Jon Savage: Punk may be dead but its spirit lives on

Related Topics

The premature death of Poly Styrene is a sad occasion for anyone who knew her or was touched by the extraordinary music that she made under her own name and with her group X-Ray Spex, who, for a couple of years, were among the most innovative and trenchant of all the British punk groups.

It is also an opportunity to reflect on the achievement of Poly and her peers – Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt and Palmolive of the Slits, Siouxsie of the Banshees, Gaye Advert of the Adverts, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders – who, in a short time, redefined what women could do as musicians and performers.

When you saw Poly, dressed in a military helmet and a lurex Sixties dress, declaiming: "Thrash me, crash me/ Beat me till I fall", in an impossibly high register, you knew that this had never been done before. In spring 1977, there was still the idea that punk should be new, provocative, and relevant to the world outside. "I was trying to do a diary of 1977," she told me. "I wanted to write about everyday experiences."

Like many people in 1976, Poly Styrene saw the Sex Pistols and had her life changed on the spot. She changed her name – from Mari Elliot – and became the projection of a consumerist nightmare, assuming the name of the least natural, least biodegradable substance she could think of – the epitome of "plastic artificial living".

Her first single, the enduring classic "Oh Bondage, Up Yours" was "about being in bondage to material life. There was so much junk then," she remembered. 'The idea was to send it all up. Screaming about it, saying: "Look, this is what you have done to me. I am your product. And this is what you have created: do you like her?"

There was sexism but, like the Slits and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex were quickly accepted by the growing punk audience. They all rejected the fluffy femininity of the mainstream pop music of the time, refusing to sing about "love and romance". Their confrontational performances and disdain for a male-dominated music industry initially hampered any major label pick-up.

The potency of their music and their determination to see their vision through eventually paid off. X-Ray Spex signed to EMI and released a string of classic singles: "The Day The World Turned Dayglo", "Germ Free Adolescents", and "Identity" – one of the most frightening songs ever written about the corrosive impact of celebrity.

All of these, like their album Germ Free Adolescents, were hits. But, despite the fact that they were one of Vivienne Westwood's favourite groups, X-Ray Spex could not keep going. Poly found fame psychologically difficult: that hadn't been the point, making art and defining the moment was. As punk declined, she quit the music industry and turned towards a spiritual life.

As far as gender roles were concerned in pop music, things quickly reverted to "normal", whatever this is. Only the toughest of Poly Styrene's peers, such as Siouxsie and Chrissie Hynde, continued to prosper, as laddishness – after a brief and, to many people, welcome holiday – returned to rock music, where it remains.

But the impact of that brief, revolutionary period continues to reverberate. Although punk is now deep in history, you can trace the influence of that generation through to mould-breaking female performers as diverse as Lady Gaga and PJ Harvey – who have the talent and vision to rewrite the rules and to do exactly what they want to without compromise.

Like the Slits' Ari Up, who has also died recently, Poly Styrene was a pioneer and a rebel. Almost instinctively, she captured the present and the future with a series of sharp, provocative and prophetic songs about consumerism, materialism, and genetic engineering. She was my friend: she had a great sense of humour, an infectious, full-throated laugh, and the courage of a lion.

Jon Savage's books include a history of punk, 'England's Dreaming', published by Faber

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral