The Bangles suffered several false starts, and accompanying name changes, before settling on their ultimate identity. Deciding upon a permanent moniker for the band, however, by no means represented the last of the changes that the group were fated to undergo on the road to stardom.
The Bangles were initially conceived as a punk-pop outfit, until producer David Kahne decided that the all-female ensemble would be more marketable if they eschewed the edgier character of their material. One could say that the band were defanged in the process, but judging by the nature of their subsequent output it's difficult to imagine that The Bangles' fangs were ever particularly sharp to begin with.
Kahne's counsel ultimately proved invaluable to the band, as a pure pop imagining of The Bangles was doubtlessly far more conducive to commercial success than a comparatively rougher equivalent. A group with latent punk tendencies, no matter how tame the band is when contrasted against their grittier brethren, wouldn't have been quite as apt to generate lucrative singles like Walk Like An Egyptian. The glossy, borderline-wholesome version of The Bangles that Kahne had re-envisioned his charges as, however, harbored no reservations about climbing the singles charts with radio-friendly hits.
The now punk-free incarnation of The Bangles were certainly derivative, but by being derivative of a brand of music that was currently rarely practiced on the popular rock scene they actually managed to stand out from the crowd, differentiating themselves from their contemporaries not by being original but by simply selecting a different set of influences to emulate.
The Bangles' influences were rather transparent, as they focused on a style clearly reminiscent of sixties pop music. Their material never feels anachronistic or out of place, but it makes no effort to disguise its debt to the pop pioneers of a bygone era, faithfully mimicking a style popularized a whole two decades ago.
While the band's sixties roots don't protect their music from the perils of eighties production values, this added studio polish actually complements their style, as The Bangles' bubblegum pop had already been purged of all rough edges through their transition from punk aesthetics to the smoothness inherent to modern easy listening.
The success of this entire enterprise is wholly contingent on the caliber of the band's songwriting, and fortunately, for the most part, the group is up to the task. Vicki Peterson, the driving creative force behind the Bangles, was endowed with a gift for generating memorable pop hooks, and thus every song on the band's debut, All Over The Place, is at least moderately catchy.
The problem that arises is that, while each song is eminently capable of arresting one's attention and looping in one's head for weeks to come, not every number is a song that one would actually want to be stuck in one's head for a considerable length of time.
Many of the tracks on All Over The Place are well constructed, deftly implemented, first rate pop songs, the kind that earn their lasting power through clever hooks and creative melodies. I would never object to these tracks assuming a long-term occupancy in my mental inventory of instantly re-playable pop songs.
There are, however, tracks that are simply too sappy, saccharine, generic or primitive to want to listen to on a regular basis, rendering their catchiness a deleterious byproduct of Vicki Peterson's uncanny pop instincts.
The best cuts on the album are the ones that retain at least a modicum of their original punk punch. The opener, Hero Takes A Fall, is a full-fledged pop masterpiece, a hyper catchy tune that excels through its compact yet potent mix of instant hooks and viscerally gratifying rock and roll energy.
While hardly Dylanesque, Hero Takes A Fall's lyrics at least evade the bland, nondescript pros-and-cons-of-love clichés that pollute the rest of the album. The lyrics on Hero Takes A Fall are hardly edgy, and while at some point they may have professed to be punkish in nature they're about as non-confrontational as punk can be, but at least they constitute a reasonable facsimile of a pop-song-loosely-inspired-by-punk-music, a kind of mock-irreverence that lacks any genuine credibility or ideological heft but still attempts to sound as if it has something to say, and something edgy at that.
Other highlights include the bitter All About You, the righteous indignation of Restless and the dark He's Got A Secret. It's no coincidence that these songs all depict spurned lovers, indicating that the band are at their best when they deal with darker subject matters, as that at least enables them to retain some of the edge that they customarily do their best to repress throughout the bulk of the album.
The two covers, the anthemic Live and the Hey Joe-reworking Going Down To Liverpool, are actually two of the weaker tracks, a fact that bodes well for Vicki Peterson's songwriting acumen.
It's clear that More Than Meets The Eye represents the pinnacle of the band's ambition, a song complete with string arrangements and a prominent slot at the very end of the album. Unfortunately, when its angelic harmonies and austere arrangement are married to its pedestrian, borderline awkward lyrics the effect is something akin to unintentional humor, a juxtaposition of elevated art and chronic inanity that produces an effect that's close to bathos.
Thus All Over The Place is a solid, if erratic, pop album, that marks The Bangles' successful shift to pure, unadulterated sixties-inspired pop. The music frequently sounds fresh and exciting, and while this vibe is hardly preserved for the duration of the album its presence alone is indicative of the fact that the band are doing many things right. While not a timeless classic the album can be very enjoyable; it may lack depth or substance on a more meaningful level, but entertaining pop music is a rare commodity that should always be appreciated to the fullest, and there is much to be appreciated on The Bangles' full-length debut.
There have been a number of manufactured groups who have successfully made the transition to become legitimate artists, wresting free of the shackles of the record company by developing their own independent creative voice.
Even the quintessential manufactured band, The Monkees, eventually learned to write songs and play their own instruments, while a more recent (if not necessarily fully merited) example in Kings Of Leon have managed to branch out in new directions to escape the manufactured stigma that had haunted their early work.
Thus a plethora of manufactured rock groups have indeed overcome the obstacles in their path to be appreciated as more than pretty faces regurgitating whatever effluvia corporate executives force-feed them. What is rare, however, is for a rock outfit to go in completely the opposite direction, a true band falling from grace to become just another faceless puppet of the music industry, yet that's precisely what happened to The Bangles on their sophomore (and sophomoric) album, Different Light.
A case could be made that The Bangles had always been a manufactured group, and there's a measure of truth to this statement. David Kahne had indeed stripped the group of their innate punk tendencies, fashioning them into a model that was regarded as more 'acceptable' for female rock artists of that era. A non-threatening pop style was a better fit for the image that Kahne wanted the band to project, a rather benighted viewpoint that nevertheless irrevocably purged The Bangles of any traces of aggression or edginess.
Despite this corporate makeover, however, The Bangles of All Over The Place were not a true manufactured group. The band relied on their own songwriting to succeed, realizing their creative visions through impressive vocals and adroit instrumentation.
There was also an inherent vitality and exuberance that animated All Over The Place, a kind of organic freshness that's a scarce commodity amongst manufactured rock bands. Songs like Hero Takes A Fall are peppy and energetic, and far more the product of The Bangles themselves than any record label looming ominously in the background.
In short, All Over The Place was largely a showcase for The Bangles' superb pop instincts and disarming personality, which precludes any accusations of corporate interference. The band had talent, and for the time being were allowed to make good use of it.
Unfortunately, All Over The Place was not the commercial breakthrough that the studios were hoping for. Despite the album's considerable worth as a high quality pop outing, sales were sufficiently poor so as to warrant serious concern on the part of the record company.
The record label apparently felt that they had been generous in allowing The Bangles the degree of artistic freedom that they had enjoyed on their debut, merely demanding a total stylistic overhaul from the young band. This time around the execs would indeed let their presence be felt far more keenly; perhaps regretting that they hadn't made The Bangles a true manufactured group in the first place, they decided to rectify this oversight the second time around.
Thus Different Light was born, a quintessential eighties album complete with the noxious production techniques that have become synonymous with music from that era. The album is a rather generic, predictable excursion into the realm of pandering pop, completely severing The Bangles' connection to their old selves, ties that had already been frayed on their previous record.
This new paradigm not only constricts the band's songwriting style, but also serves to strip the group of their artistic voice altogether on a number of occasions. In the grand tradition of most manufactured rock bands, The Bangles are forced to perform other artists' songs on numerous occasions, and in fact this arrangement yielded the album's two most lucrative singles.
The entire album is mired in eighties production values, lending a lifeless, sterile and brutally artificial feel to the music. Actual rock music (including the band's signature brand of catchy pop rock) has largely been eschewed in favor of saccharine, cringe-inducing, overproduced pop.
The Bangles had always been a decidedly mainstream band with transparent commercial aspirations, but on Different Light they've excised nearly all traces of personality or identity from their now inert, nondescript music. Instead of catering to a mainstream audience they've decided to pander to them, and this comes at the expense of everything that differentiated The Bangles from their abysmal contemporaries.
The apotheosis of everything that's wrong with the album arrives in the form of the first track, the hit single Manic Monday. The song, written by Prince for The Bangles themselves, is pop at its most grating, a bouncy tune filled with horrendous lyrics and nauseating-yet-catchy music. The music is so catchy, in fact, that one will doubtless long to extricate the song from their mind through the usage of assorted sharp implements liberally applied to their cranium.
Few of the contributions from outsiders have even a modicum of worth in the long run, as tracks like the irksome If She Knew What She Wants are an ordeal to sit through while Big Star's September Gurls has never sounded more irritating.
The exception to this rule is the huge hit Walk Like An Egyptian, and even with the song's status as one of the few redeeming moments on the album it still can't qualify as anything more than a guilty pleasure. The song has a certain charm to it, though admittedly much of this charm stems from the track's absolute stupidity. Much like Manic Monday the song is incredibly catchy, but whereas Prince's 'gift' to the band makes my skin crawl, Walk Like An Egyptian at least has some actual personality and creativity to it.
After enduring these assorted covers and guest-efforts the truly painful reality sets in, namely that most of the songs written by The Bangles are as bad as, if not worse than, those atrocious opuses.
It wouldn't even be right to lay the blame on the eighties production techniques; these certainly exacerbate the songs, but they're hardly the sole culprits in the matter. The truth is that this style of music simply isn't suited to The Bangles' strengths, and in a cruel twist the band aren't allowed to play the type of music they're actually suited for. The result is a nearly total debacle, though admittedly not all of the material is completely bereft of merit.
The best Bangles-penned song is easily the title track. The song is actually allowed to rock, a true asset is an album woefully devoid of any musical aggression or edginess. The song is far from a classic, to the point where it would be one of the weaker tracks on All Over The Place, but here it's a welcome refuge from the endless parade of tepid pop tunes.
The remaining Bangles tracks are decidedly uniform from a stylistic perspective, though at least Following, the lone track composed by band-member Michael Steele, is an attempt at something truly different. It's even mildly experimental at that, a rarity for the band on any album. Unfortunately it by no means fulfills its ambitions, but at least it's a distraction from the musical conformity that informs the album.
Thus Different Light is a nearly unmitigated disaster, an album that thoroughly dispels the hopes of fans who saw true potential in the flawed-but-fun All Over The Place. The Bangles were simply forced to try to be something they're not, and the result is an apt illustration of how a good pop band can be a terrible corporate-pop band.
At this point it doesn't matter whether or not The Bangles were a manufactured group. It doesn't matter if they were under pressure from the studio, appealing to a certain demographic or suffering from internal tensions. There is absolutely no excuse for releasing an album this abysmal, and thus the group are forced to shoulder the blame for this debacle themselves.
Different Light was bad, but at least it was listenable. Such is not the case for Everything, an aural ordeal that's nearly impossible to endure in a single sitting. There are virtually no traces of the solid songwriting that made All Over The Place a reasonably entertaining listening experience, and given that band-members are at least partially credited on every track there are no more scapegoats to hide behind. It's a simple, depressing and unavoidable truth: Everything is a terrible album and it's The Bangles' fault.
There's nary a single genuinely good track on the album. Numbers like Watching The Sky may be marginally superior to other songs, but it's purely a case of the-lesser-of-two-evils.
Simply listening to the two hit singles tells you everything you need to know. Eternal Flame is a love song of the most bland, nondescript variety, carrying the artistic heft and emotional potency of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. The track's pretensions toward the epic and anthemic serve to further exacerbate matters, resulting in a truly cringe-inducing listen with absolutely nothing of worth to even remotely redeem the experience.
It truly perplexes me that In Your Room is a single. This isn't because the song is atrocious; I've come to anticipate that from this decidedly odious album. What puzzles me is that the song is so utterly generic that I can't fathom how or why it was chosen above other tracks that are virtually identical to it in most respects. There's nothing to differentiate the song from its stylistically uniform brethren, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if I discovered that the selection was determined through a random drawing or coin-toss.
There's very little that's worse than stereotypical eighties production values, but this album proves that stereotypical eighties songwriting is an exception to this rule. The Bangles were at their best when they were exuberantly delivering catchy sixties-style pop rock, producing material that both the group and listener could muster at least a modicum of genuine, non-feigned enthusiasm over. How anyone could be excited by the dull, lifeless easy-listening adult contemporary music on Everything eludes me, but if the forced, half-hearted sound of the band is any indication then both the listener and The Bangles are once again united in a common sentiment.
To accompany the album's myriad defects in the quality department is a chronic lack of diversity, which serves to compound Everything's already markedly tedious nature. Most songs are little more than interchangeable, derivative and faceless effluvia, a good indication of what happens when you exchange your old influences (classic sixties pop rock) for decidedly lesser new ones (contemporary eighties drivel).
Basically a confluence of factors conspire to make Everything one of the worst albums imaginable. The Bangles' facility for producing strong melodies has seemingly completely atrophied, the band eschews a style that fundamentally suited them on their debut for genres that bring out their worst (first on Different Light, even more so on Everything) and the group embrace invidious eighties arrangements that could sabotage even first-rate material.
Thus Everything is an irredeemable disaster, devoid of anything that could be construed as even mildly entertaining. The album is genuinely painful to listen to, sounding like a continuous marathon of the worst that eighties music had to offer. I can't think of a single reason to recommend this album, as morbid curiosity will be rewarded with sonic torture at its most sadistic. Thankfully the group disbanded in the wake of the album, until an errant impulse prompted the inevitable reunion many years later.
By the end of the eighties The Bangles had become a blight on the contemporary rock landscape, and doubtlessly many heaved a collective sigh of relief when the band disbanded in the wake of their greatest debacle, Everything.
The Bangles simply had nothing of worth to offer their listeners, and it was apparent that this would remain the case no matter how much time elapsed.
Thus there was no conceivable reason to resurrect the band save for the inevitable nostalgia-fueled payday. The Bangles, however, had built their reputation around selling out to a greater extent with each successive release, and thus it's unsurprising that the band had no qualms about embarrassing themselves even further for the sake of a quick paycheck.
The result, needless to say, is painfully predictable. Doll Revolution is as abysmal an album as Everything, which in and of itself is a rather impressive feat given the low caliber of that aural ordeal. The album is pop music at its most insufferable and generic, boasting songs like Something That You Said that are so nondescript and derivative that any number of faceless modern rock outfits could have churned out an identical track in a matter of minutes.
Even showering Doll Revolution with what little praise it's due comes across as a condemnation of the album, as the CD's merits are so miniscule that any accolade could be written off as damning with faint praise.
Thus when one remarks that Stealing Rosemary has a somewhat clever hook in the refrain, one must also be compelled to note that this hook is barely enough to recommend the song, let alone an entire album.
Additionally Song For A Good Son admirably attempts to do something different, as the track is something akin to a dark folk number, but while its ambition is commendable it doesn't change the fact that the song has little of worth beyond its novelty value.
I can certainly imagine a listener enjoying the Elvis Costello cover Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution), as even a lesser Costello track is infinitely preferable to anything The Bangles are capable of generating at this stage of their careers. Nevertheless anyone acquainted with the far superior original would be considerably less apt to adopt such a charitable viewpoint of The Bangles' bastardization of Costello's opus, rendering the Bangles' rendition little more than a flagrant illustration of the colossal gulf between the talents of the two parties.
By this point it's hard to imagine that The Bangles ever produced a solid album, but the truth is that The Bangles that created All Over The Place are not The Bangles responsible for Doll Revolution. Part of the charm of All Over The Place was that The Bangles sounded as if they were having fun making the album, an infectious spirit that often translated into fun for the listener as well. Since then, however, the band has sounded as if they're merely going through the motions, adhering to a formula that affords them few opportunities to have fun at all. The result is that the excitement that animated The Bangles' debut has vanished altogether, replaced with a lifeless, sterile feel that precludes anything even vaguely reminiscent of fun at all.
Thus Doll Revolution is simply an album that never should have been made. The CD adds nothing to the band's legacy, the product of an ill-advised reunion from a group that had absolutely nothing left to say. At the very least Doll Revolution proves that Everything wasn't a fluke, as the band are more than capable of producing many more albums as excruciatingly painful as that unmitigated disaster.