Number Ones: Bangles walk like Egyptians and get banned

bangles

WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN – BANGLES
#1 FEB 9-15, FEB 22 – MARCH 1, 1987

Fittingly for its epic ’80s power ballad title, ‘Eternal Flame’ burns so brightly in the Bangles legacy that people assume that the group were purveyors of weepy, Hallmark ballads and that Susanna Hoffs was the front-woman, with three blurry backing singers adding tasteful harmony beds when bridges beckon. In fact that (excellent) song is an anomaly in their otherwise upbeat catalogue, and the subsequent attention put on Hoffs after its success by the label, the public and Prince (now there’s a hook) ended up splitting the group prematurely. In fact, the actual story of Bangles begins, as all good things tend to, in a tightly-knit psychedelic music scene in L.A.

Well, most good things…

The ‘Paisley Underground’ music scene was basically a handful of inter-connected bands that lived in L.A. in the early ’80s – all of whom mined the rich catalogue of ’60s classics and Nuggets compilations – putting on local shows, and releasing great records*. The collective contained Opal – an embryonic version of Mazzy Star whose trilogy of ’90s albums are upon the decade’s very finest – and all-female jangle pop group The Bangs, whose name was a nod to The Byrds and The Beatles.**

In fact, at the time, the Paisley Underground were influencing another psychedelic warrior, Prince – whose 1985 Around The World album was deeply inspired by the musical scene. He named his recording label and studio Paisley Park after the movement, and signed the Three O’Clock – an amazing bubblegum-sounding group popular within the scene.

He also targeted Bangles (who dropped the ‘The’ and lengthened the name after a legal threat), and in particular Susanna Hoffs. He wrote ‘Manic Monday’ for them, and even though it was a lazy rewrite of his hit ‘1999’ (the verses are identical) it was also a Prince song and therefore it went to #2, being held off the number one position by his own ‘Kiss’, because Prince is a zen master who makes the rules then breaks them all ‘cos he is the best.*** He wrote the song under the nom de plume Christopher, as if to prove it’s the sheer quality of his art (and the universality of Sunday being an ‘I-don’t-have-to-run-day’) that propelled the song up the charts.

The Bangles’ international follow up single ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ fared exactly one better, hitting #1 in America and Australia, with Prince obviously deciding not to block their chances this time. Now, racial appropriation, simplification and the like is too hefty a topic to take on in an article which also touches upon Prince’s Batman soundtrack, so let’s just say: yes, in plain text, ascribing a certain attribute to an entire country is racist – or at the very least, generally not the best idea. But in 1986, a silly novelty song based on the limb positions of drawings on ancient relics didn’t seem to ruffle too many feathers. The truth of the matter is, The Bangles were simply reviving a old dance fad that first took hold in the trouser-lovin’ ’20s. So, stay locked in this end of the dial as we take a trip back to 1922.

In that crazy, sepia-stained year, expert digger Howard Carter discovered a little historical artifact known as KV62 – or King Tutankhamen’s jewel-crammed tomb of mysterious golden awesomeness, if you want to get technical. Of course such a massive historical discovery sparked absolute Pharaoh Fever amongst bored American youngsters and a flood of pop songs such as Sophie Tucker’s ‘Old King Tut’ hit the wireless, businesses jumped on the bandwagon, rebranding anything from insurance firms to racehorses to cigars after Ancient Egypt (luckily times have changed) – even the President of the United States named his dog ‘King Tut’.

Basically, for over a decade, a lot of the Western world resembled Molly Meldrum’s house.

Wilson, Keeper and Betty, a popular British music hall act with an eye on lady Hollywood, came up with the ‘sand dance’, which was basically them mimicking the limb positions of old Egyptian art and…uh, moving like that. Naturally it was a smash hit!

In 1936, ‘Cleopatra’s Nightmare’, a routine featuring the dance, was performed in Berlin by the power trio, and angrily dismissed by Joseph Goebbels as “indecent”. You know you’ve pushed a special kind of button when a man heavily responsible for the systematic slaughter of six million humans finds your behaviour reprehensible.

The sand dance was referenced in the first lines of ‘Walk Like A Egyptian’, and approximated throughout in its video clip.

Now, I don’t claim to be a historian, nor a scientist, but it is clear that the Sand Dance stirs up an ancient curse carried in the very souls of ancient Egyptians, because – not unlike the controversial ‘Cleopatra’s Nightmare’ some decades earlier – Bangles’ ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ has raised ire over the years, being banned by two major international broadcasters – the BBC and Clear Channel, which controls over 1,200 radio stations worldwide – during two international conflicts (in my day we called them wars).

During the Gulf War, the BBC issued a list of songs not suitable for airwaves, which featured the track alongside other firestarters such as Cher’s ‘Bang Bang’ and Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’. Clear Channel sat the song alongside Alice in Chains’ ‘Down In A Hole’, Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’, Kansas’ ‘Dust In The Wind’, and Foo Fighters ‘Learn To Fly’, as musts to avoid after the 9/11 attacks. Eternal Flame, however, was deemed fine.

 


* Three great examples:

Rain Parade: ‘Explosions In The Glass Palace’

The Salvation Army: ‘Mind Gardens’

Opal: ‘My Only Friend’

**Bangles released a great cover of Big Star’s forever-anthem ‘September Gurls’, a beautiful song which is still oddly obscure for how objectively perfect it is now, let alone back in the dusty mail-order days of the early ’80s.

*** List of why Prince rules, plundered from a review I wrote for his Sydney show a few years ago. Can you steal from yourself? John Fogerty was sued for it once.

Prince records entire albums in a falsetto under a female nom de plume. Prince ended his peerless run of albums during the ’80s by recording the Batman soundtrack. Prince scrapped an entire album because it was too obscene. Prince later recorded a song called Sexy Motherfucker. Prince records three-disc albums bereft of editing in his downtime between projects. Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, which required his label Warner Bros. to provide print media outlets with floppy disks with a custom font.

 

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