Tuesday, April 26, 2011

R.I.P., Poly Styrene

Dig the photo: This ain't Madonna or your typical pop diva. The young lady's a bit chunky, she's half-Somali/half-Brit, wearing braces, a military helmet liner and what is basically an adorned garbage bag. The pop music business would never push someone like this in a million years! (Although, in a time prior to this, the young lady above had attempted just such a stab at the big time, with a bubblegum reggae single called "Silly Billy" issued under her real name, Mari Elliot.) Instead, inspired by a Sex Pistols gig attended when she was 19, Mari gave herself the above-depicted remake, emerging as Poly Styrene. Her coming out party with her band X-Ray Spex warned the world in the first few seconds: "Some people say lil' girls should be seen and not heard. I say...OH, BONDAGE! UP YOURS! ONE TWO THREE FOUR!!"

The racket was unique, even for the then-radical punk scene: A typical sub-Pistols thrash, yet leavened by the mock cocktail lounge sax of 14-year-old Lora Logic. It was as if Roxy Music had been hijacked by a pair of teenage girls and forced to see the new way of thinking. And then, you had to deal with the lyric matter.

"I was trying to do a diary of 1977," Poly explained to Jon Savage for his landmark UK punk history, England's Dreaming. "I wanted to write about everyday experiences....My thing was more like consumerism, plastic artificial living....There was so much junk about then. The idea was to send it all up. Screaming about it, saying: 'Look, this is what you have done to me, turned me into a piece of styrofoam, I am your product. And this is what you have created: Do you like her?"

A lot of us did. X-Ray Spex' sole LP in the day, Germ Free Adolescents, was startling in its ferocity and humor. As I posted on Facebook last night: "Dig this talent, this ferocity, this vision of taking everything plastic and artificial about this planet and throwing it back in the planet's face! With venom and humor. And creating an anti-glamor to wrap one's self in. There wasn't a duff track in all of Germ Free Adolescents." This one, "Identity," happened to be my favorite:

Later, Poly would undergo a religious conversion to Hare Krishna. This, after dropping out of the scene following what she saw as a UFO visitation. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, later to be readjusted properly as bipolar disorder. She would make a few solo releases, even reunite with X-Ray Spex from time-to-time, and quietly raise a daughter who is now a musician herself. 

Poly Styrene had just issued a new solo disc, Generation Indigo, in April. What I've heard sounds excellent. Sadly, just as the album was issued, Poly had also revealed she was now battling breast cancer and would have to postpone her tour plans for the album. The cancer was apparently far wider spread than she was letting on: Poly Styrene died yesterday at home, surrounded by her mother and her daughter. She was 53.

Word had gotten out swiftly by the internet, people posting tributes all over Facebook. Oddly, no legit news source would confirm it for hours, until the early hours this morning. I remained skeptical until my colleague John Robb in the UK posted this remembrance at his excellent Louder Than War site. Then the usual reliable sources - NME, The Guardian, BBC - finally covered her passing. Nevertheless, this is a heavy loss: A chief member of that group of truly revolutionary female punks - think of Patti Smith, Penelope Houston, The Slits - who made gender an utter non-issue in the early days of punk, is gone. Sadly, the playing field would later not be so level - yet another way hardcore ruined punk. But Poly Styrene remained an example well beyond what was supposedly her "moment." She was inspiring to many of us, beyond gender. We could use that vision, that taking a snapshot of society's trashiness and using it as weapon. If that's not true defiance, I don't know what is.

Rest in peace, Poly. Your likes won't be seen again.


  1. Truly this is heartbreaking news. I so wished it was an Internet rumor hoax. I'm WAY sadder about this than I was about Joe Strummer. Don't know why, exactly. All I know is that Germ Free Adolescents has given me so much joy over the years, and will continue to for many more years. Crazy that Poly's dystopian/sci fi angle was really just her perception of the way the world was heading...she was SO ahead of her time. Which is why GFA remains essential listening...it's somehow even more relevant today than it was 23 years ago. Thanks for a loving tribute, TS.

  2. First Ari, now Poly...these women made their mark despite going out too soon.

  3. She's truly a one-off; when they made her they broke the mold. Much gratitude for her sojourn in this world.