No 17 - Spring 2012
A True Original: Poly Styrene 3 July 1957 - 25 April 2011
Over recent months we have lost some of music's truly exceptional female artists.
This is my tribute to one unique woman and icon of punk. One of the most important creative forces in British Punk.
She was born in Brixton on 3rd July 1957, her real name was Marian Elliott. After seeing the Sex Pistols at Brighton Pier on her 19th birthday, she was inspired to form her own band. She had something to say. Her issues were with consumerism, packaging, waste, junk food and that as a society we were being brainwashed by advertising. Remember, this was 1977 when most of society had not even heard of recycling much less thought about the environment, but here was a 19 year old taking issue with things most people took for granted. She was way ahead of her time. She met fellow band members, and drafted in pal Lora Logic on saxophone and formed the band X-Ray Spex. She had already penned a whole album of songs, and they very quickly got a record contract.
I know I'm artificial, but don't put the blame on me
I was reared with appliances in a consumer society
When I put on my make-up, the pretty little mask's not me
That's the way a girl should be in a consumer society
My existence is elusive, the kind that is
supported by mechanical resources
Artificial by Poly Styrene
Go back in time to 1978, a working class mining community in Yorkshire, a couple of bored, alienated 15 year olds are standing in a school playground feeling like there is no point to school and no future... then something astonishing happens: the windows of the 6th form common room, above us, are flung open, and someone turns up the record player to full volume... I hear this amazing wonderfully loud infectious voice shout out IDENTITY! then the guitar intro and descending bassline launch into the most fantastic song I'd ever heard until then, a song written by Poly.
Identity is the crisis can't you see?
When you look in the mirror do you see
yourself, do you see yourself on a TV screen
Do you see yourself in a magazine
When you see yourself does it make you scream?
When you look in the mirror do you smash it quick
Did you take the glass and slash your wrists
Did you do it for fame? Did you do it in a fit
Did you do it before you read about it?
Identity is the crisis can't you see?
Identity by Poly Styrene
I remember watching her on Top of The Pops and being fascinated by the way she looked. She was different; she wore braces on her teeth and didn't try to conform to the media stereotype of how a female performer should look (mind you, what punk did?) She wore bright, unusual outfits that she put together herself, she was just so interesting.
Back then in 1978, the mainstream music of the time was Saturday Night Fever, Grease and disco music. As good as that music was, youth needed a voice and something to identify with, to describe how you're feeling and make sense of the world when no-one else is giving you this guidance - not school, not your parents, not your peer group. When Identity boomed out across the school playground that day I think it shocked some of the mainstream kids, but it electrified and inspired my friend and I. We quickly formed a group after that, and like any other teenager into punk, we loved the music, the creativity and rebelliousness of it. It was an exciting scene and the start of independent labels appearing and the diy punk ethic. She was clearly imaginative and creative, but we didn't realise how perceptive her lyrics were. Her song "Genetic Engineering" describes a futuristic vision of a sinister world with overtones of Nazi Germany. When you consider the advances in genetic engineering - people could now choose the sex of their baby.. what next? skin colour?
It's all there in her lyrics.
Genetic Engineering... eins, zwei, drei, vier
Genetic engineering could create the perfect race
Create an unknown life force that could us exterminate.
Introducing worker clone as our subordinated slave
Whose expertise proficiency will surely dig our grave.
It's so very tempting will biologists resist?
When he becomes the creator
Will he let us exist?
Genetic Engineering by Poly Styrene
Another great example of her vision was the song "Warrior in Woolworth's" - I wonder did she have eco-warrior in mind when she wrote this?
Nowadays we have eco-warriors, dumpster diving, recycling and pressure brought upon supermarkets over the unnecessary packaging, all things society didn't think about in the seventies. Poly Styrene did, and what's more, she got her records into the top 10 and informed us all about it. One of the things I admired about her was that she didn't jump on any band wagon; she blazed her own trail and had her own unique , imaginative way of expressing herself; and she said it with intelligence, wit and originality.
Yours is the hippest, hypocritical point of view
Wake up and realise the things that you do
Peace Meal by Poly Styrene
Influenced by the fashion pages
Influenced by other stages
It ain’t hip if you are retro
You're a pseudo-quasi intellectual
Highly Inflammable by Poly Styrene
1977 and we are going mad
1977 and we've seen too many ads
1977 and we're gonna show them all
That apathy's a drag.
My mind is like a plastic bag, that
corresponds to all those ads
It sucks up all the rubbish that is fed into my ears
I eat Kleenex for breakfast, and use soft
hygienic wheetabix to dry my tears
My dreams I daren't remember
I'll tell you what I've seen
I dreamt that I was Hitler, the ruler of the
sea, the ruler of the universe
The ruler of the supermarket
And even fatalistic me
Plastic Bag by Poly Styrene
I know you're antiseptic, your deodorant smells nice
I'd like to get to know you, you're deep
frozen like the ice
He's a germfree adolescent, cleanliness is her obsession
Cleans her teeth 10 times a day, scrub
away, scrub away, scrub away
The S.R way
Her phobia is infection, she needs one to survive
It's her built in protection, without fear
she'd give up and die
Germfree Adolescents by Poly Styrene
I live off you, and you live off me
And the whole world lives off everybody
See we gotta be exploited, see we gotta be exploited
By somebody, by somebody, by somebody
I live off you by Poly Styrene
By 1978, she had become the most visible face of punk. The Sex Pistols had all but disintegrated, Sid Vicious was on a murder charge and the Banshees were still looking for a record deal. X-Ray Spex had a record in the top 10 and she had become the spokesperson for punk... but she was never going to compromise her beliefs. The following year she disbanded X-Ray Spex and disappeared from the music scene. It was the last year of the 1970's, Sid Vicious had died, it seemed like punk was dead, it was the last year of my schooldays and the beginning of my own identity crisis.
Two of the best punk songs seemed to sum up the period: "Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols and "Oh Bondage Up Yours" by Poly Styrene.
Some people think little girls should be
seen and not heard...
but I think “Oh Bondage Up Yours”
Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall
I wanna be a slave for you all
Oh bondage up yours, oh bondage no more
Thrash me, crash me, beat me till I fall
I wanna be a victim for you all
Oh bondage, up yours, oh bondage, no more
Chainstore, chainsmoke, I consume you all
Chaingang, chainmail, I don't think at all
Oh bondage, up yours, oh bondage no more
Oh Bondage Up Yours by Poly Styrene
Poly Styrene left this life too soon, she was just 53. It was with shock and great sadness that I heard. She was a bright spark who initiated things and created excitement, and she had a warm caring heart. She was also a wife and a mother and follower of Hare Krishna. She left a wonderful legacy. I will never forget the inspiration and voice of my youth.
The unique, talented and beautiful Poly Styrene R.I.P X
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