They're Playing My Song

Susanna Hoffs - "Eternal Flame"

by Bruce Pollock

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They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Susanna Hoffs.

"Eternal Flame"

Artist: Bangles
Writers: Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly/Susanna Hoffs
Album: Everything
Label: Columbia
Year: 1988
Chart Position: #1 (US and UK)
Susanna Hoffs' journey with Bangles from an L.A. garage to the top of the charts was launched by an unexpected song she co-wrote with guitarist Vicki Peterson, "Hero Takes a Fall," from their 1984 debut album, All Over the Place.

"When I look back on my writing relationship with Vicki I think that song was kind of a milestone in terms of our collaboration, where we just we sat down with an idea in mind to do something that had a good beat and would really be fun to play live," Hoffs said. "We ended up releasing it as a single and it got a lot of airplay on the college radio circuit. Having been playing on the club scene in LA, we started to kind of elevate from playing smaller venues up to small theaters."

One of the early admirers of the "Hero Takes a Fall" video was Prince (who may or may not have recognized himself as a mannequin in a bedroom scene with Susanna). One night he showed up unexpectedly at a Bangles gig at the old Palace in L.A. "He didn't come backstage that night," said Hoffs. "But he did see us when we were in San Francisco, at the Fillmore, later on in that tour. We were told he was in the audience, so of course we were very nervous. It turns out he had learned 'Hero Takes a Fall' and he just kind of jumped on stage with us and played this amazing solo. We'd never really met him till that night."

A while after that, one of the engineers working on the Different Light record told Susanna that Prince had a song for them and that she should pick it up at Sunset Sound. "So I went and picked up a cassette. It had two songs on it and one of them was "Manic Monday." The other was called "Jealous Girl." I have to look up that cassette. I know I have it. It's in a box somewhere. The demo just had a girl singing it. I think he was offering us the track so we'd sing it the same way. But we wanted to do the whole thing from the ground up. Our producer, David Kahne, was very influential on the Bangles. He had known us as a garage/pop local club act in L.A. and so when we went into the studio with him, or even when he was rehearsing with us prior to making the record, he was always trying to figure out how to turn this kind of garage rock sound into something that would showcase all the different components of the Bangles' sound - jangly guitar and harmonies. So he got very involved in working on vocal arrangements with us. In the studio he would give us all sorts of new ideas that we never would have considered. We started to use our voices and our harmonies in a really, really interesting way."

Susanna found making the record an exhilarating experience. "I remember going in and singing that song and being on the mike and it was kind of like red light fever. I knew it was a Prince song and I wanted to do a great job on it. I remember David was really excited; you pick up on those vibes and it's just the best feeling in the world. Recording is so psychological, there's so much pressure, because there's a lot at stake and you want to make sure you do your very best to get it captured on tape. It was taped back then. We didn't have ProTools, so you were always in danger of destroying something that was good already.

"Prince came to our rehearsal after the record was done, and he was really thrilled with how it came out. I think he might have said something like, 'Oh, I was surprised you guys didn't use my track,' or something. But he was very happy with it."

"Manic Monday" went to #2 on the charts. "It came together so well that it started to seem like an obvious single," Hoffs said. "We immediately went on the road, nonstop. We were doing a rough and tumble club tour in Europe. It's a good thing we were young is all I can say, because I would never be able to tour like that now. We'd be up till 1 in the morning after a show at the Milky Way in Amsterdam and then we'd have two hours sleep, get on a train, travel all day, get to Germany, and do the same thing. It was like our 'Hamburg' period. We got a telegram saying the song was doing really well in the States and it was charting. After we were done with this crazy European run that we were on, we went back to the East Coast, and we were standing on a street corner in Washington, DC. We were out for a morning walk together as a band, which is so cute, and we heard this song coming out of the car stereo of this red convertible. It sounded familiar; there was that feeling of something on the tip of your tongue, but you just can't quite access it. And then all of a sudden the realization hit us simultaneously that it was our song and we just started going crazy, jumping up and down and screaming and being very silly."

Which would certainly fill the concept of this column neatly, all of the Bangles jumping up and down hearing someone 'playing their song,' even if it was written by Prince. Except for the fact that, for Susanna, it was only a stepping stone to the greater glory, three short years up the road, when she wrote what would become, in effect, the group's epitaph.
Susanna Hoffs:Whenever I would write with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly we would always start first with me getting together with Billy and working on lyrics. This was actually a new way to write songs for me, because I'd always written songs the other way around, where I'd just sit down with my guitar and write music. So I told Billy the story about this official private tour of Graceland the Bangles had been given. The day we were there we were taken out to the Garden of Memories, and there was this little box which was supposed to have a lit flame in it, an eternal flame. Actually, that day it was raining so the flame was not on. That led to Billy saying, "Oh, eternal flame is a good title for a song." So we crafted the lyrics at Billy's house and then we took it over to Tom's studio. I was really thrilled when I had a demo of this somewhat simple, pure, melodic, almost like a lullaby that I came up with.

So I had this cassette in my purse and I was always taking it out and playing it for people. Finally, I brought it into the band as we were sifting through songs. Everybody had gone off and written with outside people for this album, so there were a lot of little mini A&R sessions within the band. We were working with a new producer, Davitt Sigerson, and I played him the song. There were four of us in the band who were writing and singing, so I knew there were only going to be a few songs for each of us ending up on the record.

I really had a lot of faith in "Eternal Flame," but I don't know where it landed on the list. After I played it for Davitt, he said, "You know, I have an idea for that song. I know you love Patsy Cline." I was into a very heavy Patsy Cline phase where I was listening to those records and singing along and loving them. So he said, "I'm envisioning a very kind of crafted little arrangement, kind of like a music box." I said, "Wow, that sounds great." After that conversation with Davitt, we started making the record. We were tracking everything like we normally did with drum kit, bass, everyone playing in a room, laying down a scratch vocal. And then everyone went in and did their main vocal after we had tracked the record. But because "Eternal Flame" didn't really have drum kit on it, we were halfway through the making of the record and we hadn't worked on it. So I said, "Hey, are we going to do 'Eternal Flame'"? I was sort of afraid to mention it. And Davitt said, "Oh, yeah, yeah. We're going to do it. I found a keyboard player and you and me will get together with him and we'll just work on the arrangement." So I'm glad I brought it up. I'm not sure what would have happened if I hadn't.

We ended up working on this little music box arrangement with the keyboard player (John Philip Shenale), so the song was kind of keyboard driven. We created a little track, brought it to the studio and then we laid down these incredible harmonies. It was so much fun putting the track together because it was different from everything else on the record. It was all kind of pieced together in the studio. Vicki played a really beautiful guitar solo on it. I remember our manager at the time, Miles Copeland, came in and said, "Nice song, but this'll never get played on the radio. It doesn't have drums on it."

Everything with the history of that song, I had to keep protecting it and fighting for it. It just seemed like at any moment it would disappear, like something would strike it down. So it was a very sweet success when the song finally came out in the form that it was when Miles heard it.

There is a famous story about the making of that record which is pretty funny - but it's true. Like I said, we tracked most of the songs during a period of a few weeks. And then Davitt had this great idea that whichever one of us was singing lead vocals would come in in the evening. His theory was you can feel more relaxed and more in the mood to sing in the evening. He went out of his way to do something special for everyone and he kind of pulled a prank on me. He told me that Olivia Newton-John, who he'd just worked with, sang in the nude on all her songs, and she'd never sung better. Well, it wasn't true, but I fell for it. I said, "Really? You're kidding!" I kind of thought, Well, that's like skinny dipping. So I developed this whole routine on the record where, of course, they put in like a folding screen between me and the control room, so no one could see in. And it became this funny thing where I sang most of the songs on that record in various states of undress, including "Eternal Flame." It was just for that record; it's not something I ever did again.

I'm so amazed by that song, how it connected with people around the world, and continues to be played and remembered. When you realize that something you wrote is actually being played on the radio, it's one of those things that just never gets old. But I think by the time that song came out and the '80s were winding up, just the strain of being on the road for so long and never having a normal life away from living by committee, and decisions being made by committee, that's a really difficult thing. I mean, that's true of anybody who has partners in business. Sometimes you find yourself doing more than you think you can handle, and that was true for all of us. I think of bands as families. I don't know of any families that don't have some sort of dysfunction built into their personalities. It's just the nature of it. It's incredible to be part of a team, but at the same time, it definitely takes communication skills and being able to know how to keep it going, how to figure out what kind of rules you're operating under.

We were young and sort of burned out by the end of the '80s. It had nothing to do with that song specifically. We were all approaching our 30s and had other things we wanted to do. Personally, it was hard for me to maintain a romantic relationship with anyone when you're never home. My biological clock was ticking really loudly at that point and I craved having not necessarily a white picket fence, but having a home base where I could just wake up in the morning and be there a few days in a row. Everybody said, "Really? Why now?" It was hard, at that point, but I think we were all feeling it.

Susanna married the director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, the Austin Powers movies) in 1993. They have two boys: Jackson and Sam. In 2012, she released the solo albums From Me To You and Someday. Get more at

December 20, 2012.

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Comments: 2

  • Jason from EnglandWonderful stuff, thank you.
  • Amy from PaMy son was a baby when this song was popular. I sang it to him and fell in love. Now he's a young man about to be married. And I still feel the same.
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