Siouxsie review – more Greek than goth goddess

Is it the job of an icon to fulfil expectations or to toy with them? The return to London of Siouxsie Sioux, so often lumbered with the soubriquet “queen of the goths”, isn’t heralded by a symbolic release of bats but by four dancing girls in tiaras and spangly bikinis. A stand-up band play cabaret ragtime. This beautifully restored east London venue screams art deco glamour, not post-punk anomie.

When Siouxsie herself emerges wearing a gauzy ice-blue gown, the effect is more Greek goddess than art rock provocateur. But then the woman born Susan Ballion has long been a performer all too easy to caricature, with so many elements played down in favour of the low-hanging fruit: pharaonic makeup, big hair, punk-era fetish wear.

More interesting, perhaps, are all the other things that have long fed into this complex artist’s aesthetics – elements that come to the fore often enough tonight. Her music, across her two bands – Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Creatures, plus one solo work – has been experimental and poppy by turns. However “year zero” punk claimed to be, there were always antecedents to draw on: glam, psychedelia. Tonight’s setlist, honed over a summer of touring festivals, bears that breadth out. If there are some dirges to swirl around to in the cloying heat, there are just as many songs that pull you up short for a variety of reasons.

One of the highlights of this first performance in the capital in 10 years is, paradoxically, a deep cut: But Not Them by the Creatures. Accompanied by her touring band, who all play percussion as Siouxsie sings, it’s a salutary reminder of exactly how minimal and leftfield her work can be.

At the other end of the scale, there are hits such as Dear Prudence – a Beatles track the Banshees made their own with a heady, oversaturated treatment that suggested innocence dipped in lysergic acid. For pudding, there’s The Passenger, Siouxsie’s more catholic cover of the Iggy Pop song: both are fantastic to hear live.

When she straps on a guitar for Sin in My Heart, she is every inch the pioneering female musician

Her moves tonight suggest flamenco and mime; David Bowie was a stated inspiration and, aurally, Nico looms large in Siouxsie’s icy sternness. Mostly, though, she sounds, impressively, just like herself: her “ohs” big and gutsy, her yips and purrs and screams on point.

Her interest in classic cinema, meanwhile, yields two touchpoints. Kiss Them for Me, from the Banshees’ 1991 album Superstition, takes inspiration from the film star Jayne Mansfield. Between songs, Siouxsie points out that the original King Kong film was screened 90 years ago in this very venue – a place that, if not exactly home turf for her, is nearly that.

We’re just 10 miles from the singer’s native Chislehurst. A road opposite the venue is called Bromley Street – echoing, as happenstance would have it, the “Bromley contingent”, the name punk-era music journalist Caroline Coon gave to the suburbanites from south-east London who followed the Sex Pistols.

Siouxsie was one of their number, famously standing up to the leering TV presenter Bill Grundy in the incident that led to the Sex Pistols’ tabloid fame. She threw a band together herself – Siouxsie and the Banshees – in time for punk’s formative festival at the 100 Club. The group had a run of 11 studio albums – and many guitarists – before they called it a day in 1996.

This first of two sold-out nights marks her first performance in London since a turn at the Yoko Ono-curated Meltdown festival in 2013. Since then, she has been missing, presumed retired, not having recorded any follow-up to her 2007 solo debut, Mantaray.

Here Comes That Day, from that solo record, is a prowling drama about someone getting their comeuppance, in which Siouxsie whips the microphone cable with vicious glee. No one is quite sure why she has come out to play this specific summer, other than there’s a remastered reissue of Mantaray to promote.

Returning to Siouxsie’s body of work in 2023 throws up a few discussion points. Arabian Knights, from the Banshees’ 1981 LP Juju, and their debut single, 1978’s Hong Kong Garden, are two titles in which well-meaning cultural references now sound a little uncomfortable to modern ears. The latter is the last tune of the encore, and it doesn’t take a particularly acute sensitivity reader to do a double take at the Chinese takeaway tropes. The song’s origins are, however, explicitly anti-racist, prompted by the singer’s disgust at the bigotry of skinheads towards staff at a local restaurant. The “Sioux” in Siouxsie clangs a little now, although Ballion explicitly named herself in an act of allyship with the Native Americans cast as the bad guys in US movies.

Equally, there is much here that speaks loudly and clearly to the present moment. Cities in Dust remains an absolute banger about humankind’s vaulting hubris. Visuals of refinery chimneys accompany Siouxsie’s stentorian vocals.

When she straps on a guitar for Sin in My Heart, she is every inch the pioneering female musician – one propelled by urgency and the punk imperative to write about the very things that were not talked about in polite society. The song Christine is an ode to a woman with multiple personalities. Happy House, a cold, sardonic track about the cloistered doublethink of suburbia, where Ballion grew up, remains magnificent. The Weeknd sampled its instantly recognisable melody heavily on 2011’s House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.

Into a Swan, meanwhile, is a late-period song about transformation that sits on an album whose contexts include Siouxsie’s divorce from Budgie, drummer in both the Banshees and the Creatures. Given the pleasure she radiates at performing tonight, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that another pupation could follow.