Sweeping aside the terminally lovesick “Eternal Flame” and the novelty hip-pop of “Walk Like An Egyptian”, two tracks of career-defining chart contrivance, The Bangles were always too cool for school — mine, yours or anybody else‘s for that matter. It all can be summed up in two words — “September Gurls”. How many pop bands do you know of that were covering Big Star in 1986? None. Over in the Midwest, punk-pop progressives The Replacements would later pay tribute to Big Star with the track “Alex Chilton”, but The Bangles beat them to it with their offering. With that song alone, The Bangles became like your cooler older sisters with a bitchin’ record collection to prove it.
Following in the footsteps of other LA girl-bands like The Runaways and The Go-Go’s, but flying in the face of then-present new wave, The Bangles were a more retro, 60’s influenced band — The Monkees, The Beatles, Mamas & The Papas — filling their songs with layered harmonies, jangling guitars, and goddamn they were easy on the eye. In the same way everybody had their favourite Beatle, who didn’t have their favourite Bangle? Everyone used to fawn over Susanna Hoffs, but a fascination with bass players that started with John Taylor from Duran Duran, there was no doubting the tempered sass of bassist Michael Steele. She played it like this pop music thing was just a lark, and what she really wanted to do was drink and raise hell. Hoffs was just too squeaky clean…
Lumped in with the retro-decked “Paisley Underground” bands like Rain Parade and Opal, the sound of The Bangles 1984 debut All Over The Place, was just too idiosyncratic for a larger audience. The 60’s garage feel rode large on tracks like “James” and “Restless”, but was let down by odd bursts of misjudged country pop and bluesy rock n’ roll. The album’s not without some great moments (Kimberley Rew’s “Going Down To Liverpool” for one) but like The Seeds cover they’d whip out in their live shows, it just felt like The Bangles were “pushin’ too hard”. All Over The Place they called it, and All Over The Place was how it sounded. Not quite the breakthrough album they would’ve hoped, but enough to attract some fortuitous attention.
Working with producer David Kahne once more, their follow-up Different Light dropped the 60’s garage fixation for a more focussed, radio-friendly sound. As the legend goes, so enamoured he was by the band, Prince (under a pseudonym) gave the band their first hit with “Manic Monday”. Along with Jules Shear’s sublime “If She Knew What She Wants”, the irritating but addictive “Walk Like An Egyptian” and The Bangles own “Walking Down Your Street”, Different Light was on another pop plane from the calm and over-collected All Over The Place. With that cover of “September Gurls” strengthening the tail end of the album, along with Michael Steele’s starkly personal “Following”, Different Light unsurprisingly rode to the top of the charts in indefatigable style.
Both albums were recently reissued through catch-all label Cooking Vinyl with new liner notes and extras, with All Over The Place given a cursory extra track (a cover of “Where Were You When I Needed You” from their 1982 Bangles EP) but Different Light is expanded by an extra disc of (superfluous to the regular listener, but fan essential nonetheless) remixes and b-sides. You wouldn’t be losing any sleep if you passed on All Over The Place, but for the guitar-pop aficionado, Different Light is not to be overlooked.
Nice review – perfect line! :-) “…there was no doubting the tempered sass of bassist Michael Steele. She played it like this pop music thing was just a lark, and what she really wanted to do was drink and raise hell…”
I have to disagree. “All Over the Place” is a very loveable record, and has it all over “Different Light” in the ass-kicking department. It represents a scrappy guitar band playing like their lives depend on it, whereas “Different Light” shows a band being wined and dined, and groomed by the slick-suited set for antiseptic 80s pop stardom. “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian” are loathsome pieces of pop dreck compared to “Hero Takes a Fall” or “He’s Got a Secret”.
Of course, the few worthwhile moments on DL came courtesy of Ms. Steele, who was the real pro of the band and knew her way around both her axe and her songwriting notebook. I only listen to that record for “September Gurls,” “Following,” and “Let It Go,” which she co-wrote. She is, famously, the only band member not to have had any of her tracks replaced by studio players on that record.
And as an artist and a player, she stood in marked contrast to the fluffy-bunny image Susanna was taking on. She gave them whatever credibility they retained as the 80s (a v-e-r-y long decade) wore on and they fell ever-farther down the synth-drenched lightweight pop rabbit hole.
The songs on the reunion CD “Doll Revolution” bear me out. Her songs “Between the Two” and “Nickel Romeo” are the only genuine rockers on the album, and “Song For a Good Son” is one of her best – heartfelt, personal, revealing but-not-too-much, and tuneful in a left-of-center way.
Michael Steele stands as one of the most under-appreciated, under-rated and under-utilized artists of her time. I can only imagine how much better “All Over the Place”, good as it is, would have been if she had had, say, two of her songs included on it.