Poly Styrene Was No Cliché

Remembering the groundbreaking frontwoman for X-Ray Spex 10 years after her passing

Poly Styrene 4ever (Art: Ron Hart)

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: One of the coolest things about that first wave of punk rock was that what was once a boys club – which is to say most rock band lineups – became a boys and girls club.

Or, at the very least, the doors to the club were much more open. There were no equal opportunity laws or a rock ‘n’ roll Title IX, but the over-riding ethos – “Anyone can do this!” – certainly applied to young people of both genders. When The Clash first toured the US in 1979, one of their demands that one of the opening bands include a woman. 

The most notable player in the U.S. would be Tina Weymouth, bassist in Talking Heads, the most notable singer Penelope Houston of the Avengers. The Go-Go’s – very much a punk band early on – and the Bangs (later Bangles) would come a bit later.  In England, there were more: the Raincoats, the Slits, the Au Pairs, the Adverts (with bassist Gaye Advert) and X-Ray Spex, the latter featuring Poly Styrene on vocals and Laura Logic on sax. The girls could be as gleefully shambolic as the boys. 

Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, was the offspring of a Scottish-Irish woman and a Somali-born man, meaning not only was she female but bi-racial. As to her name? One of the best in punk, right up there with the Damned’s Rat Scabies.

“I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight, disposable product,” she told the BBC in 1979. “It was a send-up of being a pop star—plastic, disposable, that’s what pop stars are meant to mean, so therefore I thought I might as well send it up.”

Poly claimed herself as art-i-ficial, “raised by appliances” putting on her mask just the way a girl should in a consumer society.

 

VIDEO: X-Ray Spex “Artificial”

X-Ray Spex’s career, not unlike more than a few other punk bands, was exceedingly short-lived. Four singles that preceded the Germfree Adolescents LP in 1978. They broke up the following year, after Styrene and Logic had come to a disagreement and Logic was canned. 

Like so many others, Styrene saw a Sex Pistols gig in 1976 and the 19-year-old figured “Hey, I can do this, too!” The braces-wearing singer came to the forefront with the catchy and caterwauling single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” It began with one of the greatest spoken-word intros ever – I’m thinking in its way it rivals Tina Turner’s in “Proud Mary”: Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard/But I say oh bondage, up yours!”

 

VIDEO: X-Ray Spex “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”

It was the summer of ’77 when I first heard it on the Roxy London WC2  import album. (I bought a ton of imports in those days; you had to.)

That first verse was S&M sexy and defiant – the provocative, enticing screech of “Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall/I want to be a slave to you all!” but then it shifted course to attack what would become Styrene’s favorite topic, runaway consumerism: “Chain store, chain smoke, I consume you all / Chain gang, chain mail, I don’t think at all!” 

The meandering, Roxy-ish sax lines contrasted with the frenetic pulse of the guitar, bass and drums. “A succession of lightning bolts” as Pitchfork put it aptly, decades later, noting Styrene’s sky-rocketing “unhinged voice.”  

X-Ray Spex was brash, feminist, fast and not just a tiny bit screechy. Adding some non-trad punk was Logic’s sax – not a common instrument at all in the punk maelstrom. It’s hard not to consider X-Ray Spex a precursor to Riot Grrl and Afropunk.

Poly Styrene, who died from metastatic breast cancer ten years ago April 25, is the subject of an upcoming documentary, I Am a Cliché, directed by Paul Sng and Poly’s daughter Celeste Ball. (I Am a Cliché is, of course, an X-Ray Spex song, and the irony is Poly was anything but.) The film follows the trajectory of Ball’s book, “Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story.” It’s Ball’s journey as she excavate her mother’s unopened archives, dealing with the mental illness Poly suffered and the familial trauma that touched them all. Poly’s unearthed diary entries are voiced by Oscar nominee Ruth Negga. 

 

VIDEO: Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché trailer

I was talking about Poly and X-Ray Spex with my longtime friend Peter Prescott, best-known as Mission of Burma’s drummer – also leader of Kustomized, the Peer Group and Volcano Suns along the way and currently the multi-instrumentalist bandleader of minibeast. He was a fan of X-Ray Spex from the get-go. 

The attitude of the times, Prescott said, was “there was this complete disregard for what you think of our musical abilities: ‘This is our expression and you’re gonna have to handle it this way.’ When they formed bands, there was no blueprint. It started with such inspiration. That was liberating to me. I wasn’t much of a learner. To hear you could throw the learning stuff out the window and just go for it was incredible.  Especially for women, as they had severely limited roles in rock before. Such an amazing explosion it blew my mind.”

You argue forever where and when punk started, but I’ll go with the theory that it started here (New York, mostly), quickly spread to England (London, mostly) and it became something far more than the underground sub-genre it initially was in the US. Punk could be Top of the Pops material in the UK.

 

VIDEO: X-Ray Spex “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo” live on Top Of The Pops 1978

“X-Ray Spex,” Prescott said, “was really immediate like the best British punk rock – in your face and really smart. It had this surreal pop underneath combined with the razor guitars and the way Poly spat out words, being slightly like a female John Lydon [from the early PiL days]. It was a thing I hadn’t heard before as far as a woman singing like that ad making it work – melodic, crazy hooks and almost completely unique. Laura Logic played the sax with this lazy vibe which went against the rock which worked really nicely.”

 

 You May Also Like

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *