siouxsie sioux

Siouxsie Sioux

Royal Festival Hall – 15th June 2013

There comes a time in every generation when things suddenly change, when the tectonic plates of the prevailing culture seem to buckle and shift, shaking apart everything that was thought to be certain and safe, eventually cracking the very foundations on which they are built. For many these times are terrifying. For a few though they present the opportunity of a lifetime.

Susan Ballion was one of those few. In 1975 she was just another teenager from Chislehurst in Kent. By the end of 1976, when the punk movement led by those filthy scoundrels The Sex Pistols, had torn its way through the sadly dilapidated UK, she had been reborn as ‘Siouxie Sioux’, vampish gothic S&M queen and front woman of what was to become punk's super group – The Banshees.

It’s often forgotten how many of the original punks were actually invented personas – no more or less contrived than Madonna or Pink. For a movement that is often cited for its authenticity it is notable how many of its heroes were almost cartoon-like in their look and naming – Jonny Rotten, Captain Sensible, Billy Idol, Poly Styrene. Siouxie Sioux could easily be seen in the same vein.

But there was always something otherworldly about Siouxsie. Rather than a costume, her clothes and heavy duty make-up seemed like a self expression, her real spirit liberated by losing the name given to her by someone else. Seeing her today bares this out. Unlike so many old rock stars trying to relive, rehash or hang on to the past she doesn’t look like an old person wearing a younger person’s clothes, but someone whose look has matured and grown with her. When she struts on to the Royal Festival Hall stage, aged 56, face white, hair black, eyes choled, clad in figure hugging white plastic, the collective intake of breath from the crowd isn’t of surprise, but of relief – she still can, and has, pulled it off. And off she goes, straight into a Banshees classic – 'Happy House'. Within about twenty seconds the Festival Hall's rather timid security are overwhelmed by a surging crowd determined to stand, determined to flood to the front, and determined to dance (an act of rebellion provoked in some part by being told rather amusingly over the tannoy earlier that no one was allowed to take pictures during the show, a naive and out-of-touch-schoolteacher-esque request that immediately set the scene for mass belligerent resistance). From that moment on the crowd stay on their feet, entranced. Siouxsie has them in her hand. After 'Happy House' she works her way track-for-track through the Banshees' bestselling album Kaleidoscope. Each song is perfectly executed. If you shut your eyes it really sounds just like the Banshees. It is brilliantly done, flawless.

But therein lays the difference between this being a good crowd-pleasing gig and this being one of those moments when a great band reform and somehow the world seems like a different place, like something vital has been restored . If you shut your eyes they sound just like the Banshees - but they don’t look or feel like the Banshees.

The bass player is magnificent, producing a throbbing resonating undertone that infuses the atmosphere with an almost subsonic resonance. But he isn’t Steve Severin, with his Andy Warhol pasty skin, bleached blonde hair and permanently wearing shades. This guy looks like he might work in an office. The guitarist is technically spectacular, both in how he plays and the effects he uses. He perfectly recreates the tunes and sounds of the classic Banshees era. But he isn’t the late John McGeoch, formerly of Magazine and later of PiL, a Scottish rocker who defined the Banshees' sound. Or Robert Smith who regularly moonlighted from working with The Cure and set the flowing tone for 'Dear Prudence'. This guy also looks like he might work in an office. And finally there’s the drummer. Again technically fantastic, hammering out the huge fast rhythms of 'Israel' in such a way that you can feel it deep in your gut. But this is where the biggest hole is felt. Because although the Banshees started with one of punk's great souls on drums - the swaggering but technically incompetent Sid Vicious, who became the swaggering but equally technically incompetent bass player of The Sex Pistols - he was soon replaced by the feline Budgie, whose entrancing primal rhythms became such a huge part of the Banshees' sound. More critically though Budgie wasn’t just the drummer - he was Siouxsie’s partner and lover, her muse and her man. What is unsaid but hanging heavily in the background is that there’s a reason Siouxsie hasn’t played for five years – it is five years since she and Budgie acrimoniously spit. Budgie was a Shaman whose Yin melded perfectly with Siouxsie's Yang. Without him the terrifying intoxicating spiritual dance of raw unfettered male and female energy that meshed between them is gone. Instead you have a man who can play really good drums. REALLY good drums. But that is all he does – and yes, looks like he might work in an office too.

The Banshees were never Siouxsie’s backing band. They weren’t Siouxsie ... and the Banshees. They were 'Siouxsie and the Banshees' – singular. A unit of which Siouxsie was the front woman.

This event wasn’t marketed as 'Siouxsie and the Banshees' but as 'Siouxsie Sioux' so it wasn't as if we had been duped. It is a solo act and these guys are the backing band. What is confusing though is they try so hard to sound like the Banshees, including starting with twelve Banshees songs in a row. These guys are probably more technically adept than the Banshees' musicians ever were. They can probably play their tunes far more precisely. But there are no cracks, no flaws, the edges that makes a sound and experience unique. And most crucially they lack that huge but intangible authenticity that comes from playing music that they themselves crafted and created. This is like watching the world’s best Banshees tribute band fronted by the real Siouxsie.

And coming from that context – boy, they are good.

As the show progresses Siouxsie seems to get more and more into her groove, happier and happier to be the centre of attention again, strutting, preening, jutting a hip. It is like she was out of practice and maybe the joints needed a little warming up, but once she is flowing she is the sultry gothic torch goddess she always was - her voice has lost some of its high notes, but they are replaced by a depth that has come from maturity, experience and pain. The set builds to a clearly well defined end, designed to set us up for a rehearsed encore. But Siouxsie milks it and teases in such a way that it doesn’t seem a foregone conclusion. Like a slutty self aware schoolgirl who takes a drag on a cigarette then kisses you, she lets her fingers linger on your thigh but also leaves you in no doubt that what happens next is in her control; she calls the shots, slows the pace, makes sure you are left uncertain just how things are going to turn out.

Eventually though, just as the pain is getting excruciating, they come back on – and the encore is magnificent. Great performers know when to stop and the end of the first encore was that moment – a giant collective climax that had the crowed in raptures, and saw Siousxie scoop up a bunch of red roses thrown by the crowd, sling them over her shoulder, and slink off, hips swinging – the perfect end.

Of course the crowd wanted more but they should have been left wanting. But perhaps five years in the wilderness left Siousxie wanting too and she came back on. The second encore was good – well executed and well received, and it didn’t spoil what had gone before, but it meant leaving a little wearily rather than filled with a beautiful sense of yearning.

This was an exhilarating and uplifting experience but one that didn’t feel quite right. During the gig Siouxsie chided herself for being away so long and promised to come back sooner next time. It is to be hoped that she does. She is a one off – magical, beguiling and wonderful. The world is a more interesting place with her performing in it, but next time it should be fronting the Banshees with Steve Severin on bass, Robert Smith on guitar, and most critically Budgie on drums. That would take something to pull off. But if she did they’d fill the Albert Hall far many more times than the two nights she filled the Festival Hall.

Words and pictures by Neil Gibb

siouxsie sioux

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