California Girls: The Bangles

A Number One single and a platinum album aren't enough to make Bangles happy. They want more - more control, more power, more success.

The Bangles
Bonnie Schiffman
The Bangles
By |

Start with California: land of, uh, contrasts. Southern California, where the exotic and the vernacular peacefully coexist, where skyscrapers and hot-dog-shaped restaurants sit side by side, is really three distinct, dissimilar worlds – the Valley, the Beach and the City. But in the Southern California spirit of peculiar juxtaposition, four women from these disparate corners of Los Angeles ended up in a garage together, inventing a band.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Bangles.

If you thought you'd heard the last of four-part harmonies; if you'd rued the passing of bands that featured a cute one, a smart one, a quiet one and a drummer; if you'd figured that since the demise of the Beatles, the music audience had been irreversibly divided – pop-loving mall rat from axe-mad aging rocker, discerning critic from hip-wagging hit lover – the Bangles created themselves with you in mind.

They play, they sing, they rock, they swing, they wear minis. They don't have matching haircuts, but they do make music that melds diverse styles into a bright Beatlesque blast. Like the band they emulate and so admire, they want and intend to be everything to everybody, purist and populist alike. And with the recent ascent of their single "Walk Like an Egyptian" to Number One, the Bangles are proving that they just might be able to pull it off.

The Bangles – Susanna Hoffs, Debbi Peterson, Vicki Peterson and Michael Steele – are smart, ambitious, careful and determined. It isn't your average band, for instance, that hires a stylist even before signing a record contract or that judiciously paces success. Nor is it your average band that keeps utterly cool when its single goes to Number One. On the December day when "Walk Like an Egyptian" ran to the top of the charts, the Bangles were less recklessly abandoned to the good news than was their friend Gina Schock, the former drummer for the former Go-Go's, who happened to be with them when they found out. "You guys," Schock told them, "you should just enjoy this now! Tomorrow doesn't matter. Really, you should just whoop it up and enjoy it Whoop it up! And just don't worry about tomorrow!"

But they do. The Bangles worry about controlling their careers, about balancing their nearly antithetical natures, about scheduling Bangle Baby Year. They worry about the way the cute one has started to overshadow the smart one and the quiet one, and they worry about keeping the drummer happy. But wouldn't you if you had their big plans – if you were kind of, sort of, patterning your band after a successful quartet like, say, the Beatles? Wouldn't you have tomorrow on your mind?

Vicki and debbi peterson were born, respectively, in 1961 and 1962, or thereabouts – all the Bangles are precisely inexact about their ages. The Petersons grew up in Northridge, a sun-streaked town on the northern rim of the San Fernando Valley, where teenage fulfillment hinges on having a perfect car or a perfect haircut or at least a perfect room of your own. Vicki had a room of her own, and she practically lived in it full time, picking out tunes on a little copy of a Rickenbacker guitar and thrilling to her favorite records, most of which predated her adolescence by a decade. Debbi divided her time between horseback riding and playing air guitar and air drums and singing into combs and hairbrushes. The Petersons' father, Milton, was an engineer at TRW, and their mother, Jeanne, did some modeling and later worked for Glenn Anderson, a California congressman. Both of the elder Petersons liked music enough to have the radio playing day and night through the intercom system of the house. As Vicki remembers it, her mother even woke the four Peterson kids to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

At Our Lady of Lourdes School, you had two choices: to be either a rebel or a goody-good. Debbi, soft-spoken and careful, opted for goody-good status. Vicki was a rebel – headstrong and impudent – but with a cause. She had no interest in drugs or the usual teenage anarchy, but she was determined at any expense to make something of her music.

By ninth grade, Vicki had formed the first of her many bands. It was a bit of a musical oddity: while car radios throughout the Valley reverberated with Seventies superbands, like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, Vicki's band was noodling around with lacy four-part harmonies and folkie finger-picked guitar, a sound borrowed from those Sixties pop records she mooned over in her room. "I was writing in the style of Joni Mitchell," Vicki says, "but my true love was the Hollies and the Beatles."

Vicki eventually bought Debbi a drum set – a calculated investment because her band needed a drummer. Debbi eventually paid her back with money she earned by working at McDonald's.

The new band, now complete with Debbi on drums and Vicki and her friend Amanda on guitars, began as Crista Galli ("a small bone at the back of the head" explains Vicki). They then renamed themselves Aishi. ("We couldn't stand having a band name that you could pronounce easily" Vicki says. "Aishi means 'life' and 'positive vibes."') Then came the Muze and the Fans and Shanti and Those Girls and finally – but, luckily, not permanently – KooKoo and the DooDooHeads.

"I never doubted that the band would work, which makes me totally irrational," Vicki says.

"I was a little worried at first, knowing that they wanted to be rock stars," says Jeanne Peterson of her daughters. "I was concerned that there weren't too many young women who were doing that."

By 1980, Vicki was an English major at UCLA, sharing an apartment in Hollywood with Debbi and another woman who had joined their band. The Los Angeles music scene, for so long saggy with bad disco and axe-happy metal bands, had just snapped back with power pop and punk. Vicki was itchy. If there ever was a time for KooKoo and the DooDooHeads (or whatever they were calling themselves that morning) and the Peterson sisters' fuel-injected folk, she felt this was it.

"There were all these bands, like the Go-Go's and the Knack, that were focusing attention on L.A.," Vicki says, "and I was afraid that it would all leave me behind."

If the Petersons are creatures of the bleached-out San Fernando basin, where cultural myth is made of two kinds of transmissions – automotive and airwave – then Susanna Hoffs is a product of the part of L.A. where birds of paradise and palms flourish in the front yard and screenplays spring eternal in the back.

Joshua and Tamar Hoffs came to the west side of L.A. in the Fifties, by way of Harvard and Yale and a brush with beatnikism; back then West L.A. was a sort of greener Greenwich Village, peopled with postbohos and bookworms planning to build a better world. The Hoffs children – two boys and the slight, sloe-eyed, dark-haired Susanna, who says she was born in 1962 – were raised in what Susanna calls "this atheist, intellectual, creative world" where emoting well (credit psychoanalyst Joshua's influence) and formalizing the results (credit screenwriter-director Tamar) were encouraged.

Susanna started with ballet at age five, continued her dancing while a student at Berkeley, switched to theater, aspired to movies, changed her major to painting, considered dancing again and then decided to find a band. For someone less ambitious than Susanna, this might have been seen as aimlessness; for her, it was more a case of casting about for the right place to make her mark. "Susanna's always been very focused, even as a child," says her father. "She has a certain dedicated, serious approach to her life, like a doctor or a lawyer might."

"You can't," says Susanna, "depend on accidents to make your career."

In 1981, after graduating from Berkeley, Susanna was determined to play music. To find band mates, she ran a classified ad in a Los Angeles weekly. She also answered one that had been placed by a woman whose roommates had just kicked her out of their band. Although she wasn't compatible with the woman who placed the ad, Susanna did hit it off with her roommates, who happened to be Vicki and Debbi Peterson.

"It was amazing," says Vicki. "It was pretty much an instantaneous thing with Susanna."

"It was weird," says Susanna, "because I'd say, 'I love the Grass Roots, I love the Hollies, I love Love with Arthur Lee.' It was just so weird they knew all those groups."

They shared a past-tense taste in music, a knack for harmonies and the staunchness and discipline to get what they all wanted – their music on the radio. So immediate was their rapport that they formed the band the night they met. Admittedly, there were some nerve-jangling moments early on. "It was really scary," says Susanna. "I remember talking to Vicki in the kitchen about a week after we decided to form the band, and I suddenly got these butterflies in my stomach. It was like I'd married a stranger. She was talking about her background and everything. It was so different from mine that although I really liked her, it was just a strange sensation."

But not strange enough to stop them. Which is how the three of them ended up in Susanna's garage in 1981, playing their tapes, talking and laying plans for taking on the world.

They started as the colours ("with a u," says Debbi, "very British") and soon changed that to the Supersonic Bangs, inspired by an Esquire article about Sixties youth culture and its fetish for extravagant haircuts. That name lasted for about fifteen seconds, then it was shortened to the Bangs. "We liked the double-entendre of the name," says Susanna. "You can read a lot into it. There was something kind of gutsy about it."

The name the Bangs – sexy and playful but at the same time tough and a little nervy – was one of the first gestures they made to being, well, a girl group. None of them had purposely sought to be in an all-girl band, but all of them liked the camaraderie that had developed in their past all-girl associations and were glad enough to have it again. But it was not, for heaven's sake, a feminist statement. If anything, they're post-feminist, presuming they'll be taken on their own terms as a matter of course. "Feminism?" says Susanna. "You mean bra burning and all that? That's more my mother than me."

Add to postfeminist: postpop, postpunk, postfolk, postmodern. And postpsychedelic: even though they were counted among L.A.'s neo-acid bands, the Bangs' only real connection to the trend was an affection for paisley miniskirts. Their music – clear-eyed and almost bookishly sensible – never concerned itself with the subconscious or the addled sounds of psychedelia.

"We were never in with the trends," says Vicki. "We never played hardcore music. We never played rockabilly music. We never played power pop. We never fit into a slot." Once the Bangs got going, their appeal was the way they took the old music they loved and stamped it with an Eighties sensibility. The melodies and trenchant harmonies referred to the Beatles, the Hollies, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, but the music was post-Sixties scrappy, and the lyrics – chiefly advice about keeping your boyfriend in line – had modern-girl grit.

In a city where entertainment is an industry and most success stories are machine made, the Bangs were a homemade, closely held operation. Their immediate goal wasn't chasing down a record contract: they wanted to find an audience on their own first. Along with bass player Annette Zalinskas, the Bangs started at little clubs like the Topanga Corral, Club 88 and HJ's, hoping eventually to play the Whisky-a-Go-Go, not just because it was an influential club but because of its nostalgic associations with the Sixties. Vicki handled the bookings and promotions, and when they wanted to make a record, they pooled their savings, formed their own record company, cut the single and packaged and distributed it themselves. Never mind that the record was called "Getting Out of Hand"; the Bangs were anything but.

"It never occurred to us to make a demo and send it to a major label," says Vicki. "We didn't want to do that."

As it happened, the record companies came looking for them. In 1981, Miles Copeland, chairman of LA Personal Direction and I.R.S. Records and manager of the Police, attended a Bangs show and suggested that he and Mike Gormley, his LAPD partner, manage the band.

"I was very defensive at first," Vicki says of her first meeting with Copeland, who had been instrumental in the success of the Go-Go's. "I thought, 'Oh, here it is: he wants to make us the poor man's Go-Go's,' and I wasn't interested in that at all."

It was inevitable, the comparison of the two all-singing, all-playing girl groups from Los Angeles. The Bangles now say the point isn't even worth considering, but even so, they've clearly posited themselves as the Band That Would Not Be Another Go-Go's. They don't come out and say it exactly, but they do avoid anything that might suggest a similarity and make a point of emphasizing their differences: the Bangles are rock rather than the Go-Go's' pop, strong rather than cute, journeyman musicians who earned their success rather than fun seekers who did a nice job of riding a trend.

Copeland and Gormley did begin with the Bangs by making the inevitable comparison – after all, the Go-Go's were just then successfully surfing the wave of bubble-punk music to the Top Ten. "But then," says Gormley, "we saw them not as a pop band but a rock band whose members were women." The Bangs were suspicious at first – they even took a tape recorder to their first meeting, lest they get snowed with promises. "We were the ultimate of trying to do everything as carefully as possible," says Vicki, "and we'd avoided anything even smelling like a manager, up until then."

Copeland signed them to a management contract with the goal of producing an EP on his Faulty Products label. He booked them with only five days' notice to open on the '82 English Beat tour. They then changed their name to the Bangles because another band of Bangs laid claim to the name, quit their day jobs and lit out for the territory.

The best houses in newport beach, California, are the ones in the greatest clanger of falling into the ocean; barely clinging to the crumbling cliffs, these houses are the vain declaration that enough money can overcome natural forces like erosion. Michael Steele left Newport Beach and its good houses for Los Angeles when she was twenty-one, and she never thought about houses again until she had a chance to move in with Vicki Peterson.

The daughter of Tommy and Nancy Steele, a car-wash magnate and a commercial pilot turned housewife, Michael was an introverted, imaginative kid who would lock herself in her room and read books all day long, retreating from the town she once described as a place where rich kids take drugs and crack up their sports cars. She drew pictures for a time and then took up bass guitar and decided to tolerate being bad at it for a while if she could eventually make it work. In the mid to late Seventies, Michael moved to Los Angeles to play in bands – "as many as I could stand," she says.

There were many: Slow Children, Snakefinger, Toni and the Movers, Elton Duck, Greg Best, Boy's Ranch, And there was a short, unhappy stint with the Runaways. Invented and staffed by producer Kim Fowley, the Runaways were an all-girl heavy-leather band, which also included Joan Jett. Michael spent a brief time as one of the band's many lead singers until Fowley fired her. After that, she just stopped singing.

She also decided to avoid all-girl bands. "After that band," says Michae, "I thought, 'I hate all-girl bands. I'll never do this again. This is the stupidest thing I've ever done."' But when she heard that there was a room for rent in Vicki Peterson's house and, at the same time, room for a bass player in Vicki Peterson's band, she reconsidered. "I really liked the Bangles, and I wanted to get in the band," she says, "so for one of the few times in my life, I made a totally calculated move and moved in with Vicki." The calculation worked. It was 1983, and the Bangles' bass player, Annette Zalinskas, had gotten tired of her role in the band. It wasn't a Pete Beststyle dismissal; it was simply a case of cross-purposes – she mostly wanted to sing, and they mostly wanted a bass player. When she left that year to join Blood on the Saddle, Vicki's new roommate, Michael, was auditioned and hired to join the band.

By this time, the Bangles had already released their EP, Bangles, and were being eyed by Columbia. When they signed with the label in 1983, they forwent the usual announcement hoopla. They didn't want to alienate their avid, home-grown audience – mostly boys, who appreciated their tough-enough music and playfully flirtatious stage presence – and they didn't want to compromise their wellearned air of self-determination.

The way they saw it, the four of them had forged one crack unit and were now forging ahead to success.

"Now," says someone close to the band, "there's Sue, and then there's the other three."

The Bangles counted on their diversity to invigorate the band – their different backgrounds and personalities and opinions, their contrasting voices, their varied songwriting styles – and they counted on their ability to harmonize that diversity to make the band work. Everyone counted on having to fight to keep things democratic and equal.

But no one counted on Susanna's very natural, coquettish, camera-ready poise attracting so much attention. No one considered that, poise aside, Susanna is almost a foot shorter than the other Bangles and would consequently appear in the foreground of nearly every photograph of the band. And no one, certainly, could have anticpated Prince's much-publicized affection for her or calculated that its effect would be to vault Susanna into beyond-Bangles celebrity status and alter the equal-party nature of the band.

Susanna calls Prince's attentions "very mysterious." A source close to Prince calls it a press-invented romance – the result of confusing Susnna with Prince's then steady, Susannah Melvoin. Nonetheless, they met in 1984 after the Bangles' first album, All Over the Place, was released and then struck up a relationship. He called Susanna often and traveled to hear the Bangles perform several times, occasionally joining the band onstage. He appeared at a Bangles performance in Los Angeles last December, and the band members joined him in the studio afterward. At his request, they played Bangles music with him. "He knew all our songs," says Susanna. "We sat until three in the morning just playing Bangles songs, and then he disappeared again, off into the sunset, and we haven't heard from him since." She just grins when asked whether he was really courting her, but there's no question that he'd singled her out.

Prince's interest in Susanna – which the other Bangles usually refer to as "the thing with Prince" – ultimately benefited the whole band even as it provoked tension: Prince wrote "Manic Monday" for Different Light, the Bangles' second album, and with Susanna singing lead, in her tremulous, reedy voice, it became their first Top Ten single. It was also guaranteed that from then on Susanna would be viewed by the public as a separate entity within the band.

"I think I can't change the way the world perceives the band," Susanna says. "There's someone in the Bangles for everybody. What we do is a collaboration. You can't take out any member of the band and still have the Bangles. I think there's room within the Bangles organization for everything."

How about a movie star? This March, Susanna's first major film will be released – a coming-of-age feature called The Allnighter, with Joan Cusack and Michael Ontkean. In it, according to her mother, Tamar, who co-wrote, directed and produced the film, Susanna is "the ultimate star."

"I almost felt like I hadn't been living for a while until I did the movie," Susanna says. She's fussing with a plate of vegetables, chosen as a healthy regimen before a photo session scheduled for the next day. Perched on the big banquette at Hamburger Hamlet, Susanna looks doll-like, somewhat lost behind an enormous plate of big boiled roots and squashes. She's dressed in tomboy jeans and a sweater that practically swamps her except for her gaze, which is direct and cunning, and her gestures, which are flirtatiously emphatic – head cocked and hair tugged here, hands fluttered there. She has the turns and poses of an actress, and talking about movies animates her even more than talking about music: she quotes extensively from a book by Uta Hagen on acting that she read while on the Bangles' recent tour and, in the course of three days, illustrates many of her stories by acting out scenes from Educating Rita and Gone with the Wind, both of which she saw recently. On the other hand, she rarely notes anything musical. "There are so many things I want to do in this life," she says, "and the Bangles is just one of them. I give it my all, but it's just something that I do." Does she prefer acting to making music? "It's like asking which of your children you like better, the boy or the girl," she says. "Acting and music are just different."

One thing that's different about them is that acting is part of her relationship with her mother – a relationship that she already describes as "so especially close" and that accounts for her living with her parents this year. Fact is, Susanna has played a role in everything her mother has directed or produced – a short called The Haircut, the feature Stony Island and the Bangles videos "Going Down to Liverpool" and "If She Knew What She Wants." "It's really neat," says Tamar Hoffs, "to have both of our careers taking off at the same time."

Prince's mash note to Susanna paved the way on the charts for "Walk Like an Egyptian," the galloping dance song that brought the Bangles everything they'd bargained for when they set out to hear a song of theirs on the radio.

But this success hasn't really been the satisfaction they wanted. The band didn't write the song – it's the work of Liam Sternberg, who put together the Stiff Records Akron compilation and produced Rachel Sweet's first album – and the arrangement, full of synthesized roars and the tattoo of a drum machine, is less a representative sample of Bangles music than a showcase for the producer of Different Light, David Kahne, who also produced All Over the Place.

"'Walk' to me is a nice little novelty song kind of thing," says Debbi, "but I don't feel like it's us." More specifically, it's not like her: she neither sings nor plays drums on the song, which for her makes it an especially empty success. "I'm really happy it's Number One and all that," she says, not looking happy at all, "but I almost feel like a failure in some ways because I didn't do anything on the record." She's a drummer and a little sister, a little vulnerable and laconic, in a band whose other members are more visible and have more aggressive styles, whether they are unabashedly coquettish or dauntlessly willful or vigorously introverted. No wonder Debbi's so often overlooked, and no wonder that her fantasy is to do a record entirely on her own, writing, singing and playing everything all by herself.

While Debbi is the most unhappy – she says she "couldn't get along" with Kahne, argues with the songwriting credits he received on her songs and was outvoted when she first asked that they find a different producer for Different Light – all of the Bangles are ambivalent about the success of the album. They had hurried into the studio after many months of touring and didn't have enough strong songs of their own to make the album; as a result, they had to rely on music they didn't write and Kahne's gussied-up production to give the record depth. Although it's pretty, the record is also pretty distant from the band's spunky live sound and self-image.

Kahne says he "just found out one day" that he won't be producing the next Bangles album, which will be recorded sometime this spring; Don Gehman, who's produced John Mellencamp and R.E.M., is mentioned most often as Kahne's replacement. Kahne is disappointed that he won't be working on the next record, but he says that the friction between him and the band was unavoidable. "This was a very difficult record for them to make," Kahne says. "Whenever something good happens on a record, there's been some suffering. After going through that with someone, you don't always want to do it again. They were insecure, and learning can be very scary."

In the long run, what they may have learned is just how much running their own show means to them. "I like the record," says Vicki, "but I like it almost like I would like a Whitney Houston album." Decked out in riveted and studded black leather, she's an anomaly in the high-mellow ambiance of the Source, the ancient vegetarian outpost on Sunset Strip where Woody Allen orders mashed yeast and finally loses Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Poking at her vegetables as her leather creaks, she's an unlikely medley of images – The Wild One crossed with Greenpeace by way of Hullabaloo. Rangy and square shouldered, she has a blond Veronica Lake hairdo and an unflinching way of firing out opinions: on the subject of clothes for the band's photo session, for instance, she had issued such edicts as "No big hair," "Too Fifties, ugh," "Too glam," "Too Go-Go's," "Too cutesy," "Stupid" and just plain "No," and with a certainty that suggested not only that was she not going to change her mind but that she had great, unshakable reasons for her opinions. "I feel very detached from the record in a lot of ways," she says, "I want the new album to be a little more of what the Bangles are onstage – a little more rock & roll, a little more guitar oriented. I feel really strongly about using our songs."

She flicks back her bangs. "I'm perfectly willing," she says, "to accept the fact that it may not be a hit."

So the Bangles worry, not about having hits but about having control. They worry about getting along with each other but not about getting along with loved ones: it doesn't seem to daunt them that the attrition rate for Bangle boyfriends – all of them except Michael had been coupled up – was 100 percent this year, all lost in the course of their recent world tour. The male groupies who flock around them are hardly tempting. Vicki, for one, has noticed that her songwriting improves when she's single, and for the moment songwriting is the critical issue. "This sounds sort of stupid," says Susanna, "but we'd like to see what it's like to deal with life on our own."

They worry about having better songs but not about having babies: that will come during Bangle Baby Year, tentatively scheduled for 1995, when they'll have, Vicki says, a big party and all conceive on the same night.

They worry less about what they look like than about what people looking at them will see. Planning their apparel for a photo session becomes a sociopolitical debate – how to look like girls without looking girlie – as well as a moment when, for better or worse, they play out their roles as members of a partnership. Michael, with her abstracted air and economy of affect, listens silently and becomes animated only when the talk inexplicably turns to her favorite book, Madeleine L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time. Debbi cares less about their outfits than about not getting stuck, as usual, in back. Susanna, dressed only in underpants and a half fastened sweater, wanders through the studio in perpetual search of a mirror. "I think we should do it nude," she says. "Isn't that really what people want?"

Vicki is worried. She doesn't want them to look too cute or too tough or too Go-Go's or too much like someone told them how to look. It's a pain to spend so much time worrying about a picture, she says. They could do it just in jeans and T-shirts, very casual. To hell with all the worrying.

"But then you'll look at it tomorrow," she says, with certainty, "and you'll be sorry you didn't worry about it a little more."

This story is from the March 26, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 496: March 26, 1987