Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Music Box: The Bangles

In the aftermath of the Matthew Sweet/Susanna Hoffs show at the City Winery, I've been on a huge Bangles kick this week. (Sort of ironic given the fact that a leaked copy of Bananarama's new disc, "Viva," fell in my lap, over the weekend.)

I absolutely adore all of the, what I'd describe as, "phases" of the Bangles, beginning with their charming five-song debut EP that captured them at their early L.A. paisley underground scene best, back when Annette Zilinskas played bass before moving on to Blood on the Saddle. (If you haven't heard it, also track down a copy of the girls' 1981 pre-EP single, "Getting Out of Hand" b/w "Call on Me," which has been appropriately described as a lost Mamas and the Papas song.) The EP made a big splash when it came out, and the major labels came calling, leading to their classic long-play debut for Columbia, "All Over the Place," with Michael Steele taking over on bass.

While their subsequent albums would thrill me in various ways, it was the first one -- summed up brilliantly in the single "Hero Takes a Fall" (video below) -- that encapsulated everything the band ever did right. Catchy tunes, gorgeous harmonies and hooks galore -- "James," "Dover Beach," "Going Down to Liverpool" -- there was something utterly irresistible about their slightly less polished sound that would disappear by album two. (Seeing the gals open for the Psychedelic Furs at Mesa Amphitheater that summer was a highlight.) Not that I'm complaining. "Different Light," which catapulted them to superstardom, replicated the debut's formula, but added a more mainstream pop feel to it, to frequently glorious effects. While it will always be remembered for classics like "Manic Monday," "If She Knew What She Wants," "Walking Down Your Street," and the novelty song "Walk Like an Egyptian," it was Steele's plaintive reading of Big Star's "September Gurls" and her first original for the band, the haunting "Following," that remain my favorites. (The band obviously agreed about the latter, including this non-single on their greatest hits package.)

If their better-than-the-original cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter" from the "Less Than Zero" soundtrack the following year indicated a high note in their career (and, as good as their stuff prior to it was, it did), 1988's "Everything," which turned out to be their last album (of the original go-round, at least), began to hint at internal strife. Susanna's "Eternal Flame" was certainly a lovely song, but definitely didn't sound like a Bangles song, not even an overly produced one. That said, a re-evaluation of the album 20 years later reveals that it has aged surprisingly well. Sweet and Hoffs did "In Your Room" last week and it still had the scent of the Beach Boys on it. Belinda Carlisle recently named "Bell Jar" her "favorite Bangles song," and Hoffs' "I'll Set You Free" sounds like it would have been one of their biggest hits had it been a single (and did you know "Be With You" even made the Top 40?).

While Susanna was too shy to talk much, Sweet told the audience at the Sid 'n' Susie gig that he was producing the upcoming Bangles album that's being recorded in his home studio (the follow-up to 2003's "Doll Revolution," which was an uneven affair featuring many of the songs that had been used for the girls' indvidual projects, like the Continental Drifters, Crash Wisdom and a scrapped Susanna solo album). With Michael Steele now retired -- we miss you, Michael! so glad I got to see you play with the band one more time at House of Blues in L.A. in 2000 -- I was hoping Annette might return to the fold. But Sweet admits he's playing bass on a lot of the tracks because he "doesn't know how to butt out." Sweet says the stuff they've recorded is brilliant, and given his talent as a writer and producer, I have high hopes. With every reinvention of the group, I've found something very likable.

Here's a look at the rarities CD my friend Greg Jelinek and I produced a couple of years ago. Of all the albums we worked on, this is the one I listen to the most. 

So many of the band's finest songs never even appeared on their albums. (Remember "I Got Nothing" from "The Goonies"?!!!)


Anonymous said...

Hi Kenneth - I love the Bangles & didn't know about the new Sid n' Susie until you mentioned it. Thanks for this summation of their career! (as with the Blue Angels CD you mentioned... can you contact me offlist to let me know how I can get a copy of your Bangles compilation?)
-Brian (

Doc Savage said...

Love the Bangles. Trying to find their pre-All Over the Place stuff on vinyl.