A few weeks ago, Vicki Peterson went back to school. One of the founding members of the Bangles and member of the Vocal Hall of Fame was the guest of North White High School in Manion, Indiana and their history of rock and roll class. Peterson took questions from school administrators and students alike who wanted to hear from a rock and roll legend about the things they were learning about in the classroom.
Back in the late Seventies before they were the Bangs, Peterson played some of her earliest shows for fraternities and college students. But her most memorable campus appearance has to be the time she received an honorary degree at the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts that was presented by Paul McCartney. The Beatle, who laid out the blueprint for bands like the Bangles, regaled her in stories of the place where he and his young friend George Harrison used to try and meet girls.
But over thirty years since the Bangles first disbanded (with reunions every now and then over the decades) Peterson is hardly a rock relic and is focused on her current band Action Skulls with drummer and husband John Cowsill and guitarist and Sixties child television star Bill Mumy. As they ready a new and third album, Action Skulls still feels like a start-up.
Peterson’s appearance at North White High School conjured memories of other school performances in the Bangles’ heyday, one of which I witnessed firsthand. During the mid-Eighties, I was the promotions and publicity director for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s college fundraising Students Against MS. The program was sponsored by MTV which awarded a concert that was filmed on the campus that raised the most money. In 1986 Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was the national winner and it was time to find a band.
“What about the Bangles?” I suggested to Bob Friedman, MTV’s Vice President of Marketing. Enamored of the band’s harmonies and Byrds, Monkees and Big Star pedigree, it seemed like a good choice. Friedman was a creative force for the channel and came up with our main fundraiser. It was called “Rock Alike” and was a rock star look alike contest. Students dressed up like their favorite rock stars and lip synched to their songs. Students would vote with dollars for their favorite Rock Alikes at campus fundraisers and send their top winners to a national competition with the winner being awarded an MTV summer internship.
In the months before the concert, the band’s “Walk Like an Egyptian ” raced up the charts and the band was a big deal when they hit CMU. When the Bangles arrived, their road manager Mike Gormley picked up a campus newspaper only to learn that the Bangles had a bunch of lip-synching opening acts that he was unaware of. He read out their names aloud to me. Reminding me sternly that this was a Bangles show, I had to use my diplomatic skills and brief him on the charitable purpose of the show. He seemed to cool down and agreed to attend a reception where we welcomed the Bangles including Vicki Peterson, her sister and drummer Debi Peterson, guitarist Susanna Hoffs and bassist Michael Steele.
The next night the band tore down the house at the Syria Mosque theater. The frenzy was so intense that the students who volunteered to man the theater entrances all left their posts and ran toward the stage, effectively allowing anyone in Pittsburgh to come in. But by then it felt like the whole campus had crowded into the 3700 seat theater as guitarist Petersen powered the band and the Bangles burned through such songs as “Restless,” “Angels Don’t Fall In Love” and Big Star’s “September Gurls.”
In the coming weeks, the Bangles would play a few high school shows including a stop at North Cobb High School outside Atlanta. The concert was the result of a radio station promotion in which local high schools had to send the most number of index cards saying “I want Z-93 to bring The Bangles to (name of high school)!”
When video of the event surfaced years later, it prompted students to recall the frenzy of the days leading up to the concert. One recounted how the metro area schools went crazier than anyone could have imagined prompting 3×5 index cards to sell out entirely in Georgia and Alabama. According to BANGOTHEBANGLES.com and their database The Bangles: Concert & Performance History, 1.6 million cards were submitted.
“Education went right out the window,” wrote someone in a chat room with the handle ArtyBoy. “Our teachers might’ve spent five minutes teaching algebra, then we would sit in assembly line rows with each person filling out a portion of the slogan. They even had weekend lock-ins so people could fill out cards.”
When the video surfaced on his Facebook feed, he couldn’t believe it. “This was a legendary moment of our high school careers. I never thought I’d have a video of it, and would have to hope people believed me when I said the Bangles played in my high school gym.”
When Peterson was asked by a North White High School student about the Bangles re-uniting, she said she hoped so. But there was emotion in her voice. Perhaps the question conjured ingrained memories when she and her sister Debbie walked into a meeting thinking they were going to talk about their upcoming tour of Australia. Instead they were told that the band was breaking up. The band that never talked about their issues openly never made it to Sydney and were no more. Over the years they’ve recorded and toured again and this year marks their 40th anniversary.
The frenetic pace and the pressures of being in a band took a toll. Vicki Peterson once described those years, “I left in 1984 and didn’t come back until 1989.” The years run into another and sometimes the concept of time is blurred when you start poking around on YouTube. But for the band there was a seminal moment they’ll never forget. Out on a run in Washington, D.C. before a show, a truck pulled up at a red light beside the Petersons and Hoffs with its radio blaring. Peterson thought it sounded familiar but couldn’t place it. Was it the Monkees? A few seconds ticked by until she realized it was the Bangles’ “Manic Monday.”
Growing up in Southern California, Peterson carried her guitar everywhere and had a revelatory moment when she saw the Cowsills play on the Ed Sullivan Show. Looking on screen at Susan Cowsill, a young girl close in age, she realized she wanted to be like her. The Peterson sisters used to go out in their backyard and sing into their air conditioner fan trying to mimic the flutter vibrato of Susan Cowsill’s voice they heard on Cowsills In Concert.
As Peterson began forming an early band, she and Debi approached the Cowsills. Upon the release of their first self-produced single, Vicki Peterson found herself at a studio where she met Susan’s brother John Cowsill. They would eventually marry and Peterson had a stint singing with Susan as The Psycho Sisters, making an album together and sharing the stage at several Wild Honey Foundation benefits.
When the couple met up with child film star and guitarist Bill Mumy, it was a fortuitous New Years Eve. Mumy invited them to a party being hosted by Angela Cartwright, the sister Penny Robinson to his character Will Robinson in Lost In Space. The three found themselves singing around the piano for four hours and soon they were exchanging song ideas. The sense of coming together as a band mirrored an earlier time. On a Bangles reunion tour, Susanna Hoffs recalled the same feeling after answering a newspaper ad and playing with the Petersons for the first time in her parents’ garage.
Right before the lockdown I saw the Cowsills open for Brian Wilson in Miami. Bob and Paul Cowsill were once teen heartthrobs profiled in 16 and Tiger Beat and the teen magazines of the day. Onstage at the Magic Casino, a one time greyhound dog race track turned casino, I walked in thinking this is where old bands come to die. Instead I was totally charmed by the band’s stage banter taken by the harmonies that still sounded as great as they did coming from my AM transistor radio as a child growing up in the Sixties.
What do you do to re-invent yourselves in a new century? The Cowsills are now in the hottest media business as podcasters and hosts of The Cowsills Podcast. Hosted by Susan Cowsill and her brothers Paul and Bob Cowsill, the weekly show is a total delight as the three have the natural gift of gab and regal us with a lifetime of stories. Self-effacing and self-deprecating, the three have a contagious enthusiasm and are as natural behind the podcast mic as they are performing onstage.
Podcasts have featured guests like Steve Van Zandt and the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliers and mixes stories of the Cowsills traveling across America in station wagons and a tour bus at the height of their fame. One was the time Susan was given a miniature poodle and brought it on tour. The Cowsills stopped at a filling station and were two hundred miles down the road when she realized the dog wasn’t in the car. The family couldn’t stop so they made an announcement on a scheduled radio station stop in the next town. Someone miraculously found the dog at a restaurant next to the filling station.
Susan joked that her younger brother John, who is often on the road playing for The Beach Boys, is the only full-time employed member of the family. Susan and her brothers Paul and Bob Cowsill tracked him down on the road in a recent episode called “Where’s John?” It promises to become a recurring segment.
Shortly after the lockdown began, Action Skulls were one of the first bands to write about the pandemic on their second album A Different World. Their album was like a postcard from the pandemic as Mumy sang “Social Distancing Blues” referencing watching television at home and seeing himself on Lost In Space. With their wry humor, Action Skulls harmonized and reminded us to wash our hands and stay strong as we collectively endured the “Stay At Home Blues.”
The tone and tenor of the songs fit with the times and were in sharp contrast to the poppier debut album Angels Hear with its playful “Mainstream” and “Feed My Hungry Heart.” Action Skulls draws from the playbook Peterson first enacted in the Bangles, combining Sixties psychedelia with harmony singing. The band’s harmonies come in like a fresh breeze and anticipation mounts for their new album.
Back when Vicki Peterson dreamed of being in a band learning how to play guitar, sister Debi lived out her rock and roll fantasy playing air drums. She didn’t take up playing real drums until she was fifteen. They both looked up to their older sister Pam. She had an allowance and bought the records that shaped her younger sisters and led to their chosen profession. She passed away from lung cancer which inspired Vicki to write a song for Action Skulls called “Map of The World.”
At a recent virtual benefit for the Concern Foundation and their 53 Years of Concern: A Celebration in Music to Conquer Cancer, Peterson strummed her electric guitar and sang for her sister. It was just her alone sitting in front of the camera, removed from all the fame, the history and the burden of the Bangles’ legacy.
She sat there, just her and her guitar just like she always had carried with her when she was a young girl with dreams—and ones that came true.