Poly Styrene R.I.P, 1957-2011
It was a given.
Everyone always accepted how wonderful X-Ray Spex were, how inspirational their non-conformist singer Poly Styrene was. The way their songs so presciently captured the alienation and sterility of modern-day society. That abrasive saxophone and the repetitive guitar lines. The sardonic and oddly betrayed and wonderfully articulated lyrics. The way ‘I Am A Cliche’ didn’t, but should have, become the theme song for every punk that followed. The gleeful venom Poly Styrene used to spit out lines about her pet rat.
I used to have whole dance routines worked out to X-Ray Spex songs in the Scouts Hall where we hung out in Chelmsford. First my arm would move, then my feet, then both arms … by the end I was flailing uncontrollable. X-Ray Spex were just so perfect for me: a punk band that even then really, obviously didn’t fit into any sort of given template. (After their one album, 1978’s absolutely fucking incredible Germ Free Adolescents, the band fell apart: Poly released what seemed to be the wilfully strange, jazz-flecked Translucence, an album I semi-religiously would try to get into every five years – and fail. She then joined the Hare Krishnas.) Lyrics that challenged – not outright, but with intelligence and wit – the prevalent status quo, wherever it might be falling, mainstream or alternative.
It was the saxophone… no, fuck that, it was Poly Styrene’s braces that I particularly liked. I had braces too: people would ask me if I’d had them fitted deliberately.
“Yes,” I’d reply, smirking. And then named my band Fixed Grin.
‘The Day The World Turned Day-Glo’ fills my veins with fire: ‘I Live Off You’ is the best answer to capitalist society I’ve heard: ‘Highly Inflammable’ is pure wonderful spookiness: ‘Identity’, well duh!: ‘Warrior In Woolworths’ we could all relate to … couldn’t we? These were not simple HATE THE POLICE or BOY WANTS GIRL WANTS BOY songs, very far from it. Her, and The Slits … they were the main reason I loved punk rock.
Poly Styrene was the fucking coolest singer ever. That was so much a given, it feels weird to offer any reasons even now. She had a rasp. She had a translucent honesty. Without a doubt, the reason I fell for Bikini Kill was because Kathleen Hanna also clearly loved her with a passion.
She looked fantastic.
The last time I heard music from Poly was a joint single she did with my old friend John Robb’s band Gold Blade. A wonderful, ace, Christmas single.
So I read today that Marianne Joan Elliott-Said (Poly Styrene) passed away at the age of 53, following a battle with cancer. She’d just released a new album, Generation Indigo, which had some great reviews. I haven’t heard it yet. Trust me, that’ll change before the day’s out.
My world suddenly seems a whole lot less colourful and exciting.
Here’s a link to the BBC news story.
And here’s one to an interview conducted by Dave Simpson for The Guardian a month ago.
Here’s a link to a track-by-track interview John Robb did with her about Generation Indigo.
Here is a great description of Poly Styrene’s appeal that I found on a message board:
“Sounds like every put-upon and unfairly marginalised adolescent getting their revenge against the cool kids.”