The Legacy of Poly Styrene

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 04.26.11 in Spotlights

[On April 25, 2011, on the eve of the U.S. release of Generation Indigio, Poly Styrene - one of punk's great pioneers - tragically lost her battle with cancer. eMusic's Andrew Perry spoke with Poly via email during the course of the last month in anticipation of Indigo's release. It is in honor of her memory and tremendous legacy that we run that interview this week.]

One of punk’s most colourful and unforgettable singers, Poly Styrene was on the cusp of a return after a long and mysterious absence. The former frontwoman of the fierce and vibrant X-Ray Spex, Styrene infused punk’s ruddy three-chord template with her own dayglo attitude. Unerringly melodic songs like “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” “Identity” and “Art-I-Ficial” – all of them from X-RS’s lone album, the outright-classic “Germ-Free Adolescents” – were shot through with Poly’s sense of feminine individuality, an effortless Pop Art zing and a rare blend of both humor and menace.

Born Marian Joan Elliott-Said to a British mother and (absentee) Somalian father, Poly had her first punk awakening in the late ’70s, watching the Sex Pistols play a set of cover versions on Hastings Pier. “It was just a moment when they weren’t signed and I just thought that’s something I could do – get up and play without being signed, and that was what appealed to me.”

Soon, X-Ray Spex were a hit on the U.K. punk scene, playing one of their earliest gigs at the legendary London punk club, The Roxy. Styrene recalls via email: “I remember that gig being quite bizarre, with girls in dog collars and leads, being pulled along by their boyfriends, but this was their kind of dancing. To me it was quite a bizarre night, but they all seemed happy expressing themselves in this way. The vibe was always quite intense in there.

“I don’t like to blow my own trumpet,” she continues, “but I think X-Ray Spex stood out among other bands, and as a body of work it was quite individual. Having a saxophone player and not writing about doom and gloom too much, and X-Ray Spex made people dance. I think it brought people joy, and it was quite colorful.”

But they were quite confrontational, too – wearing day-glo clothes, with Poly’s wailing the confrontational anthem “Oh Bondage, Up Yours.” Weren’t people scared and shocked?

“Not really, no, I think people thought it was kind of cute,” she says. “I wasn’t out to shock people. “Bondage” just came out of the blue, it was just one of those songs that I thought was quite apt for punk and the Roxy, so it got put in the set list.”

Poly quickly became an icon of punk individuality, amid a scene which boasted a rare influx of strong female characters. “It just felt that it didn’t matter what gender you were,” recalls Poly. “Gender seemed not to be such an issue in the punk days. These days, if you were Chopin or Bach you’d be known for your music, but I don’t know if you’re a girl that that’s the case. You’re probably known for your looks, and there’s nothing wrong with beauty, but whether it’s actually helping the female cause of being equal to men, you just have to judge for yourself.”

After making their one landmark album, X-Ray Spex promptly split up, amid rumors that Poly was suffering from schizophrenia (she was actually later diagnosed with bipolar disorder). She has since preferred to remain out of the public eye, only surfacing with her occasional solo records. “I only create when I’ve been inspired to do so, or horrified at the destruction of the world with wars,” she explains simply.

But after at a rousing X-Ray Spex reunion gig at the Roundhouse in September ’08, Poly set to work her first new album in seven years. Called Generation Indigo, it’s a poppy, danceable romp, full of the kind of witty pop-cultural references and uplifting tunes which, even after three decades of imitation and influence, only she can write. From critiques of MySpace dating to her eulogy to sneakers, it feels vibrant and of-the-moment. “I just channel my songs like a medium,” she says. “Who knows why, but they just come through me, and they’re for sharing. I sing them to my friends, and if my friends like them, then I’m quite happy that they’re good songs.”

Generation Indigo found Poly collaborating with another legend of the punk era, Youth, who originally played bass in Killing Joke, but who has since become one of British rock’s most in-demand producers, thanks to successes with the likes of the Verve, Primal Scream and, of course, Paul McCartney.

“My label, Future Noise Music, suggested I meet him,” she says. “I had heard of him, and we had some mutual friends, but obviously had never met. So we met, I sang him my songs, we got on and it all went from there. I don’t know whether we’re kindred spirits, but we really gelled creatively. I arrived with about 16 songs and the top-line melodies, and I added some stuff during the recording process. My daughter Celeste added the chorus on “Kitsch” during the recording process too. Then, Youth did the arrangements and added his musical input – he played bass on all the tracks, Viv Albertine [from The Slits] did guitar on “Ghoulish,” Brother Culture did backing vocals on a few of the reggae dubby tracks. Youth also played guitar on some of the tracks, too, but Matt Chandler plays guitar on all tracks, David Knock on drums, Michael Rendall did the programming and keyboards.”

On this new record, Poly opted for a modern sound, built around synths and dance beats as much as punky guitars. Through her daughter, she’s clued into the sounds and ideas of post-millennial youth. The album’s title refers to a New Age theory that the presence of higher levels of indigo in the aura of today’s youth will, in Poly’s words, “change the world in a positive and peaceful way.”

While Poly says that her Krishna consciousness is a guiding force in her life, her songs are not averse to playful references to pop culture – among them, fashion, celebrity and MySpace. “I [Heart] Yr Sneakers,” for instance, gives a shout-out to trainers [British sport shoes], for being leather-free – avoiding what Poly calls “the slaughterhouse culture.” “Virtual Boyfriend,” meanwhile, is about a different kind of meat market, making sly jokes about how relationships have changed in the age of the internet.

“It’s just a fun twist on modern relationships,” she says. “I think relationships can become more superficial and end before they even really begin, so we need to be careful and also maintain the importance of human contact.”

On the very cusp of her re-emergence with Generation Indigo, it was announced that Poly had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Though constantly drained of energy by the ensuing treatment, she was determined to honor all her promotional commitments, including this interview, but requested that the subject of her illness itself remain off-limits. Instead, the record stands as what it is: a testament to her bold, singular, uncompromising spirit.