Wonder Women: Michael Steele
In this edition of “Wonder Women: Stories From the Women Who Play Bass,” we delve into the journey of Micki / Michael Steele, the accomplished bassist, singer, and songwriter most famously known for her tenure in The Bangles. Much like Kristian Pfaff’s story, my search in the No Treble archives turned up very little about bassist Michael Steele. But as No Treble didn’t come online until 2009, and The Bangles’ final album didn’t drop until 2003. I figured it was time to add Michael Steele to the lineup of Wonder Women, and make sure her story was part of No Treble.
Michael was born Susan Thomas on June 2, 1955 in Pasadena, California and grew up in suburban Newport Beach. She picked up the bass at age 17, playing bass in her boyfriend’s band. Her early influences included The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention, John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, Carol Kaye, XTC’s Colin Moulding, Cheap Trick’s Tom Peterson, and Suzi Quatro.
Steele was already a veteran bass player by the time she joined The Bangles. Initially going by Micki Steele, she was one of the founding members of the Runaways, one of the original all girl rock groups. She comments in an interview, “It was one of those things, a girl band made up by a guy. Which kind of sucks. Because it was coming through his twisted concept of what women were.”
Her tenure was brief. Only a few months. An online search as to why she left comes up with a range of answers; several sources claim it was because she was “too old.”.. being twenty years old at the time. This could have made manager Kim Fowley’s “jailbait” image of the Runaways a harder sell.
Steele’s offers her own account of events in the book We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. She shares, “The offical story was that ideologically I wasn’t in line with the others… but early on this thing started with Kim, this sordid personal angle. He was enamoured of me in a way that I found very uncomfortable. I’d been raised in a very sheltered manner… and wasn’t savvy enough to know I could say “C’mon Kim, fuck off.” I got it in my head that he would throw me out of the band. But I didn’t want to say yes because I definitely wasn’t into it. I dealt with it by trying to stay neutral, but the pressure started building and building. ”
This Runaways’ Born to Be Bad release is actually Joan Jett, Micki Steele, and Sandy West as a power trio. The production value on this album, one could politely say, leaves a lot to be desired. But it does serve to document history as it was unfolding. Micki Steele sings while playing bass on this demo.
Steele continues, regarding her parting with the Runaways, “When Kim finally got rid of me, he was out for blood. He realized I wasn’t into it… when he pulled the plug, he went a little over the top. He said “You have no meglo, you have no magic. This is the only chance you’ll have to be a rock star and you’ve blown it.” Perhaps my musical thing didn’t lend itself to his slutty jailbait design, but the way Kim treated me made me depressed for a long time. Then I got angry, and I decided I was gonna show him. So it was a harsh experience, but it firmed my resolve.” (excerpted from We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk by Marc Spitz.)
Steele continued on, playing in multiple bands with varied styles prior to auditioning for and joining The Bangles in 1983 (replacing original bassist Annette Zilinskas). She joined The Bangles while they were still unknown, before they put out their first record. Michael was 27 years old at the time, and Kim Fowley’s parting insults would soon ring false; The Bangles became the first all girl rock band to have five top 10 hits, selling over 40 million records during their career.
Steele had joined in time to record The Bangles’ 1984 LP, All Over The Place. Michael did not have any songwriting credits for this album. A standout moment on the album; the song “Tell Me” has some great bass work. “Tell Me” was written by Susanna Hoffs (rhythm guitar) and Vicki Peterson (lead guitar). Debbie Peterson rounds out the rhythm section on drums.
Prince became a fan of The Bangles, and gave them the tune “Manic Monday,” offered under the pseudonym of Christopher. “Manic Monday” was recorded as part of their 1986 LP Different Light and became their breakthrough song, with “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “Walking Down Your Street,” and “Following” also charting. Different Light saw Steele’s role in the band expanding, with songwriting contributions for “Let It Go” and “Following.” She also sang on vocals for “September Gurls,” “Following,” and “Walk Like An Egyptian.”
This performance of “September Gurls” comes from the Bangles’ September 2000 show at the House Of Blues in Hollywood, CA:
In February of 1988, The Bangles released a Simon and Garfunkel cover of “A Hazy Shade of Winter.” The song was an avorite from their early days playing in clubs. The single spent 21 weeks on the charts, peaking at the #2 position.
The Bangle’s third album, pre-breakup, was Everything, released in fall of 1988. Steel contributed three songs, “Complicated Girl,” “Something To Believe In,” and “Glitter Years.”
Of “Glitter Years,” she related, “A songwriter said to me once ‘You know, if that song had been about something normal, it could have been a hit,'” she laughed. “Eh… you mean like ‘love/dove’? I always thought that songs that are about something ‘other’ were kind of interesting.” Her writing perspective landed well with a few reviewers, an example being Don McLeese of the Chicago Sun-Times, writing that “her songs provide most of the album’s highlights, combining sophistication and accessibility.”
Despite their successes, the band was having well publized internal issues that were heading them towards a breakup. Michael related to in an interview, “We went to Japan for the last time and I started crying on the plane and I couldn’t stop. Finally I stopped. Then I got to the hotel and I started crying again.” A dry, quiet character not given to melodrama, she smiles awkwardly. “I didn’t realise until years later that I’d had a mini-breakdown. The pressure was so intense that it had to stop otherwise I was going to come down with some horrible disease.” Control over their image, sound, clothing, schedule, appearance and more, had slipped away from them. She reflected, “Part of it was just exhaustion, because we worked, and were worked, very hard. I remember falling asleep in one of those plastic chairs that they have in convention rooms. And I remember for the first time thinking ‘I’m hating playing music.’ And that was when I knew the end was near, at least for me. Because I always thought ‘I’ll do it until it’s no fun any more.’”
The Bangles broke up in 1989, but after some time apart, they ultimately reunited and recorded some more. The initial outing was a single, released for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. This was followed by a fourth album, Doll Revolution. The album had three songs Steele had written: “Nickel Romeo,” “Between the Two,” originally written for the album Everything, and “Song for a Good Son.”
Michael overall contributions to the album again increased; playing bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and providing vocals. However, this was the final album for Michael with The Bangles, who left the band following the Doll Revolution promotional tour in 2004. Michael Steele is currently retired and living out of the public eye.
Thank you for the music, Ms. Steele.
Brittany Frompovich is a highly regarded educator, clinician, blogger, and bassist who currently resides in the Washington DC/NOVA region. For more content from Brittany, check out her blog, her YouTube channel, and her Bandcamp site. She also offers handmade unisex music-themed jewelry through her Etsy store. Get a Wonder Woman Tee!