Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees began their career as fans of the Sex Pistols but eventually evolved into arguably the only original British punk rock act to survive into the 1990s, outlasting the Sex Pistols and even the punk movement itself. Indeed, the band has become highly popular, as evidenced by their lofty positions on the British pop charts, in spite of—perhaps even because of—their uneven output and brooding, abrasive style.
Led by punk’s original princess, Siouxsie Sioux, who was born Susan Dallion in Chislehurst, England, the Banshees got their less-than-organized start in London in 1976. Part of a clique of Sex Pistols fans known as the Bromley Contingent, Siouxsie and her original lineup—bassist Steven Severin, guitarist Marco Pirroni, and future Sex Pistol Sid Vicious on drums—first took the stage at London’s 100 Club Punk Festival on September 20, 1976. They played a tortured, rambling version of “The Lord’s Prayer”—until they became bored. “We weren’t musicians,” Siouxsie admitted, as quoted by Jon Savage in his book England’s Dreaming.
Members include Budgie (drums), Jon Klein (guitar), Martin McCarrick (keyboards), Steven Severin (bass; born c. 1959), and Siouxsie Sioux (vocals; born Susan Dallion, c. 1958, in Chislehurst, England; married Budgie, c. 1984). Former members have included drummers Sid Vicious and Kenny Morris and guitarists Marco Pirroni, John McKay, Robert Smith, John McGeoch, and John Carruthers.
Band formed September 20, 1976, in London, England; first performed at 100 Club Punk Festival, London, England; released single “Hong Kong Garden,” 1977; signed with Polydor Records and released album The Scream, 1978; signed with Geffen Records, 1982; performed with Lollapalooza alternative rock tour, 1991. Appeared in films, including The Punk Rock Movie, 1978, and Out of Bounds, 1986.
Awards: Video of the year, Chart Show viewers’ poll, 1989, for “Peek-A-Boo.”
“There was a vacant space in the [100 Club] show, and I volunteered, ‘We’ve got a band.’ We hadn’t. So the next day we rehearsed with Sid on drums. Billy Idol said yes at the time but vanished. The Cry of the Banshees had been on television a couple of nights before and we thought banshee was a great word.”
Visually, the band began as a contrasting political statement: Siouxsie with her swastika arm band and dominatrix look, backed by three pretty-boy musicians. Though she eventually shied away from punk’s nihilistic politics and safety-pin-pierced skin, Siouxsie avidly embraced punk’s ethos. Punk cleared the air of what many saw as rock’s gaudy commercialism and lazy superstars. The genre—often described as anti-entertainment—offered women the opportunity to fully participate in the creation of the music and involved a new aesthetic that would completely reform rock’s standards. “One of the songs we did was ‘She Loves You’ by the Beatles and ‘Young Love’ by the Bay City Rollers,” Siouxsie told Savage. “It was just taking the piss out of all the things we hated. What would you like to throw in for a shock tactic? What can we mutilate and destroy?”
Siouxsie recalled the band’s early punk days in the Detroit Free Press: “The beginning was living for the moment rather than predicting or reminiscing. At the same time, we had a certain arrogance [about] not signing record deals, because of [the record companies’] limited idea of how long something like this would last. So even then, there seemed to be a notion that we wanted to last awhile.” Despite their resistance, in 1977 the group released a gloomy single, “Hong Kong Garden,” before signing with Polydor and releasing The Scream in 1978.
Full of icy wails and macabre imagery, the album, which included a sardonic version of the Beatles single “Heiter Skelter,” was released in England and reached only a limited audience in the United States. The Scream also marked the beginning of what was to become the band’s continually changing lineup. Vicious departed for dark martyrdom with the Sex Pistols and was replaced by Kenny Morris. John McKay took over for Pirroni, who joined the group Adam and the Ants. Bassist Severin remained and would, along with Siouxsie, see the band into the 1990s. It was not until 1988 that the Banshees’s personnel remained static for two consecutive tours and albums.
In June of 1978, Siouxsie and the Banshees had the distinction of being featured in The Punk Rock Movie, a series of 8mm clips shot at London’s famed Roxy club by guerilla filmmaker Don Letts. Other participants in the film included the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Slits, X Ray Spex, and Johnny Thunders.
Compared to 1979’s mournful Join Hands LP, The Scream seemed absolutely sunny. Yet Join Hands established many of the characteristics that would typify the Banshees’ sound: Siouxsie’s atonal singing riding over manic percussion beds and eerie, dense guitar arrangements. Join Hands also hinted at a break with punk’s savage aim; Siouxsie appeared to owe as much to artist and singer Yoko Ono’s art-music permutations as she did to the punk group the Clash. Two days into a British tour to support the album, McKay and Morris abruptly quit. Percussionist Budgie joined the group on drums, while Robert Smith of the Cure filled the guitar void and completed the tour.
Siouxsie and the Banshees entered the 1980s with the release of Kaleidoscope, a recording that continued to demonstrate increased nuance and subtlety; melody and arrangement crept into the songs in place of an angry wall of noise. Since the group was again lacking a guitarist, Steve Jones, a graduate of the Sex Pistols, and former Magazine guitarist John McGeoch were called in to share the duty on the album. McGeoch decided to stay with the band and for the first time, Siouxsie and the Banshees toured the United States.
With a somewhat secure lineup, the Banshees continued to move away from the stark aspects of punk without abandoning its egalitarian ideals. In 1981 the group released Juju. Called “strong and satisfying” in The Trouser Press Record Guide, the album featured increasingly powerful and complex arrangements, anchored by Siouxsie’s improving vocals and apocalyptic poetry.
By the latter part of 1981, alternative music—literally an alternative to mainstream rock and commercial radio programming—was taking hold in America. Assisted by the loose, grass-roots network of college radio stations, many new bands representing the rebellious nature of punk began successfully touring in the United States. Siouxsie Sioux became as highly regarded for her forbidding fashion presentation as she was for her music. The “look,” initiated largely by Siouxsie and still present at alternative concerts well into the 1990s, was characterized by dark eyeliner, jet-black hair cut in a Cleopatra-like bob, a ghostly pallor, and the requisite black clothing.
In 1982 the group signed with Geffen Records and released A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, an LP more experimental and less pop than Juju. Guitarist McGeoch fell ill early in the promotional tour for the album and was replaced by Robert Smith, who once again came to the rescue by rounding out the band.
Siouxsie, together with Budgie—with whom she was romantically involved and would later marry—formed the group the Creatures. This endeavor was to serve as an artistic point of departure from the Banshees. They released a five-song, voice-and-percussion EP, followed by two other LPs— Feast in 1983 and Boomerang six years later.
A live Banshees LP, Nocturne, recorded with Smith on guitar during two nights at the Royal Albert Hall, was released in 1983. Though Smith’s band, the Cure, was about to reach international success, he remained with the Banshees for the recording of Hyaena, released in 1984. Hyaena served as the hallmark of the “new” Siouxsie and the Banshees sound: an eerie blend of industrial rhythms and symphonic arrangements made the music more accessible. Another Beatles cover, “Dear Prudence,” showcased Siouxsie’s lucid singing and growing affection for psychedelia. The departing Smith was then replaced by former Clock DVA guitarist John Carruthers.
The mid-1980s were Siouxsie’s self-described “dark period,” during which she feared being written off by fans and critics alike. Prompting these fears were a broken kneecap, suffered in a 1985 show, and her decision to move away from her signature style, which was being imitated around the world. As she explained in the Detroit Free Press, “People were even calling it the Siouxsie look, which really scared me. When they’re selling it in shops and models start to look like you, that’s when it’s time for a change. I think the changes are more compulsive than planned, but I think it’s vital to be able to continue and not turn into something you don’t want to be.”
1986 and 1987 were relatively quiet years for Siouxsie and her Banshees; Tinderbox, a warm LP that featured the hit “Cities in Dust” appeared, followed by Through the Looking Glass, an eclectic anthology of other artists’ songs. In late 1987 a fourth Banshee, multi-instrumentalist Martin McCarrick, was added to the group to play keyboards. Jon Klein from Specimen also joined the group to replace yet another exiting guitarist, Carruthers.
Peepshow was released in 1988 and featured high-tech dance grooves and alarming lyrics. Though it was wicked cabaret to many critics, Peepshow became the Banshees’ then-best-selling record. Two years later, longtime producer Mike Hedges was replaced by Stephen Hague for the recording of Superstition. Hague had had great success in creating pop accessibility for such alternative acts as the Pet Shop Boys, New Order, and Pere Ubu.
Superstition, released in 1991, was perhaps the band’s most cohesive work to date. The success of the alternative radio hit single “Kiss Them for Me” eventually swelled into a mainstream breakthrough, aided by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ featured spot on the summer 1991 Lollapalooza concert tour. Showcasing other out-of-the-mainstream acts like Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, and Ice-T, the underground tour was the summer’s only consistently successful concert draw.
Siouxsie and the Banshees have shown remarkable adaptability over the years, overcoming personnel changes that would have spelled the end of most bands. Musically, their sound evolved enough from its original punk roots to appeal not only to fans of that genre but also to alternative and even pop aficionados.
The Scream, Polydor, 1978.
Join Hands, Polydor, 1979.
Kaleidoscope, PVC, 1980.
Juju, PVC, 1981.
Once Upon a Time—The Singles, PVC, 1981.
A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, Polydor, 1982.
Nocturne, Geffen, 1983.
Hyaena, Geffen, 1984.
Cities in Dust (EP), Geffen, 1985.
Tinderbox, Geffen, 1986.
Through the Looking Glass, Geffen, 1987.
Peepshow, Geffen, 1988.
The Peel Sessions, Strange Fruit, 1991.
Superstition, Geffen, 1991.
Contributed single “Cities in Dust” to Out of Bounds (film soundtrack), 1986, and “Face to Face” to Batman Returns (film soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1992.
Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, edited by Ken Tucker, Summit Books, 1986.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac, Collier Books, 1983.
Savage, Jon, England’s Dreaming, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
The Trouser Press Record Guide, Fourth Edition, edited by Ira Robbins, Collier Books, 1991.
Chatelaine, February 1989.
Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1991.
Library Bulletin, September 1991.
New Musical Express, September 24, 1988.
People, June 9, 1986; April 27, 1987.
Stereo Review, April 1986; January 1989.
Variety, June 18, 1986; October 26, 1988.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Warner Bros, press release, 1992, and a Geffen Records press release, 1991.
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