Post-punk, alternative-rock icons Siouxsie and the Banshees have been dropping album reissues for more than a decade and have yet to run out of demand. Their latest reissue – a clear vinyl of “Once Upon a Time” – was released in December and sold out almost immediately. Why does the hunger for Siouxsie remain? In a very scientific texting poll with my friends from states other than California, most had not even heard of Siouxsie and the Banshees. (I know, I need new friends…) But for some reason, I think of them as one of the more “underground” names in that era of music.
Of course, if you saw Siouxsie Sioux, you would know it. The teased black hair, extreme eye make-up, red lipstick, pale skin, and “fetish aesthetic” led the way in what would become punk fashion. Plus the whole “girl fronting a band in an extremely male genre” aspect of things. She had the “no fucks given” attitude decades before it became a cliché of social media.
Sioux (aka Susan Ballion) had an isolated English childhood punctuated by an alcoholic father and a sexual assault at nine years old. With her parents and the police not believing the incident, she retreated into her own world. Like many survivors of assault and dysfunctional childhoods, she developed an “armour” around herself to survive.
“And all the children, he warns ‘don’t tell’ Those threats are sold With their guilt and shame, they think they’re to blame.” from “Candyman”
Her father’s death in her teen years triggered an ulcer which led to surgery and a hospital stay. During her recovery, she saw David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Marc Bolan on “Top of the Pops” and was mesmerized. Once recovered, she began hitting the London club scene to experience the glam culture while spearheading punk fashion by dressing in bondage-inspired outfits – even bringing a friend on a leash and demanding a bowl of water for him.
“I think a certain amount of anger has been a fuel of mine, if you want – but also some sort of sadness, and plain mischief, of course.”
After meeting Steven Severin (aka Steven Havoc aka Steven Bailey) at a London Roxy Music show, they bonded over their love of music, difficult childhoods, and not-so-perfect life in the suburbs. The two became a couple, but also created a friendship that would keep them as the only constant members of Siouxsie and the Banshees. But in the late ‘70s, the duo watched as glam rock was being replaced by punk. They began to follow the unsigned band, the Sex Pistols, and became a group of dedicated fans known as the Bromley Contingent.
Another notable member of their gang – William Broad, who would become that guy known as Billy Idol. During a 1976 TV appearance of the Sex Pistols, Sioux teased TV journalist Bill Grundy by saying she had wanted to meet him. He made some appreciative comments in reply and suggested drinks. Due to Sioux’s youth, and Grundy’s uh, non-youth, it set Steve Jones of the Pistols off on a cursing tirade. It was the first time “offensive” language had been on the air at that time of day (remember little controversies like this?!). The Pistols were dropped from their label and Sioux appeared on the cover of tabloids.
After hearing of an opening at a 1976 festival the Pistols were performing at, the friends offered to take the vacated slot, despite not having a band name or other band members. With borrowed musicians Marco Pirroni (from Adam and the Ants) on guitar and Sid Vicious (from the Sex Pistols) on drums, they made their debut with a 20-minute performance: Sioux chanting The Lord’s Prayer over feedback and music.
It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but they got asked to play more shows, so they recruited Kenny Morris for drums and (eventually) John McKay on guitar. More gigs followed and within a year, they were making appearances on the TV show “So It Goes” and John Peel’s legendary radio program. More sold-out shows followed and the band landed on the cover of Sounds magazine, yet they did not have a record deal. Not only did they want to retain artistic control, well, you know…a woman singer. Sioux believed the record industry didn’t know what to do with a strong, female singer. “Well, why else?” she has said. “We didn’t get signed for an eternity compared to other bands we were headlining with.”
There was also the ongoing transition from glam to punk that perhaps not every label knew what to do with. In a 2005, Severin told The Guardian they were different from other bands in the punk scene. “While most of the protagonists of punk looked to American garage bands—Flaming Groovies, MC5, the Stooges, the Dolls—or to the New York scene of Patti Smith, Television, Heartbreakers and the Ramones as a benchmark, we, perversely, saw ourselves as taking on the baton of glamorous art rock—Bowie and Roxy Music—while incorporating a love for Can, Kraftwerk and Neu.”
But in 1978, they finally had a deal they wanted when they were signed by Polydor. They hit the studio and released their first single, “Hong Kong Garden,” which became the first success for the now legendary producer, Steve Lillywhite. Inspired by racism at the local Chinese restaurant, the song got them in the top ten on the charts and is dubbed one of the first new wave/post-punk songs.
With Lillywhite along for the ride and his now trademark affection for recording drums unconventionally, the band created their debut album, “The Scream.” John Peel once again brought them to his listeners’ attention when he played the entire cassette on the air before its release. When it was over, he could only say, “That’s the one boys and girls. That’s the one.” “Hong Kong Garden” was joined by “Mirage,” Overground,” “Metal Postcard,” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” and the album ended up as a “best debut” on several music magazine year-end lists.
Their follow-up album, “Join Hands,” was influenced by war, violence, Iran, and the political situation in England. The heavy topics grew into haunting tracks that were more experimental and dark. “Playground Twist” was the released single, but “Poppy Day” and “Placebo Effect” are also standouts.
There was conflict brewing in the band and with issues regarding the “Join Hands” cover art (copyrights, permissions, changes) and tour logistics (equipment not arriving), and after an argument the day before the album release, McKay and Morris quit. Walking out on your band hours before a show is not exactly a good career choice and Sioux told the crowd, “If you’ve got one percent of the aggression we feel towards them, if you ever see them, you have my blessings to beat the shit out of them.” They currently appear to be alive, so thankfully they did not get too severe of a beat down from anyone. Severin told The Guardian their departure was a “tragic waste” that forced the group to re-evaluate and made him overcome his own “crippling shyness.”
With no stopping their tour, they needed replacements. They hired Peter Clarke, better known as Budgie, as their new drummer. Unable to locate a guitar player in time, they received help from the guitarist of their support band; a gentlemen by the name of Robert Smith who was fronting a new band known as The Cure.
Siouxsie and Robert
When the tour wrapped, Smith went back to The Cure and John McGeoch was hired as the new guitarist for the Banshees. They headed to the studio to start on their 1980 disc, “Kaleidoscope.” A new band brought a new musical direction and the introduction of synthesizers and drum machines. The singles “Happy House” and “Christine” came out before the full album and helped propel them up the charts and send them on their four US tour. While all the new tools sounded amazing, the band did not consider how to recreate these sounds live, so the tour was a learning experience.
For “Juju,” the band ditched some of the electronics that made live performances difficult and created the post-punk concept album. The two newest members (Budgie and McGeoch) brought excellent instrument skills and the dark album showcased those talents. While some may call this album goth, the band prefers not to. (In fact, their constant goth label is rejected by them as they were goth before it was called goth. Got it?) “Spellbound” and “Arabian Nights” helped it on the UK charts, and on their tour, Budgie and Sioux became a secret couple. They created a side project to experiment in non-Siouxsie songs (and spend time together). Under the name Creatures, the twosome released an EP in between Siouxsie albums.
In recent years, “Spellbound” had a reprise in popularity as it was a featured song in the HBO series, “True Blood” as well as other series such as “Deadly Class” in 2019 and “Hanna” in 2020.
The Banshees returned with “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” and once again changed direction. Severin described the album as “sexier” as they experimented with new elements like strings and a piano, plus effects on Sioux’s vocals. The recording process and promotional tour was not without drama though. Just before recording the album, they fired their manager (who had a previous relationship with Sioux). He had become angry and obsessive about her new relationship with Budgie, and jumped into heroin. The Sioux-Budgie relationship and collaboration also caused tension with the other band members.
The band produced the album themselves and allegedly a lot of drugs and alcohol were involved, perhaps adding to the psychedelic aspect of the album. Guitarist McGeoch suffered a nervous breakdown due to stresses of touring and alcoholism and collapsed on stage at a show. He took an extended hospital stay and Robert Smith returned to fill in for the remainder of the tour. But through all that, “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” was released and found decent success with “Slowdive.”
After the album release and tour, Sioux and Budgie worked on a full album for Creatures, and Severin and Smith created their own group, The Glove. Smith was also interested in documenting his time with the band and while doing so, they recorded another Beatles cover, “Dear Prudence.” Oddly enough, this was the only Beatles song Smith knew. It would turn out to best their best UK single and landed them on “Top of the Pops.”
As the band released a live album (“Nocturne”) and started work on their next studio album, they began to get support from Geffen Records in the US. Geffen released “Dear Prudence” and pit it on the US version of the new CD, “Hyaena.” The only album Smith recorded with the Banshees, “Hyaena” included “Swimming Horses” and the sweeping single, “Dazzle.”
They had always felt their songs would do well with an orchestra, and that was realized with “Dazzle.” Although the album was well received and Smith got a lot of praise for his presence, he decided to return to performing as the Cure. He did take Sioux’s penchant for make up with him though. Upon his departure, John Carruthers was hired.
Now we’re getting to the songs casual fans must remember… With 1986’s “Tinderbox,” the band was starting to find mainstream success in the UK and US. Bolstered by “Cities in Dust” and “Candyman,” the band was also included in pop culture. “Cities in Dust,” more danceable than many other of their songs, was included in the ‘80s flick, “Out of Bounds,” and ‘97s “Grosse Pointe Blank.” It has also made appearances in recent shows “13 Reasons Why” and “The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel.”
The band had spent several years on “Tinderbox” and touring and wanted a “fun” project, so they recorded an album of covers. “Through the Looking Glass” shared the ‘70s songs that had inspired them, including John Cale, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, and the Doors. Several of the original artists praised their versions, including Iggy Pop for their take on “The Passenger.”
They were gaining traction in the US, David Bowie had them guest at his California shows, and… Carruthers was let go. (How many guitar players now…?) Carruthers was replaced by Jon Klein and they also added keyboardist Martin McCarrick. Just in time for the album that would give them their North American breakthrough.
Following a long break, they rejoined with the new members for “Peepshow.” Ahead of the release, Severin said, “For the first time, we’ve done an album with a black-and-white structure and allow the listener to color the edges. We leave more to the imagination now.” He continued, “It isn’t a deluge of sounds or textures. You can understand the melodies immediately. Perhaps we’ve put off people in the past because they were too hard to grasp. This album is more like a spider in its web. It traps people first, then if they listen closer they can get into the lyrics or the sounds coming out of far corners.” “Peepshow” was led by single “Peek-a-Boo,” which hit number one on the Billboard alternative charts and gave them commercial success.
Two other singles were also released: “The Killing Jar,” and the song I had on repeat for months at the time, “Last Beat of My Heart.” So much good on one album! “Ornaments of Gold” and “Burn-Up” and “Scarecrow.” Amazing.
After their supporting tour, everyone took a break to work on side projects, but came back hard with another number one alternative song, “Kiss Them for Me.” As a dance pop song, it crossed over to the “regular” Billboard chart, and became their most well-known song.
They released 1991’s “Superstition” album, which also charted well, and the band was asked to play a brand new festival: Lollapalooza. As if that wasn’t enough excitement, Sioux and Budgie married.
Unfortunately, the producer of “Superstition,” Stephen Hague (who had previously worked with New Order), used more electronics than Sioux wanted, relying on computer elements she was not a fan of. Sioux and Severin clashed over the style – he wanted to pursue the electronic music, but she wanted to stay guitar driven – and it caused a rift in their long-time friendship. A pattern that we’ve seen too many times… A UK band finally makes it big in the US and things start to crash. We really do screw things up, don’t we?
Before the end arrived, the band released a singles compilation disc, “Twice Upon a Time,” and recorded the song “Face to Face” for “Batman Returns” at the request of Tim Burton. They were able to put together one more album as a band, “The Rapture.” The 1995 record was produced by the band and John Cale, but it was not successful enough to keep them on their record label. The band officially broke up in 1996.
Sioux and Budgie continued on with Creatures and Severin moved into a soundtrack and score career. They were able to gather together in 2002 for the Seven-Year Itch Tour with a live album and DVD coming out of it. But by 2005, things had broken down again and Sioux said, “It was so disappointing that bridges that should have been mended with the Seven Year Itch tour never were.” At that time, she had not spoken to Severin in a year. “We have go-betweens,” she stated. “It’s sad, isn’t it?”
The mid-2000s held additional sad news as McGeoch passed away and Sioux and Budgie divorced.
Remastered discs and reissues were released and Sioux went on to do solo work, including a 2007 album and DVD, “Mantaray,” with a tour supporting it.
Positive signs for the old friends appeared in 2014 when Sioux performed “Kaleidoscope” live in London and soon after, Severin tweeted, “After a gap of nearly a decades, the Banshees are talking again… The feud is over.” That may have only applied to Sioux though because when asked about Budgie, he gave this reply:
Q: Will Budgie make a guest appearance @ the RFH tonight?
A: There is more chance of Sid Vicious turning up to bash the tubs.
He also clarified on his first tweet with, “It’s not sarcastic….FFS. And there is NO reunion. We’re talking again. IT’S THAT SIMPLE!!!!!!!”
Sioux and Severin worked together in 2014 on a CD for Mojo titled “It’s a Wonderfull Life.” Yes, spelled that way to emphasize the 15 “full” tracks that inspired the band. In the accompanying interview, she said there had been power struggles between them even in the ‘80s: “I’d become more assertive and I think [Severin] found that hard to deal. We can both be really stubborn.” There was apparently an incident backstage at a show where she wrapped a phone cord around his neck… But hey, they survived. Even after a decade of not speaking, they worked to rebuild the relationship. “There are many bridges to mend,” she said. “But it’s good. There’s hope there.”
That hope carried through to 2015 when Sioux released her first new song in eight years. The song “Love Crime” was created for the TV show “Hannibal” and Severin was pictured with her at the show premiere.
As for the future….mark that box as “unknown.” Sioux remains private and not on social media, although a December 2019 picture of her out to dinner with Neil Tennant and friends caused hysteria among fans (myself included). Severin continues to write movie soundtracks, film scores, and solo ambient instrumentals, and gives updates on Twitter. Budgie has drummed for other bands including John Cale, John Grant, and recently Peaches for her cover of Marc Bolan’s “Solid Gold Easy Action.” He had some “routine maintenance” surgery a few months ago, but is back to work and posting on Facebook.
For now, we wait. Word of advice: If they do another reissue, PREORDER! Those things are going quicker than vaccines!