FFWDing To the Best Part: “Eternal Flame,” The Bangles (1989)

Just as the Baby Boomer generation of kids birthed a demographic “echo boom” when they grew up and started families at the same time, so also musical styles birth progeny songs when aging teens start making music inspired by their earlier youth. I previously noted this “twenty year rule” while discussing the reverence of Billy Joel and Huey Lewisfor music of the late 50s in the late 70s and early 80s, and Dream Academy’s homage to early 60s doo wop a little later. Apart from doo wop, the pre-Beatles era was the playground of folkies like Joan Baez, but also of a zillion interchangeable Girl Groups. The Chiffons, the Crystals, the Pixies Three, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Marvelettes, the Angels, the Vandellas, the Supremes, and others sang works pounded out by Carole King and her associates in NYC’s famous Brill Building, or by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team in Detroit.


The echo twenty years later included some girl groups that wrote and performed their own music (The Go-Gos), and some that did neither (Bananarama, the Pointer Sisters). The Bangles, like Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, split the difference, playing their own instruments but working with talent like Prince, Jules Shear, Paul Simon, and Billy Sternberg to generate their tunes. “Eternal Flame” was controversial within the band. Lead singer Susannah Hoffs brought this 1989 song to the band, who correctly smelled Hoff’s incipient departure and initially resisted what proved to be their second Number One and final Top Twenty hit. Sure enough, the video showcased a short-skirted Hoffs, alone on the beach, and within a year the band was on hiatus while Hoffs made her unsuccessful shot for solo stardom.

The track starts off with a calliope synth and drum machine. A brief string pad gives way to acoustic guitar arpeggios and bass and, beginning on the second verse, some very Girl Groupish “ooooh” background harmonies. The I-vi-IV-V chord progression from many late 50s songs (the songs “Duke of Earl” or “Stand By Me,” or half the songs in Grease, which homages that era) reinforces the classic pop direction. But then after those two brisk verses (no chorus) comes The Best Part when the bridge kicks in at the 1:03 mark. First, tympani signal a dramatic change of direction, and the placid background oooohs plunge repeatedly, just as the synth strings reappear on top of them, and piano underneath. As we’ve seen before, a change of instrumentation provides a great way to spice up a song partway through.

But the coolest change is the bridge’s surprising modulation from the original key of G major into D minor and then C major, then a totally different instrumental section in E minor before mirroring the D minor/C major section on the way back to G major for layered repetitions of the first verse on a prolonged fadeout that finally adds a full drum kit, as the backup Bangles take the melody while Hoffs performs a descant over the top. This AABCBAA song structure, with a modulation to the dominant for the middle section, like the sonata form in classical music, can be compared to a trip across someone’s face: ear, eye, nose, eye, ear. I can’t think of anything else quite like it on Top Forty, either before or since.


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