Siouxsie and the Banshees – Once Upon a Time (1981)

Siouxsie and the Banshees - The Singles (1981)

The classic red paper label of Polydor Records, complete with Made in England denotation printed below the brand logo, adorns 1981’s Once Upon a Time – The Singles, by Siouxsie and the Banshees. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the back of the case is not black – it’s very dark brown, and marked with the PolyGram branding. The album title is self-explanatory. This is a compilation of the band’s singles, released between 1978 and 1981. For the record, the tracks are set in chronological order.

If any one act set the template for the gothic rock movement which climaxed in the UK during the mid 1980s, it was surely Siouxsie and the Banshees. Both Banshees singer Siouxsie Sioux, and Dave Vanian, lead vocalist of The Damned, had been setting the parameters for goth fashion from the days of punk rock – the movement out of which both acts emerged. However, whilst The Damned remained musically on a path of ‘60s-influenced rock in the post punk era, Siouxsie and the Banshees adopted a different approach, which could be seen as defining the sonic elements of goth.

More than any other band, I believe, Siouxsie and the Banshees developed and packaged British goth. When the movement hit its height in ’85 and ’86, goths could go straight back to this album, featuring singles recorded between 1978 and 1981, and instantly assimilate it into their culture, sense of fashion, and musical taste. Some of the tracks were recorded before the “gothic” term was even coined in relation to rock/pop music, and yet the entire progression featured on this audio cassette fits perfectly into a culture which didn’t really go mainstream until seven or so years later. Siouxsie and the Banshees were a classic goth act before there was any such thing. If that’s not being ahead of your time, I don’t know what is.

Even if you’re not interested in gothic rock/pop, or don’t think you are, you may well make an exception for an album like this one. Just for the fascination of hearing how the style established itself, it’s well worth a listen. But more than that, there are some really great songs. Not songs formulated to fit a musical category, like the sort of derivative and ‘manufactured’ stuff you’d find in the mid ‘80s, but songs created as songs. The style was always part of them, but in no way did it ever restrict or stifle the creativity. In fact, because much of this was breaking new ground, the style itself was creativity.

Happy House (1980) is my favourite track. Even today, in April 2012, it sounds fresh, and despite being very catchy in its own unique way, it also sounds cool. Catchy and cool at the same time is a tough one to pull off, but the feat has unquestionably been accomplished here. I remember hearing for the first time the unusual broken-chord guitar work and very oddly-accented drum beat, and being pretty well mindblown by it. I was only a school kid at the time so I couldn’t be very analytical, but today I’m amazed the band could take those liberties and still end up with a truly commercial pop song.

Even originators have influences of their own of course, but it’s very hard to pin the roots of this music into one specific area. Siouxsie’s vocals used to make me think of Patti Smith, and I often wonder how deliberate any similarities were. But Siouxsie was still unique, and instantly identifiable in her own right. This compilation also shows how important Eastern/Asian music was in the rise of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Hearing some of those Eastern progressions set into what was otherwise a very Western project really grabbed your attention as a listener.

All in all, this album charts the formative highlights of a genuinely original and defining band. Analogue recording, analogue reproduction, real musicians playing real instruments, breaking ground, creating new sounds. In short, this band contradicted every one of Simon Cowell’s ground rules for success in the music business, and they still sound totally credible and valid over three decades on. I wonder how many of the Cowell-style ‘hit factory’ regurgitations will have similar validity by the year 2040? I’ve forgotten about most of them already, so I wouldn’t expect the odds to be very high.