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Rock icons sound off on L.A. pop scene

Bingenheimer & Hoffs talk about their careers, the music biz

Rodney Bingenheimer, the subject of “The Mayor of Sunset Strip,” which had its SRO premiere at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival, and Susanna Hoffs, singer-guitarist for seminal L.A. girl group the Bangles, sat for a roundtable at the Argyle Hotel on the Strip.

Bingenheimer — described by more than one journalist as the “Zelig” of the L.A. music scene and the trendsetting DJ whose Rodney on the Roq show on KROQ has broken such U.K. bands as the Sex Pistols, Oasis and Coldplay in the States, not to mention such yank groups as the Ramones, X, Nirvana and No Doubt — is a rather shy type with nary a negative word to say about anything or anyone. (Bingenheimer’s biggest carp about live music in L.A.? “There’s no parking.”)

Hoffs, forever young, is beaming in the wake of the newly reformed Bangles’ latest LP, “Doll Revolution,” which has sold well in Europe and will be released stateside Sept. 23. The Bangles will play at the House of Blues on Aug. 8.

Variety: (To Hoffs) How important is Mr. Bingenheimer to the L.A. music scene?

Hoffs: It goes beyond the L.A. music scene to me because Rodney’s been the first one brave enough, old enough to play stuff that he likes, whether it’s on a cassette or a demo tape. The Bangles wouldn’t be where we are today, which is a really great place — we’re back together — or ever heard on the radio if it wasn’t for Rodney.

Variety: You’ve both been through a few rock renaissances here in L.A. Do you have a special affinity for any period in particular?

Hoffs: For me it’s the early- to mid-’60s. It was a magical time for me. I was 5 years old, go-go dancing around the house wanting to be a Beatle. For me that was the heyday of great music. Then leading into the early ’70s with Joni (Mitchell), Bonnie (Raitt), James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt. But I would have to say the mid-’60s are No. 1 for me.

Bingenheimer: That’s how the Bangles caught my eye. When I got their single “Getting Out of Hand” it had that Mamas & the Papas ’60s feel. She (Hoffs) kept the ’60s alive with her sound.

Hoffs: I can still listen to a song like “Monday, Monday” and just get the chills on the harmonies. It was a time when like folk and country and rock and pop were all merging in a very interesting way. Variety: Rodney, what was your first rock ‘n’ roll memory?

Bingenheimer: Oh God, growing up seeing Chad and Jeremy, Sonny and Cher, the Dave Clark 5 — who I think brought in the very first black light, strobe light show even before the psychedelic ’60s, at the Circus Star theater when I was a kid in San Mateo, Calif.

Variety: I really envy these people who saw groups like the Dave Clark 5. I know a guy who saw Jimi Hendrix at the Whisky.

Bingenheimer: I was at that show.

Hoffs: Did you see him open for the Monkees?

Bingenheimer: Yes, because I was Davy’s double.

Hoffs: Oh right so you got to go. They thought you were Davy.

Variety: (To Bingenheimer) You’ve introduced a lot of bands to Angelenos. Would that be the No. 1 hallmark of a good DJ?

Bingenheimer: Someone who appreciates the music and picks the music that they want to hear. Because a lot of the DJs have playlists, and they have to go by the list. I was lucky; I could do my own program and just play whatever I want.

Variety: How were you getting access to all of these early demos and tapes and bands that people haven’t heard of yet?

Bingenheimer: Going to nightclubs, eavesdropping, people sending me demos, and reading the British press. At that time they had Sounds magazine and they had NME and Melody Maker. I would read all of those. There used to be a place called Lewin’s Records on Hollywood Boulevard and I’d get all the imports. I saw David Bowie in there one time and he almost had a heart attack.

Variety: Might you describe yourself, not unlike Andy Warhol, as a bit of a fame junkie?

Bingenheimer: No, not really.

Variety: What is the biggest celebrity encounter you’ve ever experienced?

Bingenheimer: Elvis, John Lennon, Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol had an aura around him. Elvis, when he entered a room, it just lit up.

Hoffs: Jim Keltner, who is a very good friend and a great drummer, told me that he mentioned that he was going to play on my record to George Harrison. And it turns out George was a big fan of “Eternal Flame.” When I was recording my second solo record in the studio, George called and I answered the phone. I said, “hello.” And he said, “Is Jim Keltner there?” I said, “hold on a minute.” I should have said “oh my God, it’s George!” I chickened out.

Variety: There is a line in “Almost Famous” where Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing Lester Bangs, says about the rock scene, “It’s over.” This was set around ’72. Did you feel he had a point?

Hoffs: Other than the singer-songwriters who kept me going in the ’70s, the big stadium rock thing was not my bag. But then it all opened up. I remember coming home at Christmas break from UC Berkeley in the late ’70s and — it was so like a scene out of “Almost Famous” — my brother came back from Yale with this stack of records: Blondie, the Ramones, the Talking Heads. And he says, “Sue, just sit down and I’m going to blow your mind.” He put on this music and I just freaked out. I said, ‘OK, now I know what I want to be.’ I can play those three chords; I know more than three chords. (To Rodney) Didn’t it turn around for you then?

Bingenheimer: Definitely. And the production of those records was so amazing. It was basically like the production of the ’60s records. They went in those old studios and recorded those albums.

Hoffs: It was like back to basics, to the real emotion, not like the big showbiz thing where you have to pay all this money to go to a stadium and see someone a million miles away.

Variety: There is something about all that energy in a small venue …

Hoffs: It’s a garage band thing. I always think of the Bangles as truly a garage band. It’s not like you are put together by some record business mogul who is trying to find the latest 16-year-old singing sensation.

Variety: With all of the pirating and the free downloading and the label consolidations and the corporatization of pop, is there any hope that the music business will bounce back in your opinion?

Bingenheimer: It’s hard to say. There are so many people taking so much off the Internet and it is really killing the industry.

Hoffs: In the case of the Bangles, it’s like, ‘OK the record business that we knew in the ’80s is not the same as it is now.’ So you just figure out a way to survive. We just kind of made our own record with our own money. Sometimes you have to have these changes to bring you back to reality, the reality of why you do this in the first place. Which for me is: I love music, I love to sing, I love being a Bangle. And (to Rodney) for you it has always been that. If only you had a manager saying ‘Rodney, start your own record label,’ you would have signed Oasis.

Bingenheimer: Right and Van Halen, too. It’s kind of hard being on the radio; you can’t have a label and then be on the radio.

Variety: Rodney, in light of “The Mayor of Sunset Strip” and all the people who’ve seen it at the Los Angeles Film Festival, have you had any offers?

Bingenheimer: Well it’s still early; nothing’s really happened yet. But hopefully — eventually I would love to get a syndicated show. Or maybe more time on KROQ. Maybe somebody will do a movie of the week about me. Because the whole story isn’t quite all there.

Hoffs: You need a miniseries. I could have sat there for another two hours easily.

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