The Guardian Weekend, January 14, 1995

the masque

As zombies are doomed to haunt a graveyard, so London's late-Seventies demi-mode will never be allowed to rest in peace. Poor little greenies. Observe the Street-Style exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum where a definitive display of hybrid costume has taken itsplace among the reliquaries and Byzantine caskets. Observe dummies dressed in the outfits of coffee-bar cowboys and surfers, rude boys and fly girls, indie kids and modernists. And do not forget to remember Swinging London. This is a three dimensional photograph album in which, unless you are 11, you are doomed to spy an aspect of your former self, see how you were, re-experience past rejections, eating disorders, drugs and skin diseases. Surprisingly, no spectator seems to be blushing; they seem to be art students illustrating sketch books for their personal posterity.

Glam is in the second room: past the red feather boa and platforms; past lurex trousers by FB One to a sign saying, "the punk legacy cannot be exaggerated". Here string vests and army boots and clothes by Seditionaries and there the Kammgarn suit worn by Sid Vicious outside Marylebone Matgistrates Court-- Trevira and wool with a silver lame thread. "Imposing," said his mum. Around the old suit of dead Sid there is a customized leather jacket lent by Spit Edbanga and the Zandra Rhodes "punk couture" safety pin dress that, at the time, was more upsetting than the suicide of Ian Curtis because it meant that no matter how much you terrorised grown-ups, they still dared to escape from their ghetto.

Underneath, there is a neat row of T-shirts by Modzart. These "influential designs by John and Molly Dove" show Beatles 1975, Anarchy In The UK 1977, and in the middle, face, eyes and lips, Siouxsie Sioux 1980.

She is 37 now. She does not think of herself as an icon partly because she is not that conceited and partly because it would imply petrification. An icon is the moustache and beret of a meaningless revolutionary. An icon tends to be dead. And she has an album out this month. Her 14th to be exact. She is proud of it, and rightly, for The Rapture is a good work with sophisticated songs, a melancholy atmosphere and unpretentious orchestration. It was produced by John Cale who produced Patti Smith's Horses and had toured with Nico during her final narcolepsy. No, says Siouxsie, she doesn't feel old. Well, sometimes. But then, when she was 18, she sometimes felt as though she was 150.

Mr. Ballion was a drunk. He drank Newcastle Brown Ale out of bottles, then whisky chasers, and a lot of them. They are very unhelpful, drunks. Not at all what you would describe should anyone have ever asked you what you wanted in a father. They perpetuate fear, and leave scars, and cultivate an anger that never really goes away. They usually die, but this is of little help to those they leave behind. Indeed, those around them sometimes wished he would die. She hated him. Once she tried to poison him by putting salt and pepper in his drink, and as he drank it, his Adam's apple bobbing like a fairground attraction, she thought all the time, Oh my God I've done it, I've done it.

He was verbally aggressive rather than violent, although her sister, 10 years older, told horror stories of knives and pokers, smashed plate-glass windows. Blood. Her sister still hates him. But Susan knew that when he was sober he was lucid, funny and intelligent, that he liked books; Kipling for her, Sartre for himself. But she also remembers the trivial things that take on burdensome importance - the dolls' push-chair that was smashed when he fell over it sticks in her mind. She still pushed it but it never really worked, the wheels were buckled.

When school friends asked, "What does your father do?" she couldn't really say that he sat at home drinking, so she used to make things up. She never asked them home for fear of finding him in a stupor, or ranting, or in the middle of a gaggle of reeking public-bar cronies. He was a Pisces and now she always associates drinking with Pisces; his eyes would turn into fish eyes.

A violent streak ran in the family; neither her father nor her mother, Elizabeth, Betty, possessed any front teeth because her father's brother, Johnny, had gone berserk one night and smashed them both in the face. The Ballions had met in the Belgian Congo, she speaking French, he milking serum from poisonous snakes as part of his work as a laboratory technician. Her husband's drinking, or "disease" as it is sometimes also called, meant Betty had to work full-time as a bilingual secretary. She never talked about "it" and he was an "it" as far as the family were concerned.

Younger than the others, Susan was left to keep her own counsel, and look after herself as best as she was able. The garden at their home north of Petts Wood grew into a jungle - high hedges, a crisis of roses - until the neighbours ganged up and complained. The Ballions must prune their hedges, they insisted.

Order was required but order, in fact, hardly existed, for demons and "pervery" were all around. The sight of a man exposing himself was common up and down those Chislehurst streets; it was rare _not_ to see a flasher at Bickley station. There was one, in particular, Rolf Harris they called him, who rode his bicycle with his penis resting on the crossbar. Events took a more offensive turn, however when, at the age of nine, Susan was sexually assaulted by a man at the sweet shop. "I was too young to realise that I had been attacked - but my friend's father called the police." It wasn't until much later that she found out how common it was. In 1986 she wrote a song about it, Candyman. Yes, she says now, they were knee deep in wankers.

At school she didn't like boys so much. In games of Kiss and Chase other girls would allow themselves to be caught and kissed; if any unfortunate caught up with Susan she rammed grass in his mouth. Later, in clubs, if men goosed her she swivelled around and punched them.

Alcohol finally delivered Mr. Ballion to his Maker and when it did Susan, at 14, felt guilty because her wish had come true. They laid the body out and her mother finally cut the hedge.

What did she inherit from him? A love of books and a hatred of the medical profession. A bunch of quacks he called them. She agrees. But Mr. Ballion put her off marriage and the idea of a family; and, of course, excessive drinking, in herself and in others, always unnerved her. Later, on the road and in the pop business, whe thought that heroin addicts were the same as drunks - slumped, hopeless and boring.

Her sister was at art college and sometimes took her to the end-of-term shows - her sister knew arty men - men whose flamboyance and homosexuality attracted Susan because there was no threat. She was conscious of this. Conscious of being comfortable around men for the first time. "I thought, this is so brilliant. Nobody is hitting on me and you don't see men fighting and drinking too much and it all going wrong."

She took to dyeing her hair, inspired by the glam, but more extreme. Crazy colour. Black. Blonde. Eyes painted like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. She liked Nico and Patti Smith and Catwoman. All her heroes were heroines. And so, somewhere between doing the Strand and hearing Patti Smith's Horses album for the first time, Susan became Siouxsie.

"I wanted to be important," she remembers. "To mean something." She went on the bus in a see-through shirt, demanded a half fare and got one. She walked into Pips wine bar in Bromley leading her friend Berlin on a dog collar. ("We were," he recalled later, "up camp tree.") At one party, in Bromley, where sulphate was snorted off a turntable, she is remembered as sporting a plastic apron, a leather whip, and very little else.

Her mother was slightly worried. "Take a pully," she would say as her daughter, mind on the Velvets, style deranged by Cabaret, left the house in fishnets and stilletos and crystal clear plastic. "Take a pully. It might get cold." Later, her mother was proud of Siouxsie's success and, to Siouxsie's irritation, would invite the fans into the house for tea.

She thought she might be a model but she was too weird. She thought she might be a secretary but she ended up working in clubs. And everything about her said don't fuck with me because she looked tough and she took it further than everyone else. Siouxsie had a score to settle.

Then, on December 9, 1975, having debuted at St. Martin's Art School, the Sex Pistols played at Ravensbourne Art College in Bromley. Simon Barker saw them and told his friend Steve Bailey that they were good, like the Stooges. Word spread, from Steve to Billy Idol to Sue Catwoman to Siouxsie, who were like-minded anyway, united by daring accoutrements and inclination toward gay clubs. They started to go to the gigs, looking fabulous, men in enough makeup to frighten the neighbours, women with blue hair and a demeanour that looked as if the pill was about to wear off. As a fashion phalanx they became known as the Bromley Contingent, and were as important, in their own way, as the Sex Pistols. Certainly they moved the style and attitude forward. Old couldn't believe it; young wanted it.

The following year The Bromley Contingent followed the Pistols to France and Siouxsie was punched by an Arab. She was wearing a topless bra, black vinyl stockings and a black armband with a swastika on it. She liked Salon Kitty and disliked those who banged on about being in the war; the swastika was joke camp not death camp and she did not, then, appreciate the panorama of implications. "The Nazis were not only anti-Semitic but anti-anyone different, anti-anyone like me." The regalia backfired. The National Front started to pay attention and she was horrified.

Film maker John Maybury, who became a friend of Siouxsie's, remembers seeing her wear a swastika at a Pistols concert in London and thinking it was "fantastic". It should be remembered, he thinks, that the original punks were, "naff art students having a laugh. The swastika subsequently melded with the hindsight of political rectitude, but then, "it was fun being obnoxious".

Steve Bailey became Steve Severin (in deference to Masoch's assistant in his book Venus in Furs and the Velvet Underground song of the same name). He and Sioux planned a band with Billy Idol who deserted to join Chelsea and then Generation X. At the suggestion of Malcolm McLaren, Sid Vicious was elected to play drums. Siouxsie and the BAnshees played for the first time at the two-day Punk Festival at London's 100 Club on September 20, 1976. A wall of noise illuminated the fact that no one could play. Indeed, Severin had once refused to attend Dulwich College because music lessons were mandatory. Siouxsie said the Lord's Prayer. The melange lasted 20 minutes. They walked off, bored. The Clash followed them on. She did not envisage doing it for a living. "She is nothing if not magnificent," Caroline Coon wrote at one time. "Her short hair, which she sweeps in great waves over her head, is streaked with red like flames. She'll wear black plastic non-existent bras, one mesh and one rubber stocking and suspender belts all covered by a polka dotted transparent plastic mac." Another observer said that the set was "unbearable."

The next night a beer glass was thrown, a girl's face was cut, and Sid Vicious, then 20, was arrested. He found himself in the Ashford Remand Centre where, for distraction, he read a book about Charles Manson that had been given to him by Vivienne Westwood.

In December, Siouxsie accidentally earned an inmutable position in the history of pop culture by appearing on the television show that launched the Sex Pistol's carreer. Like poisonous berries, The Bromley Contingent were peculiar in taste and unusual in hue; they always added colour, so they were asked to accompany the Pistols on the Today show. Siouxsie, with platinum blonde hair and Droog eyes, presented a more interesting vista than Pistol Glen Matlock. Presenter Bill Grundy asked her out; Steve Jones called him a dirty fucker. It was a live broadcast. The world would never be quite the same again.

"When we went down to the Green Room," Malcolm McLaren told author and pop critic Jon Savage, "there was Steve and Siouxsie getting hold of all the ringing phones and saying, 'This is Thames, get of the fucking phone you stupid old prat.' The EMI chauffeur came whizzing through the revolving doors and said, "Come on boys I've got to get you out of this straight away. There's going to be a storm.'"

"From that day on," said Steve Jones, "it was different. Before then it was just the music - the next day it was the media."

Outrage, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Wild women attract publicity but are rarely offered any sensible business proposition because men still fear voodoo hoodoo and hex. They are scared to make eye contact, pray that the provocateur won't sit too close, hope that if they ignore her she night find her own way back to the ward. Weird witches are still seen as casting curses. Blame the crop failure in Courtney Love.

Jayne County will be remembered for the very wonderful If You Don't Want To Fuck Me Baby (Fuck Off) released in 1977, but she was, in the end, a bloke. Poly Styrene skipped out to play for a while and was banned by the BBC, but it is no coincidence that the Slits and Siouxsie, both aggressive, both early originators, took nearly two years to land a record deal. The Banshees were acclaimed as a great live band with enough songs to earn them consideration, but a contract eluded them. Someone with a paint can sprayed "Sign Siouxsie Now" on several record company buildings. It didn't help. Nor did Siouxsie's habit of insulting A & R men from behind her mike. They were turned down by Anchor, EMI, RCA, Chrysalis, CBS and Decca until June 1978 when Polydor, who signed The Jam, came forward. They gave them a three album deal with full creative control - a contractual obligation that underpinned their subsequent longevity and aided survival when all around exploded like mines in a field. Hong Kong Garden, released in August, went to number 3; the album The Scream to number 12.

In February 1979 Sid Vicious died of an overdose. A note to his mum said that he wanted to be buried in his leather jacket and next to his girlfriend Nancy Spungen who had bled to death in the Chelsea Hotel after he stabbed her in the stomach. As his exit came to symbolise the end of pop's psychotic episode, Siouxsie and the Banshees prepared for a British tour.

The relationship between Severin and Siouxsie was cemented when the guitarist and drummer, as Severin succinctly puts it, "ran away".

John McKay and Kenny Morris left their tour passes on their pillows and hopped on a train from Aberdeen. The show opened with The Scars followed by The Cure. The Cure continued to play and the Banshees failed to materialise. Then Siouxsie appeared on stage. "Two art college students have fucked off out of it...If you ever see them you have my blessing to beat the shit out of them."

Robert Smith (of The Cure) temporarily helped out as guitarist; Budgie (formerly of the Slits) was employed to play drums. Budgie is a strange little person, not least because of his equanimity around disorderly sisters; a man who can survive the Slits can presumably survive anything. Like the parakeet after which he is named, he is small and colourful and appears easy to please. "I got the nickname when I was sharing a flat with Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford in Liverpool. Some guy was tormenting a budgie in a cafe and I went to its defense. Other guys had racing pigeons but I used to breed budgerigars - I had a great one called Bobby - as a kid I was called the Bird Man of Morley Street."

He had intended to study fine art and took a course at Liverpool Polytechnic. His father, a joiner, sometimes asked him if he was ever going to get a proper job. Budgie loves the band - sees it as show-business rather than pop music. He still enjoys walking into an empty theatre before a soundcheck. He likes rootlessness and the unexpected; touring makes him remember when the fair used to roll into town - strange and different and slightly dangerous.

Two years ago he and Siouxsie were married, although she says that, to some extent, she is also married to Severin. Budgie kind of stole her from Severin, but they all got over it. They live in France near Toulouse. They have a garden, and cats, and books. They might have children, now that she has recovered, a little, from her own past.

The early Banshees albums, eerie, echoey, urban and accessible, appealed to a thanatoid sub-sect of punk that looked like Morticia Addams in a frightwig. Unhappy Darling? Perfectly. These, the pallid and purple, liked the Sisters of Mercy, Aleister Crowley and frightening films about the undead. In 1981 they collected in the Batcave in Soho where Siouxsie songs - Mirage, Love In A Void, Christine - wove in with those by Bauhaus and The Specimen. Thus Siouxsie was reincarnated into Goth Goddess and so her career survived.

Billy Chainsaw, her personal assistant, affirmed this cross-pollination by frequenting the Batcave and, at one point, throwing a wedding ceremony in which his bride wore black, the cake was popularly believed to have been cut with a chainsaw, and Billy, also in black, was unable to wear a hat because "my hair was too big".

Chainsaw, who left shift work in a factory in Birmingham to work for Siouxsie in 1979, now also edits a magazine, Purr. Created by and appealing to the people that ebb and flow in his world, it is a confident mixture of illustration and underground writing and a reminder that this sub-culture has sprouted long roots. Purr's second issue featured an exclusive story by Hubert Selby Jr; its third the last story written by Robin Cook. A booklet illustrated by Edward Gorey is to come.

Siouxsie had gone off punk anyway when they gave it a name. She knew that once it had been recognised it would be limited in how it was perceived; the point would be missed because its strength lay in the broadness of sweep that was an attitude and a spirit. You are qualified, she still thinks, because you are good at something, not because you possess something that tells somebody else that you are good at something. She has long distrusted the judgement of others and the diktats of definition.

When she was small she could never understand why, because she was a girl, certain duties were assigned to her; now she faces "the misconception that being a female commodity stops at the age of 25". This she must dismiss, just as she knows she must wear what she likes. What is mutton dressed as lamb anyway and who cares? "I haven't reached the stage when I think, ooh, I better tone it down. I like people who can handle their age, take it and throw it back, like fuck you."

She has little time for people who think they know her because of what they have read and little affection for a music industry where "success" has become tawdry and ephemeral and sales are so rarely related to quality or content. She is caught up in a conundrum - she knows that creativity is often enhanced by limitation but resents the fact that Polydor will not spend more money on promotion - money that could be spent, among other things, on making touring more enjoyable. "It is to do with what people are told," she says. "We have never hired a shit-hot marketing team. I don't want to be a product."

But a product, in some ways, she is - a trademark even. The Banshees are seen to sell a predictable number of albums much as an author tends to sell the same number of novels, and, depending on who else is touring that year, they say they can be pretty sure to fill a 6,000 capacity hall in London, 3,000 in Europe and up to 15,000 in America. Thus, certain financial forecasts can be made by a record company unwilling to take risks. No, thank you very much, the Banshees will not be on a punk compilation with Sham 69 or any other band with whom they have never been associated. Nor do they wish to send out the same songs in a different package. "I want to be out there in the marketplace but I'm not doing it that way; that cheapens it," she says. "So I am seen as a prima donna bitch."

Lasting isn't important. She shrugs. They formed for a night. If this party finishes she will find another one somewhere else. But it's not over yet. "In hindsight we have been very lucky we weren't huge for a short amount of time." She would also like to be rich. "A million would do." A million would mean that she could make the albums but not be forced to release them. She likes making the albums.

The German installation artist Rebecca Horn seems to have been responsible for the interior of the Pump House in Rotherhithe; indeed, there is a possibility that, when particularly depressed, she made the whole of Rotherhithe. This vast dilapidated building houses a dark landscape where a discarded wheelchair and barbed wire fuse into subterannean passages and where, crumbling walls and old graffiti open out into a space where, for no apparent reason, there is light and warmth and people are selling army surplus. Around the outside there are lines of rusting Beetles and no visible entrance or exit. The Pump House is known in the film industry as a place where low-budget films are made. "Very poor catering," says one experienced regular. Very poor catering is right. Chips from a van and a piece of fruit cake. A lurex curtain reveals a podium full of Banshees: Budgie and Severin are wearing silver shirts and feathers; Siouxsie's wearing a gold-sequinned trouser suit. The podium is revolving, round and round, and a disco ball spits out those shimmying globs of light that cause convulsions. "Can we have quiet, please, this is a set not a party."

A bald Australian man named John Hillcoat studies a monitor. Hillcoat has been employed to make the video for Stargazer, the second single to be released from The Rapture. He is an interesting choice. In 1909 he released the extraordinary Ghosts Of The Civil Dead, a film about high security prisons in Australia. Since then there have been videos for Nick Cave and the German avant garde noise band Einsturzende Neubauten. The Banshees saw his film, Blume, for the latter, a finely focused use of simple but surreal images made by a film maker who knows that narrative must never be lost to the palette of the editing suite. The chaos of hi-tech quick-flash graphics and digital effects does not appear in the work of Hillcoat - he allows an idea to breathe. His videos are short films and they are different.

His promo for the Banshees' O Baby involved a baby beauty pageant in Flagstaff, Arizona. Hillcoat, who is fascinated by the macabre, both covert and overt, knew that the imagery would be of frills, curls and uncanny posturing as children from 10 months upwards competed for titles such as Tot Personality and Miniature Miss Talent. Research had also revealed a subtext, a dangerous undercurrent where fanatic mothers had lost control and beaten their daughters up for losing.

Siouxsie flew in and Hillcoat noticed that she was keen to record the scene backstage to tell the truth of this glitzy scenario. It was, in the end, a pop video, not a documentary, but she knew that silence was the Candyman's currency.

She had attended her mother's funeral the day before. So, on the set in Flagstaff, the Siouxsie mask was useful, a defence and a device that aided work. "She was very strong," says Hillcoat. "The consummate professional."

Behind lurked a bereavement that had been appalling. There had been cancer and, in Siouxsie's view, a series of medical mistakes. Then, suddenly, the telephone call to France that warned of finality. "I booked the flight but I was too late," she says "That was the worst thing, not saying goodbye."

John Maybury once persuaded her to remove the Siouxsie face for his Court of Miracles film series - he recognised that she was "a lovely looking woman," but that it was not her habit to take advantage of this. In Rotherhithe, the mask is the pancake face of traditional Chinese theatre for a narrative set in Hong Kong. Red flashes across her profile; thick black streaks slash over a crimson mouth: Siouxsie is definitely here. She is wearing the sparkly slacks, being photographed, thinking that this work with Hillcoat marks a new start for them, that the album will be a turning point. But there has been a moment, in the dressing room, between coats of paint as it were, when the bare face of Susan Ballion was revealed. A strong jaw, dark eyes, high cheekbones - it is still and sad and beautiful and you wouldn't know it was her.

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