“We can play rock’n’roll, but we ignore it, shove it in a corner. We don’t see ourselves in the same context as rock’n’roll groups. We’re out on a limb. It is dangerous, but it excites us, makes it worthwhile.” – Siouxsie Sioux
Released on 13th November 1978, The Scream was the debut LP by Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Banshees were already behind in acquiring a record deal, and had been forced to sit out the first wave of punk releases by bands like the Pistols, The Clash and the Adverts. However, the timing of their debut album release allowed them to spearhead and define something more interesting than the repeat continuation of the short sharp shock punk rock of their earlier contemporaries.
Post punk was already up and running, and bands like PiL and Magazine had already put the brakes on simply whining and screaming at a voluminous 90mph, but post punk might have evolved very differently had it not been for The Scream.
The album was recorded during August 1978 at the RAK studios in London, with the still rookie producer Steve Lillywhite at the controls. With the classic early Banshees line up of Sioux, Severin, Morris and McKay it used art school sensibilities and reference points to make one of the most influential albums of the post punk era.
The finished album sounded like nothing else. Even to its young listeners it was obvious that this LP was somehow different, and “new” sounding. Despite already being familiar with earlier versions of the songs Overground, Carcass, Mirage, Metal Postcard and Suburban Relapse which had been included in the band’s John Peel sessions, The Scream presented the opportunity to hear them as a single piece of work. Drawing from a darker emotional and musical palette, the Banshees introduced themselves with an altogether more foreboding presence than their contemporaries. The opening bars of The Scream features Severin’s sliding bass, McKay’s spacious guitar, and eventually the booming, almost war-like drums of Morris, as Siouxsie’s distant wails make their first dramatic entrance. The doubled layered vocals hint more at schizophrenia than harmony, and the tom heavy drums on the album are often referred to in reviews as being ‘motorik’.
Being children of the 1970s and raised on a diet of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep-Cheep and Clive Dunn singing ‘Grandad’, ‘Motorik’ was not yet in our vocabulary. Further research uncovered it as a term used to describe the rhythm sections of early 1970s Krautrock bands like Can and Neu! The drum part being in and of itself, without any formal fills or separate parts for verses and choruses. Blimey! They could have been talking about Kenny Morris!
‘Carcass’ is probably the nearest to a three chord bash as the Banshees get on this album with the guitar and bass working together while the lyrical impact comes as Siouxsie spells out the story of a mother who has cut up her son and eats him for tea, keeping the remains in the freezer with ‘Heinz main courses’. From a lyrical perspective, the whole album revolves around these same themes of a suburban dystopia, madness, claustrophobia and disquiet.
The Scream’s sleeve image, shot by photographer Paul Wakefield was also unusual. Whereas many bands appeared on their album sleeves; from Blondie to The Damned to the Talking Heads – the Banshees chose to commission an image. As the album’s title was partly influenced by the 1968 film The Swimmer, Siouxsie suggested Paul could shoot the images underwater. Talking to albumcoverhalloffame.com in 2014 Paul recalls the session;
“I wanted to be able to completely control the lighting, and so an indoor pool was the only option. I scouted quite a few pools, but when I saw this pool in the YMCA in Central London, which was dark blue tiled with light blue lane stripes instead of the normal reverse colors, I knew it was the ideal location. I wanted to give it an eerie underwater night-time feel, and this setting was perfect. We used a number of 1000K and 2000K lights around the pool edge. I used school kids as models and they pretty well ran riot.”
The Scream was released on 13 November 1978, and was an instant commercial success, taking the Banshees to No. 12 on the UK album chart.
Collecting favourable reactions from Sounds, Record Mirror and Melody Maker, reviewers were quick to bracket ‘The Scream’ alongside other ground-breaking LPs like those from Bowie’s Berlin period, or even the Velvet Underground. The only person who didn’t really like it was perennial sourpuss Julie Burchill who called it, “a self-important threshing machine thrashing all stringed instruments down onto the same low level alongside that draggy sub-voice as it attempts futile eagle and dove swoops around the mono-beat.” Few agreed.
Fans of ‘The Scream’ included many high profile musicians including Robert Smith, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Shirley Manson and Marc Almond who said “The Scream made a real impression on me. I loved the way they turned these suburban things into nightmares–that was a great influence on early Soft Cell stuff”. From Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein’s Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s.
The Scream is one of those era defining albums that still sounds relevant today, and stands as a testament to Siouxsie and the Banshees fearless singularity. Without it we wonder, would we have had any of those follow on post punk bands with their own legacy of influence. Bands like Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Soft Cell, or any mid period miserable Cure? Maybe we would…but certainly not in the same way.
“I was washing up the dishes minding my own business when my string snapped I had a relapse” – Suburban Relapse