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It’s not fair at all, but the goth aesthetic is easy to ridicule and dismiss.
Goth’s preoccupations with the macabre and its flimsy association with the occult can seem adolescent. And its penchant for spooky, windswept melodrama (the word is derived from “gothic,” after all) can seem histrionic or corny.
Saturday Night Live once had a goofy recurring skit called “Goth Talk,” mocking how goth kids have grand fantasy lives (being an ancient, terrifying vampire) that contrast with their actual abject circumstances (working minimum wage for a Cinnabon in south Florida.)
The idea may make you giggle, but comedically, it’s low-hanging fruit.
Yet within the wide genre of goth rock music, there are serious artists. People who authoritatively explore goth’s potential for psychedelic mystery. Artists whose work isn’t “dark” in a callow or cheap sense, but in a genuinely heavy way.
I consider Siouxsie and The Banshees to be in this elite class, and 1980’s “Christine” would be my personal Exhibit A for why. In terms of presentation (sartorial and otherwise), The Banshees’ goth vibe was pretty strong, but the truth is they were one of the world’s most inventive rock bands of any style. And if you never took the time to listen to them, you might be forgiven for stereotyping the band based solely on Siouxsie’s iconic Punk Priestess Of The Night look.
You’d be forgiven, but you’d also be wrong. Siouxsie is a master songwriter who should be accorded the esteem and stature of Harry Nilsson or Tim Buckley or Syd Barrett or any of a myriad canonized eccentric male songwriter figures. I think it’s sexism that prevents her from being viewed this way.
Each Banshee brought innovations to “Christine.” Bassist and primary songwriter Steve Severin played chords as often as not. (Bassists generally play one note at a time.) Mind you, Severin wasn’t the only punk bassist to play chords—his Joy Division/New Order contemporary Peter Hook springs to mind—but Severin certainly brought a unique lyricism to the instrument.
The Banshees’ drummer was named Budgie. Budgie’s full genius didn’t come to the fore until later with a Siouxsie/Budgie duo project called The Creatures (whose percussion-intensive 1989 masterpiece Boomerang is a huge artistic influence on me personally), but he demonstrated ingenuity throughout The Banshees’ discography. The bold beat he maintains in “Christine” is pretty much just the crack of a hard-hit snare on the backbeat. He mostly leaves a hole in the downbeat. Budgie had restraint and maturity.
The most striking and haunting instrumental feature of “Christine” is John McGeoch’s sweeping, shimmering acoustic guitar. McGeoch is not famous, but he is an important and influential figure in British post-punk music. McGeoch’s guitar signature was rooted in how inventively he managed to avoid “guitar hero” tropes. He was a colorist. (McGeoch is rumored to have struggled gravely with alcoholism and sadly, he died in 2004 at the age of 48.)
Though McGeoch plays only a few chords in “Christine,” he makes sure they matter. Though the original Severin/Siouxsie home demo for the song features no guitar at all, the band chose to loudly feature it as the first and last thing you hear in the studio recording. The guitar is key to expressing both the meter (strumming replaces Budgie’s cymbals in the chorus) and the melodic structure.
The guitar’s simplicity serves to throw the spotlight to Siouxsie’s (oft-imitated, but unique) voice and words. Initially, it’s not clear what story she’s telling. The song feels phantasmagorically ominous… it could be drugs, or something supernatural, or mental illness. You’re left to guess. There’s a faintly Lewis Carroll feel. “Christine, the strawberry girl/ Christine sees her faces unfurl…” All you know is the song is chilling and hallucinogenic.
The song actually portrays a famous incidence of multiple personality disorder. It’s the same case the 1957 movie The Three Faces Of Eve is based on. (The patient’s actual name was Christine Sizemore. Eve was an alias used in the book and movie.) There’s something poignant about Siouxsie’s choice to use the patient’s real name in the song.
Contrary to the goth stereotype, Siouxsie’s writing takes the story out of the realm of fever-dream fiction and into the real world.
One Song is a column by Chad Clark, of the band Beauty Pill, that dissects and interrogates the deeper meanings of a single song. Beauty Pill plays Black Cat on Sat., April 29 with Arto Lindsay and Br’er. 8 p.m. $20.