Siouxsie and the Banshees
The Scream: The Deluxe Edition
by Simon Reynolds
Knowing Siouxsie as Godmother of Goth, it’s easy to forget that the Banshees were originally regarded as exemplary postpunk vanguardists. Laceratingly angular, The Scream reminds you what an inclement listen the group was at the start. Sure, there’s a couple of Scream tunes as catchy as “Hong Kong Garden” (which appears twice here on the alternate-versions-crammed second disc of BBC session and demos). “Mirage” is a cousin to “Public Image,” while the buzzsaw chord-drive of “Nicotine Stain” faintly resembles The Undertones, of all people. But one’s first and lasting impression of Scream is shaped by the album’s being book-ended by its least conventional tunes. Glinting and fractured, the opener “Pure” is an “instrumental” in the sense that Siouxsie’s voice is just an abstract, sculpted texture swooping across the stereo-field. Switching between serrated starkness and sax-laced grandeur, the final track “Switch” is closer to a song but as structurally unorthodox as Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something”.
Glam’s an obvious reference point for the Banshees, but The Scream also draws from the moment when psychedelia turned dark: “Helter Skelter” is covered (surely as much for the Manson connection as for Beatles-love), guitarist John McKay’s flange resembles a Cold Wave update of 1967-style phasing, and the stringent stridency of Siouxsie’s singing channels Grace Slick. In songs like the autism-inspired “Jigsaw Feeling,” there’s even a vibe of mental disintegration that recalls bad trippy Jefferson Airplane tunes like “Two Heads.” Another crack-up song, “Suburban Relapse” always makes me think of that middle-aged housewife in every neighbourhood with badly applied make-up and a scary lost look in her eyes. Siouxsie’s suspicion not just of domesticity but of that other female cage, the body, comes through in the fear-of-flesh anthem “Metal Postcard,” whose exaltation of the inorganic and indestructible (“metal is tough, metal will sheen… metal will rule in my master-scheme”) seems at odds with the song’s inspiration, the anti-fascist collage artist John Heartfield.
Scream is another Banshees altogether from the lush seductions of Kaleidoscope and Dreamhouse. McKay and drummer Kenny Morris infamously quit the group on the eve of the band’s first headlining tour, and their replacements--John McGeoch and Budgie--were far more musically proficient. Yet The Scream, along with early singles such as ‘Staircase Mystery” and the best bits of Join Hands, does momentarily make you wonder about the alternate-universe path the original Banshees might have pursued if they’d stayed together and stayed monochrome ‘n’ minimal.
The Creatures : Demon HuntersThe Observer, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
From her punk beginnings as style terrorist through her early Eighties reign as godmother of 'Goth' to the almost motherly figure she now presents, Siouxsie's career with her group The Banshees has seen her pass through a fascinating array of personas. There has even been the occasional alter ego.
In 1981 she formed The Creatures with Banshees' drummer Budgie. Despite the abrasive minimalism of their sound (just vocals and percussion), a contrast to the lurid rock of The Banshees, The Creatures scored a series of hits ranging from the bacchanalian 'Mad-Eyed Screamer' to their melodramatic cover of Mel Torme's 'Right Now' in July 1983. Now, after six years of hibernation, Siouxsie and Budgie have reactivated The Creatures.
Siouxsie explains this latest extra-curricular excursion: "The Banshees carry a lot of luggage in terms of what they mean to our audience, and it's difficult to write in a spontaneous way for an established group format. Your ideas have to be mediated through other people.
"With The Creatures, things are less precious, so there's less at stake now."
The Creatures' 1983 debut album, Feast, was recorded in Hawaii. For the follow-up, Boomerang (just released), the duo once again fled the 'battery hen' schedules of London studios. They transported a mobile studio to a ranch in rural Spain, just north of Cadiz.
"When you're cut off, you react more instinctively. We recorded the album in the heart of a rural community, with their age-old superstitions and their love of the bullfight."
The Creatures' single, 'Standing There', is a product of Siouxsie's mixed feelings for Spanish culture. Her admiration for the flamboyance and female strength of flamenco is countered by a disgust for bullfighting. "I see it as glorified slaughter, I don't go along with the romanticisation of rural life. If you look at country people's relation to nature, you can see that they're almost at war with it, trying to make it do what they want it to."
Now vegetarian, Siouxsie's conversion came "partly through touring, being provided with backstage food and seeing all the day-to-day waste, the bucketloads of chicken drumsticks." Giving up meat was just one facet of "a whole cleansing and rethinking" of body and soul around 1985 that involved also giving up smoking, cutting down on alcohol and taking up circuit training. "Growing up and adolescence last way beyond your teens, and after a while you find it frustrating that you can't harness your energies. I've always wanted to be in control of myself."
Now 31, the new holistic Siouxsie seems odd when, in both the Banshees and The Creatures, she has always been interested in people who can't control themselves; the obsessive, the disturbed, the unbalanced. For a herbivore, Siouxsie's music has strangely preyed on listeners' fears.
"I think that's putting the aggression in the right channel, using it to create rather than destroy. Everyone has demons. Unless they're allowed an outlet they fester and eat away at your body."
For over a decade, Siouxsie has been one of the few challenging female icons to maintain a high profile in the pop mainstream. "I'd hate to be thought of as a role model, but pop culture has always been geared to presenting one view of the female – blonde, manipulated, pliable. Maybe my having black hair and being like Beryl the Peril provides another archetype for people to use."
Siouxsie seems to belong to the Gyn/Ecology school of feminism. Does she believe that women have a monopoly on caring and men a monopoly on destruction?
"No, but the male performer has been done to death. The female artists who are now acquiring the kind of control and self-expression hitherto the preserve of men are producing the only new music around. I think that the female is the future because she's not violent or as territorial, as inclined towards conflict that leads to either big-scale war or pub-room barracking. Man, in the traditional sense, is like a dinosaur. A dying breed."
Q & A with STEVE SEVERIN (2003)
Seems like the sharpest people in the original punk scene were making their excuses and leaving as early as the first months of 1977! Didn't you yourself say something like it was all over when The Damned first played?!
“That was kind of true. When The Damned played it was like the first elements of the pantomime horse coming in. Punk was already getting uniform and predictable. That whole brief period before people like the Damned came along, before we even played-- it didn’t even have a name.”
Did you have a strong initial concept when you formed?
“The original Banshee idea was a pure musical democracy. There was no lead instrument --not the voice, not the guitar, which usually dominated. Everybody occupied their own space, melodically and rhythmically. I’ve never seen the bass as a supporting instrument at all, I always think of it as a driving instrument. That’s what very different about the early Banshees stuff. You cannot sit there as a singer-songwriter with a guitar and play those songs in a pub--it’s not buskable, because the instrumentation and the way it’s played is crucial. A big inspiration for that was Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, who I saw at the Royal Albert Hall in the early Seventies. It blew me away. I’d never dreamed that instruments could be played that way before."
One of the most interesting things about the Banshees is the way you’ve excelled at being both a singles group and an albums band. Some of the best work is the singles that weren't even on the albums. But the albums, equally, have all been cohesive, unitary listening experiences.
“That would be the mixture of influences--liking people like Cluster and Neu! and Can, but also loving T.Rex and a whole generation of good singles. The two main people we all loved, Roxy Music and Bowie, did great singles and great albums. We saw the single as the calling card. Our first single, the A-Side, "Hong Kong Gardens", was the most commercial song we’d written to date, but the B-Side, "Voices", was the strangest piece of music we'd written to date."
The Banshees never had any truck with that side of punk which was about ordinary blokes getting onstage. The side that related maybe to Stiff Records and pub rock.
“Oh no, we hated that. I never understood where that do-it-yourself ethic came from. It was so patently obvious that not everybody could do it. You had to have a modicum of talent. And an original idea. But for one moment the floodgates came open and everybody had their five minutes, put their single out, and then disappeared back to what they were destined to do in the first place. It was so diverse at the beginning, under the umbrella term 'punk' you had Wire, Buzzcocks, Throbbing Gristle, This Heat… They were so obviously not using the Ramones as an identikit for what they were doing.
"Wire and Buzzcocks were the two bands that we felt somewhat kindred spirits with at the time. They seemed to share this naivete about song structure. Wire especially, every song seemed to have a different format to it just to make it different. What they shared with us was the fact that the concept was more important than the ability--you can hear both bands really striving to get to the level of being strong enough to put across their ideas. But the writing is strong enough that you can get away with it. One of the things I still do to this day is, I never practise. Never have. I like being stretched. If I know how to play too well, I get lazy. "
My friend Chris Scott wrote a piece on incompetencefor this music fanzine we did called Monitor and he talked about Scream-era Banshees and how you could hear humans struggling with their musical instruments, and how that physicality created a thing-iness in the music, like the sounds were objects being grappled with strenuously. Whereas later on, when the more conventionally accomplished John McGeoch and Budgie replaced John Mackay and Kenny Morris, the Banshees became more about "atmosphere". (Like "a sofa" is how Chris put it, and it wasn't intended as a compliment).
“The physicality was very important to us then… We grew up playing live, there wasn’t a kindergarten period where we were learning to play Clapton riffs in our bedrooms. So we were struggling, trying to find a way of mastering the instrument to make your ideas come across. With the first album we’d been playing those songs for two years and so there was one way of doing them, playing live in the studio. It was only later when we had more time to explore the studio that we started writing songs in the studio, based around some of the sounds we could create in the studio. But the first two albums, The Scream and Join Hands, are live, physical albums."
By the time we get to 1982 and A Kiss In the Dreamhouse, it's almost like a totally different band. That album is very much a studio-confection, lushly textured and voluptuous-sounding, a world away from the cold, stark severity of Scream and Join Hands.
“Just better drugs!”
Oh, had you all plunged into a psychedelics phase?
“My psychedelics phase had been over by about thirteen years or something! But Siouxsie and Robert Smith were doing quite a bit. They were discovering it for the first time. Kiss was a lot about me and McGeoch thinking about the Beatles and The Stones circa Beggar’s Banquet. We'd done Juju and that had been so focused, and now we were onto our "second album" as that incarnation of the band, so we could do anything. The whole record started with the lyric for ‘Cascade’. I wrote this poem and then honed it down to a lyric, and I felt really odd about it, like, 'Is Sioux going to sing this?"
The lyrics with their imagery of moisture suggest that you were consciously proposing the melting of the Ice Queen.
“I was aware that we were moving on. Not so much changing the image but tapping into things that were already there but not exposed. Kiss came out of a mixture of things--I was reading late 19th Century decadent stuff like Baudelaire and Huysman's Against Nature. But also Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company, where the imagery is very lush, sensual, and exotic. That decadence and sensuality corresponded with everybody else feeling the same way in terms of instrumentation. Like, 'why not try some flute here?' We were playing with other people's expectations of what the Banshees were. And also tapping into an English heritage of whimsical psychedelia-- Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett. 'Green Fingers' is quintessentially English psychedelia, it's not American or kandy-kolored.
"A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, it was a strange time really because we felt we had complete creative freedom. We just felt we could do anything and get away with it. Mike Hedges, the producer, owned the studio so we could pretty much go in and stay there as long as we wanted. So we pretty much wrote it all in the studio. We were also, in the background, getting divorced from our first manager. So it felt like there were no constraints of any kind, in terms of where we felt the band should be going. We kind of felt the audience would go with us wherever we went."
Mike Hedges had a good 1982--as well as Kiss, he produced The Associates's Sulk, another psychedelia-tinged fiesta of sensual delirium. An important figure?
"Yes, Mike was one of those engineer/producers who had tons and tons of ideas, and open to experiment."
"Painted Bird" could almost be a purpose-built anthem for the emergent Goth Nation as represented by a hefty contingent of the Banshees audience--all about using style and flamboyance to "confound that dowdy flock".
“I don’t think Siouxsie meant it like that--it’s one of the few songs that directly taken from a source, Jerzy Kozinki's book of the same name. But yes, you can read that into the song, and 'Fireworks' similarly can be read as a manifesto."
What did you think of the whole Goth movement?
"It's very obvious why as a phenomenon it wasn't something we really wanted to get attached to. And a lot of Goth purists wouldn’t put us in their pantheon of Goth gods, simply because we’re too diverse musically. Goth was reacting much more to the way Siouxsie looked. To me, what people nowadays call Goth is someone like Marilyn Manson. I can see why he’s a very necessary force in the world. I can’t stand his music but I think he’s articulate, intelligent, and I think Middle America needs him. England and Europe don't need him, but there is a point in every thirteen year old’s life when they need someone like that to latch onto. For me it was Bowie. A much more intriguing proposition, because there was so much more ambiguity. The other thing about Bowie, on account of him being such a culture vulture, was that you'd find out about other stuff through him. Burroughs, or the Velvet Underground and The Stooges. And that was because he was stealing from them! I didn't know anything about Iggy and the Stooges until Bowie mentioned them. He was totally educational. But I can imagine if I was 12 today I might be a Marilyn Manson fanatic. I could possibly be quite evangelical about it. I mean, what are the alternatives? Travis?!?”