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A Little Less Day-Glo, or Goodbye Poly Styrene

2011 April 26

I was just waving goodbye to sixteen when I discovered X-Ray Spex, and I discovered them in the least cool-cred of ways: via a covermount CD I got with Kerrang! magazine, which I bought semi-religiously at the time.

cover photo art for Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex: a row of test tubes, each containing a band member. Band members wear day glo, bright clothing.This CD was part of the Kerrang! Hometaping series, in which various leading lights of the hard rock scene, invariably men (do shout me if this has changed, as I have since given up on K!, but my optimism’s economy-size) compiled mixtapes of their favourite tracks past and present. This one, compiled by Casey Chaos of parental-guidance-sticker-collecting Cali-punk-metal outfit Amen, wasn’t a bad mix, looking at it now. For the most part.

But it was the presence of I Am A Cliché on the tracklist that put the CD on regular rotation on my Discman. That track stood out, sparking nicely off The Distillers and The Adverts (the sum total of female input, there) and kicking defiantly against the roll-your-eyes-or-lose-your-lunch misogyny of Let’s Fuck by the Murderdolls (at least the CD had range). And the more I listened to Poly Styrene‘s life-affirming shouts, the more alert I felt to the complete shit that passed (passes!) for acceptable attitudes to gender in some of the rest of the bands on the CD, in the mag, in my music collection, in general. (For that jarringly educational juxtaposition, Casey’s at least to be thanked.)

From there it was a short leap to the rest of Germ Free Adolescents. Nobody forgets the first time they hear the crisp, sing-song pronouncement that opens Oh Bondage, Up Yours! : Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think… (when I set up this blog, I entered it as the mousefloat text description for the Music Box category on the sidebar). Every time I hear it, I feel that emphasis on but I think… reverb through me: powerful, unabashed and instantly compelling. And funny. “Playing with words and ideas, having a laugh about everything, sending it up”, as Poly herself put it to the Independent in 1998 (this approach was arguably worlds away from Amen’s bloodied-up on-stage histrionics, so it’s perhaps faintly ironic she made Casey’s list of hometaped heroes, but anyway).

Photo showing Poly Styrene in her forties, a mixed race woman with dark shoulder length hair, talking into a microphone at a table and gesturing animatedlyPoly passed away this morning, having, as her site team have aptly put it, “won her battle to go to higher places”. For me, it’s the loss of a personal hero – she formed the Spex in 1978 by throwing an ad in Melody Maker with a header demanding the attention of YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGETHER.

She’s on record, in a recent interview with 6Music quoted in her BBC obituary, as saying, “I know I’ll probably be remembered for Oh Bondage Up Yours!… I’d like to be remembered for something a bit more spiritual.”

For me, the impact of X-Ray Spex actually was akin to something spiritual. Poly threw into stark, uncompromising relief the lack of female voices normally in play in mainstream rock, in Kerrang!, and so on. She made me wonder, for the first time, what I thought about that. (Clue: it ends in “up yours”.) So I think in a way, although the Spex’s one album probably will always be her most famous music, that’s okay.

Cheers, Poly. Here’s to you. Rest in peace. (Say hi to Ari Up for us.) The world’s a little bit less day-glo now, and much the worse for it.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. April 26, 2011

    I don’t have much to say — at least not much that I haven’t already said through Twitter — but I feel I should comment anyway. I’ll be listening to X-Ray Spex and The Slits on repeat for the rest of the week I’m sure..

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 26, 2011

    I don’t have much to say, either. I first heard Poly on TOTP (is that more or less cool than Kerrang!?) and, on the strength of that, went out and bought the album. Without her, the world is definitely less day-glo.

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