SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES : ‘KALEIDOSCOPE’ – 40 YEARS ON.
An appreciation and reappraisal by Martin Gray
‘It doesn’t sound anything like the Banshees!’
1980 was the year when I fully immersed myself into the music of Siouxsie And The Banshees. Even though I was already aware of them from the previous two years and of the three or four singles they had released up to that point, I was still far too obsessed and preoccupied with the likes of Blondie and the whole 2 Tone thing from the previous year which captivated my attention. It wasn’t really until ‘Happy House’ was released in March and they appeared on Top Of The Pops (Siouxsie most memorably throwing out random handfuls of confetti stashed in her pockets…. whilst my younger sister somewhat ungraciously shouted ‘slut!!’ at her whilst we both watched their performance on the box!) that I finally started to take proper notice, rushing out to buy the single shortly afterwards.
My 15 year old class mate Robbie, already a true old-skool punk from the age of 12 or 13 evidently, saw me clutching the single in my hand when I came out of Woolies with it and sneered: ‘but it doesn’t sound anything like the Banshees!’. Well, what the hell did he know? He was a flaming Sham 69, UK Subs and Splodgenessabounds fan!
Three months later, during the warm summer we had that year, a further single was released, ‘Christine’, which was another top 30 hit. I remember this very well because I was regularly tuning into the top 40 chart rundown, and I seem to recall two things here: first – the single seemed to spend weeks stuck at number 22 without ever breaking the top 20 (which ‘Happy House’ did), and second, more crucially – the band never appeared on Top Of The Pops to promote it, arguably affecting its chart position – because there was a total blackout of the programme due to the Musician’s Union strike at the time which dragged on for the whole of June and July, so we were denied our weekly fix of that as well for two months. What a bummer!
In early August, their third album ‘Kaleidoscope’ appeared, and it was their most successful to date – peaking at number 5 in the UK LP chart … and forty years later to the month, it’s as good an opportunity as ever to revisit and reappraise what, for many fans, remains one of the most popular and indeed pivotal and enduring albums of them all.
Bye Bye Blackheads!
The Banshees had emerged, battle-scarred but defiantly unbowed, from their acrimonious split of the previous year in early September 1979 when, whilst in Aberdeen, guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris both walked out of the band after a rather heated exchange at a record shop signing event just prior to their show that evening at the Capitol. This was just a couple of dates into their tour and it was the last the band ever saw of the two defectors.
The evening’s show had to be hastily reconfigured with members of their support band The Cure, but what nearly every single fan present that night would never have reckoned on is what a cataclysmic change this would subsequently visit upon the future fortunes of the [remaining half of the] band. And this change would be emphatically for the better, as it transpired!
Besides, by this point it was already absolutely clear that Sioux and Severin were already looking at pushing on from their first two albums. They didn’t want to continue in the same vein and even as far back as mid 1979 when they were writing songs for their ‘Join Hands’ album [of which this was the ill-fated tour in support of], they had already come up with a few ideas which did not meet the approval of their then bandmates McKay and Morris, who evidently wanted to stick with the signature angular post-punk sound that characterised the first two albums.
Enter the Budgie …. and a new John!
So, grossly inconvenient and infuriating McKay and Morris’s untimely departure from the band may have been, it is a credit to survivors Sioux and Severin’s ‘never say die’ attitude and inherent optimism that they very quickly managed to not just get back to writing new material, but to regroup the band as well. And yet how bloody ironic would it be that the guy to replace Kenny Morris on the drums [and who would be the first new permanent addition to the Banshees Mk 2 line up] is the very same guy – Budgie – who drummed on the very album which John McKay had put on the turntable in that record shop which infuriated Siouxsie so much – ‘Cut’ by The Slits?
One of Budgie’s first assignments with the embryonic new Banshees would be the laying of the percussive foundations for the incredible forthcoming single ‘Happy House’, a song which Sioux wrote in a bout of positive euphoria, but bordering on gleeful sarcasm, having now realised that they were free of the shackles of the recalcitrant McKay / Morris faction.
She took great liberties to finally exorcise her simmering contempt with the extraordinary B-side of the single, ‘Drop Dead /Celebration’. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the intended targets of the venomously caustic diatribe contained within its lyric.
It’s worth noting too that at this juncture, ‘Happy House’ was also the tune they would use to audition their new guitarists, of which eventually John McGeoch fit the bill perfectly. Formerly from Magazine and also a studio member with pioneering New Romantic electronic supergroup Visage, he would be the second of several guitarists called John/Jon that would flit through the Banshees’ ranks!
A new beginning …. the Banshees re-energised
More new songs followed, and it was clear that the re-energised core of Sioux and Severin had got creative and productive again. This time, they decided that the new album would be a re-birth in all possible respects….bidding adieu to the previous claustrophobic production and sound as well as the jarring atonality of the guitars and vocals. Undeniably powerful and effective though that was, it had clearly run its course after two albums, so what better way to put paid to the ghosts of the past than to start with a clean slate experimenting with different sounds and textures and indeed instruments?
In came drum machines (rhythm boxes), synthesiser keyboards and farfisas, acoustic guitars, tribal percussion, finger cymbals, even sitar, melodica and harmonica. Only saxophone remained of the atypical instruments from the last two albums, played by McGeoch in a direct mirror of this instrument’s previous association with McKay.
The main brief this time seemed to be: ditch the claustrophobia, let’s have some space. And space it was…..in BOTH senses of the word. The most remarkable thing on first listen to the ‘Kaleidoscope’ album is how completely unlike anything else at the time it sounded. It really was novel. Even by the usual Banshees standards, this was a complete sonic reinvention in every way.
Many of the tracks were demo-ed with just acoustic guitar and drum machine, and a bit of synth, so it’s easy to relate these sparse, minimalistic sounding sketches to the finished songs they eventually became, even though they were fleshed out with electric guitar and bass during recording and final production, for whom they enlisted producer Nigel Gray – then famed for his sterling work with The Police.
Side One (4 stars out of 5)
First single ‘Happy House’ may have the expected ‘guitar, bass, drums’ of vintage Banshees at its best, but listen carefully and you can pick up backing vocals (from Severin and Budgie) and the sound of a demented wailing blues harmonica during the final refrain and, in Budgie’s exemplary stickwork, all kinds of ethnic-influenced afro-rhythms and accents that have become his speciality. Then of course, the sheer genius of John McGeoch’s spidery, almost liquid-sounding psychedelic guitar textures and treatments ….. No wonder I finally became hooked!
The ‘space’ theme in its double meaning continues on two of the album’s most stripped down tracks – the most atypical the Banshees have sounded yet. The first of these, ‘Tenant’, follows immediately from ‘Happy House’ – its title almost suggesting that now you have entered the lunatic asylum [the Happy House] you will now be saddled with the rent even if being stuck in there will drive you out of your mind.
‘Tenant’ is unbelievably odd and skeletal….ushered in on a pattering hi-hat beat [programmed by Severin on the drum machine] and a phased deep booming bass guitar [played by Budgie], with slivers of guitar and sitar fleetingly making appearances but regularly punctuated by whooshing, swooping spaceship synth noises creating a true sense of unease and paranoia.
This inspired exercise in minimalism is rivalled only by the second of these tracks, ‘Lunar Camel’, which closes side one – again just comprised of a synth drone, pattering drum machine and Siouxsie’s weary sighing vocals, albeit this time articulating some untypically trite lyrics, all contributing to the track’s unmistakably nocturnal, dream-like reverie. It sounds nothing like the Banshees at all and perhaps paradoxically that is both its major strength and its weakness.
Guitars return on ‘Trophy’ (the only track to have a co-writing credit here with McGeoch, even though its original conception stems from the ‘Join Hands’ era) and ‘Hybrid’ – two cantering mid-tempo numbers which showcase McGeoch’s sax to the fore on both and Budgie’s unmistakable tribal percussive dexterity on the latter.
‘Clockface’ serves as short instrumental interlude [replete with wordless Sioux chanting] towards the end of the first side, its significance seemingly as a slight bridge between its lengthy predecessor ‘Hybrid’ and the following lethargic come down that is ‘Lunar Camel’.
By this half-way point, it is apparent that ‘Kaleidoscope’ is certainly no ‘Scream’ or ‘Join Hands’ and anybody expecting a reprisal or refinement of either would of course be severely disappointed. But then along comes side two of the album and the band achieve the truly remarkable: they up the ante even further.
Side Two (5 stars out of 5)
The second single ‘Christine’ (lyrically based on the notable schizophrenic Christine Sizemore)* opens this half and it’s easy to see how this track alone dispelled in one fell swoop any accusations of the Banshees being one trick ponies. How? Answer: it doesn’t sound anything like the Banshees! Or at least how many people ‘think’ the Banshees sound like.
Restraint is the key here: Sioux’s completely transformed and understated vocals (only right at the end on the final line does she even revert to her more familiar higher register wail), McGeoch’s acoustic guitar and a cameo on Farfisa organ, Severin’s booming two-note chorused bassline, and then Budgie expertly underpinning everything with a hypnotically simplistic, almost Krautrock-like, bass/snare rhythm this time (his own individual take on Can’s ‘Mother Sky’ no less).
*The B-side ‘Eve White / Eve Black’, not included on this album but recorded at the same sessions, takes the eponymous lyrical theme of split personalities even further and showcases with staggering dexterity and startling effectiveness the extent of the Banshees’ use of dynamics – literally from a dying whisper to a blood-curdling scream of anguish which really does make you jump out of your skin on first listen.
The next pairing of tracks are simply exquisite beyond compare: Siouxsie isn’t renowned for writing romantic lyrics, let alone with song titles to match, but perhaps the title of ‘Desert Kisses’ is wholly apt in this instance, in that the song literally embraces and envelops you in its sheer warmth and richness from the very second it begins. Lyrically it is far removed from a love song in the usual sense, but the quality of this track’s arrangement elevates the whole album to a higher state of musical accomplishment as never before : it positively shimmers and soars. Believe me.
It’s probably the most densely-layered of all of the tracks on here but it sounds ravishingly exotic: a droning, surging concoction of deep humming bass, the augmentation of string synthesizer and choral voices, the almost Middle Eastern motifs of McGeoch’s guitar and even the reappearance of the sitar lending mystical weight to the track’s gorgeous psychedelic vibe ….. bit like watching a distant mirage of a mountain city floating in the sunset. And to top it all of course, Siouxsie’s utterly sensual vocals. This is without question one of the ten finest ever Banshees moments of their entire career and it is a travesty that it remains so overlooked.
That whole ‘doesn’t sound anything like the Banshees’ schtick gets another deserved feather in its cap with ‘Red Light’ which follows. This, incredibly, is all the song is comprised of: drum machine, synth, camera, voice, drum kit. In that order of appearance. And it’s stunningly effective in its sheer simplicity and insinuating menace …. and brings to three the number of tracks on this album which feature *nothing else* but synth, drum machines and an almost complete absence of guitar.
To this day, ‘Red Light’ is considered one of the earliest forerunners to the so-called ‘darkwave’ of electronic music we have seen since the early 2000s, and artists like LCD Soundsystem and even recent Liverpool electronic acts Ladytron and Stealing Sheep among many others have cited it as an influence.
The final two tracks on ‘Kaleidoscope’ – ‘Paradise Place’ and ‘Skin’ – forego McGeoch’s contributions and instead feature former Sex Pistol [and latterly Professional] Steve Jones on six string duties (he also made a cameo on ‘Clockface’ on side one), and whilst both are still excellent in their surging power and urgency, especially the sheer propulsive catharsis and mounting hysteria of ‘Skin’: a perfect closer in any Banshees capacity, they still, incredibly, fall short of the monumental standards attained by the preceding pair.
A new streamlined exercise in light and shade
Everybody bangs on about Prince not having any bass line on his huge hit ‘When Doves Cry’, but it can be argued that Siouxsie and The Banshees were among the first post-punk acts of their time (along with Public Image Limited whose completely bass-less ‘Flowers Of Romance’ album came out the same year) to dispense with any bass guitar at all – as evidenced here, and on later B-sides like ‘I Promise’ and ‘Let Go’ – both in 1984.
And this is doubly ironic given just how important, defining and crucial the role of Steven Severin’s bass has played in the *sound* of the Banshees from the very beginning of their career to the very end.
Quite often it’s what the Banshees *leave out* of their tracks as opposed to put in which makes all the difference. And in years to come, many more of their songs would be founded on those exact same principles. Foregoing bluster and volume for subtlety and in so doing creating more streamlined exercises in light and shade (‘Eve White / Eve Black’ being a great example).
The most accomplished Banshees album so far then?
Well, of course, such a notion is always open to debate. But there is no denying that the title ‘Kaleidoscope’ (lifted from the opening line to ‘Christine’) is extremely apt for this album, as it is a very accomplished and distinctly eclectic showcase of diverse sounds, fragments and indeed shifting shapes and moods. In spite of the adverse circumstances leading to its creation, the band fully exploited the deployment of consciously stripped down arrangements and the use of different instrumentation for each track. And most importantly, the transitional nature of the album’s genesis is reflected in the roles in which the contributing guitarists John McGeoch and Steve Jones played in its recording.
The Banshees would next go on to revisit and indeed re-contextualise their former signature sound (once more drawn from Dystopian and Hitchcockian themes of dread and horror) with the truly magnificent ground-breaking tour de force that is 1981’s ‘Juju’, with John McGeoch fully installed as their new – and perhaps greatest – guitarist, and in so doing, whether by default or by design, influence a whole generation of artists and bands as part of the emerging ‘goth’ scene along with several other of their contemporaries.
They would continue to change approach and direction and sound with each subsequent release, thus defying expectations. But, for the time being, ‘Kaleidoscope’ clearly presents itself as the product of a band in metamorphosis, finding new ways to challenge and reinvent themselves, an emphatic triumph over adversity, and, most of all an encouragingly colourful collection of intriguing sketches and melodramas which still sound current and timeless to this day.
And yes, it initially doesn’t sound much like the Banshees (perhaps that should have been the sub-title in brackets to this album). Thanks for the insight Robbie, you old punk!!