‘Kaleidoscope’ At 40 – The Banshees’ Finest Hour?

Siouxsie And The Banshees’ game-changing third album landed 40 years ago this month.

Siouxsie and The Banshees, Palladium, NYC, 1980. Credit: Ebet Roberts.

It’s almost unbelievable that this month Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie and the Banshees has turned forty years old. Their ‘tricky’ third album, and their first after the departure from the original line up of John MacKay and Kenny Morris who were replaced by Budgie and John McGeoch, was to mark a line in the sand for the band and the new path they were to tread, both professionally and personally for Siouxsie as new intimate relationships were formed.

The original Banshees line-up, Amsterdam, 1979. Credit: Barry Schulz.

The album would mark a creative shift, arguably the beginning of a golden age for a group that would go on to become one of the most influential of the late 20th century. This was in no small part due to the addition of McGeoch and Budgie. John McGeoch, largely considered to be one of the most innovative guitarists of his generation, was a catch for the Banshees. McGeoch was a member of Magazine who side-gigged with Visage at the end of the ’70s before moving to the Banshees. The addition of Budgie on drums brought a new dimension to the band’s sound and would later go on to form the backbone of both the Banshees sound as well as the Siouxsie/Budgie side project, The Creatures.

The band changed their musical direction on Kaleidoscope with a more rounded and diverse sound within the Banshees envelope. Siouxsie said at the time “It was almost like a brand new band”. The album name was chosen to reflect both the new direction of the band and its new members, plus the cornucopia of new songs and sounds brought together under the auspices of this long player.

Kaleidoscope spawned the hits Happy House and Christine which led the album to reach number 5 in the albums’ chart and remains their most successful album to date. Such is Kaleidoscope‘s enduring longevity that Siouxsie performed it in its entirety when she was asked to perform two nights of her own shows at the South Bank’s legendary Meltdown Festival, curated that year by Yoko Ono. 2013 was the 20th anniversary of the festival and also coincided with Ono’s 80th birthday.

The album kicks off with the first single, Happy House and an enthralling intro that is mystical and intriguing before it bursts into Siouxsie’s unmistakable vocals. “Innovative, as all their singles are”, The Jam’s Rick Buckler purred appreciatively in the pages of Flexipop magazine’s debut issue that November.

“What is it about ‘Happy House’ from a guitar player point of view?” former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr would later muse. “For a start, it’s modern. It’s not going in any of these creaky or rock’n’roll aspects to it and it still sounded like the Banshees, or even more so. That’s when I really began to become a fan of John McGeoch. It was a extra bonus for me. They had got a great guitar player who had left another band and came in. Not surprisingly, that to me was a very good scenario. I’ve always liked that. It was like, “Get John’s best on the guitar.”” (BBC Radio 2, February 2008)

Kaleidoscope saw a departure from the vibe of their previous two albums 1978’s The Scream and 1979’s Join Hands, which were more rooted in the punk ethos. On Kaleidoscope however, the band experimented with synths and electronics for the first time, to achieve a highly successful outcome and was the cornerstone of their new direction.

This new way of making music is particularly prevalent on Red Light which delivers the cold, hard sound required to reflect the impactful stark lyrics. It’s my favourite song on the album, because of the combination of simple hard synths and lyrics, ‘Come into this room, come into this gloom! See the red light rinsing, another shutterslut, wincing’.  There’s no mistaking the song’s message and disdain for models who are referred to as ‘sagging half wit sisters’.

Clockface ups the ante with Siouxsie’s woahing trademark vocals, which effectively demonstrates that vocals are as much of an instrument and that fully-formed words are not always necessary to achieve the sounds required. Accompanied by fast-paced guitars and drum beats, this song is anthemic in its delivery.  A brilliant track heard live!

The ‘second half’ of the album kicks off with Christine, the second single released from the album. Written by Severin and Siouxsie, Christine was released in May 1980, three months ahead of the album release. The song is introduced by acoustic guitar with a distinctive riff, then segueing into an instrumentation by an electronic organ. The lyrics were inspired by the book The Three Faces of Eve by Christine Sizemore, a woman who reportedly had twenty-two personalities and was unsurprisingly schizophrenic.

Synths were also used to create the required atmospherics on Lunar Camel which demanded a new kind of sound that could only achieved by electronics. After the 1979 Join Hands tour, Siouxsie had been ordered by her medical team to take one month off, and she used this time to learn to play guitar and fundamentals of synthesizers in order to achieve the kind of sound she wanted for the album, including composing the music for the first time.

Desert Kisses, a languorous, sultry track that draws you in with its dark melody and brooding vocals, and it’s the nearest thing to a ballad on this landmark album.  Whereas in contrast, Paradise Place is back to the fast-paced yet melodic guitar/drumbeat-led combo that the Banshees were to become famous for.

The final track on the album is Skin, an anthem for Siouxsie’s lifelong anti-animal cruelty beliefs. It’s an impactful song, heavy with irony and blatant truths set to an urgent drum beat and the singer’s tuneful wailing which she skillfully turns into an art form.  She holds a mirror up to the ugly ‘skin trade’ and shows where they are left lacking in the basic decency of human compassion. Siouxsie’s association with the animal welfare organisation PETA is well-documented and she has remained a lifelong supporter, citing the subject for lyrics in other Banshees tracks later in their/her career.

The band went on to achieve considerable global success with a variety of line-ups along the way, but this only went towards achieving a diverse take on their winning formula.  Kaleidoscope was the true beginning of that journey for the band and for me personally, it marked the start of a lifelong passion for the band and its music. 

Siouxsie and the Banshees is, alas, no more. Their final album, their eleventh, was The Rapture which was the ultimate lamentable goodbye album to their fans, and was produced by John Cale. After they disbanded, Severin went on to achieve success as a film soundtrack composer and he produced a book of poetry. After the break-up of the Budgie/Siouxsie side-project The Creatures, and subsequently their marriage, Siouxsie continued with a solo career, touring and releasing the excellent album Mantaray in 2007 to critical acclaim. After that time she had fallen out of the music business but in 2015 she collaborated with Brian Reitzell for the Hannibal song Love Crime from The Wrath of the Lamb.

Kaleidoscope must surely remain as one of Polydor’s jewels in their glittering crown. Of all the acts that have passed through their portals, Siouxsie and the Banshees, especially the Severin/Siouxsie/Budgie/McGeogh classic lineup, are surely one of their best acts, with this album having the legs to carry it strongly through the four ensuing decades since its release. 

Siouxsie And The Banshees – ‘Kaleidoscope’ originally released 1 August 1980 (Polydor 2442 177). Remastered and expanded CD released 29 May 2006 (UMC/Polydor 983 691-3), RRP £7.95. Audiophile Vinyl LP released 14 December 2018 (UMC/Polydor SATBLP03), RRP £16.99.

 Ange Chan is a freelance writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry.  She was also prolific contributor in the anthology collection Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon) and is a lifelong lover of music, having first been published in the 1980s music press. As well as being a frequent contributor to the pop culture website We Are Cult, she is working on her long-standing third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots.



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