Songwriter Interviews

Vicki Peterson of the Bangles

by Carl Wiser

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The Bangles singer/songwriter/guitarist on the Paisley Underground, The Goonies, and "Walk Like An Egyptian."

The Bangles formed in 1981, not long after the death of John Lennon. By the end of the decade, they were global superstars, with a hit list that includes "Manic Monday," "Walk Like An Egyptian" and "Eternal Flame." They were also miserable, with enough drama and infighting to easily fill a Behind The Music, which they did. In 1989, six months after "Eternal Flame" hit #1 in America, they split.

When the group - Susanna Hoffs (guitar), Annette Zilinskas (bass), sisters Debbi (drums) and Vicki Peterson (guitar) - got together, they bonded over the Beatles and cooked up a retro sound that helped define the "Paisley Underground" movement in Southern California. Vicki and Susanna did most of the songwriting; all four shared lead vocals.

Their first single, written by Vicki and sung by Susanna, was "Getting Out Of Hand," which sounds like it has go-go dancers in the grooves. When Hoffs and her trusty miniskirt delivered it to KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, he put it on the air, tipping the first domino in the Bangles (then known as The Bangs) path to glory. The Police manager Miles Copeland signed the group and released five of their songs on a 1982 EP. Zilinskas left, Michael Steele (ex-Runaways) took over on bass, and Columbia Records gave them a contract, releasing their debut full-length in 1984. Different Light followed in 1986 with "Manic Monday" and "Walk Like An Egyptian"; Everything, from 1988, had "In Your Room" and "Eternal Flame."

After the split, Vicki joined the rootsy Continental Drifters and Hoffs went solo. They regrouped in 1998 and have been together ever since (now with Zilinskas back in the lineup), taking care to make music on their own terms. Their latest project is the album 3 x 4, where they team up with three fellow Paisley Underground bands - The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade and The Three O'Clock - to cover each others' songs. In the PU spirit, indie record stores get it on Black Friday (November 23), wide release is January 11, 2019.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Would you be able to tell me the key components to the Paisley Underground sound?

Vicki Peterson: Well, that's interesting that you bring that up as a "sound" because, as my Paisley cohort, Danny Benair from The Three O'Clock, is very adamant about pointing out, it's not a sound and it's not a genre. It was a movement, it was a moment. It was a class, as I like to say, because it feels like that. Because we don't sound alike, any of these bands that came up at that time and found each other in Los Angeles in the early '80s.

We gravitated towards each other because there is an inspirational thread of continuity that runs through our music: We were all enthralled by and inspired by the music of the mid and late 1960s, and we were all grabbing different aspects of that to make our own music. So, you can't say that The Bangs sounded like The Dream Syndicate, but we understood each other. And we felt like we were all doing something that no one else was really doing, so we recognized it in each other. We were like the outcasts in a way, but we were recognizing in each other this commonality.

Songfacts: And it sounds like it proved handy as a reference point for journalists.

Peterson: Absolutely. We like to put labels on things, and it's not untrue. There was something there - it was a thing. It just wasn't a "sound."

Songfacts: I'm trying to think of what it was like in Los Angeles in the early '80s. A lot of the history is about the punk movement, but you went a different route. Can you talk about how you formed your sound?

Peterson: Yeah. Even though the punk movement, per se, had kind of passed on by 1981, it was spreading out all over Los Angeles County, but as far as Hollywood and the west side, there were more rockabilly bands popping up and bands that were kind of celebrating the '50s.

And, for whatever reason, I walked into a club one night and there was a band called The Unclaimed on stage and they were playing songs like "Hey Little Girl" and songs that I hadn't heard since I was a kid in the '60s and I loved, loved, loved. My band in high school, we used to cover songs by The Hollies and Dion. Nobody was doing this in the late '70s because you were either a hair band or doing Aerosmith covers or you were a punker. I'm making gaping, widespread generalities here, but most of all, we found each other and all fell in love.

Songfacts: Can you describe your guitar sound and how you got it?

Peterson: Yeah, absolutely. Especially for The Bangs and the Bangles, the adjective was jangly, and I think it's an apt word. We did a lot of faux 12-string arpeggios. We did a lot of strumming, almost like a folk-rock approach to guitar, and then mixed that in with the punk attack, which was very much a part of our sound, as it was for most of the bands. We definitely played with punk energy, if not necessarily the same kind of nihilistic attitude. We had that energy going behind us. The guitar was attacked more than it was stroked.

But, me personally, I worshipped guitar players like George Harrison, who was this melodic part of the Beatles sound and he seemed like he served the song more than his own ego of how many notes per second he could play. I really appreciated that, and I loved guitar players like Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, who plays the guitar like nobody does and doesn't always get the credit for it.

So, it's a pretty eclectic group of people but the bottom line is, we were filtering our love of the '60s through what was going on in the early '80s.

Songfacts: You also wrote very compact pop songs, especially early on, and the first single you released was one you wrote called "Getting Out Of Hand." Can you talk about writing that song?

Peterson: I actually don't remember writing it, but I do remember the era and I think that the bass line was definitely Beatle-esque - definitely inspired by that. We needed a song to record because we had been given the ultimately false information that if you make a record and put it out into the market, you can protect your band's name. So, we were rushing to do that because we'd already had to go through a couple of name changes and we were trying to get our name out into the world as The Bangs.

So, we grabbed that song. I had written "Getting Out Of Hand" about a little bit of a fantasy, a romantic triangle going on. And I liked the challenge of adding some harmonies that were a little tweaked, they weren't quite the one-three-five harmony. There was almost a sourness to the chords and in the chorus.

That was part of The Bangs sound: We took everything that was expected and then tweaked it just a little bit. And then the guitars, at the time I was playing the Les Paul I'd had since high school and I had a 1968 Strat. Susanna had a Rickenbacker, which was awesome.

Songfacts: Was that the first song you wrote?

Bangles, back in the day
Peterson: Oh no, I've been writing songs since I was nine. In high school I played in a band with Debbi, my sister, and my best friend Amanda on bass, and then various other people coming and going through that sort of entity. We were down to just Debbi and me when we met Susanna, so there's kind of a through line, even though the music became very different once I started writing with Susanna. It started really coming into its own of what I wanted it to be, but we were always slightly '60s obsessed. We were just a little more power poppy in 1978 and '79.

Songfacts: It's interesting how your timeline almost mimics The Beatles but 20 years later. You guys came together with some experience, did your dues, had a 7-8 year run, and just before the decade ended, you called it quits.

Peterson: We called it quits, yeah. Would that it be true that there were other similarities, that would be awesome.

Songfacts: With "Getting Out Of Hand," Susanna sings on it. Most people would be fiercely protective and want to do the vocals themselves.

Peterson: You know, it's one of those things. It happened when we made our first record for CBS too, at Columbia. The same thing happened where I had a couple of songs that I'd written when I was 19. They'd already been around for a couple of years, I'd already performed them with my other band with Debbi and Amanda. Sometimes you've got to go, "You know what? You sing this better." And that's how I felt about "Getting Out Of Hand."

She had this Janis Ian kind of sound to her voice. The key was a little low for her, but I liked how it sounded in that register for her.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing "Hero Takes A Fall" and what the lyrical inspiration is there.

Peterson: Well, this is a carefully guarded Paisley secret :)

Sue and I wrote that together and lyrically, we were thinking along very classical lines of classical tragedies where there's often a flaw to the hero. There's often an Achilles heel, something that takes him down at some point, and we were interested in that concept. So, we started applying it to various people.

It's a composite character. At the time there was a rumor going around that it was about Steve Wynn [of The Dream Syndicate] and that got back to him... thank god he still loves me.

Songfacts: Did you get inspired by books, movies, that kind of thing?

Peterson: Yes, books definitely. Susanna and I were slightly geekish about opening the Norton Anthology of English Literature, flipping through that and going, "Hey, this is a great line." She had come across the Matthew Arnold poem Dover Beach at some point and that inspired that song [on their debut album], that idea of applying the fantasy of escape and the reality of what that would really mean. So, we used that at one point. It was a really fun time to just mine the world for ideas.

Songfacts: I always wondered if "Bell Jar" [a Peterson/Peterson composition on Everything] was a Sylvia Plath thing.

Peterson: It was obviously inspired by her because that was such a brilliant image she used to describe that feeling, so I definitely stole the title from Sylvia Plath.

Songfacts: Did you study this stuff in UCLA?

Peterson: I did and didn't. Actually, I was sort of a pre-English major and ended up leaving the university. So, I was sort of an English major dropout because I couldn't connect with the department's philosophy. As a 19-year-old, I had that, Wait a minute, you can't tell me what John Lennon's lyrics are about, much less August Wilson, much less Brecht. You don't really know what was in his head. But you had to just accept what you were being told and pretty much regurgitate it back, and I wasn't crazy about that.

Songfacts: That's an oft-told tale, where you go to college and then realize you're better off just going out and doing whatever it is you want to do.

Peterson: Yeah, often in the creative arts I think that's true. Although, you can obviously learn a lot and, believe me, I beat the drum for a college education for both our kids and was pretty successful on that mark. I think there's a lot to be said for a college education because you're not going to end up working in the field that you are degreed in necessarily, but you're going to be exposed to all kinds of ideas and all kinds of things that you may not ever come across on your own. And I think, just for that, it's incredibly valuable. I definitely give my time in college credit for a lot of things I would not have come across otherwise, including my Norton Anthology, thank you very much.

Songfacts: Was the Paisley Underground moniker anything to do with Prince?

Peterson: No, it pre-dated Prince by many, many years. Not in life, in his career. The actual moniker, Michael Quercio of The Three O'Clock came up with it. He was doing an interview just like this and I don't know if it just popped into his head or if he'd thought of it before, but he said it.

We did feel a little like an underground movement because it was certainly not commercial stuff that we were doing. Nobody was buying anything like this and we were just starting to get press attention for this kind of music because it's not what was "popular." We definitely felt a bit like an underground.

Songfacts: Interestingly enough, though, Prince you can jam into there if you listen with open ears.

Peterson: Oh, absolutely. He was definitely a member, he just didn't know it, and neither did we at the time. But in later years he definitely became a member. Perhaps an unwilling member, but he definitely was a part of the same team.

He worshipped that same stuff. He was listening to Hendrix and all kinds of psychedelic stuff, and of course he became fantastically influential in the Bangles' lives and in The Three O'Clock's lives. But, he's a world unto himself, you almost can't put him in any group.

The Three O'Clock signed to Prince's Paisley Park Records, releasing their album Vermillion on the label in 1988. One of the tracks on that album, "Neon Telephone," was written by Prince. It didn't do as well as the one he gave the Bangles: "Manic Monday."
Songfacts: On 3 x 4, you had to take songs from the '80s and record them in a modern environment. What were the challenges there?

Peterson: Well, for me, the challenge was trying to find the core of what made the song really special when you first heard it and find a way to bring that out again, because we're never going to sound like the Rain Parade - we can't. I was never going to be able to sing a song like Steve Wynn. I had to find my own way around that song and that was a challenge. Plus, you feel like you really want this to be fabulous because you care about the people who wrote the song, you want them to all be impressed and love it. And so there was a bit of that. I think we all felt like that. We were all nervous about playing our versions for the other bands.

So, that was challenging. As far as the modern era, there were some brilliant gifts because although the four of us did track in a studio together – Debbi, Annette, Susanna and I – we were able to do what we do these days. And at Susanna's home studio and at my home studio, we were able to go back and put down some vocals and guitars and do that very much in our own time and space, literally.

I just love that. I love having a room to myself because I can engineer to be able to work on that Matt Piucci guitar solo and not feel like anyone's looking over my shoulders, because he had to get a little wild. So it was fun.

3 X 4 Tracklist

The Bangles
"Jet Fighter" (The Three O'Clock)
"Talking In My Sleep" (Rain Parade)
"That's What You Always Say" (The Dream Syndicate)

The Dream Syndicate
"Hero Takes A Fall" (The Bangles)
"She Turns To Flowers" (Salvation Army)
"You Are My Friend" (Rain Parade)

Rain Parade
"As Real As Real" (The Three O'Clock)
"Real World" (The Bangles)
"When You Smile" (The Dream Syndicate)

The Three O'Clock
"Tell Me When It's Over" (The Dream Syndicate)
"What She's Done To Your Mind" (The Rain Parade)
"Getting Out Of Hand" (The Bangles)
Songfacts: Who picked the songs?

Peterson: We all did. We have an email thread four miles long, and we had a little arm wrestling going on between Susanna and The Three O'Clock because there was a Rain Parade song she really wanted to do but she didn't get in her vote in time and they won. But, she ended up singing harmonies on it, so I think she was happy in the end.

We all started throwing out, "We'd like to do this, this and this." And, "Well, we're doing this." It worked out pretty simply. Everyone had their favorites, which is interesting. And the irony that The Dream Syndicate did "Hero Takes A Fall" was just a beautiful full circle.

Songfacts: But, of course, it's not about Steve Wynn.

Peterson: Not really, but I can't tell you who it's about.

At the peak of their powers, Van Halen had a knack for taking classic rock songs from the '60s and putting a contemporary '80s take on them, spinning them into hits. They did it with Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" and with The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." The main ingredient in this alchemy is a guitar riff that evokes the song without copying it, something Eddie Van Halen did like no other.

But the Bangles also pulled it off, taking on Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade Of Winter" for the 1987 movie Less Than Zero. The Bangles' harmonies take the song in a new direction, but it's powered by Vicki's blistering riff. The original went to #13 in 1966; the Bangles took it to #2 in 1988 (held off the top by Tiffany's "Could've Been").
Songfacts: It's one thing to have a '60s sound but it's another to take a song from the '60s and come up with a ridiculous guitar riff that turns it into a modern classic and totally transforms the song. Can you talk about coming up with that riff on "A Hazy Shade Of Winter"?

Peterson: That was a tough one because the original was performed on a 12-string acoustic. That was a struggle to figure out how to play it so it sounds as cool but different. The answer was to rock it up, but it wasn't easy.

Songfacts: Did you record that specifically for Less Than Zero?

Peterson: Yes. We were asked to submit a song for this movie. We didn't know that much about it other than we knew who some of the creators of the film were and we definitely wanted to be a part of it. It seemed like a great thing.

We did not have a lot of time: We were in-between tours, just about to go out again. I think we were actually at a meeting to discuss another video or something else and we got the offer to submit a song for this film. We were thinking, What can we get done in four days? It was really a tight window. It was Susanna's idea. She said, "Let's just use something we already know that we used to do. What about 'Hazy Shade Of Winter?'"

We didn't know enough about the movie to know if it was going to make any sense in the film, but ultimately, I think it fits beautifully. But we had performed "A Hazy Shade Of Winter" in our early club sets, in like 1981-'82. We used to do it as a cover. We've always played covers of songs that we loved, so on that note, it made it a little simpler.

We played with it and edited it and actually ended up asking Paul Simon... It's the sort of thing, you don't ask for permission, you ask for forgiveness. So, I asked his forgiveness for cutting the bridge in half.

Songfacts: What did he say?

Peterson: He was like, "It's fine. I'm good." He was very gracious.

Songfacts: You actually out-charted him with his own song.

Peterson: I didn't even know that.

Songfacts: Yeah, yours was much higher.

Peterson: Well, theirs was off of a completely brilliant record with like 12 other hit singles.

Songfacts: Yeah, they have that going for them.

After releasing their first album, the Bangles did time as Cyndi Lauper's opening act and appeared in an extended video of her theme song to The Goonies. The film, starring pre-famous Josh Brolin, Sean Astin and Corey Feldman, is an '80s classic from a time when free-range kids were allowed to find trouble. The Bangles contributed a song to the soundtrack called "I Got Nothing."
More vintage Bangles
Songfacts: That wasn't the first time you did a song for a movie. You also did a song for The Goonies. Was that a song you wrote specifically for the film?

Peterson: Yes. We were in touch with Jules Shear, who became a friend - a lovely, lovely man. He was in town, staying at the Roosevelt. It was one of those crazy things: He was writing with a bunch of people in town and we got together with him to write this song. I can't remember if we submitted that later or if that was specifically for this film, but I remember writing this song with him, literally in a hotel room, and it was a blast. He's such an interesting, eccentric, lovely, talented person. [Shear wrote the Bangles hit "If She Knew What She Wants."]

Songfacts: Had you seen the film?

Peterson: Not at that point. I've never written a song for a film I've seen. The music is often the last thing that gets put in and the last thing to be budgeted for, we noticed.

Actually, I take that back. The only time we did have an opportunity to see footage for a scene was when we did a song in The Spy Who Shagged Me, because Susanna was sleeping with the director. [She was - and still is - married to the director, Jay Roach.]

Songfacts: Yeah, I would think they'd hook you up with a preview copy of that.

Peterson: Yes. We managed to be able to because they had temped in some music - it was a Rolling Stones song, I can't remember which one. So we were able to grab the beats per minute of the song and that made it easier, because they had already shot with people dancing to this song, so we wanted it to work. So, we did write that song specifically for that scene, and that was "Get The Girl."

Songfacts: Yeah, that's when Heather Graham hits the button and everybody comes out and starts dancing. That's fun, especially because you guys have that '60s sound. It's also quite precarious, because if the director doesn't like it he's going to have to live with it.

Peterson: Yeah, that would have been bad. He would have had to come out and say, "Guys, it's not happening."

Songfacts: So, luckily The Goonies accepted your song. It went in the movie, and you ended up on the set as part of Cyndi Lauper's video. Can you talk about that?

Peterson: Well, we had toured with Cyndi, so we were already friends and knew her quite well. She was just such an artistic, interesting human. Just love her, but she's a trip. So, when she was doing her version of her song, she invited us to come along on the set and be pirates.

Songfacts: It looked like the actual set with the real actors.

Peterson: Yeah, it was the actual sound stage with the water and the boat and everything.

Who knew that movie was going to become such a classic? I was thrilled that, literally, kids who are just a bit younger than us were so excited about it.

Songfacts: How do you feel about "Walk Like An Egyptian" these days?

Peterson: Well, these days I feel very differently about it than I did in the '90s, because to me it was such an odd moment. Although, I actually loved doing it. I thought the song was brilliant, in the strangest way. I had fun recording it, minus a few hiccups here and there, because it wasn't a great time for us. But, the song itself, I thought, "OK, we will never write anything like this. This takes the record to another level, so let's absolutely do this."

And, I remember then telling our manager, "Don't worry, the label will never have the guts to release this as a single, it's too weird." So that shows you how much I know.

But I love Liam Sternberg, who is the writer on that song. He's just such a brilliant, strange, lovely writer. It was fun at the time. It was fun making the video – I had a blast. And then my time in the '90s when I was in New Orleans and making a very different kind of music with the Continental Drifters, you couldn't have paid me to sing that song. And I couldn't even remember any of the words - it was like this complete blackout.

These days, again it's so fun to do live because of how it's received by our audience: They are completely in love and having a blast. It reminds them of that time in high school, that time in college, whatever it is that connects to a moment of sheer fun and joy and silliness and dance moves. So, at this point in time, when we do it, I just have a blast.

Songfacts: Who did the whistling?

Peterson: That actually was a machine.

Songfacts: I didn't know you could program a machine to whistle.

Peterson: Yeah, you can.

November 9, 2018
Further reading:
Interview with Susanna Hoffs
Interview with Jules Shear
Bangles Songfacts

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