I was astonished the first time someone told me they liked Siouxsie and the Banshees better than the Cure. It had never occurred to me to question that the Cure were the more important band — the more serious, the more heartfelt, the more majestic. But as I find myself listening to the Cure less and less, and the Banshees more and more, I start to get it.
Part of what makes it difficult to love the Banshees is that Siouxsie comes with them. As frontmen go, Robert Smith is an acquired taste: if the hair and makeup don’t give you pause, the “despair as an element of style” (as the Trouser Press Record Guide unforgettably put it) might; and if that’s an asset in your book, the voice like a strangled cat in heat might be a dealbreaker. But underneath it all, Smith has always at least aimed for a cuddly persona, and Siouxsie Sioux is determined to be the opposite at all times. Where Smith mopes, she claws at you. Where he confesses his inadequacies, she’s throwing the world’s in your face, and even if you agree with her, she can be a bit strident. Her feminism might thrill you while her anti-Arab sentiments might scandalize you, or vice versa, depending on your political leanings. Smith’s worst crimes against fashion tend to be shapeless black button-down shirts with schlumpy white high-top sneakers (though the less said about the “Hot Hot Hot!” video the better); Sioux is the sort of punk who claims to have worn Nazi regalia to be shocking. And you only have to listen to any live album she’s on to realize that she needs the studio like a fish needs water; as far as I can tell, the woman cannot carry a tune in a German military surplus satchel.
But the Banshees have two things going for them. First, being unable to sing and eager to piss people off are ideal qualifications for the lead singer of a punk band, and that is of course how they started out. And second, the other members of the band over the years — particularly bassist/songwriter Steve Severin, drummer Budgie, and sometime guitarist John McGeoch — were and are some of the most talented musicians post-punk has had to offer. It’s a winning combination, and the textures resulting from these complementary creative forces have meant that the Banshees have always sounded that much more dynamic and unpredictable than the Cure, shaped mainly by Smith’s singular vision, had the chance to be.
My first exposure to the Banshees was probably “Peek-a-Boo,” their stomping burlesque single from 1988’s Peepshow. At the time I was making a transition in my reading preferences from Stephen King to Clive Barker, and the Banshees’ sharp, stylish horror lyrics on that album fit right in. From there I started exploring backward, and Kaleidoscope was one of the first albums I picked up.
Kaleidoscope is the first step in the Banshees’ transformation from jagged, hectoring punk to smooth, slithering post-punk, a shift that continued through Juju and was largely complete by Hyaena. A trio of social commentary songs best represent the former — “Red Light” (an antipornography screed that today would, I’m sure, be decried for “slut-shaming” and stigmatizing sex work), “Paradise Place” (plastic surgery bad, which is probably easier to be self-righteous about when you’re 23) and “Skin” (a Swiftian call for substituting human skin in place of animal fur as clothing). The latter starts to emerge in tracks like “Tenant,” “Desert Kisses,” and the slightly Beatlesque “Christine.” My favorite tracks, “Happy House,” “Trophy,” and “Hybrid,” probably fit somewhere in the middle. It’s not my favorite Siouxsie album by a long shot, but it’s their first completely listenable one, and not a bad last stop before my pop music history starts properly.
Prince, Dirty Mind
If I had pick a favorite Prince album, this might very well be it. An impressive number of my favorite Prince songs — “Uptown,” “Head,” the title track, and the ne plus ultra, “When You Were Mine” — are on this one. In 2014 I like it way better than Kaleidoscope. If I could have figured out a way to stretch the sentence “This is a fucking amazing album from start to finish” into a full-length essay, you’d be firing this up as your lunchtime reading at work and staring at a screenful of Prince’s nude torso and banana hammock. You’re welcome.
The Cure, Seventeen Seconds
The source of “M,” the very first cover song I did with a dear friend of mine under the name The Telegraph Project. It wasn’t super well suited to my voice, but having someone else more talented than I am record the music and ask me to sing over it was extremely the best.
The Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight
The only Soft Boys album you really need, unless you have the excellent taste to actually like them. I saw them play these songs on their reunion tour and it was utterly fantastic. Robyn Hitchcock on his own is a legend, but with Kimberley Rew adding his guitar, it’s like someone’s grabbed you by your ears and lifted you into heaven.
- Heart, Bebe Le Strange
- XTC, Black Sea
- Joy Division, Closer
- Kate Bush, Never For Ever
- OMD, Organisation
- Peter Gabriel’s 1980 album
- Talking Heads, Remain In Light
- David Bowie, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
- Dire Straits, Making Movies
- Echo and the Bunnymen, Crocodiles
- Roxy Music, Flesh and Blood
- Devo, Freedom of Choice