|In defence of
BY PAUL MORLEY
"Have a competition in the NME. In less than a
hundred words, what do they get out of Siouxsie
and the Banshees?" (Siouxsie Sioux)
"Everyone wants something more out of their lives.
To be true to themselves or whatever. It's just that
some people realise it and some don't."
"I think that people have got to face themselves
eventually. . . the whole of society's got to face
itself. Not that we're going to achieve that. . . but
we're gnawing away at the bottom."
"We have a responsibility to ourselves. . . we our
facing up to our problems, problems that should
cross over to other people." (Kenny Morris)
I WOKE UP one morning and decided
to travel up to Liverpool to see Siouxsie
and the Banshees play a rearranged
date at the University.
I travelled back down to London with the unit and
talked with them. Recalcitrant Sioux, reasonable
Severin, thoughtful Morris, cool McKay.
They are not as difficult or dour in conversation as
is generally maintained, but they are wary, intent to
some extent on keeping mysteries intact. Only
about the most trivial things are their answers
definite. Deeper probing, such as asking them to
be specific about a certain song, draws a guarded
response: "From the listener's point of view, you
don't want to rob them of using their imagination,
and if you're saying, "This song is about a boy next
door', then the listener doesn't have to ponder."
"We don't read a newspaper. We step into it the way we step into a
warm bath. It surrounds us, it environs us in information."
SlOUXSIE: "I never used to read the music papers that much when I was
younger. I used to buy certain people's records that I like, I never really
went by anything that critics wrote, I just used to buy records. I just hope that
that's the same today, but somehow I don't think that it is. I think it has
changed quite a lot."
The most popular and pungent rock journalist of modern times poetically
murdered Siouxsie and the Banshees' debut album "The Scream" with vindictive venom. Remember? In this very paper. . .
Siouxsie: "On one level it got me angry because people who had never seen or heard us would take that review as gospel, and that's
where the danger is.
"If someone said something genuinely constructive but heavily critical, and on reasonable grounds, it would sink in a lot more. I
wouldn't just think they were being stupid for no reason at all. I'd probably question it with myself. But whether I'd change is a
"The only thing you can say to someone like that is, 'well, if you hate so much of what is around you, and you're noticing everything
that is wrong, why aren't you doing anything?' Why isn't she? She slags everything off, why isn't she doing something for the 'kids'?
She's not doing anything being a journalist, just being negative."
The curtain drops on that, for now. But generally the Banshees claim to feed off their adverse criticism.
"However it's motivated," spits Siouxsie, "it has added to us becoming stronger."
"The critics' apathy or stupidity has supplied us with strength," Kenny Morris adds.
"The press is just a symptom of everything we see around us," offers John McKay. "They're not the reason we started, obviously, but
they're a symptom."
It's ludicrous that we should be enemies.
SEVERIN: "We needed the press to sustain interest whilst we had no record
deal, which was frustrating but the only way. Before we got the deal it got bad,
we were so desperate it got as close as, on the record, signing to the BBC
for them to release the John Peel tapes legitimately as an EP and, off the record
... (buggering about with 'legal' bootlegs)...
"But it's not surprising to see, now that we're in with Polydor, why it took so long
for us to get signed. There was nothing heavy about it. They never go and see
"And a company like that has only got ten bands to sign a year, so they have to
be careful. They didn't sign us until they were absolutely convinced that we were
going to make lots of money for them. And even then they were hedging their
bets a bit."
Morris: "We needed, or wanted, to work from within a big record label. It's
probably been said before, it's just the idea of taking a big record company to
progress, to work through, otherwise you'll probably fall short all the time. We
wouldn't be able to do as much as we want to."
McKay: "Public attitude will never change, if the big record companies never
change. Because the A&R men won't sign up the right bands. So you've got to
change the big record companies before anything else, which is what we're
better able to do.
"At first Polydor thought that we were a bit of a joke, like always asking for things.
They didn't really think we were serious, that it was just our 'gimmick'. But they
soon realised that it's something that we're going to carry all the way through.
Keep hassling them for little bits and details."
Morris: "As far as control goes, we can ask them to do things and pressurise them to do things, but it's like constantly swimming
against the tide. Because they just hold you back all the time. We have to be at Polydor a lot of the time, pushing them and
repeatedly telling them to do things."
McKay: "Yeah, it's enough to make you crack up. But hopefully the tide will change. Once they realise and start to move with us,
things will be a lot easier.
"And it's the same with the press. To a certain extent, so many people who interview us think that they've got a nut to crack. It's like a
bit of a chip on each individual's shoulder, it's their aim in doing something. They have got to have a nut to crack, rather than go with
Severin: "But as far as Polydor goes, the success of 'Hong Kong Garden' brought them over a bit."
IT WAS NO surprise that "Hong Kong Garden" should spiral into the charts just weeks after the group became Polydor people. The
mystery and enigma of the single, coupled with the similarly seductive reputation of the group itself, immediately landed it with plays
on the radio. Its oriental 'authenticity', its flickering eroticism, its simple beauty pushed it deep into the charts.
People really did care! The Banshees really were that subtle! That observant! That good!
The single's success gave the group a perfect base to develop from, a total, laughable contrast to their isolated position just a few
The group themselves viewed it with wry detachment, even their natural excitement kept in check.
Severn): "That was freaky. A very strange period. We'd finished it a month before it came out, and we'd pushed it away, and it was
just a very strange feeling having people rush up and say how great it was. We were working on the album at the time, so we didn't
have much time to think about it, except every Tuesday we'd look at the new charts..."
Siouxsie: "I was excited at the time."
McKay: "But the silver disc was like one of those little gold stars, you get a pat on the head and a little gold star like at primary
school. It was a bit ridiculous. They were going to present it, but we refused any presentation.
"It's a pretty bizarre thing to have. It doesn't mean anything to what we're doing, it's just part of the record company clockwork
machinery. It keeps them happy."
Severin: "It's funny thinking that 250,000 people have got 'Hong Kong Garden' in their homes. It just meant to us that a lot more
people were going to buy the album."
"In Expressionism we move into a world of sound that presents a reverse situation to Impressionism's muted dissonance,
transparent textures, low level of dynamics: heavy, dense (which is not to say impenetrable) textures, an often high level of dynamics
(certainly extreme contrasts in dynamic range) and harmonic invention charged well nigh explosively with explicit tension (i. e. a high
rate of dissonance). Expressionism in its own remarkable way involves the listener in the sound it makes."
THREE, FOUR months after the single drifted out of the charts, the heavily anticipated "The Scream" appeared, a jagged, jarring
album in bleak contrast to "Hong Kong Garden".
The music on "The Scream" is unlike anything in rock. It is not, as some would say, chaotic, it is controlled.
Each instrument operates within its own space, its own time, as if mocking the lines of the other instruments. Known rock is inverted,
leaving just traces of mimickry of rock's cliches, satire that often bursts with glorious justification into shaking celebration (as on
It is easy to gain attention by doing something which is crudely obviously out of the ordinary, but the Banshees have avoided such
futile superficialities; it is innovation, not revolution, not a destruction but new building. It has grown out of rock, Velvets, "Station To
And Siouxsie's staggering voice is dropped, clipped, snapped prominently above this audacious musical drama, emphasising the
dark colours and empty, naked moods.
Severin: "We can always fit into the ordinary level of things, but there's most of the music comes from something else, basically all
the alternatives, and that's the way I want it to be really. Y'know it looks like a rock album, aud I like it to look like a rock album, I like
it to look flash, I want it in the racks next to Sham. I don't want it in Rough Trade for twice as much as it should be.
"There's four very powerful egos in this band, so i'm certainly not going to sit back and just play a rhythm, like Eno's theory of the
anchor bass and drums."
Morris: "All the instruments do integrate together as a total thing, but at the same time they're all as individually strong as they can
"You have to maintain that line between the traditional and the unconventional all the time. But I can't see us slipping and producing
McKay: "If we were going to slip we would probably have the next album written already. But every song that I come up with lately, I
think, no, it's no good, it's 'normal'. I just come out with things with my fingers and they just don't sound any good, so you wait and
chuck out all those things that 'normal' bands would keep. And maybe the day I feel that I've passed my peak is the day I start
accepting those things ... or the rest of the band do ...
"The new songs are being written with the studio in mind. At first the studio was frustrating for us because we all knew how the
songs were going to sound and that limited us, but I can already hear how the new stuff is going to sound in the studio and that's
really intriguing. We can't wait to do demos of the new songs, just to fiddle about and experiment in the studio.
"But I still don't think that this kind of thing will lead us into any sort of self-indulgence. I couldn't see us finding a tape loop and
riddling about with that. That's not the way to work."
Severin: "It's a constant struggle with bass, drums, guitar to get a reasonable sound together. It's been used for so long, that
set-up. But it's a definite decision of ours to use that set-up, the most orthodox set-up, and to manipulate it as much as we can,
rather than, say, bring in a synthesizer.
"That's how we feel now. Maybe when we've pushed this as far as we can we'll go into some other areas".
McKay: "But I don't like to separate the words from the music. And the way we put the songs together, I can't really look from just
one angle. If it wasn't for the words it wouldn't be worth bothering. And you can't get away from the sounds of those words that Sioux
is singing, even if you're not taking in the actual meanings of the words, it's just the sound."
Severin: "What we're trying to do with the music is what we're trying to do, not necessarily with the English language, but certainly
with the rock lyric: just to tear it apart and put it all back together again in different pieces. Because we live everyday with the
English language and we can't achieve that as well as we can with the music".
THE WORDS on "The Scream" blend the disquieting deadpan style of
Bollard with the colourful conveniences, of Bowie and Bolan. The words
glare and glitter.
The landscapes they scourge and swab are those of the living room and of
the mind; the same thing, confinement. The music reflects this private,
clinical landscape, the tensions and euphorias of day to day living. There is
a twisted passion, but no compassion, and that really is unnerving; the
record's fragments seem almost a calm before the storm , which can be seen
as being the album's final track "Switch", where even a mental breakdown is
dispassionately detailed, Siouxsie's voice grossly, offensively parodying
The group are aware of the futility of most means of 'relief from boredom,
which fail to bring to life that whole person, his deeper feelings, his
imagination, like a bulky food without any nutrional value. The person
continues to feel empty and unmoved on a deeper level, anaesthetising this
uncomfortable feeling by momentary excitation: 'thrills', fun', liquor or sex.
The boredom remains: a boredom that can erupt into violence, aggression,
suicide, breakdown, perversion.
YOU HAVE to do something, says John McKay, when I ask what motivates the Banshees. "Write or music or something."
Morris: "As far as I can remember I always had to be doing something."
Severin: "Also, we feel people have fucked rock up so much, this whole genre and everybody's pissed it up. And I care about it
because it means so much to so many young people. It did to me. Everything I wanted when I was young I'm trying to push into this
Morris: "The basic need to create is an obsession with us."
That the Banshees have successfully utilised the basic unconscious desire of the intense revolution of "75 / 76, to inspire
something positive out of boredom (literally), is significant.
"The Scream" also seems to focus and capture the last three years' chaos and concern.
Yet the Banshees are often used as an easy example of how 'punk' destroyed itself, by people who ignore both what the Banshees
are trying to do and say, and how they're trying to do it, by allowing themselves to become absorbed into the mainstream or operate
from within and use its advantages to communicate.
The fact is the Banshees, an openly populist and accessible group, are at the head of a whole horde of new rock groups who take
risks unimagined three years ago, who use access astutely and advantageously, who remain underivative and ambitious.
What 'punk' was reacting against was sterility and narrow-mindedness. A revolution like '75/ '76 can only by its very nature happen
once in a while, and it seems unforgiveable that everyone should ignore the true diverse, exciting effects of the commotion and
rummage about instead for a constant state of revolt and orgy.
The Banshees always insisted that they wanted to be successful, and have always understood that if they were successful they'd be
so far the wrong reasons. They chose the way they wanted to go long ago.
THEY are not elitists, "except in our influences, about our music, about who we choose to play with us."
Siouxsie: "We're not setting ourselves up as perfect. We're affected by things that other people are affected by, of course we are,
and we're going to be affected by other things as we develop. It's just that you've got to realise that you have been affected, and if
you can, you can usually get yourself out of that nasty situation."
Severin: "We've had old fans on this tour who've said they don't like the new audience because they've only come for the single, but
we love that. And we love playing the single every night. Although I can understand people do get precious."
Morris: "We've never been dictated to by modes of music or modes of the times or the press, and that's something we've strove for
from the beginning, and we've got a strong hold on that."
Severin: "What we've tried to do is not only confined to music how we treat the press. Like we booked the whole of our last tour. We
didn't go with Goldsmith or anyone. So, for instance, we have our own security guys, we tell the Top Rank people what not to do,
where not to go, things like that. We try to be effective in as many areas as possible . . . and it's tiring."
Siouxsie: "I am personally not deluded by the fact that what I'm doing is going to change the world or anything like that. Which adds
to the frustration of carrying on, doing things that I want to do but realising that you're doing something and it's just for a small
percentage of the world..."
McKay: "But that percentage grows with each little revolution, like punk was the last one, it grows all the time, the number of people
who are prepared to listen to something more political. A little bit more of the population are willing not to go out and have a good
time and hide all the rest of their personalities in the back of their brains, so they don't have to think about anything . . . who just
listen to Travolta or whatever and never think about it."
Morris: "It never occurs to me in that sense. It's just like a personal strength that we are trying to build within ourselves, and we're
putting that over and we're being responsible to ourselves, and we're trying all the time, and that's going over to people's ears."
Siouxsie: "We're learning that there's more to learn."
"One must be convinced of the infallibility of one 's own fantasy and one must believe in one's own inspiration." (Arnold Schoenberg).
"Sensitivity towards destructiveness /cruelty is rapidly diminishing and necrophilia, the attraction to what is dead, decaying and
lifeless and purely mechanical, is increasing throughout out cybernetic society. The spirit of necrophilia was first expressed in
literary terns by F. T. Marinetti in his Futurist Manifesto in 1909. The same tendency can be seen in much of the art and literature
of the past decades that exhibit a peculiar fascination with all that is decayed, unalive, destructive and mechanical." (Erich Fromm).
SIOUXSIE: "We're saying all these things and
it's not meant at all in a dictator way, it's not
telling someone, 'You're boring, you are
stupid, you must change.' We're maybe
saying these things and hoping someone will
think for themselves, 'I am boring, I want to
change'... It's not ramming these things down
people's throats, because there would be no
point in doing that."
The group remains naive, though less so
than this time last year.
They're another new rock group caught in
the distorting and destructive glare of
publicity and post-punk hypocrisy, vulnerable
to cynicism and disrespect from people who by their own broadcast ideals should be on their side.
They're a group growing up, discovering, admittedly naive, who make natural mistakes, frivolous mistakes that stick and stain. It's
pointless to dwell on certain ugly protrusions in their growth; let's just say that since that dumb fashion fetish the group have worn
Lenin badges without anyone noticing or reacting.
1978's change has been rapid and hazy, a scattered intensity compared to the suffocating intensity of 1977, and more so for
Siouxsie and the Banshees than anyone else. They have handled everything abruptly new and awkward with calm, curiosity and
ultimate effectiveness, But people insist on shooting for the bad things . . .
"Like, people sneer about us discovering about certain things in Time Out, a chic decadence or something. That is so
narrow-minded, because it doesn't matter where you pick up something that is good. It doesn't matter if it's in the Radio Times, or
on the ground or in the gutter. I mean, so what?
"And reporters have got this big thing about being middle class/working class, and we really despise that because there's nothing in
class at all."
They've made two of this year's best records. ..
"And I don't think anyone has ever mentioned anything positive about the music, whether it's criticising it, or acclaiming it. I don't
think anyone has."
And they've slid smoothly through from the Nashville to the Hammersmith Odeon in just nine months, unfashionably but pensively
deciding that they prefer the large seated venues for their music . . .
"We've had some really good reactions at seated gigs. It is very alienating for a group like Siouxsie and the Banshees to play a
place like Hammersmith Odeon, and we like that."
But these achievements are all glossed over, accepted without a second glance. The new rock music's skill and speed at adapting
to new tests has been given no credit, typical of the lack of respect it receives.
TV is a good example of how Siouxsie and the Banshees have approached and conquered things that are new and complicated.
Their performance on Top Of The Pops was dream-like and disturbing, their appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test loud and
Severin: "We just storm in there and make a fuss. Doing the TOTP video was frustrating . . .
McKay: "It didn't work out as well as it should have done. It didn't really look very good. But it still looked better than TOTP would
have done, although they still went into that star and then Tony Blackburn."
Severin: "On The Old Grey Whistle Test we knew we were dealing with 24-inch and we knew what two songs we wanted to do, and
we put a lot of thought into it, how we were going to move. It's totally different from a gig, where your eyes can go everywhere."
"Art which adds nothing to the experience of the public, which leaves it as it found it, which wants to do no more than flatter rude
instincts and confirm unripe or overripe opinions, such Art is worth nothing. So-called pure entertainment produces a hang-over.
There is just as little value in Art which has no purpose but to educate and thinks to do this by flagellation, abandoning all the varied
methods available to the Arts: this will not educate the audience but simply bore it The public have a right to be entertained. This
helps to reproduce working strength. But it must not only do this. And the Artists have a right to be allowed to entertain."
SIOUXSIE AND the Banshees leave 1978 composed and confident. The only thing that got them as far as 1978 was intensity of
feeling. Their immediate future is vague, 1979 should be much slower than '78.
They continue patiently tackling Polydor's dumb quirks; they've just refused to appear on their label's pretty punk package.
Severin comments: "I just don't think it will be a good album. It's just a commercial enterprise, like Jubilee, I don't want to be involved
with that shit."
They prepare the follow-up to "Hong Kong Garden", claiming there's no real pressure . . ."There was never a pressure to have a hit
in the first place,"
Morris muses. "A hit will give us a better standing. Also, it's a new standing.
There's the single, then the album, then this new single, and they have all come from the last two years. The next material will be a
completely different repertoire. And we want to record that really clean, almost disco."
"The Scream" and "Hong Kong Garden" could be their peaks. Who can tell?
But tell me, Siouxsie, do you get recognised in the streets?
"Yeah, in the tobaccanists."
"I get embarrassed."
Now everybody .... AAAAAAH!
(The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round... no more
coats and no more home.)
(Reprinted from the Punk Rocker archives - NME DECEMBER 23RD 1978)
This is what the Banshees depict, slanted from the way they themselves
were brought up, mundanely 'comfortable' and middle class. Their use of
"Helter Skelter" in this is crucial: "When I get to the bottom I go back to the
top of the slide", roll the boulder up, roll the boulder down . . . The album
took two years to come together, and its timing was perfect. If it had been
attempted six months earlier it would not have been as vivid.