Poly Styrene: 1957-2011

April 26, 2011

Flashing a mouthful of metal braces as sharp and flashy as her irrepressible attitude, Marian Elliot was the most unlikely of rock stars. Rechristening herself Poly Styrene and leading her band X-Ray Spex at the height of the London punk explosion in the mid-’70s, she only gave us one brilliant and timeless album: “Germ Free Adolescents.” But hers was a voice that absolutely was necessary, then and now, and it never will be forgotten.

The singer and musician died Monday evening after a valiant fight with breast cancer, which was announced to the world shortly after she celebrated the release of a new album, “Generation Indigo.” According to her publicists at Girlie Action:

At the core of Poly’s work from “Germ Free Adolescents” through “Generation Indigo” is a revolutionary with a genuine love for this world and the people and things in it. Her indomitable heart is all over the new material from her championing of cruelty free products and as she put it, “being conscious of the slaughterhouse culture” (“I Luv Ur Sneakers”) to giving voice to marginalized poor people worldwide (“No Rockefeller”) to tackling racism (“Colour Blind”). Poly Styrene never stopped exciting us with her incisive world-view, amazing wit, and her adventurous sound. It is impossible to imagine what modern music would be like without her incalculable contributions but it’s probably not worth imagining a world that never had Poly Styrene in it.

“Generation Indigo” has been in my stack of must-listen-to new releases for a few weeks now; it’s next up on my play list this morning. In the meantime, since her music is the best way to celebrate her life and spirit, here is an appreciation of “Germ Free Adolescents” that I wrote in 2002 for my Great Albums column in the Sun-Times, and a cover of "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" by my band Vortis with guest vocalist Raedy Ping of the Cathy Santonies (and if you've never heard the original, believe me, we don't even come close to doing it justice).

As with many great rock bands, X-Ray Spex’s career began with a declaration of defiance and contempt. “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard,” Poly Styrene cooed on the band’s debut single. “But I think: OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!”

Contemporaries of the Sex Pistols and the Clash during the English punk explosion of the mid-’70s, the quintet made only one album in its original incarnation. Like the Pistols’ “Nevermind the Bullocks,” this disc rounded up a series of scattershot singles that preceded it, and which were never intended to stand as a collection.

But 1978’s “Germfree Adolescents” is in fact a near-perfect rock album, brimming with energy, intensity, and personality, and continuing to influence a legion of bands (both female-fronted and otherwise) a quarter of a century later.

The daughter of a Somalian father and an English mother, short, pudgy, frizzy-haired Marian Elliott had been a pupil of Brian May’s when he was still a school teacher before hitting it big with Queen. She started her career with a reggae single in 1976, when she was only 15, but her direction changed abruptly when she stumbled upon the Sex Pistols performing at London’s Hastings Pier.

“There was something that was a little bit more of my generation,” she told Richie Unterberger in the 1998 book, Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll. “I thought, ‘Oh, if they can get a band together, I should be able to do that, too!’” And so she did, recruiting guitarist Jak Airport, bassist Paul Dean, drummer B.P. Hurding, and original saxophonist Lora Logic, and rechristening herself Poly Styrene.

Like Johnny Rotten, Styrene was an exceedingly unconventional rock front person; in addition to her age and looks, there was the fact that she wore big, shiny braces on her teeth. Her voice squeaks, screeches, and squeals whenever she attempts to hit a note out of range of the basic Patti Smith monotone, but she never lets that stop her. In fact, it’s the major source of her appeal: Nothing can stop prickly Poly.

Arguably rock’s first post- or second-wave feminist, Styrene’s concerns are extremely political, but there is always a sharp and winning sense of humor, as well as an obvious lust for life. Her targets include rampant consumerism (“Warrior in Woolworths,” “I Am a Poseur”), racism and sexism (“I Live Off You,” “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”), and the dehumanizing tendencies of the modern world (“Genetic Engineering,” “The Day the World Turned Dayglo,” and the title track). But all of these issues are attacked with a silvery smile and an enticing if unique sexuality.

In Styrene’s hands, the famous verse of “Oh Bondage”--”Bind me, tie, me chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave to you all!”--sounds as much like an invitation as it does a sarcastic critique. And her analysis of capitalism--”I live off you/And you live off me/And the whole world lives off of everybody/See we gotta be exploited”--is delivered with a celebratory vigor that belies its strident anger.

“I think the message was different lyrically because I was writing about things that at the time were a bit futuristic,” Styrene told Unterberger. (The album cover depicted the five band members trapped in giant test tubes.) “Like ‘Genetic Engineering’ was just something that was sparked off by me reading an article about genetics in Time magazine. Now it’s a real thing, isn’t it?”

Indeed it is, and so is the anti-corporatization movement that Styrene seemed to predict. “My mind is like a plastic bag/That corresponds to all those ads,” she sings. “It sucks up all the rubbish/That is fed in through my ear.”

Lyrics such as these are backed by brilliantly minimal pop hooks and propelled by a simple but accomplished rhythm section and Airport’s restrained yet potent buzzsaw guitar. When it came time to record, Logic (who was even younger than Styrene) was jettisoned in favor of more adept session players; Styrene has said she had a tendency to play all over the lyrics. It was a wise move, because the occasional bursts of sax are what makes the album really special, underscoring the melodies, and drawing a line that connects the classic rock ’n’ roll of the early ’50s with the so-called No Wave/free-jazz noise movement of the ’80s and beyond.

At the same time, Styrene provides a link between rock’s female pioneers and the riot girls of the present. “People said, ‘Oh, you sing just like Poly Styrene,’” said Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, great!’ A lot of girls had never heard of Poly Styrene; maybe they’ll hear me and then buy an X-Ray Spex record.”

Unfortunately, “Germfree Adolescents” was never officially issued in the U.S. until a Caroline Records reissue in 1992. “It came to a point where it was just like quit while you’re ahead, or go down,” Styrene said, and X-Ray Spex broke up shortly after the album’s release. The singer went on to become a Hare Krishna, and she believes that hurt her with a close-minded music industry. “I was blacklisted… It was just considered unhip,” she said, though she’d eventually provided Krishna chants to recordings by the Dream Academy and Culture Club.

In 1980, Styrene released a solo album called “Translucence” with a cool, cocktail-jazz vibe, and in 1996, X-Ray Spex reunited for a respectable effort called “Conscious Consumer” that pretty much found it picking up where it had left off (but with a more adept Logic now back on sax). Still, nothing beats the focused assault of the 16 tracks on “Germfree Adolescents.” It remains an essential soundtrack for a revolution that is still very much alive. Call it fight songs for the barricades--and turn it up loud.