Saturday, July 11, 2009

Album project: The Bangles

The Bangles, All Over The Place (1984): Susannah Hoffs and sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson united to form The Bangs in late 1980. The Bangs became a part of LA's "Paisley Underground" scene, bands whose sound harked back to 60's psychedelia, while also drawing from more recent garage/punk influences. Changing their name to The Bangles due to copyright issues, they released a lackluster debut EP in 1982. The next year, original bassist Annette Zilinskas left and was replaced by Michael Steele. This lineup recorded All Over The Place, as fine a collection of power pop as can be found anywhere.

The album opens strongly with "Hero Takes A Fall", also the first single. "Hero" reflects the band's 60's British roots as well as drawing power from 80's West Coast punk. Lyrically, it sets the tone for the rest of the disc - these are independent women who mean business. "Hero Takes A Fall" deserved to be a hit, but The Bangles would make up for it in the years to come.

"Live", a cover of a track from 60's psychedelics The Merry-Go-Round, shows off the band's influences in that area. "James" shows an ability for jangle-pop, while tracks like "Dover Beach" and their cover of Kimberley Rew's "Going Down To Liverpool" recall the Beatles of the Rubber Soul and Revolver era. The Bangles also prove their ability to rock out on tracks like "All About You", "Tell Me", and "Silent Treatment".

Vicki Peterson contributes fine guitar work throughout, as well as taking the role of principal songwriter. Drummer Debbi Peterson and bassist Michael Steele give the music a solid foundation. Hoffs and the Petersons share in lead vocals, as CBS hadn't yet begun to push Hoffs out front as the "star" of the group. The three and four-part harmonies throughout the record would become a Bangles signature. The other Bangles LP's of the 80's contain some fine music, but All Over The Place is overall still their finest, most balanced effort, and remains criminally overlooked to this day.

The one that got away.

The Bangles, Different Light (1986): Although not as consistent as All Over The Place, Different Light has its strengths, also producing four hit singles that were some of pop music's better moments from 1986-87.

By this time, Prince had taken an interest in the band's career. Everything Prince touched in the mid-80's seemed to turn to gold, and his "Manic Monday", penned under the pseudonym "Christopher", was no exception. Combining Monday morning melancholy with some nice harmonies, "Manic Monday" climbed to #2 in the US and UK charts, giving the group its breakthrough. Different Light's best track, Jules Shear's gorgeous "If She Knew What She Wants", gave the group a second hit. This was followed by the quirky, poppy "Walk Like An Egyptian", The Bangles' first chart-topper. "Walking Down Your Street" made it into the Top 20 as well.

All four hits were written in whole or in part outside the band. The disc's weakness is that the band's original compositions are not up to that standard, apart from the rockers "Different Light" and "Let It Go". Overall, Different Light is a decent second effort, and seemed to portend a bright future for the group.

A killer cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade Of Winter", from the movie Less Than Zero, reached #2 and kept The Bangles in the spotlight through 1987. But their next LP release, Everything was disappointing artistically if not commercially. Dominated by the treacly ballad "Eternal Flame", the group's second #1 hit, the album lacked the musical edginess of the previous Bangles releases. The group was also losing its cohesiveness, due in part to CBS pressuring lead vocalist Susannah Hoffs into starting a solo career. The pressures led to the breakup of the band in 1989.

Susannah Hoffs embarked on a less-than-successful solo career, while Vicki Peterson joined psychedelic folkies The Continental Drifters and Debbi Peterson married. The Bangles reunited in 2001 and released the LP Doll Revolution; Elvis Costello wrote the title track. The group remains together to this day. Michael Steele left in 2005. Abby Travis replaced Steele for live performances, although she is not considered an official member of the group.