The Bangles have enjoyed somewhat of a revival in the ‘10s—a reconstituted lineup toured in late 2011 to promote a new LP, and high profile indie acts such as Dum Dum Girls and the Vivian Girls have drawn comparisons to the pop leanings of the all-girl group 25 years their predecessor. Add to that the resurgence of ‘80s nostalgia as Gen Xers have settled into mid-life crises, and it’s little wonder we’re angling for more Susanna Hoffs. Whether or not 2011’s Sweetheart of the Sun was on your radar, there’s no shame in dipping all the way back to 1988’s Everything for a Bangles fix.
Everything was released as the Bangles were at the zenith of their career. Different Light (1986) had a few chart-toppers—a cover of Jules Shear’s “If She Knew What She Wants,” the Prince-penned “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a novelty song that is as locked in time as painter’s pants and “Where’s the Beef?” Riding high on Billboard success, they produced a rambunctious cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” to soundtrack the tragi-mania of Robert Downey, Jr.’s coke habit in the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero. Everything was a heavily produced album that imported the help of several collaborating songwriters and musicians. This group of songs does seem to better represent the group’s identity as a power jangle pop band better than the singles chosen from Different Light. Written by Liam Sternberg, “Walk Like an Egyptian” may have memorialized the Bangles as ‘80s icons—Americans love their easily executable dance crazes—but it did not typify the sort of songs the women were writing on their own.
Let’s not forget: each of the four members wrote or co-wrote and supplied lead vocals on their own songs. It was Columbia Records execs who determined that Hoffs’ songs would be the singles that were released, promoting the idea that she was the frontwoman of the band. In fact, of Everything’s 13 tracks, five were Hoffs’, three were bassist Michael Steele’s, three were drummer Debbi Peterson’s and two were guitarist Vicki Peterson’s. And yet the two hits from this record—the unapologetically flirty “In Your Room” and power ballad “Eternal Flame”—are Hoffs showcases.
I’d love to take up arms for Steele and the Peterson sisters, and I do, in that the Bangles’ ascent was due to the synergy of the band and not just Hoffs’ star power, but “In Your Room” and “Eternal Flame” are far and away the best tracks of the record. Hoffs’ voice is that spunky combination of vulnerability and edginess; there’s a dose of adolescent wildness to it. In contrast to, say, Steele, who sings with competence and control, it’s the spitfire who piques our interest. “In Your Room,” the album’s opener that ignites a make-out adrenaline rush, matches perfectly with Hoffs’ faux innocence. The song is all about urging, both in the verse-to-verse key changes that up the ante and in Hoffs’ teasing vocals (“Gonna make your dreams come true/ In your room”). But hey, even in the ‘80s we were modern women, so the sex here is egalitarian: the vaguely troubling “Oh, I wonder what you’re gonna do to me” is counterbalanced by the promise “I’ll teach you everything that a boy should know.” An Arabic scale instrumental in the fading outro is suggestive of the exoticism now underway.
Reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Eternal Flame” was the only Bangles ballad to chart. Co-written by Hoffs and Billy Steinberg, it was partially inspired by the band’s trip to Graceland during which they noticed that Elvis Presley’s eternal flame had temporarily been extinguished by flooding. The string orchestra is unmistakably the product of a keyboard program, while light finger cymbal tings keep time in this otherwise non-percussive track. It’s a subtle detail, but part of what makes this torch song stand out is how Hoffs cuts her enunciation: rather than joining them together in a slur, all of her words are separated by hard sounds, which sets up nicely as the harmonizing backup “ahs” glide down in soft contrast. Though Hoffs’ performance strikes the right tension between breathless fragility and explosion of feeling, the most powerful passage (for me) is when Hoffs all but drops out and the verse is carried on in three part harmony by Steele and the Petersons. It survives as one of the great pop ballads of the decade.
Not to be overlooked are the Peterson sisters’ “Bell Jar,” Steele’s “Glitter Years” (a song about her short stint with the Runaways) and Debbi’s backbeat rocker “Be With You,” which was released as the third single. Though Everything was a true collaborative effort, the spotlight unfortunately only accommodates a party of one and fixes its gaze there. Inevitably, the tension caused the group to disband after Everything’s release.
I hate myself a little for jumping straight to Hoffs’ tracks, but the idea that the Bangles was Hoffs’ band is still so ingrained. Don’t worry, Michael Steele, I’ll think of you next time I pull out Queens of Noise.