30 Years Ago: The Bangles Rock Out for ‘Less Than Zero,’ but Trouble Looms
When asked to contribute a song to 1987's Less Than Zero, the Bangles had no trouble identifying an era to focus on for material: "The bottom line is that '60s music is quality stuff," drummer Debbi Peterson once told the Morning Call. "When music is good, it lasts."
They went with "Hazy Shade of Winter," written by Paul Simon for Simon & Garfunkel, though not without some amount of trepidation. "It is a little nerve-wracking," Debbi's sister Vicki Peterson, the Bangles' guitarist, told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. "He was one of my childhood idols. So, you don't mess with one of his songs."
They needn't have worried – at least about the way it would be received. The cover, which Vicki described as having a "gnarly guitar tone with a pop choral feel, sort of a cross between the Mamas and the Papas and Whitesnake," would be the signature hit from Less Than Zero.
The Bangles soared to No. 2 with it, helping the soundtrack – which also included Aerosmith's take on "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," Roy Orbison's cover of Glenn Danzig's "Life Fades Away" and a pair of stone-cold hip-hop classics from Public Enemy and LL Cool J – into the Billboard Top 40.
What "Hazy Shade of Winter" didn't do was save the Bangles, although it actually should have.
They'd entered the studio still smarting from the difficult sessions for 1986's Different Light. The album, which featured "Walk Like an Egyptian," provided their breakout moment – but at the expense of band unity. Rhythm guitarist Susanna Hoffs was being groomed as the Bangles' featured star, and that upset what had always been a delicate balance of personalities.
In this way, "Hazy Shade of Winter" was a smart career move. It actually harkened back to their earliest days. They'd begun playing it while Hoffs was still working in her aunt and uncle's ceramic factory in Santa Monica, Calif. The radio kept her company there, while she sanded down the pieces. That's where Hoffs first encountered Simon's song, which had been issued as a single in 1966 before being collected on Simon and Garfunkel's 1968 album Bookends.
"I had it set to an oldies station and became very familiar with most of Simon and Garfunkel’s songs. I was really into their music when I was in high school, but I hadn't heard 'A Hazy Shade of Winter,'" Hoffs told Ray Sasho in 2014. "When it came on the radio, I thought, 'Oh wow, this is perfect for the Bangles.' It has this riff that’s so catchy, has all these harmonies, and it’s kind of folk rock – just right up our alley. I think I had a rehearsal that very night and I mentioned it. Vicki was a huge Simon and Garfunkel fan and was familiar with the song. So, we learned it and put it right in our set. The song became a staple in our setlist for years."
Even back then, however, they had concerns. "It didn't always go over very well," Vicki Peterson told the Times. "I still remember reading a Robert Hilburn review where he called our version really mediocre." (The Times pop music critic actually dubbed it "plodding" and "punchless.") But time had given them a certain confidence.
Working with soundtrack producer Rick Rubin, they added a harder edge to their Different Light sound, while slightly changing the structure and lyrics from "Hazy Shade of Winter." The Bangles also shared vocals again, in another hopeful sign that they might draw closer together. "We did sort of reorganize the song," Vicki told the Times. "We just had a different concept of what it should be. Rick did a real minimalist version, and we fattened it up a bit."
"Hazy Shade of Winter" emerged as a statement of new purpose. "It was a moment where we actually sounded the most on a record the way we actually sound live," former bassist Michael Steele told VH-1's Behind the Music. Away from the petty squabbles then consuming the band, they rediscovered the spark that brought the Bangles together in the first place. "If we were left alone in a recording studio, we were okay," Vicki Peterson told VH-1. "We could function, and we could actually do a pretty good job."
Unfortunately, it wouldn't last. "If we hadn't been so messed up as a band," Steele added, "perhaps [their Simon and Garfunkel cover] could have been a turning point."
"Hazy Shade of Winter" quickly became the biggest song on the Less Than Zero soundtrack, which was released on Nov. 6, 1987. LL Cool J took "Going Back to Cali" to No. 31 on the Billboard pop charts, while the Black Flames' "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)" and Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" were only minor R&B hits. The Bangles fell apart anyway.
Steele had something of a breakdown while on the way to Japan during their 1988 tour. "The pressure was so intense that it had to stop, otherwise I was going to come down with some horrible disease," she told the Guardian in 2003. "It was like being a surfer. A wave came up and you had to ride it for as along as you could and then you wiped out and you got 'maytagged,' as we say on the West Coast."
By 1989, the Bangles had, indeed, stopped. But not before reaching out to Paul Simon about their contribution to Less Than Zero. They received a stamp of approval, despite editing out a line of his that originally said, "Looking over manuscripts of unpublished rhyme, drinking my vodka and lime."
"We did take some liberties and we're kinda worried about what he might think," Vicki Peterson told the Times. "So, we sent him a tape of the song, with a bottle of good vodka and a sack of limes, and wrote a note saying: 'Dear Paul, sorry about the vodka and the limes: Here's the replacement!'"
Years later, in 2003, Simon and Garfunkel reunited for the Old Friends concert, performing "Hazy Shade of Winter" with an arrangement based on the Bangles' version.