Attitude (July '98)
Vol. 1, No. 51 (July 1998), p. 22.
Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
(Photo by Donna Francesca from 1991)
Idols: Siouxsie Sioux
She was the face that launched 100,000 black eyeliner pencils -- the ultimate icon for pasty-faced teens everywhere. Two decades later, she’s still as scary, sexy and busy as ever. James Anderson salutes the Goddess of goth -- Siouxsie Sioux.
There’s nothing like a fierce ruling diva to take the pop world by the scruff of its neck and give it a good shake. In the 1980s Madonna’s hard-earned reputation as pop culture’s toughest filly became, and has remained, the stuff of impotency-inducing legend. Rather less stylishly, the 1990s have seen the likes of the Spice Girls shrilling their Girl Power rhetoric from the rooftops, keen to insist that they too are sporting the bossiest of platform-stacked boots. But all these obstreperous broads owe a debt to punk rock’s original dowhatchalike diva, the majestic Miss Siouxsie Sioux.
Forget tepees and tomahawks, Siouxsie’s real name is the more glumly British Susan Janet Ballion. And the threat of being scalped behind the new curtains and neatly trimmed hedges of suburban Chislehurst, Kent, into which our subject was born in 1957, was negligible.
Described by herself as "more puritanical than proper middle class in a way, almost spiteful," young Susan was unimpressed by her blander-than-bland surroundings. By the time of her late teenage years in the pre-punk mid ‘70s she sought an escape route from the tedium (remember, this was the era when achingly dull pomp rockers and bands like the Bay City Rollers ruled the airwaves) in the sounds and visual extravagance of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and the cinematic decadence of Cabaret and A Clockwork Orange. Her own confrontational appearance (fishnets, men’s suit jackets -- anything visually at odds with hippies or flaredness) underwent frequent, dramatic transformations via free hair dying sessions at Vidal Sassoon and, always, stark make-up. Unsurprisingly, this garish aesthetic and icy demeanour didn’t impress the boobs and flicks-type modelling agencies which she approached in a naïve quest for employment, thus prompting a variety of jobs in seedy pubs and clubs ‘up’ the West End.
Around this time, she began to hang out with a posse of similarly disaffected, style-conscious youths from neighbouring Bromley (one being fellow future star Billy Idol) and in central London. Each had fingers in different pies: the capital’s gay clubs, for instance (the only after-dark establishments willing to grant admission to a bunch of freaks), art colleges, prostitution (a friend, Linda Ashby, ran a whipping parlour in Park Lane while certain male cohorts went on the rent). Debbie Wilson, one of Siouxsie’s muckers at the time recalls this period in Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming as "all these queens going round in punk gear and black leather and going ‘Ooooooh!’", (which paints a more accurate picture of events -- often overlooked in the clichéd laddy/macho image punk would later gain). In fact, this mixing-and-mingling, and the feeling of taking control of one’s destiny, was the catalyst for a whole new London scene, with the likes of Siouxsie at its hedonistic core.
The passport to her own fame and notoriety came via emerging tabloid shockers The Sex Pistols. Siouxsie and co were among the very first people to recognise the importance of the band (despite the squillions of wannabes since claiming to have been there) and began to attend every volatile gig they played. Their presence, firstly as fans, and then as entourage/friends of the Pistols media circus earned them the nickname of the Bromley Contingent. By 1976 Siouxsie was becoming a ‘face.’ She and two mates were splashed on the cover of The Daily Mail -- its headline declaring; "These People Are Wreckers of Civilisation". When the Sex Pistols outraged the nation by hurling a string of expletives at the host of BBC’s early evening Nationwide programme, Siouxsie was present and giggling on the set -- patently loving every f****g! minute of it. She began marching around gigs and clubs with her tits on full display (much more daring in the sterile ‘70s) and non-too-wisely sporting a swastika armband, an inflammatory style gesture she has since had to live down. Other girls began, less successfully, to adopt her provocative looks; Boy George recalls in his autobiography Take It Like A Man: "I’d proudly tell of the time I saw Siouxsie Sioux fixing her make-up in the ladies’ loo at Louise’s. She was haughty, irritated by those attempting to brush with greatness."
Siouxsie proved herself to be more than just a heavily made-up mush when, with Sid Vicious, Marco Pirelli [they mean Pirroni], (the fat one from Adam and the Ants) and Steve Severin, she stropped on stage as Siouxsie and the Banshees at London’s Punk Rock Festival in September 1976. The ‘band’ performed a twenty-minute, atonal dirge of The Lord’s Prayer/Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, little concerned with lack of practice or crooning technique -- such was the gung ho spirit of the times. The great dame remarked of this debut: "It was a shambles but much more fun than doing something we rehearsed."
And so, an enduring musical legend was born. In 1978, with a different line up and following a graffiti campaign urging record companies to sign them up, Siouxsie and the Banshees got a contract and released "Hong Kong Garden," their first of many hits ("Happy House," Christine," "Spellbound," "Dear Prudence" and so on) and albums. To many, Siouxsie became a new type of spook feminist icon. In Love Is The Drug...Living As A Pop Fan, Lucy O’Brien remembers her sixth form yearnings "to enter the wild, strange, androgynous world she and her coterie seemed to signify, Siouxsie was the One Who Knew...Siouxsie, to me, symbolised a kind of sisterhood..."
In the early ‘80s Siouxsie unveiled a more extreme gothic look (earning her the comedy-type "Queen of Goth" monickers in the pop press) and sound, which influenced yet another generation of alienated teens. The band underwent various line-up changes and secured fan bases all over the world -- especially in Brazil and France. Siouxsie formed an offshot, percussion-based project called the Creatures -- still in effect today -- with Budgie (Banshees drummer and her long-time boyfriend) and produced hits like "Right Now," "Mad Eyed Screamer" and "Miss The Girl." As an outspoken, so-called ‘woman in roc,’ she has achieved almost iconic status -- frequently interviewed in the media, featured in scores of books, with her face printed on countless T-shirts flapping away in the Carnaby Street breeze. Towards the end of the decade, she put away her crimping irons and ghostly maquillage, got herself a slinky black bob, and successfully sued The Daily Mirror for claiming she had had a nose job. Despite further world-wide hits ("Peek-a-Boo" and "Kiss Them For Me") and her collaborations with Morrissey and The Cure [huh?], Siouxsie and the Banshees eventually split in the mid 90s.
But the story of Siouxsie doesn’t end there. A new album by the Creatures is anticipated, as is a 20th anniversary re-release of "Hong Kong Garden," and a greatest hits album later this year. Miss Busy Ex-Banshee has also been working with Marc Almond, her former idol David Bowie, and techno bloke Victor Imbres. And, fittingly, for someone whose career kicked off down the dyke disco/homo hangout, she has of late been spotted playing DJ at anything-goes London club night Mink. Best not to ask if she’ll play "Spice Up Your Life," though...