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California Girls: The Bangles

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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.

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