by Steve Pick
"If we had the time I would run away with you to a perfect world. We'd suspend all that is duty or required." Few lyrics have ever hit me with such an eloquent sadness, a total devastation of the blockage between life's meticulous circumstances and the romantic aching of unrequited love. I know, the song is probably about love perfectly requited except for the inability to avoid what keeps the lovers apart, but heck, when I was 25, every song that touched me was because some woman or another wasn't seeing how much happier she would be if she'd be my girlfriend.
That feeling is long gone, but "Dover Beach," the song in question from the end of side 1 of the Bangles debut full-length LP, continues to hit me hard in the gut no matter how many times I've fallen under its spell before. It's got such a delicious melody, a meandering up and down the scale and hopping across chords with perfect collusion, ultimately performing my favorite trick in the musical scheme, a modulation which brings further delight to the dream world being described, before fading down on an endless iteration of the same chord, growing dimmer and dimmer as instruments drop out one by one, leaving only the faint click of the drums and then nothing. Abandonment. "But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar /Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world."
I always figured at least Vicki Peterson or Susanna Hoffs was an English major in college, as I had been, because the sonic allusion to the Matthew Arnold poem which gives the song its title, combined with the lyrical allusion to T.S. Elliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was the kind of thing we students of literature totally dug back in those days. Heck, it still gives me a little thrill when the line "We can come and go and talk of Michelangelo" drops in, even though it completely functions in the way of the subject of Elliot's ironic attack on those who discuss art frivolously. It still feels like something two soulmates might do - though I know for a fact there are plenty of other things soulmates have in common besides their opinions.
"Dover Beach" has the eternal note of sadness of which Arnold speaks, and it rejects the use of irony in Elliot's modernism. "There will be time, there will be time / to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet / There will be time to murder and create / And time for all the works of days and hands / That lift and drop a question on your plate." Meanwhile, "If we could steal away / Like jugglers and thieves / But we could come and go / And talk of Michelangelo," set to that soaring rise in the melody, with Hoffs and Peterson's luxurious harmony, and the swirling guitar lines of Peterson - if you can't swoon to this, you can't swoon to popular music at all, I think.
All Over the Place has ten other songs, of course, every one of them a gem. The Bangles never again got a chance to simply make a record without commercial aspirations cutting their natural sound. Oh, they recorded great individual tracks on their next two albums (and even on their comeback a few years back, Doll Revolution), but they always tried too hard to fit whatever was going on around them. All Over the Place is rooted in their love for 60s pop / rock (the Beatles, the Merry-Go-Round whose "Live" is covered here) and contemporary early-80s updating of such things (the dB's, R.E.M., Katrina and the Waves whose "Going Down to Liverpool" is covered here). There is no blatant attempt to sound like records of the past, nor equally to try to sound like what was on commercial radio (especially since, in 1984 as in 1983, there was no single sound dominating the Top 40 - that would come just about a year later, as big giant gated drums and keyboard twinkles become de rigeur in an attempt to make everybody sound like Genesis).
All four of the Bangles could sing (though Michael Steele, who had only just joined on bass, was relegated to only small harmony parts) with distinctive styles, and all four could really play their instruments. Steele's bass lines dominate so many of the songs, while Vicki Peterson's guitar lines are smart updates on classic 60s influences. Hoffs played rock solid rhythm guitar, and Debbi Peterson was an incredibly powerful and assertive drummer, creating parts which fit the songs as intimate connections. This would be somewhat modified to the band's detriment in future, as click tracks and sonic tricks held back some of her subtleties.
In early 1990, I remember sitting down and compiling a list of my favorite 80 songs of the 1980s (and counting them down on two episodes of my KDHX radio show at the time, "The Pop Quiz.") The fog of time has me confused as to whether "Dover Beach" was number one or number two - "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners is right in there somewhere, too. I still consider it to be as perfect a pop song as has ever been written or recorded, and with the ten richly melodic numbers which accompany it, All Over the Place becomes easily one of my all-time favorite albums, and a no-brainer for my choice to represent the year 1984.