Birmingham Post (February 19, 2005, Saturday)



Ah, the humble b-side. For some a disposable three minutes to be filled with cast-offs or lazy instrumentals; for others a blank canvas for experimentation. For most of us now, a thing of the past, an unlamented by-product of the archaic 7ins vinyl single.

In the days following punk, the DIY ethic and need to wring maximum effect from a record meant that the b-side became as vital as the aside and, for bands signed to major labels, became a tool for selfexpression and subversion.

For bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, it was a way of speaking directly to the hardcore fans without alienating the casual single buyer who pushed them into the charts with regularity.

Here, long overdue, is that rare beast, the boxset you didn't know you needed. The Banshees were very much part of my teenage years, all gothic drama, hair-pulling, wailing and songs about drowning horses. Of all the bands to emerge in the first wave of punk, Siouxsie Sioux and co always seemed ahead of the pack.

Hitting regularly with albums and singles, they blazed brightly in the early to mid-1980s and then, burnt out, went down the road of most, a slow retreat from the limelight into comparative obscurity. Like fellow conspirators the Cure, they now seem very much a product of a particular moment in history and tinted by nostalgia. Time has taken away their dangerous edge.

Yet there was always something more to the Banshees - as this remarkable collection proves. Fifty five tracks spread over four discs and hardly a duffer in there. That's a remarkable strike rate for an album of b-sides, traditionally tracks considered too weak for an album.

As Siouxsie makes clear in the excellent accompanying booklet, the Banshees saw singles as a challenge and the b-sides were seized as a chance for them to stretch out, experiment and challenge perceptions. Often jammed in the studio, usually with little or no rehearsal, Ms Sioux declares that, of all the band's legacy, it's these little-heard numbers that she's most proud of. As well she should be.

The sheer stylistic diversity on show here dispels any notion that the Banshees were a monochrome one trick pony. Moments of visceral savagery nestle alongside songs of intense beauty. And for a collection which is by definition episodic, there's a stunning cohesion here. Although the tracks are arranged chronologically, lyrical themes, motifs and atmospheres crop up repetitively. There's a playfulness at work here which is at odds with the rather Edgar Allen Poe-faced nature of the albums.

Kicking off with the flip to the band's debut 45 Hong Kong Garden, Downside Up immediately makes its presence felt. This improvised avant garde howl-around still sounds like nothing else. Whereas the main side is a rather ham-fisted punk cliche, Voices is terrifying in its attack. As a 15-year-old, I'd been reading about the Banshees, the Pistols, the Buzzcocks etc for months in NME and Sounds, but, not living in Kings Road, I'd been unable to hear what all the fuss was about. Until now. Hong Kong Garden used to get the occasional spin but Voices was the track I kept returning to.

Most of these songs are new to me or long-forgotten at least. There are the handful of covers: 20th Century Boy, All Tomorrow's Parties, Jonathan Richman's She's Cracked, but none of these can hold a candle to originals such as Tattoo (a prototechno work-out light years ahead of its time), Supernatural Thing (sex on vinyl), Black Sun (spooky), Lullaby (pure beauty) or Sea of Light (the sound of perfection).

Several of these songs would make classic a-sides for lesser bands, but such was the Banshees' contrariness and remarkable song-writing they've been left languishing in charity shops and attics for up to 25 years. Disc 4 is the stunning The Thorn EP, four tracks from their early career remade with a string quartet backing. Siouxsie's cool voice glides over these songs and the inclusion of Voices in posh clothing only goes to prove how right they were so early in their career.

This is an impeccable collection of music. Buy it alongside the two Once Upon a Time singles collections for a complete history of one of Britain's most important and groundbreaking bands. ****

Contributed by Jerry Burch.

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