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The high priestess of punk: Siouxsie Sioux and her profound impact

Siouxsie Sioux, real name, Susan Janet Ballion, was born in Guy’s Hospital, London and grew up in the suburb of Chislehurst. Born to a British mother and a Belgian father, Siouxise’s early life was marred by isolation. Due to her father’s alcoholism, she would refrain from inviting friends around to her house.

Despite her father’s struggles, he would, at points, show flashes of the man within. A bacteriologist by trade, who milked the venom from snakes, when not drunk, her father would show himself to be an intelligent, well-read man. Sioux saw something of herself in her father and would sympathise with him for not fitting into the “rigid, middle-class society”.

From a young age, Siouxsie would notice that her family were different, as they were not a part of the local “community”. This notion of being isolated and different within the suburbs would profoundly impact the young Siouxsie. Later, she would note that “the suburbs inspired intense hatred.”

The revolution against middle-class suburbia and cultural complacency formed a significant part of the original punk movement. Before too long, at 17, Siouxsie and friend Steven Severin would become friends and followers of the Sex Pistols. They formed a part of the eccentric “Bromley Contingent” of fans devoted to Johnny Rotten and Co. Sioux and Severin first met the band in February 1976. 

They had first heard about the Pistols after their show at Chislehurst art college in November 1975. The pair had heard stories of how the Sex Pistols sounded like the Stooges and of Johnny Rotten‘s aggressive behaviour towards the art students in attendance. This was to be the start of Siouxsie’s trajectory, on her path to become the high priestess of all things punk and goth.

A couple of other dark and momentous moments left indelible scars on Siouxsie, adding to the “intense hatred” she would channel into punk and her career. Most notably, at just nine years old, she and a friend were sexually assaulted by a stranger. This abhorrent miscarriage of justice was ignored by the police and her parents and was never spoken about again. Understandably, this incident led to Siouxsie forming a distrust of the adult population. 

It also left a scar on her, as explained: “I grew up having no faith in adults as responsible people. And being the youngest in the family, I was isolated – I had no one to confide in. So I invented my own world, my own reality. It was my own way of defending myself – protecting myself from the outside world. The only way I could deal with how to survive was to get some strong armour.”

Then when she was fourteen, already engulfed in her isolated, fantasy world, the walls would come crashing down. Her kindred spirit, her alcoholic yet misunderstood father, died of an illness related to his condition. The shock was so severe it took a serious toll on Siouxsie’s health. She lost considerable weight and missed a lot of school. After several misdiagnoses, she was operated on for ulcerative colitis, and during her recovery in 1972, she saw David Bowie on TV. The alien-like Bowie would make a significant impact on her.

By mid-1976, Siouxsie was well known in the London club scene for her attire. She meshed glam, fetish and bondage-inspired ensembles, which would soon become hallmarks of punk fashion. She also had a significant hand in influencing the development of what would become gothic garb. Black clothing, spiky black hair, red lipstick and cat-eye makeup would become her trademark look.

Siouxsie even appeared as part of the group of punks appearing with the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy’s TV show in December 1976. This is an iconic appearance for the Sex Pistols as the band broke into a set of expletives, which had never been heard on early-evening television. Siouxsie’s appearance is also classic as she made fun of the drunk producer by saying, “I’ve always wanted to meet you, Bill.” 

This appearance would cement the Sex Pistols as a household name, and Sioux would also grab her own headlines. The Daily Mirror‘s headline read “Siouxsie’s a Punk Shocker”. After the appearance, and all the negative press covering the Sex Pistols she would distance herself from them and instead focus all her energy on her new band, Siouxsie and the Banshees.

This was to be the most significant decision of her career. Severin and Sioux formed the Banshees in September 1976, and their first show was a support slot at the iconic 100 Club Punk Festival, organised by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The band took their chances; at the time, they were new to performing and didn’t know how to play any songs. At the show, the band improvised 20 minutes of music while Siouxsie sang ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.

Viv Albertine of the Slits recalled: “Siouxsie just appeared fully made, fully in control, utterly confident. It totally blew me away. There she was doing something that I dared to dream but she took it and did it and it wiped the rest of the festival for me, that was it. I can’t even remember everything else about it except that one performance.”

That show was to be the start of it all for Siouxsie. In 1977, Siouxsie and the Banshees toured England, and by August 1978, their debut single ‘Hong Kong Garden’ reached number seven on the UK Singles Chart. Their debut album The Scream, released in November 1978, is regarded as one of the first post-punk albums. 

In 1980, they released their third album Kaleidoscope. With the new addition of guitarist John McGeoch, who is one of the most influential guitarists of all time, the band cemented their legacy in pop culture history. It confirmed Sioux as one of the most original and alluring frontwomen out there. The Banshees would be active until 1996, and parallel to them, Siouxsie would form the Creatures with partner, future husband and Banshees drummer, Budgie. Post-banshees, she released her first solo album, Mantaray in 2007.

Siouxsie Sioux and The Banshees (Credit: Alamy)

Siouxsie has had a profound impact on music and culture. Artists from across the musical spectrum have frequently confirmed her and the Banshees influential role. In 2010, Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio said: “Her voice is, in its own right, the common thread through all of it. There is no one who sings like that. And I think there are a lot of people who were influenced by it, but even if you try and sing like her, you can’t do that. You can’t throw your voice like that. You can’t throw harmony like that. That is a very distinct voice. Her technique is a thread between the really far-out stuff and opera and pop music. It’s distinct. It’s all her own.”

Massive Attack, Tricky, The Weeknd, Jeff Buckley, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, Johnny Marr, Joy Division, U2 and The Jesus and Mary Chain are just a few sonic pioneers to note her influence.

The impact Siouxsie has had on female singers is perhaps the most significant. Elisabeth Fraser, Courtney Love, Tracey Thorn, Shirley Manson, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, Charli XCX, FKA Twigs, Jehnny Beth and Florence Welch have discussed Siouxie’s profound influence on them. 

Even Rachel Goswell of English shoegaze legends Slowdive said in 2016: “From a singing point of view, I was inspired by Siouxsie Sioux, who I just adored. She’s amazing. I’ve never seen anyone else quite like her”. Slowdive even took their name from the Banshees ’82 single of the same name.

The list of female pioneers Siouxsie has influenced is dizzying. Her impact has been so vital in music and culture, that without her, the landscape of alternative culture would be a deep chasm in comparison to the dense, fluid menagerie it is today. Siouxsie’s impact is unmistakable. You would struggle to find any form of modern pioneer that doesn’t cite her as a formative figure in their development.

Watch young Siouxsie Sioux’s iconic TV appearance with the Sex Pistols, below.

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