Unknown Pleasures Chapter 6: After the Scream…

Siouxsie-and-The-BansheesA continuing series exhuming, exploring and exaulting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

Siouxise and the Banshees – Join Hands

Polydor UK [1979]

Much like the Summer of Love, what people think of as “Punk” didn’t really last that long [people who were actually there say about 100 days or so].  By the time the world actually started to hear about it, punk was pretty much over.  A handful of “punk rock” records had come out in the UK, but by 1979, the field had been winnowed down to the handful of bands who could actually play and had things to say.  The trick was to make music that people would actually listen to without getting stuck with the “sell out” tag that still meant something in those days.

Siouxsie and the Banshees played it perfectly…Or as well as you can play it when you don’t actually have a plan when you start out.  In 1975, Susan Ballion met John Bailey at a Roxy Music show and they began hanging out together and following a new underground band that called themselves the Sex Pistols.  The Pistols were so bad they convinced Ballion and Bailey that they could form their own band and do just as well, so they did, Ballion, taking on the name Siouxsie Sioux and Bailie the nom de plume of Steven Severin.  Before the pair even had a band name [or a band], Malcolm Mclaren talked them into filling at a festival show.  After conscripting guitarist Marco Pirroni and Simon Ritchie [who would become famous on his own soon] on drums, Siouxsie and the Banshees took the 100 Club stage.  Their entire 20-minute set was an improvised, thrashing version of The Lord’s Prayer, that many people claim to remember, but nobody seems to remember being any good.  Naturally, the “band” got offered another gig immediately.  Two months later Siouxsie and Severin found drummer Kenny Morris and guitarist Pete Fenton [who was soon sacked because he played too well].  John McKay took his place and Siouxsie and the Banshees were a real band and everything. They were an instant success, selling out venues all over London.  Being a little older and a lot smarter than the early punks, they carved out a darkish, compelling sound that owed as much to the Velvet Underground, psychedelia and glam [with a hint of camp] as it did the Punk Revolution.

And then there was Siouxsie.  Tall and regal, it seemed as if she’d internalized every childhood hurt and slight [and she’d had a few] into a frost-covered indifference that only magnified her beauty [did she ever smile back then?].  She’d been known as a scenester and tastemaker, with a fashion sense that mashed up “Night Porter”-esque fetish chic, 40s Hollywood Glamour, Bowie-inspired androgyny and a glaze of kabuki panto into a singular style that made it impossible to take eyes off her.  Like a negative zone/bizarro world version of Debbie Harry, Siouxsie was the singer that all punk girls wanted to look like and none could, because how could there be two?.  Honestly, she looked like what you’d get if you hired F. W. Murnau to build you a rock star [a compliment].  Her singing owed more to performance art and Patti Smith than anything really “punk” which was a good thing, because punk was basically over anyway.

The Banshees gigged, wrote songs and had lots and lots of photoshoots until finally signing with Polydor in June of 1978.  Their debut album The Scream came out in November the same year.  Everybody [in England] loved it.  The Brit weekly Sounds named it the best debut of the year and the single “Hong Kong Garden” went top 10 in the UK while the album itself peaked at #12.   

Good debut albums are notoriously easy to make; as they say, you get 20 years to write them.  And then of course you get 4 months to write your second.  While on tour.  The Banshees could’ve probably just put out “More Scream” and done okay.  But being artsy and full of themselves, they made Join Hands instead.  Dropping all but the faintest hint of punk values from their sound, the Banshees wrap their songs in an inky, matte-finish din that would eventually metastasize into Goth while simultaneously birthing post-punk.  McKay’s guitar clangs, scrapes, churns, but never chimes, while Morris’ drums feel boxed and cornered, frantic but still buried.  Severin’s bass is almost always the most melodic part of the songs, piling up quarter notes and bridging the gap between punk stomp and post-punk drone.  Siouxsie, predictably, seem to stand atop the swirling din, shouting, proclaiming, occasionally singing, always riveting.  The Banshees were never into the politics of punk, preferring to delve into dark, hyper-literate tales of “the human condition.”  The most political moment on Join Hands is the opening track “Poppy Day” an angular reading of the John McCrae anti-war poem from 1915.  “Regal Zone” is all dissonance, like the band were all in different rooms, trying to play a song that none of them actually know.  “Placebo Effect” almost hurts to listen to, Siouxsie’s remote vocal painting a cramped and blurry vision of “doctors” visits and stitched skin.  Time and again the album feels like a haunted battlefield, with icons, relics and shapes faintly like twisted bodies strewn about in the mist.  “Playground Twist” and “Mother/Oh Mein Pa Pa” seem to suffocate under the weight of childhood trauma and bad therapy; the sort of tracks that would sound like bullshit done by a less interesting band.

The record closes with their cover of “The Lord’s Prayer” – probably because they just ran out of new material and had to finish the album with something.  For over 14 minutes, you get everything:  Moments of wild abandon, sections that sound like bad conceptual theatre, even the moment of awkward, beauty, with Siouxsie’s double-tracked voice bouncing from speaker to speaker like a mad doll while the band just pounds.  It all sounds so stream-of-consciousness that you can’t help but think they really put a lot of thought into this [because they didn’t want to do it but the label made them].  Or maybe Siouxsie and Severin wanted to show everyone they’d been right all along back at the 100 Club.  

Join Hands was released on September 7, 1979 and the band fell apart two days later.  An argument broke out during a record shop appearance and McKay and Morris split, not to be heard from again.  Siouxsie and Severin poached drummer Budgie from the Slits and Robert Smith from their opening act the Cure and limped through the rest of the tour.  The album actually was well received and peaked at #17 on the UK charts.  Polydor wouldn’t release it in the US at all for years, by which time, the band had acquired a [semi] permanent guitarist in John McGeoch.  The Banshees would add more melody to their sound, and basically force themselves on the mainstream over the next several albums.  Join Hands would curiously be forgotten by all but the band’s staunchest admirers.  It’s influence would continue to be felt for years.  Robert Smith would take the pre-goth values and infuse his own band with them, turning up the camp and tamping down the art.  Meanwhile in Manchester, a small hipster startup label would nick the cover art and typography style of Join Hands and make it their house style, while their flagship band, Joy Division would retcon the cramped and dark sound of the album and invent post-punk once and for all, seemingly overnight.  Just two months after the release of Join Hands, the Jam would release Setting Sons, a vaguely conceptish album about war [hot, cold and class as well] with cover art vaguely reminiscent of Join Hands.  So many people seem to have gotten so much from this record that it makes sense the album itself exists only in vague memories and the collections of completists.  It must be true when they say there’s no avant garde; only those who are a little late.

NEXT: Don’t mess with Bill


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