Poly Styrene – Punk Visionary

The film, I Am A Cliche, about Poly Styrene’s life and music with X-Ray Spex, is premiered today at the Glasgow Film Festival. Born in 1957, Marianne Joan Elliott-Said seems to have made the maximum impact on generations of women musicians that have climbed onto the alternative music stage since 1977. This was the year in which Poly fronting X-Ray Spex singlehandedly made it cool to look and be different from the regular girls in the music industry. Also, The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Ramones are often cited as punk instigators, but they basically looked very similar. Poly Styrene, with her jumble sale granny jackets, braces and dual heritage crashed that punk party and opened the door to all kinds of girls. For that, we are very very grateful. Look out for a future blogpost about the film once we’ve seen it; for now, we’re thinking about Poly’s song lyrics for X-Ray Spex. A common opinion is how ahead of her time the lyrics are on their album, Germ Free Adolescents.

It’s almost expected for today’s journalists to say how Poly’s 1977 song-themes run the gamut of new millennium issues: environmental concern, consumerism, avoiding infection, self- reflection and identity. How prescient! What insight! There’s also people defining Poly as ‘spiritual’, having visions or being other-worldly.

You can’t expect punkgirldiaries to tow the line unquestioningly. We’re always about using our 2020 vision to look back at what might have really been going on in that 1970s world.

In the excellent book ‘Dayglo’ by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell and Zoe Howe, there are memories, opinions, diaries and descriptions by nearly fifty musicians, friends and family that combine to create a complex, jagged view of Mari Elliot. Some of the accounts contradict each other; Poly gives different answers to the same questions on different occasions and they’re all plausible and interesting. We really wish that she were still alive and telling her own story.

Poly Styrene | With Just A Hint Of Mayhem

Ok, let’s go back…

When punk began, there were many musicians who were part of the established order. They were male, naturally – lots of white guy rock players who loved a guitar solo, a driving beat maybe with a bit of prog rock weirdness. If you’ve been around musicians, you’ll know that the instrumental part of getting a band together is what they love, because that’s … well … music.

The new lyrical possibilities of punk meant that bands could write about everyday things, protest their struggles and write self-deprecating prosaic love songs. That’s why we like them – punk songs don’t tend to portray women as some kind of magical force or a mystery object.

So, was Poly Styrene ‘spiritual’ and ‘other-wordly’? No – it’s now recognised that she had bi-polar with its highs, lows and inspirational motivation a lot of the time. Also a manipulating manager was probably giving her things like LSD in addition to the drugs she was willingly taking, so the report of ‘visions’ has a quite ordinary explanation.

Were her songs ahead of their time? Yes, when you compare them with the male rock and punk songs at the time. The boys sang about smashing up, positivity and fighting the system but they also referenced real life – like The Clash naming Brixton, Hammersmith Palais, The Westway and Ford Cortinas.

Poly herself said  “I was trying to do more like a diary of 1977” but her female, mixed heritage reference points were different from the white London boys;  Poly’s vision and confidence also marked her out from other girls at the time.

What Poly did was to reference the things in real life that were part of her world. Growing up with the marvels shown on TV’s Tomorrow’s World, there was an unquestioning embracing of anything technological, which in the mid-1970s included a lot of new materials. The perspex, polypropylene, latex, rayon, acrylic and synthetic fibres  of ‘Dayglo’ come straight from Tomorrow’s World and women all over the UK were used to the debate about whether Brentford Nylon’s sheets were a colourful ironing breakthough or an electrostatic nightmare. The shallowness of new products and the obsession of cleaning were totally apparent to anyone who spent any time at all watching 1970s TV.  

The other songs on X-Ray Spex’s album have themes of self-reflectiveness and insecurity  –  Cliché, Poseur, Identity and ‘I can’t do anything’.  These are women’s ancient barriers – our own portable glass ceilings that were plentiful in the 1970s and still running a thread via many women singer-songwriters of today. “I’m feeling shit”  is simply the female equivalent of  ‘Ford Cortina’.

Poly Styrene’s lyrics are wonderful, innovative and influential. Although her inspiration is the punk ‘write what you know’ thing, Poly’s songs stand out because there were so few punk women writing lyrics at this time and no-one with her background and psychological make-up. On reflection, maybe that does make her a genius……

“once you’ve worked up the courage to do something and it doesn’t actually hurt you when you’ve done it, then it’s easier to do all sorts of strange or frightening things. If you’re in the right frame of mind you can do anything.”

Poly Styrene 1977, to Chris de Whalley Sounds

A version of this appears in punkgirldiaries printed Blogzine 2. A limited number are still available here – £10 + p & p.

4 thoughts on “Poly Styrene – Punk Visionary

  1. To this day I don’t think any band ‘sounds like’ X-RAY SPEX. Those first 3 singles were superb from the opening blasts. Poly’s voice unique and one of the most humble punk musicians I saw being interviewed back then. Can’t believe she’s gone, sadly missed.

  2. An erudite, concise and objective analysis of Poly Styrene’s unique place and significance to the music, culture and politics of a particular time. Thank you for sharing.

    I hope the film, which I happily contributed funds towards, brings her extraordinary contribution to modern culture to new audiences as well as reminding those of us who caught X-Ray Spex first time around of her magnetism.

    Celeste and Zoe’s book exposes her power, her profundity and fragility. Little wonder many couldn’t handle her presence, or sought to manipulate her without respect.

    I took my children, then still at school, to the reunion gig at the Roundhouse in September 2008. They still talk about it now.

  3. You can buy the film now, it’s available from half 3 today, and it’s then available to watch for 3days. The creation records premiere story sold out so move quickly!

  4. ‘Opened the door to be different from the regular girls in the music industry’: true. The bass player in Dutch band the Speedtwins, stage name Bessie Turf (=’Bessie Bunter’), weighed about 100 kilogram and had no previous music experience. In any music genre prior to punk, she could never have joined a band.

    In 1980, I interviewed Poly (and her manager). But the printer managed to lose all 30 pages (also Siouxsie and the Banshees, Undertones, Poison Girls interviews, etc. etc.) of that Pin issue. Last year, I found my notebook with the Poly interview notes again after decades. I reconstructed the interview, and hope it will be published soon.

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