Join Hands 11.11.1918-11.11.2018

In 1979 I went to see Siouxsie & The Banshees playing at Hammersmith Odeon – it remains one of the best gigs of my life. Just before the tour half the band had gone AWOL so new musicians had to be drafted in including Budgie on drums (formerly the token man in The Slits, one of my favourite drummers – Stewart Copeland considers him one of the most interesting drummers for his “very economical and offbeat” playing, that offbeat being what I most like about him) and John McGeoch on guitar (formerly of Magazine). That tour marked the release of the LP ‘Join Hands’. The hands joining are those of four bronze WW1 Tommies on the war memorial between Horseguards Parade and St James’s Park (the Guards Memorial) – I passed it regularly when I was working at Channel 4 and it always brought me back to that music and excitement. The LP opens with the tolling bells of a 2-minute track called Poppy Day.

In the same way that Punk (especially The Clash) introduced me to reggae, through this track it introduced me to the First World War poetry of John McCrae, a typical example of the less known poets who emerged in the Great War, the one-hit wonders and offbeats. McCrae was a high-ranking Canadian army doctor serving on the Western front. In Poppy Day the resonant bells give way to the distinctive driving guitar wailing of The Banshees and then just a few short lines, delivered in a distorted Siouxsie voice:

In Flanders fields
The poppies grow
Between the crosses
Row on row
That mark our place
We are the dead…

I don’t think McCrae is credited for the lyrics which are very close to the opening of his In Flanders Fields, in fact every word is derived from the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Siouxsie & The Banshees filtered out the patriotic and the warmongering/cheerleading to open their record with the zombie or heroic or haunting dead, we don’t know which. What we do know, two years after the Silver Jubilee and the Pistols’ God Save the Queen (the Fascist regime), with rubbish piling up in the streets of strike-bound London, is that these dead were neither glorious nor patriotic in the establishment way.

The band were inspired not only by the chaos and crapitude of the late 70s Home Front but also by conflict witnessed on their suburban Kent TVs, particularly in Iran. (Plus ça change).

siouxsie and the banshees join hands vinyl record album LP cover design

Siouxsie_and_the_banshees_Join_Hands_war guards memorial

The LP cover was extracted from this shot – L to R Steve Severin (bass), John McKay (guitar), Siouxsie Sioux (vocals), Kenny Morris (drums) – before McKay and Morris went AWOL

Banshee stalwart, bassist Steven Severin in the wake of watching the two minutes of silence in memory of the war dead on TV on Sunday 12th November 1978 explained about Poppy Day: “We wanted to write a song that would fittingly fill that gap”. On the inner sleeve of the record (which sits still in the room just below me, alongside its vinyl sisters The Scream, Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse) beside the lyrics of the song is specified (with echoes of John Cage): “2 minutes of silence”.

So here we are on Sunday 11th November 2018, 40 years after Severin watched that broadcast, 100 years after the world watched that bloodbath, that futile wiping out of a generation, and we are still all struggling to join hands. The irony of The Banshees brooding in the studio while recording this masterpiece of an LP and splitting up in its aftermath is as nothing to the irony that we mark this centenary at a time when the world’s international institutions are being deliberately dismantled, Europe re-fracturing and the zombie voices of patriotism, nationalism and fascism wailing more discordantly than John McKay’s guitar. We are the Dead. We are turning in our graves row on row between the poppies.

siouxsie and the banshees paris 1980

Reinforcements arrive: L to R John McGeoch (guitar), Budgie (drums), Siouxsie & Steve – Paris (1980) where 70 world leaders are arriving this morning to mark the centenary of the Armistice including Macron (accordion), Merkel (tuba), Trump (mouth organ) and Putin (triangle)

 

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1 comment so far

  1. […] Things seemed to have aligned for the centenary of the Great War Armistice. 11th November fell on a Sunday this year so the focus was not split between two days. The weather was sunny, autumnal, golden (in contrast to the rain in Paris). I began the day with reflections on the song Poppy Day. […]


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