It’s now decades after their numerous hits first charted and led to fame and success: Siouxsie Sioux has largely vanished from the public sphere and retired to France whereas Debbie Harry has continued to tour and register on our collective consciousness, prodded as we are into collective recognition by PR companies and major labels, because of both her and Blondie‘s music and also due to her eminence as a style icon. Harry is afforded more praise in London than her native New York whereas the former is perhaps now filed away in a drawer marked ‘Difficult to appraise’, or ‘too young to die, too old to enthuse over’.
Each is unique and unassailable in eternal hipness if for only one instance: playing a prime part in the Grundy interview of the Sex Pistols for one; the other a Fab Five Freddy and a Grandmaster Flash shout and persuading fucking graffiti don Jean-Michel Basquiat to pretend to be a fucking DJ in your video. Their cool cannot be dissed. Both are worth a million Taylor Swifts, needless to say.
One was a visible member of the ‘Bromley contingent’ originally, who were relatively high-profile dilettantes sprung from London borough suburbs who peacock’d their way into newspaper coverage through attendance at pivotal punk concerts and clubs in the English capital. Across the Atlantic a dirty blonde, who screamed of attitude and insouciance regarding any ambition she might have, was fronting a band of spindly New Wavers who looked at home with bubblegum and comics as much as leather jackets and piss-stained drain-pipe denim.
Blondie (six UK Number 1s and 19 songs that were Top 40 hits) have the superior chart stats compared to two Top 10s and 18 Top 40s for Siouxsie‘s group, The Banshees; Parallel Lines (1978) was the only one of my parents’ LPs which fizzed with a truth and energy borne out of the tail-end of the Seventies.
1988’s Peek-A-Boo however unexpectedly merged something of the buoyant and brassy funk of Prince with backward drums that spoke of an English-nay European whimsical psychedelia (no wonder Basement Jaxx, another crew not tethered by musical boundaries, roped Sioux into singing on their Kisk Kash album). Where and when Blondie’s pop sense deserted them, the Banshees came back hard.
Both of these pioneering women made a sizeable mark in music – Blondie were semi-permanent mainstays in the pop charts throughout the Eighties – however it’s Siouxsie’s Banshees whose music, A and B sides, deserves another listen today.
Hong Kong Garden was their first hit – sounding now like Big Country meets Aneka‘s execrable Japanese Boy. Second single Mittageisen (named after a Hermann Göring quotation and later covered by Massive Attack) married a German lyric to an pull-and-push oompah band rhythm redeemed by a poppy chorus. Its B-side, Love In A Void (here on-line on Tony Wilson and Granada’s So It Goes TV show with a white-shirted Bernard Sumner impersonator swaying at the side of the stage) is a slice of amphetamine rock on a par with the urgency of Joy Division.
The Staircase was a dour vocal performance with scratchy guitar and ponderous backing (one video does show stage moves and a costume which Simple Minds‘ Jim Kerr and Teardrops Explodes‘ Julian Cope would later emulate), but Happy House toned down the thunderous invocations to the punk gods in favour of some silvery delightful notes from ex-Magazine and PiL guitarist John McGeoch amidst crisp drums. It’s playful and cheerful, allowing space for the song to thrive and settle, and it’s not a million miles away from New York’s ESG with a stately yet involving pace.
B side Drop Dead/The Celebration is a methodical, stalking but lovely workout dominated by drill drums and skittering guitar, almost proto-Metallica, with embittered yowls, yeeows and taunts from Siouxsie. While it’s experimental, it avoids the sprawling and aimless lack of direction of previous Bs.
A tale of a ‘banana-skinned lady’, Christine (1980) is a subtle, short and sparse builder that survives some dodgy rhyming (purple and turtle) and an oddly fun flanged bridge to call to mind the off-beat beauty of Arthur Lee and Love. B side Eve White/Eve Black sees the group return to more goth territory: its first minute is an eerie, unsettling listen – Sarah Kane on wax – as Siouxsie asks for help. Her difficult and upsetting childhood comes to mind, but it’s clear the group as a whole were now demonstrating their collective strength when it comes to the upwardly-mobile shift of their changing musical compositions and arrangements.
Israel (1980) has new arrival McGeoch‘s self-duetting guitar upfront from the start and throughout what was perhaps the group’s most subdued and conventional song albeit one with a bridge that marries a choir and drone to winning effect. The hypnotic tom-tom rolls of Red Over White underpin Siouxsie’s barely there vocal and nursery rhyme-like delivery.
The following year’s Spellbound is fantastic; a catchy and tight call-to-arms, as it were, and it’s to be hoped it caused a rush of Pernod and blackcurrant-toting teens to throw their finest ennui-affected shapes and lose their shit to this earworm. From the now-recognisable nursery of Banshees-associated sounds, Follow The Sun is a ’33’ to Spellbound’s breakneck ’45’ with Siouxsie a beguiling narrator amidst other-worldly tinkering, ceremonial drumming and crashing gongs. The song title is drawled out as ‘…falling sun’ towards the end and there’s an ambiguity over the the strength of the inherent defiance in the lyric. It’s almost a collapse of sorts, coming after the breakneck and building euphoria of the A side, but still worth a listen.
Released later in ’82 Arabian Knights falls between those two songs in both tempo and in its cleaving of instrumentation and urgency. The B side though, Supernatural Thing, written by Patrick Grant and the late Gwen Guthrie of Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent fame [they also wrote the majority of Sister Sledge‘s debut album together], is a reasonably faithful cover of Ben E. King‘s 1975 song with those wiry guitars, a rubbery bass and drum fills taking the place of brass and backing singers in the mix. Whether The Banshees deliberately tried to de-funk the song or not, they don’t succeed (but they did presage the stop-start see-saw shuffle of Breaking Into Heaven by the Stone Roses).
Later came the beautiful boinks and quirky bongs of Cities In Dust, a song as quintessentially ‘Eighties’ as The Breakfast Club. That year, Heart of Glass/Hanging on the Telephone was re-released as a double A-side as Blondie’s only single of 1985. The echoes of the Bowery and its rude boys and girls were still to be enjoyed in this double slice of power pop and in the subsequent reissuing of their other memorable 45s, but it was the Banshees who sped on with Siouxsie as a spiky, artfully formidable Boadicea at the helm, stretching the horizons and continuing to break new ground for English post-punk pop.
As with another Eighties success story such as The Cure, a linked and kindred awkward squad, Siouxsie and the Banshees might seem an anachronism – certainly in opposition to the now-canonised Glastonbury tea-time gloss of Tide Is High and Denis – but the music made by Sioux, Steve Serverin and company is anything but.