“Quite a lot of people thought “Dear Prudence” was our original,” – Siouxsie Sioux
“Dear Prudence” was the second time the Banshees had chosen to cover a Beatles song, another Lennon/McCartney favourite “Helter Skelter” had been included on their 1978 LP “The Scream”. Both of these songs originally appeared on The Beatles 1968 White album. Whereas the Beatles original of “Helter Skelter” was already dirty and messed up, “Dear Prudence” had a much lighter touch and is one of John Lennon’s most lyrically optimistic songs, featuring none of his trademark negative back chat.
Written in 1967 during the famous Beatles meditation retreat with the Maharishi in India, it was penned for a young Prudence Farrow. John was concerned that the younger sister of Mia, who was also a member their group, was meditating way too much and had locked herself away and wasn’t having any fun. All the Beatles had brought acoustic guitars to the retreat, as did their friend, the singer songwriter Donovan, who was also at the Maharishi’s camp with them. Donovan introduced John and George to a folk guitar technique called “claw hammering”, which he also combined with custom tunings, to give a drone effect under a melody. It’s this technique and tuning, along with the descending scale, that gives “Dear Prudence” its other worldly quality – the drone and the open string tunings are a more familiar sound in Eastern music, a bit like those played on a sitar.
The India trip had come at a strange time for the Beatles. Their manager Brian Epstein had just died, and by the late 1960s the group, along with a large section of the younger generation were questioning the world, experimenting with psychedelic drugs and looking at new ways to move forward into a peaceful, more harmonious future – hence the transcendental meditation.
Fifteen years later, in 1983, the UK was also having its own identity crisis. Four years into a new Conservative government headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, there was almost permanent industrial unrest, mass youth unemployment, and a sprawling peace camp at the gates of the US military base at Greenham Common. The variety of the post punk Top Twenty landscape of the early 1980s had given way once again to the slick productions of major labels; Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the upbeat singalong of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, Bowie’s “Modern Love” and the new teen mag favourites Culture Club and Spandau Ballet. We were back in a fug.
For Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1983 was also a strange year. Guitarist John McGeoch had been hospitalised, and for the second time the Cure’s Robert Smith had been asked to step in, initially just for touring purposes on the Dreamhouse world tour. McGeoch had really upped the stakes for the Banshees with his masterful, shimmering guitar playing, and Smith too had adopted many of the same guitar effects in his work with The Cure. It was a time for flangers and phasers. With the tour stretching from Australia to Japan to the US and back to Europe, there was no time to write or record a new album, so instead a single would have to suffice. Recorded and released to coincide with live dates in the autumn in the UK, “Dear Prudence” was released on 23rd September 1983, and was Siouxsie and The Banshees biggest chart hit.
The idea originally surfaced when the band were touring Scandanavia and were listening to the Beatles in the tour bus. With its powerful, psychedelic inspired backing, the Banshees version tapped right into budding goth fascinations that harked back to a different and possibly more hopeful world: the 1960s, peace, incense sticks, fortune telling runes, paisley patterned shirts, beads, bangles and a modern, updated sartorial hippy-dom that would fully emerge a few years later led by bands like All About Eve and the March Violets.
Talking to Carol Clark in loundersound.com in 2018, Siouxsie recalls that time leading up to the release of “Dear Prudence”, “It was an insane period for us, extremely busy, we were just being totally hyperactive. I think it took its toll maybe a year or so later. John had been hospitalised for stress and overworking, so he was suffering a bit. Robert stepped in, for the second time, as he did in ’79, so the show was still going on, and the touring was all pretty intense and crazy. We went on to record Hyaena together, and then he imploded as well. He just couldn’t cope with it.”
In the same interview, Siouxsie recalls a hint of mischief connected with any idea of covering a Beatles song; “When we did the 100 Club Punk Festival , we were wondering: ‘What shall we do?’ And we ended up doing the thing based around the Lord’s Prayer. And Sid and I were laughing, ‘Oh, we should really mess up a Beatles song!’ And that attitude was still there. I remember growing up with the White Album. I loved it for their experimenting. And then it gets fucked up? Much better!”
“Dear Prudence” was recorded mid-tour at a studio in Stockholm, produced by Mike Hedges, and completed in London, where Robert Smith’s sister Janet added the harpsichord part. The finished record, made by this classic Banshees line up of Sioux, Severin, Smith and Budgie is master class in inspired cover versions.
As both a cover and a non-album single, it also heralded a new chapter in the Banshees own story. The world tour was capped off with a bonefide chart hit. “Dear Prudence” peaked at number 3 in the UK and showed that the Banshees were still a force to be reckoned with, by covering one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and making it sound entirely their own.