Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Essentials - The Bangles: overview & introduction

DISCOGRAPHY
ALBUMS
1. All Over the Place (Columbia 1984) [hr]
2. Different Light (Columbia 1986) [r]
3. Everything (Columbia 1988)
REUNION ALBUMS
4. Doll Revolution (Koch 2003)
5. Sweetheart of the Sun (Waterfront 2011)

COMPILATIONS
Greatest Hits (Columbia 1990) [hr]
Ladies and Gentlemen... the Bangles! (Down Kiddie! 2014)

EPs
Bangles (I.R.S. 1982) [hr]

ESSENTIAL NON-LP TRACKS
Getting Out of Hand [as the Bangs] (Downkiddie 7" 1981)
I Got Nothing [from The Goonies OST] (Epic 1985)
What I Meant to Say [b-side] (Columbia 1988)

The Bangles' story is in many ways the story of how young guitar bands weaved in and out of underground and widespread acceptance in the 1980s; their close label contacts and a rush of good luck with collaborators and A&R, as well as their presence in a highly visible and well-connected scene, assured that each step in their evolution would be either a microcosm of or a reaction to the state of American pop bands in the years after new wave faltered. It's a strange thing to say about a group that achieved considerable, even massive, mainstream success and arguably fulfilled much of their early promise, but they also were one of the cautionary tales of pre-Nirvana alternative rock. When cultists of power pop, indie rock and obtuse guitar bands talk about the corruption entailed by a major label signing, it's hard not to think of the Bangles' move toward increasingly slick and soulless (by some accounts) radio pop as a perfect case study, even though this is complicated by the enormous popularity they achieved as they moved away from their punkish origins.

Rising from the short-lived but vibrant Paisley Underground scene in the Los Angeles area, the Bangs -- as they were first christened -- consisted initially of Susanna Hoffs (rhythm guitar, vocals), siblings Debbi (drums, vocals) and Vicki Peterson (lead guitar, vocals), and Annette Zilinskas (bass). This lineup recorded and self-released one of the best underground singles of the early '80s, the infectious "Getting Out of Hand," possibly the quintessential Paisley Underground cut: it jangles, it boasts heavenly but low-key harmonies, it's full of hooks and unabashedly beholden to the folk-rock, psychedelia and British Invasion pop of the '60s. After Miles Copeland took an interest in the band and signed them to a subsidiary of his beloved semi-indie I.R.S., this was followed swiftly by a name change (Bangs became Bangles) and a terrific EP, released in 1982. Zilinskas left the band before they signed to Columbia and recorded their full-length debut All Over the Place, which marked the crucial addition of bassist, vocalist, and third major songwriter Michael Steele (ex-Runaways).

Rawer and leaner than their later work, the EP and first album are the real, undoctored Bangles, the band preserved with few outside instincts guiding their work; though All Over the Place cleans up their sound slightly, it captures the underground L.A. sound of the early '80s with virtually no dilution, and plenty of instantly pleasurable pop smarts making plain the band's devotion to their influences. The Dream Syndicate had more sustained credibility, the Long Ryders probably compromised less, but the Bangles in the end were the representatives of an entire vernacular to the larger world. They'd continue to nod to the jangly Paisley sound, successfully fused with more luxurious and expensively radio-targeted impulses, on later songs like "I'll Set You Free"; and they'd provide mainstream teenage exposure to Big Star, the Grass Roots and Jules Shear by covering all three at various points, but Bangles and All Over the Place are the sound of the band working solely as themselves, and both are sweetly cutting experiences indeed.

Of course, two further albums followed before a greatest hits set that corresponded with the band's somewhat sudden breakup in 1990, and those two albums contain most of the material for which the Bangles became world-famous. Greatest Hits (not so much the overly generous Essential Bangles; just listen to the albums if you want that much stuff) is the best way to experience the big singles, which tend to shed guitars in favor of a big, hit-factory sound and lots of synth flourishes and programmed excess. They are in fact often ecstatic and wonderful; much like the Cars, the Bangles were at their best in the 1986-88 period able to meld unadorned, natural pop instinct with in-vogue sounds, so that they really existed as neither a mainstream nor an alternative band exclusively. The move away from hook-driven guitar interplay toward the sterile, digitized production-line sound of pop production in the late '80s has unfortunately caused Different Light and Everything to age in a manner that All Over the Place has not. At certain moments -- like Hoffs' wordless wail that opens the band's cover of Shear's "If She Knew What She Wants" -- the music is so transcendent that such copping to commercial motives (surely encouraged by Columbia after the first album sold tepidly) still doesn't matter much.

Ironically for a group with not just one or two but three excellent songwriters, the majority of the Bangles' big hits are either covers or were given to the band by others, though one upshot is that anyone who's enamored of Greatest Hits will have plenty of motivation to look further into, say, Katrina and the Waves and Kimberley Rew, whose brilliantly sunny-melancholy juxtaposition "Going Down to Liverpool" is given reverential treatment by the Bangles in one of their best moments. Beyond that and the huge, obvious Simon & Garfunkel cover "Hazy Shade of Winter" (collector bait in this compilation since it was only previously on a soundtrack): "Walk Like an Egyptian" is a song-factory cut, the aforementioned "If She Knew What She Wants" covers Shear, and most famously of all, the indelible "Manic Monday" -- which sounds completely unlike anything else the Bangles recorded -- was donated to the band by Prince, who loved the Bangles and especially Hoffs, and contributed it under the pseudonym Christopher.

Unfortunately, the Bangles' very biggest hit "Eternal Flame" is arguably their weakest moment on record, a well-sung but anonymous and musically unbearable power ballad that fully sheds once and for all the band's noble, scrappy origins. For unknown reasons, probably again record label-related, Hoffs teamed up with pro songwriters to come up with several of her Everything-era songs. It's not as if this was a big violation of principles in and of itself, especially since the Bangles were trying like so many others to make a mark with the resources they had and those resources happened to be enormous and well-funded; and Hoffs also cowrote "In Your Room" under the same circumstances, thereby offering the band's last truly great moment... but it's not a coincidence that after achieving this Hoffs-centered massive success, with two #1 hits and multiplatinum sales, the band quickly disintegrated.

I've been listening to the Bangles since I was three or four years old; I owned Different Light on cassette, a gift from my brother. (For this reason, it seems certain we'll tackle that one more in-depth eventually.) Some pang of nostalgia may have a hand in how much I love their best work; I care much more for them than the other Paisley Underground performers I'm familiar with. At the same time, however, I can sense the artificiality and compromise in the band's later songs (especially those sung by Hoffs, who took the lead on most but not all of their hits, with all four band members perfectly capable singers) in a way that has rendered their early work, which I didn't discover until these last eight to ten years, much more attractive now. Thus, for now, you'll find reviews of their EP, first album and the hits package I own, with further information potentially forthcoming down the line (no promises). Note: I've chosen not to grade Everything because my memories of it are hazy, though I have heard it in its entirety more than once.

AVAILABILITY:
All three original Bangles albums are readily available on Spotify. The first two LPs can be heard with various b-sides in "expanded editions" there as well; recommended rarities are the fine "Eternal Flame" flip "What I Meant to Say" and the terrific cut "I Got Nothing" from the Goonies soundtrack, a major pre-fame break for them thanks to curator Cyndi Lauper.

There are three hits albums streaming: the strongly recommended Greatest Hits, the excessive Essential Bangles, and the abbreviated Super Hits, which is missing a number of popular and key cuts but does add two fabulous ones missing from Greatest: the Big Star cover "September Gurls," apparently responsible for fattening up Alex Chilton's bank account at a very opportune time (Michael Steele's vocal is lovely, though it's a mystery why she changes some prominent lyrics, a distraction if you know the original well); and the absolutely perfect All Over the Place deep cut "James." If you're looking on streaming services for the debut EP and first single, fear not; they're included in a rarities set called Ladies and Gentlemen... The Bangles! with some other odds and ends. (The band's website mentions a physical version of that collection is now available for purchase.) The Bangles reuinted in the late '90s to record a song for an Austin Powers movie (Austin Powers director Jay Roach is Hoffs' husband) and they've put out two albums in the new guise, one with Steele and one without; I can't comment on them but will try to hear them at some point.

Vicki Peterson records with her sister-in-law Susan Cowsill as the Psycho Sisters. Debbi Peterson's group Kindred Spirit recorded an album for I.R.S. in the '90s. Michael Steele remained an active musician but was the latest holdout for the Bangles' reunion, and is no longer in the band today. The bass player she replaced, Annette Zilinskas, later was the lead singer of the L.A. band Blood on the Saddle, who have recorded for SST and Kill Rock Stars; she left that band in 2006. Hoffs, after an unpleasant early-'90s experience as a VH1-friendly solo artist, has also recorded several covers albums with Matthew Sweet that will possibly be of interest to readers here; probably enabled by the similarly Hollywood-infected She & Him project, they certainly go all the way with Hoffs' longtime '60s-vintage attachments.

READING & VIEWING:
Apart from scattered articles you can find on the web, there isn't much substantial writing on the Bangles specifically that's readily available, though Jim DeRogatis covers the overall Paisley Underground scene in his book Turn on Your Mind. There's also an excellent, fairly extensive oral history over at the Guardian; Vicki Peterson is among those interviewed.

From what I can tell the Bangles' cult has lingered pretty reliably into the new century, with a large repository of 1980s-vintage interviews and short TV performances preserved on Youtube. Much of it is brief and insignificant, though it's fun to see this 1984 MTV News piece. Those with a more vested interest in marginalia about the band may appreciate some raw footage of an interview from 1985 starting here and finishing here; I didn't watch it all but an interesting moment has them essentially nixing a question about being "women in a rock band." More broadly worthwhile are fragments from a 1985 episode of the I.R.S. showcase The Cutting Edge hosted by the band, wandering goofily around town with video cameras; this includes a few Take Away Show-foretelling acoustic performances and the weird experience of seeing them introduce clips of Chaka Khan, the Stranglers and the Minutemen. Finally, if you want to travel back to 1986 at its most flagrant, here are the Bangles visiting Joan Rivers' talk show.

Probably the most comprehensive history that exists on the web is the episode of the old VH1 series Behind the Music (the link changes a lot because of copyright claims, but search Youtube and Vimeo and you should find it). This is a minority opinion but I never cared much for that seris apart from its reliably trashy chronicles of awful bands like Creed. Its very title is a lie -- it's never, ever actually about music in any meaningful sense -- and it mostly functions as a glorified tabloid article, the Bangles' episode included. Jim Forbes' narration is also gratingly dry. But this installment is handy for including interviews with all four members of the band's classic lineup, including the typically withholding Hoffs. I would love to see the interviews themselves in longer form, but what we do get is often surprisingly cutting and insightful.

The Bangles' music videos are mostly pretty bad, though "Hero Takes a Fall" does boast some bizarre Devo-style black comedy involving mannequins, and "In Your Room" has fun, once cutting-edge graphics. "Going Down to Liverpool" famously features Leonard Nimoy as a grouchy driver, though its cutesiness somewhat undercuts the resonant despair of the song. Watch the lecherous "Be with You" if you want to be reminded that "the biz" was and remains dude central (simplifying the band's fairly complex conglomeration of influences into a hair metal aesthetic to boot). You can click through to the band's Vevo channel to see the rest, but I don't advise such a measure.

The earliest live footage that seems to exist dates from 1982, with the band opening for the English Beat. The sound is faint but the performances seem to be terrific, including the honest-to-god best cover of the Seeds' classic "Pushin' Too Hard" I can remember hearing.
- How Is the Air Up There?
- Pushin' Too Hard
- Tell Me

The most extensive concert footage currently available comes via MTV, who presented an hour-long edit of a headlining Philadelphia show commercial-free in 1986. It's up in its entirety here and shows off how tight the band was at the height of their fame, though the decision to keep Hoffs invariably center-stage is a bit mysterious, especially given that she invariably looks nervous and shifty in that position. Vicki Peterson plays the crowd with hilarious Chris Frantz-like MCing; as she'd later note, you have to squint sometimes to see the group's unvarnished origins, but they are evident. Note particularly that an excised cover of Love's "7 and 7 Is" plays over the credits, heroically allowing the Bangles to get Arthur Lee on MTV, however briefly.

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