Sounds (4.5.80)

Cover headline - Inside The Happy House

Interview by Robbi Millar

The hotel dining room is juxtaposed to a scaffolding-ridden street, separated from it by small dingy windows. Inside, Siouxsie Sioux, Steven Severin, John (Magazine) McGeoch, Budgie, manager Nils, promoter’s assistant Paul, guardian Mike and myself are eating our dinner. Outside, some small boys of around thirteen are watching us eating our dinner.

Bored at the lack of our response, they cheekily produce a colour Banshee pin-up and affix to to the window. The picture is of John McKay and Kenny Morris. Apart from mild amusement of the impertinent minds of such music-biz influenced youngsters, the band’s reaction is minimal. Oh yes, and we’re in Aberdeen...

Siouxsie and the Banshees are a most unusual band. Conceived spontaneously at what was, if you, like, the very first official breath of punk rock, they’ve never appeared to consider themselves as part of any rock fashion circus, least of all that one.

Innocent of jumping on anyone’s bandwagon, as far as they were concerned they weren’t even consciously riding on it from the start. Judge the music, judge the people, and you’ll find that it’s impossible to dig up anything remotely similar to them since, on a plane that makes the words ‘individual’ and ‘unique’ sound so elderly, the Banshees are a law unto themselves.

The press have spent years searching for ‘deep meaningful significance’ in the band’s words and music but they’ve never tried to adopt them. Possibly because of the unnerving musical achievements, maybe because of the insular, even negative stage appearance, but probably because the Banshees have never been a ‘press band’.

They are not Thin Lizzy or the Boomtown Rats. They do not invite sycophancy or loathing. Rather, Siouxsie and the Banshees are disturbingly ordinary, showing plain that they hold little regard for the necessity of press-coverage, and journalists are tolerated but not much more. This band are what they want to be - the last outpost of self-sufficiency.

That self-sufficiency was proven last autumn in this very same oil-rich city. Deserted at a vital moment by the two people who once made up half (if the lesser half) of the Banshees, Siouxsie and Steve took the stage in front of a multitude of angry disappointed fans to give them both ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and a promise of returning. They knew then that coping was a certainty.

If you gloss over the number of their loud-mouthed contemporaries who’ve persistently changed line-up or split in arguments or disappeared without a trace then it’s little short of a miracle that the band came home a few weeks later to play, in many opinions, almost the best gig of their career to a stunned Hammersmith Odeon.

It’s just as amazing that, a mere five months later, the Banshees have a chart single ‘Happy House’ and another tour in full flight.

There are still problems. Though Budgie’s become a full-fledged band member - now he’s settled in he’s as good a drummer as Kenny was and he’ll soon be a better one - the search for a permanent guitarist goes on: The Banshees will not settle for half measures.

Still, there’s no doubt that the band will solve the past and push into the future with the same single-minded determination that they’ve always wielded.

I’d far rather observe and chat with Siouxsie and the Banshees than interview them. Though there’s no hostility or cynical boredom thrown at me, it feels like an invasion of privacy, as if I should be able to see and understand the band without having to record their verbals on a piece of paper or a C-60 tape. That’s the way they like it, I’m sure.

But Siouxsie Sioux is open and polite. We sit together in the draughty hotel bar and she talks and I listen and I wonder wherefore the ‘Ice Queen Of High Punk’? I mention the split because I reckon that really I have to and this is what happens:-

Have you seen John and Kenny lately?

"Not to talk to. I have seen them, but... they’re probably trying to do their no-no album. Some sort of record for them to try to be Enos on."

So the band’s atmosphere is better now? There’s no personality clashes?

"There wasn’t so much of a personality difference - it’s just that parts of their personalities became more prominent, especially the paranoia. It’s really not all that important."

She hesitates, like the subject’s really not of any concern nowadays, and then speaks.

"A lot of people think that ‘Drop Dead’," (the B-Side of ‘Happy House’) "was written about them but that’s not true. It was, I suppose, inspired by them but then you can look at a turd in the street and be inspired to write a song about it, can’t you? Really, I don’t want people to think that I’m going around all bitter saying "fuck John and Kenny!" because I’m not. It doesn’t matter."

How’s Budgie getting on?

"He is part of the band now. Someone passed us his name right after the split and we met him the next day. He was what we wanted."

And John McGeoch?

"McGoolie? A last resort. No, we’re doing the tour now because John can manage the dates but obviously he won’t stay with us. We started looking immediately for a permanent guitarist but it was expecting too much to expect and get one straight away. We’re still getting names dropped but we’re not panicking yet. The most important thing right now is to be able to work again."

‘Happy House’ is not what I expected. It’s almost a pop song.

"All the singles that we’ve released have been good pop songs! ‘Happy House’ started off as a title, as a name for our fan club, the Happy House you see, and it became a song. It was the first thing we wanted to record and we had the bass, drums and vocals worked out for it so we used it in auditions as a test. So no-one did anything off pat, it was used as a guide to try out new guitarists and they had to work out their own sound."

Were there many?

"More than ten. More than a hundred. I don’t know but at the first rehearsal with John we thought ‘we’ll see how it goes’ and it was practically worked out by the end of the first rehearsal. ‘Drop Dead’ was another song we used in that way."

Do you think you’ve changed direction at all?

"We’ve always changed. Anyone who’s ever closely followed us will have seen us making changes all the time - naturally changing songs. ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ has never had lyrics or a tune to it. Live it’s been either the best thing in the set or the worst; it either happened or it didn’t.

Though we do have some set numbers, for the others it depends on how the gig is going."

Back to ‘Happy House’; what is it about?

"About being happy. A happy song written, or, rather, made up when you’re walking home at night and you whistle a tune. You know, it’s like humming ‘Daisy’ as you’re walking through the graveyard!"

Hmm. Never struck me that way. But then, though the songs are full and stinging live, the actual words when you sit down and read them are almost morbid.

"Morbid? Why morbid? I think most clowns are the saddest people. I don’t think we are morbid. ‘Regal Zone’ is personally political for me. ‘Mother’ is true and I think most people feel the words of the song are their relationship with their mothers. Ever since we started, people (and I mean writers) have never known what to make of us.

"We never were punk. What happened is that we just got up on stage with no thought of making musical fashion and, anyway, I’m always very suspicious of people that promote themselves as being part of a movement."

How do you see bands that were your peers; bands like the Clash, Jam?

"Look, if I had a good word to say about them I’d tell you but it’s so stupid to go slagging off people or bands you don’t particularly like. I do like the Cramps though. You can laugh at them, at their characters and they’re enjoyable without being part of this movement or that movement."

This tour is very short?

"Yes, but we had to fit in dates when John (McGeoch) was free, and we have got away from the album/tour, album/tour schedule. Of course, up till now we couldn’t do a tour, and although we enjoy it, there’s still no point in busting a gut."

And the venues are smaller stand-up halls.

"I prefer playing in them. We’ll play the Music Machine in London because it’s a good place - it used to be great until it went off because of the aggression there.

There’s such a lack of venues in London; they’re all Rainbows or Marquees with very little inbetween, and I hate the Marquee, it’s such a business place the place for a band to start. Even the intense atmosphere in there, I can’t stand it!" I know what she means for the back-patting self-congratulation of the place is often more than I can tolerate.

There’s another thing though. I don’t know if I like the Banshees myself - I certainly wouldn’t call them a favourite band - but do you know what attracts such loyal fans? Is it the words or the music or the atmosphere or what?

"That’s not for me to say though I think it’s for all aspects. I feel that we’re accessible and fans that I’ve talked think there's a strength in an entire song." She pauses and flies back. "We worked a fucking lot before we signed to anyone and ‘Hong Kong Garden’ was a major success because of the fans’ interest in it and certainly not through the playlist system! I think we must have played up the north about two or three times in all sorts of places, like tiny little wine bars, places like Leicester. A couple of years of transit vans and borrowing equipment from the support bands."

Did John and Kenny like that?

"Well, I don’t know. John joined after most of that was over but, I think, they both left us at a bad patch. I know it’s a cliché but the saying ‘success will change you’ - it’s a hell of surprise to be successful the day after your single’s released. They just lost perspective on the issues that were important and concentrated on trivial issues."

Siouxsie looks over to where their manager, Nils Stevenson, is sitting.

"We’ve always had Nils. It’s like a whole attitude from when we started because we had a good manager and we got away from ‘showbiz’. You know, you get some fat cunt who’s after something for the Seventies and it’s depressing that it all comes down to that and many bands, they don’t give a shit. Some people just want a finger in every little pie that’s around but we’ve never had a problem like that."

Nils started off with the Banshees playing guitar but any suggestions of him as the band’s next guitarist are swept aside. He’s too precious as a manager. Next thing, we are brusquely uprooted and set into the residents’ bar, conversation crumbling with the move.

Though the band has played Europe, they’re hoping to tour America soon.

"No plans yet," explains Siouxsie and Steve later mentions that although ‘The Scream’ was released in the States, it didn’t do a lot and ‘Join Hands’ was not "considered suitable" for American ears. It’s surely a mystery what the U.S.A. will make of Siouxsie and the Banshees, but an interesting one at that.

"Morbid? I still don’t see why you think we’re morbid." Siouxsie has just expressed her dislike for heavy metal ("I hear it and I just think of those men waving their heads like this" Motorhead impersonation "and it’s horrible") and now she wants me to explain my earlier views. I shake my head ‘cos it just appears that way to me.

"What films do you go to see?"

Oh all manner of things.

"Well, when I used to go and see films it was always the ones like ‘Baby Jane’ and ‘Psycho’ that stood out. I’ve seen ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ too but I’ve found it never left a lasting impression on me. Perhaps that’s it.

She disappears to play cards. I scratch my head.

Instead of the austere Music Hall, Siouxsie and the Banshees hold court tonight in a mecca-cloned club called the Fusion. It’s two-thirds full (due, says Niles, to scratchy promotion which is due to short time) and it’s still very cold. Pity the closeted Londoner!

Waiting for the Banshees to take the stage, I try to figure out that hovering question of the band’s popularity. A live show once in a while is a recharge of soaring power - it’s an experience - although I could never listen to more than one side of either of the band’s albums at a time.

In front of me sits Audrey. She is a strange softly spoken Indian girl who, after some years at University, went to a Banshees gig and has since followed them almost everywhere, including Europe. To me, it’s as if she’s given up part of her life for them; it’s like a religion.

"I was at university with all of these doctors and specialists and when I saw Siouxsie she was just about the most positive person that I’d ever met," is Audrey’s simple explanation. Not just another band but not a cult band either.

Then, the Banshees appear and prove it and, to get the excuses over and done with, the sound isn’t great thus obscuring the extension of many of Siouxsie’s lyrics and the audience is disquieting and petulant (they are no doubt expecting something to happen which doesn’t occur - this may be historical Aberdeen but the Banshees would never be that predictable) and, all in all, it just falls short of the best that I naturally expected of the band. Doesn’t make it ordinary though.

Rising out of the ashes to an eerie-sounding tape of children playing, they launch smoothly into ‘Playground Twist’ bringing whoops of approval from the singles-hunting audience. "Move back, you’re crushing people’s bollocks down the front," commands Siouxsie. They don’t obey. The set is a vivid mix of old and new, a fluid movement through the Banshee’s catalogue stretching back to ‘Suburban Relapse’ in a blaze of red-lit fury and contempt and to ‘Hong Kong Garden’, moving forward to three new songs, ‘Christine’, ‘Desert Kisses’ and ‘Hybrid’.

‘Christine’ is a high-paced deep keyed affair almost nudging at the Cure (a quaint irony for influence) that tells the story of a multi-schitzophrenic American girl - I do not like it. ‘Desert Kisses’ though, is slower and smoother and quite creepily addictive while ‘Hybrid’ bases its attack on a relentless drum rattle (the living proof that Budgie is an extraordinary drummer who attracts almost as much attention as Sioux herself) and sharp insidious changes of pace - I like these two very much.

But with Siouxsie gliding back and forth like an expressionless Aunt sally (another’s suggestion, not mine), the songs that take the night are the irresistible ‘Happy House’ which has it’s own sticky hook that grabs and won’t let go and if any song, anywhere, is worth a twelve-inch then that one is, and ‘Staircase’ which is definitely my top Banshee single - never mind Polydor - which simply drives along in furious abandon.

I want to dance but I don’t and it’s because this Banshee gig, like all others, is an event both streamlined and difficult. When one song ends and another begins you’re still left reeling from the one before - each is so distinctly separate. It’s like walking with a map through an unknown country; each part is new and foreign and exciting.

But, you see, I don’t even think that I like the Banshees anywhere other than on stage.

Back in the now over-familiar hotel bar, Steve Severin is talking with me. He is quiet and controlled and he thinks for a long time before answering any of my questions. He admits to not liking journalists on the road with the band as he doesn’t really trust them.

The high standards of the Banshees’ songs are clearly seen through Steve’s comments, the evidence is all there as he outlines the "few" good pieces of writing that he has read in the press. Someone who expects such high standards, someone who troubles so much over writing a song (he indicates a few months for one lyric though not a general example) will obviously attain fine results. Steve is the representative Banshee.

Some fans and friends who are sitting with us explain their liking for the band because "There’s not a song that they do that I don’t like". Says it all really.

Some days after, I watch B.B.C.’s A Song For Europe peddling out it’s pathetic ‘instant’ entries, littered with unremarkable people who sing about "fun" and try desperately to look as if they are having it.

And I know that Siouxsie and the Banshees, however unconventional, are on a level that these people will never understand.

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