Mickey Rooney would have loved the scenario: Several young women are killing time in L.A. late one night when suddenly one of them pipes up, "Hey, girls, let's start a band!" Well, they do, and after three years of perseverance and practice—not leading, necessarily, to a full mastery of their new craft—they get a recording contract, have a hit album, approach fame and fortune and make their cute boy-friends and parents very proud.

Pulp packagers and lotus-land moguls may not be dangling six-figure offers for the rights yet, but that synopsis sums up the saga that has the rock world going gaga over the Go-Go's. In just a few months the quintet's debut LP, Beauty and the Beat, has sold more than 175,000 copies, sparked by the pop dollop Our Lips Are Sealed. Earlier this month the group was chosen to open for the Rolling Stones at an Illinois concert date.

Hard-edged Fanny and the punkish Runaways were the pioneer white-girl-rock groups, but the Go-Go's, while hardly preppy, sport unthreatening kid-sister looks. What's more, unlike the myriad lady-soul groups of the late '50s and early '60s, they are not merely honey-voiced marionettes whose strings are tugged by a Phil Spectral mastermind. Rock's '80s ladies—guitarist Charlotte Caffey, 28; vocalist Belinda Carlisle, 23; rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, 24; bassist Kathy Valentine, 22; and drummer Gina Schock, 24—are surprisingly true to their PR image.

The idea for the band took shape in early 1978, when Carlisle and Wiedlin—then living in L.A.'s legendary punk pad, the Canterbury Hotel—decided, quite justifiably, that they couldn't sound any worse than friends who were thrashing about in other bands. Such was the group's inexperience that when Caffey, who has a degree in music from L.A.'s Immaculate Heart College and is the band's de facto den mother, came to their first rehearsal in July of that year, she had to show them how to plug the guitars into the amplifiers. "It's part of the Go-Go's legend," she says with a laugh. "No one else in the band had played her instrument before." Adds Wiedlin, a onetime fashion-design student: "From the beginning our motto has been: Do what you don't know how to do."

The group then began an accelerated apprenticeship, playing their three-chord tunes in small clubs. By June of 1979 the original drummer, Elissa Bello, had been replaced by Schock, who had come from Baltimore a few months earlier in her father's pickup. Soon the band was gigging regularly at Whiskey A Go Go and other larger L.A. rock palaces. "We made a lot of business goofs," recalls Caffey. "People would come up and offer to make us stars, and we'd believe them." Explains Wiedlin: "We work a lot on emotion, and that's not always the best way to advance your career."

Eventually, though, the quintet caught the discriminating eye of CBS graphic artist Ginger Canzoneri. "They had pitch-black spiked hair and didn't know how to dress or act onstage," she remembers, "but they were like a rough jewel waiting to be polished." She signed on as manager and subsequently helped them rediscover their sense of fun and nonchalant femininity. Shortly thereafter they were invited to tour Britain with the English ska band called Madness; the only catch was that they had to pay their own way. "We sold everything to make the trip," says Carlisle. "Our cars, personal possessions." Though the tour was a downer in most respects ("The audiences were skinheads," explains Wiedlin. "They weren't ready for us and we weren't ready for them"), the group did get a single released on a small British label. To everyone's surprise, their song We Got the Beat became a dance-club hit in the U.S., where it sold more than 50,000 copies.

Despite that success and a growing cult following, the Go-Go's canned their bass guitarist, Margot Olaverra, and replaced her with Texas-born Kathy Valentine. Then last April they landed a contract with the scrappy IRS label, whose other entries include Wall of Voodoo and Suburban Lawns. Among their early admirers was onetime Blondie producer Richard Gottehrer, who later co-produced Beauty. "If Blondie was consciously arty," he says, "the Go-Go's are commercial and proud of it." Says Caffey, who, with Wiedlin, writes most of the group's music: "My main inspirations have always been love and dancing—the important things." That uncomplicated conviction is shared by the others. "We offer people something other bands don't," boasts Wiedlin, "a good time."

Despite the raunchiness of their chosen profession, the Go-Go's have won a measure of parental approval. Valentine's mother, Margaret, an Austin, Texas boutique owner, is not only supportive but a little bit envious. "I love standing on the sidelines cheering, but what I'd really like to do is go along with them," she says. Caffey's mother, however, shares a common anxiety with other rock parents. "It's just not a normal way to live," she observes. If she is dismayed by the string of one-nighters facing the group on its upcoming North American-European tour, she might be reassured by the Go-Go's' self-protective closeness. "It's no different from living with sisters," says Charlotte. "We fight as much as any family, but we genuinely like each other."

While there is ample sisterly affection, the Go-Go's keep plenty in reserve for their boyfriends. All but Schock have steadies who, like themselves, are members of rock bands. But Carlisle, for one, nixes the idea of taking her man on the road. "I wouldn't want to feel responsible if he was bored," she explains. Around the Go-Go's, though, boredom is not the prevailing condition. "When we first started out," says Belinda, "everyone thought we were a joke—and we were. But now that's changed, and people have to take us seriously. Now that's fun"