Of Sweaty Basements, Short Skirts and the Paisley Underground: Vicki Peterson of the Bangles

The Bangles surveyed Los Angeles in the aftermath of punk and forged a new way. A new compilation looks back on that time as Vicki Peterson remembers the thrill of hearing herself on the radio for the first time and the terror of the group's first tour.
The Bangles
Ladies and Gentlemen ... The Bangles

“There were times when I thought Debbi was going to faint at the end of a two-hour show in a sweaty basement where it was 112 degrees,” says Vicki Peterson, guitarist, founding member, and songwriter for The Bangles. It’s a late spring afternoon and she’s at home in Los Angeles, chatting about Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles!, a collection that compiles the quartet’s earliest recordings, including a single recorded as The Bangs, an EP, and many other treasures.

Listening to the collection, which initially emerged in 2014 as a download-only release before fans clamored for something tangible, one thing’s clear: The Bangles wrote better and rocked harder than many of the other bands coming out of Southern California in the early ’80s.

X and the Go-Go’s had inked deals with powerful labels. Strains of rockabilly leaked from the walls of venues that had seen better days and cowpunk learned to crawl. The Bangs were one of several bands pledging allegiance to the sounds of a Los Angeles that had not existed since at least August, 1969, when the Manson Family ushered in the end of the innocence. Coming together in the dimming days of 1980, the trio derived inspiration from jangling guitars of the Byrds and the ethereal harmonies of the Mamas and The Papas. The Dream Syndicate, which emerged around the same time, shared similar obsessions, as did members of Rain Parade and the Three O’clock. The Long Ryders, who pledged allegiance to Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Flying Burrito Brothers, would come later. No matter who these new bands listened to, it was clear that by early 1981 the Paisley Underground had arrived.

Like many scenes this wasn’t just about the music, it was also about a look, including an obsession that Peterson and her sister shared for ‘60s clothing. “We’d go to shows,” Peterson says, “wearing miniskirts and pass people on the street and they’d look at us like we were nuts. That’s what was going on when I first met Susanna [Hoffs] and realized that I had kindred spirit, somebody who really worshiped the Byrds and the Beatles and knew who the Grass Roots were. It was like a revelation.”

The Petersons had already played together in a popular high school band and put in plenty of hours on the stage by the early days of the Bangs. Their parents, Vicki says, could not have been more supportive of their interest in music. Their aerospace engineer father built them a bass cabinet and P.A. system.

“They put up with our hideous rehearsals in the living room. But,” she says, “when I left college because I was hearing the rock ‘n’ roll clock ticking, they got concerned. I had nothing to ‘fall back on’ but I didn’t want to fall back. From there I think that they were basically tolerant until they saw that it was something that was going to work well for us in our lives. And then they were thrilled and never stopped being thrilled.”

Once the Bangs had gotten out of the practice space and into the clubs it wasn’t long before the trio was sharing bills with local acts such as including the Unclaimed, which featured future Long Ryder Sid Griffin. With a shared love of bands such as the Standells (“Dirty Water”), the sounds were largely sympathetic. Punk gigs, Peterson adds, were a different animal. “I don’t know what the hell they thought of us,” she says with a laugh. “We were doing harmonies. I’m sure they were asking, ‘What is this?’” But, she adds, there was one benefit of sorts: “We learned to play really fast. And get off stage before something hit us.”

Pooling money from their day jobs Hoffs and the Petersons traveled to Radio Tokyo studio in Venice Beach to track “Getting Out of Hand” b/w “Call on Me”. They worked with the legendary Ethan James who’d come up with seminal metal band Blue Cheer. A master of the hurdy gurdy he also recorded many of L.A.’s best bands from the era, including Black Flag, Minutemen and the Rain Parade. She refers to James, who died in 2003, as “wonderful”. “He couldn’t have been more helpful,” she says. “We had a blast making that in just a matter of hours.”

With the single pressed, the group was eager to find some way of getting the word out. Hoffs tracked down Los Angeles radio legend Rodney Bingenheimer and gifted him with a copy. It was on the airwaves the same weekend of her visit. “He played it on his show every weekend after that for probably two years,” Peterson recalls. Its two tracks appear on Ladies and Gentlemen … as does “Bitchen Summer/Speedway,” which emerged on the 1982 Bingenheimer-blessed compilation Rodney on the ROQ Vol.III. More than 30 years after the fact Peterson recalls the thrill of finding a home on the airwaves with audible delight. “There’s nothing in the world like the first time you hear your band on the radio,” she says. “You can play your record in your living room. You can play it for friends. It’s not the same as having it out in the universe where it’s shared by everyone.”

Buzz was building around the band and ’82 became a watershed moment for the group. It was the year that the Bangs became the Bangles, the year that would see the group issue its first EP, and the year that saw what was now a quartet take to the road in a significant way for the first time. By this point, there was management involved, Miles Copeland had swooped in and taken the band under his wing. There had been gigs in San Francisco and San Diego but now The Bangles traveled outside California for the first time with the English Beat.

It wasn’t the triumphant road campaign some bands might have hoped for. “It was rough because we were thrown on the tour at the last minute,” Peterson says. “The guys in the band could not have been nicer to us and their crew was amazing. But the promoters didn’t always know that there was an opening act. Half the time we weren’t advertised so the people who came to the shows were expecting Ranking Roger and they got these four girls instead. ‘What the fuck is this?’ We had to adapt our playing style a bit then. We had to be as rock as we could and then get off stage.”

Bassist Annette Zilinskas was on hand for the self-titled EP which featured four originals, all of which Peterson had a hand in writing. There was also a cover of “How Is the Air Up There?” from the cult New Zealand act the La De Das, the record was produced by Craig Leon. He’d built a solid reputation with East Coast acts such as Blondie and Suicide, then became more adventurous, working with 45 Grave, Doctor and the Medics, and the Beat Farmers. Although his experience helped sessions go smoothly, Peterson is quick to point out that the EP wasn’t something that was labored over.

Asked if the release, was an accurate representation of live shows from the era, she admits that it was more a matter of what was at hand to record at the time. “It was so fast,” she recalls, “once we knew we were going to record, we just went with the ones we felt most comfortable with.” The record would become a calling card for The Bangles and would even see the light of day on I.R.S. the following year.

The British influence weighs heavily on the EP with “I’m in Line” sounding like a George Harrison composition as recorded by Big Star. “Want You” offers a heavier, more aggressive approach that hints at the heaviness the band displayed on the stage. It’s similar to a weighty reading of Love’s “7 and 7 Is” that comes later in the compilation. Although Arthur Lee would make several attempts at reuniting that classic outfit in the late 1970s and beyond Peterson says that she never had the chance to see the group perform. That alone makes The Bangles’ blistering take on the track all the more powerful as the younger band seems to harness the fire and audacity of the Los Angeles legends.

If you saw the Bangles in ’82 or ’83 you probably heard a version of that tune. “I loved playing it live,” Peterson says, “we were always more rock live and still are to this day. People come to see us and are surprised that we’re rough around the edges and louder than most of our records.”

Also featured on the new release are four demo cuts, including a cover of the Warren Zevon-penned “Outside Chance” (popularized by the Turtles) and the Paul Revere and the Raiders track “Steppin’ Out”. Peterson says that she recently had the opportunity to share her take on the song with its author, Mark Lindsay. On tour with the Cowsills (she married John Cowsill in 2003 and shared the stage with Susan Cowsill in both the Continental Drifters and Psycho Sisters), she casually mentioned that the Bangles had once covered the tune. “He insisted that I sing it to him,” she says, “it was nerve-wracking. Especially because he can still sing his ass off.”

The Bangles’ own commitment to live performance is legion and there are some who may not be aware of the band’s grittier side, something that persisted alongside lighter fare such as “Eternal Flame”. Those rough edges presented some problems when the group landed on Columbia Records for the 1984 release All Over the Place. Peterson says that the transition from I.R.S. to Columbia was fast and almost impossible to track.

“They were the most persistent and pleasant,” she says with a laugh. “It was easy to sign with that label. There was Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel. It felt amazing to be part of that family and part of that history. But going into the studio was a whole different experience because all of a sudden jobs were on the line and there was budget. This,” she says, lowering her voice for dramatic purposes, “was a really big deal”.

As big a deal as it was there was some question as to how The Bangles should be marketed. Was it a pop band? A rock band? She recalls, “Columbia tried a lot of different things with us and we learned pretty quickly what did and didn’t fit. Our first photo sessions that were styled were pretty horrific. I take full responsibility for all my own fashion faux pas and I’ll stand by them. But the first one? Me in a kimono? No.”

A seeming inability to track the group came across in advertising for that first album. Notices for the record appeared in seemingly incongruous magazines such as Creem and Hit Parader which were by then strongholds for the likes of Van Halen and Judas Priest. No matter how raw The Bangles were in concert, there was no mistaking them for a band that would share the stage with David Lee Roth.

Within a few years “Eternal Flame” and “Manic Monday” would carry the group far away from that world, though an appearance on the heavy-leaning Less Than Zero sound track would pull them back in. “We went full circle,” Peterson says, “because by ’88-89 we were back in Creem. I think someone named us the longest-haired, non-hair band.”

For a while, she says, Columbia didn’t fully know what to make of its latest acquisition. “They weren’t sure until the gift of a Prince song fell in their laps,” she says. That Prince song would of course change the fortunes of all members of the band forever. There would be the inevitable breakup and inevitable reunion and a prosperous touring life that continues to this day.

“We’re all very scattered at the moment,” Peterson says, “we all have different projects and lives but we still find time for the band.” And Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles! reminds us of a time when the band was, seemingly, all there was.

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