“I think I fucked Dave Navarro but I thought it was Siouxsie Sioux.”
“I think I fucked Dave Navarro but I thought it was Siouxsie Sioux. Or maybe vice versa,” remembers Gibby Haynes. The Butthole Surfers frontman is reminiscing here about Lollapalooza ’91, the first year for Perry Farrell’s music festival that included some of the scene’s biggest names: Nine Inch Nails, Fishbone and Rollins Band among them. Siouxsie and the Banshees was the second headliner (Siouxsie as “a monarch, whether intentional or not,” according to Living Colour’s Vernon Reid), participating as a nod to the past as well as promotion of the present. The Banshees had helped develop the punk scene over two decades and crossed over into the ‘90s with Superstition, an album that solidified the band’s mainstream popularity as the underground began to rise up and take over.
“Kiss Them for Me” vaulted the band from cult icons to legit superstars – and to echo Reid’s disclaimer again, “intentional or not.” Superstition’s lead single, the song was a brilliant juxtaposition of glamor and dissociation. Siouxsie eulogizes Old Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield: “It’s divoon, oh it’s serene/ In the fountains pink champagne/ Someone carving their devotion/ In the heart-shaped pool of fame.” She glitters on, despite cruel fate. Celebrity obsession was a bit of a fetish for the Banshees – the title of A Kiss in the Dreamhouse was inspired by the practice of Hollywood prostitutes in the ‘40s to resemble movie stars through cosmetic surgery – but the musical expression of “Kiss Them for Me” marks a departure even for this famously experimental band. The chattering beat that ripples underneath the song is a preprogrammed drum machine sample that oldhead Philly rapper Schoolly D used in his 1985 groundbreaker “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” Add to that layers of tablas and spoken word courtesy of instrumentalist Talvin Singh and a cello break approximating an exotic Indian raga – the confluence is sensuous; demure yet danceable.
Producer Stephen Hague deserves the credit (and blame, depending on the audience) for this shift towards accessibility. He’d collaborated on several projects with the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and his work with the Banshees typifies his synthesized approach. But Budgie resented the intrusion in his percussion work, and Siouxsie ultimately came down against the computerization of their sound. “Silly Thing” exemplifies the misfire: guitar shredding streaks through the song like miniature meteor trails, the keyboard riff sounds like Erasure through-the-looking-glass (another of Hague’s clients). Where “Kiss Them for Me” proves how dynamic this modernization effort could be, other tracks (“Cry,” “Silver Waterfalls”) feel staged.
Siouxsie, as ever, gives cinematic vocal performances. Superstition reveals her softest side yet. Melodies relax out of her with the same fullness as the waves in her loose hair. “Little Sister” is a starry dirge, the heft of Sioux’s voice effortlessly dovetailing into a protective coo. The misty instrumentation in “Drifter” – long cello strokes that imitate foghorns, tapped chimes, Budgies’ subliminal rumbles – is the perfect complement to Siouxsie’s operatic and evocative performance. “Softly” is heavenly, immersive, beautifully quiet. Despite her velveteen appearances, the edge hadn’t left her; “Fear (of the Unknown)” is chopped and prickly, her voice more percussion than melody. Another club-ready single, Hague loads the mix with metal guitar, pounding beats and siren licks.
The release of Superstition and the band’s appearance in the inaugural Lollapalooza line-up seemed to be a capitalization (“intentional or not”) on the emergence of the alternative music scene at the time: “the future is now” sort of zeitgeist that initiated a quick progression from novelty to commodification to oversaturation. It is notable that the Banshees were vocally resistant to technology and touring, and retreated from both as they turned the page. For those who see Superstition as a traitorous entry in the Banshees catalog, remember that “Kiss Them for Me” was the last video to play on the final episode of “120 Minutes.” What may have been a memorial for an era is surely not the obituary of the band.