OUT WITH A BANG
When I was looking for a job as a soon to be graduate trainee, one of the places I interviewed had a hiring mantra - as the job spent so much time traveling or just hanging around, they were looking for someone with whom you wouldn't mind being stuck on a train for three hours. I didn't get the job there but always wanted to join - and did several years later.
However, I never forgot this advice (and still use it) because people's passions are fascinating. It doesn't matter whether its motorbikes, flower arranging or Etruscan Pottery (in none of which I have any previous interest) but if somebody is truly passionate about it then they will take you with them regardless, at least for the duration of that particular conversation.
Now, I am passionate about football and my team but honestly, it's blind. They've never won anything in recent (and now not so recent memory) and the joy they bring can be exultant but is rare. It is of course, for me, also tied up in birthplace, family and memories - going to matches with my father and his father; new kit for birthdays; nights in the pub with friends and even one or two wonderful trips home and abroad. But it is emotionally charged and almost genetic as a result.
My passion really comes from records and record collecting and has done from around the age of 11 or 12. I am happy to ramble on about limited editions, coloured vinyls, sleeves, pressing quality to my heart's content. There's a double benefit for me because I also love what's etched into the vinyl just as much - hence this blog.
There is always an excitement when you meet someone with the same vinyl passion and the conversation strikes up. Apologies to any unwitting bystander who has been caught in the crossfire of all of this, as the code of imports, back catalogue and the vinyl community takes hold. We are, by and large, a pretty friendly bunch - with the notable exception of some especially sharp-elbowed collectors I cam across in Tokyo - and more often than not, just a basic enjoyment of music will keep you involved without getting too lost.
Recently, I've been indulging in a little vinyl show and tell (which is a lot more innocent than I realise it sounds) with some fellow collectors/hoarders. As one was taking me through his collection, he came across a few discs I recognised instantly, which he described as a guilty pleasure.
These records were the by The Bangles and they are nothing to feel guilty about at all.
The Bangles were (and may still be) the best selling female band of all time, who broke up at the very height of their commercial success.
The tragedy is that if you gauge their major singles the inevitable demise becomes more and more obvious and a wonderfully talented band ceased to brighten the airwaves with new material (at least not for many many years).
Back in the late 80s, the raucous Irish band called The Saw Doctors released a song called "I'd Love To Kiss The Bangles" which talked about how they didn't want to canoodle with such musical luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bono, 'the drummer from Status Quo' or Shane Macgowan (because "his teeth are green and mangled"). The delights of the considerably more alluring Bangles were a different matter... and when performed live, I think their desire was often a little more pointed, you could say.
And this is the first of the problems with history's view of The Bangles, because there was no doubt they were four hugely attractive girls and a marketing man's dream with four correspondingly different hair colours and personalities to play around with.
What is lost is that they were great songwriters, performers and importantly students of pop history and how it could go on to define their sound. Needless to say, I want to try and put this right.
I remember seeing the band initially during an episode in the first series of 'The Tube' - compulsory Friday night viewing in my house. That show prided itself on trying to find the next big thing and in the light of America's then love-affair with The Go-Gos (with whom they are always unfairly compared), there was a buzz about an all-girl LA band called "The Bangs" who were likely to break through. I also remember not really thinking much about them - except for the teenage obvious - and they didn't play on the show. This must have been prior to the exceptionally talented Michael Steele (originally in the all-girl prototype rock band The Runaways with Joan Jett, Lita Ford et al) joining on bass and unlocking the magic formula.
That magic formula was defined by a love of 60s records by The Byrds, The Monkees and of course, The Beatles.
Three years later, they had been signed by CBS - a source of excitement as this was the Byrds' label - and released their first album "All Over The Place". At this stage, they promoted themselves quite heavily in the UK where their brand of college jangle pop was felt to find a more likely audience - which had already started taking to bands like REM as the American contribution to the then popular alternative pop sound. They were, after all, fully fledged members of what was called LA's Paisley Underground.
"All Over The Place" genuinely sounds like all the band had been listening to was "Beatles For Sale" and 'Help" with its harmonies and their half psychedelic / half folky guitar sound especially on tracks like "Tell Me" and "All About You". The choice of "Live" which was a cover of The Merry Go Round's 60s almost-hit showed their influence and their reverence for that period.
As a result of all this promotion, I remember being taken by their second single "Going Down To Liverpool" which was a cover of a Katrina & The Waves song (don't laugh - they were also initially a jangle favourite artist - it's the B-side to "Walking On Sunshine") which was obviously a nod to their biggest influence although I always found it strange as to how confused the line "where are you going with that UB40 in your hand" sounded when delivered by these evidently permanently employable girls from LA. The buzz around the track came from a promo featuring a rather bemused looking Leonard Nimoy - apparently a family friend of Susanna Hoffs' parents.
The original single from the album, however, stands up even better. "Hero Takes A Fall" is beautifully written and beautifully performed with Susanna on lead - they swapped around throughout their albums - but backed with fantastic harmonies and sharp playing. These were songs for playing live and their performances were perhaps a little rough but deliberately so to counter the initial feminine impression the band would make - they could undoubtedly rock. They were a truly solid garage rock band.
Though there were no big hits from the first album on CBS, word got round that The Bangles were close to breaking through and the album picked up several notable fans. The most prominent was a writer called Alexander Nevermind - or as we know him, Prince - who had developed quite an infatuation with the band and particularly, Susanna Hoffs.
The story I had always read (as an avid reader of Record Mirror) is that when they were flying back on Concorde after appearing at The Brit Awards, Prince, ever the silver-tongued cavalier when it came to the female of the species, slipped them a tape of a song that he felt they should perform. Whether true or not, for The Bangles, this was the best time they could have collided with the old goat, as he was then in the middle of one of his most interesting creations "Around The World In A Day" which was a deliberately psychedelic 60s homage with big hits such as "Raspberry Beret" - he felt sure the song would fit the template of their developing sound.
So was born The Bangles' first massive hit "Manic Monday" - a perfect slice of baroque Pop a la The Left Banke - which went stratospheric in the UK and then the world beyond, only being kept off the top of the chart in the US by its writer's own record, the exceptional "Kiss".
Their second album "Different Light" took the band up another notch with a more polished production that made the band sound even tighter. There were still strong 60s influences throughout but the vocal harmonies sounded more female Beach Boys or Mamas and The Papas than the garage rock of the previous album - perhaps the best examples were the peppy "Walking Down Your Street" and the album's title track "In A Different Light".
The Baroque-pop theme was continued with the cover of "If She Knew What She Wants" which had another beautiful vocal from Susanna and we also heard the first leads from Michael Steele with the other cover, the wonderful Big Star's power-pop classic "September Gurls" which really sounded like it had bounded straight out of any one of the band's record collections.
More interesting though was her own composition "Following" which is one of my favourites of all their records - it is a dark and atmospheric piece which although breaking the customary upbeat feel still keeps the sixties vibe through its simplicity.
The tightness of the band improved and the harmonies and performing went up several gears to create a genuinely brilliant pop album which has still stood the test of time. However, cracks were beginning to be seen in the unity of the band (contrary to the music being produced).
Firstly, the attention of Prince had brought a considerable amount of attention on the band not least their relentless pursuit of a story of a supposed relationship with Susanna. What had been a very tight unit was starting to have one member focused on more than most and we all know what happens then.
In fact, the producer David Kahne had created quite a tense atmosphere in the studio and nobody was particularly enjoying making the album. This manifested itself most during the making of the uniquely 80s "Walk Like An Egyptian" which the band were a bit split on recording as it felt a bit of a novelty hit. It was also supposed to be sung with a lead vocal by Debbie but Kahne ended up auditioning them all to sing a verse and with three verses there was always going to be a loser - and worst of all it was Debbie. Let's not forget the drum track was provided by a drum machine so it is small wonder that on what became their biggest hit she felt more than a little sidelined.
It would go some way to explaining her choice of a more than fiery cat suit as wardrobe for the video. You were not going to forget her in a hurry, that's for sure.
The album and its singles (five in the UK) were a huge success all over the world and The Bangles became chart fixtures throughout 1986 and 1987. Still the focus on Susanna was growing and by the time of their next album "Everything" it was very much starting to feel like Michael, Vicky and Debbie were becoming her backing band. Of course, the obligatory approaches to start out as a solo artiste were also starting to emerge.
You can see all the classic rock break-up elements lining up can't you?
However, the recording of "Everything" was a lot less fraught with the more benign production style of Davitt Sigerson. The 60s styling could still be heard on great songs like the quite psychedelic "Be With You" (sung by Debbie) and "Bell Jar" (by Vicky) while Michael put forward the excellent "Glitter Years" which looked back to her yers with her old band. But interestingly, there were no cover versions on this album as they all clearly all wanted to demonstrate that they were a key component in the success of the band.
However, the record company were definitely beginning to put more focus on Susanna in their marketing and this would emerge in the choice of singles the foxy "In Your Room" and of course the worldwide smash "Eternal Flame", which reached number one in. at least 9 countries including the UK, US and Australia.
Now, I have to be honest, this was an awful moment for me with The Bangles, who up until then had not put a step wrong but this was a syrupy mawkish ballad that sounded like it should be given to Diana Ross or some other diva. The production was weedy with no beat and was relentlessly cloying - compare it to "Following", for instance.
But the world bought it in droves.
But apparently, I was not alone as even band co-founder and sometime leader, Vicky Petersen, thought this was the moment The Bangles jumped the shark and the song should have been given to Whitney Houston (so I wasn't far off).
However, you may have caught a recent solo performance by Susanna of the song with just her and a guitar and perhaps it's because I have mellowed with age or more likely it's just a much more suitable arrangement that lets the song and her delightful vocal come through.
It is so much more enjoyable than the hideously twee original (apologies for her husband's intro).
Regardless, media and marketing attention pushing one member of a previously tight group into the spotlight, a relentless schedule and a shift in style away from what had bound them together meant that having just had their biggest global hit, within six months the band would split in 1989. The band had always been one of four equal contributors, all with unique personalitiess but bound together with a unified vision and influence. The breakdown was inevitable and unsurprisingly, the last song on "Everything" was called 'Crash & Burn".
Unlike their male counterparts, this didn't break out into fist-fights or the smashing up of studios but long-running bouts of passive aggression including that most damaging of acts - a wedding snub, when Susanna and Michael didn't attend Debbie's wedding. Even for the eternal optimist, Vicky, it was clear that the writing was on the wall.
And for me that was a great shame because there were times when The Bangles really were something special and far better than history has treated them. For me that was best shown on their late 1987 single from the "Less Than Zero" soundtrack - their cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade Of Winter".
I am going to put it out there but I think this is one of the most enjoyable covers by anyone anywhere. This is the band at their slickest and tightest as a group - the harmonies are excellent and the reinvention of the song keeps the sixties spirit of the song but brings in all of the 80s indie attitude you could hope for.
This is their crowning moment for me.
As it happens, the band did reform around the end of the 90s (to make a song for an Austin Powers film initially), have produced a couple of albums since then and still get together to play - although Michael has left sadly.
There was no villain in this piece, apart from the outside pressure which treated a group as rocking and unified as any masculine counterpart, as if they were simple pop princesses. They were so much more than that.
Susanna didn't go on to a successful solo career despite heavy investment but there is no denying that she has a remarkably strong vocal style that simply bursts with Californian sunshine. If you want to hear more then check out her trilogy of decade-specific cover versions she released in the last ten years with Matthew Sweet, which sees her return to the music she truly loves. She is also duetting on Travis' latest album.
My premise is that The Bangles' biggest hits accelerated the breakdown of a tight band with a unique sound both aspects of which became gradually more dissipated with each of their respective releases.
But whilst there may only have been three main albums (and one thunderous single) in the main section of The Bangles' career but - putting "Eternal Flame" aside - they present a magnificently uplifting body of work, most of which are unaffected by the customary 80s production excesses. Instead you are left with the work of four tight-knit musicians who really knew their musical heritage.