Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Kaleidoscope
The Beatles set a standard for “progress” by rock bands such that if you weren’t at least trying to get from “Love Me Do” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in four years, what were you doing?
David Bowie’s whiplash changes during his RCA years provided another trajectory that inspired leaps in style and sound. Another option would be the diamantine single-mindedness of an AC/DC or The Ramones, and that took more dedication than most were willing to put in. This may be why when Join Hands, the second Siouxsie and the Banshees album, came out in 1979 it was such a disappointment to many of us, even though it gained good reviews in the UK. Rather than expanding on the sound of The Scream, their brilliant debut, it seemed intent on driving it firmly into the ground. Few of my friends bought Join Hands and none of us played it more than a couple of times.
What would the future hold for these improbable avatars of what was quickly being defined as post-punk? At the time, only a break-up or some kind of radical change seemed necessary for the band to go on. When guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris walked off the tour for Join Hands, what could have been a disaster turned into an opportunity. Budgie, the polyrhythmic powerhouse who kept The Slits’ Cut grounded and in the groove, joined to finish the tour, becoming a permanent member soon afterwards. Guitar duties on stage had been taken over by The Cure’s Robert Smith, but that was never going to be tenable in the longer term. Into the breach stepped not one, but two guitarists of note: John McGeoch of Magazine and Visage, and ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones. McGeoch already begun adding arpeggiated bursts of color to his work with Magazine, but there was no hint in Jones’ work – in the Pistols or after, with The Professionals – that he was even interested in playing what the Banshees new sound required.
VIDEO: Siouxsie and the Banshees “Happy House”
In any case, it was the McGeoch lineup of the Banshees that we heard next, when the “Happy House,” single was released in March 1980. It became an instant hit with us fans – and on the cooler radio stations, with sense of space and dynamics that felt brand new, the bright melody combining with Siouxsie’s sardonic lyrics for an emotional wallop that felt more personal than the J.G. Ballard-influenced abstractions of earlier songs. It was also immediately apparent that, previously buried under McKay’s sheet metal guitar and Morris’ dense tom toms, Steve Severin was a bass player of rare originality. In the post-punk pantheon, Severin is perhaps only surpassed by Joy Division’s Peter Hook in his ability to provide counterpoint and carry the melody. If anything, his technical skills were greater, lending an irresistible sleekness to the rhythms that never became merely “slick.”
Severin also co-wrote “Happy House” and the next single, “Christine,” which came out in May, completing a one-two knockout punch demonstrating that the Banshees were not just a going concern but in rude health indeed. “Christine’s” fast-strummed 12-string guitar presaged Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which came out a month later, and the lyrics (by Severin) had a Syd Barrett-like creativity while limning a psychological portrait of a “strawberry girl” who “sees her faces unfurl.” Between “Happy House” and “Christine,” anticipation could not have been higher when Kaleidoscope came out in August 1980, and it more than met all expectations. Before even putting the album on, us trainspotting types noticed that the band was presenting themselves as a trio, with Sioux, Severin, and Budgie in motion on the cover, photographed by Joe Lyon on the set for the video of “Christine.” The inner sleeve also made this point with even more drama, the two men presented as androgynous attendants to their queen, Siouxsie, her eyes cast down to reveal a rainbow of eyeshadow.
Looking deeper at the credits showed that Sioux-Severin were now a songwriting powerhouse, co-writing all of the songs except “Trophy,” which included McGeoch. He also played guitar on five tracks, including the two singles, “Trophy,” “Hybrid,” and “Desert Kisses.” The album opens with “Happy House,” but wisely follows it up with “Tenant,” which manages to be both claustrophobic and empty, building up a tension aimed at confirming that Siouxsie and the Banshees had not become purely a pop band. “Trophy,” is an art-pop gem, with McGeoch’s guitar an angular thing of wonder, managing to be both edgy and catchy and barely containing one of Sioux’s most overwhelming vocal performances. Future pretenders to the Goth throne would aim to match its haunting power, never quite succeeding.
“Hybrid” is haunting, McGeoch’s guitar finding a gorgeously spiky texture and his bleating sax, reminiscent of Bowie’s work on Heroes, a further representation of the fear and loneliness in Sioux’s lyrics, which seems to depict a relationship devolving into an almost complete loss of the sense of self. “Clockface” is next, an instrumental made anthemic by Siouxsie’s wordless vocals. It’s a brief track, driven by tough chording from Jones and an almost mechanical interlock between Budgie and Severin. “Lunar Camel” closes out Side One, and is a perfect change of pace, basically a duet between Siouxsie and Severin, with her bell-like synth and sweetly surreal vocals accompanying his gliding bass line, underpinned by a drum machine. It’s a song that demonstrates their strength as a music-making duo, forged at the founding of the band and only made stronger after their abandonment by McKay and Morris.
Side Two kicks off with “Christine,” followed by the dreamy psychedelia of “Desert Kisses,” which displays Budgie’s endless versatility in the way his drums push the song forward like explorers trudging implacably through the dunes. The extraordinary “Red Light” comes next, with lyrics like “She falls into frame/With a professional pout/But the Polaroid’s ignite/Upon seeing their subject” making it a bleak, blackened flip-side of the coin minted by Kraftwerk on “The Model.” The camera Siouxsie triggers throughout the song adds a dose of sonic realism while also giving the listener the sensation of being pursued. If there’s a sense of relief when “Red Light” ends, the album does not let up with “Paradise Place.” One of the hardest-driving songs on the album, it’s fueled by some especially lethal guitar from Jones, the addition of a chorus pedal to his brute force approach embedding it firmly in the sound of the album. Nigel Gray, known for his fine work on the first three albums by The Police, co-produced with the Banshees and may have helped with details like that, while also blending the varied personnel and approaches into a consistent and coherent experience.
AUDIO: Siouxsie and the Banshees Live in San Francisco 1980
Jones also provides a tense chug to “Skin,” the powerful closing track, its terrifying closing lines, “Give me your skin for dancing in/Oh, give me your skin for dancing in,” seeming to predict Thomas Harris’s The Silence Of The Lambs, which was published eight years later. A bold claim, perhaps, but Kaleidoscope is a work of art that has had a wide ripple effect. Along with other 1980 releases like Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Joy Division’s Closer, and XTC’s Black Sea, Kaleidoscope–with its pronounced drum sounds, danceable rhythms, and canny combination of synths and guitars–is one of the albums that can be safely said to have invented what we think of as “the 80’s.” The videos for “Happy House” and “Christine” were also tailor-made for MTV, which wouldn’t start up for another year. By all measures, Kaleidoscope easily hits the bar set in the 60’s for a band’s growth.
Filled with musical developments that still thrill 40 years later, Kaleidoscope remains a remarkable achievement for band that could have just as easily broken up the year before and a tribute not only to the creativity of all involved but to to Siouxsie and Severin’s sheer desire to keep the Banshees alive.