Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bangles - An Eternal Flame Burns Bright

 Following a summer ‘87 tour, supported in part by Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus (see future post), the Bangles opted to explore something other than preparing immediately for their next full album.  They contributed backing vocals on the Hoodoo Gurus hit ‘Good Times’ (#36 in mid ‘87).

The band was invited to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the latest ‘brat pack’ film ‘Less Than Zero’, starring Andrew McCarthy.  The Bangles dipped into their past to retrieve a song made famous by Simon & Garfunkel.  ‘Hazy Shade Of Winter’ received a radical makeover, with thumping percussion, searing guitar hooks, and pristinely layered vocal harmonies.  Produced by Def Jam’s Rick Rubin, it was released as a single late in ‘87, and the charts were soon a hazy shade of Bangles with the song reaching #2 in the U.S. - held off the top step off the pop podium by Tiffany’s ‘Could’ve Been’ (and you’ll know I’ve completely lost the plot if I ever publish a post here about Tiffany - nothing personal, it’s just that I’ve got standards of integrity to adhere to).  ‘Hazy Shade Of Winter’ peaked at #7 here in Australia (UK#11), early in ‘88, reminding audiences of the Bangles sound that had so enamoured itself with listeners previously.

Hoffs had starred in the 1987 motion picture ‘The Allnighter’, directed by her mother.  It was around this period that Hoffs started to become the media’s focal point of the Bangles, something that irked the other members of the band.  But there was more success to come before the cracks were to take hold.

During the summer of ‘88, the Bangles returned to the studio under the watchful eye (or should that be ear) of producer Davitt Sigerson, who would still retain the slickness and radio-friendly sound of ‘Different Light’, but allow the Bangles more room to breath life back into their stylistic roots.  This was no more evident than with the lead out single, In Your Room’ (US#5/ OZ#42/UK#35).  Released late in ’88, it was a psychedelic pop-rock flavoured hit, accompanied by an equally swirly, trippy promotional video.

The Bangles next single, would represent a radical departure from their work to date.  It was written by Susanna Hoffs in partnership with professional song writers Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.  Steinberg and Kelly had already notched up quite a tally of hits by other female artists including Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’, and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colours’.  Steinberg had been a long standing fan of the Bangles, and following a concert at the Palace in Hollywood during 1985, he met with Hoffs backstage, whereupon the two agreed to write something together in the future.  Kelly was brought into the mix, and several songs were written but none had been realised in the recording studio.  That was until the trio penned the song ‘I Need A Disguise’ for Belinda Carlisle’s debut album ‘Belinda’.  The experience inspired the trio to apply themselves to write some material to include on the Bangles’ next planned album.

The aim of the collaboration was to write something that would, stylistically, fall somewhere between the Beatles and the Byrds.  In fact, one of the song’s that the track would emulate in aural ambience was the Beatles’ ‘Here, There And Everywhere’.  Lyrically, the song would take its inspiration from two sources.  Hoffs had recalled a time when the Bangles had played in Memphis, and on a day off had visited Graceland where there was an eternal flame for Elvis Presley.  The other inspiration came from Billy Steinberg’s childhood from Sunday school at a local synagogue.

Stylistically, the song ‘Eternal Flame’ was at odds with everything else the Bangles had written and recorded for their 1988 album release, ‘Everything’ (US#15/ OZ#13/ UK#5).  In fact the song nearly didn’t make the cut to be included on the album.  Wishing to return to some of their garage/folk /psychedelic rock influences, ‘Eternal Flame’ was a syrupy ballad that had a lead vocal owned entirely by Susanna Hoffs, something that would further antagonise the other members of the Bangles, as the charismatic Hoffs received the bulk of spotlight attention from the media.

‘Eternal Flame’ hit the U.S. Hot 100 during February of ‘89, and 8 weeks later hit #1, in so doing supplanting ‘The Living Years’ by Mike + The Mechanics (see future post).  After just one week at the pop pinnacle, Roxette’s ‘The Look’ bumped it to one side.  In Australia, ‘Eternal Flame’ shone bright atop the charts for one week, replacing Julian Lennon’s ‘Now You’re In Heaven’ (see future post), and in turn replaced by the soppy ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ by the Divine Miss M - it went on to become the biggest selling single in Australia for 1989.  In the U.K., the song spent 4 weeks atop the charts, replacing Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’, and eventually replaced by Kylie Minogue’s ‘Hand On Your Heart’.

‘Everything’ spawned two more singles, the Debbi Peterson co-penned pop-rocker ‘Be With You’ (US#30/ OZ#41/ UK#23), and Susanna Hoffs’ folk-rock-ish sounding ‘I’ll Set You Free’.  In terms of being set free, the Bangles had enjoyed a good deal more freedom and autonomy than ‘Everything’s predecessor ‘Different Light’, but still that wasn’t enough to overcome some of the compromises and stylistic unevenness.

In September of ‘89, the Bangles cut short their world tour to “go on hiatus”, after almost 9 years together.  Soon after it was announced that the Bangles had officially disbanded (for then at least).  At the time Susanna Hoffs highlighted a contrast in artistic direction as being a key factor in the group fracturing and eventually folding, but she didn’t rule out a reformation at some point.

Susanna Hoffs was the first Bangle to emerge post-band, with the release of her 1991 debut solo set, ‘When You’re A Boy’, produced by Bangles’ alumni David Kahne.  The track listing featured a diversity of song writing talent, from Diane Warren, through Cyndi Lauper, to Juliana Hatfield.  The album’s title came from the Bowie song ‘Boys Keep Singing’, a cover of which was included (featuring the Who’s John Entwistle on bass).  The lead single, ‘My Side Of The Bed’, was put to bed at #30 on the Hot 100.  Whilst recording her follow up album, Hoffs was dropped from the Columbia roster.  She opted to take some time out to start a family, but returned to the recording studio for her 1996 self titled sophomore album.  In 1997, she joined ranks with Matthew Sweet, Christopher Ward, and comic legend Mike Meyers to form Ming Tea, a fictional British rock band who appeared in all three ‘Austin Powers’ films.  Over the ensuing fifteen years, Hoffs teamed up with Matthew Sweet to record three covers’ albums, titled ‘Under The Covers’.  In 2012, Susanna Hoffs released her third solo album, ‘Someday’.

Post Bangles, Vicki Peterson began collaborating with Susan Cowsill, and began playing in clubs under the name the Psycho Sisters, soon to become a full member of the backing band the Continental Drifters.  She sang and played guitar on the Continental Drifters’ self titled 1994 album.  In 1994, Peterson joined the Go-Go’s reunion tour, filling in for a pregnant Charlotte Caffey.  Over the ensuing decade she contributed guitar and vocals to a wide variety of artists, from Hootie & the Blowfish, to Dwight Twilley.  Meanwhile, sister Debbi had formed the band Kindred Spirits with River City People vocalist Siobhan Mayer, who released an eponymous album on the I.R.S. label in 1994.  Bassist Michael Steele became a bassist for hire having not land a solo recording deal.

By the late 90s, the four Bangles began to tentatively consider working together again.  The first evidence of that came in the form of the song ‘Get The Girl’, which was included on the soundtrack to the 1999 comedy ‘Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me’.  The experience was pleasant enough to encourage the quartet to reunite for a full tour during 2000.

It took a while, but the Bangles eventually released their first album since reforming with 2003’s ‘Doll Revolution’ (US#23 Top Independent Albums), featuring the single ‘Something That You Said’ (US#26 Adult Contemporary).  Tim Sendra of All Music Guide described the album as ‘bland’ and over-produced’.  The album did however offer up a good serving of the Bangles’ signature jangling guitars and rich vocal harmonies.  The album was produced by the Bangles, and the writing credits were shared around the album’s fifteen tracks.

Following the departure of Michael Steele from the band, 2011’s album ‘Sweetheart Of The Sun’ (US#148/#28 Top Independent Albums), saw the Bangles reduced to the original trio of Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, and Debbi Peterson.  Tim Sendra from All Music Guide described ‘Sweetheart Of The Sun’ as a record ‘brimming with jangling guitars, tough lead guitar work from Vicki Peterson, rich vocal harmonies, and a layered live sound’ that really works.  The album echoed the early chapters of the Bangles tenure.  It was co-produced by Hoffs cohort Matthew Sweet, and of the 12 tracks, most had been co-written by the Bangles.

In my mind, in deciding who the better all-girl band of the 80s was - between the Go-Go’s and the Bangles - it’s a split decision.  If I were pushed to choose a favourite, I might lean ever so slightly toward the Go-Go’s, but that’s not to say on another day I wouldn’t choose the Bangles.  In the end, both bands deserve a place of pride in the pantheon of 80s pop music.

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