Week 9 : 2nd March 1987 : Through the Looking Glass

Siouxsie and the Banshees – Through the Looking Glass is 30 years old

Accompany music : This Wheels on Fire

In 6 days time it will be International Womens Day, so what better time to play a strong female fronted album and review it with my wonderful partner, Steph.

We met 16 years ago, in a small rock club called Cuba Cuba. I headbanged and air guitared my way through nights to Classic Rock in my Levis and grandad shirts. Steph dressed in black but glowing like a beacon with UV makeup and reflective bits, would be swaying to the more Goth and Ska influenced music. Over the years we have meandered into each others musical territories, sometimes finding common ground and sometimes not. Every so often we find ourselves at each others gigs which we would never have thought of going to. Steph going to numerous Prog rock gigs, has struggled with some and loved others. At other times I have been to Goth gigs, some I really didn’t understand (EBM Goth) and others I have really enjoyed. One such night, I started recounting in week 2 in the David Bowie Post.

It’s 2013, and we are in London. Initially down for Akram Khan’s Desh at Sadlers Wells, we planned a visit to the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A but the trip was extended to take in a gig by one of Steph’s favourite artists, Siouxsie Sioux. It was at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the Meltdown festival, that year curated by Yoko Ono. I remember wandering around the hall before the gig, and being amazed at the committed fan base a lot dressed Siouxsie style. After a very good support from Viv Albertine, the atmosphere built highly until Siouxsie took to the stage and instantly she was in control and one with her audience. Her movement was so purposeful, as her PVC dress swayed to the music as she danced. The hits were played one after another, Siouxsie’s voice boomed out over the increasingly loud musicians. After each song her stage presence held everyone. It was seeing a master performer at work. Steph continues “I loved the dialogue as Siouxsie reminisced, and even though her voice doesn’t quite hit the notes and extraordinary range of her youth, she can still deliver a powerful concert for her loving fans. It was great talking to the people sitting near us, hearing their experiences of seeing her in concert in the early days. This was one of the best concerts I have ever been to.”

I knew little about Siouxsie before I met Steph. Of course I had seen her on Top of the Pops and found her always intriguing, slightly dangerous but strangely beautiful. Liked a lot of the singles, but never felt compelled to explore further. I also knew that she was part of the Punk scene, hung around with the Sex Pistols and appeared in the infamous Bill Grundy interview.  Like I said I didn’t know that much, over to Steph for her recollections….

“I think I first paid attention to Siouxsie and the Banshees when we were living in Sheffield in 1977, Hong Kong Garden was playing on Top of the Pops and because of mum and dad and my grandparents having spent time in the far east I was always interested in anything that hinted at eastern influences. Watching this extraordinary person sing and dance on the screen was thrilling for an 11 year old shy and sheltered girl. I loved everything about Siouxsie, her vocals, her style, her punk attitude, but I never tried to copy or emulate her myself. I just quietly admired.  The next time I really discovered Siouxsie again, was when we had moved to The Netherlands and I was at boarding school in Germany, this would be between 1979-1981. There was a sponsored 24 hour disco in Chatham House, the girls boarding house I lived in. One of the 6th form girls came dressed as Siouxsie, with back-combed and crimped hair, outlandish black eye make-up and a black bin bag. It was awesome. I must admit I did try and copy the dancing style and loved the few tunes the dj put on for Karen. That was when I rediscovered my love of the music. But I would need to wait until I had money of my own before I could buy and play her songs. We didn’t buy tapes or LPs very often in those days, so I never owned anything by her until I had started working. I settled for a compilation album which had most of the tracks I love, playing them over and over. Once upon a time….the Singles”

As part of the writing process we thought we would pick 10 of our favourite songs. We came up with Hong Kong Garden, Happy House, Dazzle, Swimming Horses, Peek-a-boo, Stargazer, Sea of Tranquility, Helter Skelter, Spellbound and Into A Swan. We played these whilst discussing our recollections.

Strangely we forgot to include  ‘Dear Prudence’ which I would have named if I had remembered. This version of the Beatles ‘White Album’ classic, utilises psychedelic guitars and Siouxsie hypnotic drawl to give a 60’s atmosphere whilst the power of bass and drums place it directly in the 80’s. It is said that after creating this single, the band felt compelled at some point to create an album of their favourite songs and so on the 2nd March 1997, ‘Through the Looking Glass comes out’. We will give it a spin and both myself and Steph will comment.

1. This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us:
BH: Love this Sparks cover, the fab manic Mael brothers songwriting and lyrics is carried off superbly by an intense demented Siouxsie performance.
SL: Rhythmic drumming, pulsating, magical, eastern exotic excitement.

2. Hall of mirrors:
BH: From Kraftwerk’s TransEurope Express. The electronic keyboards background replaced cleverly with hypnotic guitar and drum. Siouxsie’s delivery of the ‘Alice’ like lyrics is paired back and almost Teutonic.
SL: Perfect pitch and pace for Siouxsie’s throaty, gravelly vocals. With a melodic weaving refrain. Love the lyric “Even the greatest stars”.

3. Trust in me:
BH: This performance moves the track away from the dangerous threat of man-eating snake to a totally different type of domination. There is a huge amount of harp on this song including some mad fills. Needs More Harp…. only kidding.
SL: From the zippy, discordant harp opening to the hypnotic and suggestively lilting phrasing, we are coaxed into a slumberous somnambulistic state of serenity.

4. This wheel’s on fire:
BH: Always thought Siouxsie is having a ball on this Bob Dylan song. From the fanfare start, juddering guitar and uplifting chorus. Feels so much movement and fun in this track.
SL: This upbeat and exciting song is one of my favourites, setting toes tapping, hips shaking and head nodding. I want to leap around the room like a whirling dervish.

5. Strange fruit:
BH: One of the greatest protest songs originally sung by Billie Holliday and written by Lewis Allen. This version is great with violin and Siouxsie’s soulful delivery. The ‘New Orleans’ brass section adds to the atmosphere. Can’t replace the original but adds a different version to the canon.
SL: Powerful pathos and a bonus trumpet open the sheer magnetism of this song, which builds to a slow crescendoing finish. Boom. Bang. Crash. Whoosh.

6. You’re lost little girl:
BH: Into the psychedelic world of The Doors, acoustic start builds into sixties (copyrighted) song structure. Siouxsie’s vocals carry the same intonation as Morrison’s throughout. It has a mad, scary fairground section in the middle before jumping back into Sixties pop.
SL: Chaos descending into madness is soothed by the reassuringly measured Siouxsie.

7. The Passenger:
BH: Think this is one of the strongest covers on here, mixing the old and new. Cleverly takes from Iggy’s original, the urgency and vocal delivery and adds the new horn interludes which improve the track. Beautifully manic, uplifting song.
SL: Siouxsie had fun with this cover, her deep, clear delivery matching and meeting the triumphant brass fanfare to perfection. A brilliant song performed with aplomb.

8. Gun:
BH: Stop start guitar, drum, offbeat percussion, introduce Cales ‘Gun’. Siouxsie belts out verses and choruses to this enjoyable track which tilts between the traditional and experimental, with increasingly off-kilter percussion.
SL: Choppy, charismatic tale of murder and mayhem. The harsh beat and nails scratching down a chalkboard vocals from Siouxsie are well matched.

9. Sea Breezes:
BH: Chilled atmospheric start, with limited guitar and percussion, slowly builds in intensity to Roxy track. The finale spiralling drums probably comes too late. Too drawn out for it’s own good. Not one of my favourites.
SL: Peace and harmony abound at the beginning, echoed by the musicality of this song. But this is Siouxsie and songs are not that simplistic. The middle opens the complex, jarring lessons to be learned.

10. Little Jonny Jewel:
BH: Siouxsie’s husky delivery is so great for (this version of the song), half commanding, half whispering. There are great bits where her vocals play alongside the distorted guitar riff. The track feels trapped until it breaks out into an upbeat mid-section and then a more choral section.
SL: Wow, another marvellous mix of extraordinary rhythms to complement Siouxsie’s vocal range. I really like the time changes and switches in pace and melody with angelic harmonies soaring heavenward.

This is a very good album of cover versions full of great performances by the band and Siouxsie. There are some unusual arrangements which fit the style of the band but also stretch their own and the songs capabilities. What’s really distinctive is that this album has such a range of tracks on it from the electronica of Kraftwerk, to the sternness of Television. From a western by Cale to a Disney Jungle scene. All the songs are very different but like many great cover version albums, the songs become owned by the performer.

I understand that Bowies ‘Pin-ups’ is one of the influences of the album but I think its closer in kin to the later Cash’s ‘American IV – The Man Comes Around’. Cash’s album (not wholly covers) has some versions of Witchita Linesman/Bridge over Troubled Water which you expect to be great as they fit his style. The album also throws some amazing curveballs such as Nine Inch Nails Hurt/Depeche’s Personal Jesus which Cash changes and makes his own. In some limited extent Siouxsie manages to mirror this, with songs being very Banshee at the end of it. We will talk more about the art of the cover version later in the year.

In the meantime, I will leave the last words to Steph “After taking part in this shared review, I felt the need to revisit some of the albums I have now collected over the years. Siouxsie remains one of my favourite artists and I should play these songs more. It was great to see the different ways we heard the same song, whilst still following the short review brief Billy wanted for this post. Hopefully we can do another shared session again, it was great fun. And a great bonus is that now I have a Siouxsie mask!”

For Christmas 2016, Steph went to a masked ball with work. We discussed the idea of making a suitable mask but as usual we ran out of time. So to make up for that disappointment I thought, it made a lot of sense for Steph’s Siouxsie album to be celebrated in this way. I think the mask idea also conveys an idea of theatrics and as such is very Siouxsie, whilst the act of hiding oneself is also a good metaphor for cover versions as well.

After measuring Steph’s head, an image of Siouxsie’s eye make-up is manipulated on the computer to vaguely similar proportions. This was traced onto 3mm white foam board and the eyes coloured in using a black Sharpie. I then proceeded to cut out a stylised mask shape and two holes for eyes. Next came the madness of sequins and the glue gun. Black sequins of two sizes are used for the make up whilst one lot of white sequins covered the background. This was my first use of the glue gun, so ended up covered in glue strands, burnt fingertips and sequins found later glued to clothing. From the same foam board, a stick was made by creating a sweeping line and spiral. This creates a sort of ‘Trust in Me’ snake like handle. This is glued into place on the back of the mask.

Billy & Steph (aged 19 & 20 respectively at time of album release)