‘I’ve always felt on the outside’
If you grew up in the 80s you’ll know Siouxsie Sioux, the distinctive (terrifying even) looking Goth whose music resonated with many a slightly-rebellious teen. She looked like someone you wouldn’t want to screw with, but she had a fascinating fragility too. She was the person we were all too scared to be; the self-called ‘Ice Queen’ of punk.
As Susie Ballion, she grew up in suburban Chislehurst with her parents, brother and sister. Her mother worked as a bilingual secretary; her father was a lab technician. “I think that just because of the kind of family we were, there was definitely a sense of not feeling a part of the community, or of being neighbourly. I was very aware of us being very different. My father had a drink problem, which also sensitised that feeling (he died when she was 14).
… “I was very lonely, actually. The few friends I had were gypsies. When I was eight I tried to commit suicide to get noticed by my parents. I used to do things like fall on the floor upstairs so that they’d think I’d fallen downstairs, and I’d have bottles of pills in my hands. I’ve always felt on the outside, really.”
At 9, Susan and a friend were seriously sexually assaulted. Ignored by her parents, the episode became an unspoken item. “I grew up having no faith in adults as responsible people. And being the youngest in the family I was isolated – I had no-one to confide in. 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”.
“My oldest sister is ten years older than me. When I was six or seven, she went to Art College. Her and her friends were pretty outrageous, they used to take me along. I was allowed to see what little girls shouldn’t see at a very early age, like comprehending words like ‘Homosexual’ and knowing that the friends of hers I liked best, who were most entertaining and funny and who dressed the best, were her homosexual friends.”
The suburbs, she says, “inspired intense hatred. I think the lure of London was always there. I remember my sister taking me to Biba on Kensington High Street; I bought a coat and used to gravitate towards going there on my own later. But the suburbs were also a yardstick for measuring how much we didn’t fit in.”
“My dad … I grew up, and all I knew was that he was an alcoholic. I was so aware of being different from everyone else. But I had a fantastic role model in my mother. She worked [as a bilingual secretary] at a time when mothers didn’t work – she was about the only one I knew who did. So there’s the gene pool you come from, but there’s also the environment you grow up in, and I grew up with all that strong-women thing – thinking men suck and women are strong.”
“…My family felt like the Addams Family, and I grew up desperately wanting to be normal. We stuck out – even our house was different from all the others on the street. It was this modern house, with a hedge in front that was so tall you couldn’t see the house, and the neighbours complained. Even in the register at school, they’d stare at my surname and couldn’t pronounce it. I desperately wanted to change my family. Then, at 16 or 17, I was in hospital with ulcerative colitis, and when I came out of hospital I decided to transform myself.
Siouxsie was part of the “Bromley Contingent”, a small collection of friends and acquaintances from south London (including Steve Severin and Billy Idol). They met at the earliest concerts by the Sex Pistols in the 70s and then, discovering they were all from the same place, began to go out en masse.
In many ways, Siouxsie And The Banshees became the contingent’s ultimate statement about outsiderdom. Siouxsie became well known in the London club scene for her glam, fetish and bondage attire. She would also later epitomise gothic style with her signature cat-eye makeup, deep red lipstick, spiky dyed-black hair and black clothing.
Her own childhood and teenage experiences of music were liberating. “Certainly music was the one big thing that made everything seem OK. It was a cause of happiness within the family, and laughter, and fun. My first love affair with a record was with John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me. It had these amazing, ghostly backing vocals, a great melody, and it was about a dead girlfriend, basically. I was three or four when it came out, in 1961, and I used to have to get somebody to put it on the record player for me.
“As I got older, I loved a lot of the Tamla Motown and a lot of R&B. Then there was the usual Beatles and Stones. I really got into The White Album. Pop music for me was definitely escapist, but never studious. I was never attracted to being a very proficient singer or player. I suppose I was interested in creating a vision; in the same way I was very drawn to tension within cinema. Hitchcock was my other early obsession – Psycho, and its score. So there was the sense of trying to create an atmosphere: how a sound resonates and makes an effect. That has always been very important for me.”
‘I was there [at a sold-out 20 September 1975 Roxy Music show at Wembly Arena] on my own, which wasn’t unusual for me. I was quite independent. I didn’t have people to go to gigs with, so I’d often trek off on my own. I got dressed in a purple-and-green outfit, with a huge fishtail-like bustle, got the bus to the train station, sat on the platform, perched myself in the train carriage and then traipsed across London. The dress must have been used in some vaudeville costume drama, but it seemed quite normal to me. I used to enjoy people staring at me and then me turning my nose up at them.’
It took Siouxsie and the Banshees years to get released, (the (music) industry so hated the idea of “punk,” especially fronted by a woman who had any kind of assertiveness”). The album, The Scream provoked instant, near fanatical acclaim for it’s world view – dark, tense, eerily erotic.
Their music spoke of disturbed childhoods, paranoia and personality disorders – singles such as Happy House, Playground Twist and Christine. “I would definitely say that our early material, for at least the first two albums, was suburbia – where I grew up, and the circumstances.” “Damaged lives, damaged souls, damaged relationships. Most of the damage I sing about first happened when I was younger and I am still feeding off it and working it out.”
“Looking back on those days, nothing can really capture quite how out on a limb the primary people were,” says Siouxsie. “How brave it was, I suppose – without it really seeming brave at the time; more a kind of recklessness. But the term ‘punk’ was so lazy and easy and inaccurate. The Pistols were different because they had Rotten – without him, who knows? And the Clash went at it in a way that was far more traditional – a kind of Keith Richards thing. I wasn’t trying to be masculine and getting down with the boys, so the main difference between us and the rest was that it wasn’t a solely male perspective. I think a certain amount of anger has been a fuel of mine, if you want – but also some sort of sadness, and plain mischief, of course.”
‘The words are of a strange language, derived from experience and observation, chilling vignettes of minor atrocities and gruesome indulgences, of frustration, of unrequited love. From the dark side of life, grinning, perverted, subversive; euphoria and depression, vision and pessimism mysteriously co-exist. The truth in ugliness. Striving to manufacture some semblance of order, of purposefulness, set against the absurdity and pointlessness of life. Their realism is vital, snatches of everyday life exaggerated for effect. No one sings songs like these; there must be room for abrupt confrontation.’ (NME 1978)
“I think the Banshees are about different-ness. Also we offer dignity, we’re not desperate to maintain the momentum of hits, front pages, people pathetically flooding everything with their image. That’s why we refused to play Wembley, it wasn’t dignified. It’s the audience that becomes complacent, not us. But these bimbos who do the solo career, and films… ambition’s become an excuse to be a creep. The most important thing, I think, is to make your own world and atmosphere, times that take you away from the planet, moments writing or singing on a stage or in a studio, you can’t create those moments, they arrive. The most genius we’ve ever created has come through chance and I like that. It’s important too that there’s still doubt, doubts that it’s working.”
On drugs – “I’ve never been interested in heroin. There’s no way I want to resemble a slob. I find smack just – euch!- revolting. I like fun and I like ‘up’. I loved LSD,yes… I’ve always had an amazing time. In fact, it was because somebody tried to scare me and said, ‘You don’t want to take LSD, it’ll make you freaky, it’ll drive you mad,’that I went, ‘Sounds good!’ I have a theory that the people who have a bad time are the people that lie to themselves so they end up looking in the mirror and going, ‘Aargh!’You can’t hide with LSD. It’s a truth drug.”
“The make up is armour. It’s tribal, primal. It’s still war paint.”
“…That look came from having no money and enjoying dressing up. It was just a fun thing. It was never `my image’. Also, it was a reaction to when I was growing up, and women were supposed to be all blonde hair, gold suntan and pink lips. It was a real black-and-white opposite of what was considered attractive. I was kicking against something I found really oppressive.”
“…Well I always liked dark haired ladies. I always thought of a beauty or goddess as someone like Carolyn Jones rather than a Jane Fonda. The twenties appealed to me very much, old photos, Man Ray especially, that very… I like the black eyes !! (laughs). When I was fifteen or sixteen, I used to go out of my way to have very attractive hairstyles, very short, geometrically very ugly, cropped and very frightening to the opposite sex… I think I always knew that the way I wanted to live, yes, that was completely as a fascist. I mean, I call myself a fascist personally, I like everything my own way. A very popular thing to say at the moment, I’m sure. Not politically, but I won’t tolerate people around me if they don’t agree with me (laughs).”
“… In a way I’m looking forward to growing old. The older I get the more I hate young people, no really I do. It’s a challenge to grow old and do it well, like Margaret Rutherford or Mae West, I admire that humour and dignity. I’ve never felt really young actually (giggles) so I think I’m catching up with myself. I can be completely infantile.”
Siouxsie And The Banshees occupied an unusual position, somewhere between “cult band” and “iconic” until they disbanded in 1996. Siouxsie who’d married band drummer, Budgie, in 1991, moved to France with her husband, working together as the Creatures (they divorced in 2007). She has subsequently produced six solo albums.
“The music press tried very hard to make us unfashionable in the 90s, certainly in England. For me, timelessness is what counts; sometimes you can only really tell after a long time how timeless something will be. With the Banshees, we had a way of just allowing our music to happen. There was a lot of space; it wasn’t cluttered, and was hardly embellished. It evoked isolation, but in quite a euphoric way. At a signing the other day, someone asked me how it felt to be the queen of goth. I said, ‘That’s rather like being known as the Prince Regent of Fools.’ I hate all that. There is a fun, flippant side to me, of course. But I would much rather be known as the Ice Queen.”
On aging, “It’s totally sexist. Nobody comments when Sting hits 40.”
“I loved the first Hole album, but I really can’t understand what she’s (Courtney Hole) done to herself now. All that cosmetic surgery and restyling, just to end up looking like Goldie Hawn. I don’t get it.”
“What I really resent about people sticking labels on you is that it cuts off the other elements of what you are, because it can only deal with black and white: the cartoon.”
…”DIY. That’s the key for me. DIY. Do it yourself, with as little interference as possible.”
People doing their own thing—that’s punk.”
In 2011, she was awarded for Outstanding Contribution to Music at the Q Awards and in 2012, the Inspiration Award at the Ivor Novello Awards.
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