Melody Maker (10.25.80)
Article by Steve Lake
Siouxsie’s Nuremberg trials
The management should have turned on the house lights. Unfortunately, they had none, so they tried disco lights instead. A strange sight, and not unmoving.
The brown glass beer bottles described slow arcs through the red, green and blue dappled cigarette smoke, bounced off the drum riser, struck the bass guitar, winged a snare or simply shattered on the stage. The Banshees’ road crew, with outstanding cool, continued dismantling cymbals and turning off guitar amps while shards of glass sprayed the air.
Occasionally, they’d flash a challenging glare into the crowd, but this violence was fostered strictly in the security of the mob, and there were no takers for direct combat in Weissenohe.
Weissenohe? On the map, it’s a pinprick on Nuremberg’s circumference; in real life a one-street farming village. Entertainment is limited to a pub and the To Act Club (the name presumably based on some misunderstanding of our language), on opposite sides of the street, one place being owned by the son of the owner of the other.
But it was the club that won out on this occasion, drawing fans from 60 miles around for Siouxsie And The Banshees’ only South German gig. They’d arrived by the hundred, all decked in "Sid Wasn’t Vicious" tee-shirts, dog-collars and enough Union Jacks to rival Jubilee Year.
Some had not got it quite right. A kind of fan for all seasons, a fat girl with a crewcut, wore a parka stencilled with "Eagles-Clash-Quo-Iggy-Fuck You". But most looked quite convincingly 1977, and most felt shortchanged by the Banshees’ one-hour set and by the refusal of the encore they demanded.
Fifteen Deutchmarks admission and no encore! Couldn’t they understand that the Banshees scorned such showbiz conventions as encores? How unhip can you be! Why, Siouxsie would explain later, the group was more inclined to add to the set if the audience didn’t ask: "Right, they don’t like us, let’s make them hate us!"
Much of the Banshees’ radicalism has been relegated to the neo-theoretical in this way, if, that is, you can call a three-year "no encores" tradition radical.
Their performance was formal to the point of conservatism, a beautiful stylized show based upon fashion, dance, volume, slight musical structures, and no audience communication. (Although Siouxsie did offer to share an electric shock she’d received while touching a metal stage support.) I watched it all unfold as one might watch the Balinese Trance Dance on a cultural TV programme, with a detached interest and absolutely no sense of personal involvement.
Until they decided to heave bottles, the Weissenohe teenagers seemed not to get so much out of it either. They danced automatically while Siouxsie whipped the stage with the mike chord, put one foot on a monitor speaker and peered out into the throng. I fancied she had a rather worried, harried look, that seemed to say "what have I wrought?"
The other Banshees were static and deadpan. They looked like a more effeminate Police, with the same brown-rooted blond bobs, but more billowy in the trousers. Bassist Steve Severin wore black-and-silver stripped lurex baggies that tapered at the shins, and a high buttoned cossack shirt in black, which set off his earring rather fetchingly.
Ex-Magazine guitarist John McGeogh preferred a lemon yellow tee-shirt that echoed his angelic fringe, camouflage trousers and a string of silvered pearls. Couldn’t see what Budgie was wearing behind the cymbals.
Siouxsie walked on stage in a long black mod leather jacket, red squared flannel shirt over red dress, black tights and ankle boots. The top layer was gradually discarded during the set, although not in any overtly erotic manner. In fact, it took her almost three numbers to get the shirt off, but then the numbers were very short.
Fairly exact copies of the songs on "Kaleidoscope" occupied a good chunk of the performance. "Skin" brought Siouxsie to her knees, perhaps caught up in the passion of the song’s message which proposes that fat women be skinned in protest against seal slaughter. Weissenohe didn’t bat an eyelid, just kept on lurching around vacantly.
"It would be nice to think," said Steve Severin, "that audiences in Germany understood the words of our songs, but you can’t waste time wondering about whether they do or not..."
Any musician obliged to tour and record cannot avoid improving, while the learning-to-play period is surely the least interesting for any listener.
And it’s a long haul between the happily messy accidents of no technique (to which the Banshees’ "Scream" album bears testimony) and the control of musicianship. The current Banshees are about half-way down that road, and their new songs are circumscribed by their less-than-overwhelming ability.
Drummer Budgie is perhaps the most advanced, with particularly strong, apparently reggae-inspired snare accents. He makes some of the more banal two-chord songs sound interesting by initiating little rhythmic quirks.
McGeogh, in "Happy House", "Hybrid" and other tunes plays high-strung metallic arpeggios that reminded me of the guitarist in High Tide - a band I had successfully forgotten for the last ten years. Siouxsie sings in pitch with the guitar chords without actually developing melodies, although sometimes she’ll slide between notes - I think they call it portamento technique in opera. She also plays a little discreet rhythm guitar. Severin mostly makes a low undefined rumble.
When the mob had finished venting it’s spleen, we drove to a country hotel and talked about some of these things. Or at least I talked about them, while the group clung fairly doggedly to it’s "noble savages" image... In general, you could say, they were pleasantly unhelpful.
"We don’t consciously think about what the band has done or where it’s going musically at all," said Steve Severin.
"Well, I admire craft," said Siouxsie. I asked if she admired it three years ago.
"How could she? She didn’t have any," said Budgie.
"No, no," she continued, "I’m not really talking about music. I’ve always been impressed by, like, welded iron that’s been made by hand and pummelled by hand compared to... I don’t know... a cheap thing that you can get made out of zinc or something. Actually..." She paused, looking slightly embarrassed. "I don’t know what I’m talking about."
"I never practise," said Severin with some pride, "because I want to stay bad. That’s why I like to play with John and Budgie because they’re more..."
"Yeah. And it’s harder work for me if I’m not. I think it’s a more creative situation."
I asked about improvisation.
"Well, we don’t take a lot of drugs and ‘lay back’ if that’s what you mean," said McGeogh. (It wasn’t.)
Severin said that a lot of the Banshees repertoire began as long pieces but got tightened by retaining only the highlights: "I think it’s more powerful that way. Besides, I’ve always liked singles. I don’t think people regard us as a singles band, but I would be pleased if they did. Trying to be a singles band - I think that’s an honourable goal."
"I think the best improvisation is mistakes," said Siouxsie. "Let’s face it, we’re not very professional. We spend most of our time trying to get out of mistakes that we’ve made."
But the show looked very professional.
"Cor, did we fool you? great!"
I tried to outline a theory about performance versus music, but it didn’t go down very well, so I asked instead about the spirit of community among new wave groups.
"There isn’t any," said Severin, cheerfully dashing a few romantic illusions. "Never was. It was always more bitchy than anything else. We’ve never said ‘oh yeah, we really love the Clash’ or anything. We’ve always said that we’re not part of any existing scene. I hate meeting other bands, especially in professional situations."
"We’re quite close to the Skids," said McGeogh, "but we never talk about music. We just get drunk together."
I said that I imagined music-making to be fundamentally a social activity which involved an exchange of ideas with other people working in the same field.
"NO!" said the Banshees as one, almost in disgust.
"There’s no cafe society among the new bands," said McGeogh. "The worst thing in the world," said Severin, "is another musician coming up to you and talking about your instrument."
"The first time I met Paul Cook," said Budgie, "he said to me ‘What kind of drum kit do you use?’ I said ‘a black one’." Severin nodded enthusiastically. "I really believe," he said, "that in the last three years a new kind of musician has appeared who doesn’t have any connection at all with the attitudes of the earlier rock musicians."
For John McGeogh, it seemed to be about more than attitudes: "Yeah. It’s something you’ll never be able to put your finger on, and I’m glad that you can’t. But I feel in sympathy with the times, and I feel that I know what’s valuable in modern music." However, he wasn’t offering clues. I asked if the Banshees ever listened to music other than rock.
"You mean Stravinsky and Beethoven and all that?" asked Siouxsie, grinning from ear to ear, "Oh yeah, I like a bit of Beethoven."
"I like Shostakovich," said Budgie, and seemed to be serious.
A fly crawled onto the ashtray in a sleepy, autumnal stagger (it’s a tough time for flies). Budgie hit it with his hand and mashed a few legs together. It wriggled and buzzed around with the bits that still worked.
"Oh Budgie!" cried Siouxsie. "If you’re going to kill something do it with one swift blow!"
"But I did," he protested, "that was just rigor mortis."
When I heard this exchange again on the cassette player, it sounded somehow symbolic...