Defiance in Day-Glo

May 4, 2011

Alexander Billet pays tribute to one of the rebels of the early days of punk rock.

BY ANY standard, Poly Styrene was one of punk's absolute best. Male, female, Black, white--few could match her brash, unapologetic creativity. Word is that even as she approached her death from advanced breast cancer on April 25, she maintained the same vibrant, ineffable, slightly-off-kilter world view that defined her during the heyday of the band X-Ray Spex.

Beth Ditto, front woman for art-punk trio the Gossip, put it simply: "Poly Styrene [was] so ahead of her time. She recreated punk."

Ditto isn't the only one who took a cue from Poly. Her influence can be heard in countless women singers--from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O to Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and the entire riot grrl movement.

Not that she set out to accomplish this kind of influence. A few weeks before she passed away, she confessed: "I didn't really see myself as a role model for feminists, although people thought I was really into women's liberation. It was just liberating to get up and sing my own songs." Proof that the best rebel art is often made through honest happenstance.

Poly Styrene, lead singer of X-Ray Spex
Poly Styrene, lead singer of X-Ray Spex

She was born Marianne Elliott-Said in 1957 in Bromley, a suburb of London. Her mother was a Scotch-Irish legal secretary, her father a dispossessed Somali aristocrat who was never around.

In the mid 1970s, Bromley would become forever linked with the British punk explosion; it was the home of the famed "Bromley contingent," including Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux. Marianne wasn't part of this gang. At age 15, she had run away from home and become, by her own admission, a "barefoot hippie." It wasn't until she was 18 when she saw the Sex Pistols for the first time that she decided to embrace the punk movement and form X-Ray Spex.

It was a jump that lots of young Brits were making back then. The "peace" of hippie-dom didn't seem to match up with recession and unemployment. And "love" was the last thing that fascist gangs like the National Front were interested in. Even Poly Styrene, the name that Marianne would become be known by, seemed to scream of the alienation and emptiness facing down most young folks at the time.

So did the first album from X-Ray Spex. Germ Free Adolescents, released in 1978, stood apart for the stark juxtaposition between its subject and sound. Sarcastically cheerful lyrics of consumerism and the "easy life" bounce off crude, sharp guitar riffs. Songs like "Identity," "Art-I-Ficial" and "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" were urbane and witty gems during punk's first wave.

Then there was Poly herself, who stood apart for some obvious reasons. She was a woman in a scene dominated by men. Though punk was typically awash with pasty white faces, she was half Black. She had braces on her teeth and wore gaudy, neon outfits.

"Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard," she would say in a lobotomized dead pan, "but I think..."--then in her trademark wail: "Oh bondage! Up yours!"

This kind of statement couldn't be shrugged off. "It's always hard for women in rock music, but it was particularly hard in the '70s," says original Pistols bassist Glen Matlock. "I think she cut right through that."

The Carnival Against the Nazis, held right around the release of their first single, was another chance for X-Ray Spex to batter down some boundaries. Produced by Rock Against Racism as a way to counter fascist attempts at infiltrating the punk scene, the Carnival brought rock, punk, ska and reggae together in a united response. It's since become a touchstone of British music, and Poly was literally there from the beginning.

Roger Huddle, a founder of RAR, remembers the day well:

Poly with X-Ray Spex opened the 1978 carnival [with] her powerful sound, her lyrics of rebellion and defiance, her empowerment of women, Black and white. She began with four to six people in Victoria Park. Halfway through the first song, the 80,000-person march arrived, dancing towards the stage and Poly Styrene. She was RAR at that moment.

POLY ENDED up leaving X-Ray Spex in 1979, disillusioned with the tight corner that punk had painted itself into. She released a solo album, Translucence, a jazzed-up slice of post-punk reflecting her wide-reaching creative restlessness. It was during these years that she also took time to manage her mental health and converted to Hare Krishna.

X-Ray Spex would reunite twice--briefly in 1991, and again in 2008 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Germ Free Adolescents. Around this time, Poly also made a guest appearance at the Love Music Hate Racism festival in the same Victoria Park she had played in three decades earlier. Her stab at getting a 10,000-strong "Women Against War" concert together never got off the ground; nonetheless, it revealed her deep commitment to the change she wanted to see--a commitment that never seemed to dim.

Her high-profile return was greeted with an enthusiasm that surprised even Poly. Lots had changed since "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" The crowds she played in front of now included throngs of young women who saw her as an icon of sonic female empowerment. Though Poly couldn't deny that progress had indeed been made, she also insisted that "there are a lot more girls in bikinis looking sexy in videos, [and] I don't think that's gender equality myself."

Just this past March, she released another solo album, Generation Indigo. It's an eclectic genre-bending mix of missives against poverty, war, racism and sexism. Ever the optimist, Poly saw the album as something positive to leave behind:

Even though we're in a crazy situation, economically, and with wars, when things go far right, they will have to swing left. We have to become more caring and sharing. Generation Indigo are the people who will protest peacefully, and it's happening already.

Alas, Poly Styrene won't be there to see the outcome of these new uprisings. She won't get a chance see new boundaries fall, or be a part of the brilliant, unpredictable forms of art and music that are sure to spring forth. Those of us who will get that chance are only standing here because of true rebel artists like her.

Further Reading

From the archives