Although their first album failed to make much impact, Different Light, released January 2, 1986, was a game changer for The Bangles. This was the logical progression of the Go-Go’s aesthetic: a girl band out of L.A. wielding rock guitars and catchy hooks. Though Susanna Hoffs was often viewed as the leader of the band (she was lead vocalist on this album’s three big singles), this was a very democratic outfit. All four band members have lead vocal credits on the album, with Hoffs credited with lead vocals on fewer than half the tracks.
The album leads with the first single, “Manic Monday,” famously written by Prince (credited as Christopher on the album, one of his many pseudonyms). This was a track originally written for Apollonia but which ended up being handed over to The Bangles instead. The story goes that when the single blew up, the Purple people reached out to Bangles management about the possibility of furnishing them with more hit songs; their response: “We’ll call you.” This seems a cavalier approach, particularly in hindsight. All three of the album’s biggest singles, “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like And Egyptian,” and, “If She Knew What She Wants” were written by artists outside the band. Unlike their follow up, Everything, on which every track was written or cowritten by one or more band members, Different Light owed much of its success to other writers.
Pop-culture aside: I can remember Julie Brown of MTV’s Just Say Julie constantly deriding The Bangles, saying that “Hazy Shade Of Winter” was such a great song that even The Bangles couldn’t ruin it, intimating that the band members had crabs, that sort of thing. I’ve never understood this. Here you have a successful, hard-rocking all girl band who play their own instruments and write or cowrite the bulk of their own material. I could never understand the regular dissing by someone who was, at best, a bit of 80s pop-culture marginalia. She razzed a lot of the MTV stars of the day, true, that was part of her comedy schtick, but few with the measured vitriol she reserved for The Bangles.
Regardless of who wrote it, “Manic Monday” went to #2 on the U.S. charts, stymied in its efforts to reach the top spot by Prince’s own single, “Kiss.” The Bangles finally got to #1 at the end of the year when the third single from Different Light blew up pop radio. For its time, “Walk Like An Egyptian” was a groundbreaking bit of ear candy. It starts out with an unmistakable gong that heads into a tambourine shuffle and driving drumbeat. The lyrics are nigh indecipherable on first listen and, even after they’ve been sussed out, reveal that this song is about nothing at all. It’s not the first pop song with completely nonsensical lyrics, but it’s one of the most well done. As with most things done well that catch the public interest, this track got hammered into ubiquity and it is impossible to hear it with fresh ears thirty years later. All of that overexposure may have tarnished the surface a bit, but the song retains all of its brilliance.
Overall, the record holds up extremely well. Buried gems like the wistful bicoastal romance of “Return Post,” and the cover of Big Star’s “September Gurls” make it worth digging past “…Monday,” “…Egyptian” and less successful singles – though not lesser songs – like “If She Knew What She Wants” (possibly the best cut off the album) and “Walking Down Your Street.” It’s 39 minutes of power-pop, girl-group excellence with stunning hooks and soaring harmonies. Vicki Peterson’s vocals on “Angels Don’t Fall In Love” and Michael Steele’s on the country-tinged “Following” are reason enough to listen through to the end of the record.