Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, and her sister Debbi Peterson started a band in 1981, adding Annette Zilinskas on bass. They first called themselves the Colours and then the Bangs. But there was already a group with that name, so they went with the Bangles. Over four decades later, and after one lengthy hiatus, they’re still performing and recording.
As a sort of counter to the new wave and punk that the music industry was besotted with, a retro movement was developing in Los Angeles that cherished the sounds and energy of 1960s folk-cum-psychedelia exemplified by the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas. The Bangles fit right into that so-called Paisley Underground, along with bands like the Three O’Clock, the Long Ryders, and Dream Syndicate.
It was through the Paisley scene that the Bangles were noticed and signed by Faulty Products to cut an EP. These women seem to have had a wider ambition, though, and their psychedelic underpinning soon gave way to more of a power pop sound. An important factor in this change was the departure of Zilinskas (who has since returned to the band); she was replaced by bassist Michael Steele, formerly of the pioneering all-women’s band the Runaways.
The Bangles in 2020: Susanna Hoffs, Debbi Peterson, Vicki Peterson.
Now they were considered economically viable enough to get a deal with Columbia Records. They were assigned producer David Kahne, who had cut his teeth working with punk and new wave innovators at 415 Records in San Francisco. The Bangles’ debut, All Over the Place, came out in 1984. It sold decently and won some awards, although neither of its singles – “Going Down to Liverpool” and “Hero Takes a Fall” – became hits.
Vicki Peterson is credited with most of the songwriting on that album, with Hoffs sometimes co-writing. The two of them wrote the jangly, wistful “Dover Beach.” It’s a very simple melody, made interesting by layers of guitar counterpoint and solos, carefully placed moments of vocal harmony, and focused production of the drum and bass sound.
All Over the Place includes two covers: Kimberley Rew’s “Going Down to Liverpool,” previously recorded by Rew’s band Katrina and the Waves, and “Live,” a cover of a song by the Los Angeles psychedelic band Merry-Go-Round. On the Beatles-flavored “Live,” Hoffs and Vicki Peterson’s guitars are again the starring element.
The Bangles’ second album is the aptly named Different Light, released in 1986. Not everyone agreed that “different” meant “better” in this case. The first album’s dual guitar sound and focused, unadorned production values gave way to a bigger, more mainstream style. The band’s sales skyrocketed accordingly, including two massive hits, “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Manic Monday.”
Despite the second album’s divergence from the debut, David Kahne was once again behind the control board. He also cowrote “Not Like You” with Hoffs and Debbi Peterson. This song evokes ABBA’s brand of chord progressions and distribution of vocals. It’s not an entirely successful experiment, without a tight enough connection between the vocal arrangement and the rhythm section, which just hangs there. Still, it’s an interesting idea.
“Eternal Flame,” the band’s other monster hit, was a single from their third album, Everything (1988), which also yielded the very successful “In Your Room.” The producer on this one was Davitt Sigerson, an experienced songwriter himself who had collaborated with Loverboy, Kiss, and Olivia Newton-John.
Ever since Different Light, Steele had been given chances to sing lead vocals, which she does on her own composition, “Complicated Girl.” Her reedy voice has a country vibe and matches well with the repeating high-pitched guitar pattern, doubled on bouzouki by multi-instrumentalist David Lindley.
A very different song from the Everything sessions ended up not on the album but was used as the B-side for “Eternal Flame.” The two Peterson sisters wrote “What I Meant to Say”; Debbi sings lead on this hard-rocking song.
Despite the many tracks sung by the other members of the band, Hoffs became a media darling, labeled as the “lead singer.” The other musicians took umbrage at that, and the conflict became one element in the growing stress that caused the Bangles to break up in 1989.
But they weren’t done. After a 10-year hiatus, the stars aligned to pull the Bangles back together. During their time apart, Hoffs had married film director Jay Roach. The premiere of the regrouped Bangles therefore occurred on the soundtrack of Roach’s film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, for which they recorded the single “Get the Girl.” That experienced launched a Bangles reunion tour.
The Bangles in 2003: Vicki Peterson, Susanna Hoffs, Debbi Peterson, Michael Steele.
Soon they were ready to get back in the studio and create new music. Their album Doll Revolution was ready for the public in 2003. The lineup was the same as it had been before 1989: Hoffs, the Peterson sisters, and Steele. The album title refers to their cover of Elvis Costello’s “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution),” but not even that single made any impression in the US market.
“Ride the Ride” was a collaboration between Hoffs, the Petersons, and songwriter Daniel Schwartz, best known for co-writing Sheryl Crow’s “No One Said It Would Be Easy.” This song, with its driving, distorted guitar patterns, harkens back to the band’s psychedelic roots.
Michael Steele left the Bangles in 2005. Rather than replace her, the remaining three members used temporary bassists for touring. To play on their 2011 album, Sweetheart of the Sun, they tapped Derrick Anderson and Matthew Sweet, the latter a singer-songwriter from the 1980s Athens, Georgia scene that had yielded R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls.
“Through Your Eyes,” by Hoffs and Vicki Peterson, uses the fluid motion of a 6/8 meter to mourn love lost through the passage of time. On the album it precedes and acts as a stylistic complement to an energetic, determined cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Open My Eyes.”
There has been lots of media attention on Hoffs over the past few weeks. She announced both a solo album of covers (including the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” already available as a single) and the publication of her first novel, This Bird Has Flown. Vicki Peterson has made two albums with the band Action Skulls, which she formed with her husband, John Cowsill, formerly of the Cowsills.
As for the Bangles, founding member Annette Zilinskas rejoined on bass in 2018. This new/old lineup made the band’s most recent recording project, 3 x 4, a collaborative effort with fellow Paisley Underground artists the Three O’Clock, Rain Parade, and the Dream Syndicate, with each group performing the others’ songs. The Paisley Underground is never far from the surface after all.
Header image: the Bangles: Susanna Hoffs, Michael Steele, Debbi Peterson, Vicki Peterson. All images courtesy of the Bangles.