THESE days, buying records, actual vinyl, from Boots the well-known High Street chemist and purveyor of beauty products probably seems about as likely as the idea of buying, say, a vibrating cock-ring from Boots would have seemed 30 years ago.
But, of course, thanks to the unending onward and upward trajectory of civilisation, you can now buy vibrating cock-rings in Boots. Terrific. I’m glad. I am genuinely pleased that cock-ring enthusiasts are now catered for. I’m just disappointed that you can’t buy vinyl there anymore.
Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Once Upon A Time/The Singles came out in December 1981 and it was almost certainly purchased on Boxing Day with Christmas gift vouchers given to me by my grandparents or uncooler aunts or uncles, who wouldn’t know the difference between Boots and say, WHSmiths in terms of vinyl selection.
I dug the stuff that got into the charts but I never liked Siouxsie and the Banshees enough to actually buy any of their singles or albums, until this TV advertised album came along at least.
The Banshees were one of the celebrated first wave of British punk rock. Steve Severin and Siouxsie Sioux met at a Roxy Music gig in 1976, got enthused by the Sex Pistols (they were part of the so-called Bromley Contingent alongside people like Billy Idol and Philip Salon) and did their first gig supporting the Pistols at the 100 Club Punk Festival, with guitarist Marco Perroni (later of Adam and the Ants) and drummer John Ritchie (later to become Sid Vicious) helping them perform a 20-minute improvisation based around the Lord’s Prayer.
According to Viv Albertine, who was inspired enough to form the Slits: “Siouxsie just appeared fully made, fully in control, utterly confident. It totally blew me away. There she was doing something that I dared to dream but she took it and did it ..”
Just before Bill Grundy goaded the Sex Pistols into saying the fuck-word live on local television in 1976 – ‘the filth and the fury’ of tabloid lore – he clumsily flirted with Siouxsie, who was hovering in the background. In fact wasn’t it this that caused Steve Jones to call Grundy a “dirty fucker”?
Unlike the creepy old “fucking rotter” Grundy, I never really lusted after Siouxsie. I was aware that she was a style icon for a generation, including several girlfriends in my teens and early twenties, but like many of the women in early punk, Siouxsie put out a big ‘do not even think about touching’ vibe whilst looking absolutely amazing.
And daft though it may perhaps seem now, I wasn’t particularly impressed by tales of Siouxsie sporting a swastika armband in the early days of punk. I remember reading some quote from her after she’d been beaten up for wearing it on a trip to see the Pistols in Paris, where she said that she wore it to shock the bourgeoisie out of their complacency or something.
Whatever. Oh, Sid wore a swastika. Yes he did. And I thought he was an idiotic fuck too. It was a long time ago, and she was still a naive teenager – and one clearly not inclined towards fascism – but it’s still a remarkably stupid thing to have done.
Either way, the Banshees set about creating catchy, quirky, odd little pop songs, which always seemed to get played in the indie/alternative section of otherwise mainstream discos – though many of them were bona fide top 20 hits afterall, so maybe that’s not so surprising. Some of them worked particularly well on the resolutely inebriated, unsophisticated and uninhibited dancefloors across the north that I frequented in the first half of the Eighties.
Their singles were a staple at the Baths for example, where the backcombed hair and pointy shoes brigade – both male and female – would wearily shuffle and shrug their way around the parquet flooring with something approaching enthusiasm. But everyone danced to the Banshees at the Baths Hall, not just the resident goths. Then again, everyone danced to everything at the Baths, pretty much.
Collecting singles from the few three years of the band’s recorded life – from 1978’s spunky punky glockenspiel-suffused Hong Kong Garden to the smooth art-throb of Arabian Nights in 1981 – Once Upon A Time/The Singles gave me a bit more of an appreciation for the way Siouxsie and the Banshees went about things.
The album has a striking and stylish sleeve – created by the band and Rob O’Connor of the Stylo Rouge design agency – based around the kind of collage of photos of the band we’ve come to expect to see in serial killers’ bedrooms, with a similarly ghastly assortment of dolls’ heads on the reverse.
It comes complete with sleeve notes by the ubiquitous Paul Morley (“Accepting, exploiting and confusing pop music’s universal vanity, futility and profound quality” he muses, “they set about eliciting from life’s facts and fantasies a sense of things that matter ..”), production credits and references to a simultaneous VHS and Betamax video compilation release, as well as an inner sleeve with the lyrics.
That kind of shit has always fascinated me – more so than Paul Morley’s kind of shit at any rate.
The album itself, to steal a fantastically topical football cliché, is a game of two halves.
Despite the obvious musical innovation and risk-taking from Sioux, Severin, drummer Kenny Morris and guitarist John McKay, there was always a whiff of pretence about the Banshees which remained throughout their career, at least as far as I was concerned – which might explain why I never bothered buying their stuff until this album came out.
Side one documents the self-consciously arty singles of the period after their initial success with Hong Kong Garden. It reveals a band, I suspect, having trouble negotiating a path between their natural inclination towards pop music and the self-imposed demands of being credible and ‘serious’ artists. It doesn’t really work for me.
Lyrically, they rarely hold up to close scrutiny, especially when they’re trying to be profound. Which is most of the time.
Take this delightful couplet from Hong Kong Garden, which was inspired by racist skinheads kicking off in the Chinese takeaway of the same name on Chislehurst High Street:
“Slanted eyes meet a new sunrise, A race of bodies small in size. Chicken Chow Mein and Chop Suey, Hong Kong Garden takeaway …”
It’s not exactly Strange Fruit, is it? That said, there’s no denying it’s a great tune with a particularly driving B-line from the man Severin and some splendid guitar work from McKay, so I guess we can forgive the clumsy sentiment.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the rest of side one leans towards cringeworthy, angsty, and often downright gloomy sixth-form art punk – which is enlivened no end by one of album’s best lines in the otherwise unremarkable The Staircase (Mystery): “Slide down the banister, Take the escalator, Slide down the banister. Or try the elevator ..”
Well, I like it anyway.
Maybe I’m being too harsh but it all sounds like a band trying to run before they can walk, and getting a bit sulky with it. The side ends on a high note however, with the delirious, sexy punk thump of Love In A Void.
Thing is, great though Love In A Void is, if they’d carried on in the same vein, the Banshees would have been just another punk band. Luckily they went off in another direction entirely. Other directions, in fact.
Kenny Morris and John McKay left the band after an on-tour in-store signing incident in 1981, making way for the arrival of John McGeogh (formerly of Magazine) and Budgie (formerly of Big in Japan and the Slits). Things started to get really interesting.
Side two documents this period of the band’s life, taking songs from the Kaleidoscope and Juju albums, which were both produced by Nigel Gray (who had previously twiddled the knobs on Roxanne and Message In A Bottle for the Police, as well as the Wombles) with drum machines and melodicas, synths and sitars bolstering the Banshees’ unwavering willingness to experiment and evolve.
Right from the deliciously tentative opening notes of the wondrous Happy House, it’s obvious that this is a group who are palpably more comfortable in their own skins. It’s suddenly less about blam, blam, blam and more about opening up the spaces in between the notes. They are paring down their sound, refining it, polishing it.
Take the extraordinary Christine, which majors on that most un-punk of instruments, (whisper it) an acoustic guitar. Inspired by the story of a real life schizophrenia sufferer, it remains one of the most bizarre hit singles of the Eighties:
“Christine, the strawberry girl, Christine, banana split lady .. now she’s in purple, now she’s the turtle. Disintegrating ..”
I have absolutely lost it to this tune on many, many occasions on many, many dancefloors over the years. Likewise Spellbound, which is similarly indebted to the primal, very non-rock drumming style of Budgie and some absolutely sterling and equally un-rock guitar work from McGeogh. It doesn’t really get much better than this.
Despite some truly ridiculous lyrical clod-hopping, I can even enjoy Israel and Arabian Nights – wherein Siouxsie and the Banshees sort out the problems of the Middle East in less than ten minutes – just because the music which accompanies it is just so damn good.
I’ve no idea what happened to the album. It would’ve been among the first stuff I would’ve flogged when my Giro failed to cover my house music and marijuana requirements at the tail end of the Eighties, but I couldn’t say for sure. I bought another copy for three quid from Colin at Vinyl Revival in town a couple of months back. I’m digging it.
Siouxsie and the various Banshees are still at it 30 years on and the band continues to be musically influential even now, with acts like the Gossip, LCD Soundsystem and Radiohead still regularly namedropping them and covering their songs.
Meanwhile, who knows what Boots will be selling in another 30 years? Personally, I’m hoping they’ll be knocking out hoverboards, laser guns and super-strength fair trade cocaine.
Stranger things have happened. After all, they used to sell Siouxsie and the Banshees records.