With a Little Help from Friend Prince, the Bangles Have Become the Queens of Post-Psychedelic Pop
It is nearly an hour past their Monday-morning taping call and the Bangles, looking like a gang of sleepy truants, are just piling out of their van in front of Paramount Studios. Inside, the Solid Gold production assistant plays indignant vice-principal: All nerves and recrimination, he takes charge of their costumes, orders them into makeup and announces that the cameras will roll in a mere half hour.
But Susanna Hoffs, 25, Michael Steele, 26, and sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson, 25 and 23, aren’t about to lose their collective Val-girl cool. Wandering into the dressing room, they fiddle with the radio until they find a Byrds song, then attack a basket of fresh fruit and remind their den mother—Vicki and Debbi’s mom, Jean—to check the mail while they’re away on tour. Michael unveils the dress she bought on a shopping trip with Cyndi Lauper: “Bitchin’,” her band mates sigh. Debbi reports on a terrible dream she’d had the night before: “We were on the road,” she tells Michael, “and you were pregnant.”
They are taking years off the life of the production assistant. From the corridor, he raps on the door once, twice, three times, to summon them to the set. “Rush, rush, rush,” a voice inside replies. “The story of the Bangles.”
At the moment, this don’t-call-us-a-girl-band is proceeding at an accelerated pace. Three years ago, they were playing smoky L.A. clubs full of neo-hippies and dreaming of hearing their songs coming from car radios. Just back from a six-week European tour, they’re already embarked on a six-month outing that will take them across the U.S., back to Europe and—they hope—to Moscow. Different Light, their second LP, is a half-million seller headed for the Top 10; Manic Monday (written by friend Prince, under the pseudonym Christopher) seems like a good bet to be their first chart-topping single. The de rigueur video, a ’60s-style fantasy that echoes their Beatlesque sensibility, is in rotation on MTV, and life is beginning to seem a little frenetic. “When I heard the song on the radio, then saw our video on MTV, I thought, ‘Wow! It’s really happening,’ ” Debbie says. “I kinda got teary eyed because it’s for real.”
It’s easy to see how the Bangles could hit it big: With their pop beads and hoop earrings, their “bitchin’,” “cool,” “gnarly” talk and their dance-able back-to-basics music, they are as elemental as Marshmallow Fluff.
Raised in Southern California, the fertile crescent of America’s pop culture, they take their creative cues from Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground. “We’re just reinterpreting sounds,” Michael says. “The Beatles interpreted Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. It’s a never-ending process. Basically it’s all modern folk music, passed down through generations.”
Predictably enough, the four have been rehearsing their rock-mama roles since adolescence. As Catholic schoolgirls, the Petersons, daughters of an aerospace engineer and a housewife, played in a band and cruised the Valley in their ancient Buick, singing along with the radio. While Vicki spent two years at UCLA, sister Debbi eschewed such frivolity: “I said, ‘I want to be a rock star,’ ” she laughs. Susanna—whose father is a psychoanalyst and whose mother is a film director—formed her own “Velvet Undergroundish” group and augmented her art courses at Berkeley with studies in dance and music. “Before the Bangles,” she explains, “I led a solitary life of doing the unconscious and painting.” Michael, the daughter of a businessman and a housewife, grew up in Newport Beach and played in no fewer than 14 bands, including the semisuccessful Runaways.
After putting in time with short-lived groups that played obscure Orange County night spots, Vicki and Debbi hooked up with Susanna in 1981. Christening themselves the Bangs, the three (plus a now-departed bassist) became part of the mushrooming “paisley revival,” playing such ’60s oddments as Bob Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine in ratty clubs where male patrons would crowd into the bathroom to watch them change. Pooling their odd-job money, they put out a 45 on their own ad hoc label and attracted a following that included Michael, then a part-time car-wash cashier. Steele, who “dug them heavily,” lobbied hard for an audition, and in 1984, she got it. “She was totally hot,” Vicki remembers. “She was born to be in the band.”
When the rechristened group—with Michael playing bass, Vicki and Susanna guitars and Debbi drums—hit the road with Cyndi Lauper in 1984, male admirers turned out in force. The same thing happened during this winter’s European tour, which attracted hordes of male adolescents high on testosterone. Says Michael, “We’re the female version of Wham!”
Groupies? “What is a groupie?” asks Susanna. “Does that mean the act has to be consummated?”
“We get both kinds—people who want to take care of us and those who want to have sex,” reports Michael.
“We get a lot who want sex,” says Susanna.
“Let’s put it this way,” Michael says firmly. “The chance is there and we usually don’t.”
Prince, of course, is the Bangles’ most prominent admirer. For the last two years, he’s turned up at their shows at Hollywood’s Palace and slipped backstage afterward. While they were writing songs for their second album, he sent a tape of Manic Monday and they appropriated the song immediately. “Prince really likes the way [our version] sounds,” says Susanna (who denies the rumors that she was romantically involved with him).
With Manic Monday running rampant on the airwaves and a major tour in gear, the Bangles are becoming this month’s media darlings: The Washington Post has reported on their affinity for This Is Spinal Tap (the comic “rocumentary” about heavy-metal droolers on a disastrous tour) and the Philadelphia Inquirer has revealed that their musical equipment cases are pale pink. And while the band is ready to part company with obscurity, they also miss that special time—which seems like only yesterday because it was only yesterday—when there were no backstage passes or questions about their boyfriends. (They all deny any current serious entanglements.)
“I remember sitting in Debbie’s old station wagon, before a show a few years ago, going over the parts because we hadn’t performed yet and we were nervous as hell,” says Vicki. “We were all squished into the backseat doing harmonies.”
“Those were the days,” sighs Susanna. “Singing in the car is the hottest place of all.”