Nobody told me the Banshees were this heavy. Songs like “Regal” and “Icons” rival Killing Joke and Public Image Ltd in cathartic intensity and sheer violence, with Susan Ballion’s voice spiking and cleaving through a white wall of guitar distortion like an ice-axe. They’re the record’s easy-listening songs.
Join Hands proves that post-punk was more than the aftershocks of punk, it was its own movement, and probably a musically more interesting one. Punk was the past’s bitch: 50s rockabilly with a MXR Distortion Plus fuzzbox. Here we’re getting the future, even though we might not want it. You can always predict what the next chord on a Sex Pistols or Ramones song is going to be. You can’t do that on any song here. It’s strange and unfamiliar.
Which is not to say that Join Hands isn’t in debt to the past. “Join hands” is just another way of saying “Come Together”, after all (though now the cover has four soldiers, instead of four self-hating Liverpudlians). Side B contains a reworking of “Oh Mein Papa” (which Eddie Calvert got to #1 in 1954, three years before Ballion’s birth). Musically, it isn’t far removed from what Bowie and Iggy Pop were doing in Berlin in 1977. And on the (improvised) fourteen minute long “The Lord’s Prayer”, Siouxsie Sioux’s lyrics become a filmstrip of old nostalgic references: Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, Mohammed Ali’s trash talk, nursery rhymes, and the Beatles again (“twist and shout”).
But these images of the past are invariably mocked and desacralized here, their bodies twisted on the torture equipment of Steven Severin’s bass and John McKay’s guitar while High Inquisitor Ballion lays into them. “We have ways of making you talk.” Punk rock was about breaking away from modernistic rock practices and returning to its roots. But in post-punk, the past isn’t deified, it’s investigated and interrogated.
“Icon” has the album (and movement’s?) defining lyric: the church-spire ablaze. Faith tested against flame, and losing. In the real world, John Lennon was shot and Muhammed Ali got Parkinsons and innocuous institutions (parents, schools, and so forth) were sources of misery and even horror for many of us.
And even if the past really was good, you can’t hold onto its pleasures. Your mom and dad are growing old and forgetting your name, your church went into arrears, and your childhood playground was bulldozed long ago. And you’ve changed, too. Your innocence is gone, and you will never see the world as you once did. Time’s geodesic points only forward, and those who try to remain in the past find its memories turning to a pit of gray ash under their tongue.
Join Hands carries a grim message like a lash: there are no roots to go back to, not for rock music or anything else. There is only one possibility left: cold, scientific knowledge. If we never feel pleasure again, we may as well understand what was going on under the hood of concepts like “God” and “health” and “family”. That’s the artistic approach of post-punk: to dissect everything, and not care if it dies in the process.
The Banshees are often more interested in creating spectacles than songs. “Icon” and “Playground Twist” show them at their best: fiery, memorable tracks with huge hooks and apocalyptic thunder. The first is a stately British apocalypse. It has a world inside it, burning from horizon to horizon. The second suspends the listener in a maelstrom of flanging guitar sound and whiplashing meter changes. You feel physically destabilized when you listen to it, as though the ground is collapsing under you.
It breaks ranks with other postpunkers in important ways: the lyrics are precise and literal. Siouxsie feels sincere in her writing, which a refreshing in a genre already known for cloying, unctious irony. “Playground Twist” takes odd material (getting shoved around on a cruel playground where nobody’s your friend) and makes it seem genuinely horrible, the way a child would feel it. The Banshees mean every word here.
At times they go on a bit long, becoming ships lost in squalling noise. I generally skip “Placebo” and “Premature Burial”. They’re just empty boxes of guitar skronk. Occasionally Ballion’s lyrics strike dead notes, particularly on “”Mother / Oh Mein Papa”, where she becomes an angry Dr Seuss. (“The one who keeps you warm / And shelters you from harm! / Watch out she’ll stunt your mind / ‘Til you emulate her kind!”)
Post-punk worked best as a musical stress test. It was about flinging songs into walls, and seeing how and where they break. The subgenre was about exploring limits and failure points, and part of that is wearing out the listener’s patience (and defying their expectation for catchy melodies, etc). That happens a lot here, because Siouxsie and the Banshees want it to happen, but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable.
Strangely, the fourteen minute “The Lord’s Prayer” is among the album’s strong points. The music just explodes out endlessly like a rolling pyroclastic flood, leaving Ballion performing an audacious tightrope-walker’s act over a sea of magma. She pulls ideas out of her head and shrieks them like a human klaxon. I don’t know to what extent it was inspired by “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground, but I think the answer is “heavily”.
In some respects Join Arms has aged, in others it hasn’t at all. It’s a backward-looking piece of experimentalism, but the distant past is as unfamiliar as the future. And its focus on World War I is an interesting choice, because it’s one of the clearest clashes of romanticism and realism that culture ever produced. The Armistice that ended World War I was signed at 5:12 am on the 11th of November, but the ceasefire was delayed until 11:00am. This gave the Armistice a gravitas, it was felt. Poets would be able to write that the war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Two thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight additional men died so this could happen.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark green fields; On; on; and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears and horror
Drifted away ….. O but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless;
The singing will never be done.
- Siegfried Sassoon, “Everyone Sang”