aim for that because the sooner anybody that’s artistic or creative can get to that place of just enjoying doing it and being proud of what they’ve done in making themselves happy, you’re kind of in a winning spot.
AS: Was success all that was on your mind when you joined The Go-Gos?
KV: When I was young that’s all I cared about. All I cared about was making it in the business, and I didn’t want a job. I didn’t want to be a regular person. I wanted to rock out. And I wanted to do it with girls my age. I probably would have done whatever it took, because that’s what I wanted to do. If The Go-Gos had said, ‘Oh, that’s nice that you play guitar, but we just need a bongo player,’ I probably would have said, ‘okay I play bongos.’”
Main Photo: Christopher Durst