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A Quietus Interview

Siouxsie Sioux Interviewed: The Banshees And The BBC
John Doran , July 20th, 2009 10:05

Siouxsie Sioux chats to John Doran about banging heads with rock bores and the importance of having glitter in your pocket

The history of one of post punk’s most enigmatic figures, Siouxsie Sioux, is mirrored faithfully in miniature by the sonic artefacts she left at the BBC in the form of carefully archived radio sessions, live footage and appearances on programmes such as The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top Of The Pops; a career which is still blossoming — she released her first solo album, the excellent Manta Ray, in 2007.

That she has had such a long career is a surprise when viewed from certain angles however. In some ways she ended her teenage years as a hipster; the Peaches Geldof of her day. Born Susan Ballion in Kent, she nearly died of a stomach disorder not long after her father – a scientist who milked snakes of their poison to develop serums – succumbed to an alcoholic’s death. Into this abnormally chaotic adolescence came the Sex Pistols. She latched on to the nascent punk movement and was one of the most visible members of the Bromley Contingent (along with future collaborator Steve Severin) and one of the first people visibly affected by the wave of energy emanating from punk; the effect that Jon Savage described as a hand grenade in the gladioli.

We say first visibly, as of course Sioux was one of the Sex Pistols’ entourage who rocked up on Bill Grundy’s Today programme and was the source of the “dirty fucker”’s lusty comments. But this is the problem with laying into so-called hipsters. If Sioux ended her teens as a hipster, she started her adulthood as one of the best rock stars of the late 70s, the80s and beyond. In most cases the accusation of hipsterism smacks of jealousy and a tiresome obsession with authenticity or has come from a quasi-self aware 'hipster' journalist.

True enough though, things started blithely enough. Just a few months before this notorious TV appearance, Malcolm Maclaren prompted her to get The Banshees together with Severin on bass, Marco Pirroni (who would go on, eventually, to become an Ant) on guitars and a young, John Ritchie (soon to be Sid Vicious) on drums. Apart from Pirroni, who was already a competent song writer and a good guitarist, it was a case of 'God help us if there's a war' as they played a 20-minute improvised version of the Lord’s Prayer at the 100 Club. But 12 months after the Today appearance, everything had changed. With Pirroni, on his way to joining Merrick, Terry, Lee, Gary Tibbs and his truly and Vicious already enjoying short tenure with the Pistols, the line-up settled around Sioux/Severin and John McKay on guitar and Kenny Morris on drums.

In a matter of months they’d gone from being the kind of band who “didn’t know which way up to hold a guitar or how to plug it in” to being a serrated yet sensuous attack unit. Their first Peel Session (‘Love In A Void’, ‘Mirage’, ‘Metal Postcard’, ‘Suburban Relapse’) shows a band who still had trace elements of glam rock, were strangely psychedelic, tribal and stentorian. This was assured, self-contained, original, startling and lots of other things that you would never normally associate with scenesterism.

In fact even before the release of their first album (The Scream in 1978) they had proved that they were like the musical equivalent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria - a room full of barbed wire, a death by a thousand cuts, a childhood gone wrong, technicolour psychedelia, witchcraft and poisoned wine.

All of this material was released in a box set comprising of three CDs and one DVD recently and so we caught up with Siouxsie to talk about her history with the BBC.

The first thing that occurred to me when I was listening to this collection of radio sessions and watching all the live material is just how much of it there is. Radio sessions for Peel, Kid Jensen, Richard Skinner, Janice Long. Appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Top Of The Pops and Something Else, yet you seem to have been airbrushed from the accepted TV and radio text of what happened during punk and afterwards. I don’t see you on ‘I <3 1978’ for example. This said I did see you got given some kind of gong recently by Mojo Magazine so maybe you have been accepted now.

Siouxsie Sioux: Ha! I don’t feel like we’ve been accepted at all. I think that they just use me but that’s alright, I use them. I just use it as an excuse to have a piss up.

The radio session was essential to your genesis as you recorded Peel Sessions before you even got signed. How did you find the experience?

SS: It felt like you were entering a world that was hidden away and not bothered, you had this impression that there were mad scientists getting on with things. Undisturbed and forgotten about by the powers that be. In that respect they were kind of like the Radiophonic sound effects department with Delia Derbyshire; they were just left to get on with it. It was pretty much deserted when you went in to do the sessions. Everyone disappeared on the dot at 5pm. You’d end up wandering round all the corridors that were empty. It was a warren of empty corridors full of anonymous doors.

Do you remember first meeting John Peel and John Walters and were you initially suspicious of them?

SS: I didn’t really know that much about them to be honest. The rest of the band knew more about them to be honest. They came to a concert we did at the Croydon Greyhound and I think they were both ensconced in the bar and I remember John Walters and Peel were a double act. Walters was very much more outgoing than Peel but they had a humour that they both played off between them.

Well, you obviously made an impression on them as they tried to sign you didn’t they?

SS: The BBC, yes. And when you look back at it I think it would have been pretty cool to have done it. It was due to the session that we did that had ‘Hong Kong Garden’ on it that we got signed. An A and R man, called Alan Black at Polydor I think, heard it and we got signed.

What was the actual physical process like of recording a Peel Session back then and did you have to be in and out quite quickly?

SS: I think for us especially, we worked very quickly, mainly because we’d only played live before and partially it was dependant on who you had doing the session and some of it was about trying out different instruments and different sounds but they were all sessions that were done during the day and I really like them for that. And we always approached our B-sides like that and for me they are a side of the band that a lot of people don’t really get. But this is my favourite side of the band. I like seeing us working in a more spontaneous environment.

Another thing the box set and the numerous Banshees reissues that have come out recently points to is your fearsome work ethic. Does this have anything to do with your slightly unconventional upbringing do you think?

SS: Erm. Possibly . . . We kind of made ourselves think that we had to do it when we thought of it and not procrastinate too much.

Another thing that I found very interesting when I went to see you live at the 100 Club in 2006 which I guess was supposed to be celebrating the 30th anniversary of punk and by extension of the Banshees. But as much as that was a brilliant gig featuring a well rehearsed band and the excellent percussionist Leonard Eto, the original gig was completely unrehearsed and very chaotic.

SS: “Oh, it was totally unrehearsed. It’s a well known cliché that more people claim to have been there than actually could have fitted into the venue. We did turn up to the Clash’s studio and they let us use their equipment but it was basically to see how things plugged in! [laughs] How things plugged in and what way up you held a guitar! Seriously. Marco was the only musician in the first incarnation of the Banshees. The rest of us were just let loose.

So what this box set reveals, very interestingly, is how you went from being a ramshackle group of situationists who didn’t know which way up to hold a bass guitar to becoming the tightly drilled group you can hear on the first Peel Session. And the time elapsed would be more accurately measured in months rather than years.

SS: [sounds unconvinced] Yeah. Well, we played a lot live and looking back, although it drove us insane, we were always thinking ‘Why haven’t we been signed when everyone and their brother has been signed?’ but that in turn gave us room to grow and develop in our own way. We grew in a way unorchestrated and unaffected by outside influence. There was no institutional influence. It’s easy to see with a lot of these bands who get signed up really early when they can barely play live; it very quickly becomes diluted. It seems to wear one out and erode one when one is suddenly assimilated into the industry too quickly.

Also on the DVD there are a handful of programmes I’ve never even heard of before. What do you remember about these programmes Something Else and Rock Goes To College?

SS: Something Else was to do with Tony Wilson and I didn’t really know what the other one was but it captured us while we were on tour. There seemed to be a lot more programmes for music then. If you look at it now, there isn’t even Top Of The Pops.

I think that’s really important. Even in the late 80s you had Snub TV and alternative shows on MTV. There just doesn’t seem to be anything supporting vaguely leftfield music on TV now.

SS: No, and what you get to see of a band now is only what the record company wants to let you see of a band. The outlet for young bands, who are perhaps like we were in not attracting the record companies for whatever reason . . . I mean, we got an incredible amount of press of course. I don’t know, maybe the press played a bigger part in those days as well.

One of the things that I was thinking about is that before all of this, we’d already seen you on the Today programme with Bill Grundy with the Sex Pistols and that’s something that’s replayed on TV all the time but isn’t the truth of the matter that TV and radio had to be manned by people like Grundy for punk and post punk to be allowed to happen?

SS: I suppose that anything that shatters an illusion you need the status quo and the people who control it to be there and be shocked in order to get a reaction from them. And I think in that respect the music then was in such stark contrast to it; to something breaking away from the more strait-laced, the more conformist side of the media . . . this would have made it all the more appealing to certain people. But now, it’s all so bland and dour. I was walking down the street the other day and nothing seemed to shock me. There was some kid with a Phil Oakey hair cut and it seems like everyone wants to adopt something from the past because once it was shocking or got you attention. Now it’s just so diluted because there’s nothing being generated that’s new; it’s just recycled.

I think there are too many programmes being made by men in their 40s in Glasvegas T-shirts, trying to be friends with teenagers and trying to understand them rather than being alienated or shocked by them. Another thing that needs to be said about the DVD is how good you look on it. Not just you but the band as well – to a certain degree. Now, there’s been a lot of attention paid to post punk recently with things like Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again and Totally Wired. A lot of bands coming through now obviously lean on that period for sonic inspiration as well. But do you think that retrospectively more kudos is given to bands like Gang Of Four and Magazine and not as much given to Bauhaus and the Banshees because of their image?

SS: I don’t know, I think even at the time there were people who were dismissive of us because of that as well. That’s never going to change. There are always going to be old fogeys who want it to be to taken totally seriously and have no sense of fun. That’s always been there.

This box set in the way documents the progress of the Banshees and just by watching this material in order you can see how massive the Banshees became in the 80s. Do you think you coped with fame awkwardly?

SS: Erm, no, not really. I can only speak for myself. Erm, I was still living in rented accommodation, not in the lap of luxury or anything. Our day to day lives were very much down to earth still. So it wasn’t like we were suddenly removed from reality. I don’t think we were that much affected. We weren’t transported to a world where only the uber rich operate. We just enjoyed ourselves by working hard I think. And we didn’t even consider it hard work.

Over the years, you’ve been through more guitarists than Spinal Tap have been through drummers. [As well as Pirroni, previous incumbents have included Robert Smith of The Cure and post punk/goth legend John McGeoch.] What was the problem?

SS: [laughing] Well, yes. I don’t know what it was about really. If I knew what the problem was maybe we would have held on to them a bit longer! Maybe it was the dynamic of having a female front person. Guitarists tend to compete with the front person, unlike the drummer. Maybe that’s the reason, I don’t know really.

My favourite moment on the DVD disc is the performance of ‘Happy House’ on Top Of The Pops when you’re marching about like a sadistic teacher and then the camera pans back to reveal some youngsters who look like the Osmonds looking quite shocked because they’re probably waiting for The Brotherhood Of Man to come on and they can’t really process what they’re watching.

SS: Oh I remember this! I had a pocket full of confetti and I would fling about! Some people didn’t want to compromise and go on Top Of The Pops but we thought it was essential. It was essential to engage with the establishment. There was obviously a lot of rubbish on it but it was the other moments that you remembered. You would remember seeing Bowie and Ronson on Top Of The Pops. You would remember seeing Roxy Music.

Things were obviously a little bit more fraught at The Old Grey Whistle Test with the old guard led by Whispering Bob Harris dealing with punk and new wave etc with particularly bad grace. After Magazine appeared on the show in the late 70s he said ‘Well, I guess that wasn’t that bad . . . for new wave.’ Did you find it a bit distasteful being around all these Musicians Union, CAMRA, 12 bar blues bores?

SS: Ha ha! Well, Annie Nightingale was really into us so she got us on to the programme but they were only used to dealing with Santana or whatever. They didn’t really understand anything newer. We used to get really angry with the camera men trying to focus on the guitarists' fretboards so people could see what chords they were playing. Argh! Get off! For them I think it was a case of ‘Thank God That’s over. Now back to Jeff Beck’!

Out now as well you’ve got a DVD called Finale which comes after the release of the really well received solo album Manta Ray. I just wondered why it took so long for you to release a solo record?

SS: [pause] Why did it take so long? I don’t know. Maybe it was that for so long I was part of a band and I was always being asked to consider doing a solo album and I wasn’t interested then and it would have been too obvious. I don’t know, it just happened and what was great about doing the live show was picking some of the old material which worked really well with the new material and even though they’re miles apart there’s some kind of connection there. These songs weren’t incongruous alongside the new stuff. So that was at Koko and we did songs like ‘Hong Kong Garden’ as it was its 30th anniversary, as unbelievable as that seems. It was strange to say happy 30th birthday to that song!

Siouxsie and the Banshees At The BBC is out now