It's a scene straight out of a bad drive-in movie. "Women Behind Bars."

"Hey, Peterson, you have a visitor. Remember, no touching."

Vicki Peterson looks up from the gloom as the chain-link door is unlocked. In comes her sister, Debbi. The door clangs shut, the lock turns.

Susanna Hoffs and Michael Steele are already in the cage, a musty equipment room in the basement of the gym at Franklin & Marshall College. Their road manager has playfully locked them in, and they're getting dressed, with appropriate trimmings of baubles and beads. Still, there's a weariness in the air that will need to be dispelled in less than an hour, when these four women are due on stage.

"After the show, it'll be women in bars," jokes Steele.

Welcome to life on the road with the Bangles.

When Hoffs, Steele and the Petersons, on their first headlining concert tour, come to Washington today (they'll make a personal appearance, at Tower Records from 3:30 to 5 p.m. before their sold-out concert at the Warner), they'll be riding the coattails of a catchy No. 3 single, "Manic Monday," still bulleting up the charts right behind Prince's "Kiss." Prince is a fan and a friend; he wrote "Manic Monday" for the Bangles and it has become their first major hit.

Their sound is an ebullient mix of folk, pop and rock rooted in the '60s and such disparate influences as the Beatles, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield (the Bangles' "Three Bs"); garage bands like the Seeds; and pop confectioners like the Hollies and the Mamas and the Papas. In fact, the Bangles' lush arrangements -- with voices piled on voices and twangy guitar lines cutting through intricate harmonies -- have led some to dub them the Mamas and the Mamas.

"The basic sound of the band is pretty raw," says Hoffs, "but the sound of the voices isn't."

Often stereotyped as a "girl group," the Bangles are really no different than any other rock band. They play their own instruments ("really loud, hard guitars, drums and bass," Hoffs says) and write most of their own songs. They are comfortable with all the rock performance cliche's, and their enthusiasm and energy are genuine.

"Every time we play live we seem to sound harder than we do on record," says lead guitarist Vicki Peterson. "We haven't captured that type of thing on record yet, so people are surprised. But it's our shows in the past that sold our records. We never had a hit until now, so our live show is still half of the deal with us." The rigors of the bus tour -- a necessary process for any band still building an audience -- generate some complaints, however.

"You don't have your own room half the time," says singer and rhythm guitarist Hoffs. "You can't even read decent books while you're on the road, so you revert to Sidney Sheldon. The concentration factor isn't there to write new songs . You're more worried about when you're going to eat, when you're going to take a shower, when you're going to do your laundry."

But the Bangles also subscribe to another Three B principle: "Better Busy than Broke" (or Bored, adds Vicki Peterson). They recently came back from a six-week European tour that included almost daily flights, which makes the bus tour comparatively bearable.

Southern Californians all, they've been together since 1981, when Hoffs and the Petersons joined forces in Los Angeles. Steele signed on in 1982. A veteran of 14 previous groups, she was the first lead singer for the Runaways ("a dubious honor," she notes).

L.A. has been home to a number of all-girl bands, including the Go-Go's, to whom the Bangles are sometimes compared. But not only are the Bangles all experienced musicians, they're all solid lead singers who can mesh for mesmerizing harmonies (the Go-Go's made do with "designated singer" Belinda Carlisle).

"We all came from families that had music in the house," says Hoffs. "We had babysitters and older brothers and sisters and parents and they'd buy us albums for our birthdays. Rock 'n' roll was the thing."

"We were very much into that music at the time," adds drummer Debbi Peterson, "but when we got old enough to buy records, the only thing was Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin, if you were lucky. And there was nothing on the radio, it was dead . . . "

"So the '60s thing came from very early childhood," Hoffs explains. "It was when we were building our first esthetic sense. A lot of times we didn't even know the names of the groups or who they were. 'Downtown' was my favorite song when I was a little girl but I didn't really know who Pet Clark was, I just knew the song."

"In some cases I didn't even know what it meant because I was 2 or 3 years old," Debbi Peterson interjects. "But I knew the chorus. And I'd hear it 10 years later and go, wow, they were singing about sex!"

Such passion translated into participation and by 1981, they'd all been in bands. The Petersons were in one all-female group, Those Girls, but "we never had two other people who could sing well enough to do the harmonies we wanted to do. We had to find the right females."

That came first with Hoffs, an art major who'd been doing "electric folkie stuff," and later with Steele. The Bangles began to participate in the L.A. club circuit and became leaders in the so-called Paisley Underground, a community of bands inspired by music of the '60s. "It was like being in a foreign country and finding someone who speaks your language," says Vicki Peterson. "All of a sudden it was a feeling of 'we are not alone' -- there were others who played music that we're actually too 'young' to appreciate."

When the Bangles talk about '60s music, it's evident they're not buying into one of rock's old-boy myths: that while women can be fans, they can't be much more.

They put out their first record themselves -- and then a successful independent EP -- before signing with CBS, which has released two albums. "When we signed, we were so suspicious of anyone trying to take advantage of us that I brought a tape recorder to the meetings," says Vicki Peterson. "You hear horror stories, and we'd been doing it on our own for so long that we'd always been able to turn away the shysters."

Being an all-girl band may have been a selling point at first, but the Bangles are sharp enough to know how to neutralize preconceptions as well as how to trade on them.

In rock 'n' roll, Hoffs points out, "Anything is a selling point . . . Duran Duran being handsome or wearing a lot of makeup." Even their tour pass is a sendup, a picture of a topless band with the caption "Another Average American All-Girl Group" -- though the Bangles don't seem worried about the all-girl tag.

Thesesk,3 days, says Hoffs, "People like us because they like the songs, they like the personalities. Our 'femaleness' is inherent to what our personality is and to what the music is. You can't separate it, it's part of the same,2

"On the other hand," she continues, "we definitely don't go out there wearing trench coats, hiding our bodies. We enjoy the fact that we can be flirtatious or whatever on stage . . . "

"We're not exactly Apollonia," Steele objects.

"It's not different from any other band," Hoffs insists. "It's no different for actresses who play certain kinds of roles. Jessica Lange overcame 'King Kong,' Sally Field overcame 'Gidget' and 'The Flying Nun' . . ."

"Jane Fonda and 'Barbarella' . . ." adds look . . . Like Linda Hunt . . . a strange-looking, very short person and she's a great, well-respected actress."

"When I was pursuing theater and acting," says Hoffs, "I could never get any of the parts I wanted because of the way I look, because I wasn't tall, blond and blue-eyed, because I was not normal looking." She looks at tall, blond, blue-eyed Debbi Peterson. "You would have gotten all the parts that I wanted to . . . "

"Except I can't act . . . "

"So that's why I finally gave that up for rock 'n' roll," Hoffs continues. "Because in rock 'n' roll, you can do whatever you want, sing the songs you want to sing."

"You put your own creative input out, know what I mean?" says Vicki Peterson. "Wow! That's deep, I know."

"Very, very 'Spinal Tap,' " jokes Steele.

"This Is Spinal Tap" -- a hilarious fake rockumentary about a heavy metal band's disastrous American tour -- is a favorite on the tour bus VCR, along with "Scarface" and "Year of the Dragon." "What's that line?" says Hoffs, " 'The thin line between stupid and clever?' "

Whichever. Meanwhile, today is Manic Tuesday, just as tomorrow will be Manic Wednesday. Which may explain why, besides its considerable musical charms, "Manic Monday" is a major hit.

"It's the kind of song anybody can relate to," says Debbi Peterson. " 'Oh, God, I have to get up at 6 in the morning and I don't want to do it, I wish it was Sunday' . . . "

" 'I wish I was asleep,' " Steele injects, "the theme for this tour."

Still, Hoffs insists, it is "endlessly exciting to hear yourself" on the radio.

"You feel like you know a secret, a private joke. It's so weird. Not long ago, we went back to L.A. to have jet lag for five days and do our laundry. I was in the store buying some shampoo and 'Manic Monday' came on. I wasn't used to hearing it and I said, 'Oh my God, that's my song.' And the girl who was helping me said, 'Oh, that's my song.'

"And I didn't say anything for a long time but I had to tell her: 'I'm singing on that, that's me, that's my band.' It took a long time for it to sink in. And it was just really nice that it was somebody's favorite song.