A Love Letter to Siouxsie (& the Banshees)

09.04.10, Words by: Ruth Saxelby

It would be disingenuous to deny that throughout my long held love for Siouxsie, her style and embodiment of strong rock ‘fuck you’ womanhood has been any less of a pull than the music I cherish. It’s naïve to imagine that music operates exclusively from the context that surrounds it. As much as I drank in the moody, dramatic, odd music – lyrical songs about an infanticidal mother (Carcass) or schizophrenia (Christine) – Siouxsie’s style and legendary attitude enabled me, a non gender conforming teenager, to master that timeless combination of black panda eyes/blood red mouth, and helped instill the confidence to clack around a dreary South London suburb (the same streets she’d walked as a teenager, importantly) in dominatrix stilettos, to the jeers of local boys in Reebok Classics.

Since I was released into the world the same month as Siouxsie and the Banshee’s second single, The Staircase (Mystery) (March 1979), and roughly five months after that of their seminal album, ‘The Scream’, I wasn’t lucky enough to experience them until I was 14, via my friend Joanne. She was one of those classmates we all had, the zenith of cool who shaped your version of the world, from vague socialism to which cosmetics to pilfer from Boots. In return for being allowed to plagurise her maths homework I supplied her with cigarettes and grilled her about the bands Tipexed onto her army surplas bag, bands that her elder brother had liked and so, passed on to me through a third degree of influence. The first album I bought was ‘Once Upon A Time’ – best to hedge your bets on a singles collection, especially in a time pre-internet, when sampling music was a financial commitment. The music made my heart race and seemed to be the antithesis to the laddish dirge of the mid-Nineties. I was addicted to dark glamour, to film noir mystery and to those old punk tropes of bricolage and juxtoposition. The tiresome machismo and obviousness of bands like Oasis left me uninspired and seemed about as glamorous and mysterious as an old potato.

As with anyone who gets to know a band’s work through their legend and back catalogue rather than the immediacy of gigs, the love comes through studious dedication and slightly nerdy romanticism. If it wasn’t for this, though, I would have failed to widen my appreciation of music by listening to those who had influenced the Banshees (when I heard the Velvet Underground I understood what Siouxsie meant when she talked of their desire to make people faint and when I watched Psycho discovered how they’d been influenced by film scores). Over and over again I listened to their 20 minute version of the Lord’s Prayer, the performance that constituted the entirity of their debut set, opening for the Sex Pistols in 1976, a raucaus, angry improvisation with Sid Vicious on drums that only finished once they got bored. Siouxsie eventually picked up her beer, strutted through the crowd (was this when she wore the cupless bra?), thinking privately according to the biography, that she’d “been there, done that”. I watched footage of her and other members of the Bromley contingent join the Pistols on the Bill Grundy show; that string of four letter words that aired live at tea time and caused one disgruntled licence payer to kick in his TV screen in outrage. I understood how their trajectory embraced the rawness of early albums like ‘Join Hands’, the proto gothicism of ‘JuJu’ and ‘A Kiss in the Dreamhouse’, and the increasing skill (never an antribute that interested them in the beginning) of Budgie’s drumming which went on to inform later albums like ‘Peepshow’ and create spinoff project The Creatures. An album of covers, ‘Through the Looking Glass’ proved that they could give their own brand of pathos to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Their penultimate offering, ‘Superstition’, was an exercise in pop, but ‘Downside Up’, a box set of b-sides demonstrated that they always retained an experimental edge. That haunting voice was a constant presence throughout.

It doesn’t do to wallow in history though. Siouxsie never has. After a heap of albums with the Banshees and the Creatures, and collaborations with artists as diverse as Morrissey and Basement Jaxx, she released her first solo work in 2005 and I finally saw her live, resplendent in a gold catsuit at 50. Polished pop starlets have their place but praise be to the trailblazing dash cut by Siouxsie – part smouldering diva, part Amazonian – proving that women in music can shimmer, shout and scream (and do it in killer heels). Without her we might be deprived a PJ Harvey, a Karen O, a Bat For Lashes. And I might never have perfected my eyeshadow.

Thom Shaw is a performance artist (visit his blog) and co-editor of Dance Theatre Journal.