Even though most people know the Bangles from glossy pop hits like “Eternal Flame” and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” they weren’t always so polished. Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, and Debbi Peterson started the band, quite literally, in a garage — Hoffs’ parents’ garage, to be specific. Inspired by the melodies of the Beatles and the energy of the Ramones, they crafted a rough-and-tumble, harmony-soaked pop-rock sound that, eventually, got smoothed out by their corporate overlords.
Last Fall, though, the Bangles went back to their roots and released a collection of their earliest recordings, Ladies and Gentlemen… the Bangles. The set is raw and energetic, brimming with three-minute musical gems. And their live show matches it beat for beat.
In that same spirit of rediscovery, Hoffs went for a little walk down memory lane… back to the very Bangley beginning.
Cuepoint: College was where music really took hold for you, right? Set that scene.
Susanna Hoffs: I went off to UC Berkeley at 17 years old and I was already aware of this new movement in music because my brother John, who’s a year older than me, had gone off to Yale the year before. He came home over Christmas break with a whole bunch of records — the Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads. My memory of the introduction to that music reminds me of the scene in Almost Famous when Cameron Crowe is being turned on to music from his older sister’s record collection. It was what we called “mind-blowing.”
Up until then, before the Ramones, it was stadium rock. It was the Who and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin playing big stadiums. Those are all bands I love, but the disconnect between a person imagining what it would be like to play rock & roll music in a band… it seemed like this unattainable, god-like status to be in a band like that. There was no in-between. The age of garage bands in California, and everywhere, in the 60s — that idea seemed lost forever and then, suddenly, here are the Ramones and Blondie and the Talking Heads. It ran the gamut from the Ramones playing four-chord songs that had extremely melodic vocal parts played fast with a punk intensity, and then you had the Talking Heads that felt like a band born out of an art school setting, which I think they were. And Blondie — with their sonic blend of pop, punk, and 60s, and Debbie Harry such an iconic, charismatic front person. Patti Smith was a huge inspiration to me! Her poetry, her songs, her intensity and fearlessness. So I was inundated with this incredible new wave and punk rock phenomenon and take-over of the music business. That had a huge impact on me.
So, I’m going to UC Berkeley, which is a very creative place and the 60s mindset was actually still alive and well in the 70s. It hadn’t left. There were so many record stores. I rediscovered all this music from the 60s that I had heard in the car on Top 40 radio, but I never knew who these bands were — the Beau Brummels, the Blues Magoos, the Syndicate of Sound… all these cool, obscure bands — not just the Byrds and the Beatles. I was starting to get into all these records, buying the vinyl… kind of like I was studying the soundtrack to my childhood. It was a tremendously fertile time for me, that period in the late 70s. I was living in Berkeley and went to that infamous last Sex Pistols show at Winterland. I also saw the Patti Smith Group there. There was so much going on in the clubs in San Francisco and on the Berkeley campus.
By the time I graduated in 1980, I had already attempted a band with David Roback — a childhood friend. At that time, we were both a couple and musical collaborators. We were writing reverb-drenched pop and surf songs, and also doing drone-y versions of Beach Boys and Velvet Underground songs. Our sound was an early template for what David and Hope [Sandoval] would create years later in Mazzy Star. Some of our early covers ended up on the Rainy Day record which, apparently, is being re-released — “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” I believe, will be on a new Best of Rough Trade record.
After college, once you got back to L.A., how did you get the Bangles going?
So that all set the stage for me landing back in L.A. in 1980 and attempting to make that project with David work, but we broke up. We were no longer a romantic couple and, sadly, our band was not functional without that component. So I was on a path to figure out how to find bandmates. The club scene in L.A., at the time, was dominated by new wave and rockabilly bands. There was also hard-core punk and this very small power pop and 60s-influenced thing going on. One of the bands I was completely obsessed with — and obsessed is not even a strong enough word for how I felt about this band — was called The Last. They covered Blues Magoos songs and they had the 60s sound I wanted. I also really liked the Go-Gos.
It’s funny, but when the Bangles started to come up and the press started noticing us, we always downplayed the Go-Gos’ influence. But the truth is, I loved them and I loved the idea of partnering up with other girls — I can’t even say “women” because we were girls. Especially after having tried to make a band work with an ex-boyfriend. And it was also appealing in terms of the writing point of view. And, I just thought it would be fun. It was actually at a Go-Gos show at the Whisky a Go Go (how perfect!) that I put a stack of my first flyers in the ladies’ room, hoping to connect with other girls to start a band with.
I got really lucky, in a way, because I also advertised myself in the Recycler. Both that first flyer and the ad said “Must be nice” and included different bands I was into. I listed Arthur Lee and Love as one of the bands. The only call I got from the initial flyer was Maria McKee who, at the time, was about 16 years old and living at home with her mom. It just wasn’t right, but they were impressed that a kid my age was such a Love fan. Maria’s brother, Bryan MacLean, was in the band with Arthur Lee and that was actually why they called me. The thing is, in 1980, people weren’t that interested in bands from the 60s, especially the more obscure ones. You had to work hard to find that stuff. These were the days before the Internet! It was like a treasure hunt, listening to oldies radio and digging through vinyl.
I called an ad that was in the Recycler which had been placed by a girl who had been recently fired by Vicki and Debbi from their band at the time. I immediately knew there wasn’t a click with this girl and me. But, Vicki had been the one to answer the phone when I called. She and I started talking right away and there was a big connection between us. But she felt like it wouldn’t be right to say, “Hey, what about us meeting up?” It’s a complicated story, but the upshot is that I called back to reconnect with Vicki — and we set up a time for her and Debbi to come over to my house.
The first time I met Vicki and Debbi, I was struck by the fact they they were such huge Beatles fans. I mean, there are a lot of people who love the Beatles, but there was a level and depth to their passion that matched mine. And, frankly, that was unusual for kids our age. The first night we met and played together sealed the deal. It was really, really fast. Almost terrifyingly fast. At that first meeting, I played them a cassette tape of living room recordings I’d made with David Roback — dreamy, reverb-y pieces, like “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” that ended up on the Rainy Day record. They could tell that I had the right influences to be a fit, so we made this commitment to each other and just went from there. That’s the birth of the band, from my vantage point.
How did you get from your parents’ garage to Columbia Records?
So cut to… we’re slugging it out on the club scene, making the calls ourselves to the club owners. At some point, Miles Copeland finds out about us and we meet with him. He becomes our manager, so things escalate a little bit. We record an EP as the Bangs. All the artwork is virtually done. But on the eve of that record going to print in 1982, Miles is notified that a boy band on the East Coast called the Bangs is insisting that we change our name… or pay. So we have 48 hours to come up with a new name. That’s how we became the Bangles. The EP comes out on Miles’ Faulty Products label — which turned out to be faulty because the label folded while we were on tour with the English Beat.
Then we were just building it up, out there playing. Some A&R people from Columbia Records came up to San Francisco to see us. Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane was there and came backstage — that was a big deal to me. Columbia was the only label on earth that was interested in the Bangles. It was good. All you need is one. This really wonderful guy named Peter Philbin was checking us out and trying to figure out if it was a good idea to take us to the great and powerful Columbia Records. As an A&R person, you’re telling the higher ups, “I believe in this. Let’s sign these kids. Take the risk on this funny little garage pop, 60s-influenced girl band.” So he was checking us out at different shows and he was very involved in Bruce Springsteen’s career, was maybe even his main A&R guy. So he dragged Bruce all the way out to see us at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, of all places, and basically asked him what he thought. Bruce gave a thumbs up and, the next thing I know, we were getting signed to Columbia Records in, I think, March of 1983. And our first record, All Over the Place, came out in 1984.
Now, 30 years later, we’ve gone back to the beginning for Ladies and Gentlemen… the Bangles. We were always do-it-yourself kind of gals, so we’ve finally re-released our original EP and other rare, early recordings ourselves.
I like that the music business has come full circle, from our point of view. We’re back to being the masterminds of our own destinies. That’s where we started and, personally, I feel comfortable there. I always thought of the Bangles as a club band. I think of the Bangles as a garage pop band and the songs we wrote in the early days are the truest, most authentic songs, perhaps, that the Bangles ever recorded. They really capture the essence of who we are… still. Even though it was definitely who we were back then, it’s still, in some ways, more than any of the other stuff — including some of the hits — most representative of what we cared about and what we wanted for the band.
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