Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself after airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
The Bangles – “Walk Like an Egyptian”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in December 1986
Until 1988’s “In Your Room,” the Bangles had written not a note of their three top ten singles to date, but no one minded because the other two were “Manic Monday” and “Hazy Shade of Winter.” Prince, of course, using the pseudonym Christopher, wrote the former, reportedly after singer/rhythm guitarist Susanna Hoffs caught his eye in a video; while Simon and Garfunkel did little with their staid folk number until the Bangles added a metal guitar solo, picked up the tempos, and unleashed their always impressive harmonies for the sake of a California-dreaming number recorded for Less Than Zero, where Robert Downey, Jr. begs James Spader to stop pimping him out. Based on their earlier material Hoffs and guitarist-songwriter Vicki Peterson gave the impression that they’d partied with or dated guys like Spader (and Downey), perhaps even frequenting houses with wall-to-wall TVs. It remains one of the most remarkable covers in pop.
More than eight months after “Manic Monday” peaked at #2, the quartet needed another single to pump life into the steadily selling but no sales gargantuan Different Life (a cover of Jules Shear’s “If She Knew What She Wants,” the album’s most beguiling number, had stalled at #29 that summer). Chastened after Toni Basil and Lene Lovich had rejected or shelved, respectively, a song he thought had potential, writer Liam Sterberg offered “Walk Like an Egyptian” to producer David Kahne. The innocuous novelty item became a worldwide hit, the #1 song of 1987 in America.
Ever since Chubby Checker and probably earlier, we’ve liked dance novelties. The Time had a minor hit with “The Bird” a couple years earlier. I would hazard to say that “Egyptian” took off based on its video: one of those depictions of jus’ folks doing “weird” dancing that, after the “Twist and Shout” sequence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the protracted lip syncing scene in David Byrne’s True Stories, capitalized on 1986’s most questionable trend. Also, Hoffs in close-up rolled her eyes from side to side, which made millions of young men happy. The rest is a farrago: muddy-sounding, prolix to no end, and dumb. With the opening bang of a gong and the shake of Debbi Petersen’s tambourine, the song kicks up a cloud of steam on its way to the subterranean homesick blues. I count two moments to treasure: Hoffs’ twang when she sings, “If you wanna find all the cops/They’re hangin’ out in the donut shop”; and the Aquarius Era pitch bends of the harmonies (OH WHEY OH WHEY OH). At the time I hated it as much as “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “The Next Time I Fall in Love.”
Say this for the band, though: Different Light‘s four singles are discrete entities (“Walking Down My Street,” the only one co-written by a Bangle, is the callback to All Over the Place). Despite their wariness, Different Light still sounds solid. The title track, “Return Post,” and “Let It Go” boast gauche synth pads in spots but retain the band’s shrewdness and vivacity. And “Following” is on another level: about a doomed high school crush, possibly of the same gender, in which Kahne’s manipulations of space isolate bassist Michael Steele and her memories. Frustrated by Kahne’s interventions, particularly his decision to cut Debbi Peterson out of “Egyptian” because he didn’t like her voice (she plays the tambourine, as if it were a divorce settlement), they insisted on co-writing every song on 1988’s Everything, albeit with song doctors, and it’s a lousy record — even the fractious, coke-addled Go-Go’s resisted that drug. “In Your Room” works; “Eternal Flame,” well, ça dépend, as our French colleagues say, depending on my mood. Everything is All Over the Place recorded by a parody band.
I was going to quote their greatest non-hit (“I won’t feel bad at all/When the hero takes a fall”) if 2011’s Sweethearts of the Sun didn’t exist — a wee thing of an album, but a reminder of how far Rickenbackers and sun-kissed harmonies can go. “Walk Like an Egyptian” paid for them. To assume that the Bangles and/or their A&R men picked “Egyptian” because they didn’t trust the band’s songwriting wouldn’t be a stretch; “Following” was not going to compete in the Bon Jovi era. But the fissures of self-doubt the single caused led to The Bangles’ collapse, and I’m sorry. On the other hand, maybe All Over the Place is all they had in them. Won’t be feelin’ sorry, sorry, sorry on the judgment day.