The Final Howls Of Siouxsie And The Banshees

The final four albums from the punk-goth pioneers show a band struggling to find a new direction and shake off the labels that they found reductive.

I was a big fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees back in the day. Their first half dozen albums were as much a musical revelation to me as my first exposure to Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd, The Cramps, Lydia Lunch or Throbbing Gristle, and are still much loved today. The Banshees seemed to be a band that transcended musical genres – yes, they emerged from punk, but even those first albums seemed several steps removed from their mohawked contemporaries – smarter, edgier, more experimental and more radical. They might bristle at being called the parents of the goth movement –certainly, when I was most actively listening to the band, I barely had any idea what a goth was, and certainly wasn’t one myself – and musically, they seem as far removed from what we think of as goth as they were from punk (the image didn’t help though, and there’s no question that Siouxsie spawned a generation of big-haired girls – and boys – with excessive eyeliner and extravagant dance floor shape throwing). I never placed the Banshees in any category outside the nebulous and meaningless ‘alternative’. To me, they were their own genre.

But in the second half of the 1980s, I rather lost touch with the band, my musical interests possibly diverging from what I assumed they were doing. I’m probably not alone in that. I imagine the general consensus outside of the hardcore fans is that the Banshees were at their best in the period preceding Through the Looking Glass, which makes the final batch of albums an interesting choice for special edition reissue. But then, maybe that’s the idea – a chance for these ‘lesser’ records to be reassessed from the distance of history.

Through the Looking Glass certainly suggests, at first glance, a band running out of ideas. Established acts usually release covers LPs when they are at a creative impasse – at best, it’s a stopgap to allow the band time to revitalise, at worst – and more often – it’s the sign of a creative malaise that won’t be recovered from. Yet this 1987 release is a solid album full of unusual covers that mostly stands as a Banshees album in its own right. After all, it’s not like the band were alien to the idea – two of their earlier tracks, Helter Skelter and Dear Prudence, were Beatles covers, and if you want to stretch the point, the track that started the band off, The Lord’s Prayer, was a cover too!

Opening with Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, which perhaps feels a little unadventurous, the album if anything suffers from having too much that you might expect. While Bowie covers were ruled out, there’s Iggy Pop’s The Passenger – admittedly an album highlight and arguable superior to the Ig’s original version – Roxy Music’s Sea Breezes, and tracks originally by The Doors, Television and John Cale, all of which are pretty much the sort of things you’d expect the Banshees to be into. Admittedly, the primary influence on this album was Bowie’s Pin Ups, and like that album, this is allegedly a collection of songs by artists that had influenced the band, and so you perhaps can forgive them for not stretching things too far. But the inclusion of oddities – Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Trust in Me from The Jungle Book – rather pushes at the boundaries of the concept, making it feel like a more scattershot collection of tunes.

Interestingly, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, the best tracks seem to be those where the band are less in thrall to the original and are able to stretch and experiment. Trust in Me is reconstructed into a slow, seductive torch song, Kraftwerk’s The Hall of Mirrors has a grinding thrust to it, and Strange Fruit – already much covered – is stripped down and reconstructed with a string backing and a curiously effective New Orleans jazz band funeral interlude that allows the song to seem eerily unsettling and haunting.

Conversely, hit single This Wheel’s On Fire is an impressive pop song, but not one that varies that much from Julie Driscoll’s original version. The Doors’ You’re Lost Little Girl also seems too close to the sound of the original band, despite being stripped down somewhat. Of course, Siouxsie’s voice and delivery are probably closer to Jim Morrison than anyone else (something that only really struck me when listening to this track, funnily enough), so that’s understandable. But the track itself is pretty turgid anyway, and so is a weak point here. Covers of Cale’s Gun and Television’s Little Johnny Jewel are solid enough, but not stand out numbers.

The Passenger is faithful to Iggy, but the addition of horns gives the dour track a pop sensibility, speeding it up and making it not only the best track on the album but also a bona fide classic in its own right. Even Iggy admits it’s the best version (though he might not have heard PJ Proby’s soul-crushing spoken word version!). Of course, it’s also a very long way from the angular post-punk sound of earlier Banshee’s albums. They might not have quite become a pop act, but they weren’t too far away from one at this point.

The expanded special edition has four additional tracks – She Cracked is a Modern Lovers cover that has a more classical Banshees sound and is pretty solid. Of more interest to fans, perhaps, is the obscure single-only release – and only original Banshees composition on the album – Song from the Edge of the World, here in the original seven-inch mix that the band hated and have refused to include on any album previously. It’s hard to see why they so too against it – it’s a punchy, celebratory number with a fine soaring chorus. It’s good to see it finally unearthed. Also included are remixes of This Wheel’s on Fire and The Passenger, both of which are perfect examples of why being in a nightclub that only played twelve-inch versions of songs in the mid-1980s must’ve been hellish, and why rock bands of whatever stripe should’ve known better than to try to gain some disco credibility with these messy mutilations.

1988’s Peepshow is seen by some as a fresh start for the band and was preceded by single Peek-A-Boo, which is – depending on your point of view – a dazzling slice of musical experimentation or a completely self-indulgent mess. I’m inclined to lean towards the latter opinion – there’s certainly a lot going on here, but it all feels rather messy, lacking in any real hooks. It marked the final point where I lost interest in a band that had been one of my favourites up to that point and listening to it again now, it still feels like a masturbatory mess.

Had I bothered with the album as a whole, though, I would’ve found that the track was an aberration. Things improve immediately with The Killing Jar, a darkly unsettling track that nevertheless has a commercial edge – this is a step beyond the Banshees of the first half of the decade, yet still recognisable as a track from a band who, truth be told, had long had a pop sensibility lurking beneath their arch proto-goth tunes. Ornaments of Gold has a seductive melancholy to it, infused with an irresistible dance beat. Similarly, Turn to Stone is a hook-laden yet ethereal number that brings to mind spaghetti westerns and euro-horror cinema, and Rawhead and Bloodybones is a sparse and spooky nursery rhyme.

The Last Beat of My Heart was, in a bloody-minded moment, released as a single, though it is far too minimalist and haunting to have ever troubled Radio 1 playlists. Originally written as a Christmas song, it still has that wintery feel, demanding that you listen to it in a room illuminated only by a roaring fire, wrapped up in blankets and your deepest emotions. It’s rather lovely. Original album closer Rhapsody is similarly austere to begin with, slowly and methodically building to a full-blooded, emotive feel that channels older Banshees while still pushing forward.

Scarecrow has the feel of classic Banshees, infused with a more lush and enveloping sound, while Carousel is a stripped-down, spooky ballad with – appropriately – a fairground refrain that fits with the sideshow, carnival atmosphere that is perhaps the one unifying aspect of the album. You can see this album as the soundtrack to neo-burlesque, and it’s no wonder that the scene is to this day awash with Siouxsie-a-like, goth glam performers, even if they are actually influenced by the second-hand visuals of wannabes like Amanda Palmer and Emilie Autumn, both of whom owe a lot to Siouxsie in general and this album in particular.

Peepshow turns out to be one of the band’s finest albums. I should’ve had more faith in them at the time, and it seems vaguely ridiculous that it’s taken me so long to catch up with. The expanded edition also features El Dia de los Muertos, the B-side to The Last Beat of My Heart, which is a curious distorted mambo number that is entertaining, but perhaps a wise choice to leave off the original album, a remix of The Killing Jar that adds nothing but length to the original track and a live cut of The Last Beat…

Of course, having unfairly written the band off, subsequent albums would barely even register on my radar. I was aware of the single Kiss Them for Me, which I dismissed at the time as another step towards naked commerciality. It might be slightly quirky and it might be about Jayne Mansfield – which automatically scores points – but the overly lush production of Stephen Hague made this feel more like the work of any throwaway pop act than a band that had pioneered sounds and pushed boundaries. Experimentation and unpredictability mean nothing if the direction you head in is pure, commercial pop, and while I will always sneer at people who accuse bands of ‘selling out’, I’ll be equally contemptuous of those who claim making a naked commercial record is the height of radicalism.

Kiss Them For Me, like Peek-A-Boo on Peepshow, is the opening track of the 1991 album Superstition, and the temptation is to believe that the band are getting the pop song out of the way right away, allowing the rest of the album to develop its own direction. Unfortunately, the next track Fear (Of The Unknown) puts an end to that hope. The track might well be a good song, but Hague’s awful, overblown and – of course – painfully dated production means that it becomes a fairly ghastly affair that sounds more like Dead or Alive than the Banshees, the band polished and computerised within an inch of their lives. The live edginess that made the band so vital is here buried under painfully excessive gloss. And the sad thing is, you can tell that at least some of the songs are still good beneath the slathered on sound – Cry and Silver Waterfalls might well be great tracks stripped of the electronic drums and excessive overdubs.

Only occasionally does the album hit home, and it’s usually on the slower, more ethereal numbers. Drifter is an icily bleak effort that the production excess can’t stifle, and Little Sister is another moody ballad that allows the keyboards to stab through like icicles dropping from a windowsill. Softly is equally haunting, feeling like a This Mortal Coil outtake at times.

Shadowtime feels like a jangly-pop single with goth undertones that at least suits the production excess. Effortlessly catchy, it’s possibly the highlight of the album. In comparison, Silly Thing (not a cover of the Sex Pistols track) seems to use almost exactly the same tune but doesn’t work at all. The Ghost in You luckily manages to transcend the best efforts of Hague to smother it, and at least ensures that the album ends on an emotive highlight.

But while not entirely awful, Superstition is the first Banshees album that I can honestly say is hugely disappointing. It doesn’t feel like a step forward into the unknown as much as a band being overridden and overwhelmed by a producer who is determined to ensure that they will record their most instantly dated record.

What the band themselves made of Superstition in the long run I don’t know, but it would be another four years before they recorded another album, and the initially self-produced record deliberately went for a more organic, live feel. John Cale was later drafted in as producer, and it seems unlikely that the former Velvets man would have much truck with computerised music either. The Rapture would prove to be the Banshees’ final album, released twenty years after they formed. Dropped by their record label and no longer having fun, the band announced their split in the same week that the Sex Pistols announced a reunion gig, which seemed vaguely appropriate – the Banshees had rapidly moved on from the punk pantomime, and so calling it quits just as old punk dinosaurs prepared for a spot of blissfully unironic nostalgia seemed apt.

The Rapture also seems to take things full circle in curious ways. There’s the title track, for one – a twelve-minute (cut down from eighteen) track that would swallow up much of a side of vinyl, much as The Lord’s Prayer had been a very unpunk-like fourteen-minute long track on Join Hands. Musically, of course, it’s very different from that thunderous howl of fury. In fact, this is a staggering ambitious piece – prog rock in the true meaning of the word, shifting through movements, mixing the light and the dark, the gothic and the cinematic. It’s a remarkable piece and shows that the band were ambitious and experimental to the very end.

Album opener O Baby certainly suggests that the band have thrown away the horrible cosmetics of Superstition without losing their pop sensibilities. In fact, this almost sounds like a shameless attempt at securing a hit single (which, indeed, it was) with its upbeat, infectious and joyful sound. It’s a million miles from what you would expect the Banshees to sound like if you hadn’t been listening since the mid-Eighties, yet it’s a fantastic tune, and should have been a hit. And it sets the scene for an album that is far removed from the prickly post-punk and pioneering goth of earlier albums, yet doesn’t feel like the misfiring stab at mainstream pop success of the last album. This is commercial pop in many ways, but it feels like it’s done with honesty and without conceit.

Tearing Apart is another irresistibly bouncy number, while Stargazer has a thrusting power, given an eastern edge via sitars and Siouxsie’s vocals, that have always had an Arabian Nights tinge to them. Falling Down mixes guitar riffs and quirkiness in a satisfying way, and The Double Life is another effortless pop tune topped with spoken word lyrics – a Cale influence perhaps – that builds effortlessly to a perfect chorus.

The slower, more contemplative numbers also have a potency and hopeful vibe to them. Fall from Grace could, in a different world, be an American rock power ballad (you can almost picture it on the soundtrack of a mildly edgy teen flick) but is kept left-field enough in style and performance to ensure you’ll never confuse it for a Belinda Carlisle number. Not Forgotten has a tribal drum beat and mystical vocals that immediately calls back to the ‘classic’ Banshees sound.

Sick Child is a haunting blues ballad that shows – if you somehow needed it proving – that Siouxsie really did have a remarkable voice, capable of anything. It’s unsettling and astounding. In contrast, The Lonely One has a deceptive sweetness to it that belies the rather dark lyrics, while Forever is a shimmering slice of shoe-gazing beauty.

Album closer Love Out Me has jangling guitars, heavy riffing and a furious rhythm section – a combination that perhaps takes it back to the earlier Banshees sound, suggesting a band more comfortable with their past than the last couple of albums had perhaps suggested. It’s this that might make people think that they knew the end was close, but the facts rather ruin that neat idea. This wasn’t recorded as a wrap-up album, though I’ll concede that the knowledge of their imminent demise might have been there, at the back of their collective consciousness.

The irony of The Rapture is that it sounds like a band reborn. A band at their most confident and capable of tossing out entirely commercial songs at the drop of a hat. What a pity it all ended.

The special edition of this album has a decent remix of O Baby (not different enough to be vital, but thankfully a world away from those dreadful Eighties twelve-inch mixes), demo track FGM – a furious and engagingly raw number that shows how live Banshees still had a very distinctive signature sound – and New Skin, recorded for Paul Verhoeven’s glorious Showgirls and proving to be a suitably grinding, bumping version.

So, two albums that are pretty much essential, one that is an interesting curio and one that should be approached with caution. If, like me, you foolishly lost touch with Siouxsie and the Banshees some point earlier in their career, this is a good chance to catch up with what missed. If you already have the albums, the remastered special edition versions – complete with nice gatefold CD covers and also available on vinyl – might be a worthy upgrade.

DAVID FLINT

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