I’m not the biggest Billy Corgan fan, but there are times where he can be very insightful and thoughtful. For instance, in a 2017 interview, Corgan talked about how the original Smashing Pumpkins imploded and why a lot of it stemmed from the fact that he, as the main songwriter, made a lot more money than his bandmates.
According to him, one day, early in the band’s history, some record label folks took Corgan to breakfast and explained to him some of the realities of the music business. “They said: ‘Songwriters in bands make a lot more money, so our suggestion is you should share your songs with your bandmates to keep a democratic stasis.’ I was like ‘Hell no, I’m not giving them my work.'” he said. “Fast forward four years later, I’m making a lot more money than them, and that sews discontent.”
According to Corgan, being the main songwriter had another effect besides the financial — he was now seen as the genius auteur and his bandmates were seen as nothing more than his backup. “We’d get into a room with journalists and they would just talk to me. Then we would get out of the interview and the band members would yell at me for them not being asked questions,” he said. “It’s like an erosion factor. You don’t appreciate it from within, there’s a lot of compression and money and stuff going on, then one day it hollows out. And then it’s too late and you can’t just sit down and have a meeting because the wounds are too deep.”
Perhaps if he had taken a page from R.E.M.’s book, things would have gone better. When R.E.M. first started out, Peter Buck insisted on splitting the songwriting royalties equally. According to Band Together: Internal Dynamics in U2, R.E.M. Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, by Mirit Eliraz, Buck didn’t want the band to end up like Creedence Clearwater Revival and others and recognized that this was the best way to ensure no one got the short end of the stick. Plus, in his mind, the band’s songs were just that — even though members composed songs individually, they would work together to improve them and make sure they met the band’s high standards. Other groups have taken a similar approach, including U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who write songs that arise out of group jam sessions), and Radiohead and Coldplay, where one person dominates the creative process but willingly shares credit to keep the peace.
Instead, the original Pumpkins joined a long list of bands that have split up because of songwriting royalty disputes. CCR famously imploded after the other three members got fed up with John Fogerty writing all of the songs and wanted some of that credit (and publishing money) for themselves. Levon Helm went to his grave believing Robbie Robertson had cheated him and the others in The Band out of songwriting royalties. Jane’s Addiction almost broke up before its debut album was released because of a royalty dispute. Spandau Ballet spent most of the 90s in court after three members of the band claimed they had an agreement with guitarist and main songwriter Gary Kemp to split the royalties, something Kemp, obviously, denied.
And then there’s The Go-Go’s. The band was barely hanging on by a thread by the time of its 1984 album Talk Show. A songwriting dispute proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“There would be a lot of questions about what our relationship with each other was like. [We’d answer,] ‘Oh, we love each other. We’re like sisters!,’” Go-Go’s rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin said in a 2015 documentary about the band that aired on Showtime. “Yeah, sisters who f–king stab each other in the back.”
As the documentary notes, The Go-Go’s were the first all-female group that wrote its own material, played its own instruments and became successful. Starting out as a punk band, The Go-Go’s got big when it moved into pop and new wave territory. Its debut album, Beauty and the Beat (1981), went double platinum and hit #1 on the Billboard 200. Beauty and the Beat made history as the first album written and performed by an all-women group to top the album charts, and produced two big hits: “We Got the Beat,” which was written by guitarist Charlotte Caffey, and “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which was written by Wiedlin and Terry Hall, singer for The Specials, about their illicit romance. Their follow-up, 1982’s Vacation, went gold, and produced another big hit as the title track hit #8 on the Billboard charts.
However, being successful, especially in the 80s, meant playing the game. In the case of The Go-Go’s, they were were pushed as a squeaky clean band of nice girls-next-door who all loved and supported one another. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. For one thing, the band made its bones on the anything-goes L.A. punk rock scene, where drugs and alcohol were never in short supply.
And as they got more famous, they began indulging their vices as if they were in the Sex Pistols or Mötley Crüe. In 1981, a video leaked of the band members, clearly intoxicated, partying backstage and, at one point, recording a passed out male tech get sexually assaulted (bassist Kathy Valentine later expressed regret for this). The band also got “cross-eyed drunk” prior to appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1981. According to the Go-Go’s documentary, Valentine, who had replaced the band’s original bassist, learned to play bass, as well as all of the Go-Go’s songs, in one cocaine-fueled night. Meanwhile, lead singer Belinda Carlisle developed what she called a “30-year cocaine addiction” and Caffey got hooked on heroin and was so out of control, Ozzy Osbourne once kicked her out of his dressing room. On the scale of 1-to-10, with 10 being Steven Adler being too out of control for Guns N’ Roses, that one is a solid “9.”
“We were cute and bubbly,” Wiedlin said. “But we were also crazy, twisted, drug-addict sex fiends.”
By 1984, it was all starting to catch up with them. In addition to the various chemical substances being used, financial jealousy had reared its head. As the two main songwriters, Wiedlin and Caffey made more money than the others, and according to the Go-Go’s documentary, drummer Gina Schock saw the size of their royalty checks and got upset. More on that in a moment.
Despite that, Talk Show does its best to mask the internal problems in the band. It is more of a pop record than its predecessors, which were more influenced by punk and New Wave. From a quality standpoint, it’s a perfectly cromulent album and an easy listening experience. However, a lot of the songs sound the same and the album seems heavy on filler. Otherwise, the singles are quite good, particularly “Head Over Heels,” which is an all-time classic.
Beneath the surface, though, you can see problems developing. For one, Caffey’s drug addiction meant she wasn’t very productive when it came to writing songs for Talk Show. She only has three credits on the album — albeit two were for co-writing the first two singles off the album: “Head Over Heels” and “Turn To You.”
Instead, it’s Wiedlin and Valentine that do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to songwriting. The two of them combine for “Beneath the Blue Sky,” a thoroughly enjoyable and catchy song that probably could have been released as a single. They also co-write album closer “Mercenary” with Caffey. You’d think a song written by the three best writers in the band would be a classic, but this one is kind of a dud. Maybe it’s a case of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Or maybe it’s a case where one person wrote the song, didn’t feel that strongly about it, and passed it along to the others to see if they could improve it, and this is the end result. Either way, it’s last on the album for a reason.
Wiedlin, meanwhile, contributes third single “Yes or No,” which is a piece of pure pop that, like much of the album, is perfectly acceptable but not necessarily memorable. More notably, she also has “Forget That Day,” a song that, much like “Our Lips Are Sealed” is about one of her relationships — in this case, a musician they toured with. According to her, the lyrics were very personal to her, and as such, she asked to sing lead on it but was told that only Carlisle could sing lead. “One of them said, ‘What makes you think you’re good enough to sing the song?,’” Wiedlin recalled angrily.
Wiedlin, already feeling alienated by the band, took it personally. And when she was later told that the band and management wanted her to share her royalties on Talk Show (she had the most credits, writing or co-writing 7 of the 10 songs on the album), she bluntly told them where they could go. Or rather where she would go. Wiedlin quit after the 1984 Prime Time Tour and was replaced by bassist Paula Jean Brown (Valentine switched to Wiedlin’s old position of rhythm guitar).
Her departure was the first nail in the coffin. The next came when the album flopped. Whereas Beauty and the Beat hit #1 on the Billboard 200 and Vacation reached #8, Talk Show peaked at #18. Talk Show also failed to reach gold status and its highest charting single, “Head Over Heels” missed the Top Ten on the Billboard 100 (albeit, by one spot).
The band fell apart shortly afterwards and formally disbanded in 1985. According to the documentary, Carlisle and Caffey decided to break up the band, with the former ready to embark on a solo career. Carlisle, arguably, had more success as a soloist, amassing more hit albums and singles than the Go-Go’s. Caffey, newly sober, wrote several songs on Carlisle’s albums. Wiedlin also went solo and managed one Top Ten hit in 1988. The Go-Go’s had a couple of short reunions in the 90s, before getting back together, more or less, for good in the early 2000s. They’ve still had drama — Schock sued the band in 1997 over unpaid royalties, and Valentine did the same in 2013 after she was ousted from the group. Eventually, the five reunited in 2018, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, and wrapped up a short tour earlier this year.
That tour saw them perform two songs from Talk Show: “Head Over Heels” and “Turn To You.” Those two songs have been mainstays for them. Otherwise, most of the songs from Talk Show haven’t been played since the end of their 1984 tour. Maybe the album brings up too many bad memories, hurt feelings and dark moments. “There are people who really love that album, but I can’t even listen to it,” Wiedlin said.