Siouxsie and the Banshees: the final four

Punk survivors, goth veterans: by the late 1980s, Siouxsie and the Banshees were between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The music scene and, especially, the music press in the UK had moved on from both of the subcultures they had become tied to (however reluctantly).

In this context, it is fair to say that the band’s final four albums Through the Looking Glass, Peepshow, Superstition and might not have been afforded sufficient attention and appreciation at the time. This would particularly be the case with Superstition and The Rapture, which were more experimental. Now they have been re-released, it’s a good opportunity to revisit them.

In 1987, when Through the Looking Glass was released, Siouxsie Sioux had long become The Guardian‘s punk woman of choice, as well as a music, fashion and feminist icon. (You can hear Siouxsie Sioux in conversation with Pam Hogg as part of the 6music documentary Making a Scene on the theme of music’s relationship with fashion.) The 1986 album Tinderbox had proved to be something of a disappointment. So it was a case of “What next?”

Released a year after Tinderbox, Through The Looking Glass could be read as a reflective pause. After 11 years and seven albums (nine if you include the singles collection Once Upon A Time and the excellent live album, Nocturne, from 1983), the Banshees have chosen to release a collection of cover versions, though to term it as such doesn’t really do the resulting album justice.

Remarkable for its energy, imaginative approach and range of songs and writers, Through The Looking Glass, itself inspired by David Bowie’s 1973 covers album Pin Ups, sees the band radically reinterpreting and reworking songs by artists who had profoundly impacted upon band members during their childhood and teenage years. The selection includes everything from Sparks’ ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ to ‘Strange Fruit‘: Abel Meeropol’s searing anti-lynching song that Billie Holiday made her own. (This article provides a historical context to the song, and Holiday’s relationship with it) There is even a suitably bewitching cover of ‘Trust In Me‘, the song the snake in Disney’s The Jungle Book sings while hypnotising Mowgli.

Peek-a-boo began as an experiment with sampling, playing a loop from a brass sec­tion backwards

Particular highlights include a joyous, brass-enhanced take on Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’, one of the albums’ hit singles. It also includes a slowed down, sensual take on Television’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, the aforementioned ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Trust In Me’ (also covered, at a later date, by Tanya Donnelly). It’s a stylish, well-executed album that hangs together so completely that it’s easy to forget the songs are covers, so much have the band made them their own.

The album also includes some bonus tracks, such as a particularly splendid version of The Modern Lovers’ ‘She Cracked’, and the excellent self-penned single ‘Song From the Edge of the World‘ (which, for some inexplicable reason, was never released as part of the Twice Upon A Time singles compilation). Musically, ‘Song From the Edge of the World’ was a clean break with the glossy bleakness of Tinderbox, but it does anticipate ‘The Killing Jar’, and, as such, 1988’s Peepshow.

Peepshow begins with the still startling ‘Peek-a-boo‘, which began as an experiment with sampling, cre­ating a loop from a brass sec­tion and playing it back­wards, with the idea of creating a b-side. But it became one of the oddest but most compelling of the Banshees’ singles. It’s a pop song that really shouldn’t work and yet does. Time has been incredibly kind to it; it still sounds fresh even now.

Peepshow is the sound of a band refreshed and revitalised. I don’t want to gush, but it is still, even now, a bloody good album. At their best. the Banshees have always delivered complex, frequently dark and intricate rock music. Peepshow exemplifies this. Highlights include the surging ‘Scarecrow’, the theatrical Halloween pop surge of ‘Burn Up’, the baroque pop of ‘Ornaments of Gold’, the gorgeous ‘The Last Beat of My Heart’ and the filmic, epic, windswept tour de force of ‘Rhapsody’. ‘Carousel’ and ‘Rawhead and Bloodybones‘, by contrast, share a pared down simplicity and sinister quality that wouldn’t be out of place in a Raymond Bradbury story.

The Ghost In You has an unusually political overtone, with references to Tiananmen Square

Extra track ‘El Día de Los Muertos’ (Espiritu mix) comes across as an hómage to Celia Cruz via a Day Of The Dead carnival, and while I’m not entirely sure it comes off, it’s not bad. More a b-side than an a-side though. The other extra tracks are what appear to be a 12-inch extended version of ‘The Killing Jar’ and a version of ‘The Last Beat Of My Heart’ live from Lollapalooza in 1991.

If ‘Peek-a-boo’ is a startling opener, ‘Kiss Them For Me’, the opening track to the 1991 album Superstition, is equally unusual. A summery, bhangra-influenced, unashamedly pop song featuring the percussive talents of Talvin Singh, it was the band’s biggest hit in the US. As the first Banshees song I ever heard, I do have a soft spot for it, despite its atypical nature. However, regardless of its easy charm, it does unfortunately demonstrate what a fractured album Superstition is.

The sparkling pop of ‘Kiss Them For Me’ and ‘Silver Waterfalls’ sit uneasily with the dark rock of ‘Cry’ and the more dance orientated ‘Fear (of the Unknown)‘, and it’s hard to establish a sense of continuity with this album. The more I listen to it, the more I’m convinced it is the production that is at fault at least as much as the songs. The album was produced by Stephen Hague, most known for working with OMD and the Pet Shop Boys, and somewhere along the way guitars have become muted, with the drums frequently suppressed and Siouxsie’s vocals unnecessarily mucked about with. The result is that many songs sound clinical, sterile and cold, whereas others sound unnecessarily light and neutered.

That’s not to say there aren’t any good moments. Highlights include the vivid and menacing ‘Drifter’ and ‘Softly’, which also makes impressive use of cello and voice and stands out as being one of the Banshees’ classic minimalist ballads that are always worth a re-listen. There is also ‘Little Sister‘, a more complex piece with a pace not dissimilar to the brutal ‘Nightshift’, but which is beguilingly delicate in tone and texture, as well as soaked in sadness. Similarly, ‘Shadowtime’ was a good single with lovely melodies. But my favourite song is still ‘The Ghost In You’, an eerie and melodic song with an unusually political overtone, what with its references to Tiananmen Square.

At least Siouxsie’s voice sounds like her own again

Extra track ‘Face to Face‘ was specially commissioned by Tim Burton for 1992’s Batman Returns and, in its brilliance, further underlines the various flaws of the rest of Superstition as an album. It is a slow, eerie and seductive piece that masterfully soundtracks a meeting between Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.

While the Snapper mix of ‘Kiss Them for Me’ can be said to add little or nothing to the original track, the Kathak #1 mix of it is a revelation. This is a much more radical remix and reinterpretation, and its boldness is to be admired. Heard now, what would probably have sounded very contemporary and fresh is reminiscent of The Shamen after their ecstasy conversion (as in the blissed out ‘Hyperreal’ not the geezerish ‘Ebeneezer Good’) and given the sunny nature of the original mix of the song, it works very well, transcending the album altogether in its Balearicness. This probably would have been a massive club hit had it been released at the time, and it still holds up very well now.

Banshees fans had to wait until 1995, another four years, for The Rapture but it was worth it because the album, from the scuffed intro to ‘O Baby‘ onwards, reveals the band to be back on track. The lightness displayed at times on Superstition hasn’t gone away and, as with that album, it sometimes works, while sometimes it doesn’t, but at least Siouxsie’s voice sounds like her own again. Opening track ‘O Baby’ is upbeat pop but feels more organic and less clinical than the tracks on Superstition and, as such, has sufficient charm to get away with it.

As a whole, The Rapture has a coherent unified sound but it does also have light and shade, as well as musical experimentation at its heart, providing something for everyone. The second single, ‘Stargazing’, still sounds fantastic and is up there with the likes of ‘Spellbound‘, ‘Song From the Edge of the World’ and ‘Paradise Place’ as a Banshees classic. ‘Love Out Me’ is similarly gold standard. Along with this,’Sick Child’ (a song later used in cult occult film The Craft) has fantastic rhythmic drumming and a swirling bass. This is offset by the chilling vocals on ‘Not Forgotten’, while the brooding ambience of ‘Forever’ is achieve with the kind of swoonsome strings, guitar and melodies that Florence + The Machine would kill for. And then, there is the title track.

It offers a tantalising glimpse of where the band might have gone next

‘The Rapture’ is a tour de force that takes composers such as Philip Glass and Vangelis as a starting point. Years later, Siouxsie did a London show where she set some of the Banshees songs to an orchestra and, from this, it’s easy to see where she might have obtained the idea from. (Well, this and the ‘Overground’ from ‘The Thorn’ EP.) The Rapture, the album, might not have been the most audacious piece of work the band ever did, but the title track certainly is.

While The Rapture is a good album, there is the odd misfire: ‘Fall From Grace’ is a good song that would have come across better had its jagged edges not been polished down, while ‘The Lonely One’ doesn’t entirely come off, but it’s still an album that’s worth rediscovering. Extra track ‘New Skin‘, a swaggering guitar driven slab of unashamed glam rock, with Siouxsie channelling Iggy Pop and Marc Bolan, sees the band getting back to their roots for the Showgirls soundtrack. It might not be typically Banshees as such, but it was a film commission and they certainly sound like they had a great time recording it.

‘FGM’, a completely new track, is a fantastic cacophony of drums, guitars and vocals. It offers a tantalising glimpse of where the band might have gone next.

In April 1996, a year after The Rapture was released, the Banshees announced they were splitting up. Not long after that, in a bizarre twist of fate, the original line-up of the Sex Pistols announced their reformation. The Banshees were to return in 2003 for the ‘7 Year Itch’ tour but it was ultimately a brief reunion. Still, at least we have the records.

Image description:

Siouxsie Sioux in black leather jacket and strong eye make-up onstage at the mic at Edinburgh Tiffany’s, 1980 (black and white image). Image released into the public domain by its author, Mantaray100 at the wikipedia project.

Cazz Blase first discovered the Banshees at the age of 12 when she saw the band perform ‘Kiss them for me’ on Top of the Pops. A year later, she heard the Peel Session version of ‘Hong Kong Garden’ and dutifully spent the next five years filling in the gaps. She is eternally grateful to her parents, who let her go and see the band play at Manchester Academy as part of The Rapture Tour on her 16th birthday