Melody Maker (2.17.79)
The giraffe looked at Siouxsie
by Ian Birch
"What do you think of it, then?" sneaked Siouxsie Sioux as we slipped into the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin's notorious main strip, which is like Oxford Street during an economic boom. "I don't think much of it," she continued. "Far too many old ladies dripping furs and jewelry."
She had a point. Every vista seemed to open up another example of elegantly wrinkled wealth.
Christopher Isherwood had, without doubt, left Berlin decades ago for fame and fortune in California. Harry Palmer's inscrutable espionage antics were locked firmly into Sixties popular culture, while the streets were hardly crawling with the kind of aesthetic bank clerks that are supposed to go hand-in-hand with Teutonic metal machine musik. But we had an evening and a following day to delve a mite deeper. Or so we hoped.
The trip was a three-day skirmish which took in Hamburg and Berlin, part of a slightly longer promotional jaunt arranged by Polydor to introduce Siouxsie and the Banshees to the EEC. Polydor didn't expect any immediate massive returns. Rather, they wanted to nudge their band onto the first rung of the ladder. Adrian Rudge, whose card read "International Promotion," resigned himself to many trips like this one. Unless you're very lucky or have instant family appeal, breaking the continent is a process of slow attrition. So far "The Scream" has notched up around 4,500 sales in West Germany, which isn't bad considering that it has just been released and the group are hardly a bierkeller name.
In Hamburg, the record company machine got underway. After a brief hotel stop-off, the afternoon was to be given over to interviews. Three, to be precise, and, in the true mogul manner, the German Polydor chief prepared the group by wheeling in a perspex and tubular steel trolley full of demon alcohol. The room had all the characteristic signs of oppulence, but one item added an oddly disquieting touch. On the wall hung a poster of a kid toting a gun at another who was blindfolded and strapped to an executioner's post. A new-world Lord Of The Flies? A heavy-duty comment about the reality outside in this land of Baader-Meinhoff? Who knows?
Interestingly, not only were the questions more or less identical throughout, but the band responded with (maybe unexpected) enthusiasm. They filled in the silences and they reiterated for the zillionth time the story of their 100 Club origins. News of Sid's death must have rekindled interest in that "legendary" performance.
The German angle was a natural topic for discussion. Everyone asked about "Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)" which, of course, is dedicated to John Heartfield, the German artist whose photo-montages used images of Hitlerian fascism. In fact, the song arose from two sources: one was a propaganda speech made by Goring, and the other a Heartfield piece called "Hurrah, die Butter ist alles!" which shows an overweight nuclear family chomping away on industrial knick-knacks.
Steven Severin (the surname comes courtesy of the Velvets' "Venus In Furs") cottoned on to the pun in the title. It's hardly surprising, if you're not aquainted with German. "Mittageisen" translates as midday iron (the food in the Heartfield pic) but might be mistaken for the similar sounding "Mittagessen" which means midday meal. Clever, huh?
The song, they explained again and again, is a warning about how some powerful figurehead could implant a masterscheme and you'd wake up to find daily orders coming over the, er, totaliterian loudspeakers. Siouxsie: "It could be apparent today. Despite trade unions and so on, everyone needs someone to guide them." Kenny Morris: "At the moment England is like a gaping wound. It's just waiting for someone to jump in." John McKay: "Heartfield put down the establishment. He was older and wiser than us and knew how to use photo-montage. All we had to use were Nazi armbands." Siouxsie: "Now it's something you're made to be very *unaware* of. It's on the TV all the time. It's such unconscious manipulation." John: "If we were doing anything really dangerous against the establishment, then we wouldn't be able to do interviews." Siouxsie: "It's as subtle as turning on a light bulb. You're often not aware of supporting things."
That explains the reason for and the outcry after their ill-judged flirtation with Nazi insignia. Because it was a crudely stage-managed shock tactic, it backfired and now--in their eyes--has become like a hairshirt. Siouxsie: "What lies around the swastika I hate, but I also don't identify with blind patriotism either." Again : "I couldn't write a song based around Heartfield if I had that attitude." Take three: "I used certain make-up and a swastika for people to stand back and be repelled. I did it to cause a reaction--not because I supported Nazism. Maybe we could say we had misjudged the reaction, especially from those people who were very sensitive to it."
The discussion then moved to Iran, wars of religion through the ages, and to the controversial TV programme Holocaust, which had just been screened in Germany and had attracted the country's largest-ever viewing figures. Rock Against Racism reared its head. The Banshees refuse to do a RAR gig.
Siouxsie: "The main thing is that you don't know where the money's going." (They plan to do some charity gigs in the not-too-distant future). John: "If you don't object to Jews or blacks or pink men or whatever, why should we play an RAR gig? There's an inverted snobbery there. If I was black, I'd be very insulted by RAR."
Siouxsie: "I'd rather do something like Rock Against Rabbit-Breeding. Men planting their sperm and watching women's bellies grow, when they don't have the means to support children, is very frightening." Then a little later: "I hate the extreme left and the extreme right because they're both wrong."
Being on the road with the Banshees is no Doctor Feelgood routine of wacky excess followed by more wacky excess. Kenny constantly looks like a rabbit trapped on crackling wires; Steven breaks lengthy silences with dry asides; John is committed to as a consuming performance; Siouxsie has a kind of homely sharpness, intuitive and determined.
They're trying to act as a barometer to whatever they see around them. Hence, as they change (and become increasingly sophisticated), so the approach and subject matter alter accordingly. The final number of every set is a version of "The Lord's Prayer." Deliberately kept open-ended, it is as varied or restricted as the audience of the night determines. The regulating factor is punter feedback. The lyrics consist of anthems, and Siouxsie will incorporate anything from "Twist and Shout," to "Deutschland Uber Alles" (though not in Germany), "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
The Banshees don't see themselves as at all unconventional. You'll hear, "We just use everyone else's things in our own way" and "We don't want to be weird" and "We have a very traditional structure to our songs."
We were treated to a sneak preview of the new single, "Staircase," but only after swearing not to give anything away. All I'll say is that it's strong, though not as instant as "Garden," develops the thrust of the sound on "The Scream," sports some wonderful handclaps, and has an accompanying video that utilises the services of the oldest stunt man currently working in Britain. The song was sparked off by a famous shot from the movie Psycho, and by childhood fears about boogeymen lurking in darkly-lit wells. Siouxsie: "There's something about a staircase. It's so unpredictable and exciting at the same time. That feeling of displacement, vertigo when you're at the top looking down or at the bottom looking up."
The interviews were winding down, the sound check approached and the vodka was taking effect. Suddenly Siouxsie exclaimed: "I'll tell you my main childhood influence--Otis Redding." Gaspo! Steve taunted jokingly: "Relate that to the lyrics!" Seemingly, Siouxsie's older brother and sister had been bluebeat/ska/soul fanatics and had drenched the house in the likes of Prince Buster.
That evening's gig in the Markthalle went down well, apart from a solitary Hell's Angel who decided to introduce aggro where there wasn't any.
During the set he sreamed at Siouxsie: "If you don't want to fuck me, baby, well, baby, fuck off." Siouxsie replied: "You're too ugly." Come the end of the gig, the Angel set about trying to trash the monitors. When driver/bodyguard Mick went to dissuade him, the Angel sank his molars into Mick's hand--though not before the latter had removed most of the former's teeth.
They showcased some new songs, which are still in a state of development. "Playground"--just possibly the single to follow "Staircase"--talks about adults who act like children and children who think they're adults. It might be interpreted as a swipe against the music press. As the title suggests, there's a kind of nursery-rhyme section, but it's still in a very embryonic stage. "Placebo Effect" came from hearing a programme on Capitol Radio, when one of the station's resident Kildares was discussing the kind and colour of medicaments that different nations most favour. Apparently the UK goes for pills while the French like suppositories and the Italians injections. Fascinating stuff.
Siouxsie also sang the whole of "Metal Postcard" in German. Dave Woods, who dropped out of a German course at London university to become their tour manager, had done a special translation. Unfortunately, nobody noticed on the first night-but in Berlin, after Siouxsie asked which language they'd prefer, audience reaction was more "positive."
Hamburg airport is like Belfast airport: strict security, body checks, closed-circuit TV and men with guns. Waiting in the departure lounge, John's eyes followed the posters down the wall. A line of tacky semi-psychedelic travel ads terminated abruptly in a black-and-white shocker for wanted terrorists. Crosses had been etched over the faces of those already caught. John's eyes lit up.
"I really do want one of those. Do you think they'd give me one if I asked for it." I don't think so somehow, but you can always try. "Maybe if I nicked it...?" I don't think that's a great idea.
On the way to the plane there was a collection box for Amnesty International. Les, the Banshees' irrepressible and book-devouring roadie, threw in some small change. "You never know when I might need them."
The Berlin show, held at the Kantkino--which normally operates as a hip cinema (performance alternating with Buster Keaton movies and arthouse contenders like Wim Wenders)--had another full turn-out, but the band gave a lacklustre performance. No one was happy, and Siouxsie chipped a tooth on the microphone. So it was decided to hit the town and sample the Berlin night-life.
The Bowie Club, recommended as a hot niterie, turned out to resemble the type of ineffectual disco that usually slumbers beneath a new brieze-block shopping precinct. The deejay spun "Satisfaction" (the Stones' version) and frustration filled the air. John snapped: "I've never seen so many ugly people together in my life." I suppose Amanda Lear would have approved.
The following morning was eaten up by an interview on the British Forces Network radio, which only left a few hours in the afternoon before the band flew to Amsterdam. There wasn't time to step into East Berlin, so two parties were formed. Kenny and John went to survey checkpoint Charlie while Siouxsie and Steven headed in the direction of the zoo.
Here, all ideas of Siouxsie as the glacial Rheinmadchen melted completely away. The inveterate animal lover (British to the core) emerged as she identified all sorts of tropical specimens and bounced up to the kangaroo cage, exclaiming "Hippety hoppety" to the rather stunned marsupial mammals.
It was a pretty spectacular zoo, although Siouxsie reckoned that Whipsnade was better. Later, Steven bought a weighty tome about Heartfield and I went home.