Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Siouxsie & The Banhees

The career and success of Siouxsie & The Banshees is perhaps the best illustration of the original Brit punk credo of 1976 and 1977: everyone cold learn three chords, form a band, play live and release records. The origins of the band was in a jam by non-musicians at a Sex Pistols gig. The first incarnation of the band was one of the hottest unsigned acts on the punk scene and got a record deal considerably later than most of their contemporaries, lost two of the founding members of the band after the release of the debut album and at a most critical juncture of the nascent career, regrouped and came back better and stronger as ever as leading lights of the post punk and incipient Goth movements and over the course of a very long career produced some amazing music with hit singles to boot. Siouxsie & The Banshees outlasted and outperformed just about every of the early punk bands.

Siouxsie Sioux (or Sue) was a bit of an early punk sex symbol, or so I thought, as part of the so-called Bromley Contingent of Sex Pistols camp followers. She had very short hair, weird facial make up, liked wearing very short, tight skirts and thigh length boots, was not afraid to show off her perfectly formed breasts and was fond of sporting a Swastika, no doubt simply to shock the middle classes and with no neo-Nazi leanings at all.

I was very chuffed (at age 18) with my own intelligence when I realised, without anyone ever explaining it to me, that the girl's name was probably Suzie and that she had seized on the penchant for punk rockers to assume strange and wonderful, and sometimes offensive, names for themselves rather than stick to their boring, ordinary given names.

As an avid reader of the New Musical Express (NME) during the glory days of British punk and the New Wave, I drooled over the images of sexy girls punks, especially as I was a hormonal teenager deprived of much outlet in oppressive South Africa and wrote them off as scenesters and acolytes who'd soon fade from view when the reality of making a living struck home.

I knew most of the punk lore, as disseminated by the NME, such as the night when Siouxsie, Steve Severin and Sid Vicious clambered onstage at the 100 Club to do a version of "The Lord's Prayer" as opening act for the Sex Pistols. At the time none of them could play an instrument but this event must have been the genesis of serious musical ambition, if it had not existed before, in Siouxsie and Severin.

Pretty soon the writers at the NME were lauding the newly formed Siouxsie & The Banshees, with Siouxsie singing and Severin playing bass, John McKay on guitar and Kenny Morris on drums. As a matter of record and pigeon holing The Banshees were categorized as being part of the New Wave, the descriptive term devised for the slew of new groups that followed on punk, and encompassed the somewhat more technically proficient music of bands like The Jam, Elvis Costello, The Cure, Magazine and Siouxsie & The Banshees, who were clearly much more ambitious and creative in their musical endeavours than the raw punk bands had been.

Whether by deliberate restraint on the part of the band or because record companies were initially not very interested in signing a band with a lead singer who was still prone to Nazi regalia, but the Banshees were famously the best unsigned group (at a time when a record company contract was still the yardstick of success and the lifeline for any group's survival as a career choice) in the UK for a seemingly endless period before they did succumb. The Scream was released in 1978, considerably later than most debut albums by their immediate peers. The Banshees were now launched and even had a hit single in "Hong Kong Garden" about the prosaic subject of a Chinese take-away restaurant.

The initial punk thrash of the Roxy Club days, well before the band was signed, gave way to a sound that was definitely New Wave, the name given to the bands and sounds of the post punk bands who formed under the inspiration of the punks a year or two after the Sex Pistols came to national notoriety. Some say the name "New Wave" (after the French film movie of the late Fifties and early Sixties) was used to create a deliberate historical and conceptual separation between the bands that followed the DIY punk ethos and had more musical ambition and ability and who certainly did not want to be tainted by the "punk" pejorative and all it stood for in the UK tabloids and on television.

One of the main differences between the sound of the Ramones and some of the rock and roll bands before them, was that the bass was a lead instrument in the musical mix where the guitar was simply a rhythm instrument, and Dee Dee Ramone played almost melody bass. This sound was adopted by many of the New Wave bands, and beyond, who did not want to be stuck in the Ramalama wall of noise guitar punk first sounded like and this lead to a plethora of bands where the lead guitar played a choppy, trebly rhythm while the bass was prominent as a melodic, lead instrument, pretty much in imitation of a reggae style. Siouxsie & The Banshees was one of those bands. Where The Clash, for example, stuck to the loud punk rock template for their first two albums, The Banshees were already way beyond that on their debut and certainly sounded streets ahead of their run of the mil contemporaries and their roots on the earliest punk bills. The sound was jagged, edgy and featured big drums and fluid bass playing and the band had a big drum sound, very much like Joy Division, and even now sound almost futuristic and a lot more interesting than the Sex Pistols who, as far as I could see, wanted to sound like Slade.

Siouxsie & The Banshees remained mired in controversy for a while. The first thing was that the NME seized on the Nazi imagery and Swastikas and on tunes like "Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)" and others to suggest that the band were espousing right wing causes and attitudes, which was a decided no-no at the time when Rock Against Racism was a rising force and the National Front was making inroads amongst the disaffected. Flirting with taboo images, even if it were ironic, or were intended to make people think, was frowned on. The left wing does not do irony.

The second controversial thing that happened to the band is that McKay and Morris left the band abruptly after the first few gigs of a tour with The Cure in support. At the time the motive was not completely clear but what was clear was that this move must have been calculated to destroy the band. The Banshees were not that easily killed off, however, and the tour carried on with Robert Smith, the leader and guitarist of The Cure, playing guitar for The Banshees as well as for The Cure and Budgie sitting in on drums. As a result het became the band's permanent drummer. This was a good thing for the music, which improved and followed a new course entirely from the early New Wave strivings of the debut album.

The second album, Join Hands, was released in 1980, the last with McKay and Morris, and this in turn was followed by Kaleidoscope (1980) with John McGeoch on guitar, Budge on drums and featuring synthesisers to flesh out the soundscapes.

This is where I got on board the bus. Punk and New Wave albums were incredibly hard to come by in Stellenbosch. By 1980 I owned Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols, My Aim Is True and London Calling. Sometime late in 1980, though, Kaleidoscope pitched up in a bargain bin in one of the record shops I used to haunt and I bought it without a second thought, simply because I was curious and, if I am not mistaken, I had heard the songs "Happy House" and "Christine" from it and had decided I liked them.

Kaleidoscope sounded considerably different to those other records referred to above. Costellos's album had a very traditional rock sound, the Sex Pistols reminded me of Slade and the Clash were in their eclectic phase of changing the style of songs from track to track and giving us British, Jamaican and American roots and not so much punk rock anymore. In contrast the music on Kaleidoscope sounded otherwordly and, well, kaleidoscopic. One could believe that Siouxsie & The Banshees represented some kind of future of rock rather than, say, the Clash who were determinedly returning to and mining the older traditions and perhaps breathing new life into them but still not seeking a completely new way of expressing themselves. The Banshees sounded positively futuristic.

The great difference, and what probably truly makes The Banshees post-punk and forerunners of not only the younger experimental bands of the early Eighties but also of the whole Goth / Industrial / Rock dance crossover scene, is that the traditional instrumental line-up of guitar, bass and drums does not limit the musicians in the creation of the musical landscape. For the most part the guitar creates atmospheres and filigrees of detail, in much like the same fashion as is the case for the synthesiser contributions, while the nimble drums and agile bass set down the rhythmic basis for the performance. This music is a long way from punk. Whereas Kevin Rowland of Dexy's and a class of NME scribes lambasted, did their best to kill off, the guitar in music and the early synth poppers almost succeeded. Siouxsie & The Banshees (and, I must add, many of their peers) realised that the electric guitar had many uses and infinite permutations of melodic noise.

Kaleidoscope is one of my favourite albums of all time and The Banshees are one of my top Eighties bands. I never cared for Duran Duran or Wham, or the Stock Aitken & Waterman stable of stars, or any of the terrible pop; music so many fondly remember from that decade. The Banshees made some of the best music of that era, and into the Nineties, and that fact is proved by die collection of top tunes on Twice Upon A Time, a double album of hits that followed on the Once Upon A Time single record collection of the early hits. In South African "The Passenger" (an Iggy Pop original) was a major radio and club hit and just about every one of the dance pop confections is memorable, like "Kiss Them For Me" and "Peekaboo," as shining examples of how one can make weirdly interesting music with pop hooks.

This piece was inspired by my recent acquisition, from iTunes, of Kaleidoscope. Up to then the CD of Twice Upon A Time was the only Banshees artefact I still owned, having given away my LP copy of the earlier album. Anyhow, I was so happy to hear songs like "Happy House", "Red Light" and "Christine" again that I also bought The Scream, in an expanded version with the addition of "Hong Kong Garden" and Staircase Mystery" that, in the tradition of the times, were singles released at the time the album was out but not included on it.

From The Scream to Kaleidoscope, over just two years, is a very long journey indeed. The debut album has its share of great moments and also the teeth on edge version of "Helter Skelter" that seems to be yet another impromptu jam, and Kaleidoscope has one delightful proto-Gothic pop songs after the other. This is where the band learnt to write songs of lasting impact and value and where it finally left behind any vestiges of an origin in feral punk, setting the scene for the great triumphs of the Eighties which saw Siouxsie & The Banshees rising to the top of the Goth pop pyramid.




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