Beatlemania and the Bangles: Susanna Hoffs explains how "our obsession with the Beatles" brought the iconic '80s group together

Salon talks to the Bangles frontwoman about the group's early influences, their nonexistent Go-Gos rivalry and more

Published June 15, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

The Bangles   (Karen Filter)
The Bangles (Karen Filter)

The Bangles may be one of the most underrated bands of the '80s. Although known for hits such as "Walk Like An Egyptian," the Prince-written "Manic Monday" and the Simon & Garfunkel cover "Hazy Shade of Winter," the group has a depth-filled undercard — to name a few, the pogo-jangle "Hero Takes A Fall"; the brisk rave-up "Tell Me"; the ominous, "Nuggets"-styled "In A Different Light"; and a kicky Rachel Sweet co-write, "Crash And Burn." In fact, when the Bangles formed in L.A. in the early '80s, co-founding members Susanna Hoffs and sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson bonded over their love of '60s rock and pop (especially the Beatles), and a predilection for bewitching multi-part harmonies.

At this time, being a band of musicians heavily influenced by the Fab Four was somewhat of a rarity. "I mean, the Beatles were always revered, but you didn't necessarily find a lot of 21-year-olds at that time who were going, 'Yeah I'm obsessed with the Beatles. All I want to do is learn how to play their songs,' or 'They're my favorite,'" Hoffs says. Still, this helped the Bangles sound unique among L.A. bands — check the "Taxman"-like rhythmic strut of "I'm In Line" — and ensured even initial tunes had a timeless quality.

That stands out on the forthcoming (June 24) Omnivore Records-released compilation of early material, "Ladies And Gentlemen...The Bangles!" The album includes songs when the Bangles were still a trio known as the Bangs (and playing scrappy, surf-garage music with punk-inflected verve), as well as the band's debut EP, "Bangles," which was recorded with producer Craig Leon (Ramones, Suicide). In addition, "Ladies And Gentlemen" boasts a selection of choice covers: Love's "7 & 7 Is," the Turtles-popularized Warren Zevon composition "Outside Chance" and Paul Revere and the Raiders' "Steppin' Out." The collection is exuberant and well-crafted (especially songs such as "The Real World," "Call On Me" and "Want You") and reveals how solid the Bangles' chemistry was from the start.

Hoffs recently spoke with Salon about the enduring nature of the compilation, what else she and the Bangles might have in the vaults, and her love of cover tunes. The musician also reveals she has "lots of new, creative projects that i'm getting close to be able to really talk about more in depth" involving new music and writing.

What was the initial impetus to compile and release this collection?

We realized that it wasn’t really available to people, because it had only come out on vinyl and I think maybe cassette. Some of these songs have never been heard by the world. We dug deep into our archives and found demo tapes and some rare early recordings and even a couple ads that we had done, one for NO Magazine and a promo for a radio station. Just some real kind of obscure stuff. Vicki, Debbi, and I have a great affection for our earliest songwriting efforts and those songs, and just having the opportunity to have worked with Craig Leon, iconic record producer of the first Ramones record.

We had this sense it would be worth pulling something together so people could hear it. It’ll be available on CD and also in the fall, I think in November, on vinyl, which is really exciting. We’d been playing these old songs, and it just brings us back to the beginning full circle from where we are now some 30 years later. There’s a freshness to that material that just hasn’t gone away. If anything, I think the three of us feel in some ways the most connected to those songs, so it’s worth putting it out there so people have access to it.

That’s what I noticed listening to it: There’s just such an effervescence to the music. It’s infectious that way.

Yeah, I think that’s a good word for it, effervescence. It feels that way, honestly, when we perform those songs. And it’s strange, because you find over the years when you do shows that there’s always that thing where the songs that got played on the radio seem to connect with audience members in a kind of very immediate way. But, bizarrely, even people who haven’t heard those early songs, they get a great reaction when we perform them. So this will give access to that material. But because we love playing it so much, it’s nice to have the actual recordings on the internet or wherever people want to find them.

As you were looking for stuff to put on there, was there anything you knew you had but that you couldn’t find?

I’ve just been digging through my old storage units and I’ve just come upon a treasure trove of old….well, definitely live recordings, I mean everything was on cassette. It’s incredible we live in such a time of technological advances that you can’t even keep up with it. But I think there’s probably another record of rarities somewhere between all of our dusty boxes of tapes, if the tapes haven’t degraded too much. Amazingly, they seem to hold up.

I can’t think offhand. I mean, I have some really early recordings of when I was partnered up with David Roback, who ended up doing the Rain Parade and then Mazzy Star. I’m really curious to kind of archive those and see what was there. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Rainy Day record. Do you know that record?


Oh, great! Well, some of the cassettes that I know I have in my dusty box are the precursors to the kind of stuff that David and I did on the Rainy Day record.

The problem is I’m sort of so into being in the present and moving forward and creating new stuff, but at the same time I’m so curious to look back and hear some of these things. But with the tapes, you don’t want to play them too much because you want to archive them the first time you play them because they do degrade. But I know there’s more stuff in the treasure trove, for sure.

It sounds like you could have an archival release a year.

We could, if we put the time into it.

What also struck me is just how connected the style of music is to so much of what’s still going on in L.A. today, with the surf-punk and garage scenes there, and what goes on with Burger Records.

Yeah, I wonder if that’s just something about the zeitgeist of L.A. that is sort of embedded in the landscape here. There just seems to be something that’s a California sound — as you said, the surf-punk thing. We have such a deep history of that, and there’s such a cool history of the California sound, however you want to interpret that, whether you’re thinking of the Byrds or the Mamas and the Papas — even though they came from the East Coast, they’re associated with that — the Beach Boys, the harmonies, the jangly guitars, the surf influence, the punk influence, the particular L.A. brand of punk influence. It’s cool that you’re connecting it to the now, because it was definitely bringing all those elements together that was part of the original Bangles sound. We really wanted to bring four-part harmonies into garage rock, which is kind of a contrast, but that’s partly why we found it exciting.

What do you remember most from working with Craig Leon?

Oh God, it was magical. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I mean, it was a long time ago, but I’ll tell you, he was just a very merry person. He had a wonderful energy and spirit, and he just was very joyful. I do remember at the end of one of the songs, it might be “I’m In Line,” he said, “Oh, the last strum of this chord, you should use a quarter instead of a pick.” I don’t know why that memory comes back into my mind. And he was referencing some cool band from the ‘60s that I worshipped that had used a quarter or some kind of coin instead of a pick. It was probably some British band, so it would have been a British coin, to get this sort of extra-jangly sound. And we did everything really fast and low-budget with Craig, but it was just so exciting for us. It was our first real experience working with a producer, so we couldn’t have been more lucky to be able to connect with him and have him be our first producer.

It’s rare that a band has such a good first experience. You always hear so many horror stories.

Oh, it was so great working with Craig Leon. He has this kind of infectious excitement about things. That’s one of the things I remember. Obviously we were a young band, it was our first real recording for a label, it was Faulty Products at the time, which was Miles Copeland’s smaller label. It was a smaller subsidiary of I.R.S. Records, so it was like super-indie. But to be able to get the guy who had done Blondie and the Ramones, I mean, it was kind of mind-blowing, I have to admit.

You’ve played some of these old songs at recent shows. Do you plan to work up any more for the late-summer tour dates you’re doing?

Oh, we’ll probably play all the EP songs, because we love playing them and it’s nice that the music will be available now. We haven’t really discussed yet exactly what our set will be, but I know the EP songs will be in there. It’s fun. We haven’t toured for a little while, so we have to powwow on that. I’m really excited about it.

Looking at some of your recent setlists, they’ve varied quite a bit. You kind of never know what’s gonna pop in there, which is refreshing. With some bands you can predict exactly what they’re gonna do, but with you guys there’s always some rarity thrown in there.

Yeah, we kind of honed the band’s sound by playing covers in the old days. Like “Hazy Shade of Winter,” for example. We were all still working our day jobs. I was working in a ceramics factory in this very gloomy, dark, windowless room, alone, sanding these little ceramic things that were being used as jewelry. It was a very ‘80s kind of thing, they were little pins but they were ceramic. [Laughs.] I know, it’s crazy. That was my job, and it was just me and the radio, that was my only access to humanity. It was very bleak, but having just hours to listen to the radio station, it was an oldies station, I had access to all these songs that I’d never heard. As big of a Simon & Garfunkel fan as I was, I didn’t know “Hazy Shade of Winter,” so that was a cover that we did early on. We did “Pushin’ Too Hard” by The Seeds.

Oh my God, we used to do songs from the movie “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” which is just an iconic, classic B-movie. I don’t even know what you would call it, it’s like an art movie but it was also sort of a B-movie. Anyway, it was a big influence on us. We used to pull covers from that soundtrack. We did so many cool covers back then. So, you never know, we may throw some of those into the set. I think it would be fun, in the spirit of re-releasing these rare tracks and the EP, which were our first recordings, to go back and pull out some of those old covers we used to do. It was almost like we were scoring ourselves as a band by playing the music that we loved. It was a way to hone our craft.

As a fan, the covers are great because they allow you to learn about those bands. Your “September Gurls” cover was one of the early introductions I had to Big Star. You hear something and kind of go backwards and say, “What is that?”

That was so great, discovering Big Star. I’m pretty sure David Roback turned me on to Big Star. But yeah, there are just so many great covers, almost too many to choose from. I really like that the touring that we do really focuses on playing in smaller venues. It’s absolutely my favorite environment to perform in. It’s just really intimate and really connecting with the audience. We might even do a thing where we just put up something online taking requests or something; that could be fun. I’m really looking forward to it. I like to mix it up. I think we all do. We like to keep it fresh, so it’ll be interesting to see how the setlist comes together.

This year is also the 30th anniversary of "Different Light," an album from which I imagine a lot of people would want to hear some tracks.

That’s a great, great idea. I keep forgetting these anniversaries are coming, it’s almost like, “Really? Is it that long?” But it’s true. Is it the 30th anniversary?

Yeah, it came out early in '86.

Oh my God. I have friends that aren’t even 30. [Laughs.] It’s so weird to think. I think that’s such a cool idea. That’s a really good idea, because some of those album tracks we haven’t played in probably 30 years. I think that would be really fun.

It’s a nice way of reconnecting with die-hards. I see Cheap Trick quite a bit live, and they always pull out a rare album cut from an early '80s record.

I love Cheap Trick. Oh my God. They’re so good. I think Matthew Sweet and I covered “I Want You To Want Me.” [Editor's note: Sweet and Hoffs have released a series of decade-themed covers albums, called "Under The Covers."] I’m not sure it ever made it on the record. I’m dying to get some of those unreleased tracks. Talk about love of covering songs: I could just spend my whole life covering songs. I just love doing it. I think this is true for a lot of musicians, but we all start out as crazy music fans, so it starts with [being] addicted to our favorite music and then it’s kind of like, “Oh, maybe I’ll pick up a guitar and try to write a song,” and then coming full circle back to discussing all these songs I love that other people wrote. It’s fun. I have to say I’m very happy to have this as my main job.

It’s crazy, too, because the expanded reissues of the work you did with Matthew Sweet just came out in Europe. There’s just so much in the archives for those releases.

As soon as Matthew comes up for air from his thing that he’s working on right now, which is his own record, I really want to get in there, back in the studio with him, and mix some of the buried treasures we did. We recorded so many songs, just because we couldn’t stop ourselves.

We were just crazy mad for recording. like especially the ‘70s record which, at one time, we thought it might be a double album to go, thematically, with the ‘70s. So we have so many that really all they really need is to be mixed, honestly. We have a whole, I would say easily, Volume 4. Not necessarily doing the '90s, since we're up to the '90s, but just volume four could be a hidden buried treasure kind of thing.

Is there any band or a song that you’ve never done a cover of that you'd like to?

Oh there's so many. Well, that's one of those questions that there’s so many that my mind suddenly just goes blank. There's too many to say but if I think of a good list I'll send it to you. There's so many. I could just spend a good chunk of time recording Big Star songs, just off the top of my head. There’s such an incredibly catalog of material within Big Star's history.

You and Belinda Carlisle did a show together earlier this year, and it looked like you guys had a lot of fun performing together and doing each other's songs. I know you co-wrote a song for her debut album ["I Need A Disguise" on 1986's "Belinda"], but how much have you guys crossed paths over the years? What was the most gratifying thing for you doing that show?

Well, we have crossed paths several times over--I mean quite a bit--over the years. And we did hang out in the '80s, a lot. I've actually now done three shows with her. And, it's just the most fun. First of all, I'm a huge Go-Go’s fan. So to be able to sing those iconic Go-Go’s songs with her and create duets out of them--it’s just pure joy for me. And I think if you asked Belinda, she would agree that it was just massive fun. So I hope we can do a little expanded version of what we did at Largo in L.A. where we did those three shows. It’s something on the to-do list; it’s just a question of nailing down her schedule and my schedule to see how we could make that happen.

Not only is there the shared experience of having been in L.A. in the ‘80s, in an all-girl band--there weren't that many all girl bands happening at that time--but we have that kind of shared history and just the bond of friendship that's lasted 30 years, so it's been really fun. Even though the press always kind of pitted the two bands as rivals against each other somehow, that never was the case.

I was doing some research, and that's where all the links I found were doing, pitting the two bands against each other--articles like, "Who's better?" Can't you like both bands? What's the problem with that?

We're so different. In certain ways we're really quite different. I think that's what makes it a lot of fun to sing together. Because she really enjoys doing Bangles songs with me, or my songs with me, and I like doing her stuff and the Go-Go’s stuff, so it's really fun.

I just watched this CNN special on '80s music, and you were actually interviewed in it, commenting on Cyndi Lauper and on Prince. And you also talked about how there was a perception in the '80s that the Bangles "played pretty good for chicks," that gender was always a consideration. How much did that kind of overshadow you guys in the '80s? How pervasive was it?

It was pretty pervasive, I have to admit. We spent a lot of time talking about the fact that we were girls making rock and roll music or in a band. It was always part of the conversation. I alluded to this, or addressed it head-on in the CNN interview, but it was sort of like... it's just sort of bizarre, actually, because we didn't really see that it was such a novel thing. To us, it wasn’t novel.

There was such a long history of great female artists, so it struck us as odd that it was such the topic of conversation, above and beyond other things. But I think there is still something novel to people about all-female bands. I don't know why; maybe there just haven't been as many as I thought there would be. As I said, we were always linked to the Go-Go’s, and I see the similarities in the music--there are some--but it just was something we were always up against. I guess, for us, doing what we did, it was just so natural -- it was never something that seemed like it was a manufactured or a novelty thing.

Absolutely. Has that gotten better then over the years?

I think so. I don't think that people focus on that as much anymore, from my perception. But maybe it's because I’m sort of on the sidelines now. We just kind of do our thing when we feel like it. I don’t really feel like I'm, in quotes, "in the music business" right now. [Laughs.] I'm kind of just off to the side in my little studio making art projects. That's kind of how I feel day-to-day. During the sort of tide we were riding, the momentum of what was happening--being on a big label and traveling the world and having songs on the radio, I think it put us in a, God, in a different light at that time. [Laughs.] I didn't want to use that pun. We were more part of what was happening in music at the time, having records that were charting and videos on MTV and that kind of thing.

That makes sense. You were sort of swept up in it.

Do you think that female artists, today, that that's something that comes up when you are interviewing? Do you think it's just something that the world can't let go of? What do you think?

I think it depends. On the one hand, I think people are a lot better in terms of how they interview. They're not necessarily asking gendered questions: “So what's it like to play and be a girl in a band?” But people still get asked that. And I don’t know if it's just ignorance, or if the question comes from a good place, and they're not meaning any malice behind it. It’s hard to say. I'm really hyper-aware of it, just because as a woman, as a journalist, I don't want to ask people that question, because I feel it's really insulting. But a lot of people just don't see it. I can’t tell if it’s getting better or worse.

I don't have a great perspective on it either. I think I touched on it in the CNN interview, in the sense that, I just feel that I have always been driven to create this work. I mean, there's a female voice in it, because that's my experience. That's the lens through which I've lived my life, and so that informs what I do and how I write.

But yeah, I think, particularly in the ‘80s, our band--good, bad or otherwise, it's just the way that it was--was viewed as somewhat of a novelty. And we fought really hard to kind of break down that perception. Does that make sense? We got together as a band because we shared a vision of what we wanted to say and do, and the sound that we created just as four people when you put us in a room together and we start playing music. So that was maybe less to do with our femaleness and just our taste.

I mean, one of the things that really brought me and Vicki and Debbi together--we're in 1980 or 1981 at this point--was our connection to ‘60s music. In some ways, that was way more important than the fact that we were girls. [It] was just kind of interesting to be in an all-girl band as an added benefit, that we had this identity through our female lens that informed everything.

I don't mean to over complicate it, but if that makes sense, it was kind of the fact that we could sing in harmony and it just fell into place. Those were the things that were so magical about me meeting up with them. We just fell into that so quickly. Overnight! You know, the first time we ever played a song together it was just like, “Oh wow! that sounds like something.” That was the thing.

And that's the way it should be. Basically, you meet people and you become friends or collaborators because of your record collections. That's such a simple thing. How many stories do you hear of people being, like, "I saw someone wearing this band T-shirt, and I knew we'd be friends"?

Exactly! With us it was really our obsession with the Beatles. To really pinpoint it, that was one of the things. But beyond the Beatles, just British invasion music, all ‘60s music, ‘cause we all had access to that as young kids. You find that somehow there are certain kids that are really, really in tune with music early on. For whatever reason, there's that connection.

Vicki and Debbi’s parents woke them up in the middle of the night to watch [the Beatles on] "The Ed Sullivan Show." That's what they remember. My mom’s best friend worked at Capitol Records, so we got these early vinyl records, we got the albums. So when I was like four and five years old, my mother was obsessed with the Beatles, so I got it through my parents, too. But we weren’t teenagers at that point--we were toddlers and little kids. Vicki, Debbi, and I had that shared childhood thing with the Beatles. And it wasn't that easy to find other people in 1981 who just wanted to talk about the Beatles nonstop.

There was a lot of other stuff happening in music. I was obsessed with the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Talking Heads and Blondie, and so many cool things that were happening in 1981. But, that said, that was the glue between Vickie, Debbi and I on that first night when we met and decided to be a band on that night. That was it.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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