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 FaberReuse content