Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Siouxsie And The Banshees
Why it’s daunting: Although a broad range of contemporary acts has sampled, covered, or been influenced by Siouxsie And The Banshees—including Savages, Chelsea Wolfe, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio, DeVotchKa, Santigold, and The Weeknd—there’s still a strong mystique surrounding the hallowed post-punk group. Formed in 1976 within the inner circle of early Sex Pistols fans, Siouxsie Sioux and her band of arcane noisemakers started out crafting spiky post-punk. Before long, though, The Banshees had morphed into a daring, murky-yet-shimmering entity that incorporated elements of goth and psychedelia while transcending both.
After a minor American mainstream breakthrough in the late ’80s and early ’90s—around the same time The Cure, led by onetime Banshee Robert Smith, made such a leap—the group limped to the finish line, finally breaking up in 1996. Sioux and bandmate/husband Budgie forged on as The Creatures before their divorce in 2007, the same year her lone solo album, Mantaray, was released. Since then, she’s been quiet—and it’s been up to younger artists to help keep the legacy of The Banshees’ timeless music alive. Her performance this June as part of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival was a reminder that Sioux remains an enigmatic and beloved cult artist, one whose perpetual retreat from the spotlight—or any light, really—runs counter her catalog’s ominous scope.
Possible gateway: Kaleidoscope
Why: Siouxsie And The Banshees were one of the last of the major London punk bands to release an album—and while 1978’s The Scream and 1979’s Join Hands are excellent post-punk specimens, the band came into its own with 1980’s Kaleidoscope. Much of that had to do with a lineup change that brought Magazine’s innovative guitarist, the late John McGeoch, into the fold. Thanks to his impressionistic, atmospheric playing, Kaleidoscope lurched into the uncharted territory that The Banshees would explore throughout the rest of the ’80s—an otherworldly place where mysticism, theatricality, and poetic decadence coalesced into a parallel universe of new wave. Sioux’s voice begins to plumb its own haunted depths, but the songs are still tight and pop-oriented compared with the sprawling experimentation to come.
Next steps: By 1982 Siouxsie And The Banshees had begun to stretch their canvas to encompass many more instruments, textures, and styles than they previously had. The culmination of that tonal drift is A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. Steeped in keyboards, strings, chimes, bells, and lush surrealism, the album flew in the face of post-punk austerity by simply pretending it had never existed. It’s also a prototype for shoegaze, having greatly inspired the proto-shoegaze group Cocteau Twins. Nothing on Dreamhouse wound up on The Best Of Siouxsie And The Banshees, although that’s not surprising; the band could and did produce stellar singles, but Dreamhouse is best swallowed whole.
1984’s Hyæna is The Banshees’ sole album with Robert Smith as guitarist-keyboardist and follows Dreamhouse’s template while giving Smith room to develop some of the ideas he would later apply to The Cure’s baroque Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. But it was 1986’s Tinderbox that became Siouxsie And The Banshees’ next evolutionary leap. Clipped, cold, and reconciling the starkness of the band’s early days with a sculpted darkness, songs such as “Candyman” and “Cities In Dust” manicured The Banshees for the slicker demands of the late ’80s without removing any of their luscious menace. New conscript John Valentine Carruthers didn’t last long in the band, but his relative absence as a guitarist granted The Banshees even more of the void to love.
Something weird was in the air in the late ’80s; in the U.S., once-marginal bands such as R.E.M. and The Cure were making huge inroads into the mainstream. Siouxsie And The Banshees got swept along with them, starting with 1988’s Peepshow. Propped up by the unlikely hit “Peek-A-Boo”—a flapper-on-acid masterpiece of jazzy goth-pop that presented Sioux as some kind of Bizarro Betty Boop—the album cemented The Banshees as a force to reckon with in the coming alt-rock revolution. At least for a little while.
Siouxsie And The Banshees had a respectable hit in 1991 with “Kiss Them For Me,” a song from 1991’s Superstition that sampled Schoolly D’s ubiquitous “P.S.K.” beat while sanitizing much of Sioux’s spectral allure. It’s one of the many essential songs on Twice Upon A Time: The Singles. Combined with its predecessor Once Upon A Time, it’s a far more comprehensive survey of the group in its prime than 2002’s skimpy The Best Of Siouxsie And The Banshees—and it includes essential non-album tracks such as 1982’s pivotal, ethereal “Fireworks” and the sumptuous “Face To Face” from the Batman Returns soundtrack.
Where not to start: Neither Siouxsie And The Banshees’ first album, 1978’s The Scream, or their final album, 1995’s The Rapture, is bad. In fact, the former is an astoundingly assured and ferocious bridge between punk and post-punk, and the latter is a delicate, cello-laden phantasmagoria that benefits from being produced in part by John Cale. It’s for those reasons, though, that they make less-than-optimal introductions to Sioux’s singular vision—even if tracks such as “Mirage” still jitter and writhe hypnotically.
From The Banshees’ inception, the group honored its musical roots by covering artists that inspired it—most intriguingly The Beatles, whose “Helter Skelter” was given a slashing rendition on The Scream and whose “Dear Prudence” was turned into a neo-psychedelic hit in 1983. But the 1987 all-covers album, Through The Looking Glass,remains a footnote in Siouxsie and the Banshees’ catalog and deservedly so; although solid interpretations of everyone from Roxy Music to The Doors to Billie Holiday are offered, the band’s searing yet faithful take on Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” is the disc’s only indispensable track.
The Creatures began as a side project for Sioux and Budgie in 1981, when the voice- and percussion-oriented duo released its debut EP, Wild Things. The full-length Feast followed in 1983, and it demonstrated just how far Sioux could venture into minimalism—and how powerfully her voice could carry an entire album. The rest of The Creatures’ output, up to and including 2003’s Kodo-inflected Hai!, is worth hearing; overall, there isn’t an album in which Sioux has been involved that’s anything less than decent. Her solo debut, 2007’s Mantaray, isn’t a great introduction to her oeuvre any more than The Creatures’ albums are, but its eclectic mix of styles reinforces how Sioux’s unearthly coo and romantic aesthetic endures.