The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Teenage Kicks: Sue Webster’s Banshees Obsession
Geoff Cowart , December 18th, 2021 09:49

In a whirlwind of spectral paints and shocked black wigs, London artist Sue Webster watched as her obsession with Siouxsie Sioux sprang to life

Rock and fashion collided in the Hackney studio and home of artist Sue Webster recently as she welcomed friends and family to unveil a striking collection of eighteen hand-painted Siouxsie & The Banshees leather jackets.

It’s been an immense lockdown project for Webster. And it was impossible to ignore her huge cameo smile at the end of the show, curated to the roar of Banshees tunes in her packed house. Dig a bit deeper and I realised it was just a brief episode in her life-long obsession with iconic singer Siouxsie Sioux.

This devilish creative chapter sprang from the depths of lockdown coupled with the imminent birth of her first child. And it started innocently enough with just a few badges. “I spent weeks trying to source vintage badges on eBay – like the obsessive fan I used to be … or still am – but failed. So, with the aid of a magnifying glass and an 00-size brush, I went about painstakingly making my own. If it don’t exist, invent it – that’s what I say,” she says in the accompanying catalogue to the private show.

Webster herself donned one of the jackets and snarled as she appeared at the finale, her trademark grimace leaping out beneath her own shocking black hair. Everyone else had to settle for a Siouxsie-like wig – even Kingsland Road tattoo artist Liam Sparkes, shirtless and middle fingers in the air. But it was Webster’s night and she looked the part convincingly.

In another room were two pairs of lyric-daubed leather boots, as well as various framed banknotes defaced with the visage of the punk goddess. While the impromptu catwalk was merely a narrow space in front of a ‘crime scene’ wall, displaying the contents of three boxes of Webster’s teenage artefacts nailed to the wall with string to trace their influences.

These ranged from vintage editions of Smash Hits and New Musical Express, ephemera ranging from concert bills to seminal films, even a provocative copy of Mein Kampf – with all paths seemingly swinging back to the Banshees.

She writes that the lockdown project was a “regression to her teenage self” with the jackets sourced either from a vintage stall in Spitalfields Market or donated in lieu of studio rent from a photographer friend. “I prepared for the fact that after my first child was born, all hell would break loose.”

Returning to paintbrushes after so many years of concentrating on sculpture and assemblages was also possible, thanks to the endless expanse of lockdown, steadily guiding the cheap nylon brushes and leather dye lines on to the black canvases as Webster stepped back in time:

“Laying down the brush strokes to a rag doll dance I became entranced, and as the brush worked its way backwards and forwards across the leather in sync with Budgie’s Burundi-style drumming on 'Spellbound', I found myself transported back in time to Saturday afternoons spent idling away the hours at the Clock Tower in Leicester City centre … me ’n’ Charlie, Simon Reynolds, and Jason with the Mohican would catch the bus from Birstall to meet up with ‘The Ratt’ and Johnno in town to show off our latest self-sculpted haircuts and hand-made outfits.”

Was the fascination with leather jackets courtesy of Suzi Quatro or David Bowie or Joan Jett, she mused? Each of these anti-stars she would have absorbed in her youthful days, poring over the copies of NME delivered like clockwork on a Wednesday.

Finally, she laid her hands on a proper leather jacket (albeit secondhand) from the proceeds of her first-ever artistic commission – a ‘wobbly’ hand-painted sign for The Royal Oak pub on the village green in her hometown of Leicester. Thumbing a few school-day diaries from this era also led Webster to discover that she’d uncannily foreshadowed her Banshees jacket project, scrawling:

Thursday, 26th January

Crap day at school – I hate it – design project must be finished for tomorrow – FUCK THEM! – I painted SIOUXSIE on my jacket instead. I’ll just have to get bollocked

Born in 1966, Webster’s teenage obsession with the Banshees saw her travel up and down the country (Brixton Academy, Hammersmith Palais, WOMAD) and even parts of Europe (Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam) to catch the gigs, sleeping on various floors of friends of friends. At times this was a daunting logistical feat as she describes in her diary a marathon trip back from Lille to see a Banshees gig:

The ferry back was diverted to Felixstowe for 8 hours and arrived in London at 10.30am. Dossed and caught the 2.00pm bus back to Leicester.

Webster admits doing whatever she could to see the Banshees at this time. “Anything to see a pair of killer-heeled, thigh-length patent leather boots that pierced a hole through my brain like a bullet. The figure I saw rising above me, wearing Cleopatra-style make-up and sporting a Nazi swastika armband, belonged to the surrogate mother I’d long been searching for. There was nothing more sexy than a woman in charge of a band.”

Today, she’s separated from her long-time husband and artistic partner of twenty-five years, Tim Noble, and she is free to trace the path of her own influences. “Punk was the first musical genre where women were more than equal to their male counterparts, in both attitude and looks. Punk meant liberation for women.”

In 2012, Webster bought her current Hackney home and studio – at an address that is no stranger to its own obsessions. Owned for forty years by William Lyttle – who earned the moniker of ‘Mole Man’ for digging a vast network of tunnels under the house. The tunnels were so vast that nearby pavements began to collapse, forcing Hackney Council to evict him and fill his warrens with tonnes of concrete to make it safe.

For the next five years, Webster and architect David Adjaye set about reinventing the space, keeping the property’s multiple entrances and cracked façade in honour of its underground-loving previous owner.

For Webster, it appears that reinvention is the mother of necessity.