Sunday, 1 September 2013

Siouxsie Sunday: 'The Scream' by Siouxsie and the Banshees

I'm sorry to have kept you waiting for the first actual Siouxsie Sunday but there has been a lot happening at the moment. I know how eager you have been for an update: my mailbox has been flooding with requests (no it hasn't) and I hear people have started online petitions for a proper kick-off for the article series in desperation (no they haven't). So let's get on with it.

1978's The Scream is not only a great album, it's also an exceptional debut album. To understand this record it doesn't harm to know a little about the group's history: Siouxsie and the Banshees originally started as an impromptu act to fill an empty slot at a punk festival held at London's 100 Club. Siouxsie and Steven Severin, two Sex Pistols followers and the only original Banshees to serve from start to finish, got Marco Pirroni (of latter Adam Ant fame) and Sid Vicious (yes, the future Sex Pistols member Sid Vicious) to join them on stage for an unrehearsed rendition of "The Lord's Prayer". It was all quite chaotic, reportedly, which isn't surprising. 

The passion for performing remained ignited, however, and soon Siouxsie and Severin rebuilt the group with two new members and started touring while growing a sizable fanbase. They had trouble landing a record deal which prompted a fan to spray paint the words "Sign the Banshees. Do it now." on the walls of several record companies. Finally they did get signed on Polydor, and their first single "Hong Kong Garden" was an instant top 10 hit. When it was time to record a debut album, the band made a brave move to not include "Hong Kong Garden" on it. Furthermore, no singles were released from the album. The Scream became a success nevertheless, even peaking at #12 in the UK album chart, unlikely as it sounds, and is nowadays regarded as one of the post-punk classics.

Enough about history, how is the music like, then? Well, the fantastic thing about the Banshees is how they always defied labelling. The album consists of songs played with guitar, bass and drums (with a pinch of saxophone). It doesn't really tell anything though, does it. This is hardly rock. This is no longer punk. Instead this is the kind of music that the post-punk tag was later coined to describe.

From the opener "Pure" the listener knows not to expect anything conventional. The under-two-minute song has haunting guitars and Siouxsie wailing wordlessly like a banshee (see what I did there?). It's then followed by "Jigsaw Feeling", which deals with psychological trauma, which is a theme they'd often revisit later. "One day I'm feeling total / The next I split in two / My eyes are doing somersaults / staring at me shoe" she sings with her cold, accentuated vocals. Next comes "Overground", a track that got revamped with a string section six years later on The Thorn EP. It's no less impressive in it's original version, and its time signature interestingly switches between 5/4 and 4/4. While "Overground" is more on the gloomy side, the next song "Carcass" is one of the most cheerful songs that Banshees ever wrote - it even has handclaps in the end - even though the lyrics tell a story of a cannibal or a person who's aroused by dead animal bodies or something with lyrics such as "Someone's in cold storage / Seeking Heinz main-courses / Crawing for a raw love" and "Out of the frying pan and into the fire / Mother had her son for tea". It might be gruesome, but in the end you will be singing "limblessly in love" with her. It's a catchy lyric, at least.

Even though the Banshees started as a bunch of punks, they always had great respect for The Beatles, covering them on multiple occasions. Their debut was the first of these, as they covered "Helter Skelter". And holy crap with what results! While the original was miles ahead of its time, the Banshee cover certainly doesn't pale in comparison, and actually brings heaps of energy into it. Their version of it starts with an intro that recalls that of "Pure", but then it builds up to a climactic stomper. It's fantastic, and looking at the Youtube videos, it must've been one hell of a song live. If you've got time and interest, check that out, it's mind-blowing. Sure, I'm saying this as a fan but it REALLY is.

Another unlikely singalong song is "Mirage" that has a catchy chorus lyric: "My limbs are like palm trees / swaying in the breeze / My heart is an oasis / to drink from as you please". Next song, "Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)" has specific significance for Siouxsie's career: during the punk era she sported a swastika armband (for nothing but shock value, albeit it's still not the best choice for equipment) which made many think that the band was promoting anti-semitic propaganda in its music. As a form of atonement, Siouxsie wrote "Metal Postcard", which was inspired by an art piece by John Heartfield who was a famous anti-Nazi artist. The same piece was later used as a single cover for the song when it was re-recorded the following year, this time sung in German.

"Nicotine Stain" is a catchy song about smoking, basically, that ridicules the addiction caused by it, and was later (and I mean 30 years later) surprisingly added to Siouxsie's solo tour setlist. The penultimate track "Suburban Relapse" deals with Siouxsie's relationship with the suburbs (she hated them), where everything is uniform and the facades never fall. The lyrics paint a picture of a person who's string snaps in that environment: "Should I throw things at the neighbours / Expose myself to strangers? / Kill myself... or you?" It's another song that builds to a real climax.

However, the album closer "Switch" is one of the ultimate stand-outs of the debut, and truly shows the band at its most ambitious. It also has some very deep lyrics - as does the whole album - about medication and medical experiences which isn't necessarily what you'd expect from a bunch of ex-punks: "Vicar experiments / but 'tis blasphemy / Dismissing thought of progress as a mark of devilry", for instance, tells that this group is looking for more than anarchy in the UK. "Switch" is also a very moody and melancholic piece that, in my opinion, is one of their career highlights. I recall I also used it for the introduction playlist, so it's really that brilliant.

Final verdict? This is an excellent debut album by one of the most important bands to emerge from the punk wave, even though this record is nothing like punk. But that's the catch - the Banshees evolved. They developed their sound. They toured extensively before hitting the studio and it shows: this is one of the most unconventional, unorthodox rock albums that I have ever heard. If you've had the patience to read through my ranting, listen to this album. Please do. It's spectacular.

5 / 5

Try at least: "Switch", "Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)", "Suburban Relapse", "Helter Skelter"

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