Through the Looking Glass & Peepshow

Siouxsie Sioux always seemed destined to be a rock star. With her impeccable punk credentials, as a member of the Sex Pistols infamous Bromley Contingent, it seemed that it would only be a matter of time before she too was sharing the limelight with her idols. She and her band, the Banshees, debuted at the 100 Club Punk Festival in 1976 with Sid Vicious on drums and Marco Pirroni (later of Adam & the Ants) on guitar. They played a now legendary and largely impromptu set that culminated in a 20 minute rendition of the Lords Prayer.

However, well into 1978 they struggled to get signed by a label and graffiti sprang up all over London imploring the majors to "Sign the Banshees. Do it Now". Once they had put pen to paper they would for the next two decades produce inspirational, imaginative and inspiring music that would influence such diverse acts as Massive Attack, Morrissey, U2, The Cure and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

So its nice to see that their albums "Through the Looking Glass" and "Peepshow" are being reissued as part of an exercise that sees all four of their final albums repackaged with additional bonus tracks. These later years saw a period of experimentation and musical exploration coinciding with the Banshees getting the notice they deserved in the USA, whilst retaining the feverish devotion of their fans at home.

With a relatively settled line up by 1987 of Siouxsie, Steve Severin, Budgie and John Valentine Carruthers ,"Through the Looking Glass" was an album inspired by Bowie’s ‘Pin Ups’. It featured songs that had influenced the band members in their formative years and originally contained no original tracks (although their own composition "Songs from the Edge of the World" is now included as a bonus track). Starting with Sparks classic "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" the band ensure that, whilst remaining largely true to the original song, all the tracks bear the trade mark Banshee sound. Not for them the three chord thrash favoured by other punk contemporaries, the band always appeared to pride themselves on being able to produce more melodic compositions.

Whilst singles such as Iggy Pop's "The Passenger" and The Bands "This Wheels on Fire" are fairly familiar, I was surprised by the sheer diversity of the other tracks chosen. Songs by Kraftwerk, John Cale, Television, the Doors and Roxie Music are all reworked to fit seamlessly into the context of the album. However, it was the more random selections that really showed off the bands ability to keep pushing back the boundaries, even after a decade into their career.

Billie Holiday's anti racism song "Strange Fruit" has an eerie, ethereal quality with violins and trumpets augmenting Siouxsie's vocals in an almost dirge like lament. However my favourite, for sheer nostalgia, has to be their rendition of "Trust in Me" from the Jungle Book animated film. Whilst certainly novel and unique, I'm not sure Siouxsie could ever have bettered Sterling Holloway's dulcet tones as Kaa.

By the time ‘Peepshow’ was recorded in 1988 the band has become a quintet with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Martin McCarrick. This certainly showed in the complexity of the songs the album included, none more so that in lead single "Peek-a-Boo". Based on the looped sample of a brass section played backwards, the band added accordion, horns and drums, whilst Siouxsie further complicated the sound by using a different microphone for each line. However, it succeeded in giving the band their first American commercial success.

Second track/single "The Killing Jar" was less eccentric, but still showed the diversity of subject matter used by the band. I struggle to think of many groups that would dedicate a song to the technique used by butterfly collectors to ensure specimens remained in perfect condition. All tracks undoubtedly had the Banshee stamp mark, but varied in tempo and texture.

The galloping "Scarecrow", creepy "Carousel", bluesy "Burn Up", disquieting "Rawhead and Bloody Bones" through ghostly ballad "The Last Beat of My Heart" to the six minute finale of "Rhapsody", its difficult to see what was coming next. By the end of the recording process it could be argued that the band were at the height of their powers. Confident enough to even put the band on hiatus after touring the album. It would be another three years before they reassembled to record their penultimate album "Superstition".

I must confess to never having been a big fan of the band. Therefore, having never heard either album before in their entirety, I approached them with an equal mix of interest and trepidation. However, I thoroughly enjoyed both, from the eclectic and schizophrenic mix of cover versions on "Looking Glass" to the highly original and explorative music of "Peepshow". For most fans of the band these releases give them the chance to update their collection. However, for the uninitiated they are a great place to start finding out why Siouxsie and the Banshees hold a unique, if somewhat overlooked, part in British (punk) rock history.