The Bangles — Debbi Peterson, Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson — help raise funds for La Salle High School
By Carl Kozlowski 03/11/2010
On Saturday night, La Salle High School is hosting the fundraiser to top all high school fundraisers, featuring a performance by rock superstars The Bangles, who first strutted their signature hit “Walk Like an Egyptian” to international fame in 1986 and are still touring and recording today.
So how did the small Catholic high school score so big? Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson and her drummer sister Debbi have a nephew in his senior year there. So they decided to send him out with something neither he nor grateful students and school officials will likely soon forget, performing a concert to raise much-needed funds for the school’s arts program. The show, set for 7 p.m. Saturday, is open to the public.
“My nephew is very active in the music department and he’s a senior, so it’s our last chance to help out while he’s still in school,” Vicki Peterson explains in an interview with the Pasadena Weekly. “We’ve done something for almost all of our kids’ schools, and certainly art departments suffer in funding.”
While Peterson gladly engaged in a trip down memory lane, she emphasized that The Bangles have remained more than a nostalgia act. They tour nationally each summer, and in the past decade they’ve mounted tours of Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan — all while releasing the CD “Doll Revolution” in 2003 and currently recording a new album.
Both efforts have inspired the Peterson sisters and lead singer Susanna Hoffs (bassist Michael Steele rarely joins them) to keep creating fresh songs, as opposed to relying on past hits and cover tunes.
The band is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, having met in 1980 through an ad in The Recycler. Vicki recalls that she and Debbie had just fired a guitarist, who still lived with Vicki, and placed the ad in hopes of finding a new band to work with. Hoffs answered the ad and called in, but Vicki picked up the phone and started an instant friendship.
“We had actually stopped looking for a singer and had nearly given up on trying to have a band, but she called that ad and I happened to pick up the phone,” Peterson recalls. “It was sort of serendipitous. That was December of 1980, right after John Lennon was shot, and by the next year we’d recorded our first little 45 that we funded ourselves and were playing clubs and stuff.”
The Bangles signed with seminal alternative label IRS Records in 1983 and put out a hitless EP before jumping to the major label CBS Columbia. There, they made a bigger splash with their debut album “All Over the Place,” after two songs — “Going Down to Liverpool” and “Hero Takes a Fall” — attracted KROQ-FM airplay and a performance on David Letterman’s show.
But it took a song written by Prince to break them wide open with the public. He wrote the smash hit “Manic Monday” as a means of wooing Hoffs (whom Peterson adamantly says never reciprocated, despite a rumored romance with the rocker), and it became the first smash of their careers when included on their 1986 album “Different Light.”
“Our first full album caught his attention, and he sent ‘Manic Monday,’” says Peterson. “I’m sure he had his reasons, but he’s a very mysterious person. It’s not like I call him up and we hang.”
Despite The Bangles’ ability to write their own popular songs (the smash ballad “Eternal Flame” was a Hoffs composition), Peterson said that record labels held a lot more sway over artists in the ’80s and could force groups to take on outside songwriters’ tunes. The Bangles played ball to resoundingly successful effect, as “If She Knew What She Wants” — another one of “Different Light’s” four hits — was written by their friend, songwriter Jules Shear.
“Nobody’s gonna turn their back on a good song, so we always kept an open mind. We always did covers anyway, though writing was always important to keeping our point of view and it’s something I still love about what we do,” says Peterson. “I was hoping that one of us would have an original composition on that level, and Susanna finally did with ‘Eternal Flame.’”
The greatest gift from the music gods came in the form of outside songwriter Liam Sternberg’s “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The song exploded worldwide, creating an instantly popular new dance move that fans all over the planet replicated. To this day, it stands as one of the most-played songs from the ’80s.
“Liam is a very interesting, eclectic writer. Susanna and I could have written a ‘Manic Monday’ but not a ‘Walk.’ It’s a pretty out there composition,” Peterson says. “It didn’t really impact me until much later, until I realized that it was one of the things people didn’t just remember from The Bangles, but the ’80s, and that colleges were having ‘Walk’ nights and frats were having themed parties. It was a cultural headstone in a way that was fun, silly and irreverent that people now associate with the ’80s.”
The fun kept going through their next CD, 1988’s “Everything.” But after “nine years together, 24/7, with no relationships, we were four exhausted young ladies,” says Peterson. Hoffs and Steele walked away from the band, though The Bangles never officially broke up. In 1999, Hoffs called up the Petersons and asked if they’d want to work with her again.
Peterson had spent much of the intervening decade as a member of the critically acclaimed Continental Drifters, an ensemble of top alternative-rock musicians based in New Orleans. So her one demand with Hoffs was that the group wouldn’t just rest on its laurels but really re-fire and maintain their creative spark by writing all new material for a new CD, which became “Doll Revolution.”
“Debbi and Susanna and I wrote songs via cassettes in the mail. We wrote a song originally for ‘Austin Powers 2,’ and we talked Michael [Meyers] into doing it with us that time,” Peterson says. “That was first time together in the studio in ages, and then we went to the Hollywood Bowl for a sold-out tribute to The Beatles night.
“We’re looking forward to the benefit. We’re even trying to work up a song to sing with the choir,” says Peterson. “It’ll be a special night and I do hope people come out and help kids get the money for trips to perform in other cities.”