Susanna Hoffs is California personified, equal parts citrus and sunshine.
She’s a daughter of the Mamas & the Papas who loves Love, the under-appreciated L.A. band that prefaced the Doors’ bluster with beatific psychedelia.
She came to fame as a singer/guitarist for the Bangles, those darlings of the ’80s airwaves who have a rich pop-rock pedigree steeped in bands like the Turtles and the Troggs.
These roots were underscored a few nights ago, when, while channel surfing, Hoffs stumbled across a biography show on the Mamas & the Papas singer Michelle Phillips.
"It was so interesting to me," Hoffs recalls. "Our first single was just a little 45 that we made ourselves, very cheaply, and when I first brought that record to Rodney Bingenheimer, who was a big local DJ at K-Rock here, he was like, ‘Yeah, it sounds like the Mamas and the Mamas.’ That was a big part of our sound, and still is, those four-part harmonies."
While the Bangles may be best known for rosy-cheeked hits like "Manic Monday" and "Walk Like an Egyptian," the band first made a name for itself by scrapping it out in the L.A. rock underground, bashing out spunky garage pop, touring the country in a van for years before they finally hit the charts.
As an all-female quartet, they had few peers back then, and the band’s gender was always an issue.
"It was always a complex situation," Hoffs recalls. "There were very few female bands. It was the Go-Gos and us, basically, so we were always compared to each other. That was sort of interesting, because we kept saying, ‘Well, yeah, but why don’t you compare us to, I don’t know, R.E.M., a band that came out of the garage, was guitar-based, jangly, a combination of folk and pop?
"I’m not saying we’re like R.E.M.," she continues, "but why was the comparison always to the Go-Gos? I get the gender aspect of it, but the deeper musical thing was always sort of obscured."
And the Bangles were always a musical bunch. They were fond of setting growling guitars against layered, iridescent harmonies that floated skyward, tethered to nothing.
The young female rock bands who preceded the Bangles, like the Runaways, may have been dismissed as novelty, deservedly or not, but there was nothing to debate about this bunch when they emerged: They could play, and their early tunes were tighter than a clenched fist.
Hoffs sang of being a complicated girl in a voice that sounded both precocious and poised at once, like a brass Barbie, and the band flaunted a dirt-beneath-their-fingernails earthiness.
Of course, after the Bangles signed a major label deal, their material became increasingly more polished and stylized, and they always had to deal with record company types who wanted to market them as sexpots.
"I think that, taken to absolute extremes, is why we had this whole Britney Spears thing happen, which was so burlesque," Hoffs says. "We were just a band. There’s no denying that in rock ‘n’ roll there’s a sexual component. There’s something caught up in playing rock ‘n’ roll music that comes out of that, but there’s a difference between Chrissie Hynde and Britney Spears.
"When you’re a woman, or a girl, in this business, you’re always kind of looked at in a certain way, you’re a little under the microscope," she adds. "It’s just an odd thing, and I think there was an aspect of that and, ‘Oh, you guys play pretty well for girls.’ So we had to deal with that."
And Hoffs in particular.
She was the pin-up in the group, and was made the de facto face of the Bangles because of it, which caused tension in the band, ultimately leading them to split up in the late ’80s.
They eventually would re-group in 2000.
"I think what brought us together was partly me, being very naggy and calling them all and saying, ‘Wait, you guys, I think we have more songs to write,’ " Hoffs says. "I kind of got the wheels in motion a little bit, but I think after maybe eight years, everybody had a chance to settle into autonomous lives where we weren’t making decisions by committee and we felt like we could sort of explore it again."
The Bangles issued a spiky comeback record, "Doll Revolution," in 2003, but these days, they mostly play old favorites. And while some bands bristle at being defined by a handful of ubiquitous hits, the Bangles aren’t among them.
If they’re guilty of living in the past, well, Hoffs seems happy that the band still has a pulse to speak of.
"I love those songs," Hoffs says of signature songs like "Eternal Flame" and "Hazy Shade of Winter." "It’s so fun to play those songs and have kids of this whole new generation really digging that music. It really makes it all worthwhile. It’s like starting all over again."JASON BRACELINMORE COLUMNS
who: The Bangles when: 9 p.m. Saturday where: Mandalay Bay Beach, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South tickets: $45-$50.50 (632-7580)