Everything in a Different Light
IN THIS PHOTO: The Bangles on a ‘Champs Elysees' T.V. broadcast in 1987/PHOTO CREDIT: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
but I wanted to mark her sixtieth birthday and recall the first time I came across her music. I guess, like so many, it was The Bangles. The Californian band formed in 1981 and would go on to have huge success and release five albums (so far). It is a testament to their closeness and popularity that their most recent effort, Sweetheart of the Sun, was released in 2011. That album has a great 1960s feel to it and combines the previous work of The Bangles with a jangly, pleasing uplift; a mix of stunning songwriting and incredible vocals. Susanna Hoffs said of the album that it was a reaction to the fact the group are all working mums and have to juggle the responsibilities of home and music – as The Bangles, they were sort of married to one another and life was very different. Even though Sweetheart of the Sun arrived twenty-seven years after their debut, they did not miss a beat and proved they are an incredible force. The tight-knit sound and memorable songs leads me to believe there will be another album from them soon. The Bangles’ debut, All Over the Place, gave me my first taste of Susanna Hoffs. Even though I was born in 1983, this 1984-released record was part of my early life and I recall hearing the hits on the radio. The title might suggest unfocused sounds and ambition but I think it is more to do with rushing around and being frantic.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Nothing really underlines that more than Manic Monday – written, of course, by Prince. The album was not a huge success but it provided enough momentum for them to perform with Cyndi Lauper and Huey Lewis and the News; this brought them to the attention of Prince, who wrote that hit. That would come in 1986 but, on All Over the Place, there was a smattering of promise. Whilst Debbi Petersen (drums, vocals), Michael Steele (bass, vocals) and Vicki Petersen (lead guitar, vocals) make up the group, I think Hoffs’ vocals and songwriting stands out most. She, to me, seems to be the secret weapon of The Bangles – even though they are a democratic trio now - a quartet then - and there are no leaders. Although Vicki Peterson was the ‘lead’ songwriter of the band – she co-write or solo wrote most of the songs – Hoffs co-wrote songs like Hero Takes a Fall, Dover Beach and Restless. Her lead vocals on Dover Beach and He’s Got a Secret are amazing and get into the head. The Bangles’ albums would divide critics after the debut but All Over the Place received some fond praise. AllMusic had this to say in a retrospective review:
“All Over the Place is also the Bangles' most unified full-length album; Susanna Hoffs hadn't yet been singled out as the star of the show, and the round-robin lead vocals, stellar harmonies, and tight, concise arrangements make them sound like a real-deal rock band, and the set's gentle but insistent sway from British Invasion-styled rock and West Coast pop feels natural, unforced, and effective. And when drummer Debbie Peterson and bassist Michael Steele feel like rocking out, the Bangles generate a lot more heat than they're usually given credit for, most notably on "Silent Treatment." The Bangles' second full album, Different Light, would sell a lot more copies, but All Over the Place is easily their best and most satisfying LP”.
A lot of the lead vocals on A Different Light are from Michael Steele or Vicki Peterson but Hoffs, as a songwriter and vocalist, gets a lot of the biggest slots. Vicki Peterson, Steele and Hoffs sing together on the band’s huge hit, Walk Like an Egyptian, but Hoffs takes the lead on two of the biggest songs from the album – Manic Monday and Waking Down Your Street. She managed to project a combination of fatigue and hope on the former; something soulful, alluring and nuanced on the later...a performer like no other and someone who was able to transcend these songs to the heavens! Seven of the twelve songs from the album have Hoffs as a co-writer and she was starting to come more into her own. Critics were a little less warm to Different Light and felt the 1960s-inspired songs of the debut were their strong suit. That would be redressed but, to me, it is the breathy and unique voice of Hoffs that made Different Light so captivating. It was rumoured – or quite clear! – that Prince was infatuated with Hoffs and that is why he agreed to write for them. Everything is where I really bonded with The Bangles and discovered the full power and beauty of Susanna Hoffs. I feel the best moments from the record had Hoffs on lead vocal.
In Your Room was one of the strongest songs from the band to that point and returns to the well of the 1960s. You can hear bits of The Beatles and Petula Clark in the song – Hoffs was a fan of these artists. Written with Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, Hoffs showed her songwriting prowess on the track and it hit the top-five in the U.S. charts. I’ll Set You Free and Waiting for You had Hoffs lead – the former was another successful single – but the defining hit, Eternal Flame, is why I love her so. Written with the same pair she penned In Your Room with, the song was an instant success and a bit of a tonal change for The Bangles – a rare ballad among more driven, up-tempo songs. Hoffs was talking about The Bangles visiting Elvis Presley’s Graceland and being inspired by that. Steinberg used that story and paired it with memories of a synagogue in the town where he grew up, Palm Springs (California), and those two visions became the ‘eternal flames’. Hoffs was tricked into recording the vocals naked because it was told Olivia Newton-John had done the same – producer Davitt Sigerson said that but it was a prank! To many, earlier hits are more memorable and typical of The Bangles’ strengths but I adore Eternal Flame! This is Susanna Hoffs at her strongest and most captivating.
Her lead vocal is sensational and she imbues so much tenderness, haunt and wonder. It is such a commanding and compelling vocal that means the song is impossible to forget. The song was released in 1989 and, aged five, I recall seeing the video through the bannisters of my old house. It was on VH1 and, whilst it was just the band on the beach, it seemed to open my eyes and has stayed with me since. I wracked my brain wondering why that was but it was that vocal from Hoffs that drew me close. I had never heard anything like it and was determined to dig deeper into The Bangles’ back catalogue. Of course, being five, that consisted or listening to the radio but I remember that song and video being ingrained – it still is to this day! 2003’s Doll Revolution was the first album from the band since their 1998 hiatus. The album gained some healthy reviews but it notable because all three of its singles had Hoffs as the lead. The songs were all co-written by the band (apart from the Elvis Costello cover that opened things) but Something That You Said, Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution) – the Costello song – and I Will Take Care of You had Hoffs guide the songs forward.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Sweetheart of the Sun would arrive in 2011 and saw Michael Steele leave the group - I am not sure why she did but it meant The Bangles had to adapt (I think Steele’s family commitments were taking up a lot of time). It was a new dynamic and feel but, whilst there were a few co-writers to add to the music, it was the trio who did most of the writing and updated their 1960s sound. Sweetheart of the Sun is fresher and more mature than their earliest work but retains the sunshine, passion and catchy moments! The entire band turn in some great vocals but, as AllMusic say in this review, the bulk are handled by Susanna Hoffs:
“They all sound miraculously ageless when singing in harmony but when singing alone they tend to push their voices past their natural limits and end up hitting some duff, craggy notes. Especially Hoffs, who takes the bulk of the leads. It’s too bad Sweet didn’t clamp down and reign in this small but noticeable problem, as it makes for some jagged moments. Still, Sweetheart of the Sun is a remarkably good record that comes long after anyone may have expected the Bangles to do anything much at all. Credit Sweet's production, but also the trio’s dedication and renewed skills and energy. Hopefully it won’t take another quarter-decade to follow this one up”.
I hope the trio get back into the studio to record another album and, as much as I love The Bangles as a trio, I cannot get enough of Hoffs’ voice!
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Hoffs has recorded for various bands – including Ming Tea (a faux-1960s group she was/is in with Matthew Sweet and Mike Myers) – but she has enjoyed a great solo career. 1991’s WHEN YOU’RE A BOY did not receive great praise but there were some great moments in the record – including My Side of the Bed. Susanna Hoffs’ eponymous 1996 album helped bring critics back and showcased strongest songs and stronger vocals. It is a more personal album and discusses abusive relations, insecurities and, oddly, John Lennon’s assassination. Many thought Hoffs was past her prime but that was not the case: her second solo album is incredibly catchy, assured and confident. In 2006, with Matthew Sweet, she would release her first Under the Covers album – as the title implies, some of her favourite songs from other songwriters. Her third instalment came in 2012 and it is interesting seeing her approach different songs and adding her own stamp. Her 2012 album, Someday, saw her evolve once more and hit new peaks as a songwriter and singer. She worked alongside Nashville musicians Andrew Brassell and producer Mitchell Froom. The album is sweet and tender and does not really stick closely with The Bangles’ jangly Pop. American Songwriter said this of the album:
“The majority of Someday was co-written by Hoffs along with Nashville indie-artist Andrew Brassell, and helmed by veteran producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt). The 10-track song cycle is a sentimental, but compelling musical billet-doux to sixties-style melodies and emotive lyrics. The picturesque prose and folk-like sound of the infectious “November Sun” and the playful bounce of “One Day” instantly reel you away and find you yearning for simpler times...
Someday is the perfect soundtrack for a summertime rainy day that doesn’t overreach or become self-indulgent, but fulfills its goal of a delightfully enjoyable pop record. Here, Hoffs at long last mends her musical fences by making up for her promising but disjointed previous solo efforts (1991’s uneven When You’re A Boy and the forgettable banality of 1996’s Susanna Hoffs). This is easily and undeniably Hoffs’ most definitive musical statement to date”.
I do wonder when we will next hear some music from Susanna Hoffs. Some incredible female icons have turned sixty in the past year – including Madonna and Kate Bush – but Susanna Hoffs holds a special place in my heart. The fact that she always seems to be working and writing means we might not have a huge wait before new material – whether that is a solo record or another Bangles collection. As she celebrates turning sixty, I am reminded of all the incredible songs she has helped bring to the masses. When it comes to writing and performing, there is nobody out there like her. That voice, especially, is a huge weapon: it can go from youthful and sparkling to velvet-smooth and gorgeous without much notice. I will listen to some classic Hoffs/Bangles music but, to mark her sixtieth, I have ended this piece with...
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
AN essential Susanna Hoffs playlist.