The Guardian (Saturday, September 24, 2005)
Her dark materials
Growing up in the suburbs, Siouxsie Sioux realised she wasn't like everyone else. Then she discovered music and clothes ... and became a punk icon. She tells Michael Bracewell how she did it
A black and white photograph of Siouxsie Sioux taken at a Sex Pistols concert in August 1976 still retains its ability to shock. She is dressed in nothing more than an asymmetrical ensemble of fetishistic latex underwear, finished off with a cupless bra that leaves her breasts bare. Her expression is aloof, inscrutable.
That same night, Siouxsie and her friend Steve Severin approached Malcolm McLaren, then manager of the Sex Pistols, with the idea of forming their own group. Siouxsie And The Banshees, named after the Vincent Price film Cry Of The Banshees, went on to become one of the most celebrated products of the punk era. It's now almost 30 years since the band's first performance, where Siouxsie intoned The Lord's Prayer over a wall of feedback at London's 100 Club - a set described at the time by one journalist as "unbearable". She now spends most of her time in south-eastern France, where she lives with former Banshees drummer Budgie (the pair have their own band, the Creatures), but we meet at a London hotel. Siouxsie is wearing an elegant white trouser suit, and her black hair - more of an Elvis-style raven blue, in fact - is slicked back to reveal features that seem virtually unchanged since she appeared as a post-punk geisha on the cover of The Face magazine in 1983.
Like her peers among the founding figures of British punk - Vivienne Westwood, Johnny Rotten, Howard Devoto and Mark E Smith - Siouxsie regards the labelling of "punk" as being the death of its vital energy. "Before we were on the Bill Grundy show with the Pistols," she says, "and before punk had been seized on by the tabloids, there was a healthy fear of our appearance. And it's funny how that fear turned to hatred once the phenomenon had been identified - or once it was considered to have been identified and contained. When I hired a costume from Berman's & Nathan's to go and see Roxy Music at Wembley Arena in 1975 (it was a cross between a mermaid and a chorus girl - purple sequins with a fish-tail train), I didn't get changed in the toilets at Charing Cross station, I travelled up to town in that outfit. I got odd looks, but if they saw you looking they'd turn away. I think that people sense that kind of single-mindedness and don't dare approach you. But all that really did change once punk was picked up on in the media. Then the public reaction was abusive."
It wasn't until 1978 - well after the initial shock waves of punk - that the Banshees released their first record. Something about their attitude, their refusal to conform to the increasingly commodified idea of punk, had kept the major record companies at a distance, but when their first album, The Scream, finally came out, its originality, edge and sheer energy provoked instant, near fanatical acclaim. It was one of those records that immediately summoned up a world view - dark, tense, eerily erotic.
"Looking back on those days, nothing can really capture quite how out on a limb the primary people were," says Siouxsie. "How brave it was, I suppose - without it really seeming brave at the time; more a kind of recklessness. But the term 'punk' was so lazy and easy and inaccurate. The Pistols were different because they had Rotten - without him, who knows? And the Clash went at it in a way that was far more traditional - a kind of Keith Richards thing. I wasn't trying to be masculine and getting down with the boys, so the main difference between us and the rest was that it wasn't a solely male perspective. I think a certain amount of anger has been a fuel of mine, if you want - but also some sort of sadness, and plain mischief, of course."
Siouxsie, originally Susie Ballion, grew up in suburban Chislehurst with her parents, brother and sister. Her mother worked as a bilingual secretary; her father was a lab technician. "I think that just because of the kind of family we were, there was definitely a sense of not feeling a part of the community, or of being neighbourly. I was very aware of us being very different. My father had a drink problem, which also sensitised that feeling.
"Where we lived was very residential, and our house seemed different. It wasn't red brick, to begin with - it was white stucco with a flat roof, and with trees. Everyone else had gardens with patios and neatly cut lawns, and we had these massive copper beech trees at the front, and a huge privet hedge. You couldn't look in to our house. All the others were almost inviting you to look in - life in all its normality was being paraded. Which probably wasn't the case behind closed doors, but that was the perception."
The suburbs, she says, "inspired intense hatred. I think the lure of London was always there. I remember my sister taking me to Biba on Kensington High Street; I bought a coat and used to gravitate towards going there on my own later. But the suburbs were also a yardstick for measuring how much we didn't fit in."
Together with Severin and another early Banshees member, Billy Idol, Siouxsie was part of the "Bromley Contingent", a small collection of friends and acquaintances from south London. They met at the earliest concerts by the Sex Pistols and then, discovering they were all from the same place, began to go out en masse - English descendants of Andy Warhol's heroically dysfunctional superstars. Their defining moment, perhaps, was Bertie Marshall's infamous "Berlin's Baby Bondage party" in 1976, held at his parents' house. The Sex Pistols came, and legend has it that the Styrofoam tiles on the ceiling were for ever scarred by Siouxsie's whip.
In many ways, Siouxsie And The Banshees became the contingent's ultimate statement about outsiderdom. Siouxsie and Severin went on to record many tracks that centred on disturbed childhoods, paranoia and personality disorders - singles such as Happy House, Playground Twist and Christine. "I would definitely say that our early material, for at least the first two albums, was suburbia - where I grew up, and the circumstances."
Her own childhood and teenage experiences of music were liberating. "Certainly music was the one big thing that made everything seem OK. It was a cause of happiness within the family, and laughter, and fun. My first love affair with a record was with John Leyton's Johnny Remember Me. It had these amazing, ghostly backing vocals, a great melody, and it was about a dead girlfriend, basically. I was three or four when it came out, in 1961, and I used to have to get somebody to put it on the record player for me.
"As I got older, I loved a lot of the Tamla Motown and a lot of R&B. Then there was the usual Beatles and Stones. I really got into The White Album. Pop music for me was definitely escapist, but never studious. I was never attracted to being a very proficient singer or player. 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. That has always been very important for me."
Listening to a bootlegged early demo tape from 1977, you are immediately struck by its jagged, jarring energy. Severin says a powerful early influence was seeing the German group Can play their first UK show at Brunel University in 1973.
"They came on and just played nonstop for two hours, each piece merging straight into the next. It had the most mesmerising effect on the audience. That's what I wanted to achieve with the Banshees." Two career-defining singles - Staircase Mystery and Playground Twist - led the group to their second album, Join Hands. And it was at this point, in 1979, just as Siouxsie And The Banshees were being recognised as one of the most original groups to emerge from punk, that guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris left - choosing to depart just hours before a concert in Aberdeen. Siouxsie told the disappointed crowd: "If you've got one per cent of the aggression we feel towards them, if you ever see them, you have my blessings to beat the shit out of them."
A quarter of a century later, Severin describes their departure as "a tragic waste" but an event that, in his words, was "the single key event" in the group's history. "It forced us to re-evaluate ourselves," he says. "We had to grow up in public very, very fast, and I had to come to terms with what had always been my crippling shyness." In the event, this sudden change gave the band new energy, repositioning them in the slick, fashion-conscious 1980s as purveyors of richly atmospheric, gorgeously dramatic music - the memorably intense singles Dazzle, Swimming Horses and Peekaboo, as well as their intoxicating cover of the Beatles' Dear Prudence.
"I've come to realise that the Banshees would have happened regardless of the 'punk' explosion," says Severin. "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."
Entering their second decade, Siouxsie And The Banshees occupied an unusual position, somewhere between "cult band" and "iconic". With inimitable style, they finally disbanded in 1996, on the day the Sex Pistols announced their first reunion tour. Siouxsie and Budgie moved to France, pursuing their work together as the Creatures. Both Siouxsie and Severin loathed the way they were sometimes linked to goth music. Like their musical heroes the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music, Siouxsie And The Banshees had created a back catalogue and a mythology that was as much a burden as an achievement.
"The music press tried very hard to make us unfashionable in the 90s, certainly in England," says Siouxsie. "For me, timelessness is what counts; sometimes you can only really tell after a long time how timeless something will be. With the Banshees, we had a way of just allowing our music to happen. There was a lot of space; it wasn't cluttered, and was hardly embellished. It evoked isolation, but in quite a euphoric way. At a signing the other day, someone asked me how it felt to be the queen of goth. I said, 'That's rather like being known as the Prince Regent of Fools.' I hate all that. There is a fun, flippant side to me, of course. But I would much rather be known as the Ice Queen."
Siouxsie And The Banshees' first album, The Scream, will be rereleased by Polydor on October 3, followed by the rest of the back catalogue.
Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.