Poly Styrene: Singer who blazed a trail for punk’s feminist revolutionaries

As a dumpy, frumpy,almost willfully unsexual girl from Brixton, with braces on her teeth, Poly Styrene was a perfect candidate to find herself through punk; turning this personaon its head into an art form, she became one of the movement's principal female figures, her song "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" a feminist rallying cry.

Born Marianne Elliott-Said, she was brought up by her mother, a Scottish-Irish legal secretary; her father wasa dispossessed Somali aristocrat.Running away from home at the ageof 15, she spent that summer at assorted music festivals, living, like a number of later punk faces, a peripatetic hippie existence.

Imbued with this experience, shebecame, despite the façade shepresented, a rather sophisticated teenager. Her boyfriend, Falcon Stuart, a film student, had musicians as friends and she would find herself at dinner parties with members of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. As befitted a future punk icon, she was unimpressed by such events and personalities. Early in 1976 she made a reggae record, "Silly Billy", under the name of Mari Elliott. That summer, on her 18th birthday, she watched the Sex Pistols play an early show on Hastings Pier, an epiphany.

Jon Savage, the writer, became friends with her that year. On 29 October 1976 they went together to see an early gig by the Clash, at Fulham Town Hall. "It was a life-changing moment for us both," he said. Afterwards, further inspired by visits to the Brixton shop Pollocks, which specialised in paint-splattered clothes, she started a stall in Beaufort Market, a punk enclave on London's Kings Road, selling – as she described it – "Sixties tat".

At the end of 1976, she renamed herself Poly Styrene and formed X-Ray Spex with the saxophonist Susan Whitby, who became Lora Logic. On guitar was Jak Airport, with Paul Dean on bass and EP Hurding on drums. The band's first gig was at the Man in the Moon pub in Chelsea on 11 March 1977. Almost immediately, they followed this with a show at the Roxy, the short-lived punk temple, and were up and running.

"I first met her at the Roxy," the Slits' guitarist Viv Albertine remembered. "She was a bit scary, because she had this incredible confidence. Also, unlike most of us, she seemed to have proper talent and to really know what she was doing. She seemed a bit above everything else that was going on there. Her voice was a cut above everyone else, as was her songwriting. She was the real thing. She was very pure of thought. She didn't indulge in bad feelings. She was rather innocent, certainly very trusting."

Jon Savage concurred: "I thought she looked terrific and her voice was terrific. It was full attack mode. No woman had done anything like that remotely before in music performance. She was a real revolutionary who took the energy of the Pistols and punk and transformed it into her own thing."

Soon Falcon Stuart, her boyfriend, was managing X-Ray Spex. They signed to EMI and released the statement-of-intent single "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" – which began with Styrene's spoken line "Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard" – and the album Germ-Free Adolescents. Both single and album were hits.

Styrene's innocence was rocked when her relationship with Stuartpetered out after he directed a pornographic film. "I had argumentswith him about that," she told me, "especially when I heard that the girl in it felt so unclean she used to take five baths a day."

X-Ray Spex performed memorably at the celebrated Rock Against Racism concert in London's Victoria Park in April 1978, and further songs hit the charts: "The Day the World Turned Dayglo" and "Identity", the latter a tune with a theme of psychological disintegration, like an omen: "When you look in the mirror / do you smash it quick / do you take the glass / and slash your wrists / did you do it for fame?"

Later that year, according to the film-maker and musician Don Letts, she visited the home of the former Sex Pistols' singer John Lydon. Disappearing into his bathroom, she reappeared having cut off all her hair. Then, playing a show with X-Ray Spex in Doncaster, she claimed to observe a pink UFO. Sectioned and diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was prescribed largactil, the "liquid cosh".

In 1980 Styrene released a solo album, Translucence, a jazzy, ambient record. That year she turned up unannounced on Jon Savage's Manchester doorstep. "She obviously was very disturbed," he said. She told me later that the source of that instability was when she asked Falcon Stuart for money owed to her, and he beat her up for her audacity. "Later they said the schizophrenia was a misdiagnosis: that I was manic depressive. I was told the UFO did not exist. But it opened up a lot of things psychically: I started looking for the purpose of life."

Believing that time out of the public eye would help her, Styrene effectively retired. Influenced by her love of George Harrison's music, she joined the Hare Krishna movement. But even the Krishna temple in Hertfordshire wasn't a "safe place": she lived, she told me, in a world of Vedic literature with its discussions of existences on other planetary systems.

"So," she laughed, "you end up as a complete space cadet, and then have to go out and face the real world – which becomes like tripping without drugs. It took me five years to get back the rights to my songs. On the other hand, it's been quite convenient, when people try and manipulate me, to say that I'm having a nervous breakdown." In 1988, Styrene released an EP, Gods and Godesses (sic), and in 2004, the album Flower Aeroplane.

On 6 September 2008, a reformed X-Ray Spex, minus Lora Logic, soldout London's Roundhouse for aperformance of the Germ Free Adolescents album, later released as a DVD; earlier in the year Styrene hadperformed "Oh Bondage Up Yours!"at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Rock Against Racism concert. March this year saw the release, to great critical acclaim, of a solo album Generation Indigo.

Styrene died of breast cancer. "When people die," Viv Albertine mused, "people often say what a special person they were. But Poly Styrene genuinely was. Even when she was very ill, in her last weeks, she glowed from the inside. She was a really great human being."

Marianne Joan Elliott-Said (Poly Styrene), musician: born Bromley, Kent 3 July 1957; one daughter, Celeste Bell-Dos Santos; died Hastings 25 April 2011.

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again say analysts

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey indulge in some racing at a Point to Point
tvNew pictures promise a day at the races and a loved-up Lady Rose
News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Teacher of Thinking School Drive Team and Year 3 Form teacher

Competitive: Notting Hill Prep School: Spring Term 2015 Innovative, ambitious ...

Operations Data Analyst - London - up to £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Operations Data Analyst -...

Programmatic Business Development Manager

£35 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: As the Programmatic Business Develo...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past