80s pop star Belinda Carlisle hit rock bottom and bounced back
Belinda Carlisle remembers precisely the moment her career hit rock bottom.
After two decades at the top, headlining arenas and selling millions of records, the global pop icon found herself, somewhat improbably, in Norwich, booked to play the Student Union Hall at the University of East Anglia.
“It was right before I got sober,” she tells me. “Just this little place – and 20 people showed up. The same run, I performed at a pizza place… ‘Buy a ticket, get free pizza and see Belinda Carlisle’.”
It felt like the last stop on a rollercoaster ride that began when she was fourteen, the year she first “smoked pot, dropped acid, you name it, I’d try it.”
Born in Hollywood, the eldest of seven, Carlisle was five when her father left. Her religious mother remarried but her stepfather was an alcoholic.
At 19, she changed her name to Dottie Danger and became the drummer in seminal LA punk band The Germs, whose charismatic singer Darby Crash committed suicide at 22. Guitarist Pat Smear is now in Nirvana.
Belinda was on the scene, playing the Whiskey a Go Go – the inspiration behind the name of the band she co-founded in 1978 with guitarist Jane Wiedlin: the Go-Go’s.
Re-assuming her real name and swapping the drumsticks for a microphone, Belinda Carlisle became the apple-cheeked, pretty-in-black singer of the first all-female band in history to achieve an American number one album, Beauty And The Beat, where every song was written, played and sung by them.
That 1981 debut also included two chart-topping US singles – We Got The Beat, the band’s anthem, and Our Lips Are Sealed, co-written by Wiedlin and her then boyfriend, Specials singer Terry Hall. Neither was a hit in the UK though Our Lips Are Sealed went Top 10 in 1983 when Hall released it with Fun Boy Three.
When US sales plummeted for third album, Talk Show, in 1984, the Go-Go’s went-went and Carlisle “just kind of fell into the solo career; I didn’t know how to do anything else, so I thought, why not?”
The Go-Go’s were not girly-girls, Carlisle was cute, but she didn’t spell sex the same way Debbie Harry or Madonna did. “In the Go-Go’s, we never had any problem with men.” Rather, it was women who drew blood with body-shaming digs like ‘Oh, she’s been hitting too many deli trays,’ and ‘I wonder what drug she is doing to get thin’.
Only once did Belinda feel the hot breath of sexploitation on her neck. After her first solo single Mad About You hit the US Top Five, she recalls
“Somebody high up in the business was saying, ‘You could be really famous if you showed your t*ts.’
“I thought, no, I’m not like that.”
What transformed Carlisle from punk poppet to glamourous international superstar was her sixth solo single, Heaven Is A Place On Earth: number one here and America and everywhere else that liked singing along to loud glossy 80s pop anthems.
“It changed my life completely in so many ways. It was my first global number one.” From then on Belinda ’s solo career dwarfed the Go-Go’s.
Her 1987 album Heaven on Earth sold a million copies in Britain. Ditto her next two albums. She had nine UK Top 20 singles; fans who bought Heaven Is… and other 90s hits like Circle in The Sand and Leave A Light On, knew little of the Go-Go’s.
“I never had any ambition to rule the world or be Madonna. I just took it day by day, project by project.”
In 1993, after her fifth album, Real, tanked, “I cut my red hair really short, let it go natural. And we moved to France. I didn’t know what exactly, but I was ready for something different.”
Coaxed into one more go-round, in 1996 came A Woman And A Man, another chart album here that flopped elsewhere. When her label dropped her a year later, Carlisle had just celebrated her 40th birthday.
Married to film producer Morgan Mason, the son of British actor James Mason, and the mother of their then five-year-old son, James Duke, Carlisle had long outgrown her pink-liquorish image, beginning with the “notorious” video shot backstage with the Go-Go’s in 1981.
It’s brief flash of drug-use and male nudity is desperately tame by today’s online standards. Back then it was shocking. Simply because these were girls behaving badly. Twenty years later Belinda was posing nude for Playboy while everybody applauded her bravado.
Nobody identified the real concern: her rapidly growing drug and alcohol abuse. She later admitted to a 30-year cocaine habit and drinking throughout her pregnancy with her son, now 31, who came out as gay at 14.
By the time she got to Norwich, there had been various Go-Go’s reunions, lawsuits, 80s-revival tours, and swirls of repackaged solo hits. In 2004, she did Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay and was the first star voted off. It was the same story on Dancing With The Stars.
She shrugged: “I don’t do well with reality TV.”
It 2006, Belinda went cold turkey. “I had a vision of myself being found dead in [a] hotel room of a cocaine overdose,” she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Lips Unsealed. “It came to me accompanied by a loud, clear voice that said, ‘You are going to die here if you carry on like this.’”
“I was in a terrible way,” she says now. “I wasn’t showing up at rehearsals or at the studio, it was the first time in my life I couldn’t be counted upon.”
She came back in 2007 not with a bang but a smouldering Gitane: the French-language album Viola. It was not a hit, even in France. But it was the first record she’d made sober – ever.
“That is why the French album means so much. Although it wasn’t a commercial hit, it really gave me focus in the early days of sobriety.”
Ten years later came Wilder Shores, her “mantra album” – a series of Sikh chants sung by Carlisle in Gurmukhi.
“I chant every day – Kirtan mantras that I love. I thought, well, why not put Kirtan in a pop song format?”
The family moved to Thailand in 2017. When the pandemic hit, she took art classes and began to paint. “I’m a pretty good artist” – judge for yourself on her Instagram page: Mrs Mason’s Travels.
Belinda still gets flack sometimes, “‘Oh, she’s too old’, or ‘She looks like a hag’ or ‘She’s had so much surgery’…things you’d never say about a guy.”
But when the Go-Go’s were inducted by Drew Barrymore into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, “Perceptions of me changed,” she thinks. The award-winning 2020 documentary, The Go-Go’s, was also part of “a new beginning, I could feel a whole new respect”.
In February, she was one of five singers on the soundtrack single, Gonna Be You, from the movie 80 For Brady. The others were Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry, Cindy Lauper and Gloria Estefan.
How does her transformation from teenage rebel to Pop Institution feel?
The star, 65 in August, says, “For years, I was written off as a silly piece of fluff. That always bothered me. I’ve been around for four decades. I must be doing something right to still have people interested.”
On May 12, Belinda Carlisle releases Kismet, a four-track EP; her first collection of new material since 1996. Going by recent single, Big, Big Love, written by renowned hit-maker Diane Warren, this is Belinda back to her Heavenly best.
“I had no intention of doing this until my son ran into Diane and she said, ‘What is your mom doing? Let’s call her.’ She said, ‘I have hits for you, come down to the studio.’ In her Diane way, which is all swearing.”
These days Belinda Carlisle resides in Mexico, about as far from Norwich as you can get.
- Belinda Carlisle ‘s ‘Kismet’ EP is released on May 12 on the RAF/BMG label. For more information visit belindacarlisle.
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