Monday, May 28, 2012

21 Underrated Songs by Siouxsie and the Banshees You Need to Hear Now!

I know, I know. As far as most people are concerned, they’re all underrated. Siouxsie and the Banshees have always had a cultier audience than their stadium-filling peers in The Cure. They slink in several slots behind The Sex Pistols and The Clash during discussions of British punk’s genesis, even though they were there from the start. Siouxsie Sioux was conspicuously, fabulously present when Steve Jones dropped the live-T.V. profanity bombs that ignited the filthy, furious war between the Pistols and proper (i.e.: tedious) society.

Of course, Siouxsie and the Banshees are hardly obscurities in the new wave collective consciousness. Siouxsie, who turns 55 today, is still as iconic for her terrifying trill as she is for her exotic, immensely influential sense of style. The band’s equally otherworldly music has been profiled on three greatest hits compilations. None of the tracks contained therein are included here. Instead, Psychobabble digs a little deeper into the dark wells of the band’s catalogue, reemerges a little dazed, a little roughed up, but clutching 21 underrated songs by Siouxsie and the Banshees you need to hear now.
1. “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)” (from the album The Scream) 1978

In classic punk fashion, Siouxsie and the Banshees began their career doing everything in their power to be as off-putting as possible: interminably massacring “The Lord’s Prayer” at their debut show, adopting disturbing Third Reich imagery, allowing Sid Vicious to drum. Those who know the group from pleasantly poppy crossovers like “Cities in Dust” and “Kiss Them for Me” might be shocked to hear their early work. Disjointed, strident, far scarier than anything in Johnny Rotten’s imagination. “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)” from their debut embodies this as well as any other track, instantly placing Siouxsie’s swastikas in ironic quotes with a dedication to anti-Nazi artist John Heartfeld, then lamenting/celebrating an increasing mechanized society to a shudder-inducing mechanical rhythm. Siouxsie’s conflicting messages clash just as hard as the vertiginous beat.




2. “Jigsaw Feeling” (from the album The Scream) 1978

Like “Metal Postcard”, “Jigsaw Feeling” draws its immense power from intense Sturm and Drang, but there’s also some fiery guitar work from John McKay to melt the ice around Siouxsie’s shout. Still, that does little to sooth the savagely paranoid lyric.




3. “Nictotine Stain” (from the album The Scream) 1978

Is this an ad for the American Cancer Society? Perhaps not, but it certainly would have gotten the job done. More frightening than a photo of a cancer-ridden lung, “Nicotine Stain” is Siouxsie’s self-loathing screed against her own cigarette habit with an infectious and way-heavy power-chord riff. At least she never let her addiction sully her porcelain complexion.




4. “Desert Kisses” (from the album Kaleidoscope) 1980

With their third album, Siouxsie and the Banshees started transitioning away from the cacophony of their first two discs toward the more easily digestible new wave sound that would dominate their ‘80s work. The singles “Happy House” and “Christine” were still demented at heart, but poppier on the surface. “Desert Kisses” also secreted some troubling imagery. “The cancer crab is on us all”? I’d rather it wasn’t. The music, however, is romantic, atmospheric, sweeping, gorgeous. All the things that would make Siouxsie and the Banshees the loveliest Goths.




5. “Skin” (from the album Kaleidoscope) 1980

“Skin” is a different story altogether. Like “Nicotine Stain”, it is a righteous cry of protest. This time it is the wearing of animal skins that has Siouxsie all rankled. The Banshees are pretty agitated too, with Budgie pummeling Hell out of his snare and some odd instrument squeaking away like a baby seal’s weak cry for help.




6. “Into the Light” (from the album Juju) 1981

Juju continued the lush sound of Kaleidoscope. Track two, “Into the Light”, clangs that perfect tone between ethereal mystery and snarly guitar riffing that was the new Banshees’ specialty. And this time Siouxsie does not feel it necessary to taint her romanticism with cancer crabs. Lines like “Into the light, I see it fine / Into the light, our hearts entwine” are enough to make the most eyeliner-caked Goth swoon.




7. “Halloween” (from the album Juju) 1981

Of course, Siouxsie and the Banshees have not turned their backs on more disturbing subject matter. Here Siouxsie plays a woman looking back on the Halloween of her youth with mixed feelings. “Trick or Treat: the bitter and the sweet.” On the one hand, Halloween memories are to be cherished as “carefree” days of begging for candy door to door. That’s the sweet. On the other hand, they’re to be loathed, since she once murdered a baby on one impetuous October 31st. That’s the bitter. A most fitting tribute to our favorite holiday.




8. “Cascade” (from the album A Kiss in the Dream House) 1982

On Siouxsie and the Banshees’ most delicious album, A Kiss in the Dream House, the transition from punk dissonance to new wave danciness was complete. The party gets started with the chilly waves of “Cascade”, on which Siouxsie howls (and at a couple of points, coughs) incantations about the joy and pain of new love over John McGeoch’s magnetic riff.




9. “Green Fingers” (from the album A Kiss in the Dream House) 1982

Rock’s Bride of Frankenstein pays tribute to the real bride on the thumping second track of A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. “Green Fingers” was the title of an episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”. Elsa Lanchester starred as a widow whose gardening methods are somewhat unconventional… and pretty illegal too. The band delightfully recaptures the episode’s mood with Budgie’s rolling rhythm, McGeoch’s teasing recorder toots, and Siouxsie’s cool threats of “With this hand, I thee wed.”




10. “She’s a Carnival” (from the album A Kiss in the Dream House) 1982

Siouxsie has a rep for being a bit, shall we say, frosty. But even our ice goddess can’t stop herself from whooping it up like Little Richard when she has something as thrilling as “She’s a Carnival” to sing. Is it blasphemous to call a Siouxsie and the Banshees song joyous? If so, please accept my apologies, because there’s no other way to describe this one.




11. “Painted Bird” (from the album A Kiss in the Dream House) 1982

Siouxsie and the Banshees flaunt their references again on “Painted Bird”. This actually is both a tribute to the Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name and a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s terror classic about feathered fiends gone wild. The chorus, with its exhilarating contrapuntal vocals, will make you go wild too.




12. “Take Me Back” (from the album Hyaena) 1984

Hyaena picked up on the poppier sound of A Kiss in the Dream House, while sprinkling more synthesizers and The Cure’s Robert Smith into the recipe. The resulting album is a baked Alaska— sweet but cold. No track better represents that appealing flavor than the transporting “Take Me Back”. As cool, smooth, and expansive as a frozen sea.




13. “Belladonna” (from the album Hyaena) 1984

In some alternate universe populated by acid-infused penguins, “Belladonna” was a massive hit in 1984. In our less interesting world, it wasn’t. Quite a missed opportunity since this is one of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ most pleasing tracks. The atmosphere is as frigid as the rest of “Hyaena”, but the trippy lyric, swirling rhythm, and oboe-impersonating synth render it totally inviting. Arctic psych-pop at its finest.




14. “Running Town” (from the album Hyaena) 1984

Hyaena is largely an agreeable affair, but towards the end the band’s classic abrasiveness starts scratching at the door again. Siouxsie’s call back to “Helter Skelter”, which the Banshees covered on their debut L.P., is a tipoff that “Running Town” is a bit of a look over the shoulder. Robert Smith’s opening guitars shrieks recapture some of the band’s early clatter, while Steven Severin’s dancing piano lines retain their current beauty.




15. “The Sweetest Chill” (from the album Tinderbox) 1986

The title alone seems to sum up the new Banshees. They are radio-friendlier than ever on Tinderbox, which includes their massive dance-floor classic “Cities in Dust” and their most sugary single yet, “Candyman”. That track kicks off the disc, and followed with “The Sweetest Chill”, we have a near mission statement. Despite that sticky title, this is a much moodier piece than the two singles, propelled by an ever-unwinding rhythm.




16. “Partys Fall” (from the album Tinderbox) 1986

“Party’s Fall” is like a less withering “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, surveying a party girl or boy’s day after, but offering the companionship Lou Reed probably wouldn’t have. John Carruthers’s guitar work and Budgie’s drumming are certainly rousing, though I’m not sure if they would make a hangover better or worse.




17. “Lullaby” (b-side) 1986

“Lullaby” might be more your speed if you’re suffering from an absinthe-induced migraine. A placid fabric of guitars forms the backdrop against which Siouxsie paints gorgeous images of dream swans, spinning cartwheels, jagged moonlight and other soporificness. The strings that swell out of the mix toward the end of the track contribute a touch of anxiety that reminds us we’re still listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees.




18. “Trust in Me” (from the album Through the Looking Glass) 1987

For most artists, the cover album is a stopgap for when inspiration is running low. For Siouxsie and the Banshees, Through the Looking Glass is a clutch of 10 opportunities for the band to work their magic on some unusual gems, as essential as almost anything else in the band’s catalogue. Most unexpected is the resurrection of a nugget from The Jungle Book. In the film, the mesmeric boa constrictor Kaa sings “Trust in Me” to snare Mowgli in his wicked thrall. Siouxsie pays fitting tribute to her source material with a rather serpentine performance, complete with rattlesnaky tongue-tremor. The harp-dominated arrangement could charm the snakes from the trees.




19. “Gun” (from the album Through the Looking Glass) 1987

Through the Looking Glass really blasts off with “Gun”, John Cale’s infectious, cheeky tale of felonies. The polyrhythmic track punctuated with horn blasts provides a snappy preview of what was to come on The Banshees’ next platter of original material.

(a decidedly different live version with John Cale in tow)




20. “Ornaments of Gold” (from the album Peepshow) 1988

Peepshow was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ danciest album yet, taking a full plunge into synth pop on several tracks. The best is the slinky single “Peek-a-Boo”, but “Ornaments of Gold” is a great one too, a perfect distillation of the band’s Goth darkness, synth-pop spirit, and intricate exoticness.




21. “Turn to Stone” (from the album Peepshow) 1988

Just as earlier work such as Hyaena conjured images of an endless tundra, “Turn to Stone” brings to mind pyramid-flecked deserts. Even with the synthesizers, Siouxsie and the Banshees rarely sounded so warm. A track that further exemplifies the diversity of a band with so many great hidden treasures, you’ll want to keep digging for them even after unearthing the 21 on this list.


6 comments:

  1. Great post! Lots of really good picks there. I'd add "Paradise Place" and "Switch" (I recommend the YouTube video of "Switch" done in Cologne in 1981; the late guitarist John McGeoch rocks on that performance). I only got into this group last year, and I'm in my early 50s; somehow missed out on them before. They're my new favorite. And a belated Happy Birthday Siouxsie!

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  2. Great list. Check out Siouxsie and the Banshees box set Downside Up of b-sides, that's where things really get interesting. Fascinating band that deserves way more attention than what they currently get. The song Painted Bird was directly inspired by the Jerzy Kosinski book, maybe hints of Hitchcock's The Birds but the song's main theme/idea/concept is absolutely from Kosinski"s book.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the recommendation and clearing up "The Painted Bird".

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  3. Saw them in Sydney round 1980 I think. Robert Smith was on lead. Had all of their singles and albumns. Surfing the net to catch up on info on them up to now.

    John

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  4. I would have added the title track of The Rapture album, which is such a mesmerising song that is unfortunately ignored because of the patchiness of their latter releases.

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