Why did the Bangles Band Break up

In this post, you will discover why did the Bangles Band break up. Understanding why the greatest girl rock band could not remain together in the midst of their greatest success is a lesson in teamwork and managing expectations. Topics include: the group is not the star, group culture in conflict with reality and lessons from the fall.

 

Introduction

Here is a quirky topic for a site focused on urban survival. But it is important to learn from a variety of sources in life. In stressful times, your survival may depend on group dynamics that are beyond your control. You need to deal with unanticipated problems that bring up hard choices and relational difficulties. There may be much you can learn from the failure of the all-girl Bangles band to survive.

The Bangles were one of the top bands in the 80’s with a triple platinum album and chart-topping hits such as Manic Monday (rank #2), Walk Like an Egyptian (#1), A Hazy Shade of Winter (#1), In Your Room (#5) and their greatest and last hit, Eternal Flame (#1) . But in 1989, at the height of their popularity, they broke up over internal differences. What happened? Why didn’t the Bangles band survive? And how can understanding this musical tragedy (ahem) help us in our times of trouble?

The Bangles were formed when the unofficial leader, Vicki Peterson (lead guitar/vocals) and her younger sister, Debbi Peterson (drums/vocals) joined up with Susanna Hoffs (vocals/rhythm guitar). The group was at its strongest when joined by Michael Steele (rhythm guitar/vocals). At their very foundation, the Bangles decided that everyone would be equal. They would all share the singing, the playing, the writing, the harmonizing, and the glory. Unfortunately, when that foundation could not be sustained, neither could the Bangles.

The Group is not the Star 

The greatest conflict arose when Susanna Hoffs was singled out as the “star” of the band and the rest of the group were considered “support”. From the very beginning, Ms. Hoffs, the upper-class UC Berkeley grad, attracted special attention. She got Lenord Nimoy to star in one of the Bangles first videos, in 1984, which her Mom, a movie director, directed. Said Suzanna,  “I had grown up with Leonard. My family was very close to his family — pre-‘Star Trek,’ even — and his kids and me and my brothers all played together. Our parents were friends. So it was kind of a natural thing for me to call and ask him if he wouldn’t mind being in a video.” For Susanna, these kinds of connections were natural!

You can see the video with Mr. Nimoy for yourself:

Earlier, when they needed to get airplay on local radio, Susanna, wearing a miniskirt, hand-delivered the Bangles first single to a popular DJ in Los Angeles, who was immediately impressed and began playing their song on the radio. He remembers Susanna as the “Rock and Roll Audry Hepburn”. The uncomfortable truth was that while all the Bangles were attractive, Susanna was a knockout.

Later, when they got their first contract and went on tour, they drew the attention of the artist, Prince. Prince developed a crush on Susanna and gave the Bangles their first hit song, Manic Monday, which Prince wrote and performed uncredited on the Bangles second album. Prince announced to the press his feelings for Susanna, while she kept quiet and felt the situation was “awkward”.

While the Bangles band certainly took advantage of these special circumstances, none of them would have happened without Sussana Hoffs, and this laid the foundation for the storms to come.

Group culture in conflict with reality

As mentioned, the Bangles set out to be a coequal sisterhood, but it soon became evident that both the music industry and the fans did not share that view. For example, on their second album, the Bangles record label chose to promote videos only of the songs which featured Susanna’s voice and perhaps, more importantly, her face, even though the album itself had songs of each woman singing in lead. The public followed these videos and made them hits on the radio and MTV. Most fans considered the group as Susanna Hoffs and the Bangles, rather than just the Bangles. This decision made the Bangles famous and rich but led them to frustration and conflict. Though the Bangles, including Ms. Hoffs, still sought to be equals, the rest of the world ignored their desire. This led to envy on the part of the other three members (Vicki, Debbi, and Michael in case you forgot).

 

Failure to Communicate 

According to the Bangles themselves, the band members did not talk out their frustrations with each other. Instead, they internalized their conflict and repressed their unhappiness. But such feelings could not remain hidden during the stressful touring when they were constantly in close contact.  Thier first attempt to solve their problems was to fire their longtime manager. The new replacement manager was not an improvement and the surviving members consider blaming their manager for their turmoil to be their greatest mistake. Eventually, they each decided that the pain of staying together was not worth the fame. The Bangles ended when, with the encouragement of the record company, Susanna Hoffs decided to become a solo act. Without Susanna, the Bangles were not marketable, so the Bangles died.

Separate Ways

Although the individual Bangles continued their careers, none of them came close to their Bangles heights. Even Susanna Hoffs failed to reach commercial success and was soon fired by her record company. In the end, she needed the Bangles as much as they needed her. Ten years after the band died, the women, now middle-aged, with children, put aside their conflicts, reunited and toured, but hit-making days never returned.

Lessons from the Fall 

  1. Be Adaptable: The Bangles were energetic and ambitious, but they were also naive and idealistic, insisting on equality of outcomes. They did not understand the reality (of showbusiness) that they were a part of. They could have survived and thrived if they had been willing to adapt by allowing Susanna Hoffs to be the star of the Bangles. They should have learned from history that some people are John and Paul, while others are George and Ringo. In the same way, survival belongs to those who adapt to changing circumstance. Sometimes you have to throw away the plan and go with the flow, even if you don’t like it.
  2. Maximize Strength: Susanna Hoffs look, sound, and relationships were the Bangles main strengths. The recording company understood this, but the Bangles did not. Likewise, we need to understand what works best and do more of it. In a group survival effort, everyone has a function, but some are more critical to survival than others. We must promote these people and allow them to achieve their best, while others provide support.
  3. Minimize Weakness: Ironically, Susanna’s voice and personality were not strong enough to lead her own group. She was not a leader, rather she was a star performer. Everyone has weaknesses. The function of the group is to hide or minimize these weaknesses so that they do not hurt your survival. Again, look at what works and what doesn’t – then adapt.
  4. Communicate Effectively: The Bangles might have survived if they had found a way to communicate their concerns with each other and with their management. Instead, they allowed resentment to build up until failure was inevitable. Communication is the lifeblood of every group. While different people have different communication styles, we must find a way to maintain healthy relationships. Failure to communicate will lead to greater failures.
  5. Accept Responsibility: The Bangles blamed everyone and everything outside of their control: the record company, the studio, the producers, the manager, the press. Only much later did they come to accept that they and they alone were responsible for their choices and decisions. We must not waste time making excuses and blaming others. At each instant, we must choose our best option available and strive to create better options for our future.

The Bangles band died but the musicians lived and matured. In an emergency, you may not get a second chance. So, apply the lessons from the Bangles, overcome your circumstances, and survive.

If you are still interested in the Bangles, you can buy their Greatest Hits!

I would love to hear your comments on this topic.


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2 Responses

  1. kmv says:

    I loved the Bangles!

    Great job taking their story and using it as a learning opportunity!

    The list you provided is great, but I think you need to add a number 6. It should be “Rinse and Repeat”. I’ve seen a lot of folks apply tips like you have provided here ONCE, and then they figure they are done.

    Wrong! You need to constantly revisit these things and make corrections as needed. If you do this often, the needed corrections are often small.

    Fun article! Thanks.

    • Peter Barban says:

      Sure. That’s a great idea Thanks. 

      #6 Rinse and Repeat. See my new post on Continual Improvement. 

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