Graded on a Curve:
The Bangles,
Ladies and Gentlemen…The Bangles

Those who came of age in the 1980s surely remember The Bangles; with songs on the radio and videos on MTV, they provided the era’s musical environs with a crisp ’60s influenced guitar-pop breeze, but too few have gotten hip to the band’s early work. Ladies and Gentlemen…The Bangles! collects their initial recordings, a sum embodying the melodic end of the garage spectrum with gestures in accord with Cali’s neo-psych movement. Released a couple of years ago as a download and earlier in 2016 by Omnivore on compact disc, on November 25 the collection hits vinyl for the first time.

A lot of bands who originate in the garage gradually shed layers of appeal as they make their way toward prominence, but even after they attained full-fledged stardom that wasn’t necessarily the case with The Bangles. Hitting pop consciousness in the latter half of the decade, Susanna Hoffs (guitar, vocals), Vicki Peterson (guitar, bass, vocals), and her sister Debbi Peterson (drums, bass, vocals) began in Los Angeles in 1981 as The Bangs, and it didn’t take long for the trio to wax a 45.

However, many early fans residing outside of L.A. were likely introduced through “Bitchen Summer / Speedway” on the 1982 Posh Boy compilation Rodney on the Roq Vol. III, making the tune a sensible place for this compilation to start, doubly so as it illuminates a connection to the region’s post-punk ’60s infatuation that came to be tagged as The Paisley Underground.

Featuring warm fuzz, bright surf vibes, and late in the track, a taste of their soon to be well-known vocal harmonies, it’s a nifty slice of the sort of classic-minded stuff that sprang up in void left by ’70s punk’s waning fortunes, and the relationship to the Paisley upswing is solidified through a co-writer’s credit alongside Hoffs for Dave Roback, then of the Dream Syndicate and later half of Mazzy Star.

Hoffs, Vicki P., and Roback also co-wrote the B-side to their single, which came out in ’81 on their own Downkiddie label; “Call on Me” is a tidy helping of mid-’60s pop-rock sure to please lovers of the Fab Four, early Beau Brummells, and The Monkees, with its slightly slower demo version reducing the jangle and upping the vocal harmony.

Solely penned by Vicki, the single’s A-side “Getting Out of Hand” transcends throwback pastiche, although the guitar passage that emerges as the finale nears makes their ’60s psych-pop inclination abundantly clear. The 1981 demos of the Warren Zevon-written Turtles chestnut “Outside Chance” and the Paul Revere & the Raiders stomper “Steppin’ Out” fortify the neo side of their guitar-pop and garage rock bona fides, and to have stumbled upon them playing a small club at this stage in their development would’ve been a total gas.

But it’s the demo of “The Real World” that underlines something special was happening before they caught the ear of Miles Copeland III and met up with a major producer in Craig Leon (Blondie, Suicide, Ramones) for their 1982 Faulty Products EP “The Bangles.” The 45 was engineered by Ethan James of Radio Tokyo studio, who’s far from chopped liver in the knob-twiddling department; he remained involved for the EP.

With the addition of bassist Annette Zilinskas the instrumental roles were solidified and the fresh opening take of “The Real World” increases in vibrancy and depth in all the right ways, brandishing harpsichord-like piano additives credited to both James and Leon as the guitars chime with authority and the harmonies reach peak assurance. It’s followed by “I’m in Line,” which in terms of Beatles-rips creeps up on Knickerbockers-levels of quality, though the gender switch adds distinctiveness.

Courtesy of guitar sting and Peterson’s vocal intensity, “Want You” works itself into a bit of a garage-punky lather without losing track of their melodic sensibility, opening with a flourish of harmony extending throughout the tune as Debbi gives her kit a good battering. “Mary Street” is one of the set’s highlights, combining jangle and amp burn with rhythmic pound and deftly interwoven lead and backing vox; akin to many ’60s inspired groups, The Bangles had no anxiety over borrowing prior material, but even at this point their originals were strong enough to serve as potential covers in their own right.

That’s true of the entire EP, which concludes with the vocally emphatic “How is the Air Up There?” as Zilinskas’ harmonica forecasts her departure from the scene. Appearing on “No Mag Commercial,” a brief radio ad for a noted Cali zine of the period, and Ladies and Gentlemen’s radio show theme tune finale “The Rock & Roll Alternative Program Theme Song,” (both cuts first waxed on the 1983 comp Radio Tokyo Tapes), she was replaced by Michael Steele in ’84.

An early Runaway and member of Slow Children, Steele graces two live numbers herein, a boisterous “Tell Me” (from their pretty nifty Columbia debut All Over the Place) sourced from an ’84 London show and a superb inspection of the Love classic “7 & 7 Is” captured on home turf the same year, specifically at The Palace in Hollywood.

Folks who’ve spent their listening lives swimming neck-deep in punk scuzz might tag The Bangles as merely a pop group, but that observation largely pertains to surfaces. “Walk Like an Egyptian” arguably has its problems, mainly unavoidable overproduction, but it’s managed to endure as a likeable enough update of the dance craze impulse from a decade that was increasingly smitten with the ’60s. Likewise, having just went back to check, this writer still prefers their version of “Hazy Shade of Winter” to the Simon & Garfunkel original.

And y’know, one can easily point to the Paisley Underground beginnings documented here as the impetus for a cat behind the label Paisley Park penning their breakout hit “Manic Monday.” Sonic concessions were certainly made as the ’80s neared conclusion, but they never completely lost the thread that makes Ladies and Gentlemen…The Bangles! 16 tracks so worthwhile.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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