Sunday, July 14, 2013

#9 Fairport Convention Liege & Lief - Review

When I was coming of age in the mid-eighties folk music was a definite, absolute no-no for aspiring young hipsters which I suppose I was. I remember vaguely coming across members of the folkster scene during my time at university in Norwich, probably on their way to a hoedown in the back room of a pub somewhere off the Unthank Road. It wasn't a scene that appealed. The men almost all had beards and unkempt ones at that. There seemed to be living things in some of them. The women wore large frocks.

Perhaps I'm doing them an injustice. My good mate Andy who had closer connections to this scene would be able to put me right. They clearly weren't The Velvet Underground and Warhol's Factory which was more of the kind of crowd I was blindly searching for. Folk music was so far from being 'cool' less than ten years from Punk that it looked like it would never come back.

But it did. This stuff is as hip as anything else now and it seem to be everywhere. Right slap bang in the heart of everything, right in the mainstream. Mumford & Sons! Could anybody explain Mumford & Sons to me? Is that folk? It seems as diametrically opposite to Fairport Convention and the great British folk music of the sixties and seventies as it's possible to be. Mumford & Son don't seem to have any discernible roots to me.

There is better stuff though. Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Devendra Banhart, Bon Iver even. Not all of it completely my cup of tea but certainly drawing on these sources. The best folk music for me wherever it comes from always seems to be about land and landscape and the people who find themselves on and in it. Generation after generation. Century after century. An earnest mapping and charting of rural cultural memory. A celebration of it all at the same time. Because this stuff is important.

I never would have thought I'd write these things when I was in my early twenties. But you grow older and realise the value of music like jazz and folk because they cut so deep and the best musicians are like seers, channelling something so profound that it's almost beyond expression. Fairport Convention are an important band if any of these things hold any value.

They're still here, more than forty years after their inception, although the current incarnation is quite different from the original line up and at least a couple of them have sadly fallen by the wayside including the incomparable and utterly majestic Sandy Denny. They're a British institution (I cringe to write such 'rockspeak' but in this case it's true).

I only own a few of their records, their first, a best of and Liege and Lief so I'm no expert but I imagine it's incontestable that their best work was done in their first ten years during which time Denny and Richard Thompson were in the band. And most particularly in 1969 where they released three albums (remarkable enough in itself) and did more than anybody else to change folk music forever.

I'm not willing to call this stuff folk rock. I think it's a pretty ugly term. Fairport to me are folk even though they electrified it their music was ingrained, immersed with the tradition. As I've said I find some of the 'hey nonny no' aura of some that surrounds the genre a bit embarrassing. Fairport could have fallen into this trap too. I think in their later versions they actually do. In the first song on here Denny sings 'So come on you rolling minstrels' and you can practically here the morris dancers. But they have a stately grace that makes this stuff just fly.

Early incarnations of Fairport drew on Blues and R&B. Fairport was a house in Muswell Hill where the band did some of their early rehearsals. Their earliest recordings settled on an American West Coast sound. There's lots of Jefferson Airplane, Byrds, Joni Mitchell Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and most especially Bob Dylan on their great first album. I love this record because I love the stuff it's influenced by. It's a blast! But it's certainly not all their own vision. Have a listen to this. I'm sure it's clear what I mean.

'Don't you want somebody to love?'
What this clip does illustrate though is the bands greatest asset. Their incredibly fluent musical virtuosity. Most particularly their boy genius lead guitarist Richard Thompson an absolutely incredible musician who is still putting it out over forty five years later. Fairport learned their chops (sorry!), playing on the London Underground Psychedelic Scene at clubs like UFO and Middle Earth playing on bills with bands like Pink Floyd and Tomorrow who they ended up being a long way away from musically just a couple of years down the line.
Joe Boyd chanced upon them at UFO. As an American more au fait with their influences than most he appreciated what they were doing, saw their potential  and asked to produce them. At this point a bunch of musicians who had been doing this as a sideline, for fun, realised there was more mileage in it than that. Judy Dyble's replacement by Sandy Denny in the Spring of 1968 was the clear turning point. Denny was rooted in traditional folk and was a driven and intense musician.
She brought her own songs and a record collection and the band transitioned away from the West Coast to a more realised British sound in their second album What We Did On Our Holidays and then much more fully so with Unhalfbricking. The cover of this is an absolutely classic English image and describes where the band have moved to by now.
If Denny joining the group was the pivotal line up change then The Sailor's Life was the pivotal song that would lead them to Liege and Lief. Denny sang it to the rest of the band backstage before a gig and they arranged it on the spot and played it onstage that night. It's an absolutely massive song. Sprawling over eleven minutes the course of which marks a transition in British music as great as any I can think of. From one mindset to another. It was also the song that brought Dave Swarbrick into the band on electric fiddle. Another line up change and with the death of original drummer Martin Lamble in a road accident and his replacement Dave Mattacks joining the line up that would make Liege and Lief was in place.
Lamble's death along with that of Thompson's girlfriend in the same accident obviously caused enormous trauma. Other band members were hospitalised by the crash and it seemed for a while like that might be that but were encouraged to continue by other fellow musicians and reconvened after a short hiatus recruited Mattacks and set about rehearsing and preparing their next record.
Fairport moved as a group to the countryside just outside Winchester and set about recording what they themselves termed 'a concept album' of traditional English material. They had a large rehearsal room and when they got fed up they'd go outside and kick a ball around or feed the ducks or walk the dog.
Good albums should really have good sleeves. Liege and Lief has a great cover. An embroidered hedge of grass framing the title, the group's name and six portraits of the band members in purple and grey. There's an ancient wooden totem on the back and the inner sleeve has picture and text of folklore heroes and legends. It's a fine object.
It all has a depth and resonance that it's hard for mere rock bands to match because with the introduction of Denny and Swarbrick in particular Fairport gained a folk authenticity that was peerless. But these were still young people with an awareness hard-found from tragic recent events  that they were alive and lucky to be so  but owed a very real debt to the dead. They had a relish and desire not just to pay it in full but to make this stuff sing and swing.
'Come all ye rolling minstrels
And together, we will try
To rouse the spirit of the earth
And move the rolling sky'

It has such grace and poise. It reels and jigs and does cartwheels. It's so sure of itself. A band that knows its time has come. They are achieving something similar to what The Band had managed in the States at round about the same point in their recently released first two albums. There's a reclaiming and renewal of roots and cultural heritage. But it's all joyous and totally new at the same time.It also has a strong connection to the back to the land movement that was so strongly embedded in the counterculture in the late sixties.

Great albums need great sleeves but they also absolutely need great first tracks. The first song sets the tone and lets you know what's in store. It makes you decide whether you want to carry on listening. This one really does the trick. We're in for a treat!

Reynardine digs deeper still into the English rural legend almost burrowing into the soil itself. It's a story about a woman meeting a rake who is only ever going to lead her astray. They both seem to know it and so does the narrator and the story unwinds to its conclusion with terrible inevitability.

Denny's voice is glacial. She knows so much about this stuff and her voice is hypnotic and commanding. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see her live in a small venue. The accompaniment is tense and restrained. You get the sense that the band knew exactly what they'd got with her and what she allowed them to say. There were times when they just need to provide the backdrop and she would tell the tale with full-blooded intensity and carry all before her. I can't think of another British female singer to touch her. Dusty Springfield perhaps but precious few others.

Matty Groves, pretty much the album centrepiece, (surely the Liege and Lief of its title) is very much a band affair by contrast. If anything Denny is pretty restrained here as the band take centre stage. Many would rate this as Fairport's greatest achievement. Certainly it's amongst them.  Personally it's a bit too much of this world for me and Sailor's Song, Who Knows Where The Time Goes and Fotheringay amongst others have an ethereal and spiritual quality that this doesn't. It's that which really draws me to them most as a band. The jigs touch me rather less and this is surely a jig
Still it's a pretty mighty jig nonetheless. It  reminds me of my good mate Matthew who I worked with and shared an occasional toke with on a Friday night in his Man About The House flat in Dortmund during m couple of years there back in the early nineties. I imagine he must have played me Matty Groves more than a couple of times He swore by it. So here's to you Matt if you're reading this! Hope you're well and I'll give it another spin and see how it takes me.
                                              Have to say Matt never did this look.
 It sets off at a horse trot and Denny tells the tale. It's a well known traditional about the seduction of a peasant boy by the lady of the manor and their subsequent violent murder at the hands of the furious lord. For the first five minutes or so the narrative unfolds in strict four line verses with the exception of a brief Swarbrick fiddle excursion.
Then the band kicks in and reels away and there's a succession of musical duels between Thompson and Swarbrick above all that strangely remind me of The Devil Went Down To Georgia. It's all highly impressive but for me a bit more in line with the group that Fairport turned into after the departure of Denny and Thompson and lacks the transcendent quality that she in particular brought to the band. Her contribution for me is quite prosaic here in comparison to the great heights she achieves elsewhere on the album. Sorry Matt, still doesn't quite do it for me. What do I know. This is one of the great folk moments. Judge for yourselves.
Farewell, Farewell, the last song on Side 1 is back to transcendent and back to Sandy. It's sure as eggs is eggs about death. It's about pain and loss and resignation and departure and friend and fellowship and family and community and war and those lost through it. It's about the seasons changing and it all coming around again. Aren't many last songs on the sides of many albums about these things? A long, long list could be made. This is one of the best. It makes me think of poor Sandy Denny.

        'Farewell, farewell to you, who would hear
You lonely travelers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call'
It's about us all. But most of all for me it's about poor Sandy Denny.
In many respects Farewell, Farewell could easily and perhaps should have been the last song on Liege and Lief. But it's not. There's still a side to go. Every great album has had immense thought put into it as a journey for people you don't know and never will to undergo and experience. There's certainly a great deal of thought and feeling in this album. Fairport chose not to place this song last of all and must have had good reason for it.
I've taken a big break during this record in terms of writing it up. That hasn't mean I'm bored of Liege or Fairport. Far from it. When I write these reviews, the records I write about inhabit me until I'm done and being inhabited by Fairport is an incredibly supporting and sustaining experience.
                          Not on the album but the song and riff that have been going round and round my head while I think about this band!
I've just been for a swim and then a beer in the pub in Newcastle Central Station. On the way back with my shopping I looked up at the sky over the building where I live. It was an indescribably beautiful turbulent, cloudy sky. Looking like it might be about to rain. Looking like summer might be on a downward turn at last.
It was the kind of sky that geniuses like Poussin, Titian, Turner and many more have tried to describe for us. The enormous, indescribable universe we inhabit and try our whole lives mostly in vain  to comprehend. Fairport Convention for me, at least with this line up and these few precious albums understood it and channelled it like very few others.
The Deserter starts Side 2 with an utterly assured and measured tread. Swarbrick and Thompson duel throughout. It's a relentless tale of coercion and punishment. Betrayal and punishment. The teller of the tale is betrayed first by state then by his colleagues, then by his love. The full force of the state and its institutions concentrated on the confinement and absolute condemnation of the individual in every respect.
A story of a poor innocent who is press-ganged, betrayed, then betrayed then betrayed again, Who could that remind us of), ultimately convicted and taken to be shot. When strangely at the last moment he appears to be reprieved by personal order of Prince Albert. Although it seems he's going to be sent back into service. It's not entirely clear if the reprieve comes too late because the tone throughout seems so inevitably tragic, mournful and funereal. It's a case of less is more because the band's playing again  is almost restrained. The tale dictates the tone of the playing and singing. It's masterful!
In documentaries members of Fairport talk about the process of the added players constantly raising the bar during this period. Denny's joining was surely the key catalyst for this but Thompson, Nicol, Swarbrick, Hutchings and Mattacks pitch in to full effect here as throughout the album. Swarbrick and Mattacks deserve special credit for coming into the band at this point of time under such circumstances and making such telling contributions.
It's true ensemble playing. Sparring but in a way that constantly pushes things forward. They play as a fiercely knit unit throughout, remarkable given that they've so recently added new members and lost other key players. Apparently the rehearsal time for the album was particularly intensive and it pays off.  Their understanding and working through terrible personal grief brings them to an utterly new place. It must have been a phenomenally exciting as well as a deeply gruelling experience to undergo. But they were young.
You can hear connections being made and embedded and the band delving into and almost summoning up centuries of cultural consciousness. The people they talk of, Reynardine's bride, Crazy Man Michael, Matty Groves and the deserter here, all tragic victims in one sense or another but all in their different ways embedded in the landscape they've departed and all are brought back and redeemed in the songs they inhabit.
Next track Medley - The Lark in the Morning is Fairport in full on folky hoedown mode and it's not really for me though it fits fully with what the band are planning to get across on the album and it's flawlessly played. It certainly shows how far the band have come in two years because this bears absolutely no resemblance to anything on their first album.
So to Tam Lin, another of the famous 'breakthrough' tracks. Fairport seemed to produce so many of them during this year. As a band they were often painted as academics and it seems there's a lot of this going on. Self-conscious excavation and restoration. Then wedding it with deeply felt singing and playing.
Hutchings has spoken of going to the local Cecil Sharp House before and during the making of the album.The English Folk Dance and Song Society a historical library resource brimming with traditional sheet music and reference boks that the band bedded their new approach in. Tam Lin is a direct product of this.
Liege and Lief is immersed in these narratives. As Nicol says 'certain songs from that album just refuse to lie down and die'. Tam Lin is one. The lyrics dig deeper into Middle-England than anything else on the album. We're in faerie land here, rooting into the soil itself and channelling all of the primal musical and cultural heritage and energies of the country that has borne the musicians forth. Characters are threatened with being turned into newts, snakes, lions and knights but it never grates. For me it's absolutely authentically rooted.
The playing here is more severe than anything else on the album. Elsewhere the touch is feather light at points but this much more consciously rocks out. For me it paints the way forward to a lot of crimes and excesses committed in the name of folk and prog over the next few years. The horrid ghost of Jethro Tull hovers somewhere here. But this is not the tracks fault in itself. In itself it's incredibly impressive.
So to Crazy Man Michael which is one of, if not my favourite track from the album. It's another song for the ages. Madness, magic, murder and despair. I can't say much more about it myself. It speaks best for itself.
'Michael he whistles the simplest of tunes
And asks the wild woods their pardon
For his true love is flown into every flower grown
           And he must be keeper of the garden.'
Fairport know completely what they're doing here. They understand the traditions and respect them but they're also crafting something utterly and thrillingly new. This is why it's lasted and if anything gained resonance in the forty plus years since it was released.     
Yesterday I got on a coach and went with the students of the organisation I work for to Bamburgh Castle and Holy Island. They're as English as places as anywhere I know. You can feel the history in the stones, in the earth and the swirling world, the incredible immensity of nature we're all cradled in all around you. We had sun, wind and rain in equal measure. I drank some beer. I ate a Holy Island beef and ale pie. It was a wonderful, evocative day!
A picture of Holy Island taken by one of my students yesterday. Thanks Olivia!
All the time I had Fairport playing in my head. Sandy Denny singing. Richard Thompson and the others playing. It's been wonderful writing and thinking about this band over the past fortnight and realising fully for the first time what they achieved here. Really they're incomparable.
The album itself achieved reasonable commercial success but it also alienated plenty. Fans who liked their West Coast transitional mix. American rock critics who appreciated the same and had no entry point for the English folk references. Folk fans who couldn't deal with electrified versions of the traditional canon. It also broke up the band. Within a few months Denny and Hutchings were gone. Within a couple of years Thompson too. For me they could never be the same after this regardless of the talent of the musicians who remained or joined or rejoined thereafter. Their golden phase was over!
For me 1969 will always be their really special year though they had great moments before and since. They cover so much ground on Liege and Lief that I imagine it will probably be seen as their high watermark when they're all done and gone though I'm tempted to go out and get Unhalfbricking today to see how it compares. Also planning to buy Electric Eden , a book which describes this incomparable period of English music in depth. Cheers Fairport! We should all raise a glass really!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fairport Convention- Liege & Lief

I wasn't born in these isles. I just was brought here by my dearest parents. I was actually born in  Zimbabwe, (Rhodesia at the time), and grew up under the hugest skies imaginable. The kind that make you sure that some kind of god exists (Not making any grand claims here. You'd have to see it for yourself to understand what I mean). Here's Victoria Falls. My parents took us here the day before we left.

But I came here at six and know that at root I'm English. Saying I was British would be a slightly inaccurate PC stab. If I was asked by anyone to go for he most English song I know I'd name this. It describes the sky I live under to me. Of course I'm aware that it's not actually on the album I'm just about to talk about. I certainly don't care. It's just great!

This band takes me somewhere but I'm not quite sure where it is. So it's Liege and Leif for the next review. All about England and the English.

Ten Great Post Punk Albums




Sunday, July 7, 2013

#8 Siouxsie & the Banshees - The Scream


'I always gravitated towards the city. I hated suburbia. Some people stick to their local town like Bromley. You could hang out there and feel pretty grown-up but I hated it. I thought it was small and narrow minded.

There was a trendy bar called Pip's or something , and I got Berlin to wear this dog collar, and I walked in with Berlin following me, and people's jaws just hit the tables. Later on if I'd done that I'd probably have been assaulted. But I walked in and ordered a bowl of water for him. It was hilarious, I got the bowl of water for my dog as well! People were scared!' ' Siouxsie

I have a colleague at work, round about the same age as me, who has pretty strong opinions about everything. For a Sunderland fan he's very black and white. He latched onto music in a serious way a lot earlier than I did. He saw some of the early punk and post punk bands first time round as he never tires of telling us ! The Damned, The Clash I think, Joy Division.

But he also knows what he doesn't like. He doesn't like pretentious. So the whole of the New York CBGB's scene are out, except The Ramones. The Doors is just crap sixth form poetry. Much of the Andy Warhol Factory is suspect though he may have time for some Velvet Underground. Bryan Ferry is a massive bellend. And Siouxsie & the Banshees are art school poseurs.

The dividing line of early English punk is probably between The Damned and Siouxsie & the Banshees It might be difficult to really like both because they represent such opposing worldviews .

'Seems like the sharpest people out of the original punk scene were making their excuses and leaving as early as the first months of 1977. Didn't you yourself say something like it was all over when the Damned first played/ (Simon Reynolds)

That was kind of true. When The Damned played it was like the first elements of the pantomime horse coming in. Punk was already getting uniform and predictable. That whole brief period before people like The Damned came along, before we even played - it didn't even have a name.' (Steve Severin) .

I know which side of the fence I'd have to put myself on. I have to say straight off that there's something about The Banshees and the Bromley Contingent they emerged from that makes me cringe. In many ways they represent all the petty churlishness, egotism, arrogance and savagery of adolescence and the playground. I can remember people (who have probably grown up perfectly ok), behaving like that at school.

But if the alternative is The Damned, I'd put myself in The Banshees camp every time. The Damned mean nothing to me really except for this which I understand. The Banshees, despite their snotty elitism represent a certain kind of undeniable courage for me. Confronting the society you find yourself in, transformation, deconstruction and reconstruction of identity. Immersion in art. Big themes! Pretentious ones in some eyes but to me important values. Sorry Steve. You can keep The Damned. The Banshees are better!

Even though they're not that often on my turntable now I find myself in my late forties, when they do find their way I'm still pretty impressed.

Siouxsie was the role model and icon for countless suburban teenage girls in the late seventies and early eighties. There was nobody else. Debbie Harry was not viable. They rouged and mascarad up and scared the living hell out of the boys in the playground at their comprehensives. This was their ultimate ambition!

Influences, influences! Has any band ever been influenced by so much stuff as Siouxsie & the Banshees?  Bowie, Roxy, T.Rex, Art, Deco, Art Nouveau, Gay Disco,  Andy Warhol's Factory, The Velvet Underground, Cabaret,  Fascism, suburbia, the train ride into London, the Swastika, the Nazis, childhood, The Beatles, The Stones, Altamont, Classical Music, psychedelia, drugs, sex, Modernism, dolls, early death of parents, Autism, Vorticism, fairground rides, pulp novels, The Stooges, prostitution, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, Aleistair Crowley, A Clockwork Orange, violence, the playground, Bauhaus, Can, Sparks, Horror Films, Clockwork Orange,  Janov's Primal Scream Therapy, expressionism, The Doors, J.G.Ballard, childhood abuse, John Cale, Don't Look Now, Rocky Horror Show, séances, The Night Porter, neighbours, The Damned (the film), Charles Manson,  CBGB's scene, Nico, Captain Scarlet, Motown, the occult, Modernist Paris, Louise Brooks, the Gay Scene, Captain Beefheart, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Boop, Lou Reed, Klimt, turn of century Austro-Hungary, Pre-Raphaelites, Jacobite dramatists, Johnny Rotten, the Bloomsbury Set. They absorbed it all and spat it out. In a way that was often difficult to recognise. But their ambition in itself was really pretty admirable.
It's slightly difficult to review a Siouxsie & the Banshees album without giving the impression that you've swallowed a dictionary and then proceeded to spit out all the most vivid adjectives therein out onto the printed page at random. Still. I'll give it a go...
The Scream to me sounds like The Banshees learning to play. It's really quite amateurish from the off. It's not as if there aren't any ideas there. The album is chock-a-block with them. But it's clear that the band needed John McGeogh and Budgie to come on board at some point as proper musicians and supplement the idea merchants Sioux and Severin to help them realise things. Guitar and drums don't really always seem fully realised on here, though they have their moments of course. They often seem like supporting instruments to the main players and the main course. The egos of Sioux and Severin. Well anyway. Hey, ho! Let's go.
First song Pure (great title for your first song on your first album) is a short instrumental with Siouxsie's background drone acting as a fourth instrument. It starts with bass rising and falling, (bit of the experimentalism of Little Johnny Jewel there) then an oriental sounding guitar joining in, pounding drums and Siouxsie intoning.
It doesn't particularly go anywhere but is quite powerful still and would probably have made a fair impact on first playing back in '78 in suburban bedrooms. It's tribal. Much of what the Banshees do is tribal. I think it's a good way of understanding them. They're calling out. Establishing  the cult. You get the sense that it's everything to them that this is something new.
In listening to this I have to remember that I'm pretty much as far from the target listener for this as it's possible to be. I'm at least three times the fifteen year old that I should be to fully appreciate this. The Banshees are out to indoctrinate and draw you into their cult and I'm not remotely interested in that and frankly I imagine even if I were fifteen again they wouldn't have given me a second look anyway arch-elitists that they were. I have never worn make up and am not about to start now. I was more suited to R.E.M and the literate bloke bands. The Goth girls scared me. Still, onward.
Jigsaw Feeling is an archetypal Banshees title and now I've had a couple of beers and it's getting dark I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it and will put it on again when it's finished. Scything guitar, pounding Glitter drums. To be honest Severin's bass sounds great throughout. Even coming around to Mackay and Morris who infamously did a bunk mid-tour on the other two Banshees probably because it was unbearable to be with Sioux and Severin a moment longer.
The band quickly established a winning formula and rode it onwards and refined it and polished it as their musicianship improved over their next four albums. From that point on it was downhill for me. I lost interest with that silly Picasso cover for Hyena and when Siouxsie and the rest of the band went for full fancy dress like a po-faced Adam & the Ants.  As a colleague commented when I asked him his feelings on the band today. 'I never think much of any group who had to nick a song from The Beatles for their biggest hit'. Frankly this sounds pretty horrid to me now!
But Jigsaw Feeling is an early peak. It's fun. It's like a fairground ride, dipping and swerving. The Banshees do this stuff well. They admitted they swang between two basic moods, the gloomy arty album tracks and the glammy catchy three minute rollercoaster rides.
I have to say at this early stage I'm veering towards the latter in terms of personal preference. Not particularly looking forward to the slasher serial killer butcher song about  dismembering body parts coming up a couple of tracks along the line. Think I'll listen to Jigsaw Feeling again. 
Overground keeps the momentum going. It's a slow down in pace but has some of that Venus in Furs coiled intensity. Severin took his name from this Velvets song of course. Silly, self important fellow! I'm actually becoming a bigger fan of Mackay with every passing track because this song is his for me. Very simple technically, but his chords almost jangle. So far so good then!
So to the serial killer sing along song Carcass then. It's nasty and pretty grotty really but does the rollercoaster glam clapathon thing that the Banshees are so adept at to reasonable effect. But frankly if I'm after a serial killer song to cheer me up I generally go straight to Spinal Tap's Saucy Jack.
So next up another Beatles song. Oh dear! The fairground, faux-heavy metal one about violent unravelling, dislocation and distortion of senses. Fancy The Banshees choosing that ahead of I Want To Hold Your Hand! The one Charles Manson really liked instead, which let's face it is no recommendation and is probably the historical reference The Banshees like best about the song too and is what mainly drew them to choose to cover it.
Helter Skelter, as I've suggested already in talking about how The Banshees love a good rollercoaster is the Beatles song that best reflects their way of looking at things and song construction. Frankly, though I love The Beatles I don't like the original of this. I think it's Paul Mccartney just faking it. And the cover version here is just ugly. It's the real lowpoint on the album for me.
                                                 'Helter Skelter la, la, la, la, la, la.'
Oh Siouxsie, please at least try to sing. Time for bed and you must do better on the second side. Oh, and take off that swastika.
                                               'Ok, now stare moodily in different directions.'
Mirage at the start of Side Two is a bit of a crowd pleaser. One of The Banshees early singles.
'My limbs are like palm trees
swaying in no breeze
my body's an oasis
to drink from as you please'
The impression you get from lyrics like these is of suburban dread. Siouxsie has been very public about how she sees suburbia as violent, ugly territories. The lyrics of Mirage talk of unreality and illusion, and it makes me think of the mundane almost deadened nine to five conditioned existence and the deeply repressed sexual perversion that this can induce. Nice tune mind! I particularly like the flat, deadpan backing vocals (not sure if it's Severin or Mackay), which seem a prototype for a lot of songs from the first Elastica album. Those girls stole from everyone!
Perhaps I'm doing the album a misjustice by judging it morally but to actually stare this stuff in the face with all it's implications is pretty ghastly if you don't have a strong stomach and I don't really. Although punk was clearly wonderful in many respects a lot of its major participants weren't. Sioux and Severin never made any pretence to be anything other than vile. In fact they seemed to wear it as a badge of pride.
They saw society as a fake and a cover up and revelled in documenting all the vicious, violent perversions stewing under this ordered austere surface, single by single, album by album. In order to do so they had to be pitiless and frankly they both are. There's no light and shade because to be so would be a compromise and neither of them believed in that.
However, I'm not remotely interested in Manson or Crowley, the Nazis don't turn me on and I'm not the kind of person who reads pulp books on serial killers because I think evil should be denied rather than pored over because it can corrupt and debase and does. Sorry to be such a prude but there you go! 
So while there are moments that The Banshees can be a thrilling pop band and I find it really interesting to take a look at whey they emerged from I prefer to hold them at a distance. I think to a large degree this kind of violent, obsessive subculture has diminished since 1978 and I'm glad it has ! I think the world's a lot better although at the same time perhaps the general quality of this kind of music is not as good possibly as a direct result. Plenty would disagree.
In many ways next track Metal Postcard (also known at Mittageisen) is the most interesting song on here. It feels almost like penance on the band's part for the notorious Love in a Void line, ('too many Jews for my liking' Severin wrote it, silly nasty chap) which caused righteous and rightful wrath on many critics parts including the famous Julie Burchill NME Review. Siouxsie response to the slagging -'fat cow'. In some respects they seem made for each other. On top of all the prancing around in swastikas in the early days. The spin the band have done on it all since is pretty shoddy really and fails to convince.
Frankly they went for the symbols of fascism because much of their outlook on life was pretty fascist to my mind view. Lydon, a much deeper thinker, had little truck with them:
'Siouxsie Sioux was a nightmare when we went down to Paris. Silly girl, she wore practically nothing except swastikas and a see-through titless bra — in a former Nazi-occupied country  
The song is inspired and dedicated to John Heartfield a political and anti-Fascist artist associated with the Dadaist group whose work the Nazi's would have viewed as depraved, which he would have taken as a compliment. The collage above was inspired by Hermann Goring's comment "Iron always made a nation strong, butter and lard only made the people fat." The piece is entitled 'Hooray the butter is finished' and depicts a family sitting down to a meal of metal. It's a very efficient and effective piece of work in deconstructing the Nazi mindset.
At round about the same time as The Banshees released this Baader Meinhof group in Germany were similarly focussed on the Nazi legacy and were committing a range of violent and murderous acts. I'm not a big fan of theirs but somehow I understand where they came from to a greater extent than I do Siouxsie and the Banshees feeling entitled to corral Fascist symbols into their work in order to sell more records.
Nazi and Fascist symbolism are powerful weapons and they work and fitted well in the pop arena, (particularly in the 70's) which was all hero worship and the clashing of youth cults within a society which was violent and deeply turbulent itself. Metal Postcard is a great track in terms of what it does, creating an atmosphere and conveying an atmospheric and jarring melody and lyric.
But if I watch this video, which frankly I find rather gruesome, it makes me ask myself which side exactly the Banshees were on. Still, another great Glam stomp if none of that stuff bothers you. It wasn't a hit when it was released as a single. Frankly I'm not surprised. It doesn't do the rollercoaster thing of The Banshees big pop singles (love the video this is linked to, it highlights everything The Banshees did so well in their early days, much preferable to the one below which just makes me uneasy and feel that what Siouxsie really needs now is a damned good slap).
On to Nicotine Stain. Ah, addiction to something that is doing you irreparable harm. Most of us must recognise this at some level. The Banshees use their limited musical resources highly effectively here. We're back on the rollercoaster here. Some guitarwork that's highly reminiscent of what McGeogh was doing at a similar time for Magazine on Shot by Both Sides and The Light Pours Out of Me.
'Wallow in that ash bath
Soaking up the fumes
And see the nicotine stain
Start to spread.'


Suburban Relapse is something Siouxsie really understands and something she might have been fated for herself but for punk. It's about what goes on behind the curtains in the hinterland.

'I was washing up the dishes
Minding my own business
When my string snapped
I had a relapse...a suburban relapse.'
It gets the sense of suburban claustrophobia across very well. Nice saxophone on here which reflects the strong Roxy Music influence evident in much of their music. However, it's repetitive and limited in tone there's little musical variety on show here. It makes me feel I'm being nagged by a wife I stopped loving years ago and who frankly at some level deserves the breakdown she's going through because of all her mean pettiness over the years. Sorry, but there you are.
Which leaves us with Switch, the album's longest and final track. Switch is a great name for a Banshees song. It describes a lot of what is going on in their music and their mindset. They're wanting to change minds, not just opinions. It works for me for the course of individual songs but then the track finishes I look around me and nothing has really changed. Still this is atmospheric. There's an effective gear change half way through and then it shifts again to full tilt. It doesn't seem overlong. I can hear the influence of Roxy here again. The lyrics are rather tiresome. Too much Crowley and occult.
'People walk something blows up
And even talk won’t come down
People listen scattered muscles twitch
Then they halt too late to switch.
(they’re dying to switch)'

Sorry Siouxsie, but they're not. The switch you're talking about is a teenage one of kohl eyes, braided hair, nail varnish and mascara. It's a few years of teenage rebellion before people decide that they want to be like other people. Because that's not such a terrible thing to aspire to and become. It's possible to grow older retain and refine your individuality and remain yourself without dancing off full pelt to the underworld looking like a member of the supporting chorus of Cats!

The band's finest moment for me...

Pretty soon the group became the cult they wanted to be. After the initial run of thrilling singles and solid albums (for the record I think JuJu is their best along with this) they became something of a parody of themselves. Not something, by the end I think they were a complete parody of themselves. They became a teenage cliché. .Expressing their individuality by dressing the same as their legion of followers.

They spawned Goth, surely more than any other band. If they said they weren't Goth they should have stopped dressing like that. They inspired thousands but for me they lost along the way what had made them special. Their connection to suburbia and their ability to express the sheer excitement of the city. Their connection with the real.

They made their statement and won't be forgotten. Siouxsie is undeniably a one off icon. However, for me after being with them for the week it's taken to write the review there's something stunted and unsatisfactory about them at least Sioux and Severin's posturing, (much of the music still stands up). As if they're more like what they're tying to critique than they're willing to admit. Somehow it's all a bit of a pose! Burchill's comment about Sioux's horrid Chiselhurst-climber's accent is not a million miles from the mark.

Maybe my colleague Steve was right after all. Though I'm not willing to start listening to The Damned. There you go, done and dusted and I didn't mention the word Teutonic once. Oops!

Post Script: Here's the other side of the coin. A response to this from a big time and early Banshees fan Mr Drayton.
'Yikes, nail that bitch! Personally I think you're coming at it from the wrong angle. This album wasn't made with the future in mind, it was made from circumstance and ambition, very much of it's moment.

The last of the gang to sign, it took an age for the Banshees to make a record, and they made it falling and tumbling, full of error and chaos. They were learning how to play, they were learning how to write. Yes they improved once Budgie and Robert Smith/John McGeogh got stuck in, but nothing could beat that original blueprint.

I saw them twice pre-split, Kenny Morris was mesmerising as a drummer, a little beautiful, a little dangerous. Siouxsie was just splendid. She had no truck with the oiks who came to grab and gob, walking off when the spittle landed. More importantly though she was doing it her way, unbound in the same way Patti Smith, Poly Styrene, Gaye Advert and The Slits did. It was Siouxsie who coldly stood the pissed Bill Grundy down bringing the Filth and The Fury.

She did want her cake and eat it though - on balance using anti fascist imagery for the sleeve of Metal Postcard (why did they put that out as a single?) doesn't really negate 'too many Jews for my liking', no matter what the excuse. The use of the swastika was meant to provoke, not promote, but maybe, in hindsight (Sid careering round the Jewish quarter emblazoned with one) very much a stupid insult.

For me, it's almost impossible to unstick history from this album. It was hugely important to me, to friendships, to fuck you parents. It was, and still, in places, a beast. It's a blueprint for many jenny-come-latelys, both sonically and image-wise. Live, these songs were just one solid adrenalin rush, drums and barbed wires, pinned down by Severin's simple bass. The recording captures some of their spirit, not all though.

A couple of very important points. Gets, ladder, climbs high horse. The Banshees did not invent goth. They inhabited its hinterland, but in no way are the responsible for The Sisters of Mercy or The March Violets.

Secondly, your mate can take a hike with his Beatles/hit singles comment. They weren't the first band to rely on some solid songwriting to make a splash in the mainstream, they won't be the last. It's a fucking great version as well, so stick that in your hat and smoke it.

So, in summation, you're completely wrong and I'm right because I was there and I lived the Banshees. I had (and still have) 5 t-shirts, 23 badges, autographs, books, records, cd's and vhs tape of Once Upon A Time. And one of Budgies drumsticks. Saw them 13 times, man and boy.
Oh, they were never vile. They were never nasty. Po-faced maybe, but they swung and they swooped. They were beautiful.'

Cheers Mr.D. 'Jenny come latelys'. Like it! But I think you'll find I'm right!


Siouxsie & the Banshees - The Scream

When I was nine my parents made the move from Nottingham to London and we found ourselves relocated to Richmond Upon Thames, right at the end of the District Line and on the fringes of suburbia. Thinking about the place still makes me shiver slightly with nostalgia because it's a truly beautiful part of the world and an idyllic setting to grow up in. Here's a picture of the railway station which was a stone's throw from our house and the entrance point via which we made our way to the High Street.

Unbeknownst to me, in inner London the first rumblings of the British punk rock movement were beginning to occur just as we arrived. I was utterly oblivious. Music was a peripheral part of my small world and would remain so until Top of the Pops became worth watching in the late 70s and I first started to develop a consciousness that all this stuff might actually be important.
I began to become  aware by the following year however because my sheltered, ten year old self first started to encounter the first punks on the streets of Richmond as the look and attitude rippled out towards suburbia. There was a narrow alleyway leading to the station pictured above and I can still recall the sense of fear I'd experience if  started down it only to see a couple of punks approaching from the other end.
It's difficult now that this look is so common and widespread and frankly almost clichéd that it was once something that could inspire fear and terror in society as a whole. I didn't understand at all of course but even as a ten year old, that tingle of fear was a realisation that something was taking place that was threatening and challenging. 
Now that this period has been so excessively poured over and documented it's difficult to get a proper perspective on the actual events and really only one thing can be said with any certainty. Punk changed things. 
The first punk record that made it's way into my collection was this one.
I bought it in the early 80s. I was a very late starter. Before this the most daring I'd got was probably The Police. And that's really not very daring. This record is a collection of the first Banshees singles. By this point were genuine pop stars. Even all these years later It's a really great collection of songs. The cover is also quite wonderful. On the back it has some sleeve notes from then NME journalist Paul Morley that at the time I remember being really impressed by but now seem slightly (to say the least), ridiculous.
'I was scratched, fiercely and justly, by “Hong Kong Garden” and was never the same again. Siouxsie and the Banshees, on the nightmare edge of our sheltered world, were concerned with nothing less than breaking the rules of logic, space, and time. Accepting, exploiting and confusing pop music’s universal vanity, futility and profound quality, they set about eliciting from life’s facts and fantasies a sense of the things that matter.'
Yeah, right! Still he is correct that the Banshees were an extremely disorientating and on occasion a really thrilling band who questioned and challenged the basic value systems of the normal society which I very much inhabited. Or else they were just a lifestyle choice and a bunch of utter poseurs depending on where you stood.
Next record to review Siouxsie & the Banshee's debut album The Scream. Be scared. Be very scared!

Saturday, July 6, 2013


Reinvention. A very good idea. A hall of fame of heroic role models...

Iggy Pop
Richard Hell
Scott Walker
Vic Godard
Siousxsie Sioux
Howard Devoto
Sun Ra
Tom Verlaine
David Bowie
Pete Shelley
My friend and Newcastle icon Sheena Revolta
Dee Dee Ramone
Johnny Rotten