The “Paisley Underground” scene birthed a lot of great bands in the ’80’s, but few went on to be as commercially successful as the Bangles. That success came with a price, as they were pulled away from the British Invasion and Power Pop sound that inspired them. But their first full-length album, All Over The Place, is one of the best records of the era. Before they were swayed by Prince or walked like Egyptians, they were one of the most promising successors to the sound of 60’s jangle pop.
“Tell Me” (Suzanna Hoffs/Vicki Peterson) Copyright 1984 Illegal Songs Inc/Banglophile Music
What is it about songs that capture your imagination or make a lasting impact on you? How is it that a song can somehow capture an entire experience, or express a complex idea much better than mere words? I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to answer those questions here, but we do try to understand what it takes to put a great song together; the performances, the arrangements, the production, and just maybe get a little insight into those bigger questions. This is the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. I’m your host, Brad Page, and today’s song is “Tell Me” by The Bangles.
To some people, The Bangles were just that other girl band from LA. But to me, they were one of the best bands to come out of LA in the 1980’s, boy or girl. They came together in 1981 after Susannah Hoffs and the Peterson sisters, Vicki and Debbie, met through the Musicians Wanted classified ads in the weekly Recycler newspaper. They bonded immediately over their love for The Beatles and 60’s rock in general.
They first gigged around LA as The Colors before changing their name to The Bangs. With their jangly guitars and those rich harmony vocals, they fit right into the growing scene in LA rooted in the sounds of 60’s garage bands and the British Invasion, what would later be known as the “Paisley Underground” sound. They recorded their first single in 1981 called “Getting Out of Hand”.
That single caught the ear of Miles Copeland, who signed them to his Faulty Products label, which was eventually folded into IRS Records. With Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson, both on guitars and vocals, Debbie Peterson on drums and vocals and Annette Zelenskis on bass, the band set about recording a five song EP in 1982. Just as they were about to release the EP, they discovered there was another band called The Bangs, so at the last minute, they changed their name to The Bangles.
Shortly after the EP was released, Annette left to start her own project, Blood On The Saddle. She was replaced by the former Susan Thomas, who, using the stage name Mickey Steele, was a founding member of The Runaways. When she joined The Bangles, she changed her name yet again to Michael Steele.
In 1984, they released their first full length album, called “All Over the Place” on Columbia Records. For my money, this is one of the best albums of the entire 1980’s. Every song is a gem, and each song shows a different side of the band. I could have picked any song on this album to feature, it’s that good. But on this episode, we’re going to listen to one of the most rockin’ songs on the album.
“Tell Me” was written by Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson. It features Susanna on rhythm guitar, Vicki on lead guitar, Debbie Peterson on drums and Michael Steele on bass. Both Susanna and Vicky handled the lead vocals together with Debbie on backing vocals. The album was produced by David Khan.
“Tell Me” was one of the earliest songs Susanna and Vicki wrote together dating back to 1982. And you can hear its roots in that garage band sound of their early club days in the best possible way. It may sound like a simple garage rock tune, but there’s some nice work here.
The song kicks off with a classic jangly guitar intro. Then a snare drum fill launches the riff. Vicki is playing the riff on electric, and it sounds like Susanna’s playing rhythm on an acoustic guitar. Here’s just the guitars.
Now, let’s let that play through to the first verse, and notice how the guitar riff drops out to make room for the vocal. Straight away, you can hear how well Susanna and Vicki’s voices blend together. Debbie’s voice adds to the harmony here. The second verse comes right on the heels of the first.
Vicki s playing a crunchy guitar part that slides between two chords. Simple but effective.
Here’s the chorus.
This is a great example of how the Bangles arranged their vocal harmonies.
Then Michael Steele gets a moment to shine with a cool bass part.
Here’s a guitar playing a single chord over the top. It’s a very clean tone with a tremolo effect that gives it a real shimmering sound. Then Vicki gets in a short surf guitar influenced solo.
Notice how the drums just never let up. Debbie is pounding them through the whole track. Listen to the bass during the chorus, too. It’s another great part.
And on the third verse, they break between the lines for Michael to take the lead.
“Tell Me” by The Bangles.
Short and sweet, all of two minutes and 15 seconds. Sometimes that’s all you need to make your point. In just over two minutes, you got a taste of everything this band has to offer; the blended vocals and harmonies, the garage punk energy melodic guitar riffing, and then each band member gets to show their stuff.
I think The Bangles were a league above the other bands they got lumped in with, both vocally and as musicians. They got forced into a much too slick commercial box during the 1980s, and by ‘89, they split. But they came back in 2003 with an album that was a return to form—“Doll Revolution”, and they followed that up with “Sweethearts of the Sun” in 2011. Both albums are worth checking out.
Though Michael Steele would leave the band again, their original bass player, Annette Zelenskis, returned for their most recent incarnation. The Bangles never made a bad album, but I still think this one, “All Over The Place”, is the one to beat.
Thank you for joining me on the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. New episodes of this show are released on the 1st and the 15th of every month, so we’ll be back soon. Until then, you can catch up on all our previous episodes on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com.
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We are happy to be part of the Pantheon Podcast Network, so be sure to check out some of the other great shows that are part of the Pantheon family. That’s it for this episode. I will see you soon… For now, I leave you with “Tell Me” by the Bangles.