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Bangles

+ {Susanna Hoffs}

During the latter half of the 80s, the all-female BANGLES were something of a phenomenon in the post-Paisley (Underground) pop/rock scheme of things. If divergent dream pop was down to just looks and hooks, star attractions Susanna Hoffs and Co had it in spades. Big hitters such as `Manic Monday’, `Walk Like An Egyptian’ and transatlantic chart-topper, `Eternal Flame’, marked out the jangle-pop act from their perennial periphery West Coast contemporaries The RAIN PARADE, GREEN ON RED and The DREAM SYNDICATE and, as a result, influenced a new generation of all-girl groups; too numerous to mention.
Formed 1981, as The Bangs, in Los Angeles, California, sisters Vicki (vocals/lead guitar) and Debbi Peterson (vocals/drums) answered an ad in The Recycler rag placed by singer/rhythm guitarist Susanna Hoffs. A one-off 45 for their own DownKiddie imprint, `Getting Out Of Hand’ (b/w `Call On Me’), sold out its initial batch, but due to a touchy band of the same name from the Big Apple, they became BANGLES.
In the process they added bass player, Annette Zilinskas, and signed to Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. subsidiary Faulty Products. The entrepreneur’s clout as manager of The POLICE and others gave the girls an opportunity to shine by way of a support slot to The (English) BEAT. A subsequent eponymous 12-inch EP showed the girls to be a feisty garage-pop act whose sound was characterised by the harmonies of the Peterson sisters and influenced by the likes of The BEATLES, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD and The GO-GO’s; the latter, of course, an all-girl group unassociated with the male-dominated Paisley Underground scene.
Probably not enamoured by the pop direction the band were taking as they inked a major label deal at Columbia Records, Annette untangled her bangle in order to spearhead her own cowpunk outfit, BLOOD ON THE SADDLE. Ex-RUNAWAYS (and Slow Children) bassist/vocalist Micki/Michael Steele (born Susan Thomas), was added just in time for the jangle-pop BANGLES to cut fresh tracks for their summer ‘84 debut album, ALL OVER THE PLACE {*6}.
With a certain degree of hype, astute promo-videos and a subsequent support slot to au courant breakthrough act CYNDI LAUPER, the set breached the lower limits of both the US and UK charts. And that was despite no immediate hits by way of `Hero Takes A Fall’ and the Debbi-sung `Going Down To Liverpool’. The latter was a cover of a KATRINA & THE WAVES track authored by an overtly BEATLES-inspired Kimberley Rew. Incidentally, the song cracked the UK Top 60 a few years later when the BANGLES were in vogue, whilst the set itself featured another cover – The MERRY-GO-ROUND’s `Live’ – highlighting singing drummer Debbi again; all four would alternate between lead and backing vocal duties.
It would take the imperious pen of PRINCE to furnish the BANGLES with their own breakthrough smash, `Manic Monday’; said to be targeted for his unlucky protégé APOLLONIA 6. Garnering a Top 3 place in early ‘86, the harmony-addled, SHANGRI-LAS-esque tale of 9 to 5 frustrations, captured the popular vote among the young at heart. This classic pop/rock song was a million miles from their Paisley Underground salad days, but with the neo-60’s-addled girl group winning over audiences worldwide, there was little sentiment for origins and roots. Equalling the song’s chart performance, sophomore set DIFFERENT LIGHT (1986) {*7} boasted successive volleys, including a melancholy reading of JULES SHEAR’s `If She Knew What She Wants’, Liam Sternberg’s chart-topper `Walk Like An Egyptian’ (UK Top 3), and a remix of `Walking Down Your Street’. Instantly in competition with the likes of BANANARAMA, only Steele’s UK-only `Following’ floundered, whilst a cover of BIG STAR’s `September Gurls’ couldn’t quite win over the stuck-in-the-mud power-pop contingent.
Hatching yet another storming outsider track via SIMON AND GARFUNKEL’s `Hazy Shade Of Winter’ (lifted from the “Less Than Zero” Brat Pack flick), 1988 completed another fruitful year for America’s dishy darlings. Susanna Hoffs, meanwhile, had already made her all-too-brief film-acting debut the previous May, as Molly Morrison, in flop comedy The Allnighter.
With seemingly no end to their pop ascendancy, the BANGLES again hired several outside collaborators for the slick EVERYTHING (1988) {*5}; another commercial triumph that spawned the Top 5, `In Your Room’, as well as the band’s syrupy calling card, `Eternal Flame’, which eventually usurped MADONNA’s `Like A Prayer’. With sex symbol Susanna increasingly regarded as the band’s focal point (despite Debbi’s `Be With You’ cracking the Top 30), tensions subsequently split the band in 1990, as their run of hits stuttered to a halt.
While SUSANNA HOFFS went on to a marginally fruitful solo career with minor hit `My Side Of The Bed’ (from disappointing parent set, WHEN YOU’RE A BOY (1991) {*3}), the Peterson sisters continued to work within the alternative/pop underground.
The eponymous SUSANNA HOFFS {*6} again divided opinions, and whilst there was no ill-conceived covers of BOWIE’s `Boys Keep Swinging’ or CYNDI LAUPER’s `Unconditional Love’ (from her previous failure) on board, she still had the inclination to cast a few questions in her addendum renditions of LULU’s `To Sir With Love’ and STEALERS WHEEL’s `Stuck In The Middle With You’; and this was despite the merits of roping in SPARKLEHORSE’s Mark Linkous (and David Baerwald) to co-compose and accompany her on several tracks.
Almost a decade and a half after they’d signed off, the definitive BANGLES decided to re-form and record DOLL REVOLUTION (2003) {*6}. This set was described by many, unfairly one might add, as unremarkable a comeback as had been heard in recent times. Stodgy and weighed down by its ill-advised attempts at rootsy, bluesy rock, it added little to the band’s shiny-happy-people pop legacy. Despite itself, the album managed to unearth a minor UK pop hit in `Something That You Said’, and an ELVIS COSTELLO-penned opening song, `Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)’.
If any lessons were to be absorbed from this reunion, it would be without Steele, who opted to bail out in 2004 after the group’s lack of impetus. To fulfill touring commitments, in her berth arrived former Lovedolls bassist, Abby Travis; although for the most part The BANGLES remained a trio, employing fill-ins when opportunities arose. In the long interim, HOFFS recorded a pair of “Under The Covers” volumes (between 2006 and 2009) with good friend and producer MATTHEW SWEET.
As luck would have it, the former power-pop revivalist was on hand to augment The BANGLES on their sunshine-pop set, SWEETHEART OF THE SUN (2011) {*6}. From the brimming `Anna Lee (Sweetheart Of The Sun)’, to a re-vamp of TODD RUNDGREN/NAZZ’s `Open My Eyes’ – bookends interpolated by golden nuggets `Mermerised’ and The McKINKEYS `Sweet And Tender Romance’ – the whole project worked reasonably well.
Whilst The BANGLES continued to tour intermittently (a December 2013 “3×4” Paisley Underground convention saw the group appear alongside The DREAM SYNDICATE, RAIN PARADE and The THREE O’CLOCK), HOFFS kept up her resolve by issuing a solo set, SOMEDAY (2012) {*7}. Indeed this was certainly an album she could be proud of; its contemporary baroque folk overtones suiting her and writing partner Andrew Brassell – with veteran producer Mitchell Froom on hand – down to a tee. Okay there was nostalgia a-plenty, but under the spell of a jangly Laurel Canyon motif (e.g. `Picture Me’, `This Is The Place’ and `Raining’), singer Susanna was weaving her magic once again. Around a year later, the third volume of SWEET-ly “Under The Covers” collaborations concentrated on the 80s.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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