Late August 1989: Susanna Hoffs sits in a hotel room in Kansas City, doing a phone interview. Her band, which got a #1 hit earlier in the year, is cracking apart.
She’s asked about The Bangles; more precisely, as she often is, she’s asked What The Bangles Are. “We’re lumped into some kind of weird category,” she tells the reporter, Steve Appleford. “People can’t really view us in the same breath as Guns ‘n’ Roses or U2 or even female artists like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. We’re like in the strange all-girl-band category. And it’s sort of annoying, to be honest.”
She’s said variations on this for nearly ten years. No, we do play our instruments. No, we do write our songs, and those we cover are by songwriters we like. No, our label didn’t force “Eternal Flame” down our throats—I wrote “Eternal Flame.” “People kind of lump us and then push us to the side: ‘Oh yeah, they’re an all-girl band, isn’t that cute.’ …We have a tremendous number of Bangles fans out there who really appreciate what we do. I don’t want to belittle that in any way.”
“It’s just an overall feeling I get sometimes.”
The second of September 1989, at the Redwood Amphitheatre in Santa Clara, California. The Bangles are playing their last show.
They’re a bit worn down. Even the vocals, always their core strength, are frayed. Midway through the set, they do a regular bit: The Herstory of The Bangles. “Snap your fingers! clap your hands! stomp your feet!” Vicki Peterson exhorts the audience, which, as the papers often report, is greatly composed of teenage girls. Peterson’s guitar is the sole accompaniment, apart from snaps and claps and stomps.
On a cold January night way back in 1981, in California [cheers!], this great state, in the garage of my parents’ house in Los Angeles, we met for the very first time there, in this garage…So we’re sitting around trying to get to know each other…we decided to sing some old songs from the Sixties we like. And much to our surprise, as soon as we started to sing, it came out in four-part harmony. This never happened before! This is a very good sign. We decided to become The Bangles and keep singing four-part harmonies. It sounded a little something like this.
They sing a chorus of “I Fought the Law,” segue into “If She Knew What She Wants.”
Jules Shear wrote this one, in the voice of a man trying to puzzle out his girlfriend (“if she knew what she wants, I’d be giving it to her”). The Bangles shift the perspective. They become the mutual friends of the couple, those with the clearest eyes. She wants too much from him, he knows it, he lacks the strength and imagination to pull it off. They will both suffer. Hoffs narrates, other Bangles color in details. She stresses a word early in each line, they land their weight on the last three notes.
But she wants everything (he can pretend to give her everything)
Or there’s nothing she wants (she don’t want to sort it out)
He’s crazy for this girl (but she don’t know what she’s looking for)
If she knew what she wants he’d be giving it to her….
The Kids of Boss Radio
You asked whether the Bangles are representative of their generation. We are—in the sense that there’s no mass transit in Los Angeles, so we became aware of music listening to AM radio in the back of the station wagon. We won’t have made it till we’re on AM radio.
Susanna Hoffs, 1985
Each Bangle was once a kid in the back seat of a car, en route to school, singing along to the radio. To KLRA, home of Casey Kasem and Bob Eubanks. To KHJ, 930 AM, “Boss Radio”: the Top 40 booming from Simi Valley to Yorba Linda.
These are the children of the south Californian Sixties. The Peterson sisters, from Northridge; Sue Hoffs and David Roback, from Brentwood; Susan Thomas (the one-day Michael Steele) of Pasadena; Annette Zilinskas, from Van Nuys; Michael Quercio, of Carson; Steve Wynn, from LA via Santa Monica.
To narrow in, these are the younger brothers and sisters of the south Californian Sixties, who grow up on wars, riots, and murders on the nightly news, and pop music on AM radio. They are the wards of the massive-watt stations, the great oxygenators, transmitting the hits and jingles: I saw her agaaaain last night…kicks just keep gettin’ harder to find…Ell-eh-nor gee I think you’re SWELL….this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on…Save a nickel, save a dime, save at Thrifty every time…Geor-gia, headed for the Frisco bay.…Ban won’t wear off as the day wears on!…searchin’ in the sun for another ohhh-ver-looaaad...Lash Bright lashes, look through the world through lovelier eyes…parking tickets were just like flags stuck on my wind-screen…bus stop wet day she’s there I say…that little gold ring you wear on your hand makes me un-der-staaaand…suddenly! you’re an imp wearing angels’ wings in Heaven Scent!…sidewalk crouches at her feet…life would be ecstasy you and me end less lee..
The Bangles, from the start, wanted to be on pop radio, to be the harmonies and riffs that a kid heard in the back seat of a station wagon while going to school. With “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Manic Monday,” “Eternal Flame,” “If She Knew What She Wants,” “In Your Room,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” they closed the circle.
For this they were, sometimes still are, written off as an Eighties sell-out—Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh [see Quartet No. 2] would use “Bangles” as a term of disparagement. The turncoats of the Paisley Underground. The Bangles are an act whom everyone knows, an act reunited for decades now. But sometimes it’s as though they’ve disappeared in plain sight.
Vicki Peterson was born in 1958, her sister Debbi in 1961. They are the daughters of a classic postwar California pair. Their father was an engineer at TRW, an aerospace corporation, essentially Thomas Pynchon’s “Yoyodyne” in The Crying of Lot 49. Their mother, a former model, worked for Congressman Glenn Anderson.
In high school (Rolling Hills High, in Palos Verdes), Vicki was a cheerleader, as she confessed to LA Weekly a decade later. “Way out there beyond the valley of the super uncool, I know. But in high school the biggest audience is found at the football games, and an uncured ham I am.”
Being an uncured ham was at the heart of Vicki Peterson, performing musician. In The Bangles, she’d play the role of Paul Stanley in KISS—the band’s hype woman, the one who’s having a blast, who makes the jokes, who’s in on the joke. She sees you in the crowd, she tells you that by coming to the show, by being here tonight, by making noise! and screaming and singing along, you’re as much a part of it as the band is.
A great rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, Vicki was a soloist dedicated to the eight- or twelve-bar break (listen to the one on “All About You,” worthy of Beatles For Sale) and a craftswoman of opening hooks. See, among many, the divebombing riff on “Want You,” the swaggering one on “Restless.” The Bangles was her band. In the early years, she was “the controlling factor,” as her sister called her. She did the bookings, the songwriting, the press, the guitar heroics.
She got her first “serious” guitar when she was nine: an Electro ES-17, with an eight-watt Rickenbacker amp. She moved on to a Univox Ripper, but when someone stole that (“a gift in disguise”), she got a 1972 Gibson Les Paul Custom. “I soon found I was very lazy about practicing scales and that writing my own songs was much more fun,” she recalled in 2013.
Graduating in 1976, she formed her first band, an evolution of her high school group Crista Galli (“a small bone at the back of the head”), a folkie duo with her best friend, Amanda Hills. Simon & Garfunkel harmonies and Joni Mitchell acoustic guitar: a holding pattern for the mid-Seventies. “I was writing in the style of Joni…but my true love was the Hollies and the Beatles,” Vicki said in 1987.
Crista Galli became, for a happily brief time, Aisha (“life and positive vibes,” as per Vicki). They were The Muze by late 1978. And a trio: they now had a drummer.
I was a little worried at first, knowing that they wanted to be rock stars. I was concerned that there weren’t too many young women who were doing that.
Jeanne Peterson, Vicki and Debbi’s mother, to Susan Orlean, 1987
Debbi Peterson was always going to be in the thick of it. In the family Buick, when the Peterson kids were singing along to the radio, “Debbi, even at a very young age, was especially good at skipping to whatever harmony was lacking in our songs,” Vicki later said. “Debbi…is a natural. If we had needed a French horn player, she probably would’ve nailed that too.”
“I wanted to be a musician, I [just] didn’t know what I wanted to do,” as Debbi described her childhood to Pat Francis in 2013. It was Hills who suggested that Vicki’s kid sister play drums. After all, that was a lot easier than auditioning strangers. “I’d never played drums before, but there was opportunity,” Debbi recalled.” I sat down and started playing. I guess all the air drumming and air guitar playing worked out for me.”
Debbi would be the genial reality principle of the Bangles, their wryest, sweetest voice—see “Live” and “Going Down to Liverpool.” A backbeat drummer, she rarely draws attention to herself on the kit. She got compared to Ringo Starr often, and like Ringo, she’ll still surprise you when you really listen to her—the odd fill like a looping signature, a run on the toms to quicken a song.
“The Bangles’ sound does require a simple, basic beat most of the time,” she told Modern Drummer in 1986. “There’s so much going on in our songs that it would be foolish to force all these heavy fills and complex riffs into the music. I’m sure you can hear all the guitars ringing all over the place. And don’t forget, there are four voices in the band. I couldn’t play drums like Keith Moon, for example, and expect the girls to think that’s what’s needed.”
Asked to describe her style, she said she couldn’t “because I can’t separate myself from it.” Drumming was an extension of her personality. She favored playing live, where she fed off a crowd’s energy, over studio work, where her producer would push to use electronic drums and angled to have someone else re-cut her tracks.
The Muze (oft referred to in local listings as “an all-woman trio”) added on lead guitar Lynn Elkind, who worked at a binding plant in Culver City. They became The Fans by March 1979 or so, earning enough of a local rep that another striving band wrote a song in homage—The Panics’ “I’m a Fan”, 1980 (“over in the corner some newlyweds [sung with contempt] were sayin’ you weren’t bad for a girl”).
They’d play a club two or three times a week, rehearse on other nights: working Club 88 and the Blue Lagoon Saloon in Santa Monica, out at the Driftwood at Redondo Beach, regulars at The Londoner and the Hong Kong Cafe (as wonderfully, thoroughly chronicled by Rachel Macari here). They got noticed. They were young, fun, exuberant, sharp, interspersing “oldies” covers (“My Boyfriend’s Back”) with power-pop originals.
By summer 1980, by now known as Those Girls and having fired Elkind, they were ascending the LA band hierarchy, often seen at the Troubadour, sharing the stage with the Angry Samoans. Then, a crisis. Vicki, who’d been going to UCLA, quit school to devote herself to the band just as Hills quit the band to devote herself to school (she became an Ancient Near East historian and is a professor at Cal State Polytechnic University).
Vicki Peterson’s band, after four years, was winnowed to her and her younger sister. Though only twenty-two, she feared time was running out. “There were all these bands like the Go-Go’s and the Knack that were focusing attention on LA,” she recalled in 1987. “And I was afraid it would all leave me behind.”
The Petersons placed a listing in The Recycler, an LA weekly, of which Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn said “you’d look through there if you want to form a band. They’re the worst listings—if you wanted a guitarist, all you’d find would be ‘into Rush, into Led Zeppelin.’ I’d have to go for that, because the pickings are so small, you’d go for anything you could get.”
Another Recycler ad was the lucky strike. Elkind placed it, looking to start a new band. A recent Berkeley graduate responded. Vicki answered the phone (the Petersons and Elkind were still roommates). It was the day after John Lennon’s murder and the two women, still in shock, were grateful to find someone to grieve with. After a few more calls, they agreed they should play music together, see what happened.
In January 1981 the Peterson sisters and Susanna Hoffs first met, in the garage of the latter’s parents’ house in Brentwood. Hoffs had converted it into her apartment, pasting the walls with photos of Audrey Hepburn and Mod legends. She’d also been putting up flyers in LA clubs, wanting to start a Boss All-Girl Group. Influences: (legacy) Byrds, Ventures, Beau Brummels; (contemporary) The Go-Go’s, The Last. Only requirement: must be nice.
The Brentwood Bohemians
The Hoffses—Tamar, a filmmaker, and Joshua, a psychoanalyst—moved to LA “to get away from their parents, the thing to do in 1959,” as their only daughter Susanna recalled to Creem decades later. She described the Hoffses of Brentwood as “an uprooted liberal East Coast family, sorta beatnik, into [Jackson] Pollock and jazz….this atheist and intellectual creative world…Freud was our religion.”
It was the sort of childhood where you hung out with Leonard Nimoy’s kids and watched their dad on TV (another Hoffs friend was Laura Salenger, daughter of a CBS executive, and the future Brix Smith Start), where you got the Beatles records before they hit the stores, as the Hoffses had a friend at Capitol. “I remember staring at the [Beatles’] album covers and having daydreams about Paul McCartney,” Susanna recalled in 1984. “My brothers and I used to stand in front of the mirror and pretend we were the Beatles.” She grew exacting in her Beatles tastes—her brothers could have everything post-Revolver, she said. Her core albums were Rubber Soul and Yesterday and Today.
The first things she learned on guitar were folk songs—“John Reilly” and “Tom Dooley”—and by eight she was writing “vintagey” songs of her own. She loved Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt. But when home for winter break from Berkeley, she found that her brother (then at Yale) was a convert to the New York sound: “He walks in and he had the Ramones and Blondie.” An epiphany. She liked playing music but had considered it the province of “musicians who were kind of like rock gods or these kind of golden singer-songwriter brilliant people,” she said in 2012. “Then all of a sudden it was like kids are doing it…it seems like something you could do.”
Hoffs spent the late Seventies in the clubs of San Francisco, seeing Talking Heads at the Boarding House, the last Sex Pistols show at Winterland. Having started at Berkeley as a theater major, she switched to dance and wound up an art major, doing “mostly acrylics..abstract color fields,” and spending much of her time with her childhood friend David Roback, who was now her boyfriend and collaborator.
Roback and Hoffs made chamber rock music: hushed, “excruciatingly slow versions of things,” especially Velvet Underground songs (though one uptempo piece eventually became “Call On Me.”) Hoffs soon played the Petersons tapes of her Berkeley recordings, the early drafts of what Roback would do in Opal and Mazzy Star. His and Hoffs’ 1983 version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is the closest we have to what they sounded like.
“It was like I married a stranger,” Hoffs once said of The Bangles. She and the Petersons had started from different points on the map. The latter had worked LA clubs for years, vying to win over the indifferent couple at the bar, out-playing the next band on the bill. Hoffs considered making music a private act. “Rock and roll is sitting alone in your room,” she said. “Listening to your stereo or playing guitar or whatever. It’s a totally personal thing.”
She and Roback at Berkeley were in their own world, “this little bohemian art scene with my friend.” She’d long be the Bangle least comfortable on stage, and her legendary eye darts started as a coping mechanism for stage fright. “I would pick three people in the audience—one person on my left, one person on my right, and one person in the middle—and I’d kind of sing to them all night,” she said in 2009.
In the fall of 1980, she was back home in Brentwood. As her mother was a filmmaker, as she’d already had a small role in a movie while in college, a career in film might have worked out. She was an art major, could’ve pursued that line. She had every option that a bright, attractive, upper-class college graduate would have had. But she wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. As she and Roback had broken up, though remaining friends, “our band was not functional without that component. So I was on a path to find bandmates.”
She’d also become a Sixties pop obsessive. “I rediscovered all the music that I had heard in the car on Top 40 radio…studying the soundtrack of my childhood.” Her favorite local band was The Last, whom she felt did the proper work of achieving a faithful “modern” Sixties sound. It was her great fortune that the sisters she discovered via The Recycler were as fervent devotees. “When I met Vicki and Debbi it was like our own little Beatles convention at my garage.”
Meet The Bangs
She suspected the disk jockey spot…was a way of letting the Top 200, and even the news copy that came jabbering out of the machine—all the fraudulent dream of teenage appetites—be a buffer between him and that lot.
Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49.
At first, they were The Colours (English spelling, naturally). Their first documented gig was on 13 June 1981 at The Basement, a club in, naturally, the basement of the Echo Park Methodist Church on N. Alvarado Street, near Sunset. For bassists, they got the occasional assist from Amanda Hills. More often, they used a nineteen-year-old musician from Van Nuys, Annette Zilinskas. She was in a country & western duo at the time.
When Hoffs and the Petersons first rehearsed in Hoffs’ garage, they fell into harmony almost instinctively, singing “White Rabbit” and “I Fought the Law” and Mamas and Papas hits (the Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You” was often in their sets). Their harmonies were their cornerstone—all that their producer David Kahne would come to want from them. “They weren’t world beaters as musicians, but damn they could sing,” Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci said. No one in LA sounded like them, this heaven-tripled voice (even The Go-Go’s, inevitable source of comparison, were a parliament in which Belinda Carlisle was prime minister).
There’s been little written about how The Bangles sang. One of few descriptions I’ve found is from Vicki to the Tampa Tribune, in 1984: “We work our voices around each other, and if someone’s singing lead, it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you’re focusing on, because there’s another melody line weaving in and out of it that’s just as interesting.” (“Your ear will focus on that other voice you heard sing lead on the track before,” Hoffs added.)
It’s actually one of the easiest things for us, singing in harmony. [We learned] how to sing in clubs where you can’t hear yourself.
To generalize, Hoffs was often the highest-pitched voice, with the Petersons as a shifting set of lower interval harmonies; when Michael Steele joined, she’d often provide the bottom end. Yet it’s difficult to pluck out a single voice from their harmonies, as they blended together so well, making a Bangles plural.
The first recordings we have of them are demos that a friend taped in the summer of 1981 on TDK cassettes. On “Outside Chance,” a 1966 Turtles B-side written by Warren Zevon, Vicki sings lead, Debbi’s a punisher on her kit. While the group follows the Turtles blueprint—the singer affirms that you don’t stand an outside chaaance [higher harmonies] you don’t staaand an outside chaaance [higher lead with higher harmonies] you don’t stand an OUTSIDE CHANCE [solo close] but YOU CAN TRY!—the three torch though the choruses, making The Turtles sound like formalists.
Another cover, of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Steppin’ Out.” Vicki seizes the macho perspective of the Revere track: now she’s the one who’s dodging the draft, who gives her loser boyfriend back his ring, who tells the choir to stay home. As on the original, the refrain has harmonizers backing the lead singer’s play. But where the Raiders keep to a close huddle, the Petersons and Hoffs sing wild, jabbing harmonies, especially towards the fade, where they’re bristling to thrash up the guy: STEPSTEPSTEPSTEPSTEPSTEP STEPPIN’ OUUUUUUUUTONMEEEEE STEPPIN’ OUUUTTONMEEEE.
The Second Sixties
Even though it was the beginning of a new decade, the ’80s… I think we very consciously wanted to drag the ’60s into the ’80s. We were pretty brazen about it.
A lot of people would say the real groups [of the Paisley Underground] are The Dream Syndicate, The Bangs and The Salvation Army. They wouldn’t go beyond those three.
Steve Wynn, Dream Syndicate
For what it’s worth, the only Paisley Underground was The Dream Syndicate, Three O’Clock, The Rain Parade and The Bangs, with the Long Ryders and Green on Red following behind them. All those bands drank beer together and lent each other amps.
Sid Griffin, Long Ryders
A month after the Petersons and Hoffs first played together, Michael Quercio’s band The Salvation Army formed in his garage in Carson. They demoed two songs, “Happened Happened (Doris Day)” (“Mother’s Little Helper” sequel) and “Mind Gardens” (Byrds nod), sent them to Rodney Bingenheimer at KROQ, cut them in July 1981 as a single on The Minutemen’s label, New Alliance. Quercio sounded like Pete Shelley with a head cold. The songs were tight and nervy: “Doris Day…is melting ah-waaaay now!” Over three days in March 1982, The Salvation Army cut an album, issued less than two months later on Lisa Fancher‘s Frontier Records.
The year before, Steve Wynn put out a single, “That’s What You Always Say,” under the name 15 Minutes (Andy Warhol reference). While going to UCLA, Wynn worked at the Rhino record store on Westwood Blvd., where he first met Hoffs and Vicki Peterson. All of them, they discovered, loved The Salvation Army.
By summer 1982, these friendships were an LA scene: Wynn’s Dream Syndicate, which he’d formed with Karl Precoda, Dennis Duck, and Kendra Smith; the Hoffs-Petersons band, now called The Bangs after a hairdo in a 1965 Esquire piece (“The Supersonic Bang”); Quercio’s band, rechristened Three O’Clock after the real Salvation Army got wind of them (new name via F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Pasting It Together”: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always 3 o’clock in the morning”); David Roback’s Rain Parade, whose debut single “What She’s Done to Your Mind” was about Roback seeing Hoffs on stage at a Bangs gig (her eyes are on the single sleeve).
Wynn was a common denominator for other allied groups: True West, founded by guitarists who’d played with him and Smith; The Long Ryders, helmed by Sid Griffin, who’d played with Wynn; Green on Red, whose first EP came out on Wynn’s label, Down There.
They hung out at gigs, parties, at Green on Red’s barbecues at their apartment in Hollywood. In June 1982, many of them went to Catalina Island, where they camped out, got high, played songs. They shared studios (Ethan James’ Radio Tokyo), strings, and amps; they talked to NO Mag (The Bangs did a jingle), Flipside, the LA Weekly; they got played on Bingenheimer’s show and George Gimarc’s “Rock and Roll Alternative” (The Bangs did a jingle). Vicki once described it as a group of bands who were all in love with each other. “There was nothing else like this going on,” Quercio recalled. “The new wave scene was over, and even the hardcore scene was on the wane because there was so much violence that the clubs wouldn’t let a lot of these bands play.”
Quercio called it the Paisley Underground in a late 1982 interview: a brilliant impromptu label.
What united these bands, apart from being friends, was that they were translators of the dead Sixties into the fledgling Eighties. One reason Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson dressed as they did was because they found heaps of Sixties wigs and outfits in the dumpsters and landfills of Athens, Georgia—the detritus from a spent period. “At that time, it was sort of anachronistic,” Vicki recalled in 2012. “People our age liked Pat Benatar and Tom Petty, who I also liked, [but] for someone like Susanna to come along who knew who the Grass Roots were, to know who Arthur Lee and Love was, was a really big deal to me.” Sure, “The Sixties” had never really gone away—Blondie recorded with Ellie Greenwich, Talking Heads had sung “1-2-3 Red Light.” But the excavations were now the dig-work of the radio kids, who seized what they vaguely remembered, who treated it with more love than irony.
So: The Bangs’ debut 45, self-distributed around Christmas 1981. “Getting Out of Hand,” which clouds over in its refrain: “Beware! It’s getting out of haaand, out of haaand,” Hoffs sings; the Petersons agree; the conclusion is a blank “yeah” from Hoffs. Vicki’s guitar solo is a variation on George Harrison on Help! “Call on Me” is an answer song to “I’m Looking Through You,” Jane Asher at last talking back to Paul McCartney. “You wish you were dead/ take a breath instead.”
“All the groups were vaguely Sixties-influenced guitar pop, bands who’d moved on from punk,” Griffin recalled to Barney Hoskyns. The Paisley Underground, mostly middle-class white kids whose audiences didn’t punch each other out during sets, were an easy sell to LA club owners. (“Why should they be so hateful?” Quercio said of skinheads to the LA Times in 1983. “They live in a middle-class society. They have food. They’re just angry because it’s cool to be angry.”) The Bangs wore Shindig! outfits, Dream Syndicate had guitar battles to rival Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison. The groups made for solid bills. Dream Syndicate-Bangs-Three O’Clock-Rain Parade were a must-see at the Music Machine at the end of 1982.
The first harvest of Paisley records in 1982 was a rich one: Dream Syndicate’s Down There EP and Days of Wine and Roses (plus an essential KPFK broadcast); True West’s “Lucifer Sam” 45; Salvation Army’s self-titled LP and Three O’Clock’s Baroque Hoedown; the first Green on Red EP. The first Bangs EP was meant to be part of it.
But its release was delayed after a band in New Jersey claimed dibs on their name. Thus The Bangs—a great modernist sex name—had to get a suffix.
The Bangles. It still worked. The Bangles suggested something knocked off, discounted, whose value you might have missed at first glance. Plus it was an Electric Prunes song.
The old Sixties sounds were safe. They were the old tricks that had come around for me, and I used them, every one in the book.
The group should really concentrate on its original tunes. The band also needs to bear in mind the fine line between innocent fun and cutesy vapidity…these girls are clearly in love with the music they play.
Los Angeles Times review of an early Bangs show, 8 May 1982
The Bangles (originally, of course, The Bangs) was recorded in summer 1982, during an early ferment period when the band was playing LA clubs weekly. A five-song opening statement, with requisite obscure Sixties cover as finale (The Changin’ Times’ “How Is the Air Up There”).
“I’m In Line” (“about a guy Debbi liked who was seeing someone else,” as per her sister), among the first songs The Bangles wrote together, establishes Debbi Peterson’s Bangles persona—someone in a sea of troubles but whose perspective is a cheery acceptance of disaster. One of several early Bangles songs carved out of “Taxman,” it starts with a demand–I don’t want to wait in liiiiiine for you!—that falls flat, as by the refrain, Debbi’s “in line for you my daaa-rling.” Highlights: Vicki’s margin commentary in the second verse and righteous eight-bar solo, answered halfway through by a tom-heavy drum retort; the canyon-echo harmonies on “RISE!” in the second verse, and the trumpet-like flourish on “tii-ay-ay-iime” in the third; Hoffs’ ska rhythm versus Vicki’s needling lead in the outro.
Vicki’s spotlight number (“a song I wrote in seven minutes and it sounds like it”), ”Want You” is bonkers-horny: she’s not waiting in line for this guy. Highlights: the ascending ah-Ah-AHHHs on “you don’t like my looks”; Vicki’s two solos (contained, exuberant); how she sings “with you!” as if she’s robbing a bank; the oooo-AHH–ooh-AAAAH breaks over thundering drums (The Bangles had an alternate life as a surf band—see “Bitchen Summer,” tucked away on a long-forgotten compilation); the soured Beatles closing chord.
Hoffs’ “The Real World” dates to the 1981 demos. “I was focused on getting everything right, every chord change I made was perfect,” she recalled of the first Bangs shows. After gigs opening for The Blasters and The Descendents (Hoffs was once whacked so hard with a milk carton that her forehead bled), she realized “I can do whatever I want on stage…they don’t know who I am, they don’t know I’m this girl who graduated from college and came home and learned all her chords and wants to play everything perfectly.”
When I was a little girl, she sings, I wanted everything ideal. But love, at least the kind she’s dealing with here, isn’t that—it’s a messy new reality, conveyed in “the sweet use of the minor five chord,” as Matt Piucci said. “It has the ache-the ephemeral quality you hear in the best of old country and Big Star’s Third.” Debbi’s drum pattern, homage to Ringo on “Ticket to Ride,” adds more topsy-turvy, as do the piano dubs. Vicki’s solo is an affirmation. This is the real world, Hoffs closes it out—I really want to be a girl. Not “your girl,” mind. A Girl, capital G.
On “Mary Street,” the full Bangles. Written by Hoffs and Vicki as their update of The Seekers’ “Georgy Girl,” it’s a dig at a poseur who’s read the right magazines, has the right look, and is a solid fake. Its essential line, punctuated by crash cymbals: “Ohhh girl, you better review.” Contempt, but also generosity—The Bangles, in their implacable harmonies, offer a chance to improve. Vicki has a cycling guitar hook and dazzler solo (ah-Ah!-AH!-AHHHH! harmonies in response): Hoffs raises the stakes on the bridge as Debbi moves to her toms. See also the hall-of-mirrors harmonies on “what are you waiting for?” and the closing, inconclusive oh yeaah!s.
Smart hippies knew how dumb a lot of that music was even then. It’s twice as dumb now.
Robert Christgau, 1984, giving the debut Rain Parade LP a C-plus in the Village Voice
The Bangles soon wrote off their EP. “Pretty primitive,” Vicki called it in 1984. “We wanted it to sound like we were sitting in your lap, but it came out like the voices were coming through several layers of gauze.” They were developing quickly, writing a batch of new songs by early 1983, getting tighter on stage.
They also got a manager: Miles Copeland, brother of Stewart (Police drummer), manager of The Go-Go’s. He’s seen in the Sting concert video Bring on the Night chastising a costume designer for having shown up with the wrong outfits. In photographs of the period, he looks like a soap actor playing a rock band manager. Despite The Bangles’ wariness of signing with someone attempting to corner the market in LA power pop bands (Vicki brought a tape recorder to their first meeting, for the band to review what he said afterward), Copeland generally respected them, got them higher-visibility gigs, if giving them no time to prepare. The Bangles learned they were opening for The Beat five days before the tour started—they finally quit their day jobs.
Interviewed by the LA Times in 1988, Copeland outlined his thoughts on developing an artist. “[They] can sell 5,000 records and make a profit by keeping the costs low [n.b., the Bangles EP sold 2,000 copies in its first six weeks of release]…I give the acts all the artistic freedom they want as long as they come through for me—which means balancing their art with financial responsibility.”
Columbia scouts were following the band by April 1983 (one, Peter Philbin, brought Bruce Springsteen to see The Bangles at the Music Machine; the Boss approved), when they had started their first headlining tour: appearances on American Bandstand and MTV’s Cutting Edge; touring from California to the East, playing Boston and New York for the first time. These were their last performances with Zilinskas.
The most New Wave-looking Bangle and a talented bassist, she’d never advanced from being a second-tier member (she’s only credited on vocals on one EP track, and Vicki said years later that Zilinskas’ voice didn’t harmonize well with the rest of the band’s). Her tastes were more cowpunk than Mod and ultimately there was no place for her. “Annette wanted to do something else, even though she liked this band,” Hoffs said at the time. “We wanted someone who’d be a Bangle family member.” Zilinskas’ last gig was in April 1983; she soon was part of Blood On the Saddle.
Her replacement was another local musician, whose friend Mark Buchholtz recalled that “she’d heard a couple of The Bangles were looking for a roommate to share a house. She also heard they were looking for a new bass player, so she told me ‘I did the first calculated thing ever in my life.'”
Vicki remembered being in high school, reading about The Runaways and freaking out, thinking “‘that’s it, they’ve stolen my dream. I’d always wanted to be in a female band that got real recognition.'” Now Michael “Micki” Steele, founding member of The Runaways, was Vicki Peterson’s roommate and, soon enough, The Bangles’ bassist.
She was once Susan Thomas (some say Susan Thomas Steele), daughter, reportedly, of a car-wash magnate in Pasadena. Born in 1955, she spent the Sixties reading and listening to records and got out of Pasadena as soon as she could.
In LA in the summer of 1975, she answered an ad for “girl singers” placed by Kim Fowley, notorious scenester, fabulist, abuser, would-be Svengali, and alleged rapist. “It was one of those things, a girl band made up by a guy. Which kind of sucks. Because it was coming through his twisted concept of what women were,” she recalled to Bill DeYoung years later. Calling herself Micki Steele, she sang and played bass, Joan Jett was on guitar, Sandy West drummed. They were the first Runaways, soon recording demos at Gold Star Studios (“yesterday’s kids are trying to hide! Yesterday’s kids better stay out of my sight!”) and whose rehearsals entailed Fowley throwing garbage at them, saying “you better get used to this!”
Before long, Steele got kicked out. To Brendan Mullen and the late Marc Spitz, she explained why: “Early on this thing started with Kim, this sordid personal angle. He was enamored of me in a way that I found very uncomfortable. I’d been raised in a sheltered manner…and wasn’t savvy enough to know I could say, c’mon Kim, fuck off…My performance started going down the tubes, I started going nuts from it.” When Fowley fired her, his parting words were, she recalled, “‘you have no megalo, you have no magic. This is the only chance you’ll ever have to be a rock star and you’ve blown it.’ Perhaps my musical thing didn’t lend itself to his slutty jailbait design, but the way Kim treated me made me depressed for a long time. Then I got angry and decided I was going to show him.”
She spent years watching The Runaways rise, crash, and burn, and played in fifteen bands, including Slow Children (1979), once described as a “two-man two-woman group fronted by a ragamuffin street poet.” She had a stint with Jules Shear and the Polar Bears. She was in Elton Duck (1979-1980), where her spotlight number was “Walk Away Renee”; Toni (Childs) and The Movers (1980-81); Snakefinger (1982); The Apaches of Paris (1983). “She was the tallest person,” Laura Molina said of Steele in the latter band. “We would joke about the band being three little guys and this giant girl.”
If among the tallest bassists on the LA club scene, she was also well-regarded. The bassist Joe Iaquinto, in an interview with a Steele fan site, described her style as not “overly complex on the surface but it made you take notice…it was the subtleties and textures that gave the music a lift…Michael was very good at accenting the notes and making melodic sense of otherwise angular and stiff parts.” (Listen to her on Snakefinger’s “Man in the Dark Sedan.”)
Some bands only cement upon the arrival of a final member: they’re provisional until then. The Beatles, with Ringo. The Bangles, with Steele. She elevated them. Slightly older, with a decade of experience on stage, she had the neo-Sixties sound down cold, and added a robustness to the harmonies. She’d soon become as substantial a composer for the group as Hoffs and the Petersons.
She brought something else. She was the coolest Bangle. Her look, her playing, her attitude, her stage presence, even her name was cool.
Her first gig with The Bangles was at the Cathay de Grande, on 31 July 1983. They shared the bill with Redd Kross and Black Flag; Michael Quercio joined in on a song. The Bangles sound like a high-octane garage band (see their take on the Carrie Nations’ “Find It,” from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), if one armed with a set of killer new songs they’d soon record (“James,” “Restless,” “Tell Me,” “All About You”). “They were very undeveloped but at that point it was obvious it was a real band that simply needed more experience and more songs,” Columbia’s Philbin said. “They were a band. They looked like they belonged together.” In August 1983, Columbia signed them.
Around this time, David Roback started a project, meant to get him in shape in the studio before cutting the first Rain Parade album. The founders of the Paisley Underground played on Byrds, Big Star, Neil Young, Beach Boys, VU songs—Hoffs sang on “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”; she and Vicki sang harmonies on “Soon Be Home.” Rainy Day, the Paisley Underground’s self-commemoration, would be its capstone.
James Takes a Fall
This is a very pretty song, with some pretty nasty words if you listen to them.
Vicki Peterson, introducing “Where Were You When I Needed You” at the Ritz, NYC, 1984
A concept album about awful boyfriends, All Over the Place was cut in the hinge of 1983-1984 in LA, produced by David Kahne (the band liked his work on Rank and File’s Sundown).
Its first side opens with a faded-in psychic wave of Bangles: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
Where the women of Rubber Soul are “the coolest girls on any Beatle record” (Rob Sheffield)—the scenester of “Drive My Car,” the Chelsea hipster of “Norwegian Wood,” the unknowable Girl—the men of All Over the Place are a more pathetic lot. The guy who scopes out the waitress when he thinks you’re not looking; the one whose phone rings at the same time every night (a click whenever you answer). There’s James (“I must be a masochist to ever take up with you,” Hoffs sings; live, she changed one line to “I can only take this shit for so long”); the “you” of “All About You” (“all your pretty things are merely to create the myth,” Vicki sings); the creep photographer of “More Than Meets the Eye” (“he’s around, confusing you ’til the end,” all Bangles sing). The alleged hero of “Hero Takes a Fall,” who sits on his throne, needing endless doses of praise, attention, distractions, sex (Nellie McKay, twenty years on, skewered his next-generation successor in “It’s a Pose“).
All Over the Place, a record of women dealing with men whom they’ve figured out, have endured, are discarding, is as much about the conversations The Bangles have within their songs. Take the vocals, which Kahne pushed up in the mixes. “The combination of our vocals and the guitars—nobody’s really done that sort of folk singing thing with the high-powered rock thing behind it,” Steele said to Melody Maker in 1985. “It’s really tricky to do sound for us—we’ve confounded several engineers.”
There’s a dramatic precision to the lead phrasings: see Hoffs in the verses of “Hero Takes a Fall,” seizing on an early note (“ex-posed when,” “is a vir-tue“), building to a three-note agitation (“light-of-day,” “tell-you-more,” “fa-tal flaw”), ending on a troubled note that prepares you for the refrains (“judgement day,” “return your call“), where she finally cuts loose, savoring the harsh “ALLs.”
But the gold is in the harmonies. How the Bangles confirm Vicki’s suspicions in the refrains of “All About You”: something’s goin’ on [ON and ON!] something’s goin’ on [ON! AND ON!!!] Iiiiiii’m finding out [AH-AH-AH-ALLLLLLL AHBOUT YOUUUUU!] (the “u:” phoneme is a balm to the ear after so many harsh AHs). Hoffs’ daydreaming high counterpart to Debbi’s lead on “Going Down to Liverpool”; the last inflated “looooooooong” in the third verse of “James,” adding to the tension of the underlying V-of-V chord. In the chorus of “He’s Got a Secret,” where Hoffs says she’ll never tell, a grand jury of Bangles says otherwise. The echo-play of rebuttals, musings, stray emphases of “Hero Takes a Fall.”
The guitars! Hoffs’ rhythm part obstinately keeping to its corner in “Live.” The punctuating riffs after every other phrase in “James.” Vicki’s guitar as a scrabbling counter-lead to Hoffs’ in “Tell Me” (the Bo Diddley rhythms of the verses; the breaks where everyone solos in rapid cuts). Vicki in general—hero of the record, of the break, of the refrain tag.
How Steele’s bass keeps “Hero Takes a Fall” limber; how the rapid strum patterns of the acoustic guitars on “Liverpool” jolt against its draggy beat. The clicking undercurrent to the solo in “He’s Got a Secret.” The drum intro to “Restless” and its fuck!-off! guitar solo; the trading-fours guitars on “Silent Treatment,” a song that devolves into howls of Nuh-thing! Nuh-thing! She…said…NOTHING!!! (a nightmare parallel to Debbi’s contented stoner “nuh-thing”s on “Going Down to Liverpool”).
“We’re finding the value in the politics of personal relationships, because it is kind of political,” Vicki said in 1984. “The things that we’re writing about are problems that people have with each other, and politics are people.” All Over the Place is an exuberant set of breakup songs, its joy born from perseverance. It’s in how Hoffs delivers one line of “Hero Takes a Fall”:
Every story’s got an ending
Look out! Here it comes, here it comes
Or, as she sings in “Tell Me,” album credo:
Too bad, baby, this time you lose
Closing the LP’s first side is its grand thematic rebuttal (see also the two covers, each sung by Debbi, each offering the prospect of a happily unadventurous life): “Dover Beach,” a gloriously undergraduate rock song, titled after Matthew Arnold’s poem, referencing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for good measure (“we could come and goooo…oh! and talk of Michel-an-gel-oohhhhhh…OHHHHH–whoaaah”). Despite the cheaters, do-nothings, and cads scattered across the album, “Dover Beach” is where the dream of a perfect love is still worth pursuing, as doomed as it may seem, as badly as it may end.
“This is the real world,” Hoffs had sung the year before. Now she’s looking for a bolt-hole somewhere in it. “If I had the time, I would run away with you,” she begins, over Debbi’s tense drum patterns. He calls out for her, she can’t help him; they’re already severed: “You and I, inseparable and walking.” Vicki’s guitar solo is sixteen bars’ worth of escape; Hoffs’ “if we had the time,” the answering harmonized “we had the tiiiiime!s,” are the voices of reality. The world is no one’s dream, she sings. The guitars rage and fall silent. The last thing you hear are Debbi and Steele tolling away, having become a clock.
All Over the Place was a great record that, as with many of its kind, didn’t sell in great numbers (though a respectable 100,000 copies had moved by 1986). In the “Going Down to Liverpool” video, the Paisley Underground Bangles are being chauffeured by a cranky Leonard Nimoy, singing along to their single on the radio, until they reach an entryway, where they leave the car to walk towards a stage. They’re dancing towards success. It proved symbolic enough.
The Bangles spent late 1984 and early 1985 on the road. As in the LA club days, they quickly moved up the rungs, opening for the Psychedelic Furs, A Flock of Seagulls (a tour that was mostly cancelled, letting the Bangles headline a few dates), and Cyndi Lauper, who took a shine to them and put them in a video she did for The Goonies.
The collapse of The Go-Go’s—Jane Wiedlin left in October 1984 and the band broke up the following May—cleared space. The two bands had never been rivals as much as legend has it, but many rock radio stations had strict, if tacit limits on how many female artists would get airplay. So if That Girl Rock Band was over, there was more room on playlists for That Other Girl Rock Band. “We need stuff like this,” WXKS program director Sonny Joe White told Billboard, in re “Manic Monday.” “We haven’t had a girl group since The Go-Go’s.” (Meanwhile The Pandoras were called “a pre-fashion-consultant Bangles” in the following issue).
Most crucially, Prince. He saw The Bangles at the Palace, loved “Hero Takes a Fall” (“number one in my car,” he told Hoffs), and offered them a song. It wasn’t written for them. He’d composed “Manic Monday” well before he’d heard of the band, having cut a take in February 1984— rewriting the opening line of “1999,” building the track around a harpsichord patch on his Yamaha DX-7—and earmarking the song for Apollonia. Wendy Melvoin later said she thought the switchabout happened “because Prince thought Susanna was cute,” an industry sentiment that soon became a rumor that Prince had had a fling with Hoffs (“So, who’s the one who slept with Prince?” Joan Rivers asked the band; writing of “Manic Monday” in his 1989 Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul, Dave Marsh called it a song Prince wrote for “the Bangles heartthrob Susannah (sic)”).
“Manic Monday” has little to do with The Bangles of All Over the Place—it’s all Prince, imagining a mildly surreal nine-to-five life (details are Art Deco era: Rudolph Valentino dreams, “aeroplanes”), as if he’d thought to reverse the perspective of Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train,” writing in the voice of someone rushing off to work after having to satisfy their demanding lover at home (“doesn’t it matter that I have to feed the both of us? Employment’s down!“).
“I kept thinking, Sue and I could write a song like this,” Vicki said. “It seemed a little more contrived than most of our songs—ours were a little more obtuse.” Hoffs, after Prince’s death, said “I think he was able to write for women really well. [“Manic Monday”] shows a day in the life: in the morning, getting up and preparing yourself to keep your life moving forward, but the sense of, like, it’s just on the verge of falling apart. And you’re like—tape and glue: just trying to get through the moments.” That said, the “bedroom voice/ make some noise” line grew to irritate her and she would sometimes cut it from later live performances.
David Kahne didn’t alter Prince’s template: the “harpsichord” lines are nearly identical, with the keyboard on the Bangles’ track going at a faster tempo and having a few more flourishes. The arrangement is thicker, with nestled guitars, Steele’s fluid bass (she gets especially crafty in the second verse), the no-escaping-the-2s-&-4s drums. As always, it’s the harmonies where The Bangles were most transformative. They first appear to bolster “won’t get paid” (Prince sang that line alone, without emphasis); their “whoah-oah” responses in the refrains alter upon each repetition, expanding, rising in tone, until sinking to make a bed for Hoffs’ last “Mon-day”; on the bridge the other Bangles are a series of counter-melodies for Hoffs to work against (“last night, last night—doesn’t it maaa-ter…only hav-ing fun”).
You know you’ve really hit mainstream when you are the background music to One Life to Live—when they go to a disco and it’s ‘Manic Monday’ playing.
Vicki Peterson, 1986
“The first surprise of the year,” raved the tip sheet Gavin Report. “Lyrics with adult appeal, [a band] with teen appeal, equals mass appeal.” Columbia promo execs said the groundwork had been laid by All Over the Place‘s singles, “which built on college radio…[this] initial acceptance helped “Manic Monday” on AOR and Top 40, adult contemporary just followed.” It was also Prince in his pop imperial phase, writing a song so hook-filled that you forgive its exponentially dopey rhymes in the chorus. Hoffs sang it with charm—her voice sounded as shiny as a new penny.
Its video was the last piece. The Bangles, no longer the sharp-elbowed power poppers of the All Over the Place era, but stars: Hoffs’ smoldering camera takes, Steele’s none-more-1986 hat, the gauzy amber light that predicts The Double Life of Veronique. The “Working Girl” lyric scenario is barely conveyed. Steele looks perturbed in LA traffic in a few shots, that’s all.
“Manic Monday” peaked in April 1986 at #2 on Billboard, only held off from the top by its composer’s “Kiss.” A hit turns a private concern into a publicly-held one, at the mercy of market whims and dissident shareholders. “Columbia said, here we have a way into radio, and it’s because of Prince’s infatuation with the little one in the middle,” Vicki later told DeYoung. “And all of a sudden you have an article on the band, but there’s a photograph of Susanna.”
The album that “Manic Monday” supported was a fight to make. Kahne wasn’t going to have another “obtuse” guitar pop record—he was making a hit album, even if that meant erasing The Bangles from much of it. “Manic Monday” is Hoffs’ lead vocal, the Bangles’ harmonies, and Steele’s bass while the rest was greatly session players (Carlos Vega on drums, possibly Mitchell Froom on keyboards). The Bangles, Sixties rock devotees, were in the position of The Byrds in 1965—hearing a song on the radio with their name on it but on which they didn’t play.
“Four Formats Fall For The Bangles”
We weren’t smart enough to know we could fire our producer.
Listen to the Bangles at the Marquee in London, February 1985—opening with a piledriving “Silent Treatment,” burning through their set at a Ramones-paced clip. “We sounded like this great raw rock band,” Debbi said. Yet on Different Light, The Bangles’ biggest-selling album, recorded from July through September of that year, Kahne deconstructed them from what they had been—a Sixties-inspired songwriting collective/garage band—to forge them on record into a more hierarchical, label-friendly structure. Hoffs, charismatic, linked erroneously with Prince, would be the lead singer; the rest of the band were good for harmonies and suspect in terms of songwriting and playing.
“He loved Sue’s voice and he loved the way we did harmonies but everything else was basically shit,” Steele told DeYoung. “He felt like he had to get rid of it, or try to work around it, or do something to make it palatable.” (Kahne, to Mix in 2009, called his relationship with The Bangles “a forced marriage.”)
It fell hardest on Debbi, whom Kahne already had made jump through hoops for her vocal on “Going Down to Liverpool,” having her sing the opening line over and over again. On Different Light, “he said I physically couldn’t sing one of the songs…I was actually at one point feeling kind of suicidal,” she told DeYoung. “This guy was screwing with my emotions so bad and made me feel so shitty that I just thought, well OK.” She was originally slated for “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which meant, like “Going Down to Liverpool,” she’d be the lead on a single. Instead, she’s the one Bangle not singing on “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
Kahne made an album as an aircraft carrier, loaded with potential hits. This meant making each track as radio-ready as possible. “We would go in as a band, all four of us in a room, and lay down the song,” Vicki told Vintage Guitar. “Then, in classic ’80s style, with the guidance and decisions of Kahne, we would systematically replace everything we’d just done! Every guitar line was replaced with various schmutz. Even Susanna’s rhythm tracks.” To Craig Rosen, she said “we’d isolate the drums, and we’d sound like the Rolling Stones, and then we’d come back out and every single note on that record is replaced with a trigger—snares that Debbi hit are now triggered by another sound.”
“He made us more aware of what our flaws were then the things we were good at,” Hoffs recalled to DeYoung. Then Kahne started bringing in “ringer guitar players to do certain things,” Vicki said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he’d had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.”
There was also the question of songwriting. Miles Copeland, to DeYoung, recalled that Kahne would say he didn’t like a song’s bridge and ask the band to rewrite it. They’d return to the studio with a new middle eight, he’d say that was no good either, then suggest a bridge he’d written. “In their view, the reason his middle bit was ‘better’ is because he got a piece of the publishing. And they were incredibly pissed off about that.” (Kahne’s credited as co-writer on “Walking Down Your Street,” “Standing in the Hallway,” and “Not Like You.”)
The Bangle who most escaped intact was Steele, whose basslines are still on Different Light. She wondered if Kahne had run out of time to have a session musician redo those, too (more likely, there was no point in trying to surpass her playing—listen to her as the titanium bond of “Walk Like an Egyptian” or on “Not Like You,” where she’s often the lead instrument, this bubbling undercurrent to the harmonies). Her “Following,” an intriguing acoustic guitar/synth piece tucked away on the LP’s second side, was an afterthought for Kahne. “He’d totally forgotten about it. He was totally freaking out about which of the twenty-seven mixes of ‘Manic Monday’ was the right one,” Steele told DeYoung. “We were almost done with recording and I said, uhh, David, remember the song ‘Following’? So it was like two takes.”
There was also “Let It Go,” the only track on the album composed and sung by all Bangles, with its sequential harmonies (a lower set sings a first phrase, holding on the last note, which becomes the stage for a higher-pitched set harmonies to soar over; the higher harmonies do the same in turn) and Sixties guitars—it was a bridge to a fading past. Trying to remember….where you were the day before…
The producer knew that this was going to be his shot and so we were sacrificed on the altar of his career. It became our success but it also contributed to our undoing, so it was kind of like a weird deal-with-the-devil thing, y’know? I think Different Light is a really good record. It was just…we kind of got lost in it.
Steele, to The Guardian, 2003
To be fair, this sort of ruthless production ethos is nothing new. The Bangles wanted to be the new Grass Roots? Well, this is how Grass Roots records were made. Kahne delivered on his mandate from Columbia. He made a platinum album for 1986, its mix full of gated drums and guitar brickwork: the stereo-split riffs on “Angels Don’t Fall in Love,” or how on “In a Different Light,” the intro alone pits a clean-toned guitar against one with a Wah pedal against one with sustained fuzz. It’s a record on which the tambourine sounds like it took fifty takes to perfect.
And the band admitted that Kahne was inspired in recording their vocals, having them sing together, four singers positioned around a trio of microphones (he also wanted lead vocals cut on a single track, not creating a “master” take via comping but instead using punch-ins to fix a particular section). “There was no overdubbing individual people, which makes for a different kind of recording process,” Kahne told Mix. “We would double the vocals most of the time, but they would sing together as a group, and we would get a different kind of relationship that you don’t get recording each person…There are intonation things, phrasing things—like somebody might pull a little late, so it’ll make the second chorus seem a little different than the first.”
“If She Knew What She Wants” is the Chartres Cathedral of Bangles harmonies (the guitar work is nearly as intricate: what sounds like a rotary speaker on the bridge; the quick shuffles between open and palm-muted strums in the rhythm guitar accompaniment; the harmonized guitar melodies that lead the choruses out). It’s also one of Hoffs’ finest lead performances, rich in sympathy for its characters, reticent as to her true feelings on them. She’s warm in tone, colorful in phrasing, especially in the bridges, and her moments of effort left in the mix—see the sharp breath Hoffs takes after the three descending “fine, fine, fines” to steady herself for the high notes of “ah-round” and the concluding “miiii-ii-ii-iiine”—give it a welcome grit.
“Walk Like an Egyptian.” Liam Sternberg wrote it. Part of the New Wave scene in Akron in the late Seventies, having produced Jane Aire’s first record, Sternberg made a demo of “Egyptian” in 1984 with guitars, drum machines, and Marti Jones. Quirky, catchy, semi-ironically colonial, it seemed destined to be a College Rock Novelty Hit, in the line of “88 Lines About 44 Women,” “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” “Bitchin Camaro” etc.: see here for dozens of other candidates. The Bangles found the demo in a pile of tapes Kahne gave them and performed an act of transubstantiation. (Its success inspired a College Rock Novelty answer song in 1987: “Walk With an Erection.”)
Its foundation was an Alesis drum machine, a garbage can lid, a Peruvian shaker, a gong, and an Emulator-generated bongo sample, the latter via Mitchell Froom, who was recording at the Sunset Sound Factory at the same time (the “Egyptian” rhythm tracks are a kooky ancestor of the Latin Playboys album that Froom and Different Light‘s engineer Tchad Blake did a decade later). Having decreed that Debbi wasn’t up for the song, Kahne had the other Bangles audition in the studio, with Kahne picking who would get each verse: the order wound up being Vicki (Nile set-up), Steele (LA club extension), and Hoffs (donut shop punchline).
They weren’t sure what they had with it. In the early months of the Different Light tour, the band sometimes didn’t include “Egyptian” in their sets. But after “If She Knew What She Wants” stalled out as the album’s second single (peaking at #29), Columbia went with “Egyptian” to regain momentum. By Christmas 1986, it was the number one single in the U.S.
It was The Bangles’ “The Name Game,” or “The Wah-Watusi.” You could dance badly to it; you and your friends could pick the Bangle you wanted to imitate; its video had random New Yorkers doing the Egyptian, badly-animated Quaddafi and Princess Di clips, The Bangles in sand dancer outfits, and the most epic of Hoffs eye flicks, to the point where doing “the eyes” is de rigueur for karaoke performers.
On 29 October 1986 at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, The Bangles are at their peak—confident, funny, nailing the harmonies, the guitars and bass locked in. It’s already a greatest hits tour. “We know everybody knows how to dance!” Hoffs commands the crowd, and they do. Not long afterward, The Bangles did a video with Little Richard—the band are TV contest winners who manage to upstage Richard himself. Why not? Getting a number one hit was like winning the World Series, Hoffs said.
Is This Burning?
I remember how big my hair was on the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ thing and feeling like ‘Oh my God! What just happened to me?’ And you get caught up in going along with what’s happening. A wardrobe person comes and says ‘These are great clothes; put these on.’…You look over and the person sitting next to you has got that much makeup on, too. It’s just a vicious cycle.
The Bangles, hosting MTV for an hour in 1986, are rock ‘n’ roll archivists for a teenage audience. They play Ike and Tina Turner, The Easybeats, The Who igniting the stage on The Smothers Brothers.
The peak of Bangles fame coincided with what I once called the Boomer Counter-Reformation: the period in the late Eighties in which every Sixties act returned, cicada-like, from the depths of the earth. George Harrison and Roy Orbison got Top Ten hits; Neil Young and Dylan got critically-acclaimed albums; Tiffany covered The Beatles; The Beatles’ CD release campaign was treated with the reverence of a state visit by the Windsors; The Who and The Monkees and CSNY and “classic” Yes and Jefferson Airplane reformed.
You could put The Bangles on the margins of all this, but their sharp fan’s sensibility prevented them from being cheap nostalgists. See their #2 hit from late 1987, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” that obliterates the original. It opens in suspense—harmonies, chimes, synth waves—until breaking open with Vicki’s amphetamine expansion on Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar figure and Debbi’s pounding drums, a hammer exorcism of the Kahne sessions. She sounds like she’s knocking apart a crate. (Plus, cowbell!)
The Bangles know which lines to savor (“simply pretend that you can build them again“), which to excise (reading manuscripts of unpublished rhyme, drinking vodka & lime). They sing most of it in close four-part harmony, so when Hoffs stands alone in the final chorus, a tension begins that builds and builds—Vicki’s riff ping-ponging in the mix; the drums somehow thrashing even harder; Steele as a convulsion—until it’s snuffed out.
Made for the soundtrack of the LA coke movie Less Than Zero, “Hazy Shade” was a Rick Rubin production, but he hated the intro the band had devised (Vicki: “that whole sort of atmospheric beginning just drove Rick up the wall”). They vetoed him and kept it in. After getting the drums and guitars down, Rubin “split for a pizza,” leaving them to finish the track, ultimately adding two further days of overdubs—keyboards, acoustic guitars, vocals—and having an engineer remix it. They were at home in the song, having done it on stage for years, and their instincts were dead-on: the “synth” prelude made the rock section vault out of the speakers. Theirs was a Sixties cover free of affectation, it was loud, fun, young.
The essentially self-produced single had cleared the air, restored their shaken confidence after Different Light. By summer 1987, The Bangles had ten new songs ready to go, Hoffs told a reporter. That said, Steele told another that fans should try to hear the new stuff on stage “before some producer gets ahold of them.”
Like it or don’t like it, you know? That’s where we were at the time. That’s what eight years of touring brought us to, the making of that album.
Hoffs, on Everything
Everything, the last Bangles album of their original run, sounds negotiated, brokered, full of strange turns and compromises, like a municipal infrastructure project. One of the band’s strengths was knowing who they were and what they were good at. On Everything, that communal confidence has gone, leaving behind a compilation of four women’s takes on where The Bangles should go next, responding to each other’s scenarios with wariness. Their more concise White Album.
Columbia gave them the rewards of hitting #1: a budget of $350,000 and artistic control. The band chose the producer (Davitt Sigerson), had the last call on songs. “Our ideas about arrangement, harmonies, about tempo, about musicianship,” as Hoffs described the album to the Chicago Tribune. After they made it, they fired Miles Copeland, who they believed had never considered them a top priority, and signed with the management team of Arnold Stiefel and Randy Phillips.
The fault lines visible since “Manic Monday” were deepening. Columbia, the press, seemingly everyone but the other three Bangles were intent on making Hoffs the star of the band. By summer 1987, she was on the cover of SPIN‘s swimsuit issue and the lead of The Allnighter, a dire college comedy directed by her mother. Vicki recalled reading the script and being bewildered that it was going to be an actual movie.
“The videos were going very pro-Sue,” Debbi recalled to DeYoung. “I could see it all happening.” Hoffs was in an indefensible position. Whenever she was called the band’s lead singer, she’d say no, that The Bangles were equals, but “then I’m sort of defending the fact that I’m not. It just caused this tension with all of us…the more tense everybody got about it, the more tense I felt about it.” Vicki recalled that “all the people who loved me wanted to blame everything on Sue. And it was not all Sue’s fault…she was neither a victim, nor was she a perpetrator of this crime. It was partially both.”
The old composition team of Hoffs and Vicki was fading (they wrote only one song on Everything, “Watching the Sky”); each Bangle now had different collaborators. “We needed space away from each other,” Hoffs said. “We all went off to write with other people, just to survive emotionally.” They wound up with about forty songs, had to pare them to thirteen. Debbi worked with keyboardist Walker Igleheart; Steele with keyboardist David White; Vicki with a batch of co-writers, some of whom weren’t keyboardists, including Rachel Sweet (“Crash and Burn”) and KISS’ Vinnie Vincent (“Make a Play For Her Now”).
Hoffs chose Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who’d written “True Colors” and “Like a Virgin” and “So Emotional” and “Alone”: she went with the hitmakers. “In Your Room,” leadoff single of Everything, was a killer. Even its minor details were hooky: the tympanum sound in the intro, the “Mony Mony” guitars and beat (“Tommy James meets Prince,” Hoffs said), how Hoffs’ phrasing in the verse follows the lead of the intro guitar, the organ swells in the bridge to counter the bite in Hoffs’ voice (“feels good!”), the strings in the outro. And it was the first Bangles single to cater to guys. The Bangles always had been the women responding to the various Jaggers and Lennons who populated their songs. “In Your Room” was male fantasy—the sweet isolation of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” as rewritten for an Eighties sex comedy—leavened by mild kinkiness. She’s trying on all his clothes; she’ll be the one directing traffic.
Everything‘s women are often at a loss, wistfully romantic or wreaking havoc, regarded by an unsympathetic eye. See the Complicated Girl (Steele, on its inspiration: “My best friend was dating a girl at the time and he loved her. And I hated her!”) or the would-be Plath in Vicki’s “Bell Jar” (“she dresses in black, ‘cos sorrow is a magnet”).
Steele had come into her own as a writer, yet another stress-line in the group at this point. “Complicated Girl,” with its echo harmonies on the title phrase and the “You Won’t See Me”-inspired run of ooh-la-las on the bridge, and a harmonic blurriness in which the A major key is undermined like the hapless guy she sings about (“why bother making rules you know she will not follow?”). The quietly intricate “Something to Believe In,” which has no real refrain, just bridges and verses working against each other. And “Glitter Years,” in which Steele looks back at 1973 LA as a lost, broken world, with only Bowie’s “Hang Onto Yourself” as a souvenir. Vicki does her best Mick Ronson for the break.
Vicki’s songs are more expansive and heavier—see “Watching the Sky,” where her sister channels John Bonham (there seems to have been a consensus to keep the rockers to a minimum, so the snarling “Everything I Wanted” was an orphan, later slotted into the thankless role of “new track on the greatest hits compilation”). She got the album’s last word: “Crash and Burn,” with its goofball rhymes (“checking out the scene-o/ feeling so mean-o”) and its defiance of fate in the guise of a highway song. “If I can’t see what’s passing me, nothing can touch me,” Vicki sings.
“Eternal Flame.” When I first heard it as an arrogant, purist seventeen-year-old, I thought it was the end. The band who’d made All Over the Place had been reduced to this embalmed prom theme, this ghastly cheese, this soul-death of a song you’d hear playing in Chess King.
I wasn’t wrong. It was the band’s knell. There was no coming back from a #1 hit like “Eternal Flame” in 1989. The follow-up, Debbi’s sweetly obsessive “Be With You,” stalled at #30 and the Bangles’ management team and label agreed that going forward, Hoffs would get the singles, presumably in the “Eternal Flame” line (if not for the breakup, her “I’ll Set You Free” would’ve been the next US single). A band who loved to storm through “7 and 7 Is” and “Pushing Too Hard” on stage was now apparently moving into Peter Cetera territory.
I have this habit of falling in love with the wrong people, but I’ve learned to release some of that energy into my own songs.
Hoffs on stage, April 1989
“Eternal Flame” is schlocky, yes, and proudly so–Hoffs’ inspiration was seeing an ever-burning candle at Graceland, after all. There’s a fundamental imbalance between its sentiments and Hoffs’ vocal. “Eternal Flame” seems meant for a belter, someone who’ll go to town in the bridges and last choruses. Hoffs can’t sing it like that. She’s no Celine Dion or Adele, hers is not a technically masterful performance. She strains with her chest voice at times, her push to falsetto sounds like it takes stomach-clenching effort, and she only sustains the last “flaaaaaaaaaame”s for a few seconds before the harmonies come to her aid.
She saves “Eternal Flame” from being mush by being so valiant within it, a stranger within her own song, feeling overwhelmed yet pushing on, convinced that after all her empty searches, she finally may have something good. “I had to keep protecting it and fighting for it. It just seemed like at any moment it would disappear, like something would strike it down,” Hoffs once said of her song. It’s her return to “Dover Beach,” another sally against the cruel real world. The trebly arrangement was meant to invoke a music box (see the triangle, struck on every bar and utterly maddening once you notice it, sorry), with Hoffs as its dancer.
We work it out like business
It won’t work anymore
“I’ll Set You Free”
The Bangles’ last tour ran from July to early September 1989. No one was happy, no one said anything, everyone had stomach aches, the collective misery stacked up. They did a show commemorating the opening of a stretch of a Houston tollway that connected Highway 290 to the North Freeway and as they played, they saw the overpass buckling from the weight of the crowd and the summer heat. Reviews ranged from dismissive to condescending: “wearing the usual miniskirts and black tights…’Bangles’ is now synonymous with fluff and tummy-revealing costumes…rock in name only” (NY Daily News); “cheap razzle dazzle performance, nearly devoid of musical soul” (the Glens Falls Post Star); “they still posture unnecessarily…Hoffs’ preening and arching seemed contrived” (Akron Beacon-Journal).
There was a band meeting at Stiefel’s beach house. As many musicians have noted, whenever a manager schedules a band meeting, it’s never a good sign. An exhausted Steele had said she wanted out, and Stiefel and Philips were courting her as a solo act. But their true target was Hoffs, convincing the latter that things would go far easier if all this band stuff went away. The meeting was held to tell the Petersons the news. “All the lawyers and business managers were there,” Debbi told Dorian Lynskey years later. “Me and Vicki were looking at each other thinking, ‘There’s definitely something going on here.’ And it was announced to us that it was over.”
The news broke in October 1989. It was as though everyone was ready for them to go. Everything had only hit #15, and the release of a Greatest Hits the following year, a career-cap move that normally would have meant a reliable gold record, barely charted in the US. The Eighties were over; so were The Bangles, swept out with the long tide.
They mostly spent the Nineties watching the wheels, as an influence of theirs once sang. Vicki worked with Susan Cowsill as the Psycho Sisters; they later joined the Continental Drifters. Debbi was briefly in an ill-fated supergroup with Gina Shock, Wendy & Lisa, and Gang of Four’s Sara Lee, which later became Kindred Spirit. Steele moved out to the country, living in a house with a lot of animals and no television, she said. She demoed songs for a solo album, as she’d been led to believe she’d get a record deal, then didn’t. She formed the band Crash Wisdom a few years later.
Hoffs started the decade being talked up as the next Belinda Carlisle. For her solo debut, When You’re a Boy, she worked again with David Kahne, the devil she knew (“when I didn’t have Vicki and Micki and Debbi there to fight the fight, Kahne went out of control pop, out of control production, out of control keyboards”). It was a dud, with a few solid tracks (the EIEIO and Bowie covers; “Something New“)—its fundamental flaw was being a brutally overworked 1988 album released in 1991.
On a proposed 1994 follow-up, some of whose songs were co-written by Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, you hear Hoffs pushing into a fresher, harder style—there’s the bones of a good record here. But Columbia soured on it, wanted her to re-record the album, she refused, they released her from her contract. She reworked much of it for a self-titled 1996 album on London.
She considered trying to reform The Bangles at times during the decade, to tepid response by the other three, and later said she was glad they didn’t sign up for “all the repackaged tours, tour with the Go-Go’s and the B-52s…It felt nauseating to me, the very idea.” (Hoffs also needed time to recover from a vocal cord hemorrhage in 1997.) What finally brought them back together was the Austin Powers franchise, directed by Hoffs’ husband, Jay Roach. The four of them cut a marvelous “period” song (“Get the Girl”) for the second Powers film in 1999, and by the following year they were on stage again.
The reunion Bangles endured for another album, Doll Revolution (2003), whose songs were greatly survivors from ventures of the prior decade: Hoffs solo pieces, Steele’s Crash Wisdom songs, Kindred Spirit and Peterson-Cowsill compositions. Its making, self-funded, done over a few years (Hoffs and Debbi had young children by now) was a catharsis merely by being enjoyable—“We would look at each other and go, ‘but, we’re not suffering. This can’t be good’,'” Vicki said in 2003. “Is it art? Nobody’s suffering. We’re all laughing and having dinner.”
Steele stopped touring with The Bangles in summer 2004 and in May 2005, officially left the group. There was no reason stated, but the consensus is that Steele had wanted to keep recording new material and was frustrated by the band’s hobbyist pace in this era. (Derrick Anderson was their touring bassist for a time; Annette Zilinskas returned in the 2010s.) The “trio” Bangles—the original Bangs—have made one more record to date, Sweetheart of the Sun (2011). On it, The Bangles reorient themselves in California, inspired by a then-recent biography of Carole King and Joni Mitchell. It’s a lovely, modest record: the sound of a band at ease with itself.
Until the pandemic, The Bangles had kept on as a live act, performing nearly every year, sometimes doing festivals, sometimes a club tour. Their last appearance on stage was in September 2019, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds—it’s a good set, with a smoking “Want You” and a closing “Eternal Flame” that sounds like it’s bringing down an era. A fixture of rock ‘n’ roll—we’re as far away now from their first single as it was from Pearl Harbor—The Bangles still seem regarded in some quarters as lightweights. They’ve rarely worn the mantle of cool in the way Big Star or The Records or your favorite obscure power pop band has; they’re been consigned to a cultural memory of big hair and Walking Eternally Like an Manic Egyptian.
Some of this may be due to a general ineptitude in establishing their legacy. Rachel Macari, the band’s most devoted researcher and archivist, argued this in a piece last year: that the early albums, now over thirty years old, have never been properly reissued or remastered; that there are scads of live recordings (it’s a true shame there’s no official Bangles live LP), demos, unreleased songs, alternate takes out there which no one seems interested in compiling, let alone releasing. And that portions of their fanbase are toxic, the type of dudes who clutter up Bangles YouTube comments by slavering over the band members.
Hoffs inducted The Zombies into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 and I recall thinking at the time, well, when is this woman’s induction? When is her band’s? The Bangles had massive hits, they had style, they had some of the finest harmonic arrangements and one of the best debut albums of the Eighties, they were a blast, they broke up before they got lousy—what more do you want from a rock ‘n’ roll band, really?
In the late 2010s, the Paisley Underground sang each other’s songs again, for the 3×4 album. The Bangles did Three O’Clock’s “Jet Pilot,” Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say,” and Rain Parade’s “Talking in My Sleep.” The latter is a stunning, a time-slip—Hoffs, sounding at sixty much as she had at twenty-two, reviving with grace one of David Roback’s finest songs (Roback died of cancer not long afterward). She soars through the melody, the Petersons and Zilinskas back her up, with Vicki delivering a properly lysergic solo. If we had the time, they sang so long ago on “Dover Beach.” As it turned out, they had all the time in the world. See what’s become of them.