Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Once Upon A Time Is 40

Siouxsie and The Banshees emerged fully formed from the punk scene- Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin were part of the Bromley Contingent who followed the Sex Pistols- and gained notoriety for a spiky, atonal and extended version of The Lord’s Prayer during the spit, vomit and snot heyday.

However, by the time of this, the first singles compilation, their sound, bolstered by the tribal drumming of one- time Slits member Budgie, and shimmering, eerie guitar by John McKay and John McGeogh, was more refined and listenable. Sioux and her imperious ice-cold vocals and glam stage presence were the epitome of a new movement: Goth.

More sexy than punk, and less grey and industrial than the concrete slab bleakness of post-punk, it derived its influence from many forms: literature; the art and architecture it was named after, horror cinema and predominantly, a taste for the creepy, macabre, and darkly romantic. Think of Edgar Allen Poe with a taste for punk rhythm, and you’re on the right track.

Siouxsie’s unique style was hugely empowering and enticing to a small town girl like me- it drew from the dressing up box, at once theatrical and fetishistic.

Always just on the cusp of histrionic, the singles are steeped in drama and dark subject matter- Christine and Happy House focus on mental health issues; Spellbound, The Playground Twist and The Staircase Mystery seem located within giddy, sickly childhood phantasmagoria, with references to toys, buddies, ragdolls and saying your prayers.

It’s questionable whether Israel, Hong Kong Garden and Arabian Knghts would be acceptable subject matter nowadays, but Sioux was actually addressing (albeit in a clumsy, sledgehammer way) racism,war, displaced people and sexual slavery here, which led to pushback from certain sectors of the music press- her lyrics have always been hit-and-miss and a little on the nose at times. Israel was actually influenced by more ambitious music than punk- no wave. Its opening line, “little orphans in the snow” is similar to Teenage Jesus and The Jerks’ “little orphans running through the bloody snow”, from the violent, urgent single Orphans. That’s surely a homage, as The Banshees toured with Lydia Lunch and her various bands around that time.

Any thematic misgivings aside, the music is still incredible- sounding as timeless and perfectly structured as when it first arrived. I played my vinyl copy until it was scratched to pieces- probably apposite, as there’s something of a sphinx cat to Siouxsie and the band.

They’ve had their share of piss-poor imitators over the last decade- don’t get me started on Savages, Karen O and Amanda Palmer, all of whom feel like a diluted version, ripping off her vocal style.

As the music press is so consistently fond of retrospective appreciation of dad rock (Neil Young, Elvis Costello, The Clash, et al) it would be nice to see more praise heaped on female trailblazers- Siouxsie Sioux has one of the best voices in any genre, as far as this old Goth is concerned.

Published by loreleiirvine

I'm a freelance arts monkey. Come see my brain vomit.

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