The Number Ones: The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame”

 


According to one of our preferred musical sources:

“Eternal Flame” does not sound much like a Bangles song. By the time they recorded 1988’s Everything, their third album, the Bangles had carved out a reliable chart presence with a very specific sound, a jangly and garage-y and consistently upbeat take on harmony-heavy ’60s folk-rock. With that sound, the Bangles had broken through in a huge way. The band’s 1986 single “Walk Like An Egyptian” had spent a month at #1, and Billboard had eventually named it the biggest song of 1987. “Walk Like An Egyptian” also kicks ass. So do the Bangles’ other hits. So when the Bangles came out with “Eternal Flame,” a #1 hit that completely diverged from their established sound, a whole lot of people — some of whom may have been actual Bangles — felt like the song was bad. These people were wrong.


It’s true enough that “Eternal Flame” isn’t much of a Bangles song and that three of the four Bangles weren’t that involved in the song’s creation. The success of “Eternal Flame” helped hasten the Bangles’ breakup, which happened just a few months after the song reached #1. But from where I’m sitting, anyone who thinks that “Eternal Flame” is a bad song is flat-out wrong. “Eternal Flame” is a transcendent song. It’s magic and mystery and all-consuming need, all swept up into a devastating four-minute prom ballad. It sounds like space unfurling in front of your eyes. It’s overwhelming.




After the huge success of “Walk Like An Egyptian,” the Bangles stayed busy. They toured steadily for a couple of years, and in that stretch of time, they also managed one extra monster hit. In 1987, the Bangles got together with producer Rick Rubin to record their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 single “Hazy Shade Of Winter.” (Simon & Garfunkel’s original had peaked at #13.) The Bangles had been covering that song live for years, and they made sure their recorded version rocked as hard as possible. Released as part of the Less Than Zero soundtrack, the Bangles’ “Hazy Shade Of Winter” cover peaked at #2. (It’s a 9.)




During that same stretch of time, one particular Bangle found herself some new creative partners. In the late ’80s, the songwriting team of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly went on a ridiculous run, cranking out a series of #1 hits that also happen to be bangers: Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Heart’s “Alone,” Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.” Steinberg was a Bangles fan, and he went to see the band at the Palace in Hollywood. There, he met Susanna Hoffs. Hoffs and Steinberg were both fans and scholars of ’60s pop, and they made plans to write some songs together. One of those songs was “I Need A Disguise,” which Belinda Carlisle recorded for her 1986 solo debut Belinda. That’s a pretty good start.




At one of their songwriting sessions, Hoffs told Steinberg and Kelly a story about when the Bangles had gone to visit Graceland while touring through Memphis. At Graceland, there was an outdoor shrine to Elvis with what was supposed to be an eternal flame. The day they visited, though, it was raining, so the eternal flame was out. Steinberg immediately suggested that “Eternal Flame” would be a great song title. As a kid in Palm Springs, he’d gone to a synagogue that had an eternal flame of its own. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, a book that I cite in pretty much every column these days, Steinberg says, “There was a little red light — like a little red Christmas light — that they called the eternal flame. I remember thinking that there was this flame that could burn forever. It seemed very mysterious. It was like thinking about how far the universe goes, those little things that kids think about that blow their minds.”


Hoffs and Steinberg wrote the “Eternal Flame” lyrics together quickly, and Steinberg loves pointing out that the song has no chorus. (The “say my name, sun shines through the rain” bit is technically a middle eight.) Hoffs and Steinberg wanted “Eternal Flame” to sound like a track from the ’60s, when pop songwriting often had a less rigid set of rules. (Steinberg: “For us, ‘Eternal Flame’ was the Beatles meet the Byrds.”) Kelly arranged the music, and he and Hoffs recorded a demo together. They knew that “Eternal Flame” would sound better with a piano, but they used guitar on the demo instead, since the Bangles didn’t have a keyboard player. Hoffs sang lead on the demo, and Kelly sang the backup harmonies.




In 1987, the Bangles got together with producer Davitt Sigerson to figure out which songs would go on the follow-up to Different Light. Sigerson was a former rock critic who’d recorded a couple of albums for the post-disco label Zé and who’d done production work for a very random group of performers: David Johansen, Sly Stone, Olivia Newton-John. (Later on, he became a record-label president and published a novel.) During one band meeting, Hoffs pitched “Eternal Flame,” and the rest of the band turned it down. The Bangles were a band with no frontwoman; all four members wrote songs, and all four traded lead-singer duties. It was a democracy, and if nobody else wanted to record “Eternal Flame,” then that was it. Hoffs later said that she was “heartbroken” at the rejection.


Davitt Sigerson rescued “Eternal Flame.” After that band meeting, the song stuck with him, and he kept turning it over in his head. Finally, he worked with a keyboard arranger to come up with a new version of the song. Sigerson and Hoffs persuaded the rest of the band to go along with it. When Hoffs recorded her “Eternal Flame” vocal, Sigerson told her that Olivia Newton-John recorded all her best vocals while naked. This sounds like some creep shit that somebody might say if they were hoping to see Susanna Hoffs naked. Hoffs gave it a try, and she liked how the song turned out so much that she actually recorded all of her vocals for the Everything album in the nude. (Sigerson apparently did not see her naked. Hoffs in The Guardian: “Nobody could see me; there was a baffle in front of me, and it was dark.”)


According to Hoffs, Miles Copeland, founder of IRS Records and manager of the Bangles, did not think “Eternal Flame” was a hit. While they were recording it, Copeland told Hoffs that the song would never get radio play because it had no drums. Maybe that’s why the Bangles didn’t release “Eternal Flame” as the first single from Everything. Instead, the band went with another song that Hoffs had written with Steinberg and Kelly, the lightly psychedelic rocker “In Your Room.” That song was a hit, but it wasn’t a hit on the level of “Walk Like An Egyptian” or “Hazy Shade Of Winter.” (“In Your Room” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)




But “Eternal Flame” was inevitable. You can’t keep a song like that on the shelf. When “Eternal Flame” hit, I was nine years old, and I’d only been a really active pop fan for a few months. At that point, I was very much a no-slow-songs type of listener. (Astute readers of this column have probably noticed that I am still, more or less, a no-slow-songs type of listener.) But “Eternal Flame” was different. It’s still different. It hit me the way that little red light in the synagogue hit Billy Steinberg. It sounded like a monument to grand, operatic feelings that I could only begin to imagine — an emotional version of the 2001 monolith.

“Eternal Flame” is a love song, of course. But what’s striking about it is how uncertain — how fearful — Susanna Hoffs sounds. She’s head over heels for somebody, but she can’t luxuriate in her own happiness because she’s too consumed with the idea that this love is a fleeting thing. When she goes over everything in her mind, a future without this person becomes a horrifying possibility: “A whole life, so lonely, and then come and ease the pain/ I don’t wanna lose this feeling.”

Those “Eternal Flame” lyrics aren’t statements. They’re questions. Do you understand? Do you feel the same? Am I only dreaming? Or is this burning an eternal flame? It’s hard to imagine Hoffs’ narrator actually asking these questions. Instead, “Eternal Flame” sounds, to me, more like an internal monologue. Hoffs doesn’t really want to tell this person that she watches them when they’re sleeping. Instead, these terrible worries well up within her, and they stay there.

Hoffs’ phrasing on “Eternal Flame” just kills me. She wails the everloving fuck out of the song, but there’s no conviction in her delivery. Instead, her voice cracks and quavers. She’s in anguish. The arrangement answers that anguish back. It’s vast and majestic — strings, synths, pianos, kettle drums. (In the video, each new crescendo triggers a firework explosion or a crashing wave. I love that shit.) The other Bangles, harmonizing behind Hoffs, sound dispassionate and ethereal, like ghosts. They can’t soothe her narrator. All they can do is echo her questions back at her and offer ahhhs that at least come off vaguely sympathetic. In its all-crushing drama, “Eternal Flame” is almost gothic. The song offers Hoffs’ narrator no real comfort. When “Eternal Flame” ends, her questions are still open. She still doesn’t know if this flame is eternal.

The Bangles themselves were very temporary. Hoffs’ bandmates weren’t happy about how this leaderless group was quickly becoming, in the public imagination, Susanna Hoffs’ backing band. Partly to dispel that impression, the Bangles followed “Eternal Flame” with “Be With You,” the first Bangles single with a Vicki Peterson lead vocal since 1984’s stone classic “Going Down To Liverpool.” These efforts did not pay off. “Be With You,” a very good song, peaked at #30.




In September of 1989, just five months after “Eternal Flame” hit #1, the Bangles announced their breakup. To me, this looks like a tremendous bag-fumble for everyone involved. It rarely seems like a smart idea for a hugely popular band breaks up near its peak. But I’ve never been a Bangle, so what do I know? Susanna Hoffs’ solo career must’ve looked like a sure thing, but it didn’t really turn out that way. Her 1991 solo debut When You’re A Boy was a relative flop, and its lead single “My Side Of The Bed” peaked at #30.



To Susanna Hoffs’ credit, she almost immediately abandoned all designs on mainstream pop stardom after that first album. Only one more Hoffs single, a 1996 cover of the Lightning Seeds’ “All I Want,” even touched the Hot 100. (It peaked at #77.) Instead, Hoffs impacted popular culture in some different ways. In the early ’90s, Hoffs got together with a couple of friends, Matthew Sweet and Mike Meyers, to form a new band called Ming Tea. (Matthew Sweet’s highest-charting single, 1995’s “Sick Of Myself,” peaked at #58.) Ming Tea was a fun side thing, not a big career move, but it turned out to be important anyway.

Ming Tea played retro ’60s-style rock, and the band members all gave themselves stage names and personas. Susanna Hoffs was Gillian Shagwell. Mike Myers was Austin Powers. Eventually, Myers wrote a movie based on the Austin Powers character. In 1993, Hoffs had married the director Jay Roach. (They’re still together.) Myers wrote the movie Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, and Roach directed it. In the movie, Myers sings “BBC,” with the rest of Ming Tea backing him up.



Austin Powers did well in theaters and then exploded on video. Its sequels were blockbusters. With 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me coming out, Susanna Hoffs got the Bangles back together, and they recorded the new song “Get The Girl” for its soundtrack. The Bangles have recorded a couple more albums since their reunion. Michael Steele isn’t in the band anymore, but since 2018, original bassist Annette Zilinskas has been back in the fold. The Bangles tour when they feel like it. Hoffs has kept making solo music, too, including a series of classic-rock cover albums with Matthew Sweet. Either on her own or with the Bangles, Hoffs hasn’t made any more hits. That’s fine. She and her bandmates made “Eternal Flame.” They don’t have to prove anything.


As for Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, “Eternal Flame” would be the last entry in their string of chart-toppers. In 1990, they co-wrote the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” with band members Christine Amphlett and Mark McEntee. (“I Touch Myself” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) Four years later, Steinberg and Kelly got together with Chrissie Hynde to write the Pretenders’ utterly perfect “I’ll Stand By You.” (The Pretenders’ version of “I’ll Stand By You” peaked at #16. Carrie Underwood covered the song in 2007, and her version peaked at #6. The Underwood cover is an 8.) Kelly has been retired since the late ’90s, but Steinberg is still working, and he had a few more hits left in him. For instance, Steinberg co-wrote JoJo’s 2006 single “Too Little Too Late,” which peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.) That’s a run of absolute pop bangers that stretches more than 20 years. Salute.


GRADE: 10/10

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