Seen and Not Heard?: RIP Poly Styrene
Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard… (X-Ray Spex – ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ 1977)
Like many punk fans of all ages – and although I never met her – I was genuinely upset to hear of the untimely death yesterday of the former X-Ray Spex vocalist Poly Styrene at the age of only 53. Tributes have been springing up all over the internet to an inspirational, much liked woman from fans and fellow musicians alike. Ex-Slits guitarist Viv Albertine was one of many who tweeted a poignant memory of her friend:
I visited Poly recently we held hands and laughed and gossiped. She looked great, beautiful soft skin and full of interest for life. Special—
Viv Albertine (@viv_albertine) April 26, 2011
Much like The Slits’ inimitable Ari Up, who died last October, Poly was not afraid to speak her mind. A feminist and a supporter of Rock Against Racism, she wrote fiercely impassioned songs about consumerism and the environment – the lyrics to early single Oh Bondage, Up Yours! were about “being in bondage to material life. In other words it was a call for liberation” she told punk chronicler Jon Savage.¹
Born Marian Elliot-Said to a Somali father and a British mother, she adopted her distinctive and influential style, as well as the name Poly Styrene, in her teens – recreating herself in the face of a wider culture that, as she put it, wanted to sell and consume; wanted turn her into “your product”.
She became aware of the burgeoning London punk scene while running a stall selling vintage kitsch clothing and accessories in a little market not far from Westwood and McLaren‘s infamous Seditionaries shop on the King’s Road, and, like numerous later musical icons of the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was inspired (in an ‘I can do that!’ sort of a way) to form a band after seeing the Sex Pistols live.
So she put a ‘musicians wanted’ ad in Melody Maker and had soon formed X-Ray Spex. Her mixed heritage in a mostly white punk scene, her charismatic stage presence, her distinctive voice, and the way her unorthodox image deliberately flew in the face of conventional ‘glamour’ all meant that Poly was soon drawing attention from record companies, the media and music fans alike.
Despite this promising start, however, X-Ray Spex only released one album, 1978′s classic Germ Free Adolescents (described by Jon Savage as “[a] great London record”), before Poly left the band. By 1980, X-Ray Spex was all over. Poly spent the next few years within the Hare Krishna movement and battling mental illness, finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early 1990s.
She also recorded a number of well-received solo albums (she was promoting the latest, Generation Indigo, in the weeks prior to her death), and reformed X-Ray Spex in the mid-1990s, but it was her influence within the punk scene and her music from that era which went on to resonate for a whole new generation – or generations, really. Her influence can be seen in everyone from the early 1990s riot grrrl movement to Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Gossip’s feisty frontwoman Beth Ditto (who quite rightly described Poly as “so ahead of her time”).
So some people think little girls should be seen and not heard? Poly didn’t. And her continuing influence means she still won’t. She always made sure she was seen and most definitely heard, even up to her final days. She will be missed.
RIP Poly Styrene – the world is a little less day-glo without you.
¹ Quotes and info in this post are, unless stated otherwise, mostly from Jon Savage’s nigh-on definitive chronicle of early British punk, ‘England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock’ (Faber and Faber, 1991), which is essential reading for anyone with any interest in this period and its music.