Off the Charts

Siouxsie and the Banshees

There once was a time before “goth” was a meaningful word to describe black-clad young people who viewed the world with deep irony and high curmudgeon. Singer Siouxsie Sioux (born Susan Ballion) and bass guitarist Steven Severin bear more than a little responsibility for all those girls in short velvet skirts and painted army boots and boys in charcoal gray lipstick.

When they started playing together in London in the 1970s, Sioux and Severin took their musical and fashion cues from the punk scene, but Sioux as songwriter – not to mention those musicians they drew into their fold — had a poetic imagination that reached beyond the ragged canvas of punk.

Siouxsie and Severin, with Marco Pirroni on guitar and Sid Vicious on drums, made their utterly unprepared debut at a punk festival in 1976 when a band suddenly pulled out of the lineup. They filled their 20-minute set with an improvisation on “The Lord’s Prayer.” It wasn’t exactly punk; it wasn’t anything anyone could quite identify.

That defiance of the known continued to define Siouxsie and the Banshees when they formed more officially, with Kenny Morris on drums and John McKay on guitar (they quickly fired a guitarist named Peter Fenton because he played “too well”).

Polydor Records had the good sense to offer this unusual act artistic control of their own records, so the band signed with them and recorded The Scream in 1978. They immediately came out with “Hong Kong Garden,” a hit single about, of all things, Chinese take-out food as a metaphor for the more general collapse of society and the environment.

But the distinctive faux-Asian xylophone riff of that song was just one item on the album’s sound buffet. “Jigsaw Feeling” provides interesting rhythmic rumbles of old-time surfer rock.

 

The only single from the second record, Join Hands (1979), was “Playground Twist,” but there’s a lot of interesting stuff on this record. For one thing, it ends with a 14-minute version of that “Lord’s Prayer” improv that had gotten the band rolling to begin with.

But maybe the most intriguing song is “Poppy Day,” a tiny track that shook the critical world for its empathy toward veterans (Poppy Day is a nickname for Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, the U.K.’s version of Memorial Day).

 

Sadly, all was not well among the Banshees. During the Join Hands tour, Morris and McKay had an argument so severe that they both walked away from their contracts, leaving Sioux and Severin up a creek with a booked tour to fulfill.

Their manager recommended Budgie, who’d been drummer with a band called the Slits. And fellow post-punk innovator Robert Smith, of the Cure, stepped in as guitarist. Smith had no intention of leaving his own band, so he high-tailed it back to the Cure after the tour. That left the Banshees short one guitarist. They went with former Magazine member John McGeoch.

With all this new input, it’s not surprising that their next album, Kaleidoscope (1980), brought with it some new sounds. Budgie added a drum machine, and some tracks include sitar and synths. The experiment was a big success commercially. Kaleidoscope sold well enough to justify their first U.S. tour.

This new, unapologetic attitude toward electronica is evident in “Red Light.” Severin wrote the lyrics that make an analogy between photography and life.

 

After another big success with Juju (1981), the next year’s A Kiss in the Dreamhouse found the band figuring out how to take advantage of the recording studio in new ways, with the encouragement of engineer Mike Hedges. The most obvious new sound is the distortion of Sioux’s voice.

The psychedelic weirdness of “She’s a Carnival” has more going on than studio experimentation. It reflects the real-life substance use and abuse happening within the band, not to mention stresses exacerbated by Sioux’s overlapping in-house love affairs, first with their manager and then with Budgie.

 

After the band fired McGeoch due to his alcoholism, Robert Smith returned to help out, staying for nearly two years. Hyæna (1984) was the only album he made with them. Meanwhile, Sioux and Budgie had started a side project, called the Creatures. But they still managed to pour a lot of originality into Hyæna, including a guest spot by string players from the London Symphony Orchestra on “Dazzle.”

The wildness of the Cure seems present in the ’60s go-go feel of “Running Town.”

 

Smith eventually decided he couldn’t handle two bands at once, so for Tinderbox (1986) and Through the Looking Glass (1987), he was replaced on guitar by John Valentine Carruthers. But then Carruthers left as well.

Once again in need of new players and in search of a new sound, Sioux and Severin brought in Martin McCarrick, who could play cello as well as keyboards. Guitarist Jon Klein also joined them for Peepshow (1988), which included the popular single “Peek-a-boo.”

Also on that album is the highly textured “Turn to Stone,” which evokes a crossing of the River Styx.

 

For Superstition (1991) they brought in tabla drummer Talvin Singh, who played on their biggest American single, “Kiss Them for Me.” But there wasn’t much future left for Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their final album was The Rapture 1995. They went out in style, having the album produced by John Cale (of the Velvet Underground). But when the release went flat, Polydor dropped them, and the band split up.

“Sick Child” features lyrics by Budgie. Martin McCarrick and Jon Klein once again complete the quintet. It’s Klein’s slinking guitar line that sets a vaguely exotic mood with help from chimes that ching in a figure-eight around your brain if you use headphones. Sioux’s voice is low and understated, bending by microtones in the final lines.

 

They had a good run, and the Banshees live on in the work of younger musicians. TV on the Radio, The Weeknd, and Arcade Fire have all declared themselves fans. And I hear that thick black eyeliner is coming back in style.