“Hang on. We’re not some poor man’s Go-Go’s.”
– Vicki Peterson, The Bangles
Everyone thinks they know the Bangles and yet I never seem to meet anyone who really does.
Three songs more or less define their pop music legacy – the fun but lightweight “Manic Monday”, the goofy and even lighterweight “Walk Like An Egyptian”, and the huge and lightestweight power ballad “Eternal Flame”. They’re all decent-to-good songs, but it’s not like the history of 80s pop couldn’t be written without them. Let’s be real, here.
I meet a few people who remember their lesser hits – the Jules Shear penned “If She Knew What She Wants”, the playfully sexy “In Your Room”, the fabulously 80s-rock cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” that Kurt Cobain used to open mix tapes with. I’ve met a few guys 10 years older than me who talk wistfully of their boyhood crushes on singer Susanna Hoffs.
That’s about it, though.
I never seem to meet anyone who has heard “All Over The Place” all the way through. I’ve never meet anyone who knows the words to “Complicated Girl” or “Bell Jar”. And forget finding someone who knows the Bangles got back together and released a strong album called “Doll Revolution” in the early 2000s. All in all, it seems like everyone’s mostly just forgotten about them. “The Bangles? Oh yeah. Walk Like An Egyptian. They must have sucked.”
I wonder why that is?
Because when I went back and dug out their records I found a catalog that seems like it would be pretty appealing in today’s media climate – a relatively early all-female rock band full of music obsessives who mixed solid songwriting and shimmery guitars with 4-part harmony and designs on being the female Beatles.
Ok, so they missed that mark. Big deal. Everyone misses that mark.
Is it the fact that they sometimes co-wrote with a bunch of L.A. songwriting ringers? That there were rumors of studio musicians playing on some of their tracks? Ignoring that the group is clearly musically capable in live footage, do those stories even matter anymore, post-Poptimism? Do we throw the Beach Boys under the bus for the same reason?
Is it that they outgrew their garage band roots and are remembered more as a pop band, rather than an indie one? Is it that you can’t “discover them for yourself,” the way you can discover, say, The Slits or the X-Ray Specs? Is it that they weren’t punk enough? (Hell, the Bangles’ bass player was in The Runaways. What more punk rock street cred do you need?)
Or is it simply that no one thinks to even try? Maybe those three hits just turn people away. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
So… anyway… I like the Bangles is what I’m saying and I’m going to give you guys some examples of them at their best. If I’m truthful, the Bangles do suffer from 80s production gimmicks, some of which I can’t defend. They’re a bit like Cyndi Lauper in that respect. But even toward the end of the 80s you can hear, under those icy synthesizers and all that reverb, the fun little chick rock band that started by playing “Heat Wave” in the Peterson sisters’ garage. That wonderful core makes it all worthwhile to me.
They didn’t start out as the Bangles, though…
The Bangs popped out of L.A.’s Paisley Underground music scene in the early 80s. On their earliest recordings you can hear both their garage rock roots and their indebtedness to local vocal music like The Mamas and Papas and the Byrds. In fact, from the video for The Real World you could easily call them outright 60s mod revivalists.
The Real World –
It’s good stuff, though.
Mary Street –
This one, their first single, sounds very Mamas and the Papas, including a “yeah” cribbed straight from Mama Cass…
Getting Out of Hand –
Ok, so it’s not new ground for 1980, but as genre rock it’s still pretty good!
Their major label debut, All Over The Place, is my favorite Bangles record. It keeps the focus on tight songwriting and pop structures but sands off most of the overt 60s cliches. It also includes the best video you’ll ever see of Leonard Nimoy bemused by a group of chick rockers who appear unexpectedly in the backseat of his car.
Going Down To Liverpool –
Good place to point out that all 4 members of the Bangles sang lead, even on singles. So that’s Debbie Peterson on Going Down To Liverpool. Vicki, Michael… they could all sing and they all did.
That said, the signature voice of the Bangles comes from Susanna Hoffs. She’s sort of the Paul McCartney of the band – the Cute One, whose natural good looks and bubbly personality sometimes caused people to underestimate her talent. Even when she’s just singing background tracks on one of the other girls songs, it’s her voice that stamps it as a Bangles song.
Hero Takes a Fall –
This kind of ends the first act of the Bangles. If their career had ended here, I suspect they’d be one of those great lost post-punk bands. Maybe they’d actually show up on one of those Rhino 80s college rock box sets. Or maybe a song would end up in a quirky indie movie where some big-eyed girl finds resolve while “Bitchen Summer” plays on her iPod.
Instead, the real world got introduced to the Bangles in their second act.
Honestly, as gloriously 80s as it is, I don’t hear much wrong with their breakthrough album, A Different Light. The songs are mostly sweet little pop confections (with one big exception at the end). This is where their first big hit, the Prince-penned Manic Monday, put them on the charts for the first time. That’s a good song that improves on the Apollonia demo. Just as good is their cover of Big Star’s September Girls. Check the (relatively) growly guitar on the title track, though:
In A Different Light –
This one might be my favorite…
If She Knew What She Wants –
They sure are glammed up 80s style by this point, though. If you are bummed that the 60s revivalism is all gone, you might be happy to hear this song, inspired by a Hayley Mills movie, The Trouble with Angels.
Angels Don’t Fall In Love –
The Bangles were never known for introspection, but bassist Michael Steele sometimes offered a more emotional edge in her writing. A good example of that is ‘Following’, the closing track on Different Light. It has a heft that is absent from the rest of the record and the most surprising song the Bangles ever released as a single.
Their third record, Everything, closed out their initial period of commercial success. It’s a great record from start to finish, with a couple of killer late 80s pop singles (Eternal Flame, In Your Room) and the usual solid songwriting throughout from all four women. Topics are a little less cute this time out, with songs about everything from Sylvia Plath to the drug-fueled 70s glam scene that birthed David Bowie and the Runaways.
In Your Room –
Damn, isn’t that a sexy song? Not only is Susanna promising to teach me everything a boy should know, she’s screaming like Little Richard by the end. Yes, please!
There’s also this reminder that bassist Michael Steele could write and sing more straight-forward commercial hit material. It’s a personal favorite – particularly the cascading harmonies in the chorus.
Complicated Girl –
Here, someone mixes Barbie, the Bangles and The Bell Jar. Gotta love it!
Bell Jar –
The group split up after touring behind this album, partly from fatigue and partly because they’d switched management to an agency that was interested in pushing Susanna to the forefront on future albums. (They went on to make a mostly terrible solo album with her that played up her sex kitten image, over tracks that sounded like third-rate Madonna. Avoid.)
So the Bangles missed out on the 90s, which is a shame, as I think they might have benefited from the back-to-basics approach of that era, especially if Susanna’s cover of the Lightning Seeds’ “All I Want” is any indication…
All I Want –
In the early 2000s, they buried their hatchets and got back together for a pretty damn great album called Doll Revolution. It’s a great listen because it strips away all the typical 80s trappings and you get to hear the actual fun pop rock band. And, of course, all four of them take the spotlight on their own songs, again.
Here’s a rocker that’s especially great live.
Ride The Ride –
Here’s a killer Elvis Costello cover.
Tear Off Your Own Head –
And here’s the best song about stealing some cooking supplies you’ll hear…
Stealing Rosemary –
And I’m going to end with their tribute to George Harrison, Grateful.
Anyway, I’m running out of steam, here. My basic premise isn’t that the Bangles were terribly important in the history of rock music, but they are still pretty great. And probably a little overlooked.
Hope you discovered something you like.
Here’s one more pic of Susanna jumping with a guitar…