Queen of the new establishment
SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES
Whadda ya mean, is it extreme? Can you honestly imagine The Banshees doing anything - whether it be throwing shapes for a camera, getting dressed for a night on the town or making a record - by halves?
They are, after all, the self-appointed prophets of the outer limits, superior beings sent to teach us humbler folk the futility of our ways - at least, that’s the way they seem so often to present themselves. For some reason the stories about John McKay getting very friendly with a bottle of vodka and passing out in a cinema while trying to watch a film without subtitles in a language he doesn’t speak seem to slip from the memory when placed when placed alongside headlines that draw attention to the Ice Queen of New Musick.
Still, that’s the price you pay if you insist on fitting the word ‘catalepsy’ into a song as they do on ‘Premature Burial’. If you talk it, other people are sure as hell gonna make you walk it.
And at the moment, The Banshees are very much in the unenviable position of becoming everybody’s favourite whipping boys and girls. After two years hustling in the wilderness they attained the dizzy heights of a major record deal and probably surprised a lot of people (including said record company, possibly) with the self-assured poise of their debut album and the chart success of ‘Hong Kong Garden’ - I can’t think of anybody outside the band and their manager who thought the Banshees would become Top Of The Pops regulars with their first single.
Then came the relative failure of the follow-up singles, a failure made all the worse by the unexpected achievement of ‘Hong Kong’ and the band’s rapid blossoming from cult status to second division attraction (ie. they’re no ELO but they’re no UK Subs). Obviously I’ve no idea of the internal machinations at Polydor, but I suspect that the record company ceased viewing the Banshees as their new wonderkids sometime around the week ‘Staircase’ failed to leap up the charts from it’s position tucked into the middle of the twenties. In this straitened economic climate what else can a poor record company do but concentrate on the acts which make vast amounts of money? (In Polydor’s case this probably means Jimmy Pursey and the Bee Gees.)
Added to that was the change in the press attitude to the band. The Banshees had simply become boring. There was little left to say once they’d established their own domain and carved out their own little patch of the rock’n’roll universe (which quite likely includes hating being referred to as rock’n’roll).
Why think of the Banshees when you can thrill to the exciting world of Joy Division or, at the other extreme, the whole new mod movement? Much as they hate the idea, the Banshees are now established, in much the same position as, say, Whitesnake. There’s no longer anything particularly exciting or original about them - if you’ve heard the first album and the singles, you’ll know, with only maybe one exception, what this album will sound like without even listening to it. Any band that puts ‘catalepsy’ into a song (sorry to repeat myself but I was struck by the self-conscious intellectualism of it) must have a distinct individual style, and you hardly expected the Banshees to turn round and start penning hymns to a brave new youth, calls to action for rude boys now did you?
Almost inevitably, the album bears the same relation to ‘The Scream’ as ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ did to ‘The Clash’. Where the first album represented the collected efforts of a year’s writing, the second had to be written almost to order and what it loses from not being kicked around the brain cells for a year, it gains in thematic cohesion. In the Banshees case, this means tightening up the fear, loathing, pain, alienation, desperation and all the jolly things like that and adding - just as the Clash did on ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ - a healthy dose of military chic. They’ve got soldiers on the cover and ‘Poppy Day’ in the first groove.
Ringing in the new album with a peal of bells, ‘Poppy Day’ sets the tone for the whole forty six minutes - about as cheerful as Chesterfield. But, like all the Banshees stuff, it doesn’t somehow make you feel like cutting your wrists any more than watching ‘Dirty Harry’ makes you feel like shooting people. Guitar dominate as ever, prowling around like caged lions, swaying with Siouxsie’s arm swinging. The mix is different to the last album. No longer does the bass thud around the bottom of the sound, giving you the impression that it was distorted when it wasn’t. Now there’s a clarity which frames Sue’s voice like it was a thing of treasure.
A short fragment of a song it’s still echoing round your head as it snaps into ‘Regal Zone’, the second, more aggressive, more neurotic, more dynamic and even more demonic offering. If songs were ever mini-epics, this would be it - it both frightens and reassures. A few loose slaps around the kit and Kenny Morris leads the band into ‘Placebo Effect’, a winding tortuous thing in the mood of ‘The Switch’ with added phasing.
‘Icon’ has Sue whispering as from the depths of a grave - if there isn’t wind whipping around the sound, there should be. ‘Premature Burial’ is even eerier, coming as it does from the background of an Edgar Allan Poe short story (which was turned into a Roger Corman flick which bore absolutely no relation to the Poe original). Moody as an Elvis Presley staring down a photographer, it has Siouxsie’s voice double-tracked with devastating effect.
‘Playground Twist’ you know and it’s apparently here because it didn’t sell too well and the band wanted everybody to have a chance to hear it because they don’t get any airplay and it’s a great song anyway and it has bells.
‘Mother’ is the exception I mentioned earlier. Sue sings soft and quiet backed by a music box. Placed as it is between ‘Playground Twist’ and the storming inferno of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, it’s very delicacy displays a touching confusion.
The record company sheet attached to the album mentioned that it contained the band’s ‘original’ version of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. That’s original as in very weird, not as in normal. It’ll no doubt raise a few hackles - Dylan certainly won’t cover a Banshees song on his next album and I doubt if Cliff Richard will put it in his star choice. It’s fourteen minutes of rage and twisted bitterness which includes Sue ‘quoting’ from the likes of ‘Twist And Shout’ and the ‘Yodeley-ee’ song in ‘The Sound Of Music’. Both frightening and absorbing, it’ll probably get them in the News Of The World. It deserves better.
The final paragraph advises you to buy it if you liked the last album and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction if you didn’t. It’s probably best you don’t ask yourself why you like the Banshees. I’m sure in my case it’s an aberration.