…look, when I started this thing it honestly never occurred to me that I’d end up writing tributes to dead heroes from my youth pretty much every bloody week like some kind of grief tourist, but…here we go again…I really can’t let this one pass without comment. Marianne Elliott-Said, better known as Poly Styrene, lead singer of the definitive punk group X Ray Spex, died of cancer on April 25th at the age of 53. She had just released her first album for many years, Generation Indigo, which she had been promoting enthusiastically, even conducting interviews from her hospice bed.
If your criterion for a really great group is for them to arrive, put out a bunch of brilliant records, play some electrifying gigs and then call it a day before they get a chance to sink into comforting mediocrity then X Ray Spex may just about qualify as the best band ever (although, like pretty much every other punk outfit they did reform in the 1990s). X Ray Spex released a total of sixteen songs across their five singles and their LP Germfree Adolescents, a discography that can easily be contained on one CD with enough space left over to accommodate a few dodgy live tracks and radio sessions. Even at their least inspired they were full of raw energy, and Poly Styrene’s lyrics were always effective sloganeering against mindless consumerism, but at their frequent best this group was incendiary. The first single Oh Bondage! Up Yours is a basic enough punk thrash, with Lora Logic’s defiantly non-mellow saxophone parping being the one thing to differentiate it from any number of wannabe garage bands, but it’s the unignorable blaring vocal that really marks it out: after the spoken intro declaring “some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” Poly delivers her manifesto for liberation and equality on one hoarse note, sailing up to a high-pitched shriek for the last note of the chorus. Subtle it’s not, but you can’t miss the point it’s making.
It’s the next three singles that are the masterpieces though, a remarkable hat-trick that can stand next to anything I can think of in rock music. Identity powers along on a sax riff enlivened by the occasional widdly guitar fill, with Poly urgently bawling out a cautionary description of nervous breakdown and attempted suicide that’s simultaneously harrowing and thrilling. Germfree Adolescents is a ballad, no less, with a delicately phased and echoey electric guitar pulse underpinning the bleakly humorous lyric about an obsessive compulsive girl who’s terrified of being infected by the outside world and “cleans her teeth ten times a day”. Best of all is The Day The World Turned Dayglo, a vividly surreal nightmare depiction of a absurdist synthetic landscape howled over a cartoon heavy metal guitar lick punctuated by searing sax blasts. Poly’s lack of formal musical training results in the killer touch: extra beats being shoehorned into each chorus that give the song a fascination no music school graduate would have been able to contrive. These three singles are all on the album, along with other gems such as Art-I-Ficial, which again messes with the standard time signature while lambasting the fakeness of modern society, and I Live Off You, the lyric of which is as cogent a deconstruction of capitalism as I’ve ever heard (“I live off you/You live off me/And the whole world lives off of somebody/See we’ve got to be exploited/See we’ve got to be exploited/By somebody/By somebody/By somebody”).
Almost as important as the sound of these records was Poly Styrene’s appearance. She was of mixed race and diminutive stature, and would go out on stage with her hair cropped short and wearing a visible brace on her teeth. I remember seeing her on Top Of The Pops in 1978, where she made an impression on me just because she looked so different from the idealised, airbrushed images you’d see in your standard soft rock video. The way she looked was a powerful message for those who felt themselves disenfranchised by the stifling conventionality of the presentation of society in the media.
X Ray Spex fell apart in 1979 after Poly’s attempts to move the band on from punk to something less overtly confrontational met displeasure from some fans, and after one solo album in 1980 (the deceptively gentle and pastoral Translucence) she spent much of the next decade out of music. She was erroneously diagnosed as schizophrenic, and subsequently sectioned, before eventually discovering she was bi-polar. She was also initiated as a Hare Krishna follower. In the 90s and 2000s she started to play gigs again, and sporadically record. She always seemed upbeat, and was amazingly positive even in her last interviews after she became aware that the end was near. A true one-off.