The Times/The Knowledge (5.20.06)
Is she still all the rage?
As Siouxsie Sioux embarks on her first solo album, Chris Sullivan finds out if age has mellowed the first lady of punk
On a warm day in May, in the bar of a quiet London hotel, Siouxsie Sioux is still turning heads in a tight-fitting Gaultier dress, with oriental make-up on her alabaster skin under her trademark black hair. Siouxsie was one of the founders of British punk, performing at the legendary punk festival at the 100 Club in 1976 and, with the Sex Pistols, appearing infamously on the Bill Grundy Show. Then, in the 1980s, hers was the face that launched a million Goths. She, like the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, is a great British institution.
“I was certainly confused by all the lookalikes,” chuckles the remarkably affable diva. “And I didn’t really know quite how to handle it at first. At one point I was scheduled to be the Queen of Goth. But I refused to be categorised. Once people start asking me to conform in any way it is like a red rag to a bull — I rebel in the exact opposite direction.”
But one cannot rebel for ever. What happens when an icon of disaffected urban youth approaches middle age? Do they (like Johnny Rotten) present nature programmes on television, or do they (like Joe Strummer) move to the country to walk the dog? Siouxsie did indeed move with her husband and long-time musical collaborator, Budgie, to a converted farmhouse in the South of France in 1992. But, although she dutifully tended her expansive garden, resting on her laurels was never an option.
Siouxsie is in London preparing for her solo album. “I’m meeting with loads of different collaborators, but I don’t want to talk about it too much in case I jinx it. It was the Dream Show that encouraged me to do this album because I loved working with all these different people so much.”
The Dream Show consisted of Siouxsie performing live at the Festival Hall in London in October 2004, backed by a classical orchestra, the Japanese Kodo drummer Leonard Eto, a percussion section, a brass section, backing singers and her band. The event was a sell-out, and the DVD of the show topped music charts for much of last year.
Siouxsie and the Banshees first appeared on stage on September 20, 1976, supporting the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Even by punk standards, they were unconventional.
“I was just starting to play the bass and Siouxsie wanted to sing, so together with Billy Idol we had an idea for a band,” says the founder Banshee, Steve Severin. “Then Malcolm (McLaren) said he was putting on this punk festival at the 100 Club and he needed to fill a slot. So Billy said: ‘We’ll do it!’ ” But, days before their debut, Idol dropped out and in stepped Marco Pirroni (later of Adam and the Ants) on guitar, with Sid Vicious on drums. “The Clash let us rehearse in their space in Camden,” recalls Severin. “But after ten minutes Sid got bored and said: ‘OK, let’s just make a racket. Who cares?’ So we made all this noise while Siouxsie recited the Lord’s Prayer. It was horrible.”
Off stage Siouxsie was even more striking. I remember the singer, along with Sue Catwoman, Lynda the dominatrix, Idol and the rest of what would become known as the Bromley Contingent, holding court throughout that hot summer of 1976 in Louise’s, a lesbian club in Soho.
As much influenced by the glam antics of David Bowie and the raw power of Iggy Pop, Siouxsie and her crowd would turn up in impeccable outfits that were dazzlingly original and certainly not what one might term punk. But it wasn’t until the Sex Pistols’ infamous Screen on the Green appearance that Siouxsie offered a taste of what was to come, taking to the stage clad only in shiny PVC underwear, fishnets and a cupless bra that exposed her breasts and stole the Pistols’ thunder. As the former Banshees manager Nils Stevenson told me: “I knew from that moment she was going to be huge.”
Born Susan Janet Ballion, Siouxsie was raised along with her older brother and sister in suburban Chislehurst, Kent. Her parents had met in the Belgian Congo; her mother was a bilingual secretary, her father was a laboratory technician who milked venom from poisonous snakes and died when Siouxsie was just 14. “I was always quite aware of us being different,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any deep friendships at school because it was all silly girls talking about their boyfriends, so I started coming up the West End with my older sister, a go-go dancer, and hanging out at Let it Rock, Malcolm and Vivienne’s shop before they opened Sex. I must have been about 17.”
One of these excursions sealed Siouxsie’s fate. “It was at a Roxy Music concert in October 1975 that I met Siouxsie,” remembers Severin. “She had some mad outfit that she had hired for the night and I had dyed white hair and a 1950s Lurex jacket. It was a match made in heaven as we both saw ourselves as carrying on the tradition of glamorous art rock — the Velvets, David Bowie, and Roxy with a bit of Kraftwerk and Can thrown in. We never fitted in. We weren’t a punk band.”
“I’ve always hated the term punk and have never wanted to be lumped in with it,” says Siouxsie, who has refused almost every request to be interviewed in punk’s 30th anniversary year. “It was so lazy. But looking back, nothing can really describe how single-minded and isolated the key people were. Thirty years ago, walking down the street as we did was like running the gauntlet: you risked getting the s*** beaten out of you. But punk was the perfect name for those who needed something to belong to. I never have. What we did was always about defying categorisation.”
Maybe it was this refusal to kowtow to what was fast becoming a commodified punk caricature that kept Siouxsie and the Banshees (now with Kenny Morris on drums and John McKay on guitar) unsigned for almost two years after the 100 Club engagement, even though they were a big live draw. “By the time we were signed,” she recalls, “I wanted nothing to do with punk. Zips, mohicans or safety pins, they were yet another uniform sold in the back pages of music papers.”
Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first single, Hong Kong Garden — a perverse paean to a Chinese takeaway in Chislehurst — reached No 7 in the charts in September 1978, while the first album, The Scream, was a worldwide hit. But as the band were recording the follow-up, Join Hands, splits were beginning to appear. Just after its release, a fight broke out between the Banshees in an Aberdeen record shop, and Morris and McKay walked out just hours before that night’s gig. “If you see them,” Siouxsie told the bewildered crowd that evening, “you have my permission to beat the s*** out of them.”
“I’ve still got a soft spot for that album,” says Siouxsie now. “It doesn’t matter what was going on behind the scenes because it was a really consolidated album that still sounds modern today. We were lonely and isolated and that comes across in the music. It’s a very brave record.”
But Siouxsie and Severin rose from the rubble, joined by Budgie on drums and the late John McGeoch on guitar, to record a new album, Kaleidoscope. The new record followed two massively successful singles, Happy House and Christine, and at that point Siouxsie seemed to be the coolest figure in Britain.
“It really felt like a solid group at the time,” recalls the singer. “Juju, our next album, had a really strong identity and a unique sound, which the bands that came in our wake tried to mimic. But they simply ended up diluting. With all those other bands, the doom and the black was all they had. They took it seriously. There was always more to us than that. So, of course, I found the Goth tag very limiting.”
In 1996, on the day that the Sex Pistols launched their reunion tour, Severin and Siouxsie ended two decades of musical collaboration and disbanded the Banshees. “A lot of people were really upset when we split up,” Siouxsie recalls. “But being in a band you live in each other’s pockets, and for stupid reasons it becomes joyless and petty grudges are held on to.”
Now, after 30 years and nearly as many albums — 18 with the Banshees and 11 with the Creatures, the band that she shares with Budgie — is there any advice that she would give to a young ingénue spurred on by her example? “My advice to any young girl like me would be to dress and do whatever makes you happy, and not let convention hold you back. A lot of people ask me now if recalcitrance was the only reason we did what we did initially. And I answer: ‘Yes, absolutely!’ It warmed the cockles of my heart, and to some extent it still does.”
The Scream album and Dream Show and Nocturne DVDs are out now. The albums Join Hands, Kaleidoscope and Juju, featuring bonus tacks, previously unreleased demos and instrumentals, are re-released on May 29.
Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.