Billboard queen Vicki Peterson of The Bangles opens up about her rock & roll past and upcoming local performance
photo by Rebecca Wilson
Music was in the atmosphere,” recalls Vicki Peterson of her childhood in Southern California. The same could easily be said of her entire life. Guitarist, vocalist, and cofounder of the monumental pop-rock group The Bangles, Peterson helped to crank out some of the biggest hits of the past 30 years.
Early on, Peterson found her perfect musical match in her older sister, Debbi, who played drums and sang backup for the group. “Debbi is probably the most naturally talented musician in the band,” says Peterson. “She can pick up any instrument and learn it; she is a very musical being.”
When singer Susanna Hoffs responded to a “band members wanted” ad that the sisters had placed in a local newspaper, things quickly fell into place. “It is almost like a genetic blend when siblings sing together,” muses Peterson. “It is a very specific sound. And when we first sang with Susanna [Hoffs], it struck me that this is something that is really unique and going to work.”
From the very beginning, Peterson knew she was onto something. “We started out literally in a garage, playing all the sweaty LA clubs,” she says “Of course we wanted world domination—that was our goal from day one—but how to get there was always the question. However, I definitely saw that whatever band I ended up in was going to be successful. I had a kind of naïve blind optimism about it.”
“There is a lot of joy in this right now,” says Peterson of The Bangles’ current tour. “We are celebrating the physical release of our new collection of rarities and oddities, which we’ve had a lot of fun with and which we are going to play a lot of live.”
To say they were successful would be an understatement. The Bangles are considered to be one of the biggest female bands of all time. The multiplatinum-selling group dominated the airwaves during the 1980s with eight Billboard-topping hits, including the No. 1 smashes “Walk Like an Egyptian” (1987) and “Eternal Flame” (1989). Their nearly nonstop presence at the top of the charts ensured their role in defining an entire generation of pop music.
For Peterson, her love for music began early. “Part of growing up in Southern California is that you are in the car a lot,” she shares. “Luckily, my parents, and especially my dad, were big pop-music fans, so we were allowed to listen to the radio all the time.” However, Peterson notes her sing-alongs were a little different than those of most kids.
“I knew the words and harmonies to every song, and I would always take to the harmony parts rather than the lead vocals,” she says.
When Peterson was forming her own unique style, she took cues from bands like The Beatles, rather than the showy headliners of the 1970s. “My approach wasn’t about learning every Jimmy Page lick or Aerosmith song,” remarks Peterson. “It was really more about the song structure. I probably play more like George Harrison, in that he would come up with a melodic line that supported the song rather than see how many notes he could play per second.”
Peterson’s emphasis on melody over flash aided The Bangles’ swift ascension. The band soon garnered attention from such legendary artists as the late musician Prince, who gave the band one of their biggest hits, “Manic Monday.” “Prince was just an insane talent and a severely underrated guitarist,” says Peterson. “He lived and breathed music 24/7; it was just what he was made of.”
After a breakup in the late ’80s, a handful of new members, and subsequent reformations, the band is now set to hit the stage at The Ridgefield Playhouse on August 26. They will be touring in their original form, as a trio with the Peterson sisters and Hoffs. “We have a blast playing and have shaved things down musically, so we are back to what we were when we started in those LA clubs in 1981,” says Peterson. “We are just guitar, bass, and drums, and we are very simplified, very basic rock.”
However, this does not mean that everything is exactly as it was during the ’80s. “On the first go-round—Bangles version 1.0, as I call it—it was a full-time job and beyond,” notes Peterson. “It was 15-hour days every day, and that’s not sustainable. Now we have many other things going on in our lives, and we fit The Bangles in.”
This includes Peterson’s first record with her husband, John Cowsill, which is to be released by the end of the year, as well as several performances throughout the Los Angeles area. As for The Bangles, they are currently celebrating the release of their new retrospective collection, Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles. Looking back on the band’s success, Peterson remains eminently thankful.
“You couldn’t imagine how grateful, lucky, and freakish it feels, because there is just an infinite number of musical combos out there, in all shapes and sizes, and for whatever reason, we hit at a time that [our music] was what people wanted,” says Peterson. “There is just something about voices singing together with energy and love and harmony that is enormously healing, exciting, and connective.”