Saturday, July 8, 2017

Poly Styrene spotlight: X-Ray Spex singer's daughter, Celeste Bell, discusses her mom, documentary

Poly Styrene, left, and daughter, Celeste Bell. (Courtesy of Celeste Bell)

By Andy

Once I heard Poly Styrene's distinct voice, I was hooked. There was no turning back -- I had to devour everything I could find from her bracing yet melodic band, X-Ray Spex.

Styrene's vocals and strong-minded lyrics resemble a razorblade cutting through your favorite sweet treat, and her UK punk outfit has made an impact on listeners from 1977 to now. Their saxophone-laced tunes are must-haves -- yes, required listening for all.

Styrene's voice now lives with us in spirit: She passed away from an advanced form of breast cancer on April 25, 2011 at the age of 53.

In the movie "DOA: A Right of Passage," along with her pipes, it was her curly hair that often flopped in her eyes, mouthful of braces and beaming smile that stands out.

Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said to a Scottish-Irish mother and Somali father, the trained opera singer led the charge on the "punk wear" front by sporting day-glo, military and, even somewhat stylish, plastic-bag clothes. In the TV documentary "The Punk Years," Styrene noted that she created her clothing to somewhat match her braces.

Lyrics-wise, Styrene said in "The Punk Years" that she hammered on the commerciality, brightness, garishness and plasticness of the city.

Following is a Q and A with Styrene's daughter, Celeste Bell, about her mom and the upcoming documentary, "Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche," in which she is narrator and executive producer.

** What does it mean to you to have your mother's documentary made? Were you involved from the get-go and how long has it been in the works?

It means the world to me. To be able to contribute to making sure my mother's legacy and work reaches a wider audience and hopefully her art gets the recognition it deserves. I have been involved from the start as I was introduced to the director, Paul Sng, through Zoe Howe, the writer of the Poly Styrene upcoming biography I am collaborating on. Together we agreed to make the documentary alongside (as well as complementing) the book.

** What’s it like going through X-Ray Spex footage and watching your mother perform so passionately?

It's amazing. I love the character my mother created onstage; Poly Styrene was undoubtedly super super cool and that's my mum! So it's great.

** What do you hope viewers will glean from the documentary? 

I hope they will get to see how my mother was a truly unique individual and visionary artist who was ahead of her time in so many ways.

** You raised £72,912 GBP — 103 percent funded — on Indiegogo for the movie as of May 28. 
What are your thoughts on the massive support of this project? Do you have a release date planned?

I feel so blessed and appreciative of the amazing level of support we have had so far. It goes to show how many people were touched and inspired by my mother and her work. We hope to release in the winter of 2017.

** What bands played the fundraiser concert on July 1? What did the night bring? 

We had the amazing Bruno Wizard and the Homosexuals, Screaming Toenail, Shabsi Mann, Micky O'Brien, Art Trip and the Static Soundand Steph from Big Joanie - it was a female heavy line up featuring many punks of colour and all the performers were amazing and the night was a big success.

** How did your mother influence your life and musical career? 

My mother has been a huge influence on me. She supported my song writing and performing from the beginning; giving me lots of valuable advice as well as warnings of the pitfalls of the entertainment industry; especially the risks there are for young women in which is still very much a predatory and sexist industry.

** Your mother delved into all sorts of music, not just punk, what are your favorite tracks she recorded? (I love the synth pop "Trick of the Witch," and her jazzy solo tunes.)

My favourite tracks are "Plastic Bag" (for the genius lyrics and fantastic arrangements) and "Warrior in Woolworths." I also love "Sophia" and all of "Translucence" - a great early example of a chill out album.

** What are the best words of advice your mother gave you? 

Don't write love songs if you want to be taken seriously as a female song writer (advice I often ignored but sound nevertheless).

** U2 is celebrating your mother with a large photo of her and other inspirational women during their recent tour. How has this affected you? What are the most meaningful messages that others have told you about your mother?

I am very proud of any recognition my mother's work gets by other artists. There have been so many positive messages and it's the messages I get from young people (not famous) who have been inspired by mother that moves me the most.

"Plastic Bag"

My mind is like a plastic bag....

It's 1977 and we are going mad
It's 1977 and we've seen too many ads
It's 1977 and we're gonna show them all apathy's a drag

My mind is like a plastic bag
That corresponds to all those ads
It sucks up all the rubbish
That is fed in through by ear
I eat kleenex for breakfast
And I use soft hygienic Weetabix
To dry my tears

1977 and we are going mad
It's 1977 and we've seen too many ads
1977 and we're gonna show them all apathy's a drag

My mind is like a switchboard
With crossed and tangled lines
Contented with confusion
That is plugged into my head
I don't know what's going on
It's the operators job, not mine
I said

It's 1977 and we are going mad
It's 1977 and we've seen to many ads
It's 1977 and we're gonna show them all apathy's a drag

My dreams I daren't remember
Or tell you what I've seen
I dreamt that I was hitler
The ruler of the sea
The ruler of the universe
The ruler of the supermarkets
And even fatalistic me

It's 1977 and we are going mad
It's 1977 and we've seen too many ads
It's 1977 and we're gonna show them all apathy's a drag!

A clip of Styrene, Bell and Zillah Minx of Rubella Ballet in 2008:


  1. Nice story. I am looking forward to seeing the documentary. Like you, I loved the horns in the X-Ray Spex tunes.

  2. I loved the way she pronounced "ruler of the super-mar-kets"

  3. It was good to read a statement saying "the world is catching up with Poly Styrene and not the other way around."