Did punk make the Banshees possible, "or did we make punk possible?" Siouxsie Sioux wondered a few days before the British band's kickoff concert at the Warner tonight. "It's all really down to fate, in a way. I'm happy that it was not planned . . . And we were lucky, in a way, that at that time it was possible to jump in the deep end without having to qualify yourself."
That time was 1976, when anything was possible and nothing was improbable, including the transformation of a working-class London girl (her real name is Susan Dallion) into a mystique-laden diva. Siouxsie and the Banshees helped shake up the establishment, and a decade later they remain one of punk's most intriguing and least compromised bands, though they long ago outgrew the occasion that spawned them. And Siouxsie, whose exotic masklike makeup and shock of black hair made her a gothically glamorous amalgam of Betty Boop, Marlene Dietrich and Morticia Addams, became punk's first female star.
In its best moments, genuine Banshee music is spellbinding, intoxicating. Listening to it is like suddenly finding yourself awake in a netherworld between the memories and fears of childhood and the neuroses and frustrations of adulthood. It is music of uncomfortable obsessions -- love and death, sex and sensuality -- a walk on the dark side.
"The hidden side," Siouxsie corrects. "I think most people are motivated by tragedy or unbelievability or something crazy rather than projecting, 'It's a lovely day, there's nothing wrong and I'm completely happy and I don't really know why I'm writing this song.' "
Instead, Siouxsie's songs tend to be about cultural, social and emotional disintegration (one of her favorite films is Roman Polanski's "Repulsion"). Lyrically, they invoke filmic quick-edit technique, in which loosely connected images and moods are strung together in rapid succession. The effect is disorienting at times, but also painfully alluring.
"Some people say we have an unhealthy obsession," says bassist Steve Severin. "I think we have a healthy curiosity, and I think we've displayed that in quite a few ways. You can't really get away from sex, love and death -- they're the topics that anybody with half an imagination is eventually going to write about."
Writing about them in intriguing ways remains the trick. The band's debut album, "The Scream," remains a dense, brooding work, grim and determined. "A Kiss in the Dreamhouse" brilliantly explores the pleasures and terrors of love and desire. On "Tinder Box," the new Siouxsie and the Banshees album, there are a lot of songs about the effects of weather, including one called "Cannons."
"That was inspired by a BBC documentary about T.S. Eliot when he arrived in London in 1921, a time when they were having the most freaked out, freaky weather ever," Siouxsie says. "It was specifically about this drought that hit London and people had deserted it to go to the coast or shoreline or lakes to escape the oppressive dry heat that relentlessly beat down. Finally in their desperation to cause the clouds to burst, they fired cannons at the sky, ritualistically, every night."
An apt metaphor for punk music, which fired its own cannons at the clouds of pop in the midst of an esthetic drought -- and to much the same effect. Even the Banshees had soon abandoned the rigid limitations of punk.
The most chilling song on the new album, musically and emotionally, is "Cities in Dust," a harrowing hymn to the victims of Pompeii. With its images of bodies frozen in heat, of lives terminated by a terrifying flash of nature, "it's timeless," says Siouxsie.
"We were aware of trying to create a sense of place as well as atmosphere and sentiment," Siouxsie explains. "While touring in Italy last year we were en route to Taranto, and on the way there we found out it was possible to visit Pompeii, so of course we did. That trip did leave a very strong impression, the culmination of which was seeing the petrified bodies on display in the glass caskets. There was no specific, conscious effort to write a song about it, but one night in the studio the band was just playing around doing demos and the music was suddenly in the making and I immediately wrote 'Cities in Dust' for it."
On stage, Siouxsie is cold and austere, indifferent. She's been dubbed "the Ice Queen," and there is no false camaraderie in a Banshees concert. "It's quite often that nothing is spoken; we just play the songs and go off," says Severin. "A lot of groups made a career out of inviting people out of the audience to show that they were working class. We've never felt we had to because we pulled ourselves out of an audience. And we weren't invited."
In fact, the Banshees started out as a one-night stand by a group of Sex Pistols fans (including bassist Sid Vicious, who would eventually join that band and become punk's first martyr). The Pistols were busily demolishing the concept of polished, professional bands and in their own minds, Siouxsie and her pals foresaw no future and therefore set themselves a simple goal: to annoy the crowd attending a punk rock festival at London's 100 Club just enough to get themselves thrown off the stage.
Despite an unrehearsed, meandering half-hour rendition of "The Lord's Prayer," with dabs of "Twist and Shout," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "Smoke on the Water," the Banshees tired long before the crowd did.
Fiercely independent, they have refused to resort to lucrative self-parody or cynical career calculations in order to become "programmable" (their major exposure in the United States has come through the support of college radio). They've done it very much their way, haunting the pop mainstream in a decidedly bansheelike fashion. They weren't signed to a record deal for two years, partly because they wouldn't sign a standard contract and partly because they weren't taken seriously; as a result, the Banshees built their reputation through live performance. When they finally signed, their first single, "Hong Kong Garden," went Top 10 and they were hailed as England's "most subversively stimulating band."
It's been up and down like that for a decade now, and "it's probably out of sheer spite that we've continued so long," says Siouxsie, now 28, admitting that their longevity has inspired quite a number of horrible knockoffs. "They got it all wrong. They think you can wear black and become a Banshee! Forget it." Of course, they've changed as well, Siouxsie's voice developing a power and presence where once there was only a wail. So much for punk's doctrine of disposability.
Even now, Siouxsie seems to inhabit her character and her relative fame quite comfortably. She insists that she will not face the terror posited in another of her favorite movies, the Japanese classic "Oni Baba," in which a woman who has stolen a dead warrior's mask tears off her own face when she tries to remove it.
"I think I welded that mask to my face well before Siouxsie and the Banshees, so I can't pull it off if I wanted to," she says. "This was a part of me that I conceived long after I'd counted out my parents' viewpoint on how I should be."
Growing up, she'd been taunted by neighborhood kids as "The Witch," and Siouxsie says, "I used to hate young kids, and I still do." Not surprisingly, she also loves W.C. Fields. And some old athletic skills have turned out to be useful. "I represented my school in netball, hockey, putting the shot, but my forte was the javelin. The mike stand has found an uncanny accuracy in its targets," she laughs.
The band has often expressed irritation at its longevity and acceptance, limited as it has been. "Being tolerated is like being buried," Siouxsie has said. "Of course, I don't think we have that problem yet here in the United States ," which, like England, is suffering through another period of soporific, calculated pop.
"Hopefully we're here for some fresh air, not conditioned air," Siouxsie says. "That's very bad for your health."
So is the journey to the 10-year mark. There was a time when Siouxsie, who'd earlier had a bout with hepatitis, was told that if she ever wanted to speak again, she would have to stop singing. She rested for most of a year, then hit the road again with greater control of her voice and schedule. Last year she dislocated a knee on stage but continued to tour "in a cast from ankle to thigh. I had a nice stool at center stage." She was not, she insists, to be confused with a crooner. "More of a Joan Crawford in a wheelchair."
Siouxsie's sense of humor may be at odds with her public image, but it fits well enough into the mystique. "It's an essential part of pop music that it should be wrapped up in total mythology and lies and distortions," says Severin. "That's what's half the fun of it."
Looking back, Siouxsie says, "The punk groups weren't thinking about belonging to or creating a movement or being responsible for a fashion. It really was self-interest, to create one's own space."
And at what point did it become more than a question of space? "I suppose after the first concert. As soon as we got off, we realized there was more to it than that."