Susanna Hoffs and sisters Debbi and Vicki Peterson of The Bangles are sitting outside a cafe in Santa Monica, drinking coffee and enjoying the sun, when a woman tentatively approaches the table with a beaming smile. "Uh-oh," everyone thinks. "Here comes a Bangles super-fan with an iPhone in hand, about to interrupt this interview to request a selfie with the band."
The woman goes straight to Hoffs and says, "Hi, I'm a matchmaker. Can I give you a card? You're exactly the type that some of our clients like." Hoffs politely explains that she's been married for more than 20 years and the matchmaker, oblivious about whom she's approached, disappears. Hoffs turns back to the table, blushing slightly, and says, "She doesn't know I'm ancient. I'm surprised I'm anybody's type." And everyone laughs so hard they just about spit out their coffee.
Even in The Bangles' days of worldwide smash hits, when they were far less likely to go unrecognized, this is a band that always had an awkward relationship with pop stardom. Before Prince helped to lift the ladies to another level by giving them "Manic Monday," they considered themselves a 1960s-influenced, Sunset Strip garage-rock band, very much a part of the punk era of the time, and they feel the same way today.
That's why, to celebrate the CD and vinyl release of Ladies and Gentlemen ... The Bangles!, a collection of early demos and outtakes that had a download-only release last summer, the band are playing three shows at the Whisky a Go-Go, the scene of many of their shows in the early '80s, when they were learning their trade. Their first Whisky show, in 1982, saw them open for psychedelic power-pop group The Last, and that band will open for The Bangles on the middle date. Similarly era-appropriate bands The Muffs and The Pandoras will open the other two dates.
If it sounds like a big old nostalgia-fest, well, in a way it is. But unlike so many such undertakings, this isn't a cynical cash grab. It's a band saying, "Hey, before 'Walk Like an Egyptian' and 'Eternal Flame,' we were a scrappy garage band and we fought to remain that way. Check this out."
"We wanted to do something in L.A., and the venues that were appealing to all three of us were the iconic venues of our original, early days," Hoffs says. "We felt that it was time to go back to where it began, which was the Whisky. The Whisky represented all that was going on with the Sunset Strip in the '60s — The Byrds, Arthur Lee and Love — a big influence on The Bangles."
Plus, as a band that can still play much larger venues, they're looking forward to playing someplace more intimate. "I always like to play clubs over any other venues," Hoffs says. "I just love it. The Stones can play stadiums, but they always end up wanting to play clubs. Prince loved to play clubs. There's nothing like it."
Vicki Peterson says that, early on, ambitions within the band didn't stretch much further than playing the Whisky (although, once that was achieved, "world domination" was next on their list). Debbi recalls feeling "triumphant" after that first show.
"We went on to do several shows there in that era," Hoffs says. "We got a really bad review in the L.A. Times. They didn't really understand the band at that point. Fair enough, we were rough around the edges. But that was the point of it. Now we embrace that part."
The Bangles played the Strip as a transition was taking place, from the punk scene led by X and The Germs to the sleaze-rock/hair-metal scene that would take over MTV and radio for the latter half of the '80s. That music, while fun, was undeniably testosterone-fueled — and had very little influence on The Bangles.
"By the time the mid-'80s happened, we were on the road, and we missed a lot of that," Vicki says. "So for the whole hair-band thing, we were in Europe, or we were in Michigan. We were home very little. We played like crazy [around L.A.] 1981 through '83, but then we started touring and that was it. We went away, came home and it was full-on hair metal. I was digging it, in a way. It was just fun, silly and ridiculous. But it was not the soil from which The Bangles grew, on any level."
The music industry as a whole was pretty testosterone-fueled in the '80s, and the women had to put up with all sorts of ridiculous requests during photo shoots, from "make out with each other" to "have a pillow fight in your pajamas." To their credit, the young Bangles quickly figured out that they could say no to that crap and get on with their collective career. They can look back now and laugh at how ludicrous it all was, but they're justifiably proud that they stood their ground and, hopefully, played a part in making life easier for female rockers today.
"Just a click through YouTube and you're gonna find incredibly talented musicians all over the country, which is great and exciting," Vicki says. "Young women who are fearless, and thank God for that. It actually is something that I relate to. We had a sweet blind spot as to what our limitations might be out there in the world. We fully believed from day one that we would rule the world. We were very narrow-minded. It was Bangles or bust."
Of course, they weren't the only all-female band from L.A. to enjoy mainstream success in those days. The Runaways split just before The Bangles formed (bassist Michael "Micki" Steele was in both groups), but the career of The Go-Go's ran almost in parallel. There was some friendly competition between the two bands, and some sonic, psychedelic similarities.
"I was very inspired by them," Hoffs says. "I knew that they came out of punk rock. They were in towels and soap bubbles on the record cover, but they were a very honest-to-God art project, and that's how I saw The Bangles, too."
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There has been lots of crossover between the bands; Vicki toured with The Go-Go's for a short time in the '90s, and worked on some of Belinda Carlisle's solo material. Both Debbi and Hoffs also worked with various Go-Go's through the years. When The Go-Go's very recently decided to retire, and played a final, farewell show at the Greek Theatre, it seemed to add a little more importance to these Bangles Whisky shows.
Now that The Go-Go's are no more, one has to wonder what The Bangles have planned following these dates. They say there's no new material in the cards, so what's next?
"I'm happy to keep going," Hoffs says simply. "We're very busy in our lives, so we do it when we feel like this is coming from a place of sheer enthusiasm and everybody's feeling it. Those are the unforgettable moments."
THE BANGLES | Whisky a Go-Go, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood | Thu.-Sun., Dec. 8-10, 8 p.m. | $40 | whiskyagogo.com