arena who is poly styrene

In Tribute: Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex)

Originally published in 2011 in the aftermath of her passing, we republish a tribute to Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex who died four years ago this week.

It should never have worked: a mixed-race, chubby, braces-wearing Brixton gal, fronting an edgy, hybrid punk band in the 70s? But Marian Joan Elliot-Said aka Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex went ahead and did it –bursting onto the British Punk scene with her battle cry, ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’ For a little black gal growing up in the heart of the Shire county of Gloucester, Styrene spoke to the stirrings of rebellion in her little country soul – and said all the things I wasn’t allowed to, at the time. For me, she was the exotic peacock in a sea of commonplace birds that represented the general populace back then – there was no one like her in Gloucester!

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In a recent posting on her site before her death, Styrene said: “I don’t have a lot to give except this precious gift of music and joy. I’m glad I can share it with you” and what a gift it is too. From the burgeoning days of British Punk to latter-day art rock, feminist-punks such as Karen O and Beth Ditto, Poly Styrene’s influence has stood the test of time, transcending over 30 years of music fads as they rise then fade from fashion. Her rally cry of “Little girls should be seen and not heard/I say Oh Bondage, Up Yours” is as apt today as it was when it was first uttered circa 1977.

 

Having battled bi-polar disorder and a complete break-down in 1978, Styrene became a Hare Krishna devotee and used the recording studio at the Krishna temple to continue her creative expression through music. Billboard magazine once described her as, ‘one of the last controversial persons in rock history, male or female’ and never was a truer word spoken than when Styrene went on to record what would become her ‘swansong’ album release, Generation Indigo, at the end of March this year.

First release ‘Virtual Boyfriend’ was an indication that Styrene had not lost the ability to engage with contemporary issues such as the inanity of having a boyfriend whom you only text or receive missed calls from like a Myspace friend. Then there was ‘I Luv Ur Sneakers’ that was inspired by the youngsters who turned up at her Roundhouse gig with the reformed X-Ray Spex, wearing sneakers similar to hers that weren’t a product of animal slaughter – “no animal lost its soul in the production of your beautiful sneakers”, she sings beatifically.

Third track and album title, ‘Generation Indigo’, was inspired by Styrene’s daughter Celeste’s generation and draws on the Jamaican dub tradition prevalent in British urban dancehalls and shebeens during the ’70s. Politics, as ever with Styrene, gets a deserved airing in ‘Code Pink Dub’ where the war in Iraq comes under scrutiny and where she unequivocally states in an interview, “My real-life villain is the personification of war, which is open to interpretation.” Global warming is also tackled in ‘White Gold’; racism in ‘Colour Blind’; and poverty with its resultant problems is underlined in ‘No Rockefeller’, focusing on child labour in the Far East, and the slaying of street kids in Brazil. Typically, her songs are filled with intelligent lyrics and a deep awareness and understanding of each situation she highlights.

Though issue-ladened, Generation Indigo features Poly Styrene’s unique take on genre-defying music, traversing the decades to produce nods to her punk and bass-heavy, sound-system past to the contemporary electro-pop-dance music the album represents – succinctly captured by ‘epic sound-style’ producer, Youth (The Verve, Edwyn Collins, Killing Joke).

When asked to describe herself in seven words, Styrene’s reply was, “I’m a Poseur ‘n’ I don’t care!” I guess that statement is the one that describes accurately the person the world came to know as Poly Styrene. Despite her battle and eventual defeat to cancer, Styrene always stayed true to her own unique self – and it is this self-assured declaration of intent that encouraged many of my generation to do the same. Having inspired at least two generations of independent-minded females, I was cheered (despite my sadness at her passing) by a statement that my adolescent daughter made onlyyesterday – “I wish she was still alive mummy, I would love to have met her!”

Long Live the Queen of Punk – the Original Indigo Girl – Marian Joan Elliot-Said aka Poly Styrene. May she rest in peace!

 

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This tribute was originally published at Muso’s Guide.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.