Did You Enjoy the Party: Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex

MTV brought the next British invasion to American music in the early 80s. The British had been producing what we know as music video in its contemporary form for years already, so this new wave of British artists should come as no surprise. A startup network needs product and Britain had a steady supply.

With this invasion, we got artists such as Duran Duran, Genesis, A Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, Human League and other groups from around Europe who met with success in the United States based on the power of music video even if only for a fleeting moment. The success of these groups and solo artists from across the pond causes question as to whom the music industry felt would translate to an American audience.

It is only within the past few years I have become aware of X-Ray Spex. The group was around in the late 70s and early 80s right when MTV sought talent from Europe to fill its programming. However, X-Ray Spex is not within my recollections of early MTV although I spent hours in front of the television waiting to see girls who looked like me.

It wasn’t until around the time she passed that I ever heard of X-Ray Spex or Poly Styrene. By then, she had released her last album, the solo effort Generation Indigo, a far cry from her punk roots. While Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex continue to have an influence on the punk and rock scenes, apparently they did not manage to translate as well across the pond when groups such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols found success in the US.

There can be several reasons for this. X-Ray Spex released their debut album Germ-Free Adolescents in 1978, the year after they caught the attention of the punk scene with “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” Poly Styrene, nee Marianne Elliot-Said, states in the beginning, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. Well I think, oh bondage, up yours!” What follows is a wail against restrictions, a youthful cry of what oppression means: “Bind me tie me / Chain me to the wall I wanna be a slave / To you all.”

While the themes in “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” fall in line with the anarchists, anti-authority themes that provide the foundation of punk, X-Ray Spex stood out from the rest. Instead of an angry guitar providing recognizable and fast riffs, the group used a saxophone to accompany Poly’s operatically trained vocals.

That sax was prominently featured in the lead single from the album, “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo.” As Poly’s name implies, she wrote of a world turning plastic, artificial in its composition. The lyrics almost make you feel as if it is difficult to breathe through a haze of acrylic, latex, rubber and polystyrene foam.

That was the brilliance of Germ-Free Adolescents, connecting themes of artificiality in a world that stifles the life of youth and marginalized peoples while demanding that they “contribute” to a society that devalues them. But this world is scary. It creates fear to keep us in line, not questioning the forces that make us afraid.

As a result? Fear and paranoia. Poly captures this in “Germ-Free Adolescents,” with fear as her “obsession.” Scrubbing, cleansing, disinfecting, washing away the dirt in this world that causes infections. After sterilizing yourself, as the group does on the album’s cover art depicting them in plastic test tubes, what are you supposed to think of yourself?

Enter “Identity.” When Poly asks, “do you see yourself on the TV screen, do you see yourself in the magazine,” she hits on a struggle to which many black girls can relate. What do we see when we look in the mirror? When we (finally) see ourselves, don’t we want to scream? When she sings about smashing the mirror then using the pieces to slash your wrist, we know the feeling. We understand the metaphor and the way it perfectly captures hopelessness and ennui with this reality that creates a mirror reflection that has no resemblance to ourselves.

Without this recognition of a reflection on the television, magazines or even in the mirror, do we know who we really are? As she explains in “Highly Inflammable,” we’re still influenced by the fashion pages and others’ phrases: “Thought I was a woman / Thought you were a man / But I was Tinkerbell / And you were Peter Pan.” Interestingly, she says they are both children who never grow up and fairies, lost children in a bleak existence.

While Germ-Free Adolescents made X-Ray Spex one of the most important groups in the burgeoning punk scene, they disbanded in 1979. Perhaps this is why X-Ray Spex did not find their way to MTV and iconic status in the US to the same extent as some of their UK counterparts. But the disbanding of X-Ray Spex was not the end of the group.

In 1991, Live at the Roxy Club was released. The group also reunited in 1995 for the album Conscious Consumerism, seemingly picking up where they left off 16 years previously. Interestingly, the album ends with the upbeat but somber “Party,” in which Poly declares she was “bored stiff all night” with the boy fixated on his body and the prima donna queen.

Apparently age had and time had not created a more authentic world. Poly still had concerns about this artificial world and the role of consumerism in its construction. After 16 years, the bleakness of which Poly sang in Germ-Free Adolescents had become more of a reality.

While Conscious Consumerism toned down the anger and roughness in the music if not content, it still contained Poly’s charisma and angst. Perhaps this was due to her own struggles in life. After the first disbanding of X-Ray Spex, she released the solo album Translucence in 1980. Drastically different from her punk roots, Translucence still found a place with her fans in the growing new wave musical climate.

However, Poly still faced other obstacles in her life. By 1991, her mental health issues led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But she was still not done with music. In March of 2011, she released Generation Indigo. Though sounding far from her punk roots, the album combined a number of musical influences electronica, reggae, new wave and rock in addition to punk. While punk enthusiasts may not have been receptive to the album, Poly devotees were glad to have her back and she gained new fans.

Little did many know that this would be Poly’s last venture into music. She passed away on April 25th due to an aggressive form of breast cancer that spread to her spine. In her wake, she remains an influential force who inspired a plethora of music artists including the ones who gained fame during the riot grrrl movement. The brash girl in braces wailing over a saxophone-drenched track is an iconic image in punk.

I can’t help but think that Poly’s spirit embodies a number of women in rock including Skin of Skunk Anansie, Alexis Brown of Straight Line Stitch and Kayla Philips of Bleed the Pigs. Perhaps her legacy will be retrieved just as other punk/metal pioneers like Pure Hell and Death. Perhaps the girl clad in braces and a soldier’s hat will be just as emblematic of the spirit of punk as the boy with spiky hair and chains.