Friday, October 31, 2008

In Heaven and Hell With You

I've been listening almost exclusively to Siouxsie and the Banshees for the last couple of weeks. Halloween seems an appropriate time to write something about them, and about Siouxsie Sioux in particular, given that a song entitled "Halloween" figures so prominently in their discography.

In my opinion, no other British group of the post-punk era underwent such dramatic metamorphoses or so thoroughly explored their potential as a recording unit as Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their albums were strong and intelligently sequenced, their singles (collected as ONCE UPON A TIME and TWICE UPON A TIME) were glorious, and their B-sides (collected in the box set DOWNSIDE UP) were a laboratory for fascinating experimentation. Siouxsie herself was such a compelling figure, so obviously a creature of theater and so sleekly photogenic in their videos, I find it incredible, even outrageous to this day that no one ever approached her to act in features. And when harrowing flipsides like "Umbrella" started turning up, I couldn't understand why at least one enterprising horror director out there didn't have the brain to put them in harness right away as the Anglo answer to Goblin. They were not ones for standing still; they went through guitarists like Kleenex (The Cure's Robert Smith moonlighted with them briefly), but their core guitar sound was essentially defined from the get-go by original six-stringer John McKay and later refined when the extraordinary John McGeoch joined the Banshees for three of their most beloved albums (KALEIDOSCOPE, JUJU and A KISS IN THE DREAMHOUSE). Even with later guitarists on board, they were a powerhouse live band, driven by Budgie's thundrous drum sound and one of the most original and authoritative female figureheads a rock band has ever had.

I had the good fortune to see them live once; it was good fortune because Siouxsie and the Banshees never came to Cincinnati, but they happened to be playing in Washington DC in May 1986, on the day after a wedding we attended there. It was a funny situation: we were staying with the friends who got married, who had already been living together for awhile. Donna didn't want to go, but the bride did, but the bride was supposed to be honeymooning, so Donna ended up using my spare ticket under duress. We were strangers to Washington, didn't know where the Warner Theater was, but as we wandered around, people with pink mohawks and chained leatherware began to appear, so I suggested we just follow them. I had seen a number of punk and post-punk acts in Cincinnati, but here people never dressed the act -- you couldn't particularly tell a Ramones audience from a Jackson Browne audience by sight in Cincinnati. This concert was my only direct exposure to anything like an authentic punk audience, and I found their style and energy stimulating, but once the show was over, Donna wanted to get out of there pretty fast, so we did.
Apart from a little accident at the outset when the theater's heavy velvet curtains opened too swiftly, causing a backdraft that sent one right into Budgie's thundering drum kit, the performance was impeccably played with all three musicians giving their all. (I saw them with John Valentine Carruthers on guitar, whose gleaming work on "Cities in Dust" and "92 Degrees" is as definitive as anything they did with McGeoch.) I had seen only very early performance footage of the group at that time and was particularly impressed by how Siouxsie had matured as a live performer. She, who had started out shaking her fists and thumbing her nose and goosestepping across the stage, danced sinuously like an art nouveau Salomé, till the show climaxed with her somersaulting through stage fog while singing "Eve Black/Eve White," one of her many songs of fractured personality, this one inspired by THE THREE FACES OF EVE.
The classic group's only official live video release, NOCTURNE, captures them at an earlier point in time (with Robert Smith still aboard) but playing a similar set list; I recommend it, especially for the show-stopping "Night Shift," a grippingly dolorous dirge that opened Side 2 of JUJU and somehow became the cathartic centerpiece of every concert they played thereafter. (There's a circulating 1981 Cologne show that finds Siouxsie urging her catatonic audience to stand up, dance, do something, explaining "We're just a pop group" -- and then launching into this song.) Siouxsie and the Banshees were also, among other things, a highly film-literate band, even opening TINDERBOX's "92 Degrees" with a sound byte from IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE ("Did you know that more murders are committed at 92 degrees fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once... At lower temperatures, people are easygoing; over 92, it's too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable!!!")
I'm glad I had the chance to see them play when I did, because they began losing their appeal for me with their next album, the covers collection THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Their best remaining song, "Peek-A-Boo," was reportedly based on the master tape of one of their earlier songs... played backwards. That they could turn something so rooted in the outré into their only US chart hit testifies to their gifts of invention, even at this late stage. They disbanded after their 1995 album THE RAPTURE, with Siouxsie and Budgie (who married in 1991) focusing their attentions thereafter on the side project, The Creatures. The way groups end often colors the way we feel about them in retrospect, and the way Siouxsie and the Banshees slowly succumbed to overproduction, revolving door personnel and divided attentions meant that I spent a good deal of the past decade not listening very much to the many wonderful songs and albums they gave us.
This latest Banshees binge of mine got underway strangely. I hit a wall in a writing project and felt a depression coming on, so I decided to meet it head-on by listening to "Swimming Horses" from the HYAENA album. Of all the group's recorded work, this is the one song that never fails to get under my skin, and it's been known to induce blue moods in me that last for days -- blue but somehow delicious. In this case, however, I administered it to myself as a kind of antigen -- before the depression could take hold, I hoped the song would. Surprisingly, it worked. I then loaded all of my Siouxsie CDs onto my iPod and found that, despite the music's sometimes dark imagery, its propulsive drumming and spider-woven guitar lines and the sheer gusto of Siouxsie's bellowing combined into something quite energizing and uplifting. It's been a good companion.

In the course of this latest immersion in the Banshees, I read some things and discovered that Siouxsie and Budgie divorced awhile ago and disbanded The Creatures, and that Siouxsie released her first solo album, MANTARAY, last year. She's still a handsome woman, and the album finds her still in strong voice, and noticeably less guarded about showing her tender side. (What's next, a sense of humor?) It's a good album, opening with "Into A Swan," a pounding ode to impending personal transformation -- a theme also reflected in song titles like "About to Happen", "Here Comes That Day" and "If It Doesn't Kill Me." The instrumental sound of the album is percussive techno-cabaret, appropriately fantasmagorical but with a array of instrumentation whose broad musical palette recalls A KISS IN THE DREAMHOUSE. But hearing Siouxsie's voice severed from the tantric, flangey, tidal swell of The Banshees sometimes brings about in actuality the sense of dislocation that she often sang about on the albums she made with The Banshees in the late '70s and '80s. The ever-fluctuating flavors of the record's instrumental backing gradually ring hollow (or at least fickle) over the course of ten songs, failing to provide in visceral anchoring what it delivers in varietal color. Of all the tracks, "Into A Swan" and "They Follow You" come closest to capturing a classic yet distinctively fresh Siouxsie sound. Vocally and instrumentally, MANTARAY is an inventive album, though it falls short of being a wholly convincing or coalescent one. Siouxsie's voice needs to backed by stronger personalities, and I hope her next solo album finds her sounding just as bold but less alone.
To help set the mood for your holiday festivities, I leave you with Siouxsie performing the aforementioned "Halloween" with the classic Banshees lineup of Steve Severin (bass), the late John McGeoch (guitar) and Budgie (drums).

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:52 PM

    I was at this show, at the height of the popularity of a certain club I had in DC.

    It was a great set. The peak of their power, song writing ability, musicianship and professionalism.



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