Anyone who thinks rock ‘n’ roll is strictly men’s work hasn’t given a lot of thought to the Bangles. Nourished in equal amounts by the creative wellspring of ’60s pop and the fast–food franchise of ’70s punk and “new wave,” the Los Angeles–based quartet made a decade’s worth of wonderfully bright music that honored the historic and celebrated the contemporary.
That’s rather a pointy fence to straddle, as many a “retro”–style band with no hits can tell you, but the Bangles managed to top the charts, sell millions of records and write a place for themselves in the history books. Their vocal harmonies, recalling the Mamas, Papas, Byrds and Springfield of rock’s golden age, were textured over sparse, hooky Beatle–esque arrangements that reverberated with cool guitars and a big–beat drum sound.
Far from being mere revivalists, the Bangles were good songwriters, great singers and, as it turned out, exciting performers. They made two No. 1 singles, two more that hit the Top Ten, plus two platinum albums and a string of classic videos.
The Bangles were—and are—women.
Ten years after their acrimonious breakup, the Bangles have kissed and made up, and are about to go into the studio to make another record.
Don’t call it a reunion, though. The Bangles believe they are merely picking up the pieces. “We’re expecting to get hit from all directions,” said guitarist Vicki Peterson, 41, “and yet we’re hoping that the people who actually have been waiting for a new Bangles record will be very pleased with what we come up with.”
Said guitarist Susanna Hoffs, 41: “It’s about going back to the original concept, which is to be a band. And knowing that all of us have outlets for breathing room, our families or other musical outlets, is what enables us to give ourselves so wholly to the band. I think that’s the balance that was missing.”
In 1989, when the group disbanded, they were tired, stressed and easily swayed. “We shouldn’t have let ourselves be manipulated, but we were young and we didn’t understand,” said drummer Debbi Peterson, 39, Vicki’s sister. “Everybody’s learned since then, and now we know, hey, if it doesn’t work out, see ya.”
Bassist Michael Steele, 46, hopes the world accepts a “new” Bangles album, but like her bandmates, she’s not doing it for the fans—she’s doing it because she believes in the music they made together—and can still make. “How many times can you regurgitate the past? That’s the danger,” she said.
The band is playing a 10–date “test the waters” club tour during September. “I want this band to have a new life and to make new records,” Michael added. “I’m determined that we’re not going to become some Dick Clark oldies band, from the Golden ’80s. Ay–yay–yay!”
They all swear they don’t care if their reformation, after more than a decade, is received with indifference. “If you can face that in Hollywood, you can face anything, I suppose,” Michael said. “If we make a really good record that we like, and nobody cares, we can still say we care, so fuck ‘em.”
Vicki and Debbi
Born two years apart, Vicki and Debbi Peterson always shared a passion for ’60s pop music. According to Vicki, their house in Northridge, in Southern California, was “extremely groovy and modern,” and their father—an aerospace engineer at TRW—kept Top 40 radio playing near–constantly on the intercom system wired throughout the place. The Petersons rarely went into town, because Dad was a serious do–it–yourselfer, and the four kids usually spent weekends in the yard, helping him do it himself. The radio was always playing out there, too.
(You could also reverse the intercom and eavesdrop on other rooms, which got the Peterson girls in trouble on more than one occasion.)
Although she was a member of Red Cross Youth, and had dreams of going to veterinary school, Vicki’s love affair with the guitar began in the 4th grade, when her parents bought her an Electro guitar (a near–perfect Rickenbacher copy) and an eight–watt amp. The guitar was rarely out of her hands; she slept with it sometimes.
In high school, she was a cheerleader, and sang harmony in the madrigal group. But she had discovered her older sister’s record collection, and was writing songs in the style of Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Donovan. Turning her back on radio—after all, it was the ’70s—Vicki began to seriously absorb that which had come before. She and little sister Debbi adored the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, and became card–carrying “Beatles freaks.”
“My parents really tolerated my hideous high school bands,” Vicki said with a laugh. “It was almost considered like one band that started when I was 15, and ended somewhere in 1989, when the Bangles split up.”
Ironically, rocking and rolling was an idea that came late—her early bands played mostly Vicki’s original songs. They only started working up covers to get jobs.
Vicki and her best friend Amanda Hills, the group’s bassist, graduated from Rolling Hills High in June 1976; the band—at that time called Crista Galli—was having trouble nailing down a drummer.
Debbi, the “annoying kid sister” who hung around the band, liked to play air drums at their garage rehearsals.
Remembered Debbi: “Amanda said ‘What about your sister?’ to my sister. Vicki had never thought about that. We had some friends who were in a band as well, so I sat down on the guy’s drum set and started playing.
“And I guess it must have been all those years of being air drummer, I must have somehow figured it out. Vicki’s like ‘You’re in the band!’”
“Vicki had tremendous respect for Debbi as a musician from that moment onward,” recalled Amanda. “Because when Debbi sat down behind the drums, she could do it. She just could do it. It was uncanny. The guy in this band showed her a couple of things to play, and she just played them. It was as though she’d been doing it since birth. I remember standing there, looking at Vicki like ‘Oh my God. We have a drummer.’”
Equipment was a problem. The group’s drummers had always shown up with their own gear. “I saved up some money from my job bagging groceries at Safeway and bought her a little kit, that she still has,” said Vicki. “And about nine months later my boyfriend, who was also in the band—bad idea—said ‘You know, she should pay you back for those. You spent $250, and she owes that to you.’ So she got a job at McDonald’s, God bless her.”
“I wanted to play guitar, too,” Debbi recalled. “But this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
As Aisha, the group continued, mostly at school functions and parties. They had a big year in ’78; Vicki and boyfriend Joel split up and Joel left the group, and Vicki and Amanda enrolled at UCLA and got an apartment together. The group’s name bacame The Muze, and they started getting real club bookings.
When lead guitarist Lynn Elkind joined, early in ’79, they switched to The Fans. Vicki, an English major, was bored at college and dropped out to concentrate on The Fans.
“She was absolutely convinced we were going to make it,” said Amanda, “which was very funny, because in retrospect there was absolutely no reason why we would. And because she was convinced, we were convinced, too. It was just when, rather than if.”
“From a very early age, I knew that this was all going to happen,” Vicki says. “It was just sheer, wonderful blind faith, and blissful ignorance. I rarely, if ever, actually allowed myself a moment of doubt. Whatever form it took, I was going to make this my life, my work.”
From a review in The View newspaper, Nov. 8, 1979: “The Fans are a pretty (very pretty) refreshing group in a musical age of lost horizons and general lack of taste, or anything else that once supported our ’60s values.”
The Fans gigged all around the Southern California club circuit—the Sweetwater, the Troubadour, Club 88—and often the musicians, most of whom were under the legal drinking age, weren’t allowed to leave the stage or their backstage “quarters.”
“Not that we ever did,” Amanda said. “We were so clean, it was unbelievable.”
Vicki was energized by the punk and new wave movement of the late ’70s. Playing in sweaty clubs, she thought, was like being at the Cavern. She craved that direct link to the past.
Debbi, Vicki and Lynn took an apartment together on Detroit Street in Hollywood in early 1980. The group, now called Those Girls, was featured in a brief story called “Meet the Girl Groups” in Oui magazine. “We don’t wear sexy outfits,” the band was quoted as saying, next to a photo of Vicki, Debbi and Amanda wearing black leather. “We’re not a tits–n–ass band and we’re not gay.”
Sometime that year, Lynn left the band, although she remained a Peterson housemate. Amanda announced her decision to bail, too—she intended to stay in college. The Petersons were determined to forge ahead.
To hunt up players for a new group, Lynn put ad an in the free local newspaper, The Recycler. For grocery money Vicki worked in the maintanance office at Laird Film Studios, where she liked to carry a clipboard and roam around where she shouldn’t (she once, for example, watched Steven Spielberg direct a scene from E.T.).
It was Dec. 9, 1980, the day after John Lennon’s murder in New York City. Vicki was at home—Lynn was out—when the phone rang with a response to Lynn’s Recycler ad.
“I call this stranger on the phone, and I don’t get the person whose name was listed in the ad, but I get Vicki Peterson on the line,” recalled Susanna Hoffs.
Everyone was thinking about Lennon that day. “I couldn’t have found a more compassionate person who really was going through the same emotions as I was,” Susanna said. “I was looking to be in a band with someone who really was connected to the same stuff that I was.”
“We found ourselves on the phone for over an hour, sympathizing over Lennon’s assassination, and many other things,” explained Vicki. “I realized the person I was talking to was intelligent, and completely in synch with what I want to do. It was sort of like I’d intercepted something very cool, but in order to be ethically correct I passed on the message to Lynn.”
Lynn and Susanna spoke briefly the next day, but it was clear they did not have any chemistry. Guilt–free, Vicki called Susanna back, and within days Those Girls were set up in the Hoffs family garage in West L.A.
“Susanna knew of the Guess Who, Grass Roots, Arthur Lee and Love,” Vicki said. “We had lots in common. Harmony singing was a breeze. We left that night thinking ‘This is it. We got it.’”
“My memory,” said Susanna, “is that we played ‘White Rabbit.’ I didn’t even know how to play it, but it was pretty basic. Vicki showed it to me, and boom, suddenly we’re playing a song. There’s a drummer, there’s two guitars, there’s voices. It just all came together so fast. It sounded like such a good fit, so natural. And I think we decided to be ‘a band’ that night.”
Susanna Hoffs was born to a rich family in a tony Los Angeles suburb. Her parents—Joshua and Tamar – met at Yale in the ’40s, and when Joshua went to UCLA for his residency, they got married and moved to California together. The only Hoffs girl, Susanna arrived between brothers John and Jesse.
Although Susanna loved classical music, and started taking ballet lessons when she was quite young, it was Top 40 radio that became “the soundtrack to my childhood—early Dionne Warwick, ‘Downtown,’ ‘To Sir With Love,’ those things had a huge impact on me.”
And in 1964, when Susanna was 5, “The Beatles had an enormous impact on my brothers and I. My brother John had a friend whose mother worked at Capitol Records, so we got records very early on. She would bring home an extra copy for us. So we had a large collection of Beatles records.
“I remember getting that Meet the Beatles record and we listened to it over and over again, and just were so affected by it.”
Tamar Hoffs’ brother Carmi, who visited from Chicago, was the siblings’ “hippie uncle.” He was, in Susanna’s estimation, a “pretty good guitarist,” and he taught them all simple chords, “Tom Dooley”–type stuff, which Susanna loved, and refined around the bonfires at summer camp.
Carmi Simon eventually went to work for McCabe’s Music Shop and became a master dulcimer builder.
While Susanna kept up at ballet, music was something she didn’t take too seriously until she discovered the poetry of Joni Mitchell’s records. “I really taught myself to sing by just copying Joni, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt in the ’70s,” she said. “And other people too. But there was a point, I remember very clearly, where I really focused in and tried to learn all the little riffs and stuff they were doing. And it went from there.”
Throughout high school, she had friends that would play and sing folkie–style music together. She learned about singing harmony in the school choir but never even considered rock ‘n’ roll.
When Susanna went off to Berkeley to study theater and dance, she became involved with David Roback, a guitar–playing kid from the old neighborhood and one of brother John’s buddies.
John Hoffs had left for Yale; on winter break in 1977 or ’78, he brought his sister a stack of albums: “It was the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads,” Susanna recalled. “It was like ‘OK, I know those three chords the Ramones are playing.’ It was mind–blowing. It really was an unbelievable turning point.” Suddenly, it was as if music could be more than a passive interest.
Susanna, John and David began harmonizing together—Susanna’s favorite album at the time was Nico’s Chelsea Girl, and they worked up a Nico–like arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” for her to sing, along with the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” “We would do these excrutiatingly slow versions of things,” she recalled. “Very dreamy.”
It was a band—sort of. “We were very intellectual about it,” Susanna said. “It was more sitting around imagining what the band would be. We were gonna be called the Unconscious, or the Psychiatrists. We wanted to have this kind of like name that was referenced the fact that our dad was a psychiatrist.”
But the family bond snapped. “What happened was my brother was sort of irritated with David and I for becoming a couple. I was his kid sister, and suddenly I’m stealing his best friend away. So then it was just David and I, and we never did get a bass player or a drummer. We never did a show, and all we did was make some living–room tapes.”
It was those tapes that Susanna played for Vicki and Debbi that day in December of 1980 as a sort of audio resume. “That made them kind of go ‘OK, cool, we’re on the same page here.’”
For the better part of a year, as The Colours and then The Supersonic Bangs and finally just The Bangs, they rehearsed as a trio. Their debut performance—and the very first time Susanna Hoffs ever played guitar before an audience—was at a Laird Studios party in ’81 (with a borrowed bass player). Vicki and Susanna’s friendship blossomed and they started turning out songs, together and separately, and with Debbi, they would work out intricate harmony parts, giving each other goosebumps when something hit the spot.
Around this time, the group members decided that there would be no more men in the ranks. “I can’t say that it just worked out that way, because that would be ridiculous,” Vicki explained. “It was obviously intentional. But the intent was less to make it a ‘groovy gimmick’ than it was being done with the awareness that a man changes the dynamics. A man would change the chemistry. It was a girls’ club, and it felt more natural for us to keep it a girls’ club than to let that psycho–sexual thing happen … it’s no different than when a bunch of guys are sitting around in a room, and a woman walks in. It’s going to change everything.”
Just before Christmas 1981, the Bangs issued their one and only record, a single called “Getting Out of Hand” (written by Vicki) backed with “Call on Me” (credited to Peterson–Hoffs–Roback), on the independent L.A. label Downkiddie. Susanna sang lead on both.
Recorded at Radio Tokyo, a tiny studio in Venice, the single was rough, but the hooks were unavoidable. Vicki and Debbi each played bass on the record, and David Roback took the pictures of the band for the picture sleeve.
The Bangs were determined to be like Vicki and Debbi’s father and do it themselves; hence, Vicki managed the group herself and handled all the bookings.
Vicki went to England to visit a friend, leaving specific instructions for Susanna to place “Getting Out of Hand” in the hands of influential disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer, who played up–and–coming music on his KROQ show Saturday and Sunday nights.
“Even though I grew up in L.A., I almost never ventured east of Westwood,” Susanna said with a laugh. “I was always a west–sider. So it was a big thing to go by myself in my car, with the little 45 record of The Bangs and get it to this guy. He got tons of records from everybody, so there wasn’t any guarantee that he would ever play it.”
When Bingenheimer didn’t play the record that first weekend, she worked up the courage to call him and ask, nonchalantly, what’d you think?
Susanna explained: “It’s pretty good, he said. You sound like the Mamas and the Mamas. And he got the sort of Paul McCartney bass–influence that was on the record. He played it that weekend, and he played it the following weekend, and then he continued to play it for a year, every show.”
(At Radio Tokyo, the Bangs cut a 30–second KROQ commercial for the local fanzine No Mag, singing new words to the melody of “Getting Out of Hand.” They frequently dropped in to chat with Bingenheimer on the air.)
The local success of “Getting Out of Hand” necessitated steady live appearances, and bassist Annette Zilinskas was hired on. “She didn’t really know how to play bass, but she was totally into the same music as we were at the time, and she was very eager to learn,” Susanna remembered.
The others bought Annette a Vox Teardrop bass—very ’60s, naturally—out of The Recycler.
They finally got to play one of their dream gigs, at the famed Whiskey A–Go–Go club, as opening act for The Last. They played on bills with everybody. “We got booked with punk bands because Downkiddie’s distributor, Faulty Products, worked with bands like the Circle Jerks, et cetera,” said Vicki. “It happened pretty quickly.”
The Bangs grew into a popular club act. Their natural buoyancy, combined with their talent for songwriting and their effortless ’60s harmonies, made them stand out in a club scene increasingly packed with bands whose sound and look was strongly influenced by mid to late ’60s pop. People started calling it the Paisley Underground.
“We went from having to beg our friends to come to some out of the way club on a Monday night, and buy them beer so they’ll dance,” Susanna said, “and we worked our way up to playing packed clubs. And it became a real scene, and it was really fun.”
After enduring disco and wave after wave of metal bands with big and bigger hair, Michael Steele – born Susan Johnson – found the Paisley Underground much more to her liking.
A native of coastal Newport Beach, where the ’60s meant Beach Boys singles blasting from every radio, Michael played guitar and bass, and flute in her high school band. Both poet and rocker, she loved the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and fell hard for Joni Mitchell, but it was the British folkie band Fairport Convention, with singer Sandy Denny, that made Michael think seriously about making music of her own.
She entered show business in the summer of 1975 by answering an ad for girl singers. It had been placed by entrepreneur Kim Fowley, who’d dreamed up the idea of an all–female rock band.
Michael auditioned as the Runaways’ lead singer, and strapped on a bass during a rehearsal when no one else seemed interested. With Joan Jett on guitar and Sandy West on drums, they played “Wild Thing” for Fowley. “Joan was great, even then,” Michael said.
As for the Runaways, “It was one of those things, a girl band made up by a guy. Which kind of sucks. Because it was coming through his twisted concept of what women were.”
Fowley worked his girls hard. “He was hilarious,” said Michael. “One day he came to rehearsal and he started throwing garbage at us. He said ‘Better get used to this.’”
It wasn’t long before Fowley replaced “Micki Steele” on bass. “I got booted out for various reasons,” she explained. “I found the whole Hollywood scene was a bit … I think I was just pretty overwhelmed by the whole thing.”
It was, she insists without elaboration, a “casting couch… it was kind of like sexual harassment before they called it that.”
Fowley recorded the first trio of Runaways on a crude reel–to–reel tape recorder, and the material was issued on CD many years later under the title Born to Be Bad. “Kim continues to make money off of me and various other unfortunates who were young enough not to know any better,” Michael said.
Burned by the experience, Michael ran back home to Newport Beach. Within a year, she started seeing The Runaways in magazines.
“The injustice of the thing just enraged me, so I finally said ‘I’m gonna show ‘em. I’m gonna go back out there and just start playing with as many bands as I can, and try to become a good bass player.’ Because one of the things this guy said was I was a good singer, but I couldn’t play bass for shit.”
Michael played with a dozen bands in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and became a regular at the clubs; two of her favorite groups to check out were the Bangs and the Dream Syndicate, whose musicality and dedication to ’60s ideals were very close to her own with hers. David Roback’s band, Rain Parade, was another big draw.
In 1982, at the invitation of her friend “Spock,” Michael moved into a new apartment, which Spock shared with Vicki and Debbi Peterson. There was a rumor going around that the Bangs might need a new bass player soon.
“I was like well, you know, this might happen, and I’d like to be there if it does,” Michael said. “And of course it didn’t happen for about a year after I moved in—oop! But that’s OK, it was a nice place to live. And I was beginning to know a new bunch of people, and that was a nice thing.”
Miles From Nowhere
Miles Copeland, the head of Faulty Products, managed the Police and other acts under the LAPD (Los Angeles Personal Direction) banner. Miles’ brother Stewart Copeland was the Police’s drummer.
In 1981, Copeland was also running IRS Records, and the label’s biggest act, the Go–Go’s, was an all–female pop group from Southern California whose members were chummy with the Bangs.
A friend brought Copeland to a Bangs gig at the Café de Grande. “I went in with a couple of people, all of whom said ‘Don’t do it,’” Copeland remembered. “Which immediately made me think well, this is exactly what I’m gonna do. Because they had the energy—and they had the songs. I immediately thought it was great.
“Sure, there was a comparison with the Go–Go’s, because there weren’t that many all–girl groups. But my view was look, this is a pretty good group with good songs. The fact that they happen to be all girls from L.A., I’m sure people will compare them, but I had never looked upon them as a spinoff of the Go–Gos, I took them for what they were.”
When Copeland offered to manage the band, Vicki was skeptical. “I was immediately defensive—oh, he’s going to try and turn us into the poor man’s Go–Gos, and I’m just not interested in anything to do with this,” she said.
At their first meeting—which Vicki tape–recorded in case Copeland tried to pull a fast one—”he said all the right things: Do things slowly—record an EP at a cheap studio to use as a calling card.” They laughed a lot, especially when Vicki discovered her recorder’s batteries were dead.
Copeland also won the Bangs’ trust by treating them as equals.
He hired the Ramones’ Craig Leon to produced a 12–inch EP, with five original songs. Just before the record’s release, a New Jersey band called The Bangs got wind of it and demanded $40,000 for use of their (copyrighted) moniker.
So the self–titled record became Bangles.
“We were really heartsick about it, because I really liked the name,” said Vicki. “I liked the innuendo, and the sound of it—it was explosive, and short—so we just tried to keep the syllable in the word. Even though Bangles is a much softer image, and a much softer sound. We felt like we had already established an identity as the Bangs.”
Copeland booked the Bangles on a tour opening for the ska band English Beat, an IRS act, and began casting about for a label to take them on. He and the girls were adamant the Bangles should not be on the same label as the Go–Gos.
“We had this kind of naïve, youthful confidence,” Susanna said. “It was funny, we never sort of went ‘Oh, it’s not happening, guess I’ll go back to law school.’ We just had this odd feeling that it was going to work out.”
Columbia Records A&R man Peter Philbin didn’t take much convincing, and Vicki liked his smooth chat about “letting an act develop over time.” In 1983 the Bangles were signed to Columbia with a $125,000 budget for their first album. Not long before recording was scheduled to commence, however, Annette Zilinskas left the band by mutual consent.
“Annette wasn’t a great harmony singer,” Vicki recalled, “plus, she was more into rockabilly. We would learn a token rockabilly song or two, which we were not very good at, so that Annette could sing. But we started to realize that we were not in sync.”
Said Susanna: “She wanted to sing some leads, on more more country–ish sounds. Bass wasn’t her passion.”
Zilinskas and her boyfriend formed the “cowpunk” band Blood On the Saddle.
So Annette was out, and Columbia—and Michael Steele—were in. “That,” Michael said, “was nice timing after all the other bands I’d been in.”
Even with all the aces turning up,Vicki still thought they might be somebody’s novelty “chick band.” “It was never overt, but I’m sure it was being said in the boardrooms,” she said.
“You look at the band, it’s obvious what it is, but I think it was also obvious that we were a band that was not created by somebody. We weren’t a band that was formed after ads in Variety. I think our ‘street cred’ was intact. Our origins were well–enough known that people knew we’re not talking about the Spice Girls here!”
Michael: “After the Runaways, I swore to myself that I would never do another girl band as long as I fucking lived. But the Runaways was like a fake girl band; this was a real band that happened to be women.”
The Bangles became a CBS act a time when the record industry was only too happy to milk a trend for all it was worth, but also at a time when acts with genuine talent were given time—and money—to develop. It would take three years before the Bangles had a hit, but Columbia, bless its corporate heart, stuck by the band the whole time.
The band was paired up with staff producer (and Columbia A&R honcho) David Kahne.
Fun, fun, fun
“All Over the Place was years in the making, because we played those songs a lot in the clubs,” said Debbi. “I felt proud of our performance; we sounded like this great, raw rock band. But sonically, at the time I didn’t think the album sounded good enough. And we were tortured by David Kahne.”
Kahne’s less–than–deft touch always managed to find a Bangle nerve. “For example, on ‘Going Down to Liverpool,’ he made me cry because I had to do the first line over and over,” Debbi added. “I kept thinking it was sounding great to me. And he was like ‘Do it again, do it again.’ It ended up being work.”
Vicki: “There wasn’t a joy of creation going on there. Everything was complicated. As a matter of fact, it was a phrase he was famous for. He would sit with his head in his hands on the board and go ‘Damn, this is complicated.’ What does that say to the artist? That says OK, this is a mess. You’re basically incompetent. I’m at a loss. I’m going to have to fix it.”
Kahne, all agree, was brilliant at vocal arrangements, and could always be counted on to decide who would sing what—he was usually right, too. They respected his arranging talents.
And he polished the Bangles’ rough sound; the garage band that had made Bangleswas nowhere to be found on All Over the Place. “We were very basic as a band, and he was hearing symphonies in his head,” said Vicki. “He would have all these sort of sonic images he wanted to realize, and were we just ‘Huh? Uh …OK.’
“As Susanna says, we learned a lot from David Kahne, and it took years to un–learn some of it.”
Kahne, the musicians say, saw All Over the Place as his record, and the Bangles themselves as obstacles.
“He made us more aware of what our flaws were than the things that we were good at,” Susanna said. “It has a kind of debilitating effect after a period of time. On the one hand, you want to feel inspired, you want to feel confident, but you’re around someone who’s very vocal about what the shortcomings of the band are. You don’t want somebody who’s just going to say everything you do is great, but there’s a different style of working.”
Some of the songs (“James,” “He’s Got a Secret”) were from Vicki’s teen–age scrapbook and had been performed by The Fans, Those Girls and the others; the band also pulled out favorite covers including The Merry–Go–Round’s “Live” and the Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You” (left off the album, the latter became the B–side to the band’s first Columbia single, “Hero Takes a Fall”).
“Going Down to Liverpool” came from their English friend Kimberly Rew of Katrina & the Waves, who also recorded it.
All Over the Place didn’t produce a hit, but it sold respectably, mostly through steady airplay on college stations. Today, fans still tell the Bangles it’s the best record they ever made. “We’d been out playing those songs live as a band, so there’s a band cohesion on that album,” said Michael, adding with her trademark dry humor: “And I think that’s what people respond to ad nauseam: All Over the Place was a cool record, thereby saying your other two albums were shit.”
The Bangles made videos for both singles (“Going Down to Liverpool,” directed by Hoffs’ mother, featured family friend Leonard Nimoy) and got little to no airplay on MTV. The band shrugged it off and hit the road, setting a pattern that would continue virtually nonstop for six years.
They found an audience in Europe. “You didn’t have the sense of ‘Oh, we don’t have a Top 40 hit,’” Susanna said. “Big deal! ‘We can still play to a packed house in a small club.’ We would play these little clubs in England, and have these incredible shows. You get so much from the audience that it bolsters up any sense of ‘Oh, it’s not a hit on the radio.’ We didn’t really care! We just figured it would happen eventually.”
Certainly, there were no other bands—female, male or otherwise—playing as rich a concoction of clever songs with Rickenbacher guitars and velvety, Beatle–smooth harmonies. “It’s actually one of the easiest things for us, singing in harmony,” Susanna said. “From the early days of being in a choir or something.
“We did the best that we could, and given that we couldn’t hear ourselves very well, those were really about paying our dues; learning how to sing in a club where you can’t hear yourself. Those were days where we got a lot of training.”
The band spent the fall of 1984 as road support for Columbia’s top act, Cyndi Lauper. Vicki and Susanna, along with their friend Jules Shear, turned out “I Got Nothing” as the Bangles’ contribution to The Goonies, for which Lauper recorded the title song.
Then it was time to make the second Columbia album. A cloud rolled in. “We weren’t smart enough,” Vicki said, “to know that we could fire our producer.”
At a pre–production meeting, Vicki said, “Kahne acknowledged the problems with the first record, he apologized for his methodology, he promised that he was in a better place and we were going to have a very positive experience.”
The Bangles went back into the studio with Kahne in summer ’85 to record the follwup to All Over the Place. Columbia was counting on a hit.
The problems began almost immediately. Copeland had kept the group on the road so much, they’d barely had any time to write new songs. So the call went out—the Bangles were sifting through material to record.
They chose a handful of songs they liked, cut the few new originals they had … and then fate stepped in, making the Columbia brass shake and shimmy.
Vicki: “Despite all their noble gestures about ‘letting this band grow,’ etcetera, all of a sudden they’re given a gift from the gods. And the gods are called Prince. And Prince says hey, record this song, and they see the doors open to radio.
“They see the golden light shining upon them: This is how they’re gonna get this band to radio.”
Kahne knew engineer David Leonard, who had worked with Prince. It seemed the Minneapolis megastar, who was at the height of his Purple Rain fame, had taken a shine to the “Hero Takes a Fall” video, and in particular to Susanna Hoffs, whose doe–eyed coquettishness had come across particularly well.
Susanna remembers making the drive to Sunset Sound Studios to pick up a cassette from Leonard. On it were Prince’s demos of two songs, “Jealous Girl” and “Manic Monday.”
The Bangles were unanimous that “Manic Monday” was the one for them. “I kept thinking, Sue and I could write a song like this,” Vicki said. “This is like a pop song. It seemed a little more contrived than most of our songs; ours were usually a little more obtuse.
“But it was OK. I thought well, we can record it. But in my innocence I didn’t see the grand scheme until very soon after we recorded it: ‘Why is David Kahne spending two weeks mixing this one song? And 20 minutes on every other one?’”
According to Susanna, Prince never contacted any of the Bangles until their version of “Manic Monday” was in the can. “I think he very much though that we would use his track and just sing over it,” she recalled. “My memory is that he was really surprised when we re–cut every single thing, because he was great at making … they weren’t really demos, they were recordings. And then just giving them to other people for them to sing over. Because he was such a good producer himself.”
“Manic Monday” reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart in April 1986. Although the songwriting was credited to “Christopher,” everyone knew it was, in fact, The Purple One (who happened to be called Christopher in the movie he made that year, Under the Cherry Moon.)
The Bangles exploded. Or, rather, the Bangle.
“Columbia said, here we have a way into radio, and it’s because of Prince’s infatuation with the little one in the middle,” said Vicki.
“Those things have a way of spiraling out of control. And all of a sudden you have an article on the band, but there’s a photograph of Susanna. And we fought that as much as we could, not just the three of us who weren’t getting photographed, but management.
“But there’s only so much you can do.”
The press pounced upon the Prince/Hoffs connection, and their “romance” became the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll gossip columns. When the Bangles performed on The Tonight Show, host Joan Rivers sat them all on the couch and blurted out “Which one of you slept with Prince?”
Susanna says flatly that there never was any backstage affair. “He was sort of hanging around,” she explained. “He came to some shows and would call occasionally; I had some phone conversations with him but no, absolutely not. We were never a romantic item.”
The press, of course, didn’t want to hear that, so the stories continued.
Getting Out of Hand
Different Light was one of the biggest–selling albums of 1986; the third single, a novelty tune written by Liam Sternberg called “Walk Like an Egyptian,” topped the American chart for four weeks at Christmastime. The ubiquitous video featured the women in midriff–baring Cleopatra garb, acting out goofy heiroglyphics. “Although it’s the song that we will always, unfortunately, be known for, I was all for it,” Vicki laughs.
As fun and free–wheeling as “Walk Like an Egyptian” was it, too, was hard–won. “Originally I was going to sing the whole song,” Debbi said. “I don’t know where the change of heart came from, but there was this sudden decision to get three people to sing, one for each verse. Of course, there’s only three verses, so somebody’s gonna get left out.”
Debbi got left out.
“I was going to sing the second verse, and I got two takes and David Kahne said ‘No, Micki, why don’t you go try it.’ And then she ended up doing it.
“I was ‘Excuse me, my voice is just warming up. I know I’m not a Bonnie Raitt and just sing perfect the minute I open my mouth, but …’”
Debbi doesn’t play drums on the song, either; Kahne “took care of it.”
“On Different Light, there were a couple of other drummers that came in, but basically that’s because I couldn’t quite get the part as he saw it,” said Debbi. “He was very much a visionary, and saw things a certain way. And would let me play, for the most part, what I was seeing. But then at certain times it would be ‘Well, that’s not quite right, we’ve got to get so–and–so in.’”
Vicki, too, felt the wrath of Kahne. “He would bring in his ringer guitar players to do certain things,” she said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he had had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.
“This is one of my nightmare, nightmare stories. I walked into the studio after I had to leave, and this was already done. And Micki’s loving it—she thinks it sounds great! I looked at Kahne and I went ‘Oh! OK.’ And he said ‘Oh … did you want to try something?’ My will had pretty much been broken successfully by that point. It was really awful.”
Said Susanna: “I remember thinking ‘Boy, being a producer is a hard job.’ And I think he made it seem really hard because he was so driven by angst, and kind of perfection-istic. He had been an artist himself and never succeeded as an artist, so I think he was always tormented by ‘How would I do this if it was my record?’”
“It was,” said Michael, “sort of an aural version of the casting couch where, well, if I don’t do all this stuff, these songs won’t be hits. He knew there were going to be some big hits on that album. That album made his career, basically. And so we were sacrificed on the altar of his career.”
Michael wrote and sang “Following,” a haunting acoustic track on Different Light. “He had totally forgotten about that song,” she remembered. “He was totally freaking out about which of the 27 mixes of ‘Manic Monday’ was the right one. We were almost done with recording and I said ‘Uhh, David, remember the song ‘Following’? So it was, like, two takes.”
Michael thinks Kahne might have “ignored” her because she wasn’t one of the group’s main songwriters or singers.
“He loved Sue’s voice, and he loved the way we did harmonies, but everything else was basically shit and he felt like he had to get rid of it, or try to work around it, or do something to make it palatable,” she explained.
“I don’t know, maybe he ran out of money before he replaced my bass parts.”
According to Debbi, Kahne picked on her in particular—and not just because of her drumming. “He said I physically couldn’t sing one of the songs. Physically couldn’t sing. It was one of those things where you might as well just stab me right now, just kill me. Cut my throat. Cut out my vocal chords. It was so devastating. It was hard for me to bounce back from that.
“I was actually, at one point, feeling kind of suicidal. This guy was screwing with my emotions so bad, and made me feel so shitty, that I just thought well, OK …. I should’ve just told him to piss off. But we caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Copeland says the Bangles only told him after the fact why they absolutely, positively would never work with Kahne again. “They’d be in the studio and he’d say ‘I don’t like the middle bit, so you’ve got to re–write it,’” he explained. “They’d go home and re–write, and he wouldn’t like that one. He’d say ‘I wrote one, listen to this.’ They’d say they liked theirs better and he’d say ‘let’s drop the song, then.’”
So, of course, to keep the song, they’d do it Kahne’s way.
“In their view, the reason his middle bit was ‘better’ is because he got a piece of the publishing,” Copeland said. “And they were incredibly pissed off about that. They felt that they got raped—that was their word.”
On Different Light, Kahne was credited as a co–writer on the tracks “Walking Down Your Street,” “Standing in the Hallway” and “Not Like You.”
“He wanted to make a hit record, and fuck them! That was his view,” Copeland said. “And if he wrote a bit of the song, he was going to have his piece of the publishing, fuck them.”
Publicly, as their fortunes rose, the Bangles’ look began to turn towards an ’80s, rock ‘n’ roll kind of “feminine.” They began to appear in short skirts, with teased hair and heavy makeup. Gone were the jeans and thrift–shop clothes of “Hero Takes a Fall.”
“In general, the glamorization of the Bangles happened because there were more outside people in there messing with us,” said Susanna. “We didn’t have enough perspective to say no. You want to look good, and you get caught up in ‘Oh, let’s give you bigger hair!’
“I remember how big my hair was on the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ thing and feeling like ‘Oh my God! What just happened to me?’
“And you get caught up in going along with what’s happening. A wardrobe person comes and says ‘These are great clothes; put these on.’ And you’re busy on tour. You don’t have time to go shop.
“You look over and the person sitting next to you has got that much makeup on, too. It’s just a vicious cycle. Fashion faux paus just escalating and getting exponentially worse and worse.”
Vicki: “We played around more with fashion as time went on. Part of that was because more was available to us. People were coming up to us and saying here, wear this. Which happens a lot: You’re starving and nobody gives you anything, but suddenly you have a hit record and everyone wants to give you everything for free.”
Still, she said, “A lot of it was in response to Susanna’s ability and obsessive–ness with being a star. It was what drove her. It’s what kept her up at night. It started becoming more about that, and more about celebrity status, than about some other things. That was very foreign territory to me, and I didn’t understand it. It sort of exacerbated the rift that was already starting to grow.”
The Lead Singer Syndrome
“It probably would have been healthier for us had we allowed each other the room to go off and do whatever it was, however silly, however ridiculous, i.e. going off for six weeks and making a movie,” Susanna said. “Or making a solo record.
“But we were kind of a band which focused on everybody being committed to the band and giving all of their time just to the band, and it was part of what created the pressure cooker that ended up breaking it up.”
In the little–seen 1976 film Stony Island, a 17–year–old Susanna had a bit part. The movie was directed by Andrew David, a friend of Tamar Hoffs’ from Chicago. David would go on to make The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder, among others.
Ten years later, Susanna surprised her bandmates by spending the Bangles’ much–needed break actring in the wacky college comedy The Allnighter, produced and directed (and co–written) by her mother.
“I think I just needed to not be on tour for six weeks, and go do something that seemed fun and different and exciting,” said Susanna. “It’s not the thing I’m most proud of in my life, but I’m happy I did it. It was something I got to do with my mom.”
Even though the cast of The Allnighter included Michael Ontkean and Joan Cusak, the film—about a group of college grads looking for excitement at year’s end—was positively dreadful. “Grotesque in the AIDS era,” wrote Leonard Maltin. “Though it would be a stinker any time.”
“I read the script, and I couldn’t believe it was getting made,” said Vicki. “But I know how these things go, and it did. And it saw release, which was also amazing to me. But I get amazed by many things that see release.”
Tamar Hoffs, says Vicki, was such a believer in positive thinking that she and her daughter didn’t really see how bad The Allnighter really was.
“That’s what I was up against,” she said. “I wasn’t going to look her in the eye and say you know what? It’s actually really, really embarrassing. The only concern of mine was that it was going to reflect on the band.”
Which, of course, it did. After the ‘Prince thing,’ the next volley of Bangles’ press reports all had to do with The Allnighter.
“The Go–Gos accepted the fact that Belinda Carlisle was the front person, and she was going to sing the songs, and get most of the press,” said Copeland. “The Bangles were very different. They did not want to see any individual in the group step forward and become the star. You had to have four spotlight operators; each one had to be in the spotlight. There were no solo band members.”
There was no convincing the public, or the press. “I guess the best way I can describe it is that it became really uncomfortable for me,” she admitted. “Because when people would say ‘Are you the lead singer?’ I would say ‘No, actually I’m not.’ Then I’m sort of defending the fact that I’m not. It just caused this tension with all of us.
“In some way, it’s obviously flattering if someone likes what you do. But the more tense everybody got about it, the more tense I felt about it.”
Ever the optimist, Vicki convinced herself that everything was OK: We still make records the same way. We all write, we all sing.
To her credit, Susanna never lorded it over the others. According to Vicki, that was one reason the Go–Go’s self–destructed. “It’s the lead singer syndrome. Belinda would get a suite, and the rest of the girls would find out that she had a suite, and they had single rooms. It was ‘What the fuck is this?’
“And she’d say ‘Well, I’m a bigger star than you are.’ That kind of thing never happened with us. Susanna wasn’t running around like a full–on prima donna around us. She wouldn’t get away with it.”
All well and good, except the press only wanted Susanna interviews, and often her photo appeared in print, without the others.
“The ‘we’re all equal’ philosophy became, in a sense, a straitjacket,” Copeland mused. “Because obviously Susanna began to move forward a bit, reality–wise. It’s a natural thing, a little cute girl in front is going to get more attention.”
In March 1987, as Different Light was being certified double platinum by the RIAA, the Bangles appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The article announced, among other things, that David Kahne had been dismissed as the group’s producer. “In the long run,” it said, “what they may have learned is just how much running their own show means to them.”
Everything But the Girls
After months of touring behind Different Light, and cleaning up after The Allnighter,the Bangles began 1988 with another huge hit: On Feb. 6, their version of the Simon & Garfunkel song “Hazy Shade of Winter” reached No. 2 on the American charts.
The band had cut the track—an old favorite from their clubbing days—for the filmLess Than Zero, and it was included on the Def Jam soundtrack album (on paper, Rick Rubin produced, but the band says they did most of the production work themselves).
Three enormous hits would’ve made most artists ecstatic—but not the Bangles. Susanna was uncomfortable, but the others, virtually ignored by the media, were miserable. “I could tell the way the videos were going very pro–Sue,” Debbi recalled. “I could see it all happening.” They all started wearing heavier makeup, sexier clothes and even more outrageous hairstyles.
“I felt very resentful at the time, and I felt it wasn’t a true representation of what we were all about, and what we were all working for,” Debbi said.
“There we were with this feeling,” Vicki explained, “and it set up this dynamic where the rest of us felt like if we were going to win at this game, all of a sudden we had to play by different rules. At least I did.”
The third album was budgeted at $350,000. Success, Vicki thought, has raised the bar. “The problem,” Debbi said, “was we really didn’t talk about it. That was one of the reasons we broke up, because when you have a relationship with three other people, it’s almost like you’re married. You have to talk to these people and say what you feel. And none of us actually expressed our true feelings.
“I would try to do it, and of course my emotions would take over and it would just come out all gobbledegook and go the wrong way.”
“We were burned out,” Susanna said. “We needed space away from each other. We didn’t quite know how to do it, but what we did was we all went off to write with other people. Just to survive emotionally, we needed a break from each other.”
The foursome re–convened in late spring, and although they were glad to be back Bangling, everybody felt something was wrong. “I knew things were tense but I was just used to it,” said Susanna. “We were all used to it. It was just part of the fact that we just didn’t know how to talk about things when they didn’t feel good. Everyone would just kind of sit there feeling weird and uncomfortable. We didn’t have any way to have a group Bangle thereapy session.”
The first order of business was bringing in Davitt Sigerson to produce—the former engineer had recently helmed an album by David & David that everyone liked. And his easygoing manner behind the board, they thought, would be the antidote for Kahne’s divide–and–conquer tactics.
“Davitt had a good mix,” Vicki said. “He had humor, hyper–intelligence and a very laid–back way in the studio. I was very tense about doing any guitar playing in the studio because of my bad experiences in the past with Kahne. I just felt like I couldn’t play, and I was inept.”
Vicki wrote a song, “Make a Play For Her Now,” with former Kiss guitarist Vinnie Vincent, who turned out to be a major Bangles fan. The others found collaborators, too, and when the recording date arrived, there was a pile of new and exciting songs from which to choose.
Michael contributed three songs to Everything. Her “Glitter Years” was a scorching rocker that looked back fondly on the early ’70s, complete with a unique David Bowie impersonation on the last verse.
“A songwriter said to me once ‘You know, if that song had been about something normal, it could have been a hit,’” she laughed. “‘Eh … you mean like ‘love/dove’? I always thought that songs that are about something ‘other’ were kind of interesting.”
Debbi’s upbeat “Some Dreams Come True” was one of her best songs ever, and she co–wrote “Bell Jar” with her sister. Vicki turned in “Crash and Burn” and, co–written with Susanna, the crunching “Watching the Sky.”
Susanna’s songs, written with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, were the most blatantly commercial of the lot. “In Your Room,” the first Everything single, was the most overtly sexual track the band had ever done.
The label was ecstatic when they heard the album, and predicted big things. “By taking more chances, the Bangles sound more comfortable than they have since their 1982 EP,” raved Rolling Stone.
The band, however, didn’t see it as taking chances.
Michael: “When Sue was covered as far as all the singles, everybody else sort of grabbed the crumbs as they could. We knew it kind of sucked. It was now ‘Paul Revere and the Raiders Featuring Mark Lindsay.’ I always hated what they did to that band.”
Vicki knew something was off, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “All of a sudden it felt like I could be playing in anybody’s band right now,” she recalled. “And that feeling never really went away.
“It’s like ‘Eternal Flame.’ It’s a beautiful song, Whitney Houston would’ve had a huge hit with it. Anyone could’ve had a hit with it. It was not a Bangles song. To me. It was a really well–written pop song. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I felt completely emotionally divorced from a lot of the music that was happening.”
Your basic ’80s “power ballad,” Susanna’s “Eternal Flame” would be the album’s second single—and the band’s second chart–topper. It’s almost a solo performance.
“Everybody else loved it,” Vicki said. “So I was outvoted. Everybody else thought it was fucking genius. And because of the sort of creative thinking world, it was presented to me as, ‘No, but we’re going to do it like a Patsy Cline record.’ And I went ok, well, OK, I don’t know what you mean but that sounds great.
“If you ask Susanna, she still thinks it sounds like a Patsy Cline record. In the imaginary world of Susanna Hoffs, her references were always completely amazing to me. And they still are! She has a very creative little mind, and she lives in a world that doesn’t always jibe with mine. I now find it kind of funny.”
“Like it or don’t like it, you know?” Susanna says of Everything, released in November 1988. “That’s where we were at the time. That’s what eight years of touring brought us to, the making of that album.”
For her part, Michael was glad to have Kahne out of the picture. “It proves that you don’t have to be fucking suicidal to make a worthy album,” she said.
And in the end …
“All the people who loved me wanted to blame everything on Sue,” Vicki said. “And it was not all Sue’s fault, I say this to this day. Which is why I’m able to play in a band with her, because I don’t believe that she was … she was neither a victim, nor was she a perpetrator of this crime. It was partially both. Nothing is that black & white.”
As the Everything tour approached, the four Bangles began to anticipate that old feeling of dread—the travel, the hours, the press. Their removal of Kahne had been a success, so they started scribbling pink slips.
“They were looking for somebody to blame,” Copeland said. “They made me fire my partner Mike Gormley, then they made me fire my brother as the agent, so I was being forced to use people that weren’t really my choices, one by one.”
“The reality was that the group was having such internal troubles, it was very hard to keep going.”
Copeland—who had annoyed the Bangles by giving what they saw as more attention to Sting, his other major client—was dropped in favor of the California management team Arnold Stiefel and Randy Phillips.
They hit the road with a strong album—and immediately found themselves once again playing ‘Susanna Hoffs and the Bangles.’ Susanna, Vicki recalled, “was physically ill. She was painfully aware of the fact that we were all resenting the direction that things were going, and she couldn’t handle that.”
The tour was ugly.
“Towards the end of it, we were just sort of going through the motions, I think,” Debbi said. “A lot of us were. I think Vicki still felt like ‘This can be saved.’ Bless her heart, she was very idealistic about it. But I kept telling her it was going in the wrong direction. I think in her heart she knew that, too.
“The last tour, we all had such bad stomachaches. We thought we were getting ulcers. Michael was sleeping a lot because she was so depressed. We were not doing well.”
Said Michael: “Part of it was just exhaustion, because we worked, and were worked, very hard. I remember falling asleep in one of those plastic chairs that they have in convention rooms. And I remember for the first time thinking ‘I’m hating playing music.’ And that was when I knew the end was near, at least for me. Because I always thought ‘I’ll do it until it’s no fun any more.’”
Debbi, who married the tour’s production manager Steve Botting during a break in June, dreaded going to work. “The whole thing was just too painful,” she said. “It had already gone beyond the direction I thought it should have gone. It was such focus on little sex kitten Susanna Hoffs, and to me that’s what we weren’t all about. We’re a band, we’re musicians, we’re performers, we’re not trying to be little sex girls. But that’s what everybody expects.”
In mid–April, “Eternal Flame” hit No. 1 in America, and the tour dragged on. “I thought if we had one big single with somebody else doing the lead vocal, it would help balance out the perception, and we’d be OK,” Vicki said. So Debbi’s “Be With You” went out as the third single—the video, Debbi said with a sigh, was poorly shot, in a single afternoon—and when it stalled at No. 30, everyone felt a big shakeup was coming.
“At that point,” Vicki explained, “the label was saying they don’t want a single unless it’s a Sue vocal. And as soon as I heard those words – and I heard it inadvertently – I said OK, now the illness is terminal.”
The final wedge, all the Bangles agree, was driven by Stiefel/Phillips. “They were trying to kill the album so they could take Sue for their own,” Debbi said. “I’m not saying anything against Sue at all, I think that definitely was a management ploy. And of course if they’d said that to me, it’s hard not to go with that. You’re tempted by that.”
“We weren’t operating like a group, we were operating like four individuals trying to protect their territory,” Susanna said. “And managers come along who could care less about protecting the group and just ride out the tour for the last record, and are ready to manage different people in the band.”
Susanna said she was getting whispers in both ears: You don’t need these other girls.
“I though yeah, this is hard. I don’t want to be in a room with people who are angry and upset and hostile. Their argument to me was why do you want to be in a room with people who are mad and frustrated?”
A solo career started sounding pretty good to Susanna. “Basically I thought my God, I’ll be out of the pressure cooker,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice. I was very, very stressed out from the tour. I was like a basket case emotionally, physically. I was riddled with anxiety.”
Ironically, it was Michael who first suggested breaking up the Bangles. Stiffel/Phillips was talking her up, making vague promises about a solo deal with Columbia, once she was feeling better.
“I’d hit a point where I was starting to have some scary physical symptoms,” she said. “I was like, ‘Fuckin’ A. The Bangles thing is actually making me physically ill.’ I basically called Sue up and said I can’t do this any more. And she was overjoyed, of course, because she wanted to go do her solo thing.
“Nobody was in anybody’s camp at that point. It was really just that I had to stop. If the band had been united, then maybe they would have gone on without me. But that wasn’t the way it was.
“The other strange thing about it was that the Petersons didn’t see this coming at all. It’s like this train wreck or something.”
The band was booked to visit Australia for the first time in October. A labor strike, however, forced cancellation of the trip, and a meeting was called at Stiefel’s home on the beach—to discuss, it was explained, “the next move.”
“I show up and there gathered in the room are all the Bangles, our manager, his partner, his press agent, our lawyer and our business manager,” Vicki said. “And Micki won’t look me in the eye. I’m like, ‘..W–what’s going on?’
“And very soon after that, our manager cajoled out of Susanna the words ‘I don’t think I can make this next Bangles record. And actually, I don’t think I want to do a Bangles record again.’
“It was sort of like your husband invites you to a fancy restaurant for a nice dinner, and you think you’re going to celebrate your anniversary or something. And you show up and he’s got his best friend and his lawyer there at the table with him, and he announces to you that he doesn’t want to be married to you any more.”
Vicki and Debbi—who had arrived with her husband—were dumbfounded, but tried to rally the troops. “I think our evil manager knew that,” Vicki said, “and so in order to ward off any Bangles records which might be competing with his Susanna Hoffs record, he made sure he had Michael Steele on his team, too. Micki was desperately unhappy as well, for many reasons. He completely fucked with her, and there’s just no other way of putting it. She’ll be the first one to tell you that he told her he was going to look after her, and get her a solo deal and all this stuff, and as soon as the band was dissolved he didn’t return her phone calls.”
Michael: “I had to get out, and the whole CBS ‘We’re going to get you a deal’ thing was kind of nice, but it didn’t happen, basically because they dropped the ball.
“I probably couldn’t have even dealt with that, I was so stressed out.”
Always the most emotional Bangle, Debbi took a few precisely–aimed hits at this meeting. “Management actually blamed me and my by calling it the ‘Debbi & Steve Show.’ They were trying to pinpoint me trying to get all this attention because I had blonde hair, and I was up on the drum riser! And when the spotlight did go on me, which wasn’t very often, the fans would get confused about who the singer was. Then my head turned into a lightbulb. In fact, I’ve seen video of me having a ‘lightbulb head’ because my hair was so bright and I was up close to the lights.
“They started pinpointing this fantasy about me trying to be a big star. I still don’t even understand it, to this day. If anything, I was just trying to stand up for myself because I didn’t feel a lot of support from anybody else. Look at the videos: Hello?!
“They were definitely dividing and conquering between Vicki and I and Micki and Sue. That was their little plan to break the Bangles up so they could get their Susanna.”
Vicki tried to argue about giving one another the freedom to do solo projects and still keeping the band together, but it was too little, too late.
“It was very final, and it was like nothing you could say could change it,” Debbi said. “We all got in our cars and drove off. And that was it, we had broken up.”
After the Bangles
Susanna Hoffs’ solo career was launched with the dissolution of the Bangles, and although she and her managers predicted she’d inherit the group’s success, it didn’t exactly work out that way.
For her debut, Susanna chose an unlikely producer: David Kahne, who’d humiliated the Bangles for so long in the studio. “I was so terrified by the whole thing that was going on, I didn’t know what was up and what was down,” Susanna said. “Somewhere deep down in my intuition I knew I couldn’t really trust what was going on.”
Kahne, she thought the time, was the devil that you know as opposed to the devil you don’t. “Maybe he’s a difficult guy to work with, but at least we made good records together.”
Produced by Kahne, When You’re a Boy (the title comes from David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” which closed the album) was released in the early weeks of 1991. Susanna’s single “My Side of the Bed” made it to No. 30, due in no small part to the sexually–charged video (it’s difficult to misinterpret a beautiful, scantily clad woman singing the line “You can get yours on my side of the bed”).
The album, however, stalled at No. 83, and critics derided its generic pop sound and cloying, come–hither lyrics. “When I didn’t have Vicki and Micki and Debbi there to fight the fight, Kahne went out of control pop, out of control production, out of control keyboards,” Susanna says.
“It just was a mistake. I’ve heard other artists speak of records they’ve made that way—Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette, people have made first records that consider to be nothing to do with them.”
No longer involved with Stiefel and Phillips, Susanna began making overtures to the other ex–Bangles about re–forming the band. “Immediately after the fiasco of making the David Kahne solo record, I thought ‘What am I doing? This is ridiculous.’ And I was trying to re–connect with them, but they really weren’t ready. Had no interest. Zero.”
Vicki had cut her hair down to an inch, gone back to school and learned sign language. For a while, she was lost. “You’ve been spending not just the last 9 years of your life, which was in Bangledom, but basically it went back to when I was in high school and playing with my best friends in a band. It never had stopped for me. I had been doing this my entire adult life, even my adolescent life had been wrapped up in this dream.
“So now, all of a sudden, it’s gone. So now who am I? Am I ex–Bangle Vicki Peterson? Am I an artist in my own right? Do I even want to do this any more?”
She found a soulmate in Susan Cowsill, the one–time “cute little kid sister” of the singing Cowsill family. They started writing songs together. Vicki played guitar during a Cowsills reunion tour—”It was like being onstage with the Beatles”—and she and Susan performed a string of acoustic dates in their nightgowns. They billed themselves as the Psycho Sisters.
The Psycho Sisters soon gravitated towards a group of old friends who regularly jammed on the stage of an old rehearsal hall; Vicki knew bassist Mark Walton from the Dream Syndicate, one of the old Paisley Underground bands.
The group became the Continental Drifters. Susan Cowsill married guitarist Peter Holsapple, a Drifters guitarist, and by the mid ’90s all the musicians had drifted to New Orleans, where today they are a frequent and favorite live attraction.
To date, the band has made two albums—1999′s Vermilion, on Razor & Tie, was critically acclaimed—and Vicki says she’s never been happier. She’s balancing the new Bangles project with her Drifters obligations.
Debbi began the ’90s frightened and bitter. “I didn’t speak to Susanna for a long time—we’re talking years,” she says. “We just had to heal some wounds, and we all had to do our own thing.”
At Miles Copeland’s urging Debbi began to write with former Go–Go’s drummer Gina Schock. Calling their band Smashbox, they cut five tracks with producer Humberto Garcia in 1992.
But Schock “got weird” and the project was never completed. Just as Debbi was wondering about throwing all the songs out, she was approached by singer Siobhan Maher, whose band, River City People, had just broken up. They had briefly discussed working together; how about now?
Dubbed Kindred Spirit, the pair toured England as Joan Armatrading’s opening act in 1992. Two and a half years later, the Kindred Spirit album was released on IRS.
It’s an atmospheric album that keeps its focus on the women’s harmony vocals—and the songwriting is strong and interesting. Only one of the Schock tracks, “Here in My Eyes,” made it to the finished album.
In 1994 Susanna married film director M. Jay Roach, whom she’d met on a blind date. Their son Jackson was born in 1995, son Sam three years later.
In between children, Susanna released a self–titled solo album on London (a terrific, almost underproduced set) and appeared in Roach’s film Austin Powers, as the guitar–playing go–go girl in Austin’s band Ming Tea.
She also sang the Bacharach classic “The Look of Love” in the movie.
In 1998, Susanna and Debbi were both pregnant—and the Bangle wall started to crumble. “You can’t hold a grudge forever,” said Debbi. “Life’s too short. And once you have a kid, your perspective changes.”
Sam Roach and Brian Botting were born around the same time, and their mothers found themselves on the phone constantly, sharing parenting tips, and soon they were in a room, writing songs together. “It was fun again,” Debbi said. “Just like the old days.”
“Until Debbi had her son, we just couldn’t connect on a human level,” said Susanna. “Forget all this music stuff.
“Frankly, Vicki and I could always connect on that level. We were always friends. We could always talk to each other and just have a nice conversation, person to person.
“Which meant a lot to me. I didn’t ever want to feel like I couldn’t be friends with them. It was a little harder with Micki, because it was such a horrible thing that happened with the management. I didn’t know about it. And I didn’t know how devastating it was. She had to pick up the pieces, emotionally, from how that whole fiasco left her.”
Michael moved to Northern California, among the redwoods, and lived with “a bunch of animals and no television.” Both of Michael’s parents died during this period; living alone, she wrote songs and played a little music with friends, only when the mood struck. She and Vicki spoke often.
“I got into a different rhythm,” she explained. “I didn’t have that kind of burning ambition thing any more, which was probably good. Because I think that’s partially what caused the health problem.”
Meanwhile Vicki, who “took a lot of convincing,” came to Los Angeles and helped the twosome finish off “Get the Girl,” a song for the second Austin Powers movie. She, too, realized things were different—everyone seemed to have the right priorities—and she convinced Michael to play bass and sing on the session. “It was a way of seeing if we can all be in the same room together,” Vicki said.
Before that, “Micki never talked to Sue. Susanna just started reaching out to these people and having nice long conversations with them, and healing some of the wounds. She did all the work. She had to do all the work; it was her work to do.”
The Bangles today are different people. “We handle things differently,” said Vicki. “We’re a little less afraid to say the scary stuff.”
(Update, 2012. The reunion album, Doll Revolution, was brilliant but didn’t exactly rekindle the public’s love affair with the Bangles. Michael left the band, and Susanna, Vicki and Debi continue to tour as the Bangles. Plus a lot of other stuff happened. The end.)