Behind the Song: The Go-Go’s, “Vacation”

Many people consider Memorial Day to be the unofficial beginning of summer, which makes it a great time to look at one of the season’s most indelible anthems. As a matter of fact, The Go-Go’s “Vacation” might be more apropos than ever as we enter this 2020 summer of discontent, considering how it manages to balance the ebullience of the warmer months with an undercurrent of melancholy.

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The Go-Go’s version soared to the Top 10 in 1982 as the title track and debut single off their sophomore album. But you might not know that Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine wrote and performed an earlier, punkier version of the song with her band the Textones near the end of the previous decade. 

Valentine, who recently spoke to American Songwriter about her wonderful memoir All I Ever Wanted, also took some time with us to detail the writing process for “Vacation.” “I was living in LA,” she explains. “My Mom still lived in Austin and I came home to visit her. I spent about a week-and-a-half there and met a guy and had a really nice time. At that point I hadn’t really ever had a boyfriend, like the real thing. This guy I met, I wasn’t his girl and he wasn’t my guy. But it was a really nice time and I was feeling a little nostalgic about it on the plane. I wrote out the lyrics on airplane napkins. In my mind, I heard a melody. So when I got home I sat down and put the chords to what I was hearing.”

The Textones released the song, which doesn’t mention a vacation of any kind, on a single, but soon disbanded. Valentine joined the Go-Go’s in 1980 not long before they released their smash debut album Beauty And The Beat. “When I joined the Go-Go’s, they had a great collection of material that they had pulled together over two years,” Valentine remembers. “Jane (Wiedlin) had been writing some cool punk songs and Charlotte (Caffey) had been writing another kind of genre. They started writing together and came up with great songs. When I joined the band, it was important to me that they wanted another songwriter.”

“It was like a honeymoon. We were infatuated with each other, me with my new band, them with their new band member. Pretty early on, I sat down with Charlotte one night and I showed her ‘Can’t Stop The World’ and ‘Vacation.’ And she loved both of them and thought that they could be Go-Go’s songs. With ‘Vacation,’ she said, ‘I feel that it doesn’t really go to a strong chorus.’ So we sat down that same night and wrote a chorus to it.”

Wiedlin pitched in by suggesting a different first line from the original version, which started with “I’ve thought a lot of things about you.” “Right as we were about to record it, I had this insecurity that it wasn’t strong enough,” Valentine remembers. “‘I’ve thought a lot of things about you,’ that’s probably more me. But Jane, she just threw it (“Can’t seem to get my mind off of you”) off the top of her head. And I think it makes it more universal.”

Valentine’s lyrics in the verses manage to nail those feelings or regret and longing felt by anyone leaving something special behind: “Now that I’m away/I wish I’d stayed/Tomorrow’s a day of mine that you won’t be in.” The chorus, as belted out by Belinda Carlisle with supporting harmonies from the band, provides the catharsis that the narrator desperately needs to break her out of her doldrums. Throw in a powerful musical intro that sets the tone, and the end result is as sure a summer shot as the 80s ever produced.

Valentine herself is surprised by the nuance she can still wring out of a song she knows so well. “I’ve been stripping it down with me and an acoustic guitar. And I’m amazed at how many options there are to bring in that intro and the hooks. There are so many ways it can be done. Which is the hallmark of a good hook, when you can do variations on the theme and yet it’s still very recognizable.” 

Valentine also says that her band forced her to raise her game. “I learned so much about songwriting. I was very lucky to get in a band with two great writers in Jane and Charlotte. That was my first exposure. To have my first big band that had a body of material that was just so strong. It really set a bar. As I became more of a contributing writer, I had a template infused in me about what was acceptable for the Go-Go’s.”

As far as the song’s legacy, Valentine believes that the origins of “Vacation,” so natural and unplanned, are why it has sustained for so long. “I think when something is done from the heart and it’s real and it’s authentic, people pick up on it. People are just drawn to authenticity. I’m not saying anything against songwriting banks, people that just sit down and churn out hooks and beats. That has its place in the musical landscape too. Ear candy is ear candy. But I don’t think the song can have the longevity that ‘Vacation’ does without that authenticity. I think people recognize it.” 

“It was a real feeling. Of course, it’s embellished to a degree, because there is artistic license. But the impetus, the spark, the inspiration came from a very pure, real place. And I think that gave it life and it sustained the life. If you had told me when I was sitting on that airplane at 19 years old that flash forward to forty-something years later and you’re still going to be getting paychecks for this song, I would have never dreamed that was possible.” 

Looking back on it, Kathy Valentine can’t help but feel intense gratitude for what she considers her “signature song.” “As someone who was basically trying to make it by playing in bands and being a musician, I feel like, between the Go-Go’s and that song, I would not be where I am today,” she says.

“Without the Go-Go’s, the song wouldn’t be what it is. And without the song, the Go-Go’s might not have had a successful second album. It’s just these little combinations of fate and destiny and this awesome kind of randomness that converge and give you a little slice of a legacy. It gives you a fantastic feeling.”

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