For a young Susan Ballion, London seemed so beautifully feral. Born in the Kentish suburb of Chislehurst, she’d grown up surrounded by the rows and rows of impenetrable semi-detached houses, with neat lawns, muddy village greens, and quaint cafes serving tea and limp sandwiches.
In contrast, London was a bristling, untameable, monster of a thing – a truly cosmopolitan hotbed of creativity and post-war grime in equal measure. After years of swinging, London had taken a nose dive into depravity, the glamour of the 1960s replaced by a glittering nihilism.
It was this landscape that – after leaving school – Siouxsie Sioux escaped to. There, she found a city in a state of metamorphoses. With so many of the older generation having fled to the suburbs, a new generation of creatives – whether they were suburban refugees like Siouxsie or recent US immigrants like Chrissie Hynde – started to carve out a space for themselves; establishing squats, and setting up controversial boutiques and independent labels as if their very lives depended on it.
This impulse to wage war against the mundanity of middle-class Englishness transformed London into a city populated by a dizzying range of hedonistic club nights, scandalous boutiques, and sweat-stained punk venues – all of which played an essential part in the variety of subcultures that wept across the United kingdom following the punk era. Today, many of these establishments exist only in the memory of the people who once frequented them, but by walking in the footsteps of Siouxsie Sioux we are able to revisit that time in all its grimey glory. So, join us as we explore the subversive underworld of Siouxsie Sioux’s London.
Siouxsie Sioux’s London Underworld:
The Roxy, Covent Garden
The Roxy, like its Covent Garden neighbour, The Vortex, served as an incubator for London’s fledgling punk scene, attracting bands like The Buzzcocks, The Fall, – Generation X, John Cooper Clark, The Jam, and, of course, Siouxie & The Banshees.
The Roxy’s audience was made up of angsty schoolgirls, rival musicians eager for a fistfight, Soho strippers, music journalists, the children of aristocrats keen to engage in some adolescent rebellion, drag queens, experimental artists and filmmakers, and anyone else who happened to feel like an outsider. The scenes this club witnessed gave it a reputation for being a risky place to step inside, and eventually, it was shut down. Like the punk scene itself, it folded under the weight of its own nihilism, remaining open for just 100 nights.
The brainchild of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren, the SEX boutique on London’s King’s Road bought punk and goth fashion into the mainstream. It also served as a meeting place for many of the icons of the era, including Siouxie Sioux herself. As Pamela Rook, (AKA Jordan) a former employee of the boutique recalled in 2017: “Chrissie Hynde, Sid Vicious and Glen Matlock all had jobs there at different times; John Lydon auditioned for the Sex Pistols by singing along to the shop’s jukebox. In my first week, two of the New York Dolls came in for a browse.”
With its PVC skirts, choke-chain collars, and nettops, the styles displayed in the windows of SEX came to represent the anti-fashion ethos at the heart of the punk style. Everything Mclaren and Westwood sold from their boutique was selected on the grounds that it would upset bourgeois sensibilities. In this sense, SEX was less a shop and more a battleground, where a piece of clothing could, in the right hands, take on explosive power.
The Batcave, Soho
There were few club nights as important to the UK goth scene as Soho’s The Batcave, and there are few artists as important to the success of The Batcave as Siouxsie Sioux & The Banshees. Originally held in the aptly named Gargoyle Club in Soho, The Batcave put on everything from cinema screenings of Bela Lugosi films to extravagant dark cabarets – all attended by the original pioneers of the goth subculture. Subsequently, it became a place for the likes of Nick Cave, Bauhaus, and Robert Smith to drink themselves numb well into the gloaming hour.
Siouxsie Sioux was a frequent attendee of The Batcave and quickly became the high priestess of the micro-scene that was rapidly evolving in its sweaty, hairspray-scented interior. Her theatrical makeup, fishnets, and penchant for all things leather saw her stay true to the DIY aesthetics of the day while marking her out as a pioneer of her own unique style. Her fellow Batcavers adopted an equally fluid style, customising their clothes with anything and everything, resulting in a range of new fashions that defied all gender norms.
Taboo, Leicester Square
“Dress as though your life depends on it or don’t bother” – that was the dress code for one of the most subversive and hedonistic club nights of the 1980s. Although it existed only from 1985 to 1986 (at which point it was shut down by police), Taboo reinvigorated London’s increasingly mundane nightlife with a shot of androgynous decadence.
Combining the gender-fluid aesthetics of the New Romantics with the drug-fuelled elation of New York’s underground fetish clubs, Taboo attracted one hell of a crowd. Everyone was dressed in something made of PVC or lush animal fur, their faces covered pierrot-style make-up, which, as they danced, would begin to melt away in milk-white streams, leaving the dancefloor a cloudy swirl.
The Death Factory, Hackney
10 Martello Road might look unremarkable now, but, back in the mid-1970s, it served as the creative den of Genesis P-Orridge’s COUM Transmissions, one of the most controversial and unflinching music and art collectives in operation at the time. After relocating to London from Hull, P-Orridge and Cosey Fan Tutti seized 10 Martello Road as a squat and transformed the basement into a studio that they named ‘The Death Factory’.
It was from here that they devised their experimental music pieces, including 1974’s Marcel Duchamp’s Next Work – which saw the collective install 12 separate copies of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel into the venue, which were then played like musical instruments, while P-Orridge conducted. The Death Factory was also the birthplace of a number of the group’s most sexually explicit theatrical works, many of which were intended to explore gender confusion, one of which, Filth, saw P-Orridge and Cosey Fan Tutti perform sexual acts with a double-ended dildo.