Siouxsie Sioux at 60 – Martin Gray Looks At Her Career
SIOUXSIE SIOUX – the original, self-appointed, ‘Ice Queen’ of punk and post-punk, and much-loved Goth figurehead to millions of adoring fans (male and female) over the last three decades – hit the big 60 this year, Louder Than War’s Martin Gray looks back on her hugely influential career.
Also read an open letter to Siouxsie Sioux here
Born Susan Janet Ballion on May 27th 1957, in Southwark, London, she spent much of her childhood growing up in Chislehurst in the borough of Bromley …… as a teenager she was a huge glam fan, into the likes of David Bowie and Marc Bolan as well as Roxy Music. It was these influences, together with those of her teenage friend at the time Steven Bailey (later Steven Severin – the other main co-founder of the Banshees), which led the young Susan on her way to rechristening herself Siouxsie and throwing herself right into the prevailing DIY punk scene that was starting to cause such waves in the capital. She already knew that she didn’t want to be merely another suburban teenage drop-out hanging around town, bored out of her head and getting into trouble or, even worse, shackled to a menial, dispiriting 9 to 5 day job in any of the faceless shopping precincts which all resembled one another. She had better aspirations for sure.
Siouxsie was already a face on the television when she was part of the infamous ‘Bromley Contingent’ of punk fans who followed the Sex Pistols around in the early days, which exploded onto national front pages amid much shock horror controversy in December 1976, thanks to Bill Grundy ill-advisedly provoking the wrath of Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones into firing off a volley of profanities live on air. The rest, as they say, is history. Except that, in Siouxsie’s case, things were starting to happen for her new band, as, prior to the infamous ‘Grundy Incident’, she’d already taken to the stage at London’s 100 Club in September 1976 as part of the first incarnation of her Banshees (featuring Steven Severin on bass, as well as Marco Pironi of Adam And The Ants on guitar, and future Sex Pistol Sid Vicious on drums) performing a wholly improvised 20-minute cacophony featuring the words of the Lord’s Prayer intoned chaotically over a medley of old rock ‘n’ roll and pop standards rendered totally unlistenable by the fact that none of the band could even play their instruments properly!
Siouxsie’s emerging – and soon to be truly iconic – style had borrowed comprehensively from the seedy London clubs she used to frequent back then with her friends – a mixture of bondage and fetish gear – before her settling on the garish eye make up and teased out black hair which made her such a unique figure in the pop magazines for years afterwards.
The timing was everything too: in 1977, women in rock were beginning to assert their own specific sense of identity and independence in a perpetually male-dominated world. There were so many emerging female artists that were making notable impacts on the nation’s charts it was seen as a bit of a watershed era. Arguably, after all of the fluffy, anodyne pop from the 1970s and the rise and fall of the disco boom (much of it fronted by female vocalists of course), most people’s attitudes to women in pop were as pretty faces fronting anonymous production-line fare, and the disco acts that were populating much of the charts around 1977 to 1978 merely reinforced this stereotype of women as nothing more than simple window dressing to shift units. Punk rock, for all of its apparent one-dimensionalism, was seen as a springboard for all the female artists to make their mark and set out their stall….. there was a sense of freedom and liberation onto a previously conservative record-buying public who were weaned on the old premise that girls had to be pretty and cute and nothing else. There were notable examples in the 1960s of course (Janis Joplin, Carole King and Joni Mitchell to name three, plus the iconic swinging sixties-beat likes of Lulu, Cilla, Sandie, Dusty et al), but there were never quite as many making an almost instantaneous impact on the nation’s consciousness as there were just after when punk turned everything on its head.
The arrival, therefore, of the likes of Kate Bush and Debbie Harry in 1977 and 1978 respectively simply reinforced this sea-change. Here were precociously assertive artists in their own right who wrote their own songs and had a clear idea of where they stood in the business, often exercising complete control over their image and how it would be presented. Kate Bush in particular – for her young age at the time of her chart debut ‘Wuthering Heights’ – was an exceptional talent, and was an almost immediate huge success …. and continues to garner respect and admiration / adulation even to this day almost 40 years later, despite never releasing more than 10 studio albums to date! Debbie Harry, of course, went on to become arguably the world’s most iconic and influential frontwoman of all and still holds her place in rock today, even in her early 70s.
My memory is always drawn back to a wonderful series of images which were taken by rock photographer Michael Putland in 1980. These photos have become some of the most famous and revered in the entire rock music photojournalism canon. In them, six female faces from the punk/post-punk era : Debbie Harry (Blondie), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Pauline Black (The Selecter), Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), Viv Albertine (The Slits), and Siouxsie (from the Banshees) are all pictured all happily smiling together looking totally relaxed and at ease. The genial poses – and the goofing about for the camera as shown in the outtakes – belie the fact that all six artists possess a fiercely individualistic streak, distinctive sense of identity and attitude, carried through into their music and ideology/political persuasion. It remains a truly landmark photograph which has never ceased to be inspirational, and merely reinforces my own opinion that 1978 to 1980 was a period in pop and rock where there were more bands than ever before fronted (and indeed comprised) of strong female members who exercised full artistic control over much of their work. It’s safe to conclude that, were it not for all of these individuals serving as key role models for future generations of bands to come, we would arguably not have seen the ‘Riot Grrrl’ and ‘Girl Power’ attitudes of disparately polarised 1990s acts such as Huggy Bear [cult domestic success] and the Spice Girls [worldwide sensations] respectively!
I first became aware of Siouxsie And The Banshees when I was just 13 years old, reading about them in Smash Hits around the time when so many of the original punk bands had given way to the ‘New Wave’ of post-punk of 1978-1979: giving the pop charts a much needed kick up the backside with the plethora of really cool acts (Elvis Costello, The Jam, Squeeze, XTC, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, The Pretenders, Joe Jackson, The Police, Blondie, and too many more to mention!) which would keep appearing week in week out on Top Of The Pops.
To me, the Banshees came across like the polar opposite of (and a kind of antidote to) the sensual cooing and provocative glacial cool of ‘sex-kitten’ Debbie Harry and Blondie – another band I loved at the time. The Banshees were ostensibly the ‘black’ to Blondie’s ‘white’, the ‘yang’ to Ms Harry & Co’s ‘yin’. There was an undeniable air of menace and unease to their much harsher and indeed darker music – which conjured up imagery inspired by suburban dislocation, social dysfunction and childhood nightmares. Some of the music papers at the time likened their sound to that of an Alfred Hitchcock screenplay scored by jarring metallic guitars and thumping tribal glam-rock drums: topped with clipped, staccato wailing more akin to ritualistic dervish chanting than conventional singing. It was certainly distinctive and quite unlike anything else heard at the time in rock music.
Siouxsie And The Banshees soon began to establish themselves as one of the most original and innovative of all of the bands that immediately followed on from the initial punk explosion. In spite of their beginnings being clearly rooted in punk, they were often loathe to regard themselves as such, and they held the oft-used ‘new wave’ tag at the time with even greater disdain. Even the term ‘post-punk’ wouldn’t do them justice, if their subsequent recorded output from 1978 to 1982 was anything to go by. Indeed, so diverse was their output across their entire 11 studio albums that they would be better regarded as eclectic, multi-genre experimentalists – and yet such a description would in all likelihood still mortify most of their fans who would much rather prefer things to be neatly compartmentalised (the term ‘Goth’ springs to mind). If anything, the Banshees actually defy proper categorisation. And this has probably contrived to conspire against them as far as genuinely huge success was concerned: they had hit singles for sure (30 of them in total), but they were never massively successful. Their albums, similarly, sold respectably as opposed to in enormous amounts : no platinum awards anywhere in sight. They probably would have baulked at being pop stars anyway, such is their legendary contrariness and elitism, which initially drove a bit of a wedge between them and their critics.
The Banshees were almost chameleonic in their restless ability to change and evolve from album to album, gleefully confounding and defying their critics and even their own fervent fanbase in the process. Following on from their top 10 debut hit single, ‘Hong Kong Garden’, 1978’s ‘The Scream’ and 1979’s ‘Join Hands’ were landmark albums which set out their stall from the start: abrasive, harsh, almost metallic forays into Dystopian madness and suburban collapse, tempered with a viciously black sense of humour throughout….but sounded compulsively thrilling like no other albums of the same period. By the time the band were touring their second album in 1979 they split in two, with the guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris walking out on the band after a disagreement at a record store signing session. The band soldiered on with a hastily patched-up incarnation with borrowed members Robert Smith from [support act at the time] The Cure on guitar and Budgie from The Slits on drums….and then returned stronger than ever with their third album ‘Kaleidoscope’ in 1980 – their biggest success yet: a diverse but fragmented collection of shifting textures, moods and styles which spawned two further classic hit singles ‘Happy House’ and ‘Christine’.
1981’s Juju [featuring their signature hit ‘Spellbound’ as well as the equally alluring ‘Arabian Knights’] was simply immense – the band’s boldest statement of intent – a truly stunning suite of songs all dealing with sinister themes: alienation, the supernatural / black magic, death and horror. It remains their definitive recording and one that has set the highest benchmark by which all their other albums have been measured. Even today it sounds more powerful than any other Banshees album does. It’s often been regarded as their quintessential ‘Goth’ album and certainly one that figures in many a goth aficionado’s all-time-greatest albums lists. By 1982’s ‘A Kiss In The Dreamhouse’, the Banshees had reinvented themselves yet again, this time via the studio, and created a rich, exotic but nevertheless brooding and almost sensuous listening experience where even hallucinogenic drugs have informed pretty much all of the gorgeously eclectic, near psychedelic imagery and sounds on every single one of its nine tracks. It’s their most playful and intuitive album and is as different from ‘Juju’ as ‘Kaleidoscope’ was from ‘Join Hands’. It’s clear that the band never stuck resolutely to a single formula, approach or blueprint in pursuit of success.
Their later albums from 1984’s ‘Hyaena’ right through to their 1995 swansong** ‘The Rapture’ have seen the Banshees continue to flirt with a bewildering array of styles and plough their own singular and idiosyncratic furrow to the delight [or disappointment] of fans and critics alike. 1988’s astonishingly eclectic ‘Peepshow’ set is the obvious highlight from this later period. Siouxsie by this point had discarded her trademark big spiky black hair which launched a million imitators around the world and startled everybody with a short bob reminiscent of both Liza Minelli and Louise Brooks. The accompanying tour which promoted the album saw the band’s stage show at its most elaborate and ambitious – an extravagant, almost Vaudevillian, set-up with curtains, drop-screens and a staircase-cum-catwalk along which Sioux strutted and danced, and with many of the band members dressed in their ornate finery as well.
[**the Banshees split in 1996 – closing the chapter on their career in what has been seen as a deliberately indignant riposte to the Sex Pistols reuniting for the ‘Filthy Lucre’ 20th Anniversary Tour which was to take place that very same year.]
Aside from the Banshees, Siouxsie and drummer Budgie also recorded as The Creatures – a vehicle for their more minimalistic and experimental muses to take over. Four albums have been issued to date: 1983’s ‘Feast’ – recorded in two weeks flat in Hawaii – featuring organic and acoustic sounds from the local populace as well as a staggering battery of inventive percussion and vocal overdubs. It remains one of the most astonishing debut albums ever made. 1989’s second album ‘Boomerang’ has a heavily Catalan vibe (recorded as it was in Spain and Southern France), but still features an amazing diversity – multi-ethnic percussion, flamenco guitars, torch songs, New Orleans Dixieland jazz, oriental exotica, electronics, and other eclectic sounds. Ten years later, 1999’s ‘Anima Animus’ was a post-Banshees-split foray into darker electronica and dance, whilst their final offering, 2004’s ‘Hai!’ was Japanese / Taiko-influenced in many places but sadly lacked much of the urgency and fluidity of their previous albums. In 2006, Siouxsie and Budgie went their separate ways after almost 25 years together (15 of them married). Inside and outside of marriage, Siouxsie and Budgie have remained resolutely private people, completely eschewing the need for celebrity overexposure.
Siouxsie’s only re-emergence on the recording front since has been her first ever solo album of 2007 entitled ‘Mantaray’ which was well-received by both the critics and her legions of adoring and both new – enraptured – and old – cynical, fast-greying – followers (me included!!), and a few live dates, of which the most notable was the Meltdown festival of 2013. There hasn’t been much heard from her as a recording artist since, however.
Fast forward to the present, and it seems that Siouxsie nowadays is quite content to live life as a free spirit completely absolved of the need and compunction to kowtow to anybody in the music business or indeed satiate the never-ending hunger of her fervent and obsessive fanbase by bringing out new ‘product’. Her ongoing union and dalliance / partnership with celebrated fashion designer Pam Hogg is no longer a best kept secret, as she is perfectly happy to be seen cavorting in public in countless photoshoots with her new best friend without once even entertaining the very thought of ‘being cool’ or indeed of re-entering the recording studio to work on that ‘difficult second solo album’ – something of which, we all suspect, may perhaps never ever come to fruition: not so much ‘difficult’ second album – more like ‘improbable’.
Of course it would be genuinely gratifying for us to be proved wrong. But if that is the case, then we really shouldn’t be too downhearted, because she has given us such a formidable body of work that simply cannot compare with that of anybody else, and has been – and continues to be – possessed of such a defiantly individual and singular vision, that we will probably never see another female recording artist quite like her again. True, she has inspired so many imitators and so many current female icons who have been utterly indebted to her attitude and art (PJ Harvey, Shirley Manson, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Peaches, Florence Welch, to name but a very few) that even today there will be more who have [subconsciously] taken a cue from her but not realised it. And very few, if any, will ever be her equal.
Words by Martin Gray whose author’s page is here