She Made a Difference: R.I.P. Poly Styrene
This past Saturday, we threw a little dance party at our house; we do that now and then. I like them to have themes, and this one was dedicated to the New Wave of the late 70s and very early 80s. To make the most of our space, I had my teenage son fill a wall with album covers from that period. For a reason that suddenly seems eerily coincidental, he only (and accidentally) put one cover on the wall the wrong way around: Germ-Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex.
At some point early in the evening, I played the X-Ray Spex single “The Day The World Turned Dayglo” and between that and the album cover, a handful of guests, most of whom bought records and attended gigs during the period (albeit in America and not the UK), commented on their love for the band. I shared with them the good and bad news: that Poly Styrene, the group’s instantly identifiable and iconic lead singer, had just released a new album, and that what I had heard of it was wonderful; and that simultaneously, she had announced that she had breast cancer.
On Monday April 25th, Poly Styrene passed away as a result of that breast cancer. She was 53. Ironic is too ineffective a word to describe how she left us the same moment she rejoined us. Bittersweet seems too painless. But for fuck’s sake, the news broke in America the very day her new album, Generation Indigo, was released. We were all talking about her, enjoying her presence, making the most of her return to the public eye. I was reading a review on NPR’s All Songs Considered and listening to two new songs at just about the very moment she was moving on.
We all pass away, some of us earlier than others, and that much we all understand, however reluctantly. It’s what we do with our time while we’re here that counts. As a teenager, with X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene did something invaluable with her time here: she stood up to be counted. And she did so on behalf of every down-trodden girl in Britain and beyond, at a time when sexism was so incredibly rampant in rock music that the very idea of a female fronting a rock band was considered a novelty, let alone a girl like her, (what was then called) a half-caste, braced-teeth non-singer of questionable conventional “good looks.” Some of us are old enough to remember how it felt to hear her intone those opening words “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard… but I think,” and then the primal scream that followed, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” That single was the sound of not just the female sex, but of an entire generation, unshackling itself, and it will never be forgotten.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the only great song she and her band (of boys, by the way) had up her sleeve: “I Am A Cliché,” “Identity,” “Art-I-Ficial,” “I Am a Poseur,” “Let’s Submerge” and, of course, “The Day The World Turned Dayglo” all impacted on us kids of punk as much as any in 1977 and ‘78. They were benchmarks of the personality crisis we were all undertaking, and in their glorious tunelessness, with Poly’s shouted vocal matched beat for beat by the wailing saxophone, they were ready-made teenage anthems.
But while X-Ray Spex were more than a one-hit wonder, they didn’t have it in them to perpetuate a career. Poly Styrene faded from the front covers and the TV screen, and then she faded from public view entirely. She disowned punk and went to live with the Hare Krishnas. (As recently as this February, in a disarmingly honest mother-daughter “Relative Values” piece in the Sunday Times, she stated that “I felt punk had been quite a negative and destructive force, and I’d joined the temple to replenish myself with something positive.”) There were occasional “whatever happened to…” items in the press, and once she got to grips with her bi-polar personality disorder, there was the occasional solo release, too.
But there was nothing that indicated a permanent (re)presence, not until the end of last year, when she returned, fully vibed up on the Internet, giving away the poignant song “Black Christmas” and, seeming to understand the importance of self-promotion, tweeting contentedly almost by the minute. She started reappearing in the mainstream media too; I was particularly taken by an interview in the January edition of Uncut with Ben Marshall, in which she responded almost incredulously to his standard hypothetical closing question, a piece of music journalism junk about whether she would take a suitcase with £75 million if she knew that “a Chinese guy will fall off his bike and die.” “No! What an awful idea,” she retorted. “I’m not sure why you bothered asking that.” It must have been frustrating that, right until the end, she had to suffer fools. Fortunately she didn’t suffer them gladly.
I saw X-Ray Spex in concert just the once, at the legendary Carnival Against The Nazis in Hackney in early 1978, where they performed alongside the Clash, Steel Pulse, Patrick Fitzgerald and the Tom Robinson Band, hoping to ensure that fascism didn’t gain a greater foothold in the UK than it already had. (The battle remains ongoing: Generation Indigo includes the song “Colour Blind” written in response to the BNP’s electoral successes in contemporary Britain.) And I never met Poly in person. But there’s a connection all the same. As Marianne Elliott-Said, she had attended Stockwell Manor in South London, where my mother was teaching at the time I got Jamming! going. Somehow, through contacts at her old school, Poly Styrene got wind of my fanzine and arranged for EMI to send me a “review” copy of her group’s debut album, Germ Free Adolescents. I am almost certain that it was the first free album I received direct from a major label. I remember being surprised that it came with a stamped golden imprint that declared that the album was for “Demonstration Purpose Only” and was “Not to be Sold,” especially as I had no intention of ever selling it.
That golden imprint is facing out into my living room today, alongside Poly Styrene’s day-glow tunic in a test tube bottle on the back of that sleeve. I still don’t know what to make of my son placing this album cover inadvertently with its front to the wall, but I do know that I played the actual LP this morning and that it still sounds vibrant, exciting, revolutionary. (And I love the mention of the Stockwell tube on “Warrior In Woolworths”; listening from so far away, it brings me right back home.) There are plenty obituary statements on the Net this morning along the lines of how, without Poly Styrene, there’d have been no Riot Grrrl movement, no Courtney Love, no Beth Ditto, etc. It’s hard to know for sure, isn’t it? Somebody else may have come along a year or two later and steered music in an entirely different direction. But this much is of no debate: without Poly Styrene, the punk movement of late 1970s Great Britain would have been that much more boring, that much more sexist, and that much less …colourful. It would not have been dayglo.
In that same Q&A in Uncut magazine, without letting on that she had breast cancer, Poly Styrene talked openly about her belief in the beyond. “I do believe in God and I do believe in Angels.” And she spoke just as frankly about her life and her legacy “I’m an eternal optimist,” she said. “I just want things to be better. The way I live my life is to try and be as good as I can, to help as many people as I can. Sometimes I do that by writing and raising awareness, mostly I do it just by trying to be good. I just hope that on my deathbed I have no regrets.”
There was no cause for any. She’s with her angels now. Thanks for doing and being good while you were here, Poly. You made a difference.