The Bangles: Still Rock’s Sweethearts

Marshall WardCategories:2012Featured ArticlesMusic

Rock Cellar Magazine

Hailed as the undisputed queens of ’60s-inspired garage rock, The Bangles are back.
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of their eponymous first EP this month, the Los Angeles-based trio will be performing at the U.S.A. Festival in Allen, Texas on June 30.

With their catchy, bright melodies, Beatles-esque hooks and jangling guitar riffs, The Bangles topped ’80s charts with hits like Manic Monday, Walk Like an Egyptian and Eternal Flame, selling millions of albums worldwide.

“Within two hours, Debbi, Susanna and I started a band, the three of us – and we still are a band,” says Bangles’ guitarist and vocalist Vicki Peterson.
On their latest CD, Sweetheart of the Sun, The Bangles pay homage to their shared love of ’60s-era bands like Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, and The Mamas and the Papas.

“We definitely felt like we were dipping back into the stream again,” Vicki Peterson told Rock Cellar Magazine when we recently chatted with her at length about Sweetheart of the Sun, the anniversary of their first EP, and the band’s affinity for the golden age of rock.

Rock Cellar Magazine:  Take us back to the day you and your sister Debbi Peterson first met Susanna Hoffs.
Vicki Peterson: Debbi and I, we’d been playing together in a band since high school and we had just lost our bass player to a decision to become a history major. We fired our lead guitar player at that time too who serendipitously was the one who put the ad in the newspaper that Susanna called, and I picked up the phone. So, it all turned out to be a good thing in the wonderful way the universe works where it was all meant to be.

RCM:  So based on that phone conversation, you and Debbi decided to give Susanna Hoffs a try?
VP:  We made the decision to get together based on a couple of phone calls, but what was apparent to me was this young woman, Susanna Hoffs, was very much like Debbi and me in that she revered ’60s music. And at that time, it was sort of anachronistic. I mean, people our age liked Pat Benatar and Tom Petty, who I also liked, but if they were into the ’60s they maybe liked the Stones and The Beatles primarily. So, for someone like Susanna to come along who knew who the Grass Roots were, to know who Arthur Lee and Love was, was a really big deal to me.

RCM:  Where did that first meeting take place?
VP:  We got together in Susanna’s parents garage which was converted into a rather stylish little apartment that Susanna was living in. When I first walked in, I thought it was very hip with all the things she had up on the walls like postcards of Audrey Hepburn and other iconic people. I thought it was very, very cool.

Susanna Hoffs; Left: from film “Stony Island” 1978 Right: early 1980s

Debbie and I played Susanna tapes of songs that we had written and recorded. Susanna had never really been in a band prior, but she had been singing with her then ex-boyfriend David Roback who went on to lead The Rain Parade, and then Mazzy Star. He was a very artistic and creative human, but that was the only work Susanna had done before, so she was really new at all this.

RCM:  What did you think the first time you and Debbi started singing vocal harmonies with Susanna?
VP:  I knew the very first time that she and Debbie and I sang together that our harmony had a unique sound.  Plus, we had so much fun that first day that we decided to be a band right then and there – it was kind of like getting engaged on a blind date!  We knew it was a commitment, as I was asking and interrogating Susanna with questions like “What are you looking for?” and “What do you want out of this?”

RCM: What was her answer?
VP: “World domination,” which was the right answer (laughs). We really wanted to take it all the way and were determined to do so, and I could tell Susanna was just as driven and devoted as we were.

RCM:  Do you remember which songs you played during that first jam together?
VP:  Weirdly enough we played White Rabbit, which is funny because to this day I’m not even sure if I know the chords!  It was a really crazy and magical thing – Debbi and I finding someone our own age who was also inspired by ’60s music.

RCM: At first you called your band The Bangs, right?
VP:  Yes, as The Bangs we released a 45 (RPM single) with Getting Out of Hand and Call on Me that I wrote with Susanna.  We pooled our money from our meager day jobs and went into a studio in Venice and did it in a few fours and mixed it.  Literally, we Xeroxed the album covers ourselves and I think it was actually David Roback who took the pictures of us. I think we took them to a place called Copy Spot in Santa Monica, where we’d usually go to make flyers for concerts because back then we did all our own promotion and bookings. Everything was done by one of the three of us.

RCM: 30 years ago this June, The Bangles released their self-titled EP with songs like I’m in Line, Mary Street and Want You, along with The Real World – your first music video.  Talk  about that EP a bit.
VP:  The Real World was one of our early songs we did and the guitar riff is very Beatle-esque and we thought it sounded like something off Revolver.  I’m in Line was about a guy Debbi liked who was seeing somebody else. Often our songs were about somebody we knew.

[Editor’s note: Speaking of Revolver, don’t miss this interview with the author the new book: Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘N’ Roll. LINK HERE.]

Want You was definitely an unrequited love song that  I think I wrote in seven minutes – and it sounds like it (laughs).  That song we haven’t performed in a long time but it’s really fun to play.

RCM: Are there songs from your first EP that fans still request to hear played live?
VP:  Someone always yells out for Mary Street at our shows.  You have to really be a fan to know Mary Street and they get really excited when we pull that one out.  I think we have played it in the current century.  A while back we had the idea to start putting some of the older songs like Mary Street and The Real World back  into our set.

With Mary Street, I remember thinking how The Rolling Stones used to be really good at painting a portrait of “a complicated girl,” and they went through this phase where they were really good at commenting on the culture and art around them.  I’m talking about songs like Stupid Girl and 19th Nervous Breakdown.  And Mary Street, I think, was kind of like that – where we conjured a character and wrote a song around it.

RCM: The last track on The Bangles EP is the cover song How is the Air Up There? by the ’60s New Zealand rock band The La De Das, and written by the promoter of Woodstock, Artie Kornfeld.  What inspired you to record that one?
VP:  We discovered that song on a mix tape, even though I think we didn’t use the term “mixed tape” back in those days.  A gentleman we knew would find these really obscure wonderful songs that were often from the ’60s that were virtually unknown in America.  And every time I saw him he’d give me one of these tapes, and that song was on one of those.

What I loved about that song is it was co-written by Artie Kornfeld who wrote The Rain, the Park and Other Things, and I was a huge Kornfeld fan.  I love the connection we made with that song and it’s really fun to play. I remember we toured with the English Beat and we were doing all those songs on the EP and I’m telling you – if you think the songs are fast on the EP – we played them really fast in concert, as we were trying to avoid getting spat upon!  We just wanted to get off the stage as quickly as possible.

RCM:  The English Beat’s audience didn’t warm up to The Bangles?
VP:  No.  We played this one show with them and The Blasters, with this pseudo punk rock crowd throwing stuff at us.  I remember blood running down Susanna’s forehead from getting hit by a crumpled up milk carton.  But it was still fun to play those early songs live, and I still really love the fact that we covered How is the Air Up There? I actually had a chance in recent years to talk to Artie about it and he loves that we recorded that song and brought it out of obscurity.

RCM: Years later, The Bangles covered Simon & Garfunkel’s song A Hazy Shade of Winter. Did you ever speak with them about it?
VP:  Not before we recorded it, but we did have a chance after – thank God it became a hit! – when we ran into Paul Simon in the Netherlands in Rotterdam. We had just played and after our show zoomed over to see him in concert and caught him at the very end of the show.

We had a chance to sit back afterwards and talk to him and I asked him how he felt about the fact that we actually edited his song.  At the time, I realized how weird and arrogant it was in a way, as we took out the line about the vodka and lime.  But he was like, “Meh, sounds great.”  He really couldn’t have cared less (laughs). He was totally fine with it and was really, really sweet to us.  He was one of my heroes, big time.  What an artist!

RCM: What was it like being a Los Angeles-based band in the Paisley Underground scene in the early ’80s?
VP:  There was this moment in time in L.A. – what Peter Holsapple of The dBs calls “the class of ’82” — where all these bands were playing at the same time who were in love with each other. Many of us were sort of mining either folk or psychedelic rock from the ’60s, and everyone was a little bit different. I’m talking about The Bangs, Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, The Rain Parade, Salvation Army, Three O’clock, The Unclaimed — all these bands. Redd Kross even kind of crossed over into our world even though they were a punk rock band.

We would play on bills with punk bands, and we would play with rockabilly bands, and it really suddenly became this scene that was ours and I’ve never experienced anything like that before because I’d always felt out of step with my age group.  You know, you go to your high school dance and you really can’t stand the music they’re playing for the most part?  And it was this really alienating feeling.

I know kids have that today where they don’t connect with hip hop or what passes for pop, but rather prefer other kinds of rock – actually, our son deals with that.  But with us, we were all of a sudden in this group of people who were all our peers and everyone was doing something different, and we all loved what each other was doing. It was really a moment in time, but it was a potent moment.

RCM: In our interview with Daniel Lanois, he described music scenes to be “like waves coming from the ocean with a lot of power but then they always go away.”
VP:  It’s so true, they’re an ebb and flow to scenes where there’s this kind of synchronicity involved and it probably has to with demographics, where you are and how old you are, and therefore what you were interested in at that time in your life.  Sometimes magic happens in places like New York or Portland or Los Angeles, occasionally. For the people who really experienced it, like we did with the Paisley Underground scene, it can be very powerful.

RCM: Of all the bands to come out of the Paisley Underground scene, The Bangles were the most successful, wouldn’t you say?
VP:  Well, that’s often the reason why you get this hometown curse because if you actually are successful, it’s like you get backlash from your hometown because you were there and now you’re not.

RCM: Was there a particular moment when you realized The Bangles were famous?
VP:  For me, it was a gradual thing because when you’re in the middle of a hurricane or when you’re flying in an airplane, you don’t realize how fast you’re traveling.

Come to think of it though, there was this one moment when Debbie, Susanna and I were on tour — I guess it was ’86 — and we were in Washington, DC.  We were going out for our daily walk, one thing that we did to try and stay normal, and we’re standing on a corner at a red light and this convertible pulls up and the radio was blasting.  There was this 4.3 second delay where I’m thinking “Wait, I know this song? Is it The Beatles? No…Oh my god, it’s Manic Monday!”

I couldn’t believe it that we were on the radio and somebody else is listening to it. I’ll tell you, that’s so different than playing your tape in your car. To have a total stranger listening to your song in his car and associating his life with it, in whatever way, was just incredible. That was an amazing time as I think we were out on tour with Cyndi Lauper.

RCM:  That must have been some tour:  opening for Cyndi Lauper?  That’s when she was huge – riding the wave of hits from her first two albums.  (She’s So Unusual, True Colors.)
VP:   It really was, as we discovered – along with the rest of the world – what a brilliant artist Cyndi Lauper is.   At that time, I think some of her brilliance was masked by the cartoon element. I think that in a way, she was hiding behind that image.  She’s an absolutely incredible singer.

RCM: Do you have a good Cyndi Lauper story to share?
VP:  I do!  We were on the road with her and it was Halloween and we were in some little nowhere town in England at a Ramada Inn-like hotel.  We went down to the hotel bar and found out they were having a costume contest.  Cyndi was there, and she was usually very protective of her privacy.  It was easy for her to disguise herself by simply dressing normal and putting her big orange hair up in a cap.  But on this night, she went to the bar as “Cyndi Lauper,” and she won the costume contest! (laughs)

But the best part of the night was that there was actually a really good band playing — this kind of soul band — and Cyndi got up on stage and belted soul songs ’til four in the morning. My jaw was on the floor, it was so beautiful. It was really, really great. This woman, I tell ya, sings beyond what we’re hearing from her. And obviously since then she’s gone on to do really great things.

RCM: The Bangles went on to do great things too.  Your second full-length album, Different Light, topped the charts with hits like If She Knew What She Wants and Walk Like an Egyptian. You also opened for Queen in Ireland, right?
VP: Yes, at Slane Castle and it was truly incredible. It was raining when we played and I think I was barefoot which wasn’t smart. The guys from Def Leppard were hanging out, and I remember we were standing on the side of the stage watching Freddie Mercury and thinking “I can’t believe this!” The guys sounded incredible and I got to talk to Brian May backstage. Unforgettable.

RCM: In the years to come, you would form the rock band Continental Drifters, record several albums, and even stood in for a pregnant Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Go’s on their ’94 reunion tour. Were The Bangles friends with The Go-Go’s?
VP: They are dear friends. Charlotte is one of my favorite humans and I was thrilled to take her place while she was pregnant with my ex-boyfriend’s baby (laughs). I like saying it like that! It’s her husband, but that’s how incestuous our world is!

photo: Neal Preston/corbis

RCM: What was it like being on stage playing Go-Go’s hits like We Got the Beat, Our Lips are Sealed and Vacation?
VP: It was really, really fun. Such fun music to play. It was also my first experience as a hired hand too, and to get into someone else’s head is really interesting. I remember learning the songs and thinking, “Oh my god — three hours of bar chords, seriously?!” No wonder she had carpal tunnel. But it was really fun to get inside and see how somebody else is approaching a song, then learning their parts. As well, being a hired hand, it’s not your responsibility whether tickets sell or not or how the show goes. You just show up, do your part and leave. And that was a whole new thing for me.

RCM: Acting was a whole new thing for Susanna Hoffs when she starred in the 1987 comedy film The Allnighter, alongside Joan Cusack and Pam Grier. Were you supportive of Susanna’s decision to pursue a movie acting role at the height of The Bangles success?

VP: Like many things, we didn’t know she was doing it until it was all happening because that’s kind of how those things were rolling at the time. Anything that any of us did outside the band reflected on The Bangles, so I was nervous, to be honest. That being said, Susanna took that role and was supporting her mom (Tamar Simon Hoffs) who directed the film. I think at that time, Susanna was interested in maybe going somewhere other than just pop music. I think she was interested in acting or expanding her exposure and development. So yeah, I supported her and continue to do so.

There’s this funny thing with a band, especially a young band where you can get this sense that it’s a marriage. It always felt that way to me, and I am one monogamy champion. But nowadays, anything any of us wants to do — it’s an open marriage and it’s great. Anything any of us wants to do is supported by the others.

RCM: Are any of you working on solo projects or other non-Bangles things?
VP: Susanna’s got a record coming out, and I’m working on a record with Susan Cowsill (Continental Drifters) who is my actual sister-in-law now. We’re finally doing a Psycho Sisters record that has been 20 years in the non-making (laughs) because we never even started working on it until this year. We sang together 20 years ago as the Psycho Sisters and we are only now finally making a record.

RCM: The Bangles latest record pays homage to all that great ’60s era music you grew up listening to and the retro album cover art certainly exemplifies that.
VP: Some of it was inspired by a couple of books Susanna and I were reading. One of them was the Sheila Weller book Girls Like Us. The title song was inspired by a photograph in that book, which was of Toni Stern who was Carol King’s lyricist and a poet in her own right. There’s this picture of her looking stunningly beautiful and she just looked like the perfect hippie chick. She looked like the perfect southern California woman of the ’60s and early ’70s and it sparked conversations between us about what young people are looking up to today, because there’s so many celebrities that are known for nothing more than their handbags and bad behavior.

And that’s where young girls are looking for inspiration today — that’s what they’re talking about and caring about. And that worried us so we just started talking about the more enlightened hippie chicks who are essentially “the ideal woman,” I think.

Vicki Peterson; Bangles

RCM: Yeah, it’s sad to see celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan achieve fame and fortune for trashy behaviour.
VP: There’s definitely that baseline that I call the lowest common denominator when it comes to sexuality. Unfortunately there are young women who define their sexuality in such a shallow and stereotypical way, like putting on a corset and saying, “Oh…that’s so sexy.” And I say, well, so is looking like Melissa Leo or somebody who is just really confident and beautiful. It’s really scary for parents of young girls especially.

Our daughter, thank God, is a freak and is so amazing. She has never cared about labels. She has never cared about stuff. I don’t know what happened, but it’s great. She’s a dancer and an artist and has tapped into that world and thank God for that!

RCM: There’s a unifying theme of superficiality and paradise lost on your latest album, with lyrics like the line in What a Life: “Another crummy perfect day, waking up in L.A., never thought that I would stay so long.”
VP: I think a lot of the perception of southern California is this sort of sheen of perfection — Hollywood, the image, the glamour. This kind of thing which does exist, and some of it exists because people come here from other places looking for exactly that. And they create it in themselves and in their work.

The Bangles, we’re natives and we grew up here, so we see other sides of L.A. that’s reflected in some of the songs like What a Life. It’s about the fires and how it doesn’t rain, which some people celebrate. But all it means is there’s dusty cobwebs everywhere. And then there’s just the humanity of life and what happens to everyone despite the sunny appearance. You can be living under a cloud that doesn’t exist.

You live in this paradise, it’s beautiful, but of course the perception is juxtaposed with the reality of L.A. The sun shines 360 days a year and the flowers are always in bloom, but its juxtaposed with complications and pain on many levels, and so as songwriters we look to the sum of that. And I’ve always been interested in writing more about personal politics rather than bureaucratic politics. So human relationships are always an interesting source of inspiration.

RCM: Here’s hoping you have a sunny day for your upcoming outdoor concert at the U.S.A. Festival in Allen, Texas. It appears to be one of only a handful of shows The Bangles have scheduled this year?
VP: We were hoping to have more on the books but we’ve had a couple of blips going on. So we’re hoping that we can make up for lost time possibly in the fall and into next year. We have no plans to wind this thing down.

RCM: For people seeing The Bangles live in concert for the first time, what do you think they come away with?
VP: I think people are often surprised by how rock and roll and sweaty we are if they haven’t seen us live in concert before — maybe if all they’ve seen is the video for Eternal Flame (laughs). We have some real rockers that we play in our set that are a lot of fun both for us and the audience.

RCM: So what’s the secret to the band’s longevity?
VP: The three of us who started it, Debbi, Susanna and I — it just works. We’re like a girl gang, and we’ve got each other figured out. We love each other in kind of a family way where we accept the peccadilloes and accept how each other are.

We’ll sometimes say, “Oh god, here she goes again…and we know she’s going to do that!” (laughs) But that’s fine because we know how to talk to each other about things and we kind of have a system now. We’ve always said that for as long as it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it.

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