The Guide to Getting Into Siouxsie and The Banshees, Dark Pop Outsiders
From punk to pop, the London band would influence a generation of artists by flouting convention and playing with public perception. Just don't call them "goth."
Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns via Getty Images
"Flexed-Up, Sexed-Up Siouxsie Sioux Wisely Loses the Lost-Girl Image," the Los Angeles Times proclaimed, two days after Siouxsie and the Banshees played LA’s Universal Amphitheatre in 1992. The British alternative band was on tour supporting Superstition, its tenth full-length album, and the release that spawned its biggest US hit, "Kiss Them For Me."
By 1992, the post-punk outfit was already more than 15 years into its career, and past the point where frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux was being compared to Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. Now, with her dark makeup and fetish aesthetic, she was being cast as the leader of a cult of weird chicks in a review that spent five paragraphs on her looks and a whopping two on the music. Maybe, at that point, the band was used to that: From its punk origins to the dark pop of its later career, Siouxsie and the Banshees would spend its career flouting convention and playing with public perception, all the while maintaining a fanbase that stuck with them as outsiders scratched their heads.
Siouxsie and the Banshees formed in 1976, during London's punk heyday, when a last-minute slot opened up at festival put on by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. Sioux and bassist Steven Severin—the band’s only two consistent members throughout the band’s 20-year run—were Pistols acolytes, and jumped in to play a 20-minute improvised rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Sid Vicious played drums.
Buzz swirled around Siouxsie and the Banshees. What was intended to be a one-off gig lead to frequent shows, a magazine cover, and turning up on Tony Wilson’s punk-heavy TV show, So It Goes. But it wasn’t until 1978, after the Sex Pistols disbanded and the original punk scene was essentially dead, that the band released its first proper album, The Scream, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. By 1980, though, ex-Slits drummer Budgie had joined and would remain part of the band until its split in 1996. Other members came and went, including John McGeoch of Magazine and Visage, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Jon Klein of the goth band Specimen, and multi-instrumental 4AD staple Martin McCarrick.
Siouxsie became an iconic front-person of the era, and it is nearly impossible to separate gender from her work. Before the Banshees, she was the Sex Pistols fan rocking A Clockwork Orange-inspired makeup and a cigarette on the British show Today—a member of the band’s on-stage posse who rolled her eyes and made a sour face when host Bill Grundy hit on her on-air. The exchange prompted a defensive, expletive-laden response from Sex Pistol Steve Jones, and helped launch the Pistols to UK tabloid infamy.
As one of the few female performers to emerge from the UK punk scene, Siouxsie was already well-acquainted with being an underdog. In interviews, she has recounted growing up in a London suburb with an alcoholic father, who died when she was a young teenager. She has also spoken about how she was sexually assaulted as a child, an experience that would influence the scathing Banshees song "Candyman." In it, she details the long-term effects of abuse, singing: “And all the children, he warns ‘don’t tell’ / Those threats are sold / With their guilt and shame, they think they’re to blame.”
As her star rose, she found herself being compared to women—Madonna, Sheena Easton, and Louise Brooks, for example—with whom she had little in common. Sometimes, like in the 1992 LA Times review, an appraisal of her appearance would take precedence over an assessment of her work, and her female fanbase would become the brunt of snarky comments. But, for female fans, it was never just about fashion and make-up. Siouxsie Sioux showed us that rock music, so frequently perceived as the realm of boys, was ours too.
Siouxsie's husky, powerful voice sucked listeners into stories about war, dysfunctional families, and mental illness. These weren't typical pop songs; the subject matter was heavy, the imagery was often layered. These were lyrics you had to dissect and analyze, while the music came with sinewy rhythms that compelled you to dance. That made the band a perfect obsession—and style inspiration—for the bookish, sensitive types who would become the clubs kids known as goths.
Like The Cure’s Robert Smith, Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy, and other alleged goth icons, Siouxsie and the Banshees rejected that description, and perhaps rightly so. "Goth" didn't exist when the band released The Scream 40 years ago. Their first album preceded debut full-lengths from goth forebears like The Cure and Joy Division, as well as Bauhaus' landmark single, "Bela Lugosi's Dead." They existed before scene-defining clubs like Batcave in London.
If they embraced darkness, Siouxsie and the Banshees had moments of light-heartedness as well. Its cover of The Beatles’ classic “Dear Prudence” was a faithful one, and the band tapped into childhood nostalgia with a rendition of The Jungle Book’s “Trust in Me.” The band often made dance music, releasing club-friendly 12-inch singles in the early 80s, and dabbling with hip hop-friendly beats in the late 80s and early 90s. Alongside radio-friendly pop singles, they’d go long and get weird on album tracks and B-sides, consistently pushing their sound in new directions until they disbanded in 1996. The band’s longevity, and its willingness to experiment with new sounds, would shape a cross-genre, cross-generation legion of musicians. The Smiths, Radiohead, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, LCD Soundsystem, U2, and PJ Harvey are among the bevy of artists to cite them as influences. Tricky has covered them, The Weekend has sampled them, and shoegaze icons Slowdive took its name from a Siouxsie and the Banshees song.
Getting through the Siouxsie and the Banshees catalog can be a daunting task. In recent years, its catalog has been reissued, and compilations have pulled together the formerly obscure cuts. It's still a mountain of music, so the playlists here break it down into the band's essential veins of influence.
So You Want to Get Into: Dance Floor Siouxsie and the Banshees?
Siouxsie and the Banshees may have been uncomfortable with the goth tag, but that doesn't change the fact that their music became a cornerstone of club nights that cater to the kids dressed in black. However, image and lyrical content is only part of the reason why this band continues to draw crowds to the dance floor more than 20 years after they split. Siouxsie and the Banshees crafted a lot of solid dance songs with a stickiness that persists to this day. There's a simple reason for this: the rhythm section. Siouxsie and the Banshees went through a lot of guitarists during their two decades as a band, but the rhythm section remained fairly stable. Bassist Steven Severin co-founded the group with Siouxsie Sioux. Budgie, one of the finest drummers to emerge from the post-punk era, joined the fold for the band's third album, Kaleidoscope, and remained a member for the rest of the group's lifespan. That kind of consistency meant that they never lost the groove while moving from the energetic, galloping "Spellbound" to the downtempo "Face to Face" and the bones of the songs, frequently credited to the whole band, were strong enough to withstand changing trends in club music and culture.
Siouxsie Sioux has acknowledged that soul was a formative influence on her. She also was a club-goer. In a 1999 interview for The Independent, she and British singer Marc Almond talk about how they met at a London sex shop and began hanging out with each other at clubs. Almond notes that the two loved to dance to "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," the disco hit by Sylvester. This was a band in tune with the sounds developing around them. You can hear that as years pass and the sound of Siouxsie and the Banshees evolves. "Kiss Them For Me" samples hip-hop artist Schoolly D and "Face to Face," from the Batman Returns soundtrack, has a languid stride that links together the late '80s R&B of Soul II Soul and 90s trip-hop, a la Portishead.
Siouxsie and the Banshees' influence on the dance floor extends beyond a single scene. "Happy House," from the 1980 album Kaleidoscope, has been remixed a number of times to varying degrees of success. LCD Soundsystem covered "Slowdive" and Junkie XL covered "Cities in Dust" with singer Lauren Rocket. Santigold borrowed from "Red Light" for her song "My Superman."
Playlist: "Christine" / "Happy House" / "Red Light" / "Spellbound (12" mix)" / "Arabian Knights (12" mix)" / "Monitor" / "Fireworks" / "Slowdive" / "Dazzle (Glamour Mix)" / "Cities in Dust" / "Killing Jar" / "Peek-a-Boo" / "Kiss Them For Me" / "Face to Face"
So You Want to Get Into: Cinematic Siouxsie and the Banshees?
In a 2005 story for The Guardian, Steven Severin is quoted on how Siouxsie and the Banshees' influences differed from others in the punk scene: "While most of the protagonists of punk looked to American garage bands—Flaming Groovies, MC5, the Stooges, the Dolls—or to the New York scene of Patti Smith, Television, Heartbreakers and the Ramones as a benchmark, we, perversely, saw ourselves as taking on the baton of glamorous art rock—Bowie and Roxy Music—while incorporating a love for Can, Kraftwerk and Neu."
In that same article, Siouxsie Sioux acknowledges the role that film played on the band's music, saying, "I suppose I was interested in creating a vision; in the same way I was very drawn to tension within cinema. Hitchcock was my other early obsession—Psycho, and its score. So there was the sense of trying to create an atmosphere: how a sound resonates and makes an effect."
It's in that mix of glam rock, Krautrock, and cinematic thrillers that the band demands undivided attention. Siouxsie and the Banshees could kick listeners in the ass with their short, hyper cuts like "Love in a Void" and "Carcass." But, they were also masters of building a mood that could envelop listeners and sustain them, sometimes for minutes on end, as dramatic tales unfolded within the songs. This is something that was part of the band from the get-go. The Scream closes with "Switch," clocking in at nearly seven minutes and alternating between rhythmic punk and atmospheric moments that foreshadow the rise of shoegaze a decade later. On Join Hands, their sophomore effort, "Icon" plays out like a movie with Siouxsie's voice rising to a climactic moment when drums crash and she begins to wail. These dramatic pieces remained part of the band's work throughout their existence. Indeed, the title track of their sorely underrated final album, The Rapture, plays out like an 11-and-a-half-minute miniseries complete with cliffhanger moments that leave you wondering where the band will go next.
Playlist: "Switch" / "Icon" / "Israel" / "Red Over White" / "Night Shift" / "Voodoo Dolly" / "Tattoo" / "92 Degrees" / "The Last Beat of My Heart" / "The Rapture"
So You Want to Get Into: Cover Master Siouxsie and the Banshees?
Siouxsie and the Banshees were very open about their influences, even releasing a covers album, Through the Looking Glass, in 1987. Those sources of inspiration, though, were varied and extended beyond music and into film, art and literature. If you were lucky enough to stumble upon Siouxsie and the Banshees at an impressionable age, the band could become your window into a world beyond the mainstream. Through them, you might find out about the Velvet Underground, Man Ray or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Siouxsie and the Banshees pieced together bits of counter-culture history, made music that was accessible enough to draw in young teens and then passed knowledge down to their fans.
Throughout their career together, the band took an approach to covers that was almost like that of a crate-digging DJ. They got in some of the hits, taking on songs by the likes of The Beatles, T. Rex and the Velvet Underground in reverential ways. Yet, they also pulled out some unexpected choices. "Supernatural Thing," which appeared on the "Arabian Knights" single, was originally performed by soul singer Ben E. King. Their Kraftwerk pick, "Hall of Mirrors," is a lesser known track from the German band's landmark album, Trans-Europe Express.
Playlist: "20th Century Boy" / "Helter Skelter" / "Supernatural Thing" / "Dear Prudence" / "Hall of Mirrors" / "Trust in Me" / "The Passenger" / "All Tomorrow's Parties"
Liz Ohanesian is a journalist and DJ based in LA. Follow her on Twitter.