R.I.P. Poly Styrene, leader of X-Ray Spex and punk icon

R.I.P. Poly Styrene, leader of X-Ray Spex and punk icon

Poly Styrene, lead singer of X-Ray Spex and a punk icon who inspired generations of rebellious kids both male and female, has died after a brief battle with cancer of the spine and breast. She was 53. Her official Twitter feed confirmed her death last night with a statement: “We can confirm that the beautiful Poly Styrene, who has been a true fighter, won her battle on Monday evening to go to higher places." 

Styrene’s real name was Marianne Elliott-Said, the hippie daughter of a British legal secretary and a former Somali aristocrat who grew up in the same London suburb that produced David Bowie, Billy Idol, and Siouxsie Sioux. She first got into music as a reggae artist under the name Mari Elliott, releasing the single “Silly Billy” in 1976, but like so many other British punks, her life’s direction was forever changed after witnessing a Sex Pistols concert on her 18th birthday. Rechristening herself “Poly Styrene”—a name that, like her songs, served as a commentary on the plasticity of consumerist culture—she formed X-Ray Spex with guitarist Jak Airport, bassist Paul Dean, drummer B.P. Hurding, and, in what would come to set the band apart, saxophonist Lora Logic, whose raspy bleats matched the force of Styrene’s own shrill yet galvanizing scream. 

X-Ray Spex’s unusual line-up and particularly the strange sight of Poly Styrene—often clad in Dayglo and wearing thick braces on her teeth—quickly made them one of the must-see acts of the ‘70s punk scene, so much so that their second-ever live gig was at the famed Roxy. That April 2, 1977 show, a shared bill with Buzzcocks and Wire, was recorded for the compilation Live At The Roxy WC2, and featured the band’s performance of what would become their signature song, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”

Beginning with Styrene’s solemn, spoken-word intonation, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,” the song quickly becomes a non-stop blitz on conformity and consumerism—boilerplate punk targets even then, but railed against with a sense of playfulness and self-parody reflected in Styrene’s own pleas to be made “a slave to you all.” And of course, the song was open to plenty of other interpretations: The intro in particular positioned it as the feminist anthem it would become for so many riot grrls who would follow in Poly Styrene’s footsteps, while some saw the line “Oh bondage up yours!” as a dig at the Vivienne Westwood fashions that had quickly become the norm in the punk scene—another kind of conformity that Styrene rejected. Similarly, the sound of the song offers pure, joyfully raucous defiance to whatever weighty analysis you choose to oppress it with. No respectable punk collection is complete without it.

 

After the studio version of “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” was released in September, 1977, X-Ray Spex quickly became a media sensation and was soon courted by various record labels, finally signing with EMI. By that time, Lora Logic had been replaced by male saxophone player Rudi Thomson, although Logic’s arrangements remained on the group’s debut, Germ Free Adolescents. Though “Oh Bondage” wasn’t included, the rest of the 1978 album matched that opening salvo in exuberance and anti-consumerist screeds, laying out Styrene’s disenfranchisement with the phoniness of society—whether it be the synthetic, mass-produced goods swallowing the earth or the advertising images employed to sell them—in songs like “The Day The World Turned Dayglo,” “Art-I-Ficial,” and “Plastic Bag” that were as colorful as their subject matter was dark.

As hinted at in “Oh Bondage,” Styrene was also one of the few early punk artists to recognize that her rebellion was its own manufactured stance, gleefully owning up to it in “I Am A Poseur.” And one of the album’s most visceral moments, “Identity” (which was partly inspired by Styrene witnessing a girl slash her wrists in a club bathroom), could be seen as an indictment of losing your sense of self to the larger forces of fame: “Do you see yourself in the magazine?” Styrene asks. “When you see yourself does it make you scream?”

 

Not surprisingly, Styrene herself wearied of the pressures of being an icon rather quickly. In later years, she would often say that she had grown tired of the attempts to sexualize her (a common complaint by similar female punk artists like The Slits’ Ari Up), felt threatened by some of the male punk stars she was forced to fraternize with (one of her most often-told anecdotes involved Sid Vicious coming after her with a scythe), and even famously shaved her head before a concert, after going through what she termed a “traumatic experience” that she once compared to being raped by Nazis, though she never elaborated. Throughout all this, Styrene was also dealing with frequent hallucinations—most famously, witnessing a pink light she could touch lingering in the air—that led her to be initially diagnosed as schizophrenic and briefly institutionalized. (Much later in life, she would be more properly diagnosed as bipolar.) In 1979 she quit X-Ray Spex, then briefly embarked on a solo career with her debut album Translucence. With Styrene crooning softly over lush, flute-aided jazz arrangements, it was as great a departure from the frenetic sounds of Germ Free Adolescents as she could have possibly made.

 

In 1983, Styrene retreated from the music world by joining the Hare Krishna movement, and moving to a temple where she concentrated on raising her daughter (who now fronts the Madrid-based group Debutant Disco). She continued to record at the Krishnas' studio, however, and returned in 1986 with the Eastern-inflected EP Gods And Goddesses, an even softer sound mirrored on her New Age album Flower Aeroplane in 2004. She would also reunite with X-Ray Spex three more times: After a successful surprise gig in 1991, the group reformed with original sax player Logic for the 1995 album Conscious Consumer, an album that revived the group’s original anti-consumerist stance, but tempered it with Styrene’s newfound serenity on songs like “Prayer For Peace.” It was meant to be the first in a trilogy, but that year Styrene was hit by a fire engine, putting a swift end to any plans for touring or publicity. The group officially disbanded, though they would reunite once more for a 2008 gig at London's Roundhouse.

Last month, Styrene released what would prove to be her final album, Generation Indigo: Backed by everything from the guitar-and-sax storm of old to the sort of globe-spanning glitch-pop propagated by M.I.A., it sets Styrene’s cheery causticity against a bed of equally buoyant dance music. Rightfully critically acclaimed, it’s easily her best album since Germ Free Adolescents, effortlessly carrying her stalwart message forth into the future. That it sounds so lively and vital is even more remarkable considering it was produced and released while Styrene’s health was rapidly deteriorating, and makes it an even more tragic commentary on what we’ve lost.