Still having a bawl

Thirty years after punk rocked the western world, Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees looks back.

"They were used to dealing with Santana. They didn't understand anything newer." Siousxsie Sioux remembers the old days of BBC TV.
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Punk is perhaps the only genre of popular music where the actual music takes a back seat to other forces that were unleashed by the scene. Although bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones were great singles groups, few non-partisan observers would claim a large amount of classic albums came out of the period and the musical chops of characters such as Sid Vicious and bands such as The Slits have been well documented as somewhat lacking.

Instead, the lasting legacy of that period (in addition to ropey fashion statements such as Mohicans, safety pins and tartan bondage trousers) was a new blueprint for the independent production of music and an explosion in the number of people realising musical ability was not the be all and end all in forming a modern group. The full impact of this aftershock is still being felt thanks to modern indie groups such as Bloc Party, neo-punk acts including Gallows and even dance outfits such as Glass Candy or LCD Soundsystem.

But such was the explosiveness of this year zero - what the writer Jon Savage referred to as the "hand grenade in the gladioli" - that the after effects were being felt in London and New York before most other cities had even heard of punk. This was certainly the case for the teenaged Susan Ballion. Growing up in a small London satellite town in Kent she nearly died of a rare stomach disorder, not long after her father - a scientist who milked poisonous snakes of their venom to produce serum - succumbed to an alcoholic's death. But into this abnormally chaotic teenage existence came the Sex Pistols. Along with her friend (and future collaborator in her group The Banshees) Steve Severin, Ballion became part of a ragtag bunch of art students and punk rockers, known on the scene as the "Bromley contingent". Within months of the group's genesis Siouxsie Sioux (as Ballion rechristened herself) had shot to notoriety after appearing on Bill Grundy's Today show on British evening television as a member of the Sex Pistols' entourage. After attracting some lusty comments from the show's presenter, the band responded with an expletive-ridden diatribe which helped rocket them to fame and simultaneously end Grundy's career.

Sioux (who is now 52 but could pass for the daughter of the Sex Pistols' frontman, John Lydon, or the Clash guitarist, Mick Jones) laughs remembering the incident but says that it was necessary for the punks to have a mainstream to rail against. "I suppose with anything that shatters an illusion you need the status quo and the people who control it to be shocked," she says. "And the music in 1976 was in such stark contrast to the status quo; it was something breaking away from the more strait-laced, the more conformist side of the media. But now, it's all so bland. I was walking down the street the other day and nothing shocked me. There was some kid with a Phil Oakey haircut and it seems like everyone wants to adopt something from the past because once it was shocking. Now it's just so diluted because there's nothing being generated that's new; it's just recycled."

The young Sioux was far too bright just to remain a fan or a hanger-on, though. Within months of attending her first Pistols gig she had formed the Banshees when Malcolm McLaren offered her a spot at a gig held in London's legendary 100 Club with The Clash and the Pistols. The band (featuring Severin on bass, Marco Pirroni on guitar and John Ritchie, aka Sid Vicious, on drums) managed a ramshackle, 20-minute version of The Lord's Prayer and Sioux readily admits they were more than a bit rough around the edges when they started.

"It was totally unrehearsed. It's a well known cliché that more people claim to have been there than actually could have fitted into the venue. We did turn up to the Clash's studio and they let us use their equipment but it was basically to see how things plugged in and what way up you held a guitar. Seriously. Marco was the only musician in the first incarnation of the Banshees. The rest of us were just let loose."

When Pirroni departed to become the chief songwriter in Adam and the Ants and Vicious joined the Pistols, the line-up settled around Sioux/Severin and John McKay on guitar and Kenny Morris on drums. An early supporter was the Radio 1 DJ John Peel. Sioux notes that seen from the vantage point of 2009, the sessions that the band recorded for Peel's radio show belong to another time: "It felt like you were entering a world that was hidden away and not bothered, you had this impression that there were mad scientists getting on with things undisturbed and forgotten about by the powers that be. In that respect they were kind of like the Radiophonic sound effects department, where Delia Derbyshire worked. They were just left to get on with it. It was pretty much deserted when you went in to do the sessions. Everyone disappeared on the dot at 5.00pm. You'd end up wandering around all the corridors that were empty. It was a warren of empty corridors full of anonymous doors. It was due to a session that we did that included Hong Kong Garden that we got signed. An A&R man at Polydor heard it and picked us up for the label."

Another aspect of punk that helped keep the group going was its work ethic. She expands: "We played a lot live and looking back, although it drove us insane, we were always thinking, 'Why haven't we been signed when everyone and their brother has been signed?' but that in turn gave us room to grow." And before long Sioux was almost a household fixture, thanks to numerous appearances on Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test to her name. She laughs when remembering one suitably gothic appearance on Top of the Pops in front of a young audience more used to contemporary bands such as Brotherhood of Man or ABBA.

"Oh I remember this! I had a pocket full of confetti and I would fling it about," she says. "Some people in the scene didn't want to compromise and go on Top of the Pops but we thought it was essential to engage with the establishment. There was obviously a lot of rubbish on it but it is these moments that you remember. You would remember seeing Bowie on Top of the Pops. You would remember seeing Roxy Music."

Things were more fraught on the programmes run by "the fuddy-duddies" as she calls them, such as The Old Grey Whistle Test. Sioux says: "Radio 1's Annie Nightingale was really into us so she got us on to the programme but they were only used to dealing with Santana or whatever. They didn't really understand anything newer. We used to get really angry with the cameramen trying to focus on the guitarists fretboards so people could see what chords they were playing. Argh! Get off! For them I think it was a case of 'Thank goodness that's over. Now back to Jeff Beck'!"

Happily things are a lot different these days. A rock idol to many and inspirational figure to singer-songwriters such as PJ Harvey and rock bands such as The Gossip, Sioux not only has numerous albums with both the Banshees and The Creature, she has also recently released her first solo album Manta Ray. "Why did it take so long?" she says. "I don't know. Maybe it was that for so long I was part of a band and I was always being asked to consider doing a solo album, but that I wasn't interested then because it would have been too obvious. What was great about playing these new songs live was combining them with some of the old material, which worked really well. Even though they're miles apart there's some kind of connection there. At a recent gig in London we did songs like Hong Kong Garden as it was its 30th anniversary. It was strange to say happy 30th birthday to that song!"