BANSHEED! WHAT’S IN AN IMAGE?
Interview: NICK KENT
John McKay, the Banshees’ guitarist, has a pale, ashen look constantly playing about his features and talks in measured, serious tones. Kenny Morris, the group’s drummer, has extraordinarily feminine looks that are undermined by a no-nonsense, level-headedness in his manner and style of reply. Steven Severin, the bassist, sports features that resemble a continual benign leer, yet is the most soft-spoken of the quartet. And Siouxsie, the singer, is the most openly outspoken of the foursome, delivering curt, sling-shot rejoiners to questions put her way, though she will choose to embellish her remarks when necessary.
This is day two in my attempt to interview the Banshees for this article and, although I’d chosen initially to pitch for four individual interviews to piece together the story, circumstances have yet again conspired to bring the four individuals together in a group to confront my scrutiny.
However, when manager Nils Stevenson motions into this second group encounter to ask whether I’d prefer to talk individually to the members, I decline the offer because somehow it seems only right that the Banshees’ unity should be maintained.
It’s always been that way before. Just dive back into recent back-issues of the British music press to locate an interview with anything other than all four participants of the Banshees in union and you’ll find scant pickings. Siouxsie herself has been interviewed only once on a strictly one-to-one basis - with Snouds’ Vivien Goldman - sometime late last year for a feature that came replete with ready-made image - "Ice Queen of the New Cold Musik Age" or some such grand handle, marring an otherwise fine piece of journalism wherein the subject herself went on to gracefully demolish the frosted veneer by simply being herself.
Since then, the slow-but-sure progress maintained by the band has finally hit the bonus button with a lucrative record deal with Polydor and a neat advance cheque (though, still no exact sum is mentioned) and even total artistic control - "on paper at least" as one of the group wryly notes.
This second encounter in fact is taking place in the heart of the beast itself - or more precisely in some out-to-lunch A & R man’s office up on the floor of the Polydor West End complex that seems more than anything else to resemble the world of an architect experienced solely in the construction of various "Santa’s Christmas Grottos".
The bizarre juxtaposition of the Banshees and Polydor was consummated most forcefully when, upon first arriving at the appointed, P.R. Office. I encountered Steve Severin quietly on his tod scrutinising the reviews of "Hong Kong Garden" in the various music rags of the week while in another part of the room, James Brown "Hitman of Soul" and Polydor recording artiste, is passing through, making with the full ostentatious pimp-flash manners, motioning from phone to phone to occasionally bathe his omnipotent ego in the sycophantic droolings of a paid flunkie excitedly recalling Brown’s more youthful days when he performed on Arthur Howes’ British package tours.
When snared to a phone, Brown’s business manner slings aces-and-eights down the receiver as he discusses his "product" manoeuvres. Even yours humbly - a proud possessor of both James Brown "Smash Hit" volumes and the supreme achievement of the original "Live At The Apollo" - has to snigger at the little man’s pompous airs, while Severin seems totally bemused by it all, preferring to try and keep his attention as far away from this particular floor-show as is humanly possible. Sanctuary is eventually provided by an amiable-but-so-awfully-nervous young Polydor publicist, who ushers the two of us to the grotto confines of the interview location.
The 15 minutes-or-so of one-to-one with Severin provide a solid preface of reminiscences harking back to the pre-Banshee days. Severin, along with Siouxsie herself, are the two original Banshee perpetrators (Severin previously went under the surnames of Havoc and Spunker, to name but two) and first met through a mutual friend at a Roxy Music gig at Wembley Stadium back in 1974.
They both shared similar musical tastes - Roxy obviously, Bowie, N.Y. Dolls, Stooges and Lou Reed, thus making them very much participants in the glam-rock flutter of the earlier ‘70s. Basically loners, they struck up a friendship that provided the now-renowned ‘Bromley Contingent’ of Pistols fans with it’s first recruits.
1:37 PM The other Bromley-ite who shared in these select tastes was one Bill Broad, better known by the later-chosen surname of Idol, who, Severin claims, was his best mate at the time. Broad was another outsider who’d taken to studying English Lit at Sussex University when Severin phoned him up to announce excitedly that he’d seen this group called The Sex Pistols sometime in the opening months of 1976, impelling our Bill with such excitement that he immediately ditched his Milton to come down to London and ultimately click into a scene he could relate to.
The Pistols’ gig gave this crowd a scene of their own to be a part of - a scene that quickly picked up momentum as gig followed gig and the mode of dress (glam-rock and Sex shop chic) and attitude became more outrageous, and the audience itself granted the Pistols not only their first real afficianados but an added visual dimension that didn’t take long to be granted media scrutiny.
Regarding her now, it’s hard to think of Siouxsie Banshee as the same girl who first found fame via the semi-pornographic fetish clothing that she wore while dancing extrovertly before a horde of salivating camera lenses the night the Pistols first played Islington’s Screen on the Green. This initial exposure was swiftly transmuted into the printed word as rock writers, principally the dillitante pairing of John Ingham and Caroline Coon, latched onto the carnival. Siouxsie and Severin were chosen as typical ‘punk rockers’ in a six-page essay by Ingham which drooled at length about the crowd at Louise’s (the club for the Sex shop elite) and the fab, wild scenes following the Pistols everywhere.
Siouxsie herself evidently chooses to reflect on the coverage meted out to their scene initially only with contempt.
"It’s sickening when I think now that writers like Ingham and Caroline Coon got so carried away by all the superficial aspects of the whole thing, they lost all sense of perspective. They were more interested in noting things like what colour your hair was dyed, than by providing any insights into what really was going on then."
More vehement, though, is her choice for exactly the moment when the scene itself became bogus.
"It was when everyone started lauding The Damned. That was the beginning of the end as far as I’m concerned - the start of the rot setting in. When they all got the wool pulled over their eyes and Rat Scabies started making spitting at the stage trendy. That was all his doing."
The week The Damned first made the cover of a music paper (Monotony Maker to be precise) also coincidentally happened to be the same week Caroline Coon chose to write up the first-ever Siouxsie and the Banshees performance one evening during the 100 Club Punk Week.
The gig itself is now part of heavily-encrusted punk legend, featuring Sid Vicious on drums and Severin on Bass, the whole point being that all players involved had never ever strapped on their chosen instruments before or been on a stage before. Siouxsie herself, hair cropped, dressed like a man (which made for a visual volte-face of Bowie-esque proportions considering her former gauche dressing up habits) intoned her way through an anarchic thrashing of The Lord’s Prayer for some 20 minutes until they got bored and limped off the rostrum.
"The point of that performance was simply that all the other bands were talking about not being able to really play, and being unrehearsed and into chaos, man, and we were simply doing what they were stating. Only they were really talking shit because they did rehearse and had worked up sets. We just wanted to take the whole thing to it’s logical extreme."
Which they did, of course, creating something of a phyrric victory for themselves in the process - though they would probably disagree - in that, when it came time to turn the Banshees into a full-time operation, the memory of that one previous affair turned many away, principally the A & R men to whom the group’s name appeared as either downright offensive (presumably those deafened by actually being present at the gig) or just pointless atonal burlesque of no particular consequence and certainly no commercial potential.
The 100 Club did however provide the group with one admirer who stuck with Severin and Siouxsie through to a more solid reconstruction of the basics - Nils Stevenson.
Stevenson was at this point enthusiastically working with The Sex Pistols in the capacity of personal manager in unsigned agreement with Malcolm McLaren (who later sacked a somewhat disillusioned Stevenson, paying him some measly £300 for a full year’s unpaid devotion to the cause).
Nils found allies in The Heartbreakers for a time, and even got Track records to underwrite a few initial "new Banshees" bills, while the band played most Resurrection gigs of early ‘77 as support to Johnny Thunders’ crew.
The alliance at least got the band underway, with new members Kenny Morris and P.T. Fenton on guitar.
The group had it’s teething troubles, basically through the incongruous nature of guitarist Fenton’s contributions to the band which jarred rather than gelled with the rhythm section. Maybe it was this incompleteness which caused the band to get bagged initially in the shallow ‘shock-horror’ outrage mould wherein all manner of amoral primping - a Nazi arm-band here, some good old chain-saw gore there - appeared the order of the day. Certainly the bonecrushingly bleak performances of the official Manson chant - "Helter Skelter" - added to originals like "Carcass", which deals with a butcher falling in love with a slab of meat, seemed convincingly to back up this latter bent at the time.
The first actual feature written on the Banshees appeared in Snouds, where they were actively championed by the direly named Jane Suck. John McKay, who was soon to take Fenton’s place as Banshee’s guitarist and whose presence has, perhaps more than anything else, helped the band to find their true focus, recalls reading that first effort.
"I was really turned off by parts of it, parts about making jokes of spastics - and yet other parts of the interview seemed very exciting, very clear in their mode of thinking. It was only later that I realised that the incongruous bits were more Jane’s projections onto the band than anything they consciously believed in.
"Their image got really twisted."
Siouxsie, at least, speaks partly in Ms Suck’s defence.
"Jane certainly did us some initial harm with her write-ups, but at least she saw something there that was undeniably a part of us - the uniqueness of it all.
"Unfortunately she started thinking that we were her personal property almost, and when Vivien Goldman wrote her piece it got incredibly heavy between the two of them, ending with Jane saying to Vivien, ‘well, they really are a bunch of Nazis so they pulled the wool over your eyes, ha ha.’"
The inevitable question seems here to be whether the Banshees feel actively "screwed" by the press they’ve received until now.
Kenny Morris immediately opines: "No worse than anyone else," to general nods of approval, while Siouxsie chooses to add: "Well, up to a point, yes. To that point where I don’t personally hang on to the old adage that ‘any press is good press’ whatsoever - unlike someone like Cherry Vanilla who’d go, ‘Oh gee, I’m in the papers’ when they’re calling her an old slag."
The subject inevitably turns to McKay’s arrival in the group and the manner in which it changed the band so much for the better.
It’s McKay for example who’s constructed the superb ‘oriental’ guitar riff that rings through "Hong Kong Garden", and whose unorthodox but very solid understanding of the fretboard has finally granted the rhythm section the freedom to find their own considerable muscle.
A native of exotic Hemel Hempstead, he vividly recalls his first exposure to the group.
"When I first actually saw the group live, I immediately noticed that they seemed really uncomfortable with Peter Fenton on guitar - even to the point of looking awkwardly at each other all the time they were playing.
"It seemed incredibly unbalanced - mostly, I think, because the chord structures he was creating for the lyrics where almost too close to formal rock’n’roll structures."
McKay, a self-taught musician with a bent for more adventurous guitar styles involving minor/diminished seventh chord work, immediately started restructuring old songs and working out melodies for the new lyrics, to provide the unity of purpose and vision that is so obvious nowadays - and should, indeed have always been obvious, when Siouxsie was performing lyrics as stringent as "Suburban Relapse".
The group’s much touted "anti-rock’n’roll" stand is explained and defined by the group - McKay and Siouxsie in particular - in their statement of intent against all the dead skin and jive desires that the term itself has become associated with.
The full force of the group is readily apparent even on a cursory listen to the already completed tracks that’ll make up the first Banshees album. Some old favourites are retained, their force refocussed - "Carcass" and "Helter Skelter" - though the lion’s share of the original repertoire - "Captain scarlet", "Love In A Void" and "Make Up To Break Up" included - is absent.
In their place are the steel-and-glass structures of "Switch" and "Jigsaw Feeling", probing territory that finds active kinship with scarcely a single ‘punk’ band. Instead, the band sounds like some unique hybrid of the Velvet Underground mated with much of the ingenuity of "Tago Mago" era Can, if any parallel can be drawn.
The final track of the yet-to-be-completed collection, "Pure" takes the sound to its ultimate juncture, leaving spaces that say as much as the notes being played. And it finally provides one like myself who, though mightily impressed by their stage sound, considered the addition of another instrument - an organ, say - to be a judicious move, with proof positive that the group need only each other.
Certainly, the traditional three-piece sound has never been used in a more unorthodox fashion with such stunning results.
The album itself - slated for an early October release date - will finally levitate the Banshees beyond formerly binding stereotypes, placing them in the ‘new music’ boundaries of a select few; Talking Heads spring to mind here, certainly, though don’t take that as a comparison.
It backs up a strength and unity of purpose you can glimpse at in interview situations where the group scrutinise their statements carefully, where the interview is taken as a serious thing.
Come October, it’ll pour down on you.