Retro Review: In Praise of The Bangles
Brace yourself, it’s time again to shake your head in disbelief and ask, “Has it really been that long ago?”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Bangles’ five-song EP titled, appropriately enough, Bangles, released in June of 1982. From that point onward, the band’s rise in populartity and commercial success throughout the ’80s was swift and strong, but ultimately created issues that proved too much for its members to take — at least without taking what would become a ten-year “hiatus.”
The core of this remarkably talented band was formed by sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson, with Vicki on lead guitar and Debbi on drums. Their love of ’60s pop/rock inspired them to create their own music with strong roots in that period. They’ve referred to “the three B’s — Beatles, Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield” as their major influences, as were female singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon.
Ads in an L.A. paper brought Susanna Hoffs to the Petersons, and the three gelled quickly, especially due to their shared worship of said Beatles. They briefly called themselves The Colours before renaming the band The Bangs, and recorded their first single of two original songs, “Getting Out Of Hand” and “Call On Me,” which received some radio airplay in Los Angeles, enhancing crowd attendance for their local gigs. When a New Jersey group already named The Bangs threatened to sue over the name, a bit of tweaking resulted in The Bangles, who soon after added bassist Annette Zilinskas to the group.
The quartet’s EP, in June of ’82, was a harbinger of what they would produce for the rest of the decade. They quickly established the all-important fact that they were not just a “girl band” — they were a band, writing their own songs, playing strong pop-rock awash in jangly 60s-style guitars and, above all, voices singing in harmony. Lots and lots of harmonies. Perfect harmonies.
They made the media rounds, from their first of many appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to MTV. After a time, Annette Zilinskas left the group to join another band, to be replaced by the mesmerizing and somewhat enigmatic bassist Michael Steele, briefly a member of the all-girl band The Runaways. She became a Bangle shortly before the group signed with Columbia Records.
They released their first LP, All Over The Place, in May of 1984, and the album proved to be their big breakthrough, led by the singles “Hero Takes A Fall,” (written by Susanna and Vicki) and a cover of “Going Down to Liverpool” (written by Kimberley Rew, guitarist for Katrina and the Waves). The album was a moderate commercial success, only reaching #80 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, but, with David Kahne producing, it shows off the group’s sound at its best, maintaining their “garage band” sound, somewhat refined but without much in the way of overdubs or additional instruments (the exception being the closing song, “More Than Meets The Eye,” sung by Vicki and Debbi accompanied by a string quartet). The songs themselves, written mostly by Vicki and Susanna, boast catchy melodies and intelligent lyrics, dealing mostly with the ups and downs of life and love. Throughout the album the girls again display their fondness for four-part harmonies, the spine-tingling apex of which is reached on “Tell Me,” with the group going full-bore as both musicians and singers:
January of 1986 saw the release of their second LP, Different Light, but changes were afoot. Producer David Kahne, who served the group’s sound so well on All Over The Place, began tinkering, and not necessarily for the best.
The album did produce hit singles, albeit none were Bangles compositions. “Manic Monday” (written by Prince), “Walk Like An Egyptian” (Liam Steinberg), and “If She Knew What She Wants” (Jules Shear) all contributed further to the Bangles’ high profile, but weren’t necessarily superior to the girls’ original songs.
The working relationship between the girls and Kahne deteriorated rapidly during the recording sessions. His new approach included adding more echo, occasional keyboards — including synthesizers — to the mix (which irritated one music critic to no end), even relegating Debbi, an excellent and creative drummer, to the tambourine in favor of a drum machine for “Walk Like An Egyptian.” The overall mood of the sessions worsened, as he seemed to find new ways to tick them off. At one point, the group staged a mini-rebellion and insisted on recording the song “Let It Go” themselves, without Kahne’s interference. The result is a galloping rocker with their brilliant, full-throated harmonies on display for the world to enjoy. Here they are performing it live at their Pittsburgh concert, December of ‘86.
On Different Light, we also get to hear Michael Steele provide her first lead vocals with the group on two songs. She has often been dubbed the “coolest” Bangle by fans (with many of the fanboys independently describing her as “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen”); her songs stand apart noticeably from those composed by her bandmates. She digs a bit deeper, shading her lyrics with somewhat darker themes and tones, and sings in a soft, vulnerable voice that only enhances her mystique. Her haunting composition “Following” is accompanied by spare but superb strumming on acoustic guitar:
There are several other treats to be found on Different Light. Standout songs include Vicki’s “Return Post” (from the days when people actually hand-wrote letters to each other and anxiously awaited their replies via snail mail), and her rocker “Angels Don’t Fall in Love” (her best vocal and arguably the best song on the album). The album concludes with the jaunty “Not Like You,” sung by Debbi, whose vocals I’ve probably always enjoyed the most.
The release of the above-mentioned singles from Different Light revealed another issue that led to tensions withing the group. The grand poobahs at Columbia Records evidently found a need to present Susanna Hoffs as the lead singer of the group, and therefore released only singles and their accompanying videos in which she sang lead (except for the alternate leads on Walk Like An Egyptian), creating the mistaken impression that she was indeed the band’s lead singer. But inspection of their albums clearly shows that the lead vocals were divided among the foursome as evenly as possible — that is, when they all weren’t singing in total unison. Hoffs didn’t seem to feel compelled to do much about it — if she could — and the others were less than keen on the idea of their equal status within the group being misrepresented by their record label.
The trend continued with yet another top-notch album, Everything, released in October of 1988. They were relieved to have a new producer in Davitt Sigerson, who helped them continue their run of creative gems, with tracks including the first single, “In Your Room” co-written by Susanna (who by this point was co-writing most of her songs with outside writers, to provide some freshness for her compositions). Michael’s fabulous “Complicated Girl” and Vicki’s heartfelt vocals and driving tempo on “Make A Play For Her Now” provide other highlights on the album.
But tensions continued to mount — not only due to Susanna’s contrived placement as “lead” singer, as she was featured once again on the single releases “In Your Room” and “Eternal Flame” — but also from the exhaustion of non-stop, worldwide touring, media compaigns during which they’d be asked the same questions hundreds of times over (“Do you ever get jealous of each other?” “Do you have boyfriends?”), and a case of collective claustrophia. Looking back on that time years later, they freely acknowledged that they never really had healthy “fights” to get their opinons out in the open and clear the air for whatever internal issues needed to be addressed. Festering resentments, both big and small, began to take their toll. Susanna and Michael didn’t even attend Debbi’s wedding to their road manager and sound engineer Steven Botting in 1989.
The Bangles broke up in ‘89, a move at which they arrived with some reluctance, especially for Vicki, who did not want to see the foursome end. They went their separate ways, with Susanna pursuing a solo career (which proved largely unsuccessful), Vicki moving to New Orleans to join the band Continental Drifters, and Michael going into semi-retirement among the redwoods in northern California.
Fast-forward ten years, and a few hesitant suggestions among the former Bangles to give it another go gradually gained momentum. Debbi and Susanna had since started families, Vicki had married John Cowsill (of the 60s family singing group The Cowsills), but Susanna also realized, as she told a UK talk show host, “I missed them, terribly —I missed the comraderie, I missed playing music with these girls, and I missed their friendship, and I just felt like we have such a great chemistry when we sing together and play together, it’s so much fun.”
The agreed to record a song, “Get the Girl,” for the 1998 film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (directed by Susanna’s husband, Jay Roach), and found that they still had the chemistry that had been laying dormant for a decade.
They resumed touring together, and began writing and rehearsing new songs for the album Doll Revolution (the same Elvis Costello song that opens the disc). Amazingly — or perhaps not so amazingly — they picked up right where they left off. The song quality, singing, and musicianship were not only intact, but improved. And, they had discovered that deep down they were happier being Bangles than being former Bangles.
The album was released in March 2003 in Europe and Japan, and in September of that year in the United States, with the credits list the group as co-producers for the first time (with Brad Wood).
Doll Revolution has its own share of musical highlights: “Stealing Rosemary” (showcasing those classic harmonies once again); Michael’s “Nickel Romeo” (one of three distinctly “Michael” compositions that she contributed to the album); the poignant “Lost At Sea,” co-written by Debbi and Susanna, and sung with great sensitivity by Debbi; “Mixed Messages,” written and sung by Vicki, is a perfect pop song by any standard.
All seemed to be back on track again, but this time some band members had to juggle their music with their families, making it necessary to limit touring and recording schedules, which didn’t sit well with Michael. Evidently, no compromise could be reached, and in 2005 the Bangles announced her departure. She was replaced in concerts by various bass players.
In the spring of 2009, the three Bangles returned to the studio to begin work on a new album, Sweetheart of the Sun. Recording took nearly two years, due to their ongoing efforts to balance family/motherhood and a career as working musicians. The album was released in September, 2011, and again provided Bangles fans with the sound they became enamored with nearly thirty years before.
“Mesmerized” serves as an example of how a Bangles song can be identified so easily as such, regardless of the passage of time, thanks to the group staying true to their own sound and influences:
The album received favorable reviews from critics who appreciated the band’s consistency, songwriting talents, and return to the feel of All Over The Place. Sweetheart of the Sun did not enjoy healthy sales, however, and a number of fans lamented Michael’s absence.
The group went on tour in late 2011 and have continued to tour on and off ever since, with the somewhat surprising but welcome addition in 2018 of their original bassist, Annette Zilinksas.
A 2018 interview with Vicki and Debbi:
As of this writing, no new Bangles album is reported to be in the works, but the band has come up with its share of surprises in the past, so it behooves the group’s fans to keep their eyes and ears open. The Bangles experience is well worth continuing, for both themselves and for the fans who love them.
Until next time…
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please click the “follow” button and follow me on Medium (no charge) for more articles on popular culture, music, films, television, entertainment history, and just plain old history.
My other articles related to pop/rock music include:
Retro Review: Marshall Crenshaw’s Stunning Debut, 40 Years Ago https://garryberman.medium.com/9f3ff870898b
Retro Review: The Cardigans https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-the-cardigans-ca1e8e5f05f1
Retro Review: Donald Fagan’s “The Nightfly” https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-donald-fagans-the-nightfly-6af34cafc87d
Two Classic Albums: “Layla” and “All Things Must Pass” at 50 https://garryberman.medium.com/two-classic-albums-layla-and-all-things-must-pass-at-50-1d4b8ef9e4c6
Retro Review: Renaissance (the band) https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-renaissance-the-band-b497319a84fc
You can also become a member in the Medium Partner Program for a modest fee to help support my writing. https://garryberman.medium.com/membership
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books, and order them via the links to Amazon.com.