Siouxsie Sioux at 60: more than a monochrome goth-pop priestess

From the Guardian

Mysterious and misunderstood, the singer of goth pop’s sacred texts outlasted her Banshees peers, and outwitted anyone who would second-guess her. There is much to celebrate

‘Gothic in its purest sense is a very powerful, twisted genre’ … Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

What I really resent about people sticking labels on you,” said Siouxsie Sioux in 2004, “is that it cuts off the other elements of what you are, because it can only deal with black and white: the cartoon.” This sometimes threatens to become the legacy of Sioux, who turns 60 tomorrow: to be fixed in time as the aloof monochrome priestess who defined a subculture. “I hate all that,” she grumbled to the Guardian in 2005, while discussing her tiresome reign as “the queen of goth”.

Sioux might hate “all that”, but it was that macabre mystique that first made me fall for the Banshees. I wish every band could look and sound like a nightmarish glam-punk gang summoned from the netherworld. I adore their fourth album, Juju, a fantastic dark swirl of spooky sounds and old-magick themes that’s both their quintessential goth statement and a sacred text for the subgenre (the track titles read like a shelf of old penny dreadfuls: Spellbound, Halloween, Voodoo Dolly, Sin in My Heart). The problem, as Sioux herself has argued, is in the glibness of other people’s interpretations. “Gothic in its purest sense is actually a very powerful, twisted genre, but the way it was being used by by journalists – goff with a double f – always seemed to me to be about tacky harum-scarum horror, and I find that anything but scary,” she once said. “That wasn’t what we were about at all.” You can see her point: Juju also includes, for example, the truly terrifying sci-fi horror of Monitor, a grinding death disco-throb with her shrieking, grim, Ballardian visions of CCTV-ruled dystopia over a loop of twisted metal guitars.

Blinkered fools also tend to overlook how adventurous and many-hued Siouxsie and the Banshees could be, especially in their later years. The wonderfully modern Cities in Dust from 1985’s Tinderbox, for example, or Peek-a-Boo, the lead single from 1988’s Peepshow, a chopped-up hybrid built around a backwards-sampled loop and quick jump-cuts, throwing together shuffling hip-hop rhythms, booming drums, discordant guitar and stabs of brass. The end result sounds a little like a futuristic swing band jamming in the Red Room from Twin Peaks. By the time they’d released their 11th, final album, The Rapture, in 1995, they’d spent 20 years not just outlasting nearly all of their peers, but outthinking them, too.

Some of Sioux’s strangest, most striking work didn’t come with the Banshees at all. In 1981, she and the band’s drummer (and her future husband) Pete “Budgie” Clarke formed the vocal and percussion duo the Creatures, providing them with a more avant garde outlet for their riskier, more experimental ideas. It’s still a peculiar thrill to hear her voice, so often surrounded by guitar-driven gloom, clattering against Budgies’ thudding tribal rhythms, as it does on their sinister, skeletal rework of the Troggs’ Wild Thing, the title track from their debut EP, or the frantic stomp of Mad-Eyed Screamer. The Creatures’ first full-length album, 1983’s Feast, was recorded in Hawaii and so they immersed themselves in the local culture by flirting with exotica and mellower tropical sounds, with the breezy Miss the Girl pairing Sioux’s vocal with skittish marimba; they even recruited the Lamalani Hula Academy Chanters to provide backup vocals, and used recordings of waves crashing on the beach to add further atmosphere. Trying to second-guess what they’d decide to do next was near impossible: just a couple of months later, their jazzy cover of Herbie Mann’s Right Now, released as a standalone single, threw up parping trumpets, honking brass and timpani, with Sioux gleefully snapping her fingers like a 60s big band swinger.

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