Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poly Styrene: 1957-2011

Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex from the "Punk Rock" book.
By Andy

I recently procured a used copy of the 1978 book "Punk Rock," which contains a heap of photos of pioneering British bands. Upon grabbing the book, I immediately scoured through it to see if there were any pics of X-Ray Spex, which included pint-sized, giant-voiced singer Poly Styrene. They've been a favorite of ours for years, and I just had to make sure the band was included. They're on page 99, but that's OK ... they made it.

The band debuted with its in-your-face signature song "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" in 1977 -- and Styrene proved that she could hold her own with the punk boys of the day. She still can, but unfortunately in spirit, as she sadly succumbed to an advanced form of breast cancer April 25 at the age of 53.

I first saw Poly and X-Ray Spex in action in the movie "DOA: A Right of Passage" (1981). Along with that booming, screeching, melodic voice (just perfect), it was her curly hair that often flopped in her eyes, mouthful of braces and beaming smile (for a punker!) that stands out.

Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said on July 3, 1957, Styrene -- a trained opera singer -- also set the standard for "punk wear" of the day with her wardrobe of day-glo, military and, even somewhat stylish, plastic-bag (see picture) clothes.

From the TV documentary "The Punk Years," she said of her clothing choices: "I'll just change my look to go with my braces."

Lyrics-wise, Styrene added in the documentary: "The commerciality of the city, the brightness and the garishness of it, really, and the plasticness of it really, really hit me in a very strong way."

In "Art-I-Ficial," she sings:

I know I'm artificial
But don't put the blame on me
I was reared with appliances
In a consumer society

When I put on my make-up
The pretty little mask not me
That's the way a girl should be
In a consumer society

My existence is elusive
The kind that is supported
By mechanical resources

My existence is elusive
The kind that is supported
By mechanical resources

I wanna be instamatic
I wanna be a frozen pea
I wannna be dehydrated
In a consumer society

In a consumer society
In a consumer society

The band's "Germ Free Adolescents" album was a mainstay on mine and Cat's turntable for years -- and I know it will be again after writing this entry.

Styrene in her adult years. (Courtesy photo)

*** JOHN ROBB, Goldblade singer who played in Seattle on Tuesday night, reminisced about his relationship with Styrene, who dueted with him on the band's song "City of Christmas Ghosts" in 2008:

I'm just really sad.

Robb with Goldblade (Andy photo)
I've known her for about 10 years, she's a pretty good friend of mine. We had this song on the album and just thought, 'Oh wouldn't it sound great if Poly sang on it?' So I asked her and she said, 'Yeah,' she was really up for doing it. She came round the studio and we sat down, (and I asked) 'Can you sing like you used to sing years ago?' She said, 'Oh, I can't sing like that anymore,' and I said, 'I bet you can.' And she did, and she had it in one go, one take sounded absolutely amazing. She was a professional, actually, and she's really into the song, as well, which is cool, and she did it because we were friends.

She's been influential, because anything before punk, women singers mostly were like dolly birds in England. And she changed what it was -- she wasn't conventionally sexy, but that way she was far more beautiful, and she brought intelligence to it, she designed her own clothes, she had her own image, she's probably the purest example of what punk rock was. And to find out she was actually multi-racial background, I think is really important as well, Somali parent. She wrote the most incredible lyrics, which predict what's happening now, 35 years ago, and the music's really original. It's sad that it's taken her death for people to actually appreciate what a genius she was. In music, only men can only be geniuses for some reason ...she wrote lyrics as good as any man you ever talk about. She's amazing and I'm just really fucked up about it, I'm really sad.

(Goldblade covered "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" during its set on Tuesday, opening for Steve Ignorant from Crass' band.)

Here's a video of "City of Christmas Ghosts": http://www.myspace.com/97552237/videos/video/47611024 

*** Author ROLAND LINK contributed this memorial from Britain:

It's with a real sadness that I received the news that Poly Styrene had passed away.

There will be no doubt many words written about her groundbreaking importance and presence on the musical landscape with her band X-Ray Spex; and rightly so.
With a clutch of 45s and a single LP (the brilliant "Germ Free Adolescents"), Poly captured a moment with a voice that perfectly encapsulated the soundtrack of rebellion, while never losing the fun or jeopardizing the intelligence of the music.

Her skillful questioning and rejections of society's status quo, all forms of blind conformity, common-place complacency and her dissection of gender politics were also way ahead of the times: while the spotlight she shone, over 30 years ago, on the early signs of the all-consuming consumer culture and people's obsessions with aspects of modern life, which have now gripped the UK, were nothing short of shamanistic.

Apart from catching a couple of performances in the early '90s of the reformed X-Ray Spex (always a great night), my only contact with the lady was during my book research for "Kicking Up A Racket - The Story of Stiff Little Fingers 1977-1983."

Trying to track down ex-X-Ray Spex saxophonist Lora Logic to discuss her time with her post Spex band Essential Logic, a lead led to a Hare Krishna temple in London. A phone call was made and the guy that answered thought he knew the lady in question (punky, had been in a band), he'd get her to call back.

In one of the strange twists of fate, which do happen along these research paths, it was Poly that returned the call, thinking it was her who I was trying to track down. After it was explained that it was in fact Lora Logic, a conversation commenced with a very pleasant lady. Hardly essential to my research, but a lovely bonus moment!
And now she's gone at a mere 53 years of age.

From "Germ Free Adolescents" through to the just-released "Generation Indigo," Poly's contribution to modern music was invaluable, think Riot Girl, Brit Pop, Girl Power! She'll always be remembered and revered for her incisive revolutionary world view and her indomitable heart. Just as it should be.

*** Adds CHRIS PROROCK from Danbury, Conn:

The X-Ray Spex were so tightly wound that they could make the Buzzcocks sound like a mellow, post-hippie boogie band. The ringleader of all of this was Poly Styrene, a bi-racial teenager fit with braces who had the courage to admit: "I'm a poseur and I don't care."

Her shrieking voice carried tales of modern worldliness: plastic, latex, deodorant and fast food. Styrene's view was of one that eschewed the hippies' earthly myths for instantaneous pleasure, often of a man-made nature: "Art-I-Ficial," "Plastic Bag" and "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" are jubilant postmodern punk-rock anthems.

Their sole vinyl offering, "Germ Free Adolescents," was so far out that it took nearly 15 years for it to be released officially in America. This album is perhaps the most cogent argument I've ever heard for throwing oneself into a life of exhilarating illusion made of plastic.

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