8 Top 40 Hits
A thorough listening to the Bangles' new album lets you know exactly where they stand. This ain't your momma's reunion album. Frisky, provocative, riff-ready and on point, the effusive band is itching to top their storied past and let the music do the talking. As vocalist/guitarist Vicki Peterson puts it, "Even during our peak, critics always seemed to take the easy way out: 'quirky girl garage band mentored by Prince becomes polished pop act'. Somehow we were misinterpreted to be this manufactured machine." In fact, it wasn't until the Bangles recently engaged in a flurry of sold out shows that fans and music scribes rediscovered what made pop's preeminent girl group a jarring, melodic, breath of fresh air in the first place.
Gender appellations disappeared from the rave descriptions of the reunited foursome's playing. Every review - from the most hardened indie rock mag to the New York Times pointed to the Bangles indefinable chemistry and scrappy command of the '60's rock canon, as what set them apart from '80's lite-rock the first time around. It's that same crackling craftsmanship that differentiates them from music's thump-alike bands now. "Despite some of the more sensational things that you read in the press about us, there was always a certain magic when the four of us were in a room, just picking up our instruments and playing," says vocalist/guitarist Susanna Hoffs. "I think with the passage and perspective of time, that's what comes through now." It was precisely that which led to the Bangles first album of new material in more than a decade, the bristling, buoyant Doll Revolution.
Rather than just re-hash the past, the band flexes a more muscular edge to go along with those famous harmonies. Produced by the Bangles and Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Pete Yorn), it's a bolder, brasher, yes, even wiser musical offering, serving up hearty chunks of the Bangles' brilliance, and glimpses of the tremendous possibilities to come. "We holed up in a big house in Los Angeles and just had fun," says drummer/vocalist Debbi Peterson. "Brad was great. The second we met him we all just clicked, which is saying a lot. He ended up being like the fifth Bangle." Susanna says creating the right atmosphere around the new album was also key. "Renting the house gave us a freedom to be ourselves and be together again. It was a dream come true to have this great space where our kids could come over, where we would have a dinner party or two, a real hang-out space where someone could always be working."
Another important factor was that the Bangles funded the album with the money they garnered from playing live again. The girls even brought back their original label imprint, Down Kiddie! Records that will appear on the forthcoming release. A working band works, and the "one for all and all for one" spirit, as bassist/vocalist Michael Steele puts it, added to their rekindled sense of camaraderie. "It also gave us real control over the making of the record," she adds "I think that was crucial to getting the band back together. We all grew up which is a good thing."
Vicki says each of their independent journeys is reflected in the new music. "We played a lot of the new material on stage, and the reaction was just as strong as some of our standards." The Bangles found themselves with an abundance of songs to record, whittling 40 down to a neat and trim fifteen. "There are a couple on there that I call 'bridge songs,'" says Vicki. "Songs that existed in the previous Bangle lifetime, or songs designated for various solo projects. Debbi's 'Ask Me No Questions' was one of those as well as Michael's 'Between the Two.' We used to play that live in the '80's but never got it down in the studio. Susanna's 'Grateful' was a song she had written with Dan Schwartz and Bill Bottrell (Tuesday Night Music Club). I had two songs that I had recorded with my band, the Continental Drifters, 'The Rain Song,' and 'Mixed Messages.' We'd test them all and see if we could 'Bangelicize' them."
The band also wrote a batch of new songs together. Some of the newer gems began with a process of recording song ideas and fragments and sending cassettes back and forth to each other. Others were born in the Bangles' boileroom, reminiscent of past writing sessions: members furiously trading riffs, lyrics scrawled on napkin scraps in hopes of hitting on what Susanna refers to as "that X-factor" that brings a song to life. "The song, 'Stealing Rosemary,' was like that," she says. "Debbi and I had an idea for an early '60's Simon and Garfunkel thing, and Vicki brought this idea for a great lyric." Says Vicki, "I got the idea cooking dinner with my 12-year-old niece. We were talking about going out to the neighbor's garden and stealing some rosemary. But then it became about the little crimes that you commit for love. I love the way it came out."
The Bangles do a little "pinching" of their own on the new album, laying down a ballzy cover of Elvis Costello's recent song "Tear Off Your Own Head (it's a doll revolution)." "Elvis was working on a TV pilot about, what else - a girl group," laughs Debbi. "He called to see if we'd be interested in giving it a try. Susanna and Michael did a rough demo version of it and really loved the song." Vicki picks up the story, "We were actually in the van on the way to a show and they put the cassette in and we all just flipped over the song. We said we had to do it. It ended up being one of the last songs we recorded. At the time we had no idea Elvis was going to record it - but that's OK," she deadpans. "He really is a fan." And so continues the mystique of surely what has been one of rock's most missed groups.
A Little History
And what about that storied history? The internet is loaded with the Bangles sites, offering obscure Bangle-bits to satisfy their legion of fans (did you know Michael was an original lead-singer of Joan Jett's Runaways). Of course, there are also play-by-play accounts of the band's much talked about VH-1 Behind The Music bio, which tells you more than you'd probably want to know about the group's notorious breakup. "Ahh, the dra-ma. The fatal meeting," teases Vicki. As the band diplomat, she remembers sitting there saying "OK, OK, we'll work this out" even as the members were walking out the door.
While it's the early days the band likes to talk about now, it's the memories of those early club years that get their blood going. From their gritty first offering, Getting Out Of Hand, (billing themselves as The Bangs on Downkiddie Records in 1981) to what many consider one of the decade's few classic albums, the multi-platinum A Different Light, in 1986, (featuring hit singles "Manic Monday," "Walk Like An Egyptian," and "Walking Down Your Street") to their final studio album, 1988's Everything, (going out on top with the #1 hit "Eternal Flame"). The Bangles have always retained some semblance of their jagged roots - more girl gang than girl band. Now they've come full circle in a new decade that just might be looking for some spit with their melodies. As the aforementioned NY Times review gloated: 'They're skilled enough to revamp garage rock, Byrds-style psychedelia, and hippie folk…making room for a lot of magnificence."
As all the members indicated, picking up their lives after the breakup has also contributed to their growth as a band. Susanna released a myriad of solo projects, enjoying writing collaborations with the Go-Go's Charlotte Caffey, Mark Linkous, and Jim Keltner among others. She married film director Jay Roach in 1993, and the couple has two children.
Debbi has a five-year-old son with her husband Steve Botting. She's worked on several music projects, including collaborating with Gina Schock from the Go-Go's. Debbi later partnered with Siobhan Maher of the group River City People. Together they formed the band Kindred Spirit, and released a self-titled album.
Vicki's musical pride and joy the past few years has been the acclaimed Continental Drifters, a New Orleans based band that received rave reviews for their 2001 album, Vermillion. The group enjoyed several sold out tours both in the U.S. and in Europe. Vicki's other collaborations have included working with such artists as John Doe, Belinda Carlisle, Jules Shear, Kevin Salem and others.
Michael Steele, by her own admission, wanted to "get as far away from the music business as I could," after the Bangles split in the early '90's. She relocated to the rugged coast of Northern California - and as far as we know, has yet to work with any members of the Go-Go's.