The Scream is so thoroughly a product of beloved influence and yet is in no way a mimeograph of any predecessor.
It might all have happened quite differently if not for a certain Chinese restaurant in the Chislehurst district of London. A cadre of skinheads was known to terrorize and berate the workers as they picked up their take-out orders, much to the disgust of fellow customers. One of those onlookers was Susan Janet Ballion a/k/a Siouxsie Sioux, who would later go on to record landmark single “Hong Kong Garden” as a tribute to the people who endured those racist taunts. The song was a sensation, reaching #7 in the UK Singles Chart, remarkably, as a debut non-album single. The populist fervor for Siouxsie and the Banshees was at critical mass: the band was selling out shows (Sid Vicious making an impromptu appearance on drums in an early gig) without the support of a label. Holding out for creative control, the band finally signed with Polydor in the summer of ’78, releasing The Scream that fall.
It was a postmodern moment: inspired by the avant-garde sensibilities of proto-punk artists (think Reed, Pop, Bowie, Ferry & Eno), the Banshees’ own expressionistic output was uniquely disorienting. The first two minutes of the album is a statement of purpose. “Pure” opens with bending, low-end frequencies, joined later by a higher guitar voice that, while mirroring the bass melody, feels foreign and somehow discordant. Siouxsie calls out, her wails echoed, fierce and gloriously grating. Maybe it’s dangerous but she has arrived. Towering sounds emerge from the shadows, and what’s brilliant about not only this song but The Scream as a whole is that it cares as much about the shadows as it does the noise. A scream is powerful because it slices through extant sounds; it’s violent in that it severs the silence.
Producer Steve Lillywhite had a sense of this, and he mixed the album in a way that portrayed its starkness as a consequence of drama rather than an absence of depth. The Scream is anything but bloodless. Lillywhite developed a process of drum recording that isolated the pieces and laid them with echo instead of tracking the kit as one instrument. “Jigsaw Feeling” is layered on a grand scale; Steve Severin’s bass is a quick, steady throb as John McKay’s guitar blinks like a siren. The pace quickens to catch up with Siouxsie and her Man Ray eyes, whose vocals punch clear through. “One day I’m feeling total/ The next I’m split in two/ My eyes are doing somersaults/ Staring at my shoes.” The Banshees are disaffected; they are cinematically pissed.
Themes of dissociation and solipsism are explored and bemoaned – the chilling premise behind Paul Wakefield’s cover art photograph is that “you can’t scream underwater.” The band cited the surrealist works of William S. Burroughs and the dystopic worldview of J.G. Ballard as critical influences on The Scream’s orientation and motifs. “Suburban Relapse” is written as if it’s a short story of Ballard’s, at a time when suburban sprawl was on the rise: “I was washing up the dishes/ Minding my own business/ When my string snapped/ I had a relapse/ A suburban relapse.” Pasting on another homage, this time to American horror, the Banshees modeled some of the guitar work on this song after the violin screeches in Psycho’s famous shower scene.
It didn’t all sound so devastating, even though the lyrics tell you differently. “Mirage” is practically a pop song, with Siouxsie delivering a conventional vocal performance. “My body’s an oasis to drink from as you please” sounds rather temperate, until she follows up with “Your non excuse for human being.” “Carcass” takes the mismatch to the extreme, Siouxsie popping and yipping over an infectious riff. The extended outro is an absurdist’s dance party, with Siouxsie yelping “Carcass!/ You became a carcass” over an otherwise innocent coda replete with handclaps. Closer “Switch” features the Banshees in long form, the song a three part movement running near seven minutes. Instrumentation evolves with the moods; a metronomic guitar line (forecasting something quite similar in the Cure’s “10:15 Saturday Night”), the quickening of a drumbeat, a saxophone rising and falling. Siouxsie vacillates between manic and soothed, as always this tension between chaos and control. But she is ever the choreographer.
The Scream is so thoroughly a product of beloved influence – one does not cover the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” without devotion and risk – and yet is in no way a mimeograph of any predecessor. In retrospect, we know this album came to be hailed by critics and subcultural movers and shakers. Members of the underground royalty – from Morrissey to Thurston Moore to Peter Hook and beyond – embrace it as a formative listening experience. The Scream was a work borne out of the impact that art can make. It seems right that art loves it back.