Siouxsie and The Banshees: Once Upon a Time

Siouxsie and The Banshees - Once Upon a TimeSynopsis: Once Upon a Time is 9-track video featuring a compilation of tracks by Siouxsie and The Banshees, from 1978 to 1981, including Hong Kong Garden, Happy House, Israel and Arabian Knights.

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Siouxsie and The Banshees: Once Upon a Time 7.75

eyelights: Siouxsie Sioux. Arabian Knights. Happy House. Hong Kong Garden. Israel. Spellbound.
eyesores: the cheapness of the videos. the incompleteness of the set. The Staircase (Mystery). Playground Twist.

Siouxsie and The Banshees are a band that were predominantly active from 1976 to 1996, were a post-punk band that blended all sorts of genres into an alternative mixture that became very popular with Goth audiences. They were highly-respected by their contemporaries and have influenced generations of musicians.

To say that Siouxsie and The Banshees were an acquired taste for me would be an accurate statement.

Naturally, I became aware of the band’s existence early on, when I first started exploring the alternative music. They were closely associated with The Cure, whose frontman, Robert Smith, joined them on guitar and keyboards for a couple of tours and an album. So when I discovered The Cure, I immediately heard of Siouxsie and The Banshees. Sadly, Siouxsie weren’t nearly as accessible, so I didn’t hear them until much later.

I think that my very first exposure to them was when I decided to pick up one of their latest albums, ‘Superstition’, after getting a good deal on it. Aside for one or two mildly interesting cuts (very mildly), it didn’t do anything for me. I was disappointed: after all this time, after hearing so much about the legendary Siouxsie and The Banshees, this is all there was to it? I basically decided to forget about them.

But they resurfaced.

When I picked up the ‘Showgirls‘ soundtrack (it’s surprisingly good, I must say), it featured an exclusive Siouxsie and The Banshees track called “New Skin”, which I rather liked. They had even found their way onto the ‘Batman Returns’ soundtrack (not that I had noticed at the time of its release), with “Face to Face”, another yummy ditty. They even popped up in ‘Grosse Pointe Blank‘, an all-time favourite of mine.

I then included a cut from ‘Superstition’ in a three-hour mix I DJ-ed at a local Goth night, and it had grown on me somewhat. I just had to reconsider them, especially since I kept hearing that ‘Supersitition’ wasn’t representative of their body of work. So I decided to start picking up some of their other stuff. The safest way to go about it: their 2002 ‘The Best of’ compilation, which included a bonus disc of remixes.

I was extremely surprised by how much I enjoyed that set. It started in an understated fashion, with their cover of “Dear Prudence” and ended with the blistering “This Wheel’s on Fire”, running through a bevy of their singles along the way – plus a couple of unreleased cuts. It was highly addictive and I played endlessly. This sealed the deal, and I sought out some of their studio albums.

Siouxsie and The Banshees weren’t exactly strangers to compilations, and had released their first one twenty years prior, followed by a second one a decade later. ‘Once Upon a Time’, was released in 1981 and collected all of their then-singles, some of which were non-album tracks. For a long time, this was considered the best way to explore the band, and it had come recommended to me by a friend.

I never picked up the CD, but I did pick the companion VHS tape to ‘Twice Upon a Time’, its follow-up. I always found that bands I don’t know at all are best discovered via their music videos, because it paints a larger picture of them – especially artsy ones like Siouxsie and The Banshees or Björk. Plus which it gives me the opportunity of watching them or just listening to them, depending on my mood.

I had never made the most of this tape, having played it only once or twice, so I was quite eager to watch it again for TCE. But then I recently discovered that the band released a 30-minute videotape for ‘Once Upon a Time’ back in 1981. It was never released on DVD (neither was ‘Twice Upon a Time’ for that matter), and VHS tapes are near-impossible to find anymore, so I had to resort to finding the set online.

The videos are all presented in chronological order, with a similar running order as the original album – but with a few notable differences. For starters, the tracks “Mirage” and “Love in a Void” are not present here – which makes sense as neither were singles. Strangely, in their place, a video for “Red Light” is included. Since this was also not a single, I can’t explain why a video for it was made. Who knows.

In any case, this 1981 collection is as good a primer on the band then as any.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Hong Kong Garden: This was the very single released by Siouxsie and The Banshees. It would not find its way on their debut album, even though it was an instant hit record. Even today it stands out, led by its Asian-sounding xylophone hook. It’s a playful number with a terrific bass drive, but its inspiration was an experience that the band had had with neo-Nazis. Eek. Either way, it’s short, but memorable.

For the monochromatic video, the director superimposed a few shots from band performances. It’s nothing special but it looks cool anyway. In this one, Siouxsie is dynamic, girlish, energetic. Man, I’d watch her anytime. Any band with her as frontwoman would easily draw crowds. The video ends with a shot of a gong. 8.0/7.0

2. The Staircase (Mystery): Another non-album track, this was the band’s second single, another hit (albeit a smaller one). It has a nice bass line, but it’s a bit slow and dark for me. I much prefer Siouxsie and The Banshees’ playful side.

The video starts with a shot of automated figurines dancing together under a glass dome. The rest is a band performance, on a stage. For this one, Siouxsie is dressed in an Asian vest and jeans. It’s totally wicked watching her swing her legs side to side; it’s both amusing and mesmerizing. There are also inserts of an old man falling down some stairs, as well as a close-up of some painted lips. It ends with Siouxsie attacking some piano keys before returning to the toy figurines from the opening shot. 6.0/7.0

3. Playground Twist: This is the band’s third single and the first to be culled from an album (in this case, their second, ‘Join Hands’. Amazingly, their first, ‘The Scream’, had no promotional singles). It’s an interesting number, but it’s not hooky. What drives it are a military drum sound, a sax solo, and some slightly dissonant vocals – a Siouxsie Sioux staple.

For the video, the band is set-up at the center of a structure made up of metal bars, a bit like a jungle gym. Unsurprisingly, there are children playing in them. At first, Siouxsie is up in the bars with the kids, but then she joins the band for their performance, while the kids are wandering about, a bit aimless. The video is marred by poor editing: one shot shows the kids in the background, the next doesn’t. It ends with Siouxsie getting mobbed by the kids. 6.0/6.0

4. Happy House: I love this track. The first single from their third album, ‘Kaleidoscope’, it’s a super catchy number: it’s bouncy, poppy, with a lovely guitar hook, and oohwoohoohs and whistles at the end. Even the vocals are catchy, something we can’t always  expect from Siouxsie. The band would be rewarded for this ditty with their second top 20 hit.

The video is slightly more elaborate than past ones, even if it remains a low-budget one. It takes place in a small makeshift house, with a black and white-checkered floor, a door and a window. Siouxsie is sort of dressed like a harlequin, with black and white diamond shapes all over her. Strangely, she looks much older here. The video alternates between a band performance, in which Siouxsie hops up and down or plays a ukulele, and shots of her hanging about the window or hugging the wall. There’s also a shot of the band singing together under large multi-coloured umbrellas, with streamers floating about. It’s not great, but it’s distinctive. 8.5/7.5

5. Christine: Another hit for the band, this second single from ‘Kaleidoscope’ is an up-tempo number about mental illness, based on the story of Christine Costner-Sizemore. It’s catchy, but it’s not especially interesting musically, aside for the acoustic guitar riff.

The video is also fairly uninteresting. It’s a band performance on a set with blinds behind them, and images of the band or its individual members filling the background. They’re all a bit colourful/flamboyant, especially Siouxsie, who’s dressed like a new wave cowgirl. The video also features weird, cheap effects. Meh. 7.5/6.0

6. Red Light: In what amounts to a bit of a departure, this is a keyboard-based track. It’s slow, groovy, with Siouxsie singing deeply, in a near-sultry fashion. It’s not bad.

The video shows Siouxsie wearing sunglasses superimposed over a shot of herself in silhouette in front of red blinds. There are camera flashes and shots of the band. Yawn. 6.5/4.5

7. Israel: This one was another non-album single and, like the others, for a long time it was only available on ‘Once Upon a Time’. It’s musically engaging, with a pleasant guitar hook, great bass lines and some nice drum action. Siouxsie also provides catchy, anthemic vocals. Very nice. From the bridge onward, there’s a deep male chorus that grows almost hypnotic by the end. It’s an excellent single.

The video consists of concert footage. It’s not especially engaging, with Siouxsie moving around a little bit, but barely. She looks really sexy though: I love her all-black outfit with the tall leather boots. Yum. 8.0/5.5

8. Spellbound: This is another winner by the band. The lead-off single for their fourth album, ‘Juju’, it’s an up-tempo number with quick drums and catchy vocals. It’s a rhythmic track with a punk edge – a standout. In fact, with musicians and critics, this one comes highly-respected for its guitar work.

The video begins with Siouxsie sexying it up, crawling about like a cat (with a shot of a cat superimposed to prevent us thinking anything else). Then she is shown running through woods, after which the whole band does, both in the day and in the night.  This is superimposed over a band performance. Whatever. I could have watched the opening cat sequence for the whole of the song. 8.0/6.5

9. Arabian Knights: The second and final single from ‘Juju’, I’m just blown away that this was merely a minor hit. The track starts with small guitar licks before a heavy bass rhythm kicks in, and then the song really gets going into a bass-driven epic groove. It’s really awesome – a terrific way to end the set.

For the video, the band is outdoors in what looks like a Mediterranean seaside location, wandering about. There are also shots of them play-fighting with swords over inserts of deserts and Arabian palaces. We also have inserts of Siouxsie singing all made up, dressed in gold and purple with a cloth-covered, wide-rimmed hat. The video doesn’t do the song justice, quite frankly. 8.5/6.5

What was astounding about this collection is the diversity of styles that ran through those videos, not just fashion-wise or musically, but also just the types of videos. It’s hard to imagine, watching it, that it only covers a few short years in the band’s career, and only their first four albums. You’d almost think it was a career-spanning set, but the rest of their videos would find themselves on 1992’s nearly hour-long ‘Twice Upon a Time’.

Having developed an appreciation for Siouxsie and The Banshees through the years, I gradually picked up some of their albums. I started with ‘Tinderbox’, a superb album and a great way to get started. It gave me momentum, and I then picked up a few more along the way, as well as their B-sides collection ‘Downside Up’, the Peel Show collection and a live DVD. I look forward to getting them all eventually.

It turns out that, as everyone had said so many years ago, ‘Siouxsie and The Banshees’ are not just a breed apart but a band totally worth discovering. Or re-discovering, as the case may be: Lord knows that I’ve been playing a lot of Siouxsie and The Banshees since watching this collection. And I plan on spinning more in coming days, maybe even try to convert a few friends along the way…

Date of viewing: October 5, 2014

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