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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.

March 26, 1987
The Bangles
The Bangles
Bonnie Schiffman

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.

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