Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Painted Bird” (1982)

In the early 1980s, when I was the guitarist in The Nebulas, one of my main inspirations was John McGeoch’s work in Magazine and the Banshees. Not only his playing, which was and still is some of the most inventive in all of pop/rock, but his skill at orchestrating a song — or an entire album — with his wildly varied guitar sounds. He did this to some extent in Magazine, but there he was sharing space with Dave Formula’s excellent keyboard arrangements. The Banshees were a guitar-bass-drums outfit, so John’s layered guitar parts usually featured the hooks; they carried the songs, instrumentally meshing with Severin’s simple but crucial basslines (check out the Severin-McGeoch harmonies opening “Cascade”) and Budgie’s propulsive drumming.

In fact, I consider Ju Ju one of the greatest guitar albums ever, not because of “guitar hero” showoff pyrotechnics, but precisely because of McGeoch’s inventiveness in orchestrating the songs — and his skill at translating his ideas to the fretboard (and incidently, although some of his riffs may seem simple, they are not easy to play well!).

Making the two Banshees albums that came out during his stay with the group, Ju Ju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse (and a good part of Kaleidoscope as well), McGeoch mined a seemingly bottomless well of sounds, almost exclusively using a simple toolkit: the grey MXR Flanger pedal, a Yamaha rackmount analog delay, and a distortion pedal.

Unlike nearly every other post-punk guitarist (or rock guitarist in general), John had a great fondness for dominant 7th, minor 7th, minor 9th and add 9th chords. He loved the complex sweetness these voicings bring to a song. Check out Magazine’s “Parade,” “Feed the Enemy,” or “Philadelphia”; Siouxsie’s “Happy House,” “Night Shift,” “Spellbound,” “Green Fingers,” etc., etc. (Personal note: I learned these types of chords from Mel Bay and Micky Baker books in the ‘60s, and use them constantly in my playing. Just about every Nebulas song had a 7th-type voicing somewhere; it was an element that differentiated us from most of the other bands in our scene.)

McGeoch was big into arpeggiated/pseudo-fingerpicked lines at this time (the main “Spellbound” riff a supreme example). And although he eschewed blues-rock cliches (verboten in the post-punk aesthetic), he did enjoy warped funky riffs (as in the Banshees’ cover of Ben E. King’s “Supernatural Thing” or Magazine’s “Stuck”).

John’s “Painted Bird” arrangement starts with a Shaft-style funky wah-wah riff, then segues to a synth-like distorted hook (which will reappear in the choruses), then, accompanying the vocal, into distant arpeggiated notes that simulate finger-picking. The right stereo channel alternates between strummed distorted chords and a more up-front version of the “finger-picked” pattern, also distorted, both with a bit of ring modulation. All these parts come in and out through the song. It’s a classic McGeoch orchestration.

Now I want to look at the song’s lyrics and possible meanings. In Siouxsie’s inspiration, Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965), the bird-collector Lekh, impelled by sexual frustration and self-loathing, repeatedly picked the strongest of his birds, and using “stinking paints of different colors… paint[ed] its wings, head, and breast in rainbow hues until it became more dappled and vivid than a bouquet of wildflowers. … The bird would begin to twitter and attract a flock of the same species which would fly nervously over our heads.”

When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner. It would soar, happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting brown flock. For an instant the birds were confounded. The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them. But, dazzled by its brilliant colors, they flew around it unconvinced. The painted bird would be forced farther and farther away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock. We saw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground. When we finally found the painted bird it was usually dead.

Kosinski’s narrator is a painted bird — a young dark-haired, dark-eyed boy, reviled and abused as a Gypsy/Jew, wandering through Eastern Europe during WWII. Separated from his parents, alone and fearful, he seeks human company despite the danger to himself — just like the doomed birds. But in the course of his harrowing journey, the boy comes to value and pursue freedom and self-reliance, his own individuality, over the dubious safety offered by society. Even when reunited with his loving parents, he feels the warring impulses of freedom vs. security and companionship:

… a boy of my age should be free from any restriction. He should be able to choose for himself the people whom he wished to follow and learn from… I suddenly felt like Lekh’s painted bird, which some unknown force was pulling toward his kind.

The boy feels like another of the story’s animals, the trapped hare, who, when he has the opportunity to escape, crawls back into his familiar cage. “He now carried the cage in himself; it bound his brain and heart and paralyzed his muscles.”

Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin were present at the birth of punk; they were among the ones who shaped its style and self-image. The ’70s had become bland; the rock bands were conformist — what good was it any more? If a guy who looked like he might be in the Eagles could get a job in a bank, then who cares about style? Punks put themselves on the line; in their outrageous clothes, hair, and demeanour, they were self-created painted birds — the daring ones went first, attracting more of the colorful people who had been hiding out.

On lead poisoned wings, you try to sing
Freak beak shrieks are thrown at your confusing hue
The peacock screaming eyes show no mercy oh, oh no mercy
… The flock will make you choke on this sadistic joke

It’s well-known now that the swastikas worn by early punks (including Siouxsie*) were no expression of Nazi sympathies; they were meant solely and explicitly to shock. And torn, safety-pinned, intentionally mismatched clothes were a form of painted finery, as rich in subtext as Kurt Schwitters’ revolutionary 1920s collages.

A coquette in fur purr for the painted bird
Confound that dowdy flock with a sharp honed nerve
Because we’re painted birds by our own design
By our own design…

And it was tough at first, people got beat up (just as in the early days of ‘60s long hair), but punk won. Fashion, style, and music itself exploded; everything exists now in a huge melting pot of influences, and everything is permitted. That banker now has a tattoo sleeve peeking out from under his shirt.

We’ve lost our sorrow, now it’s tomorrow, tomorrow
No need to hide your feather under a fated weather
No more sorrow…

*Siouxsie “made amends” for her swastika-wearing with the 1981 single “Israel,” which featured a large Star of David on the disc label. T-shirts and other promo materials for the band’s tour that year made prominent use of the Star. Earlier, in 1978, the band released “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen),” the title referring to anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield’s 1935 photocollage depicting a German family “enjoying” a meal of machine parts. It’s a mockery of Göring’s quote: “Iron always made a nation strong, butter and lard only made the people fat.” The Banshees used Heartfield’s collage as the picture sleeve for the single.

Listen to “Painted Bird” on YouTube