Return to Bangleonia: Live in Concert
2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
There have been many successful girl groups since the dawn of recording….The wise cracking Andrews Sisters… Those corn fed singing Stepford Wives, the King Sisters…The Shangri-Las, tough motor cycle mamas with hearts of gold…. In the 60s the Supremes reigned as the queens of Motown, charting twelve #1 hits in the U.S. In the 80s the cheeky chicks in Bananarama were supreme, registering ten hits in the U.K., while the Go Go’s debut “Beauty and the Beat,” topped the charts in the U.S. The Go Go’s were one of the few female acts that played their own instruments, or at least tried to. One of the others was the Bangles, a four-piece group from Los Angeles comprised of guitarist/vocalist Vicki Peterson, guitarist/vocalist Susanna Hoffs, bassist/vocalist Michael Steele and drummer/guitarist/vocalist Debbie Peterson. While the Go Go’s made waves with their surf and sand sound, the Bangles brand of garage band power pop had more staying power. During a five year period, the group placed two #1 and two #2 tunes, covers of Prince’s “Manic Monday” and Simon and Garfunkle’s “Hazy Shade of Winter,” along with the Hoffs’ co-written whiner “Eternal Flame,” and the King Tut inspired “Walk Like An Egyptian.” The video for “Walk Like An Egyptian” featured a career-making (and breaking) come hither look from the pixyish Hoffs, who was then singled out by the press as the group’s sex symbol. The paparazzi’s shutter bugging of Hoffs caused too much friction and the band’s eternal flame burnt out in 1989. Eleven years passed before the Bangles reformed, filming their 2000 love fest at the House of Blues in Los Angeles for release on DVD. Maybe you’ll want to give the Bangles some credit for playing their own instruments – aside from a geek named Harpo on keyboards, its all them (apparently Groucho, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo were occupied) – but I can’t. Not after 18 off-key interpretations punctuated with the same mind-numbing beat.
The Bangles may play their own instruments, but they don’t play them well. Bassist Steele is a simple but consistent presence. But Michael is hardly made of steel, turning into a block of ice whenever she sings a lead. Her voice frequently flattens out or wobbles, accentuating her nervousness in the spotlight. Positioned at center stage, strumming absentmindedly, Susanna Hoffs remains the group’s eye candy, but she sometimes strains to keep her cutie pie vocals in line. Guitarist Vicki Peterson shows a natural talent for propping up the group’s empty arrangements with interesting short rhythmic sorties, but tends to lose direction during her solos and is notably incapable of singing on key whenever she sings a lead. Like Steele and sister Debbie, Vicki seems to have problems playing and singing at the same time. Debbie Peterson should get a pat on the back for maintaining a beat while singing – right after her drums are confiscated and destroyed. She’s a lock-step reject from the battle of the bands time keeper who seldom varies her approach. Her cerebral hemorrhage-inducing beat makes Pete Best sound like Bernard Purdie. Debbie’s a better guitar player, and that’s only because you can’t hear her. She has the same problems with pitch as her strumming sister, and loves to play the skins, even if she can’t. Debbie doesn’t lack perseverance, just an off switch.
As for the performances, only one sizzles and it’s a ballad, and even that borders on plagiarism. The mellotron intro to “I Will Take Care of You,” (credited to Hoffs) is a direct swipe of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” With the exception of the mellotron, most of the performance is Hoffs alone on acoustic guitar. Unlike her other dispassionate performances, Hoffs is focused as she spins a tale dedicated to her child: “I will take care of you, long as you want me to. No matter what else I do, I will take care of you.” Her helium squeak cracks under the strain of the high notes, but the key to the song’s success is keeping the rest of the wrecking crew’s involvement to a minimum and letting Vicki Peterson solo unfettered by her sister’s Cro-Magnon beat. The Beatle borrowing continues with “Get That Girl.” Steele’s bass work is excellent, but it’s also a blatant steal of the guitar part in “Taxman.” Just because you play the melody on bass doesn’t mean you can’t get sued. The Bangles had better hope Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison are fans.
The group attempts to cover some rather cool obscurities. Debbie Peterson’s anvil chorus drums are just right for their version of The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” but Vicki gets caught up in the tempo and forgets to look at what she’s playing, butchering her solo. It’s up to the underutilized Harpo to rescue the performance, and he does so with an orderly but rote solo. Debbie pushes too hard upon her return and the band shifts into interminable, turning this version into one very bad seed. Debbie gets another shot at vocalizing, taking on Emmit Rhodes’ “Live.” Rhodes, an unsung pop genius, will likely remain one thanks to this D.O.A. rendering of a song he penned for his group The Merry-Go-Round. Vicki Peterson is painful on guitar and Debbie is so incessant on the drums she drowns herself out. A cover of Alex Chilton’s “September Gurls” is a prime example of why he’s still a cult figure -- he writes bad songs. Chilton’s two-year glory came as lead singer for the Boxtops when he was a teenager. Still adjusting to puberty, Chilton faked his deep, maxed-out soul vocals for the group’s string of hits which included “The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby,” and “Soul Deep.” When The Boxtops split and Chilton formed Big Star, singing au natural, his celebrity waned. It may not have been because of his sudden transformation from vocal powerhouse to wimpy outhouse, but more because he misfired as a writer. Vicki Peterson pulls some pleasing sitar-like notes from her guitar, but Michael Steele’s petrified, flat as road kill vocal hinders the enjoyment. Not to be outflattened, Debbie Peterson leaves the drum stool, strapping on an acoustic to wreck a reggae take of “Going Down To Liverpool,” which was originally done by Katrina and the Waves and should have stayed in their domain. Debbie is game, but her voice isn’t (“I said hey now….Ow!”). Like her fellow Bangles, she can’t hit a high note with a hand grenade, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. “Stealing Rosemary” offers up double your Peterson’s on vocals, as Debbie and Vicki demonstrate that being close relatives doesn’t mean your harmonies will relate. It may have helped them if they smoked the rosemary they stole.
Much of the other lesser known material, “Her Right Now,” “Between The Two,” and “The Rain Song,” (alas, not the monolithic Led Zeppelin ballad), is filler. “The Rain Song” comes from Vicki Peterson’s days with the Continental Drifters and meanders like a bored glacier. Deport it.
Ardent Bangleites will be pleased with the rest of the selections. All the hits and album favorites are here. “Walk Like An Egyptian” is wisely saved for the encore (that way the theater would stay full for the cameras). Debbie Peterson joins the others upfront, leaving the pace setting beat to a drum machine, which sadly belches out the same Brontosaur stomp she’s been peddling since the first song. Vicki Peterson hustles through her vocal, Michael Steele remains stiff as a metal A-frame through her section, and the crowd hold it’s breath in anticipation of Hoffs recreating the glance that launched a thousand hormones. But Hoffs, like the rest of the DVD, disappoints. You’d think that after eleven years of not having to recreate “the look” Hoffs would be willing, but all Hoffs does is fake to the side, like a defensive end burned on a deep route. And Hoffs linguistic powers prove to be a bit rusty as well, as her hoarse delivery is the song’s final undoing. She hydrates enough to get through the DVD’s closer, “Eternal Flame,” which is still an endless bore. “Hero Takes A Fall” is the DVD’s obligatory jam. Hoffs is gassed. Her voice is grainy and it doesn’t pick up until the second verse. Hoffs and Vicki Peterson pull off the crowd pleasing trick of having Hoffs drop to the stage play and play lead on the strings while Peterson plays the chords –shades of David Bowie and Mick Ronson – although without the icky sexual innuendo. Hoffs even gets an appreciative pat on her whittle head from Peterson. A nice visual for the camera, but musically the Bangles are jelly, no jam. They can make a sufficient amount of noise, but the heroines take a fall when it comes to playing as a team. “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which opens the concert, is the harbinger of a cloudy forecast, with Vicki Peterson struggling to stay in tune, Hoffs struggling to be heard, Debbie Peterson struggling to keep from being arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, and Michael Steele just plain struggling. In conveying the too-cute-for-Prince “Manic Monday,” Hoffs gets her come hither stare on as Debbie Peterson provides further documentation that a love of the drums does not translate into a sound the audience will love.
There are tiny hints that not all is copasetic in Bangleonia. Michael Steele is noticeably absent from the voiceover commentary. At the concert’s conclusion, the Peterson’s and Hoffs join arm in arm for a bow at center stage. Steele seems to think about it for a moment, smiles at the crowd, then walks off stage. When Steele isn’t the featured vocalist, well, she isn’t really featured. She gets the last face time than anyone else and doesn’t seem to relish the attention anyway. (Steele, who retired after the group’s first break up, hung up her bass again in 2005, with Abby Travis serving as her replacement. I feel like Kreskin.)
More Bangle For Your Buck
The extras include a pair of acoustic songs, “Ride the Ride” and “Manic Monday” recorded at some fancy shmancy inn. With Debbie Peterson quieted on a trap set or on tambourine, its easier to hear Hoffs’ pre-teen voice, although she looks like she’s having as much fun as a manure salesman on a manic Monday. These two performances are much more cohesive than anything done on stage and beg the question why the entire DVD wasn’t shot unplugged. There’s also what’s described as a “candid interview” about the group’s history (inaccessible on my copy) and a gallery of rare and exclusive photos.
The Peterson’s/Hoffs commentary yields the type of insider information every Bangler or Banglette will love, such as the group’s admiration for Emitt Rhodes, the leader of the The Merry-Go-Round, who later recorded two criminally overlooked albums, “American Dream” and “Emitt Rhodes,” for which he played all the instruments himself. When the girls went to visited Rhodes in the 80s they found a bitter man in his mother’s trailer recording background music for exercise videos. Rhodes remains a talented trivia question and the Bangles continue to get paid. Music really can be a harsh mistress…
Viewing “Return To Bangelonia” is like watching the once great Willie Mays play for The New York Mets. The spirit is willing, but the skills are gone. If you wanna live, walk like an Egyptian to the receptacle, toss this DVD in with Debbie Peterson’s drumsticks, light them up and and take pleasure in the eternal flame that warms your manic Monday.