By 1987, Belinda Carlisle had become a chart mainstay. Five years earlier, she and her Los Angeles pop-punk band The Go-Go’s became the first all-female group to top the Billboard 200 when their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, spent six weeks at No. 1 in 1982. The same year, the quintet followed with the top 10 LP Vacation and, in 1984, the top 20 Talk Show. They also scored five top 40 Billboard Hot 100 hits, including “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat.”
The Go-Go’s went on hiatus after Talk Show, but Carlisle didn’t slow down. Her 1986 debut solo LP, Belinda, reached No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and spawned a No. 3 Hot 100 hit, “Mad About You.”
It wasn’t until the end of the following year that Carlisle, then 29, made her first solo trip to the top of the Hot 100 with “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which crowned the Dec. 5, 1987, chart. The song’s popularity was helped by an artsy music video directed by actress Diane Keaton featuring women in bandit masks holding illuminated globes.
In 2013, Rick Nowels recalled the process of co-writing “Heaven”: “[Co-writer] Ellen [Shipley] had the title ‘Heaven on Earth.’ I was playing around with a Prince-type rhythm and sang ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth.’ We both decided it was more original.
“The first draft of the song had a different minor-key verse along with the minor-key chorus,” Nowels recalled. “We actually recorded it with Belinda and I began to feel that the chorus was a hit, but the verse was not great. So, Ellen and I got together and quietly rewrote the verse. I knew I wanted to modulate into the chorus, which is why the pre-chorus goes to a different key and then back to the original key for the chorus. I had to tell Belinda that we rewrote the song … and had to rerecord it. As soon as we played it for her, she agreed.”
For all involved, including engineer/mixer Shelly Yakus, the rewards were clearly worth the efforts. “I put a lot of time into the arrangement of the song,” said Nowels, who has also penned hits for Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Santana, John Legend and Lana Del Rey, among others.
This June, Nowels was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Heaven on Earth generated two more Hot 100 top 10s, the Diane Warren-penned “I Get Weak” (No. 2 peak) and fellow Nowels-Shipley composition “Circle in the Sand” (No. 7). 1989 follow-up Runaway Horses added the top 40 hits “Leave a Light On” and “Summer Rain” to her catalog.
Having overcome drug addiction, which she chronicled in her 2011 biography Lips Unsealed, “It’s surreal for a Valley Girl to go from working as a secretary to hitting the top of the charts,” Carlisle told Billboard in 2013. “It still makes me smile to think about it now.”
In October 2017, Carlisle’s latest album, Wilder Shores, a collection of Buddhist chants and mantras (inspired by her longtime passion for Kundalini yoga), hit No. 4 on both the New Age Albums and World Albums charts.
On Dec. 15, Carlisle is set to celebrate the season with a holiday show at The Abbey in West Hollywood, Calif., with special guests including Lisa Loeb, Margaret Cho and Wilson Phillips’ Carnie and Wendy Wilson. (Carnie Wilson and Wilson Phillips’ Chynna Phillips provided backup vocals on Heaven on Earth.) The charity fundraiser will benefit Animal People Alliance.