Monday, 3 December 2018

Siouxsie & The Banshees

"People forget the punk thing was really good for women. It motivated them to pick up a guitar rather than be a chanteuse. It allowed us to be aggressive" - Siouxsie Sioux

The Scream (1978) 

Having been around for what seemed like ages, Siouxsie & The Banshees finally released an album, after a successful single (not on the album) in Hong Kong Garden, from a few months earlier. It had taken a long time for the band to get a contract, eventually getting one with Polydor as a result of fan-led hype and media pressure, which was surprising, considering the band were musically quite competent.

It was a strange album - intense, dark and totally uncommercial. They certainly lacked the instant appeal of The Jam, The Clash, The Ramones or The Stranglers and also had no real Ian Dury or Elvis Costello-style "crossover " potential. They were "post punk" before the term had even been invented and their image contained a lot of inspiration for the new romantic movement, although in no way did it have the preening "look at me" narcissism. Siouxsie Sioux, hidden behind lashings of makeup, was dubbed the "Queen of Goth" (coining another new term) and, of course, the "high priestess of punk", while the band members remained faceless and down-dressed.

Personally, although I saw them live several times at that period (and even touched Siouxsie's hand), I was never really into them as much as some were. They were always somewhat bleak and sombre for my liking. I have appreciated them more in later years.
The album starts with deep bass noise and then some mysterious guitar sounds, all very dark and introspective, before Siouxsie starts wailing in the background as an insistent single drum beat is added and what was a short, atmospheric instrumental in Pure suddenly burst into the classic Banshees guitar sound of Jigsaw FeelingU2 must have listened to this to get the guitar sound they used a year or so later on their initial recordings. Siouxsie's voice is in typical style on this track - affected, arch and somewhat haughty. Inspiration for many female singers in many post-punk bands for years to come. Musically, The Banshees were quite daring and sonically experimental in a way that most "punk" bands were not. Magazine were very similar. Indeed, their album Real Life was released five months earlier, so maybe there were cross-influences.

Overground has an insistent drum sound, again backing a plaintive, wailing vocal from Siouxsie, no doubt railing about the oppression of living in suburbia (a favourite subject). Most of the vocals were pretty incomprehensible, to be honest. 
Carcass is very much a quintessential late 70s Siouxsie song - instantly recognisable voice, cutting guitars with that trademark sort of "circular" riff and a rolling, pounding drum sound. 

Then there is the cover of The Beatles' Helter Skelter which is marvellous. It sounds as if it cold have been written for Siouxsie to spit out the lyrics - "you may be a lover but you ain't no fucking dancer!!". Starting with a dead slow guitar and bass throb, Siouxsie starts singing the lyrics slowly before that riff cranks up again and her vocals become more manic and it blasts open into a classic of its time. Best thing on the album.


Mirage uses an acoustic guitar under that usual guitar and drum introduction and has a catchier chorus than many of the tracks on the album. 
Metal Postcard (Mitageisen) is a very Magazine-like industrial guitar-based chugger with hints of Television and The Velvet Underground too. Nicotine Stain is a return to a short-sharp faster paced tone, the most "punky" of the tracks on the album. Suburban Relapse features some Roxy Music-style saxophone but, that apart, is similarly intense, like Metal Postcard. By now I am always starting to feel it is time to listen to something else to lift the dense fog. 

Switch has a more rhythmic, slightly lighter intro, we can hear cymbals for almost the first time and a great vocal from Siouxsie. It is a six minute plus workout, with some excellent parts, all very different, particularly the slowed-down guitar-cymbals, bass drum bit at around three minutes and then when it ups the pace at around four minutes. Second best thing on the album. Actually, no, because of the excellent instrumentation, it gets the top vote.

Join Hands (1979)
If anything, this was an even darker album than the debut album from the previous year, The Scream and it was an album that tore the band apart, guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris quitting the group on the day of the album's release. Funnily enough that was not the body blow one may have imagined, as replacements John McGeoch and Budgie proved to be be an essential part of The Banshees on subsequent, career-defining albums. Despite this internal strife, there is still and edgy appeal to this genre-leading post-punk album. Already, by 1979, punk was old hat and sombre, industrial post punk was de rigeur. This album was right at the vanguard.
The opener, Poppy Day, was inspired by The First World War and Remembrance Day. It is a short track featuring industrial, harsh guitars and some vague chant-like vocals. 

Regal Zone surely influenced U2's first album with its dense, caustic guitar sound, pounding drum beat and Siouxsie Sioux's sonorous vocals. There is a punk attitude and raw edginess to this, but it has that dark, intense post punk feeling all over it. This is music for the terminally depressive. Music for dark November evenings. There is some great, sharp guitar and drum interplay at the end. The dour, factory-inspired industrial sound continues on the haunting obscurity of Placebo Effect. Sioux's sombre, wailing vocals give it a perversely miserable feeling that is at the same time incredibly evocative and atmospheric.

Icon begins slowly and almost chant-like before the drums start to roll and Sioux's stream of consciousness lyrics are relentless in their Patti Smith stylings. The drum, bass and guitar interplay is impressive. There was a real punch to this stuff despite its terminally dismal ambience meaning that I do not return to it too often. 
The old "side one" is closed by the primal thumping density of Premature Burial. The guitars crash and burn, endlessly, the drums pound, the voice wails and rants. By now life is looking pretty depressing. Don't play this on a bright summer's morning. Despite all that, it still really has something. A bit like the first Joy Division album. Appealing in its sheer never-ending gloom. Siouxsie Sioux wrote all these songs. She must have been a bundle of laughs on a night out....

Playground Twist was a single, but it did not have the catchy appeal of Hong Kong Garden and only reached number 28. It is as singalong and commercial as the material on this album ever gets, with a few hooks and refrains swirling around. 
Mother/Oh Mein Papa is a spooky incantation with a musical box backing and oedipal lyrics. The final track is the controversial, fifteen minutes long The Lord's Prayer, a Sex Pistols-Public Image-style grind that served to sum up the anti-faith nihilism of the punk movement for many people. Sioux wails out the words to The Lord's Prayer over a frantic guitar riff backing and thumping drum beat. It is a marvellously anarchic piece of anti-establishment protest. Punk meets post punk in a maelstrom of subversive negativity as the rumbling bass drills its incessant madcap rhythm into your head. Sioux starts clucking like a chicken at one stage as she goes full on Patti Smith now, spitting out God knows what invective. Horrifying, interminable, but strangely compelling, as indeed is the whole album. Siouxsie & The Banshees would never be as visceral, or as brutal, again.

Kaleidoscope (1980)

This was the album which saw a real sea change in musical style for Siouxsie & The Banshees, moving away from confrontational, paranoid, gritty punk, new members Budgie on drums and John McGeoch on guitar saw them adopt an almost trippy, psychedelic sound. Synthesisers, acoustic guitars, drum machines were incorporated in to the sound and they experimented with electronic music, dance-ish stuff and atmospheric soundscapes while still keeping some of those killer, buzzy guitar riffs. Siouxsie was now "the high priestess of post punk" as opposed to punk in the cliché-ridden media's eyes. It heralded a decade of musically diverse albums from the band as they led the way in breaking new ground. For them, both punk and new wave were old hat as they pushed back boundaries.
Happy House was a quirky hit single, with a slightly Chinese-sounding guitar intro and some Far Eastern percussion before rolling drums and decidedly sombre post punk guitars add to the odd, beguiling mix. This was quite inventive stuff for 1980. Listen to the instrumentation throughout this track, it is very clever. Siouxsie's vocal is also less punchy and more melodically detached and haughty. The old darkness and bleak lyrics were still there on songs like Tenant but this is balanced by the sheer imagination in both the musical delivery and the production. A haunting, vibrating Joy Division-style bass drives this beguiling track along. Trophy is vaguely punky and edgy, but slowed-down. It is post-punk but with a kick to it. Check out those unusually stark drums.

Hybrid manages to mix the mystery of the first Roxy Music album with Joy Division's intentionally dismal material. There sounds to be some Eno-esque keyboards or saxophones (whatever that wailing sound is) as Siouxsie meets her biggest vocal challenge thus far and passes. This is completely uncommercial stuff, yet it proved to be incredibly influential. 
Clockface is a quick minute and a half or so of punky riffs and vocal wailing.

Lunar Camel could have come straight off the instrumental side of David Bowie's "Heroes". Its keyboards are some of the deepest you will ever hear. It is all very oblique and enigmatic. 
In contrast, the lively, acoustic-driven and psychedelic-influenced Christine is a breath of fresh air. It was a hit single. I remember that at the time I had a girlfriend called Christine and thought "great, Siouxsie's released a song I can think about my girlfriend to...", thinking it a love song. Hmmm. The lyrics went "Christine, the strawberry girl, Christine, banana spit lady...". Try as I might, I couldn't think of her as a strawberry or a banana split.

Desert Kisses is a very melancholy song, with hints of Talking HeadsThe Overload from the same year's Remain In Light album. It is full of brooding atmosphere. Red Light utilises a thumping drum machine and an evocative synthesiser. 
Paradise Place is slightly more upbeat and catchy, just. Once again, its backing is supremely inventive for the time. Great bass line. Sioux's vocal is strangely seductive. Skin is a shuffling, slightly frenetic closest thing to the old punk material on the album.

Along with Joy Division's two albums, this was one of the most influential albums of the late seventies/early eighties. It was very ahead of its time.

Juju (1981)

"Post Punk" was, by 1981, pretty credible. Joy Division, Ultravox!, Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen, U2, Doll By Doll, Magazine, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, New Order and Gang Of Four were just some leading the way in guitar-driven earnestly morose, bleak, "industrial" music. Another who should be added to that list, particularly with the release of this seminal album of grungy, piercing, searing guitars, tribal drums, haughty, arch vocals and swirling keyboards is Siouxsie & The Banshees. This was when they completely threw off their "punk" chains and became "gothic" post-punkers.

From being "the high priestess of punk", Siouxsie Sioux now became the first "goddess of goth" as a new genre/sub-culture was born. Guitarist John McGeoch had previously been at the vanguard of post punk with Joy Division and Magazine. He, along with drummer Budgie's rhythmic contributions produced a veritable dismal wall of sound. The rumbling bass sound is excellent throughout the album too.

Siouxsie's vocals and lyrics are arty, depressing, creepy and disturbing at times, especially on tracks like the unnerving Head CutVoodoo Dolly and Halloween.

Spellbound is a cascading, bristling but brooding opener, and Arabian Nights is marvellously atmospheric. It has a tuneful chorus, but elsewhere in it are various weird noises and paranoia acted out aurally. There are all sorts of claustrophobic undertones to the whole album.

Into The Light brings brief relief, but basically this is not an uplifting album. It is a dense, intense, dark creation to be listened to on dark winter days. Just check out the sombre, fuzzy tones of Night Shift or the staccato rhythms of Monitor. It has been hugely influential in subsequent years, it has to be said. It was genuinely trail-blazing.

A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (1982)
This was a bit of a ground-breaking album for one-time industrial, buzzy guitar-driven punks Siouxsie & The Banshees. Why, they used strings on this one and started to experiment even more than they had on their two previous, the art-rock of Kaleidoscope and the highly-influential post punky Juju. This album is more a continuation of the former. The band showed by now, once and for all, that they were far more than simply nihilistic, anarchic punks, there are considerable subtleties, soundscapes and nuances on here and Siouxsie's voice, once almost atonal and sonorous now shows variety and invention. It had become an extra instrument.

I prefer this album to the more edgy, paranoid, industrial post punk of Juju. There is more experimentation, innovation and different styles, making it a far more interesting offering, for me. It is a shift from the darkness of that album to a more airy, expanded sound and ambience.

Cascade kicks off the album with a mysterious, low-key guitar and Sioux's smoky voice before it crashes into a song that sweeps and swirls like the cascades of the title. The razor sharp acoustic guitar and some sumptuous bass and keyboards make for a delicious cornucopia of sound. Coming at the height of post punk and New Romanticism, this blew a big hole in both genres. It had the sombre feeling of the former mixed with the liveliness, peacock-finery of the latter. It is a mighty track. The band's sound is retrospectively labelled as "alternative". At the time it was actually petty unique.

Green Fingers has a beguiling, Joy Division-style bass line and keyboard riff. Sioux's voice on here is still full of character but it has lost a lot of the "shoutiness" of her early, admittedly still good, recordings. this is just diverse, different stuff and very impressive it is too. 
Obsession is a doomy, overwhelming dirge of a track, but in a good way. It is marvellously gloomy and full of interesting percussion sounds. It is strangely sexy, however. The band would have produced nothing like this in 1977-78. She's A Carnival is lively, upbeat and almost commercial (for The Banshees, anyway). The pace doesn't let up from the outset, with some frantically-strummed guitar, pounding drums and a huge, rumbling bass line. Siouxsie's voice is now tuneful and in many ways, even a little bit endearing.

Circle is backed with some metronomic drumming and Siouxsie's vocal is a sort of stream of consciousness while the bass just pounds deep into your brain. It is one of the more dense, impenetrable numbers on the album. It ends with some Beatles-esque synthesised brass sounds, which would have been hard to imagine on the band's first two albums. Melt! is a European-influenced number, reminiscent of The Stranglers' material from around the same period. Painted Bird is an infectious, pacy number with all sorts of interesting instrumentation floating around and many changes of pace. Cocoon finds the band going sort of futuristic jazz with Siouxsie breathing out her vocals over an intoxicating, quirky little bass line. It is a most unusual and appealing track.

Slowdive has a beguiling beat and ambience, sort of dance-y in a New Order way. All very modern alternative dance. It was a track quite ahead of its time and possibly the album's best one. This was overall a very good album, one that may not have been as influential as Juju, but was certainly, in my view, way ahead of its time, compared to a lot of other albums from 1982. There was a lot of creativity on show here.

Hyaena (1984)

Two years after the thoroughly excellent, innovative A Kiss In The Dreamhouse, the now established as avant-garde art rockers were back with another clever, inventive and creative arty album. It is notable for its orchestration. Indeed a 27-piece orchestra is used on the opening track. Also, Robert Smith of The Cure replaced John McGeogh on guitar (the latter had suffered from exhaustion/alcoholism and left the band in 1982, which was a pity). Smith would only play this one album with the band.

The album simultaneously dreamy, airy, arty and poppy, while still containing some of the old post punk guitar riffs and bleak lyrics. Much of the material was still very unique, however and, as now seemed par for the course, ground-breaking.

Dazzle begins with the sumptuous strings of the afore-mentioned orchestra before the track breaks out into a fast-paced post punk-ish number. Still enhanced by sweeping strings, the drums roll and Siouxsie's voice soars above it all. This was the most adventurous song they had ever done. It is grandiose and magnificent. We Hunger has a post-punky riff and drum sound and a bit of a new romantic melody together with a suitably haughty vocal from Siouxsie. Take Me Back is a shuffling, rhythmic number enhanced by seductive backing vocals and some genuinely quirky bits. There is something vaguely jazzy about it. Material like this is a long way from those heady punk days.

Belladonna is a most fetching, sensual number for a once bleak, industrial-sounding band. "Daylight devours your unguarded hours..." sings Siouxsie, almost wistfully. This is as disarming as she and indeed the band had ever sounded. It is all rather dreamily poetic. The music is smoother and deprived of its previous hard edges. You even get a Beatles-esque brass bit at the end. It is extremely melodic and they sound like a completely different band. The same can be said of the delightful, jerky and beguiling Swimming Horses. Man, what a great track this is, one of the group's best ever. Check out those piano interjections and syncopated drums. Siouxsie's vocal is up there with her best ever.

Bring Me The Head Of The Preacher Man is wonderfully atmospheric, with the strings used to great effect, conjuring up Eastern sounds and there are also Spaghetti-Western style acoustic guitars and backing vocals in there. It is a remarkable track. 
Running Down has echoes of previous material, but it also has some rollicking melodic keyboards, making it another infectiously catchy number. It is gothic pop but with a new colour to it - not just black and white. Pointing Bone is more in the vein of the fast-paced post punk pop we had been used to since 1980. Blow The House Down has dark echoes of 1981's Juju but it still floats in and out of various changes and a features a myriad of instrumental sounds. It swirls with mystery. Listen the bit where the madcap violin comes in after six minutes. Excellent but bizarre stuff. 

** The bonus hit single, their cover of The Beatles' Dear Prudence would have seemed to have been made for The Banshees. This album is often overlooked when "best of" lists are being compiled. Make no mistake, this was definitely one of their best.

Tinderbox (1986)

This is a very rock-ish album from Siouxsie & The Banshees, probably their most so. Lots of pounding drums and post-punk guitar runs together with swirling, confident vocals. It is a short, sharp album, only thirty-eight minutes. It is very typical fare, exemplifying that whole post-punk rock sound so prevalent in the early mid-eighties.
Candyman is a lively, pulsating opener featuring a great bass line rumbling underneath the beat. There is a metronomic uniformity to the sound, continuing into the very post-punk-ish Sweetest Chill with its searing Echo & The Bunnymen-type guitars. The ambience changes slightly with the slower-tempo The Unrest. Throughout the album, though Siouxsie's vocals are typically haughty and grandiose. The lyrics are also bleak, as you would expect. Cities In Dust is a dance-pop-ish slightly more commercial number with some Human League-esque synthesiser backing. It is probably the most instantly appealing number on the album. 

Cannons briefly starts sonorously slowly before bursting into a trademark early-mid-eighties Siouxsie rock number. Lots of frantic percussion, cannon shot sound effects and jangling early U2-style guitars. Party's Fall continues in the early U2 vein, with very Larry Mullen-esque drumming and Edge guitar runs too. This could have easily been on Boy. It has a nice riffy bit at the end. 92 is a sombre, haunting and lengthy number more typical of a few years earlier. Lands End starts with an intoxicating drum rhythm that continues throughout a rather early Roxy Music-influenced number that is one of the album's best. The drumming is superb on this one as are the vocals. By now, though, one knew what Siouxsie & The Banshees would deliver. They had become ever so slightly formulaic. They did change that for the next offering, however.

Peepshow (1988)

This is actually my favourite Siouxsie & The Banshees album. Almost ten years after their debut, it sees the band diversify, musically, and also vocally in ways that they never had before. It wasn't just bleak industrial guitars and Siouxsie's trademark post punk haughty wail (atmospheric as some of those recordings could undoubtedly be), there was multi-instrumentalism on here, jazzy, swing and pop stylings and a generally lighter, more accessible feel that was, to be honest, a breath of fresh air. Indeed, many journalists at the time heralded it as The Banshees' finest hour, and it has aged well, still being retrospectively considered with the same reverence.
Opening with the swirling, slightly Russian-influenced in places (or was it Cajun?) , shuffling drum, accordion and keyboards maelstrom of the beguiling yet rhythmic Peek-A-Boo. Siouxsie's voice is instantly different, channelled into coming out of different speakers in different tones, this is a revelation. Impossibly catchy, it is one of my favourite Siouxsie tracks of all. Mysterious, wacky and highly enjoyable all at once. It is as "fun" and mischievous as the band have ever sounded.

The Killing Jar has an almost reggae-style intro and an alluring backing. Where there is a difference is that, often, in the past, drummer Budgie would lock on to one beat-rhythm and stick with it and the guitars would swirl around it. Here it all changes. We get changes of pace, of rhythm, of general approach. All sorts of instrumental nuances. The same applies to Siouxsie's voice. It has seductive qualities never really heard before. That trademark guitar comes in at the end of this track, but not before there have all sorts of other instrumental ins and outs. Scarecrow is a slow-build up, intoxicating brew of jungle sounds, weird percussion before it kicks in to a more recognisable Banshees' stomp and a vocal more as you would expect, but just as you get used to that, there is a laid back bass, stark keyboard and voice part that changes the atmosphere. 

Carousel is a sparsely-backed but interesting slow, mournful number that just sort of washes over you until it bursts, via some powerful, insistent drumming into life three minutes in. Then it ends, adding to its mystery. Burn-Up is wonderful - again, something Cajun about it and another number that sees the band up for having lively fun in the way they rarely had before. Fantastic drumming on this one and sombre old "high priestess" Siouxsie sounding like it is the first time she has ever let herself lighten the mood. You can almost hear her smiling in her joyful vocal. It is a pleasure to listen to. Nice one. Ornaments Of Gold. Wow. Mandolin and acoustic guitars and a seductive percussion groove intro that features some familiar vocals but so many other nuances and sounds in it that, again, it can almost sound like a different band. 

The appealing Turn To Stone would appear to feature flamenco guitar and some unusual percussion backing. Siouxsie would do more material like this on her later solo albums. Again, this track features a lighter, more versatile vocal. Rawhead And Bloody Bones is a return in atmosphere to the old gothic times, but there is again an instrumental experimentation on here, with its weird backing, that is pretty unique to this album and onwards.

The Last Beat Of My Heart is almost like a valedictory poem from John Donne or someone of that ilk. It is a haunting, mesmerising instrumental, atmospheric and vocal triumph from Siouxsie and the band. Probably her finest vocal performance to date. It is almost as if, after ten years, she's saying goodbye. Not the case, but it feels like it. Definitely one of her career high points. 
The lengthy, melodious and goth-rock in parts Rhapsody, with its addictive, insistent guitar sound, more Russian influence and lyrical references and Siouxsie's relentless but baleful voice (with some impressive high parts in places) ends things off perfectly, although I feel The Last Beat Of My Heart should have been the closer. 

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