Poly Styrene 1957 - 2011
I don’t remember the first time I ever heard the X-ray Spex. I assume that my mum must have played them while I was growing up. But I remember the first time I ever heard them.
I must have been thirteen years old, sat in my bedroom. At the time, it was covered in posters of people I wanted to be like, from a music scene I’d discovered aged eleven and devoured wholeheartedly. I’d found one of my mum’s old tapes - a punk compilation from the early 80’s that I still have, and I’d been listening to it for a couple of hours. The final song on the tape came on, and I was riveted. It was The Day The World Turned Day-Glo. As soon as Poly Styrene’s opening lyrics began, like an ethereal tour de force, I was in love.
I copied my mum’s vinyl copy of Germ Free Adolescents to a tape that I still frequently listen to. The howling invective of the vocals filled me with joy. These were shouting, screaming, pleading, but ultimately joyful songs, and they felt like they were made for me. They were songs filled one minute with unbridled anti-capitalist fury, and the next with delicate innocence.
The X-Ray Spex became a constant soundtrack to my teenage years, and beyond. Shouting the opening line from Oh Bondage! Up Yours! at my friends by way of greeting, dancing like a furious dervish to I Am A Poseur, and scowling along to Identity at my lowest ebb. The first time I properly met my ex’s dad, we stayed up until the wee small hours of the morning, drinking white wine and listening to GFA, sharing a particular love of Warrior In Woolworths. We were firm friends after that. All these songs have a deep personal meaning to me.Whatever mood I was in, however I felt, Poly Styrene had always been there, and felt that before.
This might sound like childish, naive idealism, and in a way, it is. I came to the X-Ray Spex 24 years after the recording of Germ Free Adolescents, but the pertinence of the songs still rings true. I read reports about the dangerous political climate we face, and I am reminded of the chorus to Plastic Bag (“1977, and we are going mad/1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/1977 and we’re going to show them all/apathy’s a drag”). I look at the culture of celebrity and I Live Off You pops into my head. These are songs of life, with a supersonic, dischordant twist - that was brought purely by Poly’s huge talent. Her stamping, bounding, often surreally haunting voice put the X in the X-Ray Spex, and made anyone who listened to them feel alive.
For all the songs spoke to me through their lyrics and melody, there was another important factor in making me stick with them all these years, despite their miniscule discography. Poly Styrene was a woman. Although the punk scene is irrevocably tied with progressive, liberal notions and ideas of equality, women are sorely under-represented in it. Yes, there are other brilliant women flying the flag, but Poly always had a special place in my heart. Angry but loving, screaming but soft, brilliant but flawed, with one turn a lost little girl, and the next a highly sexualised force of nature, she was a beautiful and compelling dichotomy, and her music shaped my life.
So thank you, Marian. For all the good times, the memories, and mostly, for the music. The world will be a much less colourful place without you, but we’ll keep playing your songs.
Originally published at Forty Shades of Grey.