Poly Styrene, Thank You.

[I just finished writing this and am about to send it over to Razorcake to see if they want to use it. But I thought I’d also post it here. Mack, I didn’t even ask your permission to quote you. I hope you don’t mind. k-]

This morning I was greeted with the news that Poly Styrene had died. I should be getting use to the deaths of punk icons by now, given that so many have begun to pass on from either hard living or old age. But the death of Poly Styrene hit me pretty hard. I never met her. Never got to see her perform live. But she made a deep and indelible mark on me.

Born Marianne Elliot-Said, Poly Styrene went to see the Sex Pistols perform on her eighteenth birthday. Inspired by what she witnessed, she immediately formed the band X-Ray Spex. They released only one album, Germ Free Adolescence, before splitting up (they reformed later, but I’m not counting that). They gained famed with “Oh Bondage Up Yours!,” marked by Styrene’s infectious and absolutely unconventional vocal style. After the band broke up, she went on to release three solo albums, including this years’ Generation Indigo. She also spent some time being a Hare Krishna. I read somewhere that Boy George of Culture Club tried to “liberate” her from a Hare Krishna temple. I really hope that story is true, because I like to imagine how it must have gone down.

I got turned onto Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex fairly early. It was probably around 1981-83, just after I got into punk as a really young teenager. For me, punk was a guys’ thing. At the time, I didn’t know too many females who were into punk and all the bands I listened to were made up entirely of guys: The Clash, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Minor Threat, and Black Flag. In my feeble mind, punk was entirely a male thing. Picking up the X-Ray Spex’ Germ Free Adolescence at the local record shop blew the top of my fucking skull right off.

First off, that wasn’t what I thought punk was supposed to sound like. I assumed it was all just macho-posing hard rock. This was playful, catchy, unconventional, and most definitely punk. And that voice! Holy fucking shit. That was some serious emotion punching through my speakers. Completely unorthodox, even by what I thought punk standards were. And what the hell is a saxophone doing in a punk rock song? Suddenly the horizons of what punk was and could be opened up all around me.

I remember each sides of the album saved their knock-out punches for last. Side A culminated with the brilliant song “Identity,” while side B slams the reader with “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo.” Supposedly Poly wrote “Identity” after seeing a girl slash her wrists in a bathroom. She took that tragedy and turned it into a powerful indictment of our capitalist consumer society. I still have no idea what “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo” is about, but I do know that it is a brilliant piece of work. My friend Mack wrote to me this afternoon and noted that Poly wrote more brilliant songs when she was 18-freakin’-years old than most brilliant song writers will ever hope to write. So true.

But it was really “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” that personally transformed me. I picked up the single soon after getting their debut album (later re-releases would include the single on Germ Free Adolescence). I’m sure in the outpouring of eulogies that are no doubt beginning to circulate, people more articulate and more famous will talk about the enormous impact this song had on them and the world. I can only testify to what that opening sentence did to me. It made me a feminist. Before the music kicks in, you can here Poly saying: “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!” Blam, a high-heeled boot straight to my cerebral cortex. Before I heard that single, I was just another 15-year-old misogynist-in-training shithead. I didn’t know any better. I thought guys made punk and girls watched them admiringly. I thought women were objects, not equals. I thought all the stupid shit that I am now embarrassed to even remember.

I’m not saying I suddenly grabbed a copy of Betty Friedan’ Feminine Mystique and charged into the frontline of the boys’ locker room to challenge the patriarchy wherever I saw it. I wish. No, my path to being an enlightened male feminist took some time. But Poly Styrene did me a huge favor by launching me down that road. I picked up other records by punk women. I increasingly turned away in revulsion at the misogynist rantings of punk icons (we all know who they are). And, more than anything, I recognized that punk was a site for female empowerment. It always had been. But something got lost along the way. When the Riot Grrrl movement took off in the 1990s, I was right there with them. This was about reclaiming lost territory. Poly Styrene and others had made sure punk was an open space. Somehow we betrayed them and it was important that we take that space back. It still is. It is still a fight worth having. It is a process we can’t give up on. There is too much at stake.

I’m a college professor now. I’m not sure what my students make of me. I think they are probably bemused both my feminism and my being a punk. They are generally more conservative than I am. And their music tastes suck. I always say that the day one of my students wears a t-shirt for a band that I like, I will hug them.

This afternoon, one of my favorite students walked into my office to pay me a visit. She was wearing a day-glo robe that she had sewn together and a white t-shirt. Across the t-shirt in big scrawling letters she had written “Oh bondage up yours!” I hugged her and broke into tears.

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17 Responses to Poly Styrene, Thank You.

  1. janet5 says:

    This is awesome. Thanks.

    My response to hearing “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!” was: THANK YOU. Somebody gets it. A little louder, please.

    “Before I heard that single, I was just another 15-year-old misogynist-in-training shithead.” – I find this hard to believe. But, when I was a 15-year-old punker girl, I couldn’t really fathom that punk was misogynistic because it saved me (from a variety of possible selves and futures). And I didn’t really get the guys in my junior high and high school who claimed to like it but who just used it as an excuse to be assholes. I figured they were just getting it wrong.

    The year before I gave up trying to conform to suburban California teenagerdom, I had already started listening to very early Blondie, and Patty Smith (didn’t like much, though), and Chrissie Hynde. I just assumed that male punks were following in their wake, and didn’t get into the Clash, Ramones, Stiff Little Fingers and a variety of others until a bit later. I discovered Poly Styrene and the Avengers at about that same time (via good old KALX radio in Berkeley) – by early 1982 it was all morphing into this wonderful sonic euphoria that yanked me out of the smallness of myself and my little world and offered the possibility of something more creative, liberating, and worth living for.

    I remember when Joe Strummer died, I had this stupid thought that I would never get the chance to say ‘hello’ and to tell him thanks. I feel the same way here.

    Sorry. That was a totally lame comment. I’m just feeling a bit old.

  2. steve says:

    I love Styrene, but X-Ray Spex were a strange band, really. I think basically most of those guys were opportunistic types, hanging round looking for a feasible punk project because that was the thing at the time, and they managed to get lucky and hook up with one of the best natural punk vocalists we’ve ever seen, make or female.

    But they were always a chugging, neat, semi-hard rock band at heart. The songs were good and the singing great, but if you take Styrene away, those guys were kinda ordinary. Imagine an average male singer for that band, and they lose all vitality, even with the saxophone. It’s not surprising they ended up going on to form a New Romantic band, to ride the next commercial wave.

    I try to imagine what it would have been like if she’d got hooked up with someone else – if she’d ended up fronting a band with real musical invention, someone like the Gang of Four. Then she might have hung round for longer than one album, maybe?

    Anyway, she was a fine singer. RIP.

  3. janet5 says:

    Wait – someone who feels the same way about Gang of Four as I did/do? I no longer feel so alone in the world. Really, I just never quite got them. There were lots of bands I never got, and still don’t: Fugazi, Minute Men, Meat Puppets. It’s not that I think they’re bad; they just never did it for me.
    Yeah. I thought I had something interesting to say. But actually, that was all.

  4. steve says:

    Those are all good points yet somehow I am still right.

    …there is no way to imagine an average male vocalist fronting X-Ray Spex. They were too much about their lyrics, which never would have been written by a male vocalist, nor would a male vocalist have been able to deliver them convincingly, regardless of his vocal talent.

    I wasn’t saying they would have been better with a male vocalist. I was saying the band were, indeed, too much about the singing and lyrics. Take that away and there is nothing left. That’s a shame, and was a waste of her talent in my view.

    And had the music of X-Ray Spex not been so largely palatable to a pop consuming public– one that had been exposed to a year of punk and pseudo-punk on Top of the Pops by the time Germfree Adolescents came out– the influence of Poly’s words and raw emotion would have been a lot less significant.

    This is a slippery argument. Really, should all genuine content be given the sugar-coated treatment so it can be palatable to the pop consuming public? Other bands of the same era managed to play it their own way, and still have an impact. What is it about X-Ray Spex that you think needed to be made ‘easy’ for the public? I think that is a virtue-from-necessity argument. They didn’t deliberately sound generic to get her message across to a wider audience. That was just how they sounded.

    I guess my main point is that there were actual great UK bands back then – The Clash, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers, Gang of Four, XTC – where there was some real musical innovation and an attempt to play in a different way, not just do pop rock with extra attitude from the vocalist. And basically, X-Ray Spex were rather generic bar rock that happened to have excellent vocals. She really could have done better.

    And, there may have been opportunists in the mix as early as 1976, but, I do not agree that all UK bands back then were opportunists.

    • steve says:

      Wow. I disagree with so much of this there’s almost no point. To start with I think the first four Stranglers albums are one of the most innovative and lasting things to come out of the era. And I think the whole way that Joy Division’s music is recorded and structured would stand up all right with another vocalist. Hook and Summer and Morris were all oustanding in their own way.

      Also – of course Strummer and the rest were looking for opportunities. I am not lionizing the elite artist who never bothers to seek success or even critical approval. But, there is a difference between making opportunities and taking them.

      People whose natural, un-self conscious art turns out to be original are pretty rare. Most people are going to sub-consciously imitate what they picked up as kids. And if you want to get past that, you have to make a decision to play (write / paint etc) in a particular way; you either have to operate in a genre, or, you have to decide to be different.

      I agree that deliberately trying to be different can be a real wank, but, it is an equally self-conscious decision to try to operate in a genre, and one that takes less guts in a lot of cases. I really like those pretentious assholes who can hardly play their instruments properly, but want to do something new. They can sound ridiculous, but at least they sound like they think that every two note riff they write is the most important thing anyone has ever played. They sound brave.

      With some other bands, especially ones with experienced musos, you can sort of tell that they know they are playing formulas. It lacks guts.

      Also – with the Clash, if you took out Strummer then you would actually still have Mick Jones and Paul Simonon and you still have a groove – most of London Calling is actually about Mick Jones in my view. I think the same is true of many other bands from that era (the Jam being an obvious exception).

      But with X-Ray Spex – Poly Styrene was genuinely original, but the rest of those guys were, um, hacks. They just weren’t a great band in my view.

  5. Great Southern Steve says:

    That’s some good guitar and bass playing right there.

  6. Great Southern Steve says:

    and, Double Nickels on the Dime is a chore.

  7. steve says:

    Hmmm. So someone has sold the rights for a Gang of Four tune to do an ad. Could have been one of the Gang of Four, or, they might not own the rights anymore.

    But even so…a decision to cash in on your original output 30 years on is really not the same kind of opportunism as a decision to play in an accessible / simulacra style in the first place.

  8. steve says:

    I am kinda bored today, it’s true. I will stop bagging the Spex, after just one more thing.

    Do you really think it is possible to prove that X-Ray Spex had a more generic sound than The Clash or the Buzzcocks? Is there some mathematical formula?

    Yes. There is.

    If you took something like ‘London Calling’ or ‘Disorder’ or ‘Damaged Goods’ and changed the chords and bass notes, it would matter. You would have a different piece of music, probably not as good, and it wouldn’t support the voice in the same way.

    But you could take ‘I am a Poseur’ and drop in pretty much any three-chord rocked-up boogie shuffle in the same key, and it would basically come across the same, because that riff is so unimportant. If one formula works there, so will a similar one.

    You know I’m right.

  9. janet5 says:

    I am enjoying this so much I don’t really care who’s right. This whole thread literally REEKS of vinyl (inhale the sweetness).

  10. steve says:

    I totally give a shit. Sad for me, but I really do. 😦

    Not about arguing with Mack, specifically, but about what happened in the late 70s, and why it matters.

    Pop music was simply ready, for a very brief period of time, to hear the message…

    Yep. And honestly that was one of the best things that has ever happened.

  11. steve says:

    But who could imagine the late ’70s without the Rats? I mean, c’mon. Remember that other great song they did? No, not that one. The other one.

  12. janet5 says:

    I didn’t say I didn’t give a shit. Only that I was enjoying the discussion MORE than I was focusing on rightness/wrongness. I had a big huge long thing that I had planned to say about originality, but I had to go hide in the basement (tornado warnings). Steve, by the time you wake up this/tomorrow morning, I may have gotten the balls together to write the big huge long thing. I do care, too.

    And I think the Pretenders just sold “Brass in Pocket” to Blackberry for its new notepad computer thingy. Alas.

  13. Great Southern Steve says:

    It’s a new day and I still give a shit although the guy who wrote a lot of that yesterday seems like a different person. One with more time to spare. Anyway, definitely write your big long thing, Janet. Hope the tornado left you unscathed.

  14. janet5 says:

    Tornadoes touched down in all the states surrounding mine but skipped us; it was creepy enough, though, to get the warnings. A friend in Tuscaloosa, Alabama finally had the chance to e-mail me (no power til she got to her office) – her house is ok but one street away, everything is literally gone.

    I thought I had something to say about originality, and whether it mattered, and why some things strike me as being “original” while others don’t, but I’m not sure it was that important. It did occur to me that I agree with parts of what you said and parts of what Mack said, though. I agree that without Poly Styrene’s voice, X-Ray Spex wouldn’t have been much different from a lot of other bands with the same chord structure, rhythm, etc. And I would say the same thing about the Ramones, and Stiff Little Fingers and probably the Avengers and a bunch of other bands: take away the vocalist and where would they be? But. . . that’s the serendipity of any kind of music, to me. Who knows what would have happened if they’d had different singers, or someone else wrote their songs? And true, they might have sunk like stones amid the similar-sounding din.

    But what strikes me is that a lot of the bands I listened to back then sounded pretty similar; usually the vocalists made them stand out, or the lyrics, or the production, or something like attitude. Seriously, I probably liked twenty bands that sounded like the Ramones and SLF. I’m not sure their originality mattered to me as much as their attitude and if I liked the politics they were singing about (I could forgive a lot of really tedious bands if they were actually saying something interesting). In some cases, it did wear off: SLF just got boring and soft, and I never saw them when they reunited years back so I don’t know whether they managed to get their shit back together or not. But Mack’s point sticks with me, too: innovation for the sake of innovation was just pretentious and boring. The whole “let’s play this in twelve-seven time and do some shape-note singing in the middle!” just made me want to hit someone.

    So there is a fine line between being innovative enough to catch people’s attention and doing something that seems interesting and fresh, and being something that is so close to free-form jazz that it gives me a migraine to try to listen to it. Originality does matter – I’m not saying that it doesn’t – but I’m not sure what it means, or why some things really grab me and other things don’t. Surely the Riot Grrrl bands/artists were doing something original, but most of it just passed me by. It mostly lacked that spark or whatever it was that blowtorched my brain like earlier punk did (sorry, K-).

    “I don’t think musical ingenuity is the measure of a great band. It could be one measure, but the whole is always more important than the sum of the parts.”

    I agree. And I also agree that there was something about the mid/late 70s that opened up this huge set of possibilities and got a lot of people believing in their own ability to do something musical. It’s horribly depressing to think that that may never happen again (or that it has happened/is happening and I’ve missed it).

    • Steevo says:

      SLF, after their reformation wrote a lot of great songs- get a life is a really good album, tinderbox is decent. They’re currently touring too and i can’t wait to see ’em when they hit DC.

  15. steve says:

    Geh. So much to say. Brain too small to say it properly.

    There was something about the mid/late 70s that opened up this huge set of possibilities and got a lot of people believing in their own ability to do something musical..

    This = extremely true, and is why the whole argument matters.

    I think we hear the Spex very differently, musically. I don’t think they sound at all like the Ramones. To me, the Ramones were really revolutionary, in terms of production and performance style. They were amazingly innovative.

    But I don’t necessarily think that innovation in punk rock has to do with playing weird stuff that has never been played before, or avoiding cliches, or playing more than three chords.

    It just somehow has to do with being outside your comfort zone as a musician.

    Somehow the music of the late 70s just sounds like people chancing their arm; it sounds risky. The good stuff, anyway. Early Ramones sounds like it is always on the verge of collapsing, and just manages to hold on.

    But to me, a lot of X-Ray Spex’ music sounds like it’s totally in the comfort zone.

    Plus what I said before about formulas being replaceable, but originality irreplaceable.

    Anyway I don’t really care about the Spex that much. But the argument about why there is sometimes cultural space for risk and sometimes there isn’t…this interests me.

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