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06 May 2011 00:00
Poly Styrene (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), singer, born July 3 1957; died April 25 2011
It did not take long for the punk-rock movement of the 1970s to lose its creative impetus and lapse into tedious repetition, but Poly Styrene, who has died of cancer at the age of 53, remained one of the era’s true original talents.
She became a flamboyant feminist punk icon through her work with her band, X-Ray Spex, and continued to carve a boldly idiosyncratic path in both her subsequent solo recordings and her lifestyle.
She was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in Bromley, Kent, southeast of London.
Her mother was a British legal secretary, who raised her alone, and her father was a dispossessed Somali aristocrat.
As Mari Elliott she recorded a reggae single called Silly Billy, but it failed to chart.
Then her musical thinking was turned inside out by seeing an early Sex Pistols gig. “They weren’t signed and I just thought that’s something I could do—get up and play without being signed,” she said.
X-Ray Spex were formed in 1976 after she placed an advertisement for “young punx who want to stick it together”. They were rapidly accepted on the erupting punk circuit and played one of their first gigs at the Roxy club in London, on a bill with the Drones and Chelsea. She was struck by seeing “girls in dog collars and leads being pulled along by their boyfriends — To me it was quite a bizarre night, but they all seemed happy expressing themselves in this way.”
Refusing to confirm
Poly Styrene herself was far from conventional, with wildly uncool wire braces on her teeth, Day-Glo stage clothes and utter determination not to conform to stereotypical notions of Barbie-doll pop pin-uphood. “There’s nothing wrong with beauty,” she said, “but whether it’s actually helping the female cause of being equal to men you have to judge for yourself.”
The band’s 1977 single, Oh Bondage, Up Yours!, became their best-known song, a blast of raucous guitars, honking saxophone and Styrene’s piercing foghorn vocals.
The allusions in the lyrics to victimhood and consumerism were among Styrene’s signature themes and she threw down the opening line—“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard”—like a live grenade.
The band appeared at some of the key events of the punk era, including London’s Front Row festival at the Hope and Anchor pub in Islington and the huge Rock against Racism concert at Victoria Park in Hackney in April 1978, alongside the Clash, Steel Pulse and the Tom Robinson Band. They released their debut album, Germ Free Adolescents, in November 1978. Its songs were rife with imagery of a consumerist, brain-dead society.
But in the middle of 1979 Poly Styrene quit the band, feeling worn out by their touring schedule. She was later diagnosed (wrongly) with schizophrenia and was detained under the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Act for several months.
Doctors eventually determined that she had bipolar disorder. She recorded a solo album, Translucence, in 1980, which traded in the roaring guitars of X-Ray Spex for a jazzier and more mellow sound. In 1983 she was initiated into the Hare Krishna movement and lived for a while at the sect’s British headquarters, Bhaktivedanta Manor, north of London.
In 1991 X-Ray Spex reunited and played a sold-out gig at Brixton Academy in London. They re-emerged again in 1995 with a second studio album, Conscious Consumer. In 2004 Styrene released the solo album Flower Aeroplane, a set of soothing musical mantras.
Another rumbustious X-Ray Spex reunion, at the Roundhouse in London in 2008, triggered a new spurt of creativity, including the track Black Christmas, which she recorded with her daughter Celeste. The song was about Bruce Pardo who, while dressed as Santa Claus, killed several people at a Christmas Eve party in Los Angeles in 2008.
Punk attitude lives on
Poly Styrene’s album Generation Indigo, a witty, fresh and surprisingly commercial batch of songs, earned rave reviews when it was released last month.
“I just channel my songs like a medium,” she said of the new material. “If my friends like them, then I’m quite happy that they’re good songs.”
She had planned to take the new songs on tour.
To the last she remained committed to her original punk aesthetic. “Punk attitude lives on,” she said, “because of the spirit of its fearlessness to try to change things for the better.”
Her mother and Celeste survive her. —
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