on the record with...
By Jillian Abbene
(SugarBuzz Wash DC/Richmond)
HISTORY OF POLY STYRENE
Born in 1957, Marianne Joan Elliot lived in Bromley, England with her mother, a legal secretary, and her father a Somaliland aristocrat. Growing up with mixed-race parents was difficult in a town where there was judgment. Packing up, they soon moved to Brixton in South London, where multi-culturism was booming in modern Great Britain, and a more accepting atmosphere.
Realizing at a very young age that she was destined to a life of non-conformity, there was a sense of ambition, adventure, fame, and financial independence that Marianne had a drive for. Following in her mother’s footsteps in office work was not for her. At the age of 15, wanting to escape the world of mundane, she ran away to tour with the post-hippie rock festivals around England. This lasted 2 years then finally she returned home at age 18. This is when Marianne was first introduced to punk. Punk promised that you could be a new person, live a new life without boundaries, and to transform into whatever you wanted. She set up shop in Beaufort Market on the infamous King’s Road. Using her punked-out trademarks with homespun couture, she spawned the new identity. Thus, Poly Styrene was bornand so was her new shop, “Poly Styrene.” Her fashion was very immediatean instant success. People recognized her overnight, wearing her style of bright colors and plastic clothes.
For Poly, there was a new sense of freedom. Where punk wasn’t supposed to be logical, transcending labels and boundaries raised an eyebrow in shock value. This was about pushing the envelope, and it was here that she created her own stamp. It was an attractive package that paved the way for independence for her and into a new territory that gave punk and Poly strength--and a far cry from the mundane life of Bromley.
One day after picking up a day-glo tie at Poly’s shop, The manager for, “ The Man In The Moon,” [now known as World’s End Pub,] a local pub located smack-dab between Vivienne Westwood’s shop, “Seditionaries,” and Beaufort Market, had arranged to have X-ray Spex perform every Wednesday night.
Then in 1976, that same year, she ran an ad in the now defunct magazine, Melody Maker. Soon Poly Styrene was at the helm on vocals, Jak Airport on guitars, Paul Dean on bass, Paul B. P. Hurding on drums, and the 16 year old, Lora Logic, on saxophone. Hence, X-Ray Spex was born.
Their debut album, ‘Germ Free Adolescents,’ made them an overnight success despite the fact that they never took themselves too seriously. Within the perimeters of punk and new wave, Poly, unconditionally pretty, sported short hair, her trademark braces, and unusual plastic clothing style. She was well ahead of her time. Championing before the 1990’s ‘Riot Grrl’ liberation that was spawned a good 20+ years later, focused lyrics on subjects of liberation, suffrage, her identity in a white society, and even anti-consumerism was creeping into the popular culture.
The combination of all the band members created an original and unique outfit. Poly, with her wickedly upper-register rallying cries, Lora’s off-key amateur sax, Paul B. P.’s plucky bass, and Paul Dean’s pop-beats on drums, along with Jak’s Chuck Berry infused riffs, caught the attention of ‘Virgin,’ the major record label. Rapidly they built up a massive world wide following. Their debut performance was held at London’s Roxy, with only 6 rehearsals in their manager’s front room. So unique was their style, even John Lydon later praised X-Ray Spex, “…just not relating to anything around itsuperb.”
That infamous intro-cry in, “Some people think little girls should be seen, not heard…But I think, Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” was a lyrical write-up regarding slaves in all forms“free from unwanted desires, that were desirable.” It became a punk anthem and Poly became an icon. ‘Plastic Bag,’ and ‘The Day The World Turned Day Glo,’ created her signature fixation of all things man-made, with sarcastic and nihilistic tones. She sang about issues that concerned her, and yet wanted her lyrics to have some contemporary permanence.
Performing a blistering John Peel’s Session, they managed a knock-out show at legendary NYC’s CBGB’smaking a deep impression on musicians such as, Blondie, Richard Hell and even later, Kurt Cobain. X-Ray Spex even supported events such as, “Rock Against Racism,” back in the 70’s.
Finding herself at the center of much media attention and speculation, and the departure of Lora Logic, Poly became overwhelmed. The turbulent relationship between the band and her manager, the Late Falcon Stuart, [also was the manager for Adam and the Ants], had caused the breakdown of not only her band, but also her health. Regrettably, Poly claimed that she had been cheated out of years of royalties (which lasted in a 6-year battle), with the band to split in 1979.
Bouncing back, Poly created a new alter ego, abandoning ‘Poly Styrene,’ altogether, and joined the Hare Krishnas. It was here that she was able to find some personal solstice. Beginning again, she put out a solo album, ‘Translucence,’ and ‘Gods and Goddesses,’ which unfortunately, didn’t take off as expected well as ‘Germ Free Adolescents.’
In 1995, X-Ray Spex briefly reformed with all original members, for their final album, ‘Conscious Consumer,’ performing at London’s Brixton Academy. However, this second album never reached it’s full potential. With a stroke of bad luck, Poly (now Marianne) was struck by a fire engine, fracturing her pelvis among other injuries, halting further promotion of the second album.
Since then, Paul Dean and Rudi Thompson formed Agent Orange, Jak Airport died from bout of cancer in 2004, Lora still creates music, and Poly is committed to Bhakti Yoga, living in Hastings, UK with her family.
Amazingly to note, that it wasn’t until 1992, that the iconic, ‘Germ Free Adolescents,’ was released in the United States. I will go as far as to say that X-Ray Spex is underrated here. [Perhaps this may change with this interview]
Once again, X-Ray Spex will reform on September 6, 2008, at The Roundhouse in Camden Town. The reformation includes: Poly Styrene, Syd The Love on drums, Ed Ball on bass, Flash on Sax, and the Great Saxby on guitarwith a guest appearance from the original bass player, Paul Dean, and yes, they will be playing, ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’
For tickets to this event, please check out: www.concretejunglefestivals.com
INTERVIEW WITH POLY STYRENE X-RAY SPEX
1. What has sparked the reformation of X-ray Spex after 1995’s gig? Hand-picking these musicians for the September 4th gig, who are they?
I was approached by Symond from Concrete Jungle Festivals through John Robb of Goldblade to play at a Concrete Jungle Festival. I was reluctant at first but decided to go for the Roundhouse as a venue for a Spex show. Paul Dean the original bass player is playing, Saxby on Guitar ex Arnold, Flash on Saxophone ex Essential Logic and Slits, and Sid Truelove on Drums ex Influx of Pink Indians and Rubella Ballet.
2. Some of the struggles (made public) such as: the speculations behind the reasons for you leaving X-ray Spex, and also the unbelievable accident of having been run over by a fire engine in London(that put the brakes on the full success of the second album, “Conscious Consumer,”) -- how have you coped with such overwhelming circumstances?
I have had a lot of setbacks mainly due to health issues. I am lucky to be alive after the fire engine incident. I do have a strong spiritual sense of identity and I chant the Gopal Mantra every day, which was given to me by an elderly Indian Spiritual Master called Narayana Maharaja along with the Gopal Mantra I say the Lords Prayer. I also believe I have a Guardian Angel.
3. Do you keep in touch with other members of X-ray Spex and friends from that time period? Or is that just a closed chapter?
I am easily contacted through the website www.x-rayspex.com and have been contacted by Rudi who now lives in Australia . Unfortunately I have not heard from Lora or BP. I still have contact with Mad Mary who was my best friend during the Punk Rock New Wave Explosion.
--And the second part of this question: Should I dare ask if you keep in touch with Lora Logic?
I don’t have any bad feeling towards Lora and I wish her well with musical projects. I really like her music.
4. Your premonition lyrics in, ‘Art-i-ficial,’ and, ‘Plastic Bag,’ were spot-on in 1976invoking awareness to the growing obsession of consumerism. What are your thoughts about the current state of the UK today?
I love Old Blighty (UK) I live on the coast in St. Leonards-On-Sea it is a quite old place with faded elegance in East Sussex. Right now we are going through the credit crunch and people have to tighten their belts, so we can’t be as consumer crazy as before. But I believe the future is bright and I remain optimistic, as we move into a greener more sustainable less xenophobic world.
5. I have to ask this question
While with X-ray Spex, was the infamous statement, “I would shaved me head tomorrow if I became a sex symbol,” (and you did just that!), a statement of shock, or was it just the typical behavior of a rebellious teen…or was it both?!
It was just the typical behaviour of a rebellious teen, I was not out to shock but I did just by being who I was.
--And the second part of this question: Are there aspects of ‘Poly’ from the X-ray Spex period that you miss? or perhaps carried over into your current life?
No I don’t miss that period although I have some fun memories of it. I am designing a range of t-shirts at the moment so this is an aspect that I have carried over. I have my own label Poly Styrene’s Original although I am quite busy with the music. I do feel the label is something I can develop for the future.
6. On the same note, do you still have a passion for anti-fashion? Or has your perspective changed?
Yes I have changed. I now like clothes that look good and are flattering to the figure but are still a bit edgy!
7. What did you set out to achieve with X-ray Spex in the beginning? Do you think you achieved it? Or do you feel there is unfinished business?
I don’t feel there is unfinished business; the one thing that Germfree Adolescents achieved is longevity. My aim with X-ray Spex was to spread joy, fun enthusiasm and maybe subconsciously raise awareness of issues other that romantic love.
8. On a personal noteHow has your involvement with the Hare Krishna changed your life over the years? I ask this question because the Hare Krishna lifestyle is the opposite of the punk lifestyle.
Well I don’t take drugs, drink alcohol to get drunk or smoke cigarettes so this has been a positive lifestyle change and I am lacto-vegetarian so I feel quite good that I am not harming or eating animals, these are all Hare Krishna principles.
9. What musical influences do you pull from these days? Any bands you admire? Why?
I am too busy rehearsing with X-ray Spex to pull new musical influences, but I really like Goldblade because they are fun and I admire them for working so hard without much recognition.
10. Is there a possibility for X-Ray Spex to crank out a new CD?
I hope so! I will be recording a live album and DVD of the Roundhouse show. But after that I wouldn’t mind making a new album if I have the time to write.
11. I presume you are still inspired to write new music today. Anything in the works?
I have a new song that I will perform at the Roundhouse it is called Bloody War and it is a bit of a peace protest song.
12. Obviously, you have children…what is their reaction to your past-punk life? Curious!
I have one daughter called Celeste who now has her own band Debutant Disco. She loves my teenage music and is very encouraging for me to play again.
13. With that, what message(s) would you like to pass on to the younger generation?
Generation Indigo is a great generation and you don’t need to get wasted to be cool, and to those that are carrying weapons on the streets, please put them down, rethink and start again.
14. What is the future hold for Poly? Any future dates for X-ray Spex to perform? Hm…perhaps the USA?
Hopefully we will play next year in the USA.