Back in suburban London in the early years, little Susan Ballion gave no indication she would grow up to co-create a subculture called Goth, or front a post punk band named Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees that would have an enduring influence on rock music and fashion.
But events in little Susan’s life led her into dark corners of human behavior, causing her to grow up too wounded and too soon. She couldn’t bring her friends home because her father didn’t work and spent the day drinking in the house. Alcoholism has a way of socially isolating the family containing the alcoholic, and this was true with Susan’s family too. Susan’s brother and sister were ten years older than she was, adding to her isolation. At age nine she was sexually assaulted.
According to Susan, her parents chose to ignore the episode. At age fourteen Susan’s father died from cirrhosis of the liver. Susan felt betrayed and abandoned. Looking back on those painful years, she would say:
"The suburbs inspired intense hatred…I grew up having no faith in adults as responsible people. So I invented my own world, my own reality. It was my own way of defending myself - protecting myself from the outside world. The only way I could deal with how to survive was to get some strong armour."
In 1976 Susan left high school and began hanging out in clubs. She became enamored of a new punk rock group called the Sex Pistols. The Pistols were good at getting themselves noticed, and Susan was too. She wore black clothes with bondage and fetish accessories. Her spiked hair was dyed black. Once she wore a swastika on a black armband and got beat up. Susan was not being anti-semitic, she was trying to shock the bourgeoisie. She succeeded.
To really make a statement, however, Susan would need to form her own band. But the few people she knew did not know how to make music. At an open mike her friends improvised while Susan recited poems. She named her group Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees. They were immediately linked with the notorious Sex Pistols in the media, but by the late 1970’s English club music had moved to post punk and to goth, and Siouxsie was at the front of both movements.
Siouxsie's band and Joy Division were the first Goth groups. They were loved by critics for their high camp, melodrama, and theatrical style, and hailed as “masters of Gothic gloom.” Siouxsie did not self-title her group “goth”. The label was applied to her for her music and her fashion, particularly her famous cat eye make-up. She had the stage presence and charisma to carry the whole look off. “Goth rock” became a sub-genre of post punk music in England, and spread to Europe and America.
Other bands in the gothic rock stable were The Cure, The Damned, Adam and the Ants, 45 Grave, Play Dead, and Southern Death Cult, to name a few. Siouxsie was a trend setter who followed her own lights. Her on stage presence was remarkable. Critic Jon Savage described Siouxsie as "unlike any female singer before or since, commanding yet aloof, entirely modern."
"Siouxsie just appeared fully made, fully in control, utterly confident. It totally blew me away. There she was doing something that I dared to dream but she took it and did it and it wiped the rest of the festival for me, that was it. I can't even remember everything else about it except that one performance."
People began showing up at Banshees’ concerts in “goth clothing”: all black clothes, bondage and fetish accessories, body piercings, dark red or black lipstick, arrays of Christian crosses, wiccan pentacles, satanic inverted pentacles, and a multitude of other accessories designed to shock and disturb.
The goth subculture of the 1980’s consisted of young intelligent people who didn’t fit in (or felt they didn’t fit in) with normal society. Many of them were absorbed by medieval, Victorian and Edwardian history, and by the writings of Dante, Byron, and Tolstoy. There was a preoccupation with death and blood, and all things Dracula. They tended to appear depressed and gloomy and communicate in tones angsty and morbid.
Although the goth subculture was stereotyped immediately, the human diversity within goth subculture resulted in numerous sub-sub cultures, and a seemingly endless varieties of ways to be goth. Siouxsie’s look inspired many to come out as goth in dress and world view. Yet Siouxsie never intended to start a goth subculture, and she ended up becoming exasperated with it. “We're sick and tired of this one dimensional idea of what we are. I don't need to say all the d's and g's, you know: dark, gloomy, grey."
The Banshees proved a durable group. They made eleven records and toured for twenty years. Every album was critically acclaimed and influential musically – a remarkable consistency. Singles included “Happy House,” “Arabian Nights,” “Spellbound,” "Peek-A-Boo," "Cities in Dust," "The Killing Jar," and “Hong Kong Garden.” The Banshees biggest hit was 1991's “Kiss Them For Me,” an infectious pop song with cryptic, fascinating lyrics.
“Kiss Them For Me” was a movie starring 1950’s sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, a blonde Playboy pinup who rivaled Marilyn Monroe for sex appeal. Mansfield's career had peaked by the time she was killed in a gruesome car accident in 1967. Her daughter Mariska was in the car but because of her small size received only minor injuries. Mariska (Hartigay) currently stars in the long running series Law and Order SVU.
Siouxsie’s song was an unlikely ode to Jayne Mansfield's life and death, referencing her heart shaped swimming pool and using Mansfield’s own word, “divoon” in the lyrics. It was the last major hit the Banshees had. The band announced its retirement in 1996. Artists as diverse as U2, Morrissey, Depeche Mode, Jane’s Addiction, and Sonic Youth all site Siouxsie and the Banshees as major influences to their music.
Today young goth wannabees can go online and check out Siouxsie’s fashion sense back in the day, or as recently as 2013, when Siouxsie appeared at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown concert at The Royal Albert Hall.
It was Siouxsie’s first public performance in seven years, and her first live gig since her divorce from Banshees drummer Budgie (they had been together 20 years). Siouxsie was a little rusty but the adoring fans who rushed the stage to cheer and snap pictures didn’t mind. After a couple of warm up numbers Siouxsie hit her Imperious Diva mode, kicking and thrusting her arms, in total command of herself and the audience.
Towards the end of the crowd pleasing set Siouxsie went down tempo to sing a song about her breakup with Budgie: “What am I gonna do? How do I face the truth? Loveless, loveless…” It was a rare, touching display of vulnerability. On this night Siouxsie got lots of love from fans old and new. Stay tuned: we may not have heard the last from Siouxsie Sioux...
Siouxsie Sioux. (2014). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 10:25, May 12, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/siouxsie-sioux-17178808.
Paytress, Mark. Siouxsie & the Banshees: The Authorised Biography. Sanctuary, 2003.
Johns, Brian. Entranced : the Siouxsie and the Banshees story. Omnibus Press, 1989.
Rolling Stone, June 15, 1995, Siouxsie and the Banshees, New York, Roseland, April 28, 1995, by Bill Van Parys.