Monday, 16 September 2013

Siouxsie Sunday: 'Kaleidoscope' by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Once again it's that time of the week - time to talk about Siouxsie! Well, it's not technically Sunday anymore but I was a wee bit hungover so whatever. The Banshees' story continues: after the band split during the previous tour, the core duo Siouxsie and Severin finished the tour with a new drummer, Budgie (who would become a permanent member for the rest of the group's run), and a temporary guitarist, Robert Smith (of The Cure). While writing their third album the band found a new full-time guitarist, John McGeoch, who had previously played in post-punk groups Magazine and Visage. He remained a Banshee for a string of three excellent albums, and during his tenure the band would record some of their finest work. 1980's Kaleidoscope was the first one out of these.

The album is in many ways more experimental than their previous efforts, and also features some electronic elements - late '70s and early '80s were the time when electronic music really started to break through, especially thanks to the rise of synthpop. From the first seconds of the lead single "Happy House" it's evident that the band was going through a phase of reinvention. The new sound was also poppier and perhaps even more accessible than The Scream and Join Hands were, and the two singles ("Happy House", "Christine") released from the album became instant Banshee classics. The former is a catchy, yet sarcastic song that is apparently about perfect facades that families desperately seek to maintain, though in the song they are compared to a mental asylum, a connection further emphasised in the music video. It's not an easy subject to tackle ("This is the happy house / We're happy here, in the happy house / To forget ourselves and pretend all's well / there is no hell"), but the song is ridiculously catchy nevertheless - as Siouxsie puts it: "Oh it's such fun". Fun fact: the song and/or its main riff has been sampled and covered by the likes of the Italian Eurodance group Cappella in "U Got 2 Know", the Canadian recording artist The Weeknd in "House of Balloons", the English singer Saint Saviour (most notable for her collaboration with Groove Armada) and Preston, the lead singer of the English indie rock band The Ordinary Boys, in "Dressed To Kill", which is currently being covered in turn by none other than Cher. We'll have to wait and see if the Queen of Autotune will feature the original sample in her version. Heck, even Calvin Harris seems to have been inspired by the song.

"Christine" continues with writing catchy pop songs about mental issues, and makes several references to Chris Costner Sizemore, an English woman who was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder in the 1950s, and whose experiences were dealt with in the book Three Faces of Eve. (The theme is further explored in the single's b-side, "Eve White / Eve Black".) "Christine" has later been covered by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Simple Minds, among others. Both "Happy House" and "Christine" became Top 40 hits in UK, peaking at #17 and #22, respectively, while the album itself became the band's first Top 10 album, peaking at #5 in the UK album chart.

However great the singles are, the album's true brilliance lies in the album tracks. Take "Tenant" for example, a song about how it is to live as a tenant with stalkery neighbours: "Squatting on doorsteps / Following footsteps / Nocturnal habits are surveyed with interest". It's quite creepy - even more so, as we all have stories about neighbours like that: "But they have eyes to the keyholes and ears to the walls". Or then you have "Trophy", which also ridicules the human behaviour, this time with people who wallow in their past accomplishments and moments of glory: "Headhunters, headshrinkers and long-distance runners / Dust gathers on mementos, dust gathers on proud moments / Young voices grow thick and old / The cheers are distant, wearing thin". Take note, Liam Gallagher. The song also has a brilliant intro, featuring Budgie's catchy beats and McGeoch's guitars, which would become the staple for the future Banshee sound.

On the two-minute "Clockface" the band shows that they don't even necessarily need deep and meaningful lyrics to make kick-ass music - in this case, the song, though not instrumental, has no lyrics at all. Thirty years later, the song made the most unlikely singalong song during Siouxsie's gigs at the Yoko Ono-curated Meltdown festival where she played the Kaleidoscope album in entirety. The album version of the song then segues to the wondefully atmospheric "Lunar Camel" which, I could imagine, is at least somewhat inspired by the opening of David Bowie's 1977 instrumental "Sense of Doubt".

Other brilliant tracks include the powerful "Desert Kisses" and "Paradise Place", which is about cheap (and inept) plastic surgeons in the Beverly Hills. The lyrics aren't exactly favourable towards them, as one might suspect: "You can hide your genetics under drastic cosmetics / But this chameleon magic is renowned to be tragic / Look to the hills, now look at my face / Can you notice my eyes, are they in the right place?" The last song, "Skin" is a Banshee anthem for animal rights with brilliantly sarcastic lyrics which assault fur-wearing people. Judging by some live recordings of the song, it worked as an amazing upbeat stomper when performed live (especially in the latter one of the two), so it's a shame that the album version isn't quite as high-energetic.

However, one of the most important and influential tunes on the album is arguably "Red Light", which is a dark, pulsating synthpop number. The song title and the camera clicks heard in the background obviously refer to photography, but the song is much more ambiguous than that - as Siouxsie songs tend to be. Camera films are developed in a darkroom, lit only with red light in order to protect the films. However, both 'darkroom' and 'red light' have also sexual meanings, so in the end, the song might be a criticism of many things, depending on how you interpret the lyrics. Maybe it bashes pornography ("Come into this room, come into this gloom / See the red light rinsing / Another shutterslut wincing"), maybe fashion industry and how it treats its models ("She falls into frame / with a professional pout") or perhaps it's just about attention whoring which, thanks to Facebook and all, feels more relevant than ever ("That Kodak whore winking / 'til the aperture shuts"). Go figure. If the song feels familiar, it's most likely due to Santigold sampling it on her 2008 track "My Superman". She actually made a mixtape later where she used another song from Kaleidoscope, the aforementioned "Lunar Camel".

All in all, Kaleidoscope is an extremely solid album - possibly even more solid than its predecessors. The band's sound evolved greatly through experimenting with new elements whereas Siouxsie's voice is capable of conveying much more emotion, sounding softer and more versatile than ever before. The record also showcases the Banshees as excellent tellers of twisted little anecdotes about the lunacy of the picture-perfect middle class suburban life (a theme also dealt with in The Scream) and started something that's regarded as "the golden age" of Siouxsie and the Banshees: a trio of artistically creative albums (1980's Kaleidoscope, 1981's Juju, 1982's A Kiss In The Dreamhouse) recorded with John McGeoch, the group's most celebrated guitarist. Following the turmoil regarding their previous tour, the band recovered, returned and reclaimed their place as one of England's best with an album that became their career's highest-peaking one.

4½ / 5

Try at least: "Happy House", "Christine", "Red Light", "Tenant"

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