With a commanding, imposing voice, Siouxsie Sioux turned what looked like a one-night stand into a musical career that’s still going strong. Sioux, born Janet Susan Dallion in 1957, formed a primitive version of Siouxsie & The Banshees to open for an early Sex Pistols show at London’s tiny 100 Club in 1976. Who would’ve guessed this ad hoc support band would outlive the evening’s headliner by almost 20 years? The eerie drone of the Banshees was a harbinger of brooding U.K. post-punk outfits the Cure, Joy Division and Bauhaus. After a career that included 15 top-30 hits in the U.K., Sioux pulled the plug on the Banshees in 1996 to focus on the Creatures, the side project she’d formed with husband (and Banshees drummer) Peter “Budgie” Clarke. Now comes Mantaray (Decca), Sioux’s debut solo album. No matter what the label on the can says, it’s pretty much the same peppery soup inside. Crackling guitars and pounding drums protectively surround Sioux’s vocals as though they’re safeguarding the princess of some long-lost Inca tribe.
Admittedly a bit “gaga” after a day full of radio interviews, Sioux spoke to MAGNET from London.
I first saw Siouxsie & The Banshees play at the California Hall, I think in 1980. It was one of the hottest nights I’ve ever experienced in San Francisco, and they’d stuffed that place to the maximum. People were passing out.
Yep, I remember how hot that was. That was our first time to play in the States, and we’d just played the Whisky in L.A. We had a very special guest who came to see us at the Whisky, and that was Bryan Gregory, the guitarist from the Cramps.
Ah, yes, the man with the bone necklace.
And the chiseled face and that great white streak in his hair. I remember I got to meet his pet snake. I seem to recall chasing someone around the dressing room, holding that snake. It was a big python.
Oddly enough, that leads me right into my next question. Were you a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus when you were a kid?
Yeah, definitely. I think they were highly influenced by (surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis) Buñuel, those sketches where they were always throwing things out the window. I loved the silly walk—and the dead parrot scene. Of course, I also loved the film The Life Of Brian with the song “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” And Fawlty Towers was a great show, too.
The very first thing I saw on British television on my first trip to England in 1976 was John Cleese doing the Nazi goose-step in front of the German tourists in that “Don’t bring up the war” bit on Fawlty Towers. That was absolutely hilarious.
[Laughs] I know, I know. People are always shocked and a little horrified when I try to explain how [World War II] has been part of our culture. Well, wearing the swastika back then was certainly not meant to be a political statement. At the time, I was very much into mixing up various symbols: the crucifix, the swastika and, later on, the Star of David. I think everyone generally was pretty much ignorant of what the Holocaust and the war meant. It was really just a thing of the older generation, and the young people were always getting beaten up about the war. It was just a way to piss off the older generation. It was very much more high camp than death camp.
I saw the big, splashy Vivienne Westwood fashion retrospective recently at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. It was fascinating. I saw lots of you in there, too.
Well, ultimately, [the punk era] was a very empowering time for women. Not since, and certainly not before, has there been a movement within music that saw women out there, picking up guitars. The repercussions are here still today, but not nearly as much as I was hoping. I was hoping for more bands like the Slits to be around these days.
What do you think the long-range effects of the original punk-rock movement have been, especially for women?
Like everything in life, it all goes full circle. These days, it’s almost been reduced to a fashion statement. I think there’s been a false sense of empowerment for women. A lot of women are doing things, but there’s that ever-present preoccupation with body form and image. Almost as if it’s about being perfect and looking perfect, not about expressing any style or intent. I can tell you, there are plenty of fashion victims out there. The principal fashion accessory these days seems to be a plastic surgeon.
You recently turned 50. How did it feel?
It’s kind of like once you’re into your 20s, there’s this fear when your 30s hit. So you cross that, then once you’re past 40, it’s like, ‘Oh well, what the heck? Who gives a fuck?’ Really, it’s much more of a point with women than men. They just want them younger and younger and as disposable as possible. They certainly don’t want any character coming in there or any life experience. That would seem to discount them from a lot of things.
What made you want to become a singer?
I’ve always felt passionately about music and film. My sister and brother were a lot older than me, eight years older. So when they were going through their obsessive period of music, I was being drawn into it as well. And my mum, who was a working mum, her form of release was going to the cinema as often as she could. More often than not, she’d take me along.
What kind of music did you like?
Well, I loved all the R&B from the Motown and Atlantic labels. And, of course, there were the ubiquitous Rolling Stones and Beatles records. I remember my sister being really into (jazz organist) Jimmy McGriff and Otis Redding.
What about British rock in the early ’70s? Were you into Roxy Music?
Well, that was my generation, what I claimed for myself: Roxy Music, T.Rex, David Bowie and Mark Bolan. That was my realm. My mum loved music, too. She grew up being in love with all those classic musicals. She loved the glamour. She also loved a good thriller, so she loved Alfred Hitchcock. And that was where my love of music and film collided, because Hitchcock almost always had amazing music by Bernard Herrmann to accompany his films.
Tell me about your first live performance as Siouxsie & The Banshees, opening for the Sex Pistols in 1976.
It was very impromptu. The band was formed just for that one gig; that was it. Fifteen or 20 minutes, that was all the future that I saw. But it’s gone on for quite a long time.
Had you sung publicly prior to that?
Never! I was completely self-taught … in public.
And you were a member of a Sex Pistols fan club at the time.
It wasn’t a fan club. It was called the Bromley Contingent, a misnomer because we didn’t all come from (London borough) Bromley. It was like-minded people meeting at a lot of gay clubs, actually, who had gotten into the Pistols. And I got introduced to them. They didn’t really have an audience. Their first gigs, you’d see them playing at a college, and there’d be people scrambling to get out the door. [Laughs] Or clinging to the walls.
The last time I saw you play was at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1985 when, three or four songs into your set, you went down to the ground in a heap.
I dislocated my knee. I got twisted in all the cabling onstage. I landed wrong, and pop went the knee. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get up or move. Then I looked down and saw my kneecap poking out the other side of my leg. By law, nobody could touch me in case anything went wrong before they took me to Charing Cross Hospital. So I’m lying there in the hospital with people who’d got stab wounds, groaning away. Finally, I got seen by somebody who had to cut off all my tights, then pop the knee back in place. They just slammed it back in.
I overheard some of the audience walking out of the Odeon that night who thought you’d been shot with a silencer, like in a James Bond film.
Actually, I think it hurt worse than being shot. But I continued the tour, which my doctor said I really wasn’t supposed to do. I think I was back onstage the next night, in a plaster cast. The show must go on. Or, as they say in the theater, “Break a leg.”