Like hundreds of other teenagers in late seventies England, Susan Ballion, better known as Siouxsie Sioux, embraced the anyone-can-do-it-ness of punk after seeing the Sex Pistols. In 1976, already a tastemaker in the scene, she threw a band together with Sid Vicious on drums, and with no practice, or even any songs, they got onstage, and improvised a 20-minute rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” There launched the career of a post-punk, dark pop legend, spanning that first anarchic gig, the infamous Bill Grundy TV appearance, some of the most influential British rock of the late-70s and 80s, and major tours and hits throughout the last three decades.
Despite the awards, star collaborations, and multi-generational influence, Siouxsie’s striking musical talent has often been given short shrift in the U.S. press. For example, a 1992 Los Angeles Times concert write-up after the release of her biggest U.S. hit, “Kiss Them for Me,” cast her as “the leader of a cult of weird chicks,” writes Liz Ohnanesian at Noisey, “in a review that spent five paragraphs on her looks and a whopping two on the music.” Maybe, “at that point, the band was used to that.” But it’s a serious oversight.
“Much has been written about the vocal range of artists like Freddie Mercury,” Dangerous Minds points out, “but not so much on the equally brilliant Siouxsie Sioux.” If the comparison seems stretched, consider another one: Kate Bush.
Though very different artists, both released debut albums in 1978 and became style icons who are as influential for their look as for their vocal prowess. Siouxsie, whose voice “developed from spiky, punky vocals to rich, powerful, and glorious textured tones… can hit the high notes and bring an unnerving warmth and menace to her lower range.”
With Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Creatures, and in her solo work, she has given cool, icy voice to gothic sentiments and images, conveying ache and fear and brutal beauty. In the videos here, listen to Siouxsie’s isolated vocals from 1988’s “The Killing Jar” (hear the original right above), an excellent example of “just how good she is.” Above, also hear her vocal track from “Hong Kong Garden,” her 1978 debut single, and “arguably the most important of the early post-punk hits,” writes Robert Webb at The Independent.
Listen to her sing 1985’s “Cities in Dust,” about the destruction of Pompeii, and below, hear “Kiss Them for Me,” a cryptic tribute to actress Jayne Mansfield and a song that made a new generation of Siouxsie and the Banshees fans when it came out in 1991. Siouxsie has attracted a newly devoted fanbase every decade since the 70s for her style, songwriting, and her voice, an instrument that deserves greater attention.
“These days,” she said in a 2007 interview, the legacy of punk has “almost been reduced to a fashion statement. I think there’s been a false sense of empowerment for women” in music. “Almost as if there’s that ever-present preoccupation with body form and image… not about expressing any style or intent.” Young artists looking for genuine inspiration will always find the real thing in Siouxsie’s impressive body of work.