THE BANGLES It was the peak of Manhattan's evening rush hour, and trafficwas all but gridl
It was the peak of Manhattan's evening rush hour, and trafficwas all but
gridlocked at First Avenue and 77th Street. A large truck was parked in
front of Catch a Rising Star, the small but famous club where an aspiring
singer named Pat Benatar once crooned Top 40 songs. Roadies were unloading
a band's equipment, and there was much more of it than you'd expect.
Soon a tour bus ground to a halt behind the truck, and when thedoor opened,
out stepped the Bangles, a young, all-woman pop band from Los Angeles with a
road map already charted for success. Riding high on their hit single Manic
Monday and their second LP, "Different Light,' the Bangles were scheduled at
the club that evening for a set that would be broadcast live on FM radio.
While drummer Debbi Petersonand the roadies started the sound-check, I
interviewed the three other Bangles--lead guitarist Vicki Peterson (Debbi's
sister), rhythm guitarist Susanna Hoffs, and bassist Michael Steele. I
asked each of them how it felt to have made it to the "big time.'
"Oh, yeah, we're really big,' saidSteele facetiously. "Just look at the
size of that club.' Madison Square Garden it wasn't, but then not every
group of musicians in their mid-twenties gets more than an hour of airtime
in the nation's toughest, and most crucial, radio market.
"Our ultimate goal when we firstgot together,' said Vicki Peterson, "was to
play at the Whiskey in L.A. That was five years ago. Then we set our
sights very high. We wanted to have hits on AM radio, but we didn't want to
sound like everybody else. We wanted to do it our way.'
Their way bears little resemblanceto bland AM fare. The Bangles' sound is
closer to that of certain Top 40 groups of twenty years ago and more, groups
like the Mamas and the Papas, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and, of course, that
famous quartet from Liverpool whose legacy refuses to die. The Bangles
molded their sound--and won an audience--with a style that closes doors at
many record companies today. Steele said, "Before we started getting
successful a lot of people were saying, "I don't know about you guys.
You're too "pop' to get on AOR, and you're too hard-edged for Top 40, so
where are you gonna fit in?''
SINCE the four Banglesshare lead vocals, there is no single dominant
presence. They emphasize full-bodied, multipart harmonies, chordal guitar
arrangements, and melodies --distinct folk-music characteristics. "It's all
set on top of a lot of noise,' said Peterson, who writes much of the
Bangles' material with Hoffs. "Loud drums, punchy bass, and distorted
guitars. Underneath the pop melodies and folk-harmony structures it's
really a classic rock setup.'
When they cover other people'ssongs, which they like to do and do well, the
original harmonies and guitar styles become "Banglesized.' Peterson
explained, "We'll rearrange the harmonies and favor open chords instead of
intertwining linear things.' Which probably explains why Manic Monday,
written for them by Prince, bears hardly a trace of the composer's mark.
Peterson believes the Bangles'folksy guitar style may be the result of
gender differences. "When the guys I know personally first picked up
guitars,' she said, "they did it because they wanted to learn Jimmy Page and
Jimi Hendrix solos. With guys it's more of an ego thing. They're already
thinking, "I wanna be a guitar hero. I wanna meet chicks.' I learned to
play lead by default because Susanna [Hoffs] is a great rhythm guitarist and
she had no interest in playing lead.'
And yet Hoffs and her bandmates have proved that teenage rock fantasies like
air-guitar sessions are not solely male. Girls can, and do, play air guitar
with the best of the boys. Hoffs said, "My mother [a film director]
influenced me creatively. It was my experience while growing up that my
best creative moments were always in collaboration with my girl friends,
sitting around, making tapes, and so on. In high school I tried to get
bands going with my brothers, but they never worked.'
Hoffs, the Petersons, and Steeleall started listening to rock music as soon
as they were old enough to know how to switch on a radio. But weren't they
awfully young? I mean, weren't they already tucked into bed when the
Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show?
"We did experience the Britishinvasion firsthand,' said Peterson, "but we
were too little to relate to it yet. When I was older, I was very
discouraged by what was on the radio in the Seventies. I went through my
older sister's record collection and rediscovered the Stones, Donovan, and
SURPRISINGLY, while Petersonwas raiding her sister's collection, she was not
captivated by the legendary girl groups of the early Sixties, even though
many--the Supremes, the Shangri-Las, the Dixie Cups, the Ronettes, Martha
and the Vandellas --had phenomenal hits. It was Motown's heyday, and girl
groups were topping the charts, right along with the British Invasion bands.
"The girl groups didn't do the triple-headerthing of writing the songs,
playing the instruments, and singing great,' said Steele. "They were sort of
set up by some guys with an orchestra behind them. It was a different
thing, so it had less of an impact on us.'
The Bangles don't like to be called"a girl group' but simply a group.
Peterson insists, "We could be anyone from the Beach Boys to the Troggs.'
And to drive home that notion, the Bangles closed their set that evening
with a mean version of the Seeds' Pushin' Too Hard.
Just as they are unlike the Sixtiesgirl groups, they are in a different
league from such female rock contemporaries as Bananarama and the Go-Go's, a
now-defunct L.A. band. "Bananarama is more of an Eighties incarnation of the
Sixties,' Peterson said. "They look good, they move well, they sing catchy
pop songs. We knew when we were starting out that we'd be compared to the
Go-Go's, but we never took that as an insult because they're very talented,
and we admire them.'
It seems that the Bangles, however,have taken what the Go-Go's did several
steps further. While the Go-Go's had just one lead vocalist, Belinda
Carlisle, whose range was perhaps limited, the Bangles have four strong
singers, and that alone has opened up wider possibilities for the evolution
of their sound.
"We all have very different personas,'said Hoffs. "I remember being
fascinated by the Beatles and going through a John Lennon phase, then a Paul
McCartney phase, listening to the songs where each of them sang lead.
You've got that with the Bangles. One person's voice may appeal, or another
person's style of lyrics or songwriting may interest someone else.'
Well then, might the Bangles havejust as well called themselves the Fab
Femmes? Actually, they are no more guilty of ripping off the Beatles than
any other band alive. As Steele pointed out, "You'd be hardpressed to find
a group that hasn't been influenced in one way or another by the Sixties.'
Despite the more obvious parallels,the Bangles are very much rooted in the
current mentality of many college- and post-college-age people today. They
know who they are and where they're going, so well that they speak of
success as a "career goal.' Their album "Different Light' bears the signs
of slightly-too-much engineering, a textured, note-perfect style that favors
palatability over freshness and clarity. And their "career goal' has been
given a push by knowing the right people, like Prince and Miles Copeland,
who became their manager after seeing
them at a club.
Yet the Bangles seem unspoiledby the limelight, so far at least. At an
outdoor concert the same week as their appearance at Catch a Rising Star,
they were the opening act in front of thousands. The press photographers
clicked at them frantically because the Bangles in their mini-skirts,
stretch pants, and body suits were more photogenic than the usual garage
But suddenly, after just a coupleof songs, all the photographers were chased
away. And when they were gone, behind me I overheard a bouncer tell a male
fan who'd been gaping at the stage, "Don't stare. You'll mess the band up.'
Photo: Above, VickiPeterson. Facing page: top, Susanna Hoffs, Michael
Steele; middle, Vicki Peterson; bottom, Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson.
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