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.