In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Belinda Carlisle was the first drummer for the Germs. Carlisle was a 19-year-old beauty school dropout when she joined the notoriously shambolic LA punk band and started calling herself Dottie Danger. Carlisle was only in the Germs for about a month, and then she caught mono and had to move back in with her parents to recover. She never played or recorded with them, but she was in there. She was a Germ. Simply by virtue of her ex-Germ status, Belinda Carlisle has more grimy, scuzzed-out punk credibility than virtually anyone else who will ever appear in this column.
A decade after her brief tenure in the Germs, Carlisle had the #1 single in America, and she had it with a fiercely, fervently, almost defiantly mainstream song. Carlisle’s big hit is a simple, straightforward love song built around terms so overstated that they cross over into actual religious territory. In the video, Carlisle makes out with her husband, a Hollywood scion who was once part of the Republican political machine. In the 10 years between the Germs and “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” Belinda Carlisle went full normie. Along the way, though, she made a hell of an impact.
Belinda Carlisle grew up in Southern California, the oldest of seven kids in a broken working-class family. (When Carlisle was born, the #1 song in America was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” the first #1 hit of the Hot 100 era.) In high school, Carlisle partied hard, and she was also on the cheerleading squad. Shortly thereafter, she left home and found her way into the punk scene in Hollywood, where she lived in squats and communes. Carlisle’s time in the Germs didn’t last, but she soon joined up with a bunch of friends and formed a band called the Misfits. After changing both their name and their lineup, the Misfits became the Go-Go’s. And pretty soon, the Go-Go’s became huge.
For their first couple of years, the Go-Go’s played in the local LA punk scene. A gig opening for the Specials and Madness led to a UK tour and, eventually, a contract with Miles Copeland’s indie label IRS Records. The band’s 1981 debut Beauty And The Beat is a straight-up new wave classic, a surging and fizzy burst of tough self-assurance and hormonal energy. Virtually every song hits like an anthem. Beauty And The Beat rode the early-MTV zeitgeist to tremendous pop success, and they became the first all-woman rock band to have a #1 album in the US. The Go-Go’s’ highest-charting single, 1981’s “We Got The Beat,” peaked at #2 — kept out of the top spot only by “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” the similarly righteous banger from Germs producer Joan Jett and her Blackhearts. (“We Got The Beat” is a 10.)
After the double-platinum success of We Got The Beat, things got chaotic for the Go-Go’s. All the members of the band were doing a lot of drugs, and some of them, Carlisle included, were starting to develop serious habits. The band’s next two albums, both rushed, didn’t do as well, though they still managed one more top-10 single. (1982’s “Vacation” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.) The band had some internal problems, and guitarist Jane Wiedlin, one of the primary songwriters, left for a solo career in 1984. (Wiedlin’s highest-charting single as a solo artist, 1988’s “Rush Hour,” peaked at #9. It’s an 8.) Less than a year after Wiedlin’s departure, the Go-Go’s announced their breakup at a press conference.
Carlisle went solo as soon as the Go-Go’s broke up, and she released her solo debut Belinda on IRS in 1986. Her first single was a sort of Go-Go’s family affair. Paula Jean Brown, who briefly replaced Jane Wiedlin in the Go-Go’s, co-wrote the new wave love jam “Mad About You,” and Carlisle’s former bandmates Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey sang backup. Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor played the guitar solo. “Mad About You” was the solo hit that Carlisle needed, and it peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.)
In the “Mad About You” video, Carlisle danced with Morgan Mason, the son of the British movie star James Mason. Morgan Mason had worked on Ronald Reagan’s campaign, and he’d served at the State Department under Reagan. By 1986, Mason had left the White House, and he jumped straight into a new role as a Hollywood power-broker. That year, Carlisle married Mason. They’re still together today.
Belinda went gold, and when she made her next album, Carlisle moved from IRS to the much bigger MCA. When she made Heaven On Earth, her second album, Carlisle really had the machine rumbling behind her. Heaven On Earth is a glimmering, expensive-sounding pop record, with that shiny-synth/big-drum thing that you hear on practically every successful record of the era. Producer Rick Nowels was a relative newcomer who’d had his big break a couple of years earlier. He’d co-written Stevie Nicks’ 1985 single “I Can’t Wait,” which peaked at #16, and co-produced a bunch of songs from Nicks’ album Rock A Little.
Nowels and Ellen Shipley, a songwriter who’d had an unsuccessful run as a solo artist in the late ’70s, wrote “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” together, and it went through a lot of drafts. Carlisle had actually recorded a finished version of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” when Shipley realized that the song wasn’t good enough and that it had to be re-written and re-arranged. Shipley was nervous about asking Carlisle to record the song again, since she’d already stretched herself vocally to do the first one, but Carlisle was fine with it.
“Heaven Is A Place On Earth” opens up with the chorus — Carlisle and all her backup singers belting it out over just a couple of drum-thuds — before the rest of the music kicks in. On his Hit Parade podcast a couple of years ago, my friend Chris Molanphy points out that Nowels and Shipley took that trick from Bon Jovi, who’d used it on “You Give Love A Bad Name.” Later on, that chorus-up-front move became a go-to trick for late-’90s boy-band producers. It’s some effective shit! When a chorus is big enough, there’s no need to be subtle about it. You can just bludgeon it directly into somebody’s brain before the song even starts.
The song itself is pure glittering, euphoric ’80s-pop bullshit. The massed vocals sound like a multi-tracked army of Belinda Carlisles, but that’s not what’s happening. Ellen Shipley sang backup on the song, and so did Diane Warren, the songwriter who will appear in this column a bunch of times, and Michelle Phillips, a former member of past Number Ones artist the Mamas And The Papas. The track’s session musicians included new wave keyboard wizard Thomas Dolby. (Dolby’s highest-charting single, 1983’s “She Blinded Me With Science,” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)
You almost certainly can’t pick out those individual voices or keyboard tones on “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” but you can definitely hear that there’s money in the song. The guitars sparkle. The drums boom. The vocals have just the right amount of echo on them. “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” has crunchy rock guitars, but it’s not a rock song. It has prominent keyboard bleeps, but it’s not synthpop. You could probably dance to it, but it’s not dance music. Instead, it’s the sound of ’80s blockbuster pop cranked all the way up to full power. It sounds like Top Gun.
And yet Belinda Carlisle grounds the song through sheer personality. That personality doesn’t really exist in the lyrics, which are generic romantic pablum. Ellen Shipley got the idea for “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” from a greeting card that she saw in a gas station, and you can totally tell: “In this world, we’re just beginning to understand the miracle of living/ Baby, I was afraid before/ But I’m not afraid anymore.” But Carlisle sells those lyrics by delivering them in a sort of charmingly amateurish bleat, the same voice that elevated so many of those Go-Go’s songs.
It’s not that Carlisle’s not a good singer; some of the notes that she hits on “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” aren’t easy. It’s more that Carlisle is a good singer who leads with her personality, one who isn’t showy about what her voice can do. Carlisle sings “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” with some of the sweet simplicity that you hear in early-’60s girl-group songs, which, despite the booming production, are a clear inspiration for the track. She gets across the warm, dizzy disbelief that the lyrics sweatily try to convey. She’s got charm.
In the “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” video, Carlisle’s whole style is way more yuppie than it had ever been during the Go-Go’s years. Mason Morgan features prominently, and there are also a bunch of masked little kids with globes? It’s weird. Randomly, Diane Keaton directed that video. The image of Keaton instructing the kids on how to dance with the globes is probably more entertaining than the video itself.
Heaven On Earth went platinum, and it spun off two more top-10 singles. Carlisle’s follow-up was the Diane Warren-written “I Get Weak,” which also had a video from Diane Keaton and which peaked at #2. (It’s a 6.) Then “Circle In The Sand,” another Rick Nowels/Ellen Shipley song, made it up to #7. (It’s a 7.) After that, Carlisle never had another top-10 hit, though “Leave A Light On,” the kickass lead single from her 1989 album Runaway Horses, just missed, peaking at #11. Carlisle’s later albums did well overseas, but they never racked up big numbers at home. Carlisle still releases occasional solo material, and she lives in Thailand with Mason Morgan. In recent years, though, Carlisle has been a whole lot busier with her old band.
Carlisle first reunited with the Go-Go’s for a quick tour in the early ’90s, and then that reunion became more of a full-time situation in 1999. The Go-Go’s put out another album, God Bless The Go-Go’s, in 2001, and they toured steadily for years afterwards. Two years after the band’s 2016 farewell tour, they got their own jukebox musical, Head Over Heels, on Broadway; it ran for about six months. Last year, the Go-Go’s were the subject of a perfectly watchable Showtime documentary, and they released a single called “Club Zero.” It’s pretty good!
This year, for the first time ever, the Go-Go’s are on the ballot for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Whether they make it in or not, the Go-Go’s are going to be Belinda Carlisle’s chief legacy. It seems like she’s cool with that. She should be. As a mainstream pop solo artist, Belinda Carlisle had an impressive run. As a Go-Go, she changed the world.
BONUS BEATS: Toward the end of the classic 1996 live version of their track “Halcyon,” the UK dance duo Orbital chopped up “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” with Bon Jovi’s aforementioned “You Give Love A Bad Name.” Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1997 movie Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion where “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” soundtracks Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino’s triumphant helicopter exit:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2008’s Harold And Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay where “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” plays during a montage of Amsterdam:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The best episode of the anthology series Black Mirror, 2016’s “San Junipero,” ends with a “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” needledrop. You should only watch it if you’ve already seen the episode, but if you want to relive it, here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The makers of prestige TV shows love “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” Here’s the bit from a 2019 episode of The Handmaid’s Tale where Elizabeth Moss threateningly whisper-sings the song: