83. SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES – THE SCREAM (1978) – Guest Contributor: Johny Brown (Band of Holy Joy)/(A) KALEIDOSCOPE (1980)

 THE SCREAM / A FEW RANDOM FRACTURED THOUGHTS

The bass is prescient, thunder before lightning.                                                  

‘So all the things they said about Communism, that we would lose our homes, our savings, be forced to labour eternally for meagre wages with no voice in the system, has come true under capitalism’.

Overground for normality, overboard for identity.                                   

People do moan! You just take a walk up City Road and take a look at the new builds that tower over the advertising boards to reassure yourself, everything is just as it should be, things are normal here, safe, mate.

The voice on this album is mercury slither and razor.                                     

It’s a nice day. The weather is not too bad and the property market remains vibrant. You’re engaged with your handheld. There’s a strong signal in the area. You always find a strong signal reassuring. It’s all good!

My limbs are like palm trees swaying in the breeze.                                        

There was a terrorist scare earlier on but you’re getting used to them now. It’s like that porn habit you had a while back, it was all out of control but then you got desensitised and once that happened you got bored and it stopped.

The guitar is the sheeted window of a glass box new build crashing to the ground.                                    

Nah, all good mate, proper, normal, you didn’t get the raise you wanted at work and they’ve got you working longer hours but it’s worth it. You got ten sympathetic likes on Facebook. You can never be too popular, can you?

Watch the muscle twitch, for a brand new switch.

You do think though, sometimes, when you pause the digital information overload, that maybe you might be a touch scared inside, that you put a front on everything, keep a lid on things, and that you could crack any moment.

The drums on this album are a hammered clockwork jerk.          

 You’ve been picking up on interior voices lately, fractured thought processes, bad feelings, meaningless impulses, needled reactions, weird obsessions, sudden relapses, wallowing, seething, snapping under your normal self.

 Metal is tough, metal will sheen.      

https://open.spotify.com/track/6cVnCavV3ucFY86rox4v69

You find yourself craving, having ecstatic bouts followed by deep sloughs and the prescription meds don’t help and this Brexit thing just confuses you I mean who should you vote for, they all seem so, ah you’d like to take a hammer…

It’s a psychologically disturbed / disturbing record.                                 

And your boss is back and he’s not smiling like he is waiting for the market to crash the bubble to burst the dam to break the virus to spread the earth to swallow you up, but you, you’re not cracking up, no, it’s all good mate.

Television flickers with another news bulletin.                                          

Smoking again. It’s just a habit. Hand shakes. Driving you insane. Sucking up the fumes. So congested and you feel so claustrophobic, like the city is closing in. Haven’t smiled in days and now YOU JUST CAN’T HELP BUT SCREAM.

I’m sorry that I hit you but my string snapped.                                                 

This record stands alone. PiL and Joy Division would carry the concerns and aesthetic of THE SCREAM further and Test Dept and Einsturzende Neaubaten would take it to the logical extreme and maybe better it.

The sleeve represents every drowning voice.                                                          

But this, for myself at least, was the first of its kind of the time, and maybe time hasn’t afforded it the space it deserves. I’d like to state the case that this is a great record. It’s a good soundtrack to this moment now.

See the nicotine start to spread. It’s in my head, it’s in my head.                  

 It’s timeless, it’s serving just as well for me now as it did when I was a confused and alienated 17 year old, disappointed with punk but still wanting some kind of noise to articulate the feeling of otherness I held close.

The image is no images it’s not what it seems….                                             

There is secret knowledge contained within this record. Souixsie and Severin knew. John and Kenny enabled. The record is unspoiled by overt musicianship but is enhanced by a sense of utility dedication and passion for the cause.

All the signals send me reeling.

https://open.spotify.com/track/3xWTQQm2u9KvPL31DT27eM

It’s a minimal, bleak tour de force; no quarter is given and there is no pandering to the bands that were around them at the time. It is haughty yes, but it has purpose and without being overtly political it is a most political recording.

Well you may be a lover but you ain’t no fucking dancer.                                 

And then it all opens up on the last song with a sax driven hallucinatory pagan chant played out on city rooftops under polluting skies. Just as we think the streets and the times are closing in on us they are blasted open again.

It’s not what it seems.                          

The Scream has its desired effect, it breaks a spell, a new age emerges. Playing it the past few days, I know it still works and with everyone mugged / content / sedated / scared inside, I know that this is a now record. It has soul.

When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the ride.                              

 ‘So all the things they said about Communism, that we would lose our homes, our savings, be forced to labour eternally for meagre wages with no voice in the system, has come true under capitalism’.

So look out…

(Johny Brown)

(A) KALEIDOSCOPE  – SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES (1980)

The schism of Siouxsie and the Banshees came as a particular shock. It was so (seemingly) sudden, so final – and so symmetrical. The abrupt flight of half of the band, guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris, somewhere between Aberdeen and Glasgow (my brother was among the jilted fans whose Glasgow Apollo ticket suddenly became worthless) in September 1979 seemed a fittingly terse and tense end for a band whose approach had always been one of collision – between old and new, male and female, dystopian and utopian, sheet metal and gossamer.
If it had been the end. McKay and Morris were seldom heard of again but Siouxsie and Steve Severin had a contract, tour obligations – and, above all, unfinished artistic business. Faced with a choice to fold or continue, after a sundering which they had not committed, they set about filling the gaps in a manner which, on paper, could have been a recipe for the very antideluvian rock/roll cliches they had come to vanquish and obliterate – they effectively turned the Banshees into a supergroup.
But there was never any prospect of them becoming the Sioux-Severin Overdrive – they swiftly recruited drummer Budgie,  initially a face on the Liverpool scene based around Eric’s (on the other side of Mathew Street) in the semi-mythical Big In Japan, who at various times had also featured Holly Johnson, Ian Broudie and Jayne Casey, and later heard on the Slits’ astonishing Cut. Serendipitously, John McGeoch became available following his increasing disillusionment with Magazine – a matter he was reluctant to expand upon but which put him in a position to play on Happy House, which nobody would have dreamed of calling a comeback single but which many wouldn’t have dared to hope would appear.
It was immediately obvious it was a departure, with the dialogue between McGeoch’s giddy guitar and Severin’s two-note bass hums mediated by Budgie, who lent it what was undeniably a disco feel. Above, Siouxsie declaims a lyric said to be  a vinegar-soaked ironic portrait of domestic bliss but which could also be interpreted as a return to her recurring theme of mental health. It’s also the most overt outing to date for her Bromley accent (“There’s room for you/If you say you do”) which might have had George Bernard Shaw reaching for the phonetic alphabet but was a continuation of one of punk’s lasting achievements – building on the foundations laid by Syd Barrett and David Bowie, the mid-Atlantic tyranny of earlier years had, if not been overthrown, then at least challenged and questioned; at last, we’re getting to the core of what ‘alternative’ actually means.
That recurring theme is unambiguously explored on second pre-album single Christine. Siouxsie unequivocally spells out the solitude and despair of schizophrenia as an endless hall of distorted and destroyed mirrors (“Every new problem brings a stranger inside/Helplessly forcing one more new disguise”). The first line also gifts the album its title (“She tries not to shatter, kaleidoscope style/ Personality changes behind her red smile”) in a reportedly true story, the subject of which finally developed 22 identified personalities; overall it’s a, particularly for its time, compassionate treatment of a too often trivialised and brazenly misrepresented subject. Musically, Severin’s bass is again the  torchbearer, drilling through a wall decorated by synth spangles and McGeoch’s 12-string, limbering up for the vertiginous feats of athleticism he and it would perform on the following year’s Spellbound.
Severin once claimed Trophy almost made the cut for Kaleidoscope’s predecessor, 1979’s frustratingly half-formed Join Hands, but holding it over gave McGeoch the chance to remould it in his own image, to the extent that I carried the song’s riff in my head for quite some time without being able to (re)identify it and convinced myself it belonged to Magazine. He locks in with Budgie at least as tightly as Severin does and the result goes beyond the obvious resemblance to Berlin Bowie to reach as far as James Brown. It’s as funky as the Banshees got, certainly more so than on their later, somewhat ill-advised tilt at Ben E King’s Supernatural Thing, and is goaded on by Siouxsie’s rumination on the title’s dual meaning of prizes claimed by “headhunters, headshrinkers and long-distance runners” and an apparent conclusion of futility in competition in the face of its transient nature.
Hybrid positions McGeogh as perhaps the only realistic successor to McKay as he pulls from the hat the secret weapon he shared with his predecessor: the sax. Both saw it as an instrument which was not there to sooth but to unsettle;  if vampires had shadows, they would be the one’s McGeoch casts here. His guitar runs tread a path The Edge would take a few years later  (listen to this and then U2’s Bad – now do you see?) and Budgie takes  an elementary yet completely coercing roll around the traps. Siouxsie, meanwhile, returns to cockney noir in a mysterious tale of cloning, packaging and fragmentation.
For all its glories, genuine beauty was a quality hitherto largely lacking in the Banshees’ music. It emerges twice on Kaleidoscope, firstly on Lunar Camel, where a suitably Levantine melody on lo-fi synth keeps pace with an alluring rhythm box (not drum machine) which could, if this song’s intro were stood next to that of Visage’s Fade To Grey in an identity parade, lead to a case of mistaken identity. It also shields an outrageous pun in what may or may not be a reflection on the space race (“I don’t have to prove I’ll last longer than you/One hump or two, any handicap will do against you”). And then – an unfeasibly lovely chorus, yet one so simple that even I, a non-musician of an order Eno could only dream of, was able to figure it out on piano. You don’t even notice Sinatra being huckled through as Siouxsie entreats: “Oh fly me to the moon/Get me there soon.” The only word for the backing voices is, I’m afraid, sighing. It’s just what they do and they do it formidably.
Even more pulchritude comes from Desert Kisses, which captures that moment when a spell of sweltering heat is about to give way to a fearsome storm, as the impending torrent hangs in the air like a predator, jaws agape, at once airy and claustrophobic. If  the title promises Valentino, the song delivers Mitchum; the flanged bass, which would come to be a blight on the then infant ’80s, drives both the song’s sensual exterior and its sinister core; the backing vocals, appropriately credited to The Sirens, are near-celestial; so, in fact, is Siouxsie, until you hear she’s singing: “Tidal fingers cling to rocks/A deadly grip, a deadly lock” and repeats “sinking down” – a desert of quicksand. Then finally, “the world is flat/There’s no one here to question that” – half a millennium undone in four minutes flat. It came out in one of the wettest summers in living memory and still carries its humidity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtu7IMJlevs
The other guest is a kindred spirit from the old Bromley days – Steve Jones, whose guitar tyranny was second only to Lydon/Rotten’s tomcat timbre in defining the Pistols’ sound, had that not been a notion all concerned would have scoffed at at the time. Jones’ performance on Kaleidoscope is as much a liberation from the Pistols’ vaudeville straitjacket (they imploded at exactly the right time – there was absolutely nowhere left for them to go) as Public Image Ltd had been for Lydon – the serpentine squall he uncoils is only a couple of postcodes away from Anarchy In The UK but the space he acquires here, compared with the claustrophobia of that song and its establishment-flaying siblings, is like a stepping out of a cell into an endless corridor – still nobody’s idea of luxurious but with the capacity to stride and sprint, accompanying Siouxsie’s exploration of unnecessary plastic surgery – something of a cliche now but confined at the time in the public imagination to the artifice state of California (“Hide your genetics under drastic cosmetics/But this chameleon magic is renowned to be tragic”).
Jones is also on brief but bracing semi-instrumental Clockface and the closing Skin, a melodica-frilled, staccato snare-studded diatribe against the fur trade – vanity is again Siouxsie’s target (“Shame about the smell but/They’re fine soaked in perfume”). It also makes Kaleidoscope the third of four consecutive Banshees albums to end with the sound of a lone guitar.
The Banshees followed Kaleidoscope with Israel, a colossal stand-alone single which fell short of the top 40, possibly because it was so intensely charged, emotionally, politically and ethnically, and with Juju, which is often seen as one of the founding texts of goth but which, despite the matt-black textures of songs like Night Shift and Voodoo Dolly, still admitted shafts of upful pop light – just fewer than on its predecessor. Equally often, Kaleidoscope is considered a transitional album but it was Juju which utimately proved to be a sidestep and Kaleidoscope which, by opening a paintbox and freeing the Banshees from the constraints of a fixed line-up, set the tone for the remainder of their time on Earth.
As Jonny Brown has so eloquently and ardently described here on TNPC, The Scream remains their high watermark but it was nowhere near their only triumph. On the index of the inexplicably overlooked, Kaleidoscope rates pretty highly (PG).

 


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