In 1976, Siouxsie Sioux (Susan Dallion) and Steve Severin were part of the clique of steady suburban London Sex Pistols fans known as the Bromley Contingent. As Siouxsie and the Banshees, the nascent punk rock stars debuted at the 100 Club’s legendary 1976 punk festival; aided by future Ant guitarist Marco Pirroni and the unknown Sid Vicious on drums, the motley crew bashed through a lengthy free-form rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer,” stopping only when they became bored.
From such uncertain beginnings, Siouxsie and the Banshees quickly evolved into a highly popular band, regularly appearing on the British charts despite the group’s brooding, abrasive style. In fact, the group was largely responsible for the spread of chilly romanticism as an appealingly remote stylistic statement.
The Scream capsulized the first-generation sound of the Banshees: Siouxsie’s icy, sometimes tuneless wail swooping over the metal-shard roar of John McKay’s guitar and the brutish rhythms of bassist Severin and drummer Kenny Morris. The songs are relentlessly grim, albeit often sardonic (as in “Carcass” and a version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”). In a bit of artistic tampering, the American label included the almost upbeat “Hong Kong Garden” (a pre-LP 45 that punched its way into the UK Top 10), beginning the album with an unintended stylistic departure.
But The Scream seems positively cheerful in light of its follow-up, Join Hands, a plodding, depressive album notable only for the commission of the band’s “Lord’s Prayer” butchery to vinyl. Two days into a tour to promote the album, Morris and McKay abruptly walked out; the Banshees drafted guitarist Robert Smith from opening act the Cure and ex-Big in Japan/Slits drummer Budgie and completed their concert schedule. Budgie subsequently signed on as a permanent Banshee, and the group proceeded to record Kaleidoscope without a guitarist to call their own. (Guest stars John McGeoch of Magazine and ex- Pistol Steve Jones alternated guitar duties on the LP.) Kaleidoscope marked a bilateral move away from the group’s original wall of noise; many of the songs are softer and more melodic (e.g., “Happy House” and the flower-powery “Christine”), and there is an increased use of framing concepts (“Red Light” is built around the whirr-click of a camera auto-winder). After McGeoch (who passed away in 2004) joined permanently, they toured America for the first time.
A full-fledged band once again, the Banshees released the strong and satisfying Juju. Siouxsie’s voice had developed into a surprisingly subtle instrument, and the technical prowess of Budgie and McGeoch brought power and complexity to songs like “Spellbound” and “Arabian Knights.”
Also released in 1981, Once Upon a Time assembled all of the band’s singles (including the otherwise non-LP “Staircase (Mystery)” and “Israel”) on one record. The American Arabian Knights EP reprises the contents of a British 12-inch plus one extra tune.
A Kiss in the Dreamhouse finds the Banshees veering back into the more experimental terrain of Kaleidoscope, letting their jarring, near-pop style pass through such strange permutations as the deviant neo-bop of “Cocoon” and the medieval recorder stylings of “Green Fingers.” McGeoch fell ill, sat out the next tour (replaced by Smith) and decided not to rejoin the band.
Nocturne is a two-LP live set recorded (with no overdubs) at a pair of Royal Albert Hall shows in late 1983. Smith is the featured guitarist on a full-course selection from the band’s repertoire, stretching back to “Switch,” “Helter Skelter” and “Israel,” but also drawing heavily from Dreamhouse. Awesome.
With Smith still in the lineup, Hyaena starts off with the utterly magnificent “Dazzle,” a haunting blend of industrial-strength drumming and symphonic backing, with some of Siouxsie’s best singing ever. The album is much more melodic, light and inviting than any of the band’s others, going so far as to touch on an earlier extra-curricular excursion into jazzy stylings (“Take Me Back”) and allowing piano to dominate “Swimming Horses.” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” a 1983 hit single for the Banshees, also helps leaven the traditional dark intensity.
Smith was subsequently forced to flee, as being a full-time member of two major groups took its toll on his health; former Clock DVA guitarist John Carruthers replaced him. Already maintaining a rather low 1985 profile, the Banshees were set back a bit further when Siouxsie broke her kneecap during a show.
At a point where some were ready to write the band off as aging, lazy veterans, they came back in early ’86 with Tinderbox, one of their strongest LPs in years. Carruthers fits in well, his rich playing stylistically similar to both Smith’s and McGeoch’s; the rhythm section is as steady as ever. The big plus is punk’s original princess herself — Siouxsie’s voice has never been so warm or tuneful as it is on “The Sweetest Chill,” “Cannons” and the great single “Cities in Dust.” (Geffen’s 12-inch contains a remix, an edit and two non-LP cuts. The album’s British CD adds five extra cuts.)
Through the Looking Glass — an eclectic, uneven but generally entertaining album of covers — works best on the numbers which receive the most radical revamps. Crisp hornwork and a no-nonsense vocal performance focus Iggy’s “The Passenger”; orchestral lushness and rock power beautify “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Kraftwerk’s spare “Hall of Mirrors” is converted into an alluring dance drone; “Trust in Me,” originally sung by a snake in Disney’s Jungle Book, becomes a delirious tropical seduction. But seemingly arbitrary — mostly symbolic — choices of oldies by the Doors, Roxy Music, Sparks, John Cale and Television receive little creative comment and fall flat.
Following the Looking Glass sessions, Carruthers left and was replaced by keyboardist/cellist Martin McCarrick and ex-Specimen guitarist Jon Klein. Although Peepshow begins with an incongruous dive into techie dance music (the jokey “Peek-a-Boo”), most of this finely wrought album confidently presents the band’s chilly rock persona in a more familiar setting. The haunting “Carousel” draws quietly from the band’s own Kurt Weill songbook; “Turn to Stone” heightens the drama with a mild Latin flavor; “The Killing Jar” suggests Echo and the Bunnymen in more than title. In an amusingly camp turn, “Burn-Up” takes an extremely loose poke at country music, adding a harmonica solo for effect. Overall, the writing could be more durable, but the delicate understatement of Peepshow is reassuring evidence of the group’s continued ambition and enthusiasm.
The two Peel Session EPs (later joined as an album and issued in the US on CD and cassette with new artwork as The Peel Sessions) date from November ’77 and February ’78. Although the later set still finds the group months away from recording its first album, the six songs that would appear on The Scream (the other two — “Love in a Void” and “Hong Kong Garden” — became singles) receive strong, almost fully developed performances, distinguished by exceptionally good vocals and Kenny Morris’ thundering drum anchor.
Soon after the Banshees released Juju, Siouxsie and Budgie, calling themselves the Creatures, collaborated on a five-song double-45 of voice-and-percussion pieces, including a nasty reworking of the Troggs’ classic “Wild Thing.” The full-length Feast, however, is a dilettantish excursion into the only previously untested flavor-of-the-month: Hawaiian. The instrumentation incorporates marimba, while an ethnic choir adds bogus authenticity to the messy proceedings. Even worse, the lyrics are bad acid visions written by people evidently unfamiliar with their subject matter. The Creatures did make one great 1983 single, “Right Now” (covering an old Mel Tormé tune), which is not on the LP.
Six years passed before the duo issued another album. Recorded in Spain, Boomerang (thankfully) makes no attempt at contributing to the musical heritage of any world culture. Augmented by horns, harmonicas, synths, etc., the Creatures produce (along with Mike Hedges) a varied collection of fine, if not earth-shaking work. Each of the fourteen tracks has something different to offer, from the Euro-electronics of “Pluto Drive” to the bluesy “Killing Time.” Budgie also gets to practice his marimba, steel drums and the like on several cuts. A much better idea the second time around.
Glove is named after the villain in Yellow Submarine, the record after a variety of LSD; the cover is a ’60s memorabilia scrapbook. This one-off project by Steve Severin and Robert Smith (while the Cure leader was serving in the Banshees) sounds much like their own bands crossed with the Beatles, circa 1967. The ten pseudo-psychedelic ditties (13 on the CD reissue) show neither participant in top form, although the single “Like an Animal” (with Siouxsie-like guest vocalist Landray) and “Mr. Alphabet Says” do stand out. Not a band to make a career of, but good harmless fun.
Produced by Stephen Hague, Superstition begins with the fairly catchy “Kiss Them for Me,” but falls off precipitously from there. Horrendously dated synth and guitar sounds and the album’s overall soul-less groove underscore the weak songwriting (partially redeemed by Siouxsie Sioux’s noticeably extended vocal range). Only “Shadowtime” manages to even recall some of the old spirit.
Twice Upon a Time, the band’s second hits compilation, collects ten years of material, beginning with the beginning of the end, 1982. It was right about A Kiss in the Dreamhouse that the Banshees began to lose their edge, although they did coast respectably through the rest of the ’80s. Once strong guitarists and songwriters McGeoch and Smith left, the band’s material suffered accordingly. Singles like “Fireworks,” “Slowdive” and “Melt!” (the last two from Dreamhouse) all have the dark, alluringly detached eroticism that was the band’s hallmark, but the magic began to ebb with the appearance of Tinderbox‘s “Cities in Dust” and “Candyman,” The cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” (from Through the Looking Glass) is fine, and so is the Devo-esque “Peek-a-Boo” (from Peepshow). But by the end of the 18-song retrospective (“Face to Face,” a nondescript collaboration with soundtrack hack Danny Elfman for Batman Returns), all is lost.
Although short on songs, The Rapture — the band’s first new album in four years — is elegant, stylish and mature. The five tracks produced by John Cale are scarcely distinguishable from those which the band oversaw; several numbers — notably “Not Forgotten,” with its pounding drums, and even the accordion- and steel-guitar-draped “The Lonely One” — sound like throwbacks to an earlier era, as if the Banshees were staking a claim to their own formidable legacy. The 11-minute title track, an ambitious suite that incorporates a string quartet, is the band’s best work in years.