Siouxsie and the Banshees

TrackAlbum / Single
SwitchThe Scream
IconJoin Hands
Hong Kong GardenPolydor 2059 052
The Staircase (Mystery)Polydor POSP 9 (2059 089)
IsraelPolydor POSP 205 (2059 302)
FireworksPolydor POSP 450
Dear PrudenceWonderland SHE 4
OvergroundThe Scream
Arabian KnightsJuju
O BabyThe Rapture

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Contributor: Neil Waite

My memory of many gigs I’ve been to is patchy but I remember one in August 1981 as if it were yesterday. My dad had dropped me and a friend off outside the Southampton Gaumont, as it then was. We had front-row seats – not that anyone sat – and the evening kicked off with a super set by John Cooper Clarke. After a long wait the lights finally went down and then the Morse code bass and bell-like guitar of Israel started up. Siouxsie was feet away, her face white with mascara and her hair black, wet and clinging to her head by the end. She was dressed in gold and black for the Juju tour and, though I was sorry there wasn’t much from the first two albums, it was a blistering set. Siouxsie danced about in her deliberate way and when I held out an arm she reached down, smiled and slapped my hand, which was so thrilling. The gig ended with the brilliant Hong Kong Garden and I left feeling we’d been part of something special.

It was John Peel who introduced me to most bands but not Siouxsie and the Banshees. I first heard Hong Hong Garden on the Radio 1 Sunday evening programme ‘Star Special’, presented in this case by Debbie Harry (see Toppermost #298). The exotic xylophone opening drew me in but it was the end, with the galloping guitar finally quashed by a gong, that got me hooked. A week later at a friend’s I saw a strange image on his wall of underwater swimmers. It was a promotional poster for the debut album The Scream.

I do like the later material but I’ve always felt that everything up to and including Fireworks is superior. The nucleus of the band has always been Severin and Siouxsie. They met in ‘75 and were around the London music scene following the then unsigned Sex Pistols in what became known as the ‘Bromley Contingent’. Inspired by the DIY punk ethos, Siouxsie and Severin played on short notice at the 100 Club Punk Festival with two stand-ins, Marco Pirroni on guitar and Sid Vicious on drums. They ended up doing a 20-minute set based on the Lord’s Prayer which entered punk legend (a recording of it on YouTube shows how dreadful it was). Siouxsie then appeared on the infamous ‘Today’ program with the Sex Pistols. It was when Bill Grundy spoke to Siouxsie that Steve Jones became offensive, after Grundy told them to ‘say something outrageous’. But for Siouxsie this was the start of a brilliant career.

After the success of Hong Kong Garden, The Scream came out in November 1978. It was a stunning debut album, never bettered. I was surprised that Hong Kong Garden wasn’t included – but this seemed to show confidence. The only weakness was the cover of Helter Skelter, which didn’t seem to fit. Switch is my favourite Banshees song. I love the way it keeps setting off in new directions with surprising chords and key changes. Though never released as a single it often appeared in John Peel’s Festive 50. For fear of filling my toppermost with Scream tracks I’ll choose just one more, Overground – fading in with a great pulsing riff and showcasing Siouxsie’s imperious vocals. They made a more elaborate orchestral version later on The Thorn EP but I prefer the simpler LP cut. The Scream charted at No.12 – not bad for a debut.

Much of the best material was released on singles but not albums, like The Staircase (Mystery). The song is darker than the early ones with rhythm guitar that darts from left to right. Unfortunately Siouxsie decided to murder the classic T. Rex song 20th Century Boy on the B-side. But with two amazing 7″ releases and an already classic debut album the band was already one of my favourites.

Siouxsie’s initial line-up with Steven Severin (bass), John McKay (guitar) and Kenny Morris (drums) remained for the second album, Join Hands (1979). I was keenly looking forward to this. The plain white cover depicted statues from the Guards Memorial in St. James’s Park, all black and white apart from a red wreath separating the album title and band name. A gatefold sleeve contained photos of the band. Unfortunately the music was less stunning than the design. Some reviewers described Siouxsie’s singing as the best yet but others said the double vocal tracking spoiled it. Some spoke of ‘a funereal atmosphere’ while others drew parallels with Joy Division’s brilliant Closer. Not having the technology to skip tracks I found myself manually lifting the stylus. Songs like Premature Burial and the 14-minute The Lord’s Prayer were skipped but not ones like Poppy Day or Regal Zone. The single Playground Twist was brilliant but the highlight was Icon. After a slow reverbed guitar riff intro and a driving drumbeat as the song takes off, Siouxsie sings hypnotically.
 

Join Hands

 
The next single was another standalone double A-side; Love In A Void was a great song and it was backed with a version of Metal Postcard called Mittageisen, differing from the version on The Scream, which Siouxsie sings in German.

The sleeve design was based on a 1935 photomontage by the German artist John Heartfield: Hurrah, die Butter ist alle! (Hurray, the butter is all gone!), which shows a family dining on metal objects by a portrait of Hitler (mocking Göring’s claim that iron ore made the Reich strong whereas butter and lard made its people fat). “Metal will rule in my master scheme!” Siouxsie sings, as if taking Göring’s side, but the line “It’s ruling our lives – there is no hope!” undermines this. In a 1979 interview, Siouxsie said, “the swastika I hate, but I also don’t identify with blind patriotism either. I couldn’t write a song based around Heartfield if I had that attitude.” I was 13 at the time and these issues passed me by, but I loved the music.
 

Mittageisen

 
At this time, The Cure’s Robert Smith, a friend of Severin, joined the Banshees for their Join Hands tour. He also appeared with them on TV in November ’79 on ‘Something Else’, where they played blistering versions of Love In A Void and Regal Zone. Smith would later play on the 1984 album Hyæna.

For the next album, Kaleidoscope (1980), Budgie came in on drums and John McGeoch on guitar. Kaleidoscope took the Banshees to greater commercial success with the radio-friendly singles Happy House and Christine. The album was good but not up to the toppermost mark. It reached No.5 but I was disappointed, mainly because they were relying too much on electronics.

Yet the next standalone release, Israel, was brilliant. Packaged in a gold sleeve with the Star of David on the label, the song is otherworldly, with a slow shimmering guitar. It was a precursor to the next album, Juju (1981), which yielded two great singles, Spellbound and Arabian Knights – I selected the latter on a toss of a coin. It was as if they’d realised their mistake on Kaleidoscope and returned to the guitar-based style they were so good at.

I was equally enthused by their next single, Fireworks, which starts with a string section tuning up and then kicking off an opening riff like something out of Beethoven. What I didn’t realise was that these fancy arrangements were taking them away from that initial sound I’d fallen in love with. Yet I remained a Banshees fan, whether out of loyalty or in the hope they would return to their early ways.

A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (1982) was a huge success with the singles Slowdive and Melt! but to me it felt mediocre, undermined by the strings and sound effects. Yet 1983 saw two inspired releases: a superb live album, Nocturne, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall (with Robert Smith) and the great single reworking of the Beatles’ Dear Prudence.

I found the next two albums, Hyæna (1984) and Tinderbox (1986), difficult. Tinderbox featured a new guitarist, John Valentine Carruthers, and I’m not sure if this made the difference but I preferred Tinderbox over Hyæna.

Through The Looking Glass (1987) was an album of cover versions. After Dear Prudence I was keen to hear the cover of Iggy Pop’s brilliant Passenger. But I wasn’t happy about the brass section, trumpeting away for no good reason, though Iggy praised the cover. Through The Looking Glass is a release that I rarely return to.

I mustn’t brush past the next three albums but to me they were all very average. Peepshow (1988), Superstition (1991) and The Rapture (1995) saw a new line-up with Martin McCarrick on keyboards and Jon Klein on guitar joining the long-standing Severin and Budgie. These albums yielded eight singles, the best of which was the 1994 release O Baby, with a commercial sound but a nice tune.

Siouxsie’s voice changed sharply after The Rapture, though this is a taboo subject with diehard fans. Whatever the reason, she drops in pitch on the live album The Seven Year Itch (2002), with lower arrangements for old songs, and many reviewers noted the change at her Festival Hall show in 2013. At the same time, Siouxsie has had a successful solo career as well as other partnerships, notably with Budgie in ‘The Creatures’. But these are for another toppermost.

So it’s been a rocky road as a Siouxsie and the Banshees fan. The thrill of that concert in 1981, though vivid, seems a long way off. In my collection you’ll find a thin layer of dust on the later releases whereas the early albums and singles have creased sleeves and the vinyls they contain may well be spinning on the turntable.

 

Siouxsie and the Banshees official website

Siouxsie official webstore

The Banshees and other Creatures

Siouxsie and the Banshees – discography, lyrics

Siouxsie and the Banshees biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #324

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