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

Chris Salewicz
Wednesday 27 April 2011 00:00 BST

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.

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