Celebrating the Banshees’ first 45 and the life and times of Siouxsie Sioux, my erstwhile neighbour in rural France and, if the stars are in alignment, possibly the Pet Shop Boys’ next disco diva
As the Sex Pistols’ raucous reputation spread throughout Britain during 1976, so did that of their most flamboyant followers. Among the first to take up the cause of the burgeoning punk band were the so-called Bromley Contingent; a loose ensemble of outrageously attired suburban misfits from the outer fringes of south-east London. Music and fashion-obsessed, the late teens revelled in the affected alienation and otherness they’d learned from arty outsider glam acts such as David Bowie and Roxy Music.
Sometimes feared, though more often regarded with envy and suspicion, the notorious fashionistas, who included William Broad (the soon to be Billy Idol), Susan Ballion and Steven Bailey among their number, were mythologised in the music press to such an extent that Melody Maker named them Group Of The Year in their Christmas round-up, without even releasing a note.
The first stirrings of camaraderie among the decadents of North Kent had come on 20 September 1975, when Bromley-based peacock Bailey (the soon to be Steven Severin, new name nicked from the Velvet Underground’s Venus In Furs) met a mermaid attired 18-year-old Ballion, an Emma Peel-inspired fantasist from nearby Chislehurst, during the intermission at Roxy Music’s Siren show at Wembley Arena. The common currency was clothes. Lots and lots of clothes, and as outré as possible.
In true female style icon form, Ballion (her father was a Walloon from the French-speaking part of Belgium), she tended to frequent gay clubs in her teens, right around the time she had dropped out of high school.
An early innovator, her fashionable flair blended right in with the underground club scene, and she soon became a recognizable figure within the circuit, particularly her Egypt-inspired eye makeup and black lipstick staking out the baroque Goth territory she would conquer in just a few short years, Susan developed that further into her own fashion-forward style of Nazi shock and Westwood bondage attire, evolving into her glorious nom de guerre, the so-called priestess of punk, Siouxsie Sioux.
By 19, Siouxsie already stood out as one of the Sex Pistols’ dedicated followers. With an initial line up featuring future Pistol Sid Vicious and guitarist extraordinaire Marco Pirroni (who would go on to be Adam Ant’s constant collaborator through the ‘80s and ‘90s), the band that sprang from the belly of the Contingent named themselves Siouxsie And The Banshees. Despite not having written any songs, in September ’76 they debuted their strange cacophony in spectacularly improvised fashion at the London’s legendary 100 Club Punk Special.
Highlight? Just the one: their entire set consisted of a savagely shrill 20-minute rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, via snatches of Twist And Shout, Knocking On Heaven’s Door, and Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. After one last minimal drum beat from Sid, the provocateurs walked offstage into punk myth: Anyone Can Do It.
Show promoter Ron Watts called it “performance art,” and not in a good way. Still, he’s dead. Audience member Michelle Brigandage was rather more enthused, and takes up the story:
“People don’t really realise how absolutely boring and tedious Britain was in the early 70’s, how the Sixties dreams of revolution had died and left a vacuum. Also, it was a lot easier for me to get to gigs because I lived in a suburb of London. The atmosphere at the 100 Club Punk Festival was electric.
“We’d seen the Pistols several times before, and The Clash, they had five members then – Keith Levine was their guitarist for a while. Dreadful bands used to support them like the Suburban Studs – they were dreadful – we nearly walked out before the Pistols came on!. They brought a dead pig’s head out on stage – so you see people were already trying to latch on to this new feeling but getting it terribly wrong.
“It was an incredible two nights but it was marred by the glass throwing incident, which Sid was later blamed for. My cousin and I got small bits of glass showering over us into our face but it was a friend I’d met at the Blitz – Cherry – I think that was her name, who got it straight in the eye. It blinded her in one eye and I think she was going to be an artist and that put paid to that. So obviously the atmosphere changed suddenly. There was blood, screaming, crying and ambulances. It calmed down after she was taken away but everybody started to leave and Siouxsie stood on the stairs and asked people to stay and watch the Buzzcocks! We couldn’t coz we had a train to catch to get back home. Should have stayed to see them – it was Howard Devoto.”
“Nils more than anyone took a real interest in Siouxsie and me when we were fresh out of the suburbs, trailing the Sex Pistols from gig to gig,” said Severin, who had taken up bass duties. “He was completely instrumental in pulling the first Banshees’ performance together. As soon as we came off stage after our demolition of The Lord’s Prayer, he said: “I can play guitar but I’d much rather be the manager – that’s the real art.”
Sioux and Severin famously appeared with Johnny Rotten and co on the notorious 1 December 1976 episode of Bill Grundy’s Thames television show, where, with delicious sarcasm, she told the sozzled old host that she “always wanted to meet” him, to which he responded like any lecherous dirty old man would.
Emblazoned on the front pages the next day, the “filth and the fury” was such that in next to no time, the fledgling Banshees had attracted a manager, Nils Stevenson. Bingo. Now augmenting the nucleus with drummer Kenny Morris and guitarist Pete Fenton, the Banshees struggled to get noticed despite the valiant efforts of Stevenson, who booked them college gigs and support slots with the Heartbreakers and the Slits. “He was hyping us up something rotten,” recalls Severin, with probable glint in both eyes.
“He was making great play of the Greatest Unsigned Band tag. He started a graffiti campaign, spraying ‘Sign the Banshees. Do It Now’ on all the record company headquarters. Nils was our interface with the indolent, out-of-touch music industry. We spent many long nights at his mother’s house in Finchley plotting world domination. We’d talk about Marcel Duchamp, Terry Riley, Sixties happenings, T. Rex, and how the Banshees would pull all these influences together and still appear on Magpie.”
Come the summer of ’77 and the group were in the studio recording some of their first demos, including future 45 Love In A Void and one of the earliest tracks performed by the Banshees on stage, a cover of T.Rex’s 20th Century Boy.
Although Severin was the Banshee with every Bolan and T.Rex record in his prized collection, there was never any concerted decision for the group to do a version of the song. In their formative days, Peter Fenton (another short-lived guitarist) suddenly blasted into the opening power chords of the song in rehearsals, and they developed it from there. It became part of their live performance long before it was ever recorded, though it didn’t take too long before a certain someone heard about it, paying the Banshees a visit in the last few months of his life.
“In May 1977, at the Music Machine in London as support act to Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers… from the ‘star-bar’ a familiar face watched them in action… Things had come full circle… the face was Marc Bolan,” wrote Billy ‘Chainsaw’ Houlston for ‘Thebansheesandothercreatures’ website.
What had attracted the T.Rex main man there that night was that Stevenson, who had met Marc through his acquaintance with June Bolan, had told him that his charges did a live version of 20th Century Boy. It’s reputed that during the band’s performance, Bolan asked “When are they going to do it?,” to which the reply was “They’re playing it.”
The Bolan cover would eventually released in 1979 as the flipside of The Staircase (Mystery) single, and later included on Downside Up, a 2004 box set of B-sides with liner notes by my MOJO colleague and BowieStyle book cohort Mark Paytress.
As we were putting that book together, Mark was also in the early stages of his Authorised Biography of the Banshees, conducting telephone interviews with Siouxsie and Budgie across the Channel. Published in 23003, Sioux was quoted giving her side of label fear:
“We picked up a publishing deal before we got a record contact. All I can think is that record companies saw no future in the concept of a woman fronting a band – or at least a woman with an attitude. The Sex Pistols were rooted in rock ‘n’ roll tradition. They were just The Who or Small Faces with an edge, whereas what we doing didn’t fit into anything they could relate to quite so easily. Perhaps [the record companies] thought if they didn’t sign we’d go away?”
Ever the vanguard of the underground, John Peel championed the group and even tried to convince his employers at the BBC to issue their first sessions for his Radio 1 show as a commercial release but, having learned a few tricks from Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, Stevenson was holding out to get the best deal he could from a major label. “It nearly didn’t happen,” admits Severin. “We had two years of being ignored by terrified A&R men.”
Finally, in June 1978, the Banshees signed to Polydor Records and that August released their long awaited debut, With lines like “Slanted eyes greet the bright sunrise, a race of bodies small in size…” Hong Kong Garden met with accusations of racism in the contemporary British music press. No doubt Siouxsie’s predilection for wearing swastika armbands at the earliest Banshees’ shows didn’t help matters.
In fact, the song was dedicated to the Hong Kong Garden in Chislehurst High Street that Siouxsie frequented. Her local Chinese take-away was where South London meets North Kent, but also a place where she’d witnessed numerous ugly racist-fuelled incidents at close quarters, and “being really upset by the local skinheads who gave the staff such a hard time.”
With lines like “Slanted eyes greet the bright sunrise, a race of bodies small in size…” the Banshees’ first single met with accusations of racism in the contemporary British music press. No doubt Siouxsie’s predilection for wearing swastika armbands at the earliest Banshees’ shows didn’t help matters.
With its warped pop sensibility, thanks primarily to John McKay’s ‘oriental’ guitar figurework, Hong Kong Garden had ‘hit’ written all over it, and in no time the song spiralled into the charts, the tantalising taste of something exotic helping to push it to seventh place in the charts.
The single was an inspiring and accessible example of the Banshees’ particular musical pitch. Yet, to all the players concerned – the band, the record company, the press and public alike – the depth of its success came as a complete surprise. “Hong Kong Garden was one of the songs I had in progress before I joined The Banshees,” said McKay, the latest member in the ever rotating carousel of Banshees’ guitarists.
“It started life as a song called People Phobia. I recorded a version, complete with overdubbed guitars and vocals, using two cassette tape recorders, in my bedroom. I played it to the band on the tour bus when we were supporting The Heartbreakers in 1977. Then I presented the song at rehearsals ready to have lyrics and other instruments added. I first picked out the opening bars of Hong Kong Garden on an electronic xylophone in the Maida Vale Peel studio. I played it with the wrong end of the beater and the xylophone switched off, to achieve the right sound.”
Already, Siouxsie and her band of arcane post-punk noisemakers had evolved at an alarming speed; morphing into a daring, murky-yet-shimmering entity that incorporated elements of goth and psychedelia while transcending both. Full of daring rhythmic and spiky sonic experimentation, it was a form of dissonant discord and rhyme that was light years from numbskull three-chord punk.
Hong Kong Garden acted as a primer for The Scream, their altogether grimmer, sinister debut album. It wasn’t long before the band had eclipsed the Sex Pistols and their third-rate imitators with a look and sound that echoed the defiant elitism that brought them to notice in the first place.
Because Ian Curtis would soon impose his own expiry date, the mythology threatened the music. Joy Division’s Closer remains safe in the pantheon but The Banshees’ debut less so, perhaps, despite the way in which it creeps up as cross-generational touchstone. Siouxsie’s still learning how to project over the unsettling racket, which adds to the sense of tautly controlled dissonance. On Mirage and Nicotine Stain McKay flaunts his terse guitar talk; on Mittageisen (Metal Postcard) he and Kenny Morris give Curtis and Steven Morris a scare.
Though she couldn’t yet play an instrument, her dramatic voice, punk spirit and raw confidence made her an alluring, aloof star, and the Banshees were her vehicle for dark and fearsome theatrical expression. With that stern painted visage and Boadicean air of uncompromising attack, Sioux had a ferocity few dared trifle with, and, along with equally formidable contemporaries like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, brought into focus a new conception of women in rock: every bit as mysterious and unyielding as the most difficult male of the rock species. Though she’d find it reductive to limit her raison d’être to just rock.
“As I got older, I loved a lot of the Tamla Motown and a lot of R&B. Then there was the usual Beatles and Stones. I really got into the White Album. Pop music for me was definitely escapist, but never studious. I was never attracted to being a very proficient singer or player. I suppose I was interested in creating a vision; in the same way I was very drawn to tension within cinema. Hitchcock was my other early obsession – Psycho, and its score. So there was the sense of trying to create an atmosphere: how a sound resonates and makes an effect. That has always been very important for me.”
The Banshees’ sound was certainly a unique one, and once Budgie arrived from The Slits as drummer (and stayed forever, ending up as Mr Sioux in 1991), followed by Magazine’s John McGeoch taking over guitar duties in 1980, the Banshees found a new, more widescreen direction. Budgie’s roiling toms and cut-time snare added focus and flair alongside Severin’s bass on the melodic, more keyboard-driven Happy House, followed by that fragrant schizophrenic strawberry girl Christine; a favourite of U2, however incongruous that sounds. But ultimately Siouxsie never fitted anyone else’s conception, and always marched to the beat of her own drum.
Following 1979’s so-so sophomore Join Hands and 1980’s far sharper Kaleidoscope, the band’s fourth album Juju (1981) saw the John McGeoch era of the Banshees reach its peak of intensity. Budgie’s pounding, percussive drum patters and McGeoch’s pointillist arpeggios and relentless strumming combine most fetchingly on Spellbound and Arabian Nights — Middle Eastern fantasias and orientalist fever dreams re-imagined secondhand, helping to give both songs the exhilarating and delirious effect of a whirling Dervish.
On a personal note, 1981 was also the year I first became aware of Siouxsie And The Banshees. As was virtually a national pastime, my family would never fail to catch Top Of The Pops, BBC TV’s weekly chart run-down, every Thursday night. I can’t quite remember if I was out of the room when the show started, or I wasn’t paying attention, but on the 4 June episode, the band kicked off the show with Spellbound, which had limped to No.29 on its second week on the chart.
I was certainly struck by this fabulous if slightly scary looking feline crawling over the tiny studio stage. For a boy of 11—turning 12 later that month—the look was everything. At that time, I wasn’t too sure what to make of anything on a musical level just yet. In my defence, I had only just bought my very first pop single, the very one that was occupying its fifth and final week at the opposite end of the spectrum, the No.1 song that very same week, Stand & Deliver by no stranger to the Banshees, fellow former punks Adam And The Ants.
And remember this.
As was a bit of a ritual, the next day at school we would usually debate what we’d seen on the programme the night before.
I remember queuing up for lunch at Springfield Middle School in Milton Keynes and asking the immortal question to my classmates Sean Smith and Craig Margrove.
“Did you see Si-oux-sie And The Banshees?”
“Suzy And The Banshees,” corrected Sean.
“No, it said “Siouxsie And The Banshees.”
“Yeah, but that’s not how you say it. It’s Suzy.”
As red-faced as ‘Suzy’ was pale-faced, I sloped into the floor to ceiling length windows of the sports hall we were queuing outside, a mixture of bewitched, bothered and certainly bewildered. I had obviously missed Richard Skinner’s introduction at the start of the show, but had caught the chart rundown later on, which displayed the artist names in written form with a perfunctory thumbnail piccie, as I waited for my man Adam to close out the show.
Clearly I had a bit to learn that not all words are phonetic, which is all the more embarrassing when you consider that I discovered, much much later, that I have Native American family heritage on my mother’s side.
Not only that, but our ancestral lands are in the Hawkeye State, Iowa, home to Siouxland, Sioux City and the Sioux peoples. You really couldn’t make it up.
From early ‘80s exotica to the Banshees’ biggest hit, and probably the most memorable to boot. Dear Prudence started out as a delicate and somewhat under-developed John Lennon number on the Fab Four’s hegemonic White Album, a prime influence on the Banshees.
“The Beatles got slated for it when it was released – it was unbelievable – but there’s just something about that record,” said the Sioux, armpits au naturel. On their version, Siouxsie is a siren bewitched, luring us through the swirling mist, while the psychedelic guitar twists like a helter-skelter in a vortex, this time played by Robert Smith, on extended loan from The Cure.
Smith—or Fat Bob as he was later monikered in the press, utterly unmercifully— was the cool looking one in the lipstick and leather trousers that “shuffled around”, which, by her own admission, irritated the Sioux one “a lot.” He was gone within the year.
Still, he claims credit for suggesting the Beatles cover as a memento of their brief time together. In October 1983, as the Thatcher government sent Cruise missiles to Greenham Common and industrial unrest loomed, Dear Prudence was a call from Britain’s dark side – more a winter of discontent than an Indian summer. It’s Sioux’s only Top Five single in Britain to date: kept off the top spot, much to the band’s annoyance, by Sixties throwback They Don’t Know and the feckless Karma Chameleon, the biggest hits of and Tracey Ullman and Culture Club’s careers.
Thereon in there were a further seven studio albums, and while the commercial rewards may have been on the wane, there was no shortage of creative spark and the odd minor hit single, in particular the gothic splendour of Cities In Dust (1985), a coruscating cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire (1987), and the sophisticated, seductive Face To Face (1992), a soundtrack commission for the Batman Returns movie.
Now she’s in purple.
Even better were the audacious artful experiments on Peepshow (1988), where the lead singles were three of the finest of the band’s Eighties oeuvre. Opening with an astounding backwards percussion collage of sound, the innovative and delightfully contagious Peek-A-Boo—arguably their cleverest track—was succeeded by the haunting The Killing Jar, with its faint splash of reggae dissolving into a Brian Eno-like trancelike drone, followed by the soaring, majestic Last Beat Of My Heart.
In other words, three disparate but delectable tracks from an incredible body of work that, like its frontwoman, has aged with grace and meaning. To illustrate the point, look at how fabulous La Sioux is in this tasty Top Of The Pops performance.
It demonstrates how Siouxsie And The Banshees admirably stuck to their own ideals while utterly fearless in experimenting with new sounds. The band’s vice-like control over self-presentation and remarkably consistent guitar textures — despite a door that revolves as often as it did for Roxy Music’s bassists — persisted for a decade-plus until producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order) reduced drummer Budgie and multi-instrumentalist Steve Severin to Fairlight samples for 1991’s Superstition.
Nevertheless, the album spawned a surprise top thirty hit on the Billboard charts in the dreamy Kiss Them for Me just before America went Cobain-crazed. Unlike most of their compatriots, the Banshees never really slowed down, continuing to make strong and stylish alt-rock albums up to 1995’s The Rapture, part-produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale.
A year later, the nostalgia surrounding the reunion of their former heroes the Sex Pistols prompted the Banshees to finally call it quits.
Sioux and Budgie, whom she’d married in 1991, upgraded The Creatures, which had begun as an occasional splinter group in 1981, from side project to primary project, and a new generation of stars from PJ Harvey to Courtney Love was waiting to soak up her influence.
Following the couple’s divorce, in 2007 Siouxsie released her first and so far only solo album, the cinematic and sensual Mantaray. In 2011, she was awarded for Outstanding Contribution To Music at the Q Awards, and at the Ivor Novello Awards the following year she was the fabulously worthy recipient of the Inspiration Award.
Siouxsie stands as one of the most audacious and uncompromising musical adventurers of the post-punk era. “She sings with a lot of sex,” was how Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan once summed her up in Smash Hits magazine. That’s 40 years of pretty incredible sex then.
In an interview with my erstwhile employers The Independent, she decided to play up her gay icon tag, with pride, and throwing a bit of a bombshell in the mix while she’s at it.
“I’ve never particularly said I’m hetero or I’m a lesbian. I know there are people who are definitely one way, but not really me. I suppose if I am attracted to men then they usually have more feminine qualities.
The supreme ice queen has melteth. Happy birthday ma’am.
BONUS BEATS: A quick word on Siouxsie live
One of my oldest and dearest friends caught La Sioux in concert a couple of times in the capital before I did: witnessing the Banshees at a supertent shebang in Finsbury Park in 1987, just before we met; then she caught The Creatures in 1990 at the Town & Country Club, by which time we were flatmates. Judi came home and excitedly enthused at how Siouxsie was wearing little more than a body stocking and “looked amazing,” and I instantly regretted not going. I was holding out so that my first taste of La Sioux in the flesh would be with the Banshees.
For some reason that didn’t happen until I caught the Seven Year Itch, their short-lived reunion at the Shepherds Bush Empire in the summer of 2002. They were good if not completely great. Siouxsie’s voice – hollow, harrowing, always one refusenik semitone flat – could still make the blood run cold, and grinning maniac Budgie’s falling-down-the-stairs drumming, Severin’s snaky basslines and former Psychedelic Fur Knox Chandler’s sheet-metal guitar whipped up a black vortex of sound which defied categorisation, though it did feel all a touch contractual obligation/going through the motions.
In a way, though a shorter showcase and sounding like she had a bit of a cold, Siouxsie’s solo show at the Electric Ballroom in 2007 was more magnetic, though I’m sure the smaller venue helped. Amazingly, I wasn‘t aware that both shows I had attended had been filmed officially until I started putting this article together. See which one you prefer.
BONUS BEATS 2: a room with a Sioux
In 1992. the Siouxsie camp upped sticks and moved across the Channel to mainland Europe, to a pretty, stone-built maison de ville, between the cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux in South West France. I can tell you from experience, it’s very rustic, very charming and, by UK property market standards, very very cheap.
“If I didn’t have my quiet, sedate life in France, I’d have been carried off to the lunatic asylum a long time ago. I can breathe properly there, La Sioux explained.
“I grew up in the suburbs of London and lived and worked there for 15 years. The thought of moving to a 14th-century cathedral town outside of a main village near the coast of Spain was really exciting for me. I really needed to get out of London, and when Budgie and I decided to move to France, we didn’t have any real plans to hang around permanently. It just happened that way.”
What also happened that way and to her dismay, is that her erstwhile duet turned duel partner Morrissey, with trademark malice aforethought, published the name of the town in his Penguin “classic” Autobiography. Coupled with her divorce from Budgie, she decided to pack up and relocate back to Blighty.
Yes, the town is actually called Condom (population, 7,000), and yes, I have an old farmhouse in the neighbourhood. The Instagram photo above is round the corner from her property, but that’s about as much and I wanted to invade her privacy. I did see Siouxsie around once or twice before she left, but always respected her space. It’s the kind of locale where you could go days or months without seeing another human face, if you so desired.
In fact, I had a much more interesting conversation with Siouxsie when she was in ‘public‘ mode, when I discovered she was seated in the row in front of me at a concert at the Tower Of London in 2006.
She’s well-known for her love of disco, but for some reason I was still quite taken aback to see her at the show. I introduced myself with the not exactly subtle:
“Hi Siouxsie, I’m a bit surprised to see you at a Pet Shop Boys gig. I wouldn’t have thought they were your thing.”
“Ah, well they always put on a good show though. I think they’re great.”
It broke the ice anyway. And later on she posed for some photos (some sadly lost to the ether) and partied with my posse at the after-show bash, going out of her way to compliment my two drag queen accomplices’ evening wear. Though perhaps she didn’t get quite the response she was hoping for.
“I love your dresses,” offered Sioux.
“I love your wig,” replied one of them, Sarah Lee.
I didn’t know whether he was being catty or just batty, but I pretended I hadn’t heard. Siouxsie took it in her stride anyway.
The gobby one would go on to be just as mouthy but in more musical form as an X Factor finalist under his real name Johnny Robinson.
In December 2019, the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Siouxsie were pictured at a Christmas dinner at London’s Delaunay restaurant with some mutual friends of theirs and mine, the style writer Tim Blanks and his partner, fragrance specialist Jeff Lounds. It’s an annual get together, so they’ve all known each other for quite some time.
Siouxsie Sioux the Pet Shop Boys’ next disco diva? Following in the footsteps of Dusty Springfield, Liza Minnelli and David Bowie she’d certainly be in top class company. Maybe you could consider the guest spot on Basement Jaxx’s Cish Cash a bit of a dry run, right?
After all, her subsequent collaboration with Brian Reitzell on Love Crime, a song recorded for the Hannibal series finale is the only new thing she’s released in over a decade.
Let’s just say, I’m trying my best to help encourage such a collaboration, and she appears a little less reluctant to resume recording work now she’s back in Britain.
Let’s drink to that. Ho-oh, ho-oh-oh-oh.