Classic Tracks: The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian"

Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Gaby Alter


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Drummer/vocalist Debbie Peterson, guitarist/vocalist Vicki Peterson (leg up), guitarist/vocalist Susanna Hoffs and bassist/vocalist Michael Steele

Drummer/vocalist Debbie Peterson, guitarist/vocalist Vicki Peterson (leg up), guitarist/vocalist Susanna Hoffs and bassist/vocalist Michael Steele

What kind of a song is The Bangles' “Walk Like an Egyptian,” anyway? More than a novelty hit and not quite an actual dance craze, it strikes the perfect balance between playful and cool, sexy and silly. While its lyrics, like those of many novelty hits, are funny and even ridiculous at times, they also carry a Utopian message — a unification of all countries through a fictional dance. Even the Soviet Union and the Japanese, the United States' military and economic adversaries during the '80s, are called to join.

The song is also given weight by its musical richness. Over its instantly recognizable shaker-and-drum-machine groove, The Bangles add grit with rock 'n' roll bass and guitars, and sweetness with deadpan pop vocals. There's a plethora of percussive bangs and gong sounds that, while underscoring the joke-y title reference of the song, also makes it unusual and sonically adventurous. And there's the unique lead vocal trade-off — three of The Bangles take turns singing verses and choruses. All this adds up to a song that is humorous without being campy, joyful and a touch ironic without being cynical. “There was an aspect of fun and light-heartedness, and I think ‘Egyptian’ kind of epitomizes that part of the '80s,” says Susanna Hoffs, one of the group's guitarists and vocalists. “It's hard to go in and say, ‘I'm going to write a song like that.’ It was a magical thing and no one could have planned or predicted it.”

The Bangles emerged during the early '80s as part of the “Paisley Underground,” a group of Los Angeles bands that incorporated folk-rock and psychedelic influences from the '60s and '70s, along with some of that era's peace-and-love vibe. (Some say this was in explicit contrast to the violent punk scene of the time.) Echoing bands like the Beach Boys and The Byrds, The Bangles and their cohorts had a predilection for rich vocal harmonies, jangly guitars and sun-drenched West Coast pop melodies.

The Bangles also had a garage-pop aesthetic that ran through much of their first album on Columbia, All Over the Place. While it garnered critical acclaim and attention from college radio, the group had yet to break into mainstream commercial success when they began recording the follow-up, A Different Light at L.A.'s Sunset Sound Factory. “With A Different Light, in some ways we were trying to be a little more sophisticated,” says guitarist/vocalist Vicki Peterson.

A Different Light was engineered by Tchad Blake and Peggy McLeonard, and mixed by David Leonard. It was the second time The Bangles had been paired with David Kahne, a producer who had worked with such acts as Romeo Void, Rank & File and Fishbone. Kahne wryly refers to their collaboration as a “forced marriage,” though he adds, “the results are pretty good, and we're all still healthy, walking around, so everything is okay.”

“It was not an easy process,” says Peterson of the album's writing and recording. “Some of that was trying to work out our relationship with David Kahne, and figure out whether it was a good working relationship or not. We knew he was very talented and brilliant in his way, and made good records, so we had to weigh that against all the other issues.”

The tension between The Bangles and Kahne was evident during the selection and recording of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a song written by an Akron, Ohio-based producer named Liam Sternberg. While Vicki Peterson remembers she liked the song's demo that Kahne played them — “It was so out of left-field and cool” — her sister, drummer/vocalist Debbi Peterson, had strong objections, according to Kahne, because of the drum machine groove. “The Bangles were essentially a garage band,” Hoffs elaborates. “We were very much about playing things in our own primitive way as self-taught musicians. ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ was more calculated in a certain way. And one of the main things that differentiated it was that it was created around a groove invented on a drum machine. It almost felt like: Is it gonna be Bangle-y enough? Is it gonna be cool to have this departure from what we usually do?”

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