Monday, February 20, 2006

Revisionist Visionary

Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first album, The Scream, recently got the deluxe reissue treatment, with a bonus disc that includes two Peel Sessions from 1977 and 1978, plus rare demos and singles. The packaging features a number of alternate photos of the ghostly swimmers who graced the album cover, and detailed liner notes (wherein we learn that the cover and title were references to the Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer). It’s an incredible album, and sounds brilliant on this CD remastered from the original tapes (assisted by bassist Steven Severin). Younger listeners whose awareness of Siouxsie began with “Kiss Them for Me” might not realize how radically abstract, abrasive and violent the early Banshees’ music was. Pretty Girls Make Graves fans should hear this. Anyone exploring the early Gang of Four and the bands on the Grlz compilation should hear this.

The reissue of the album may cement its significance in punk rock history, but the liner notes, written by one Simon Goddard, are guilty of historical revisionism. He states that Siouxsie was being “rapped on the knuckles” by journalists (an understatement) for wearing swastikas in 1976, and that through the song “Metal Postcard” she “coolly rebuffed any lingering doubts about her political leanings with (a) tribute to the work of anti-Nazi propaganda artist John Heartfield.” This much is true; the song is explicitly dedicated to Heartfield in the original LP’s liner notes. “Metal Postcard” came out on a 1979 single backed with “Love in a Void”, which is described as a “live favourite” – but Goddard neglects to mention its inflammatory lyric, “Too many Jews for my liking”. The version of this song included on the Scream bonus CD is from the first Peel Session, where Siouxsie sings, “Too many bigots for my liking.” Goddard is well aware of the original lyric. In fact, he calls Siouxsie to task for it in this 2005 interview

“Overground” is (according to Severin) about the Banshees’ mixed feelings on signing to a major label. Fair enough. But “Hong Kong Garden” is described by Goddard (and by Siouxsie herself) as a “belated venting of teenage frustration at witnessing right-wing skinheads torment (the staff of Siouxsie’s hometown Chinese restaurant).” The song’s lyrics don’t bear this out at all; they are a laundry list of general observations about Asians (some stereotypical), rendered in a voice that is detached, not outraged. I’m not denying Siouxsie’s experience as a teen, but she might as well claim that the song is a protest against the “old custom to sell your daughter” that she mentions in the song.

The early Banshees flirted with images of mass murder (in “Carcass” and their cover of “Helter Skelter”), domestic violence (“Suburban Relapse”) and the ravages of addiction (“Switch”, “Nicotine Stain”). They flirted with images of Nazism as well. I don’t believe that Siouxsie was anti-Semitic; I think she enjoyed provoking people, and she was somewhat of an opportunist. She abandoned the swastika in favor of the Star of David when the band’s career began to suffer, and her audience began to draw too many skinheads for her liking. To portray herself as a crusader against bigotry in these early recordings is rewriting her place in punk history. I’m not posting any Banshees songs today, because I don’t want to get Siouxed.


At 2/21/2006 11:21 AM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

I just noticed that the interview I linked to says that Siouxsie will release a solo record this year. The last thing I know of that she did was "Cish Cash" with Basement Jaxx. It should be interesting to see who she collaborates with this time.

At 2/21/2006 3:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of these days there will be a Siouxie reissue featuring a well-recorded version of "Bad Shape" and I'll be a happy man...

Siouxie's use of Nazi imagery was stupid, and it was a good thing that she was called to task for it enough that she quit using it. But I do agree with a mag writer(don't remember the name) who suggested hypocrisy on the part of some folks who never forgave Siouxie but also never had a problem with folks like Joe Strummer wearing pro-Mao or pro-Lenin regalia (two guys who were responsible for a couple million deaths themselves).

At 2/23/2006 8:50 PM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

It's a good point. And she certainly wasn't the only one wearing swastikas in the early punk scene.


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