Longevity was never part of punk’s DIY manifesto, but a handful of the bands it spawned achieved it regardless. The Jam and The Clash secured their legends after living through intense, yet finite five-year careers, while The Police hung around a little longer and became one of the biggest bands in the world. However, one notable act sired by punk, Siouxsie And The Banshees, became masters of reinvention throughout a spectacular 20-year career, during which they evolved from a primitive art-punk outfit into one of the UK’s most stylish, sophisticated, and truly singular acts.
The band’s early history is intrinsically linked with UK punk trailblazers, Sex Pistols. Effortlessly cool, charismatic vocalist Susan Ballion (aka Siouxsie Sioux) and bassist Steve Bailey (soon renamed Steve Severin in homage to The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”) were among the so-called ‘Bromley Contingent’: a small clique of fans from the south London suburbs who attended the Pistols’ early live shows and then followed punk’s edict and formed a band of their own.
Sioux and Severin famously made their live debut (with Sid Vicious on drums and future Adam & The Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni) at the September 1976 punk festival at London’s 100 Club, where they performed a brutal rendition of the hymn “The Lord’s Prayer.” However, the Banshees’ career really took off after their classic early line-up of Sioux, Severin, guitarist John McKay, and drummer Kenny Morris fell into place during 1977 – after which they set out on the path that led them to compile one of alt-rock’s most enviable catalogs.
(Love In A Void; Hong Kong Garden; The Staircase (Mystery); Playground Twist)
Like many seminal acts galvanized by punk, Siouxsie And The Banshees initially found a wider audience through BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who offered them a session before they’d even signed a record deal. The band recorded the first of five stellar Peel sessions (later assembled for 2006’s Voices On Air: The Peel Sessions) during November 1977, and this quickly rewarded them with much wider exposure and an early front cover with UK rock weekly, Sounds.
One of that first Peel session’s high points, the aggressive “Love In A Void,” immediately turned heads (initially a B-side, the song later reappeared on 1981’s Once Upon A Time: The Singles). That initial BBC exposure – along with an eye-catching ‘Sign The Banshees’ graffiti campaign in and around London – led to Polydor doing just that early in 1978.
At this point, with punk morphing into New Wave, Siouxsie and company’s future was by no means assured. A hit single would obviously help the band’s cause, and one of their newest songs, “Hong Kong Garden,” stood apart thanks to its catchy xylophone motif, played by John McKay. Siouxsie was inspired to write the lyric by her local Chinese takeaway – also called Hong Kong Garden – but no one was more surprised than the Banshees when the song soared to No. 7 in the UK charts.
“The [Sex] Pistols had “God Save The Queen” disallowed from being No. 1 in the UK, and there was a controversy about how much punk rock would be tolerated in the charts,” Siouxsie recalled in a 2016 interview with Uncut. “But “Hong Kong Garden” was so accessible it opened the door for us.”
Further success followed in the singles chart, with the Banshees’ next two 45s: “The Staircase (Mystery)” and “Playground Twist,” also featuring in the UK Top 30 during 1979. Years later, both songs remain sinister, atmospheric, and elusive and received critical acclaim upon release. Impressed by their harsh, post-punk noise, the NME enthused about the Banshees’ “maelstrom of whirling sound, punctuated by the ominous tolling of church bells, phased guitars, a surreal alto sax and the wail of Siouxsie’s voice,” before concluding that “If Ingmar Bergman produced records, they might sound like this.”
Restless sonic innovators
(Red Light; Spellbound; Dazzle; Peek-A-Boo)
By the dawn of the 80s, Siouxsie And The Banshees had established themselves as one of the UK’s most distinctive acts. Adding to the acclaim accrued by the early singles, their brilliant, though intense 1978 debut, The Scream, went on to influence a host of future alt-rock superstars ranging from Joy Division to Killing Joke and Soft Cell to The Cure.
The latter’s frontman Robert Smith was particularly enamored of the record. He told Melody Maker in a 1983 interview, “When The Scream came out, I remember it was much slower than everybody thought it would be. It was like the forerunner of the Joy Division sound, it was just so big-sounding.”
Smith’s own history soon became intertwined with the Banshees. When Kenny Morris and John McKay abruptly quit after an acrimonious dispute during the UK tour in support of the second Banshees album, Join Hands, Smith deputized on guitar as The Cure were also the tour’s support act. He later joined them full-time for their sixth album, 1984’s Hyaena, but in the interim, the definitive Banshees line-up coalesced during the recording of their third album, Kaleidoscope, when Sioux and Severin teamed up with highly versatile drummer, Budgie (formerly of Liverpool’s Big In Japan and The Slits) and ex-Magazine guitarist John McGeoch.
Both musicians stamped their authority on Kaleidoscope, 1981’s Juju, and ’82’s A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. Budgie’s ceaselessly inventive approach to his craft came to the fore on Kaleidoscope’s “Red Light,” wherein the drummer employed the beat of a Roland drum machine and a camera shutter motor rewind to produce the song’s innovative rhythm track.
Budgie also showed off his tom-heavy rhythmic skill on Ju Ju’s legendary trailer hit, “Spellbound,” where John McGeoch too came into his own. Instead of the expected guitar overload this dramatic song would seem to require, McGeoch instead set the scene by playing phased arpeggios and inventive chord patterns before propelling the song ever onwards with some breathtaking 12-string acoustic guitar work.
“John McGeoch was my favorite guitarist of all time,” Siouxsie told the UK’s The Independent in 2004. “He was into sound in an almost abstract way. I loved the way that I could say, ‘I want this to sound like a horse falling off a cliff,’ and he would know exactly what I meant. He was easily, without a shadow of a doubt, the most creative guitarist the Banshees ever had.”
Sadly, alcohol-related nervous exhaustion forced McGeoch’s departure from the Banshees following A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. However, the band continued to collaborate with innovative musicians throughout the remainder of their career. For example, the emotive string arrangement for 1984’s majestic, drum-driven hit single, “Dazzle,” was scored by Martin McCarrick, who would later become a full-time member of the band.
McCarrick was on board for another of the best Banshees songs, 1988’s “Peek-A-Boo,” built on a loop in reverse of a brass part with drums the group had previously arranged for a cover of John Cale’s “Gun.” They then selected different parts of that tape when played backwards, editing them and re-recording on top of it, adding a different melody, plus accordion, discordant guitar, and a fresh drum part from Budgie, creating a song which Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke described in an interview as “like nothing else on this planet…it sounded like the most current but most futuristic guitar-pop music I’ve ever heard.”
(Dear Prudence; Hall Of Mirrors; The Passenger; Strange Fruit)
Innovation remained the watchword throughout Siouxsie and company’s career, but they didn’t just strive to challenge themselves while writing their own material; they also had a talent for working their inspirational magic on the songs they chose to cover.
The Banshees demonstrated this ability early on by including their radical cover of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” on The Scream, but went on to make a more lasting impact when they returned to the Fab Four’s songbook for a glorious version of “The White Album” staple, “Dear Prudence.” Recorded by the Robert Smith-era line-up of the band, the Banshees’ glorious, shimmering take of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s ode to Mia Farrow’s sister also featured a delightful harpsichord part added by Smith’s sister, Janet – and it rapidly found favor with the public and shot to No. 3 in the UK in the Fall of 1983.
Buoyed up by the success of “Dear Prudence” and further inspired by another of their collective favorites, David Bowie’s Pin-Ups, Siouxsie and company later decided to take the concept a stage further by recording a whole album’s worth of covers. Such an undertaking can often be risky at best, yet 1987’s sublime Through The Looking Glass showed that the concept was in safe hands with the Banshees.
Indeed, the record included several songs – not least the brass-enhanced version of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and a motorik version of Kraftwerk’s “Hall Of Mirrors” reminiscent of their Dusseldorf neighbors, Neu! – which were praised by the songs’ original writers. Thirty-five years later, both still sit comfortably among the best Banshees songs, and so does the band’s remarkable, New Orleans funeral march-styled reworking of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”: a recording with such understated power it moved the Los Angeles Times to suggest “only someone as serious and sensitive as Siouxsie could bring it off like this.”
Totems and taboos
(Suburban Relapse; Happy House; Arabian Knights; Obsession)
It’s certainly true that only a singer with the passion and guile of Siouxsie Sioux could have recorded a dignified and inventive reimagining of a song such as “Strange Fruit,” but then her spine-tingling reading of the 1930s anti-racism standard was in keeping with the courage she displayed in tackling any number of topics previously deemed taboo in mainstream pop.
Keen to show that strong, independent women should indeed be seen and heard in the modern world, Siouxsie was among the first artists to tackle domestic violence in a lyric (“I’m sorry that I hit you, but my string just snapped!”) on The Scream’s “Suburban Relapse.” Having set a precedent, Siouxsie then returned to a similar topic on Kaleidoscope’s first single, “Happy House.” This time, though, her colleagues married her lyric to a deceptively bouncy and upbeat accompaniment, acting as the Trojan horse to get Siouxsie’s nightmarish, yet brilliantly-observed lyric about abuse and mental illness (“To forget ourselves and pretend all’s well/There is no hell”) into the UK Top 40 where it eventually peaked at No. 17.
Siouxsie continued to highlight issues primarily affecting women throughout the Banshees’ career. Living up to its title, their 1981 hit “Arabian Knights”’ dark, brooding vibe was matched by an especially visceral lyric about the exploitation of women in the Middle East (“Veiled behind screens/Kept as your baby machine”), while the chilling “Obsession” (from A Kiss In The Dreamhouse) related to Siouxsie’s own experience with the wayward behavior of her former partner and manager, Nils Stevenson.
Comparing Stevenson’s jealous actions to the plot in Clint Eastwood’s suspense-fuelled film Play Misty For Me, Siouxsie related a telling portrait of obsessive behavior in the song’s lyric (“I broke into your room, I broke down in my room/ Touched your belongings there, and left a lock of my hair”) and she even provided the desolate-sounding song’s rhythm by stamping on Budgie’s drum riser to reflect the sensation of being shadowed by a stalker.
Drawn to the dark side
(Melt!; Cities In Dust; Halloween; Night Shift)
Siouxsie has often distanced herself from the term “goth.” “‘Juju’ had a strong identity, which the goth bands that came in our wake tried to mimic, but they simply ended up diluting it,” she wrote in the sleeve notes for the album’s 2006 reissue. Yet there’s no doubt she transformed the role of a female frontwoman into something powerful, mysterious, and dominant. She may have been ambivalent about “goth” as a movement, but her fascination for the supernatural and the darker side of film and literature often bled into the Banshees’ best songs.
One of the finest moments in Kiss In The Dreamhouse, the majestic “Melt!” is a good illustration, as it evoked the spirit of 19th Century French poet Charles Baudelaire. Siouxsie’s graphic vignettes, such as “Handcuffed in lace, blood and sperm/Swimming in poison, gasping in the fragrance,” brilliantly evokes the heady temptations provided by sex and opium – among the decadent subjects explored in depth in Baudelaire’s first (and most famous) volume of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers Of Evil).
Elsewhere, the Banshees’ Tinderbox-era hit “Cities In Dust” recalled Mario Bonnard and Sergio Leone’s The Last Days Of Pompeii, with its rich, yet visceral imagery (“Hot and burning in your nostrils/ Pouring down your gaping mouth/ Your molten bodies, blanket of cinders”) evoking the final hours of the ill-fated Roman city destroyed by a volcanic eruption. The song’s cinematic qualities have since seduced numerous directors too, allowing “Cities In Dust” to appear in the soundtrack to films including Out Of Bounds, Grosse Point Blank, and the 2017 spy movie, Atomic Blonde.
Yet it’s to Siouxsie’s credit that she also brought a similarly filmic quality to songs written about real-life events. As its title suggests, Juju’s “Halloween” is a brilliantly evocative portrayal of All Souls Night (“The night is still and the frost it bites my face/I wear my silence like a mask and murmur like a ghost/’Trick or treat, trick or treat, the bitter and the sweet”) and also an (unspecified) murder most foul.
On the same album’s “Night Shift,” she ups the ante even further, with arguably her most chilling lyric of all (“Only at night time/ I see you In darkness, I feel you/ A bride by my side/I’m inside many brides” ): a no-holds-barred treatise on the crimes and motivations of Peter Sutcliffe (aka The Yorkshire Ripper) who was convicted of murdering 13 women between 1975 and 1980.
As such examples show, Siouxsie And The Banshees were never for the faint-hearted. Though certainly not devoid of beauty, much of their music was dark and intense – and created in the pursuit of artistic endeavor rather than commercial gain. Yet this singular approach to the craft ensures they exert an influence on successive generations of left-field pop stars.
“When we were growing up, Siouxsie And The Banshees were the best at making great pop music with really heavy topics,” Primal Scream frontman and lifelong fan Bobby Gillespie told Vogue in a 2016 interview.
“They were getting in the charts with such subversive songs, like “Happy House.” That got into the Top 20, and it was about mental hospitals! The Banshees were getting into pop magazines and on TV, and they were getting played on daytime radio. They were so subversive. They were outsiders bringing outsider subjects to the mainstream, and they were just brilliant.”