08 February 2009

Siouxsie and the Banshees: Retrospective on Studio Albums

From punk rock to experimental pop, Siouxsie and the Banshees defied all the conventions of music, while paving the road for future bands. The power of this catalogue is that it is impossible to define it in its entirety. When you think you have the Banshees figured out, they compose something new and fresh. The beauty of this catalogue is its diversity. Influenced by the likes of the Doors, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground, they left their mark on bands such as the Cure, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Jane’s Addiction – their distinct sound is echoed throughout music.

Siouxsie and the Banshees are truly unsung heroes. Sure, they have received quite a bit of acclaim, but what has never been postulated is that so much of what followed (post punk, goth rock, shoegazing, dream pop, alternative in general) would not be the same if not for their influence. Not always radio friendly, and quite often disturbing, the Banshees is a seminal band that was led by a woman (Susan Ballion, a.k.a. Siouxsie Sioux), who never sold her sexuality to become an icon. In 2005, Siouxsie Sioux gave the Best International Act Award to the Scissor Sisters at the Brit Awards; Anna Matronic of the Sisters hugged Siouxsie and said, “I want to say to you, that woman right there, Ms. Siouxsie Sioux, if she weren’t in existence, I wouldn’t be standing here today. It’s for women in rock like that, that use their brain and not their butts to get by, that I want to thank.” Even a popish-glam band acknowledges the roads paved by Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Listed below are the studio albums. To listen to them in order of release is a journey that mirrors the anger and fears of the 70s, the anxiety of the 80s, and the sense of disillusion and dejection of the early 90s. I recommend these albums hands down, for each of them demonstrates the conscientiousness that all musicians should have to their craft. Each of them demonstrates clever and incredible song writing. Each of them demonstrates how pioneers pushed the envelope – whether sonically, lyrically, or thematically.

“The Scream” (1978)

Track Listing:
1. Pure
2. Jigsaw Feeling
3. Overground
4. Carcass
5. Helter Skelter
6. Mirage
7. Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)
8. Nicotine Stain
9. Suburban Relapse
10. Switch

Why is it a must? This album went beyond the rantings and ravings of punk rock. If punk rock was about challenging the status quo, they challenged the status quo of what punk rock was. With aggressive guitar playing, this album established the Banshees as one of the pioneers of “post-punk” – contemplative, experimental punk. From the beginning, the Banshees refused to be defined by the scene they opted to be part of, or scenes that critics would lump them into. Instead, right from the first album, the Banshees influenced and defined the scenes, and were not just another generic, paper cutter band.

“Join Hands” (1979)

Track Listing:
1. Poppy Days
2. Regal Zone
3. Placebo Effect
4. Icon
5. Premature Burial
6. Playground Twist
7. Mother / “Oh Mein Papa”
8. The Lord’s Prayer

Why is it a must? The fourteen-minute punk rock version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” It is a song that made them (in)famous in 1976, when the Banshees played their first show. According to legend, the Banshees had no idea how to even play their instruments (which I doubt) and had not rehearsed a single note. They got on stage, where Siouxsie commenced to read poetry, while the Banshees made noise, including this take on the “Lords Prayer.” Not the loving prayer we are use to hearing at Sunday mass, this eerie take on the prayer brings out an anxiety and anger that is not typically imaginable.

“Kaleidoscope” (1980)

Track Listing:
1. Happy House
2. Tenant
3. Trophy
4. Hybrid
5. Clockface
6. Lunar Camel
7. Christine
8. Desert Kisses
9. Red Light
10. Paradise Place
11. Skin

Why is it a must? It is the first album that has that classic Banshees guitar sound associated with John McGeoch. The guitar playing becomes much more sophisticated; sonically, this album starts moving the Banshees away from punk and post-punk, inching closer to new wave and gothic rock. The album includes “Red Light,” an eerie experiment in synths, and “Clockface,” where Siouxsie experiments with the use of her voice. The highlight of the album is “Paradise Place.” This song is sexy, in every way. It is also prophetic: “You can hide your genetics under drastic cosmetics, but this chameleon magic is renown to be tragic.” Years before the craze for plastic surgery, the Banshees are lashing out at the fascism of beauty.

“Juju” (1981)

Track Listing:
1. Spellbound
2. Into the Light
3. Arabian Knights
4. Halloween
5. Monitor
6. Nigh Shift
7. Sin in My Heart
8. Head Cut
9. Voodoo Dolly

Why is it a must? This is the first album that Budgie (drummer) and John McGeoch had an equal part in the song writing. This takes the Banshees back into guitar-dominated arrangements with tribal beats at times, taking a step into the goth scene. The album is dark and contemplative, while still begin vibrant and verging on pop hooks. For instance, “Monitor” could have easily been a radio friendly single, while “Arabian Knights,” the second single of the album, is a bouncy number trying to get the skinny on the fate of an unknown woman: “I heard a rumor, what have you done to her?” Though the Banshees have shagged off the label of being goths, songs like “Night Shift,” “Sin in My Heart,” and “Voodoo Dolly” become blue prints for future goths to emulate.

“A Kiss in the Dream House” (1982)

Track Listing:
1. Cascade
2. Green Fingers
3. Obsession
4. She’s a Carnival
5. Circle
6. Melt
7. Painted Bird
8. Cocoon
9. Slowdive

Why is it a must? This was the first Banshees album that receives unanimous critical acclaim in the UK. This is arguably the most experimental album in the catalogue. Combining poppy hooks, synths, and an array of new acoustic sounds (chimes to piano), the Banshees are conscious of genre-bending years before it was popular. For instance, the jazzy “Cacoon” incorporates experimental new wave elements, while both “Cascade” and “Painted Bird” generates the sonic power of their earlier music without the use of power chords.

“Hyaena” (1984)

Track Listing:
1. Dazzle
2. We Hunger
3. Take Me Back
4. Belladonna
5. Swimming Horses
6. Dear Prudence (US Only)
7. Bring Me the Head of the Preacher Man
8. Running Town
9. Pointing Bone
10. Blow the House Down

Why is it a must? First, amazing lyrics that give pause to think – “Skating bullets on angel dust” (“Dazzle”), “He gives birth to swimming horses” (“Swimming Horses”), and “As the rust creeps, corrosion seeps a rotting seed… eat me… feed me” (“We Hunger”) to point out a few. Second, amazing arrangements, from the orchestrated strings in “Dazzle” to the tight and layered “Running Town,” you are absorbed into the music. Even the pop numbers, like “Swimming Horses,” upped the sophistication in the Banshees arrangements. Third, Fat Bob… that is Robert Smith of the Cure, playing guitar as a Banshee. He may not be John McGeoch, but he brings a new element to the sound; the process in turns brings a new dimension to the Cure’s music.

“Tinderbox” (1986)

Track Listing:
1. Candyman
2. The Sweetest Chill
3. This Unrest
4. Cities in Dust
5. Cannons
6. Party’s Fall
7. 92 Degrees
8. Land’s End
9. The Quaterdrawing of the Dog (edited version)
10. An Execution
11. Lullaby
12 Umbrella
13. Cities in Dust (extended version)

Why is it a must? This album combines every pop trick in the book, with really edgy, dark goth elements. It incorporates more acoustic sounds than any album to point, but the occasional ambient keyboards and highly effected guitars eradicate any chance of the mundane. Guitarist John Valentine Curruthers joins the fold for this album. He brings a more jagged arpeggio style and perhaps the best strumming that the Banshees ever had.

“Through the Looking Glass” (1987)

Track Listing:
1. This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us (Originally by the Sparks)
2. Hall of Mirrors (Originally by Kraftwerk)
3. Trust in Me (Originally in Disney’s “The Jungle Book”)
4. This Wheel’s on Fire (Originally by Julie Driscoll)
5. Strange Fruit (Orginally by Billie Holiday)
6. You’re Lost Little Girl (Originally by the Doors)
7. The Passenger (Originally by Iggy Pop)
8. Gun (Originally by John Cale)
9. Sea Breezes (Originally by Roxy Music)
10. Little Johnny Jewel (Originally by Television)

Why is it a must? This is one of the best cover albums of all time. While most artists cover music with the expectation of achieving a hit on the back of a previous famous song, this collection of covers is what covering music should be around. There are two reasons to cover another artist’s music. The first is to bring a new dimension out of the song; the second is to save a great song from obscurity. This album does both. The Banshees own “The Passenger” (I never think of Iggy Pop anymore when I hear this song). “Strange Fruit” (originally by Billie Holiday) is transformed into a disturbing, cold piece. Kraftwerk’s “Hall of Mirrors” gains a new life outside of the realm of electronics.

“Peepshow” (1988)

Track Listing:
1. Peek-a-Boo
2. The Killing Jar
3. Scarecrow
4. Carousel
5. Burn-Up
6. Ornaments of Gold
7. Turn to Stone
8. Rawhead and Bloodybones
9. The Last Beat of My Heart
10. Rhapsody

Why is it a must? This is perhaps one of the best British albums of all times that never got any serious consideration on this side of the Great Pond. From the use of accordions and backmasked recording in “Peek-A-Boo” (a pop jingle about a call girl) to “Scarecrow” (a dark, gothy number of an imaginary friend / voices in the head scenario), this album is produced to perfection, with ambrosial, lascivious arrangements. There is a tension in this album that is rare for any band to produce. As a collection, these songs belong together, whether it is the indelible “Carousel” or the Spanish influenced ballet “Turn to Stone.” Here are a few more words: harrowing, infectious, haunting, and unforgettable.

“Superstition” (1991)

Track Listing:
1. Kiss Them for Me
2. Fear (of the Unknown)
3. Cry
4. Drifter
5. Little Sister
6. Shadowtime
7. Silly Thing
8. Got to Get Up
9. Silver Waterfalls
10. Softly
11. The Ghost in You

Why is it a must? “Kiss Them for Me” is an ode to the final moments of Jayne Mansfield, which in itself should be disturbing (“Kiss them for me, I may be delayed…”), but it is so darn poppy. This album was the only Siouxsie and the Banshee’s album to dent the American airwaves in any significant way – and not because they were co-headlining the original Lollapalooza Tour with Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails. It is the one Banshee effort that is radio friendly, bubbly even. Even the darkest song, “Little Sister,” sounds fresh in its multi-textured keyboards. If good experimental pop is what you are in the market for, you will not get better than this album. And if you thought you would never dance to the Banshees, listen to “Fear (of the Unknown)” and “Silly Thing.”

“Rapture” (1995)

Track Listing:
1. O Baby
2. Tearing Apart
3. Stargazer
4. Fall from Grace
5. Not Forgotten
6. Sick Child
7. The Lonely One
8. Falling Down
9. Forever
10. The Rapture
11. The Double Life
12. Love Out Me

Why is it a must? Almost twenty years into their career, Siouxsie and the Banshees are able to put out a fresh sounding album. (When recording, to my knowledge, there was no intent on this being the last album – the decision to dissolve the Banshees and the outgrowth of side projects as main projects and solo careers came after the fact.) “O Baby, “ “Tearing Apart,” and “Stargazer” are measuring rods for experimental, dark pop that today’s band constantly fall short of. “Forever” is what the goth sound is supposed to be about – seductive and enchanting, and yet conscious that nothing is forever. The title track, “Rapture,” is an ever-shifting, polymorphic epic that would make Queen proud. And if you thought that Smith was the only suicidal, bombastic poet, you thought wrong; in “Love Out Me,” the final track of the album, Siouxsie sings, “Anger tinged with sadness, it’s always been like this. No nothing, no one, no more, no no no no, I can’t take this. Love me, hate me, help me, save me from me. Hold me, hurt me, stop me, take this love out me!” If the ride had to end, it could not have ended more appropriately.