Returning to Heaven on Earth – the Belinda Carlisle interview

Wilder Still: Belinda Carlisle, back on stage, her command met – with those lights left on again

I already had a decade and more than 200 live shows under my belt by the summer of 1990, yet never got to see a headline gig in the North West until that June at Manchester Apollo, out with my better half during a weekend visit from Surrey for Belinda Carlisle’s Runaway Horses tour.

For a post-punk indie kid more at home in smaller London venues, this was something of a mainstream power pop departure, yet made sense for a lad somewhat enamoured with the former Go-Go’s lead singer. And as I told the star of the show 27 years later, the lead single on that album, Leave a Light On, still manages to transport me. It should be just another hit record, but something reels me in. Maybe it’s association, taking me back to when it came out, but when she goes into that chorus I still get a chill.

“Well, that’s great, and I’m lucky I have a lot of good songs that transcend being songs and become moments in people’s lives. That’s a really nice feeling to be able to give that to somebody.”

There’s even a little George Harrison slide-guitar on that Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley-penned track. What more could I ask? More to the point, how was it having a Beatle in the room?

“I think he was my favourite Beatle, and an amazing songwriter. We thought he’d be perfect, so asked – that’s all you can do. And that lead’s unmistakable!”

I can’t recall when I first latched on to the Go-Go’s. I’d like to say it was seeing them support Madness in the spring of 1980 or on the back of their We Got the Beat single for Stiff Records that May, but I was barely 12 then. The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube appearances in 1982 are more likely, and I certainly knew of them by the time the Fun Boy Three recorded the Terry Hall and Jane Wiedlin-penned Our Lips Are Sealed in 1983.

That was two years after the same track appeared on the band’s debut LP, itself five years after they formed. David Keeps, in the sleevenotes of 1994 IRS compilation Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s, informs us that Belinda and Jane were sat on a kerb (or bearing in mind where it was, a curb, I suppose) at a party in Venice, California, with fellow punk fan Margot Olivarria when they decided everyone they knew was in a band at the time, so why shouldn’t they be?

Belinda sang, Margot played bass, Jane painted numbers on a guitar fretboard to learn some basic chords, and Elissa Bello was drafted in as drummer, the new band soon rehearsing a block away from where they were living, practising ‘in the basement of a porno theatre’, also home to punk hangout The Masque, sharing space with the likes of  X and The Motels, interested visitors helping them out.

It was at that club that they made their live debut in July ’78, Belinda recalling, ‘Everyone in the audience was either horrified or laughing hysterically’. Two months later, Charlotte Caffey was recruited, having lied when she told them she played lead guitar, but according to Jane, ‘She knew all these cool things, like the names of chords and how to plug guitars into amps’.

The personnel changed and the next year drummer Gina Schock left Baltimore for Los Angeles, met Jane at a party and became a Go-Go,  the band by now beginning ‘to write and play music with a strong pop sensibility’. As David Keeps put it, ‘Punk pundits called them sell-outs, but they didn’t care.’ A five-song demo followed, and after opening LA shows for ska invaders Madness, the Nutty Boys – getting on rather famously with the band by all accounts – invited them back to London for further dates, so to speak, the girls pawning their possessions then spending six months touring England ‘on an allowance of £2 a day’, according to Jane.

One of their demo songs was then given that Stiff release, and they were away, We Got the Beat becoming an underground US dance hit and leading to the band – Kathy Valentine drafted in to replace an unwell Margot – signing to IRS Records in 1981, going on to sell seven million albums.

They’d parted company by 1985, but were never far from the public eye, the lead singer’s gold-certified debut solo LP Belinda out within a year, her bid for a fresh challenge proving to be a winning decision. Was that always her intention?

“I’ve always been that way where I take things as they come. I didn’t leave the band to pursue that. I knew that it was always an opportunity but it was never like a given. When the band broke up the only thing I knew how to do was sing, and I had the opportunity of having a record deal, I had one great song, Mad About You, then decided that was what I probably should do, at least give it a shot.”

Charlotte and Jane were involved to some extent on your first solo LP. Were you on pretty good terms when you split?

“Erm … well … no, not … you know … the Go-Go’s relationship is very complicated, but we might have been okay at that time. Jane left the band a year before the split, and there were different camps when we split. But at that time I think Jane and I were okay. And Charlotte and I did work together a lot through the years.”

It did seem rather complicated at times. Was writing 2010’s Lips Unsealed autobiography a cathartic experience, going back over some of that more contentious old ground?

“Yeah, that was like a therapy session. I never want to do that again – that was a lot of hard work. But I’m glad I did it.”

I mentioned Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley before, who seem to have played a big part in your back story, notably writing 1987’s Heaven is a Place on Earth as well as 1989’s Leave a Light On, Runaway Horses, and (We Want) The Same Thing, plus 1991’s Live Your Life Be Free. Are you still in touch?

“I haven’t spoken to them for a long time, but Ellen had co-writing credit on a song I had out a few years ago called Goodbye Disco, and Rick’s really busy yet I see him occasionally. But I’m very grateful to both of them for the songs they wrote for me.”

While first single Mad About You became a big US hit, it was second album Heaven on Earth that broke Belinda here, going on to become one of the most successful female artists of the decade. And now she’s back, celebrating the 30th anniversary of that album and its lead single Heaven is a Place on Earth, which topped both the UK and US charts and was a No.1 single in eight countries, Belinda also earning a Grammy nomination for best pop female vocalist.

And the song that inspired that second album title remains with her, an acoustic version appearing on new LP Wilder Shores, her suite of Buddhist chants in song form, Hollywood-born and bred Belinda having practised Kundalini yoga for more than 25 years and more recently building a practice routine, studying mantras used in classes.

While penned by Nowels and Shipley, that track quickly became her own, and seems to be Belinda’s hymn to the world, coming at just the right time in her life and career, although she was still battling her addictions at that point. It stuck with her though, as proved by her latest treatment.

“Well, thanks. That song – when you break it down – first of all it’s a good pop song, and I thought lyrically it was appropriate for the new album. I’ve performed that song as it is on the new album for different events, and people love it as a yoga song. So it is appropriate, and it all works!

“It is and always has been a song of hope, and I’ve had many people coming up to me to say they didn’t realise the lyrics were so in keeping with yogic philosophy until they heard it stripped of all its production. I thought it would be great to include it in acoustic form on Wilder Shores and, to me, it fits perfectly.”

I guess we shouldn’t have been too surprised by Belinda’s latest direction, album-wise. She did after all release Voila in 2007, a collection of French chansons and pop standard covers. Now 10 years on there’s this, and listening back there’s something of a correlation to her treatment of Cream’s I Feel Free 30 years previously.

“This project came completely from the heart and from the experience I’ve had with chanting. I wanted to share with my fans what I feel can be a life-changing practice for anyone. I know first-hand just how powerful they are, and chanting was one of the tools I used to help me in the early days of my sobriety.

“On the roof of our mouth there are 84 energy meridian points which are activated by chanting – it stimulates our glandular system, balances our chakras and is an amazing way to achieve peace of mind, optimum health and the ability to shift our perspective on life as needed.

“I’ve always wanted to do an album like this but never felt I was ready until recently. It’s not just music, it’s a proven science and there’s no question that it’s a powerful method for dealing with everyday life. It requires an element in the voice called the naad – almost a transference of energy through the voice and not easy for me to learn.

“That said, I’m a pop singer so could never be a traditional chant or kirtan artist as it would not be true to who I am. Wilder Shores is still a pop album with the same structure of verse, bridge and chorus as my previous records, but done with repetitive chanting.

“I’ve chosen seven mantras – there were thousands to choose from – that have been really effective for me and put them into the pop song format. If you were to put it on in the next room or in the background you would think they are pop songs, but when you listen you can hear it’s not in English but in the language of the Gurus, Gurmukhi.”

Now based in Bangkok, she left LA in 1994 with husband Morgan Mason – whom you may recall from the Mad About You and Heaven is a Place on Earth promo videosand happens to be the son of actor James Mason –  and their son James, now 25, first settling in the South of France.

Incidentally, somewhat ironically perhaps, Belinda was riding high in the UK charts with (We Want) the Same Thing when I was last in Bangkok in late 1990, traveling the world, somehow keeping my own relationship going from distance. But that’s another story.

Does she miss California?

“No. Definitely no. We tried to go back, and it didn’t really work. As an ex-pat, no place is really home, but I think Asia feels like home now, as France did for 24 years. But I’m happy here, especially with the conditions now.”

Live Presence: Belinda Carlisle, heading back to a town near you this autumn

That’s a Trump-related response if I ever heard one, this animal rights/LGBT rights activist a fierce critic of the US clown president. But we’ve only got 15 minutes, so don’t go over that. Besides, if we’re on the verge of nuclear annihilation, I’m not wasting my time on the likes of him. What was it about Thailand that drew her?

“I don’t know. It’s a whole different energy than in the West, and I love that it’s a big city without all the aggression, and I love the mix of the third world and first world. And it’s really exciting. Anybody who’s ever lived in Asia will tell you that after living here, nothing else really compares.”

Heaven is a Place on Earth was the first of her 10 top-20 solo UK hits. How does Belinda view that whole period of mega-success now? It must have been mad busy.

“Well, it went really fast, and once you’re on that treadmill … I was pretty much on it until age 40, with an album out every two years. That’s what record companies did to you back then. It was pretty much non-stop. You go to the studio, you make an album, you do press, you go on tour, then back to the studio … That’s how it was for me for the period from the first album, my Belinda album, through to Live Your Life Be Free … pretty much.”

Seeing as we’re talking anniversaries, let’s go back another decade, as it’s now 40 years since Belinda’s first brush with fame in 1977 as ‘Dottie Danger’ with LA punk band The Germs, recruited by fellow high school art student Lorna Doom. How would she best describe that band, looking back?

“We had amazing lyrics, but I was the drummer that never played. It was one of the first punk bands. I got sick with mononucleosis and had to go back to my parents. They continued, then I came back. They were really hardcore, one of the first, really funny, really brilliant, and the guitarist – Pat Smear, went on to the Foo Fighters. It was a lot different from The Go-Go’s and from what I’m doing now!”

While she missed out there, she can be heard introducing the band at a 1977 show at the Whisky a Go Go on live album Germicide, and clearly got a taste for it all, also guesting for fellow LA punks Black Randy and the Metrosquad.

And then she co-founded The Misfits – soon renamed the Go-Go’s, becoming a key component of one of the most successful US ‘80s new wave outfits. More to the point, they were the first all-female band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to achieve a US No.1 LP, initial 1981 IRS offering Beauty and the Beat  followed by two more albums. So is that right that the lightbulb moment involved seeing fellow LA outfit The Runaways and thinking, ‘I can do that’?

“Well, yeah, but I always wanted to see the world and I felt that being in a band would be the best possible way, combining my wanderlust and love of music.”

There was a healthy early punk scene in America then and before, US bands like the Ramones and the Heartbreakers inspiring bands in the UK first time around, including one you had a lot of time for, The Clash.

“Oh my God! You kidding? They were, and I saw them live a few times. One of The Go-Go’s influences and favourite bands for sure. A really, really great band, and Joe Strummer was one of a kind.”

While the Go-Go’s split in ’85, the classic lineup reunited for a Californian environmental benefit in 1990, leading to more dates and a new hits compilation. Four years later they returned for another retrospective, including new recordings, single The Whole World Lost Its Head becoming their sole UK top-30 hit, the band touring again with ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson in for pregnant Charlotte Caffey.

Litigation followed as Gina Schock sued her bandmates in the late ’90s over money issues, but the band reunited for a brief tour and in 2001 released a new LP, including a single co-written with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, also playing a star-studded Brian Wilson tribute at Radio City Music Hall. Then in February 2010 they announced a Farewell Tour, but that was cancelled when Jane Wiedlin injured her knee while hiking. Instead, in 2011 they were back for a Ladies Gone Wild tour marking the 30th anniversary of Beauty and the Beat, coinciding with the band receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just outside The Masque.

“Amazing! Right on the corner of (North) Las Palmas (Avenue) and Hollywood Boulevard. Weird how that worked out!”

A further US tour followed in 2012, but without Kathy Valentine later on, the band announcing the following March ‘irreconcilable differences’ had led to the bassist’s departure. That May, she sued her bandmates – settling out of court in 2014 – and the Go-Go’s officially became a quartet – Caffey, Carlisle, Schock and Wiedlin – but joined by Abby Travis on bass. Further tour dates followed, including double-bills with The B-52’s, the postponed Farewell Tour finally happening last August. But that’s still not necessarily the end of it. Is that right you’re playing Hollywood Bowl with the Go-Go’s next year?

“Possibly, yeah. That’s probably going to happen next year. We don’t tour anymore. But if something comes up that’s really, really special we might consider doing it. And that’s definitely special.”

Do you feel you received kudos for actually playing your own instruments and writing your own songs? I mean, Rolling Stone called The Go-Go’s ‘the world’s best female rock band’. Who’s worthy of that crown today?

“There’s nobody worthy of that crown today. I can’t think of anyone who did the exact same thing. Maybe I’m not really that much in touch with the music going on now, but you’d think I’d know about one … but I haven’t seen one.

“I don’t understand why there haven’t been a lot of girls’ bands that haven’t been doing that, other than The Bangles, L7 and a few of them, but not really that many. Especially now days, things are pretty much homogenized and not really that authentic. It’s a different ball game now, for sure.”

Actually, I thought of fellow LA outfit Haim after our conversation, although there’s a band that wouldn’t take too kindly to being described as a ‘girl band’ anyway. Either way, the Go-Go’s were seen as trail-blazers for ‘girl power’, for want of a better phrase, and feminism in rock. Or were they in fact just women out on the road doing all the stuff fellas had got away with all those years (and outdoing them by most accounts)?

“That’s exactly it. We didn’t think about being feminists. We just did things our way, didn’t compromise, so I guess in that respect we were, but we never thought about it. It was more like a party.”

Speaking of which, in a recent BBC Sound of the ’80s interview with Sara Cox, you made me laugh when you mentioned those days of trashing dressing rooms, then tidying up, and inviting potential groupies back, then hiding.

“Exactly! Everyone thinks The Go-Go’s were so wild in that way, but we were just more mischievous. Of course there was the alcohol and the drugs, but as far as the behaviour, it was more mischievous than anything else.”

Wilder Shores is out this week, as is Demon Music Group’s 30th anniversary deluxe boxset edition of Heaven On Earth – four vinyl LPs plus CD presented in a lift-off lid box, comprising the original album, single versions of the hits, versions from 1988’s Belinda Live! and additional remixes. The CD version features the album plus three new tracks – the acoustic version of Heaven Is A Place On Earth, new song Why, and a cover of The Carpenters’ Superstar.  For more details head to www.belindacarlisle.tv 

Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven On Earth 30th anniversary tour calls at Salisbury City Hall (Sunday, October 1st), Brighton Dome (Monday, October 2nd), Norwich UEA (Wednesday, October 4th), Manchester Academy (Friday, October 6th, 0161 832 1111), Liverpool Olympia (Saturday, October 7th, 0844 8000 410), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (Monday, October 9th), Gateshead Sage (Tuesday, October 10th), Leamington Spa The Assembly (Thursday, October 12th), and London Indigo at the O2 (Friday, October 13th). 

Thai Pride: Belinda Carlisle takes to the water in Bangkok (Photo: Lisa Borgnes Giramonti)

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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