This is the 30th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Legendary Los Angeles punk band The Germs had a host of drummers in its early days before Don Bolles. One of those drummers was Dottie Danger, who got mononucleosis before she could play a single gig with the band. Danger was replaced by Donna Rhia, and in 1978 Danger went on to form her own punk band, The Misfits, using her given name, Belinda Carlisle.
Carlisle’s band — no relation to the Glenn Danzig band of the same name — quickly became The Go-Go’s. Originally a punk band, The Go-Go’s became poppier as its lineup changed. The band recorded a demo, and then toured England, supporting Madness and later The Specials. The Go-Go’s attracted the attention of Stiff Records, which released the band’s “We Got The Beat” as a single. On the strength of the single, the band signed a deal with I.R.S. Records to release an album.
The band’s debut album, “Beauty and The Beat,” came out in 1981 and eventually hit Number 1 on the Billboard 200, making The Go-Go’s the first (and still the only) all-female group to top the charts by writing and playing their own songs. Part of that success came from the album’s first single, the poppy “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which reached Number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. The video became a staple for the burgeoning MTV, and became an international hit. Enough people in Australia misheard “Our Lips Are Sealed” as “Alex The Seal” such that when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation released a compilation of popular songs, it listed the song as “Our Lips Are Sealed (Alex the Seal).”
The song was similar to Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know” in that it featured a narrator doubling down on her commitment to her partner, despite their second-guessing and gossipy friends:
Can you hear them
They talk about us
Well, that’s no surprise
Can you see them
See right through them
They have no shield
No secrets to reveal
It doesn’t matter what they say
In the jealous games people play
Our lips are sealed
“Our Lips Are Sealed” was written around the time the band toured with The Specials, taking its inspiration from the real-life relationship between Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin and Specials singer Terry Hall. In an interview with Songfacts, Wiedlin said:
He sent me the lyrics to ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ later in the mail, and it was kind of about our relationship, because he had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff. So it was all very dramatic. I really liked the lyrics, so I finished the lyrics and wrote the music to it, and the rest is history. And then his [post-Specials] band, The Fun Boy Three, ended up recording it, too – they did a really great version of it, also. It was a lot gloomier than the Go-Go’s version.
Fun Boy Three had been formed by Hall and fellow Specials alums Neville Staple and Lynval Golding. The band scaled back the ska sound that had defined The Specials, going instead for a new wave sound. The band’s eponymous 1982 debut album had a handful of hits, including “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum).” Fun Boy Three’s version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” appeared on its second and final album, 1983’s “Waiting.” The single reached Number 7 on the UK charts, whereas the version by The Go-Go’s had peaked at Number 47.
Wiedlin’s assessment that Fun Boy Three’s version was gloomier than The Go-Go’s version should be taken with a grain of salt. To be sure, it’s not as peppy as the first recording, but then again, very little will sound as exuberant as the guitar-driven version by The Go-Go’s. Belinda Carlisle could whisper and still sound more energetic than Hall. That said, Fun Boy Three’s soft drums and keyboards will still make you bob your head.
Best known for “Divine Thing” and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free”, Scottish band The Soup Dragons covered “Our Lips Are Sealed” as the B-side to its 1987 single, “Soft As Your Face.” The Soup Dragons’ version didn’t have funky dance-rock feel of their later hits, and instead sounded like a balanced cross between the two definitive versions. The piano in this version echoed the keyboards in the Fun Boy Three version and yet captured the energy of The Go-Go’s version.
Wiedlin recorded her own version, which appeared on 1993’s “The Very Best of Jane Wiedlin.” If she thought Fun Boy Three’s version was “gloomier,” I can’t think of what word she’d use to describe her stripped-down acoustic version. It’s not angry, per se, but there was a biting edge to her vocals that hadn’t been present in the versions sung by Carlisle or Hall.
Appearing on the 1994 release, “Power Tools,” pop-punk band Horace Pinker’s heavier, sped-up “Our Lips Are Sealed” showed how well The Go-Go’s could translate into punk, given that the band had started in that genre. But don’t let the term “pop-punk” confuse you: because Horace Pinker played up the guitars and the drums, this take on the song sounded more akin the alt-rock bands of the late ’80s than the poppy pop punk bands that followed. MxPx or Good Charlotte, this was not. (Phew.)
Everclear’s single for “Everything to Everyone,” off its 1997 album “So Much for the Afterglow,” featured a more guitar-heavy version of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” There weren’t any obvious reinterpretations on this track, though there were some nice subtle changes: the drums sounded reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and Art Alexakis’ alteration of the lyrics at the end — “Tellin’ lies, tellin’ lies, that’s no surprise” — was catchy.
Wild Orchid, the ’90s R&B-tinged pop group that Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson was in before The Black Eyed Peas, recast “Our Lips Are Sealed” as a dance pop song for its second album “Oxygen.” It’s hard to hear this version and not think of “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJ’s because of the similarities in tempo, drum machines, and keyboards. That premise isn’t a deal-breaker, per se, but the song left a bad taste in my mouth with its addition of “We’ve got a secret, but our lips are sealed.”
Los Angeles band The Hippos recorded a pop-punk version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” for the 1999 compilation, “Before You Were Punk 2.” To simply call it pop-punk would be to minimize the complexities of this version, which had a dizzying amount of pianos, keyboards, autotunes, and other sounds.
Indie band Bikeride’s acoustic version, recorded in the late ’90s, had a tinny sound that gave it the throwback quality of an unearthed Lead Belly recording. The not-quite-in-harmony dual vocals only added to that quaint home-recorded sound. It’s particularly adorable when one of them mumbled the lyrics like he didn’t know the words.
Neville Staple, former member of The Specials and Fun Boy Three, released “The Very Best of The Specials and Fun Boy Three” in 2000. This unofficial greatest hits record included re-recorded versions of the band’s songs, including a reworked “Our Lips Are Sealed” that replaced Hall’s vocals. Though Staple’s version had a somewhat interesting guitar interlude, it was basically a slightly-polished update of the version by Fun Boy Three.
Hilary Duff, of “Lizzie McGuire” fame, recorded “Our Lips Are Sealed” with her sister Haylie for the soundtrack to the 2004 movie “A Cinderella Story.” Hall and Wiedlin wrote the song about their affair, but that backstory must be jettisoned to appreciate the song when it’s sung by two teenaged sisters sang a song about an affair, lest you get creeped out. One can just assume they are singing about gossipy mean girls. OK, fine, whatever. But what was harder to overlook was the addition of new lyrics:
So far from true
Dragged up from the underworld
Just like some precious pearl
Even if those lyrics made sense — which, let’s be clear, they do not — they are jarring when inserted into an otherwise faithful remake of an iconic song.
When discussing “Bizarre Love Triangle,” I mentioned French cover band Nouvelle Vague, who made a career out of reimagining classic songs in a ’60s lounge style. In 2009, teamed up with Terry Hall and singer Marina Celeste to record a slow, dreamy version of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” At the beginning, it just sounded like a sweet folk song: pretty, whispered vocals over quiet acoustic guitars. But as the track progressed, it became more layered, with a subtle drumbeat coming in at the one-minute mark. The textured instrumentation continued to flow in until around the 2:30 mark, when an organ-like sound kicked in behind the beautifully harmonized vocals. This version, more than any other version, conveyed a vulnerability made me care about the narrators. I don’t know their secret in this particular version, but my heart aches for them regardless.
Hard rock band Gargamel! covered the song in 2010. That the band was named after the villain from “The Smurfs” was the least funny thing about the song: the lead singer called himself Mandaddy, screamed the lyrics over super-fast crunchy guitars, and best of all, added these lyrics:
Pay no mind to what they say
Fuck those fuckers anywaaaaaaaay
Our lips are sealed
Take note, Duff sisters: if you’re going to add words to a Go-Go’s song, that’s the way to do it.
Detroit rock band Füxa’s version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” off its 2012 release “Electric Sound of Summer” was an uncomfortable slow burn, as it was six and a half minutes of space-y synthesizers and sparse drums. The keyboards got slightly more layered at the end, but there was no grand build-up or climactic moment. Just breathy whispering and distortion.
The same volume of Matthew Sweet’s and Susanna Hoffs’ “Under the Covers” that contained their cover of “They Don’t Know” also contained a version of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” This, in and of itself, is interesting because The Go-Go’s and Hoffs’ The Bangles are sometimes portrayed as the Jets and the Sharks of all-female bands who came out of California in the early ’80s. The arrangement in this version sounded pretty similar to that of the Go-Go’s version, but if you’re familiar enough with The Bangles’ catalog, you can hear some Bangles-esque flourishes in there.
Notice how I’ve been using the word “version” to describe Fun Boy Three’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” rather than the word “cover.” In the posts on “What A Fool Believes” and “The Loco-Motion,” I made the call that any version recorded by a song’s writer or co-writer could not be a cover. Specifically, because “What A Fool Believes” was co-written by Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, I ruled that neither the version recorded by Loggins nor the later version by McDonald’s band The Doobie Brothers could be a cover. One could argue that same logic applies here, and I would agree, though it’s worth pointing out vocalist Belinda Carlisle’s only previous connection to the song was that she happened to be in a band with one of the song’s writers.
With that same logic, we can say that because Wiedlin co-wrote “Our Lips Are Sealed” and she appeared on the first recording, Wiedlin’s version does not count as a cover, either. Where it gets a little squishier is the version by Neville Staple. Staple had appeared on the 1983 version of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which featured Hall on vocals. That version, as we’ve pointed out above, is not a cover. But what about Staple’s version? Like Carlisle, he performed on a non-cover version of the song of a song he hadn’t written, but does that non-cover status carry over to his own version? In other words, is it possible to cover a song you’ve already recorded before?
When the question is phrased that way, it seems the answer should be no, you cannot cover a song you’ve already recorded before. But if that were the case, wouldn’t Tracey Ullman’s version of “They Don’t Know” be disqualified from being a cover because it featured Kirsty MacColl’s backup vocals? But in that post, we allowed that yes, Ullman’s version could be a cover, in part because MacColl’s involvement was minor. That same ruling might apply the the Nouvelle Vague version, which featured Hall’s vocals.
My tentative ruling is that because Staple released his version on an album that he recorded as The Specials and Fun Boy Three, his version should count as an alternate Fun Boy Three version, rather than a new version by an unaffiliated entity.
That might seem like a lot of hand-wringing to go through to decide whether a song is or isn’t a cover. But it highlights that part of the fun of discussing song histories is realizing that the differences between covers, alternate versions, and samples can be rather blurry. And on “Our Lips Are Sealed,” deciding which is which is just as messy as the romantic entanglement that inspired the song in the first place.