In the Spotlight with The Bangles
Courtesy of Rebbeca Wilson
When the decision came down to release Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles! in a digital-only format in 2014, lead guitarist Vicki Peterson had a few words in response.
“I lost that coin toss actually,” she points out. “I really wanted to have the EP be available again on something other than a cassette tape and the thought was that it was most efficient to release the collection digitally. But we heard from fans immediately that they wanted physical records, which I do completely understand.”
The compilation album, slated for a June 24th re-release on CD, will once again present fans with a retrospective collection of The Bangles’ earliest recorded material from before the girl group signed to Columbia Records in 1984 and proceeded to spawn hit after hit. The record frames the band’s eponymous first extended play, which has been largely unavailable to obtain since its initial 1982 release on cassette and vinyl, amid an array of never-before-heard demos, live performances, and rarities from the vault.
In both look and sound, Ladies and Gentlemen echoes back to the decade that introduced the world to The Beatles, The Mamas & the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield—just a few of the musical pioneers who helped lay the foundation for The Bangles’ formation twenty years later.
On the album’s front cover, Vicki Peterson, rhythm guitarist Susanna Hoffs, percussionist Debbi Peterson, and then-bass guitarist Annette Zilinskas all assume poses reminiscent of those made famous by classic sixties models like Pattie Boyd and Jean Shrimpton. In further ode to the style of the era, each of the vocalists also dons eccentric mod-style dresses and primped bouffant hairdos as they’re pictured underneath a logo emphasizing their band’s name in the style of Ed Sullivan.
Music-wise, the album strikes a delicate balance between past and present, as it taps into a bygone era while infusing the youthful flair unique to The Bangles’ sound.
“This record is a peek at the beginnings of a band, relatively uncensored and unaltered,” Peterson states. “We were still in the early stages of learning what to do in a recording studio. I feel grateful that we had people like Craig Leon and Ethan James (producer and engineer) to encourage us and show us a few tricks. And I felt inspired by the bands we were playing with at the time.”
Nothing may have fueled The Bangles’ early success quite like the support they received from their fellow musicians during their involvement in the briefly popular Paisley Underground movement. During its most prevalent years, the handful of aspiring musicians sent ripples through the Los Angeles alternative music scene as they channeled and revived the era of music they all cherished.
“LA was a vibrant place to be in the early ‘80s, musically,” Peterson comments on the movement. “Punk was still happening, rock-a-billy was popular, but we found a community of bands who loved the music and fashion of the 1960s. The Bangles were always ‘60s-influenced—not just psychedelia, but also pop and folk-rock. We connected with bands like the Three O’Clock, Green on Red, The Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders; these bands played modern music that was based on things we all loved from 20 years before. The bands formed a kind of extended family and we’d share bills, have parties…there were even a couple of cross-band romances.”
Extending far beyond a nod to their early works, the re-release of Ladies and Gentlemen pays homage to the album that triggered a series of career-shaping events following its initial release —among them, the introduction of Michael Steele on bass, shortly after Zilinskas’ departure. After two years spent gigging from one claustrophobic LA club to another, the rising stars also welcomed the opportunity to play alongside some bigger acts on the circuit.
“Our first ‘big’ tour was supporting the English Beat and that was a real learning experience,” the guitarist comments. “We learned to play fast and hard and get offstage before too many things were thrown at us. The band and the Beat’s crew could not have been more supportive, though.”
The broader platform proved beneficial for the rock gals, as they were later tapped to join Cyndi Lauper on the North American leg of her first major headlining tour.
Says Peterson, “Cyndi was very kind to us, taking us under her wing. Playing the arenas and stadiums as her support could not have been more different than the small, sweaty clubs we were used to, but I loved that moment when the lights went down and the place erupted.”
In the span of one year, Lauper’s Fun Tour took the fledgling Bangles across the country for ninety dates, exposing them to a burgeoning fan base with each passing appearance. With that, the group seized the opportunity to perfect their own craft and translate the vivacious energy of Lauper’s Fun tour into their first full-length major label release, All Over the Place.
Despite the big-name support, however, The Bangles encountered their share of obstacles along the way.
“Every woman who ventures into male-dominated territory is going to experience some unique challenges and we certainly did,” the guitarist reflects. “I think I had a particular kind of convenient blindness that enabled me to continue and not be stymied by sexism and prejudice. There was a kind of ‘tokenism’ in radio during the ‘80s when the programmers would only add one female artist a week, regardless of the music released. That was frustrating. In the earliest days, we faced quite a bit of friction from some people just because we were young women…but for the most part, I dealt with it by refusing to acknowledge it and just forging ahead.”
By the time The Bangles wrapped up Lauper’s tour in December of 1984 and began work on their debut follow-up the next year, they had garnered the attention of one of the decade’s most revered artists.
“We had heard that Prince liked the video for ‘Hero Takes a Fall’ off our first Columbia album,” the singer recounts the lead-up to The Bangles’ partnership with Prince.
The Minneapolis native—who had spent the previous year riding the colossal wave of success spurred on by Purple Rain—had a little-known affinity for the Paisley Underground scene, best reflected through his appropriately-named record label, Paisley Park Records.
In 1985, Prince presented The Bangles with the demo to “Manic Monday”—a rough cut featuring Apollonia Kotero on lead and Prince on backing vocals. Though originally intended for Kotero, who fronted Prince’s protégé group, Apollonia 6, and appeared as the female lead in the Purple Rain motion picture, the song was never formally recorded until the tape made its way to The Bangles.
“We never met Apollonia, or Vanity,” Peterson admits. “But I have to say, I’m glad he sent us the song! The demo struck me as very ‘Prince’ but not in a way we couldn’t embrace and make our own. He’d suggested we just sing over the tracks, but we were very determined to play our own version, which we did.”
“Manic Monday” served as the lead single to the band’s January 1986 record, Different Light, and helped secure The Bangles’ second-place spot on the US album charts by April of the same year. The subsequently-released “Walk Like an Egyptian” later shot to the top as The Bangles’ first number one single.
Beyond the studio, the girls once again found themselves collaborating with Prince while touring in support of their platinum-certified record.
"He would mysteriously appear at shows, and just as mysteriously disappear,” Peterson recalls sharing the stage with the artist at The Warfield in San Francisco and The Palace at Hollywood. “Sometimes we'd get the message: 'Prince is here. He wants to play...' and he would join us onstage for a song. He was such a preternatural musician, with seemingly endless creative energy. Just a fantastic guitarist—vastly underrated as an instrumentalist. I was more than happy to hand him my Les Paul Custom and let him reign.”
As the 1980s drew to a close, The Bangles once again charted number one with “Eternal Flame,” off their third studio effort, Everything. By topping the singles charts more than once, the ladies reached a feat conquered by no other female rock band and few girl groups in music history.
Following their victorious streak, The Bangles spent the better part of the 1990s pursuing their solo interests while on hiatus. Their 2003 release, Doll Revolution, marked the beginning of a new era as the reinvented group presented their first original material in fifteen years. During the band’s absence from the limelight, the music industry itself underwent a reinvention of sorts, with female guitarists like Avril Lavigne, Orianthi, and KT Tunstall rising in the ranks.
“I am often amazed and delighted by women musicians today,” Peterson reflects. “I think there are more talented female guitarists than ever, and there are infinitely more places to go see and hear them. It doesn’t have to be in a club anymore, because it’s right there on your screen. Young women have more opportunities to be exposed to other players and find a community to fit into. As far as the industry goes, however, I think it’s still trying to figure out how to catch up with technology, and of course, how to make more money. I’m much more interested in the artistry than the industry.”
The Bangles’ raw artistic prowess has never been more evident than in Ladies and Gentlemen. Prior to hitting the international stage, collaborating with renowned artists, and churning out multiplatinum albums, the group of four laid down five authentic tracks inspired by those who came before them and those they played amongst. Today, these very recordings inspire listeners all over again.
“We’ve been playing some of the music from Ladies and Gentlemen [on tour] recently and have found that it seems to fit best in intimate rock venues,” Peterson references the band’s formative years playing smaller settings. “I still love playing festivals and in front of large crowds, but there is something unique and special about a small club where you can connect with the audience—or grab a cell phone from the guy in front and tease him about it.”
According to Peterson, it is this personal touch that has allowed the Bangle bond to survive and thrive through the years.
“We actually work together better than we ever did,” Peterson reveals. “That might be because we are older, wiser, perhaps generally happier people…or because we now fit the Bangles into our lives as opposed to living life as Bangles.”
Credits: Vicki Peterson, Tamara Yajia, Rebbeca Wilson
© Veronika Tacheva, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.