I’m seldom affected by celebrity deaths, but Poly Styrene’s recent passing at the age of 53 absolutely broke my heart. I can’t say exactly why I took her death harder than those of, say, Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone. Maybe it was because she was out of the public eye for so long and had remained, in my mind, eternally 19. And unlike Joe and Joey, who continually produced music for a good quarter-century, Poly left us wanting more. Imagine how great a second X-Ray Spex album could have been! After the band split, she recorded the jazz new wave solo album Translucence in 1980 and wouldn’t really be heard from again until the partial X-Ray Spex reboot Conscious Consumer came out in 1995. Generation Indigo, her long-awaited return to popular music, came out just one day after she died. What a tragic irony. It’s not that any of us are complaining- she had perfectly good reasons to not be making music all those years. And considering some of the really awful music made by ex-punks in the ‘80s, it might have been for the better that she sat out that entire decade. But it’s hard not to wish she’d come back sooner, lived longer, and shared more of her extraordinary artistry with the world. There were lots of unforgettable personalities to come out of punk’s first wave. You’re talking the likes of Rotten, Strummer, Bators, Thunders, and Weller. Legendary dudes for sure. Poly Styrene was as great as any of them.
X-Ray Spex, along with The Clash, Sex Pistols, and Generation X, is one of my four all-time favorite English punk bands. In contrast to a lot of other bands who formed in response to seeing the Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex was far from a conventional punk group. Yet they were still totally punk. I love that they used saxophone to mimic a punk style of lead guitar. I love that Poly’s lyrics read like excerpts from dystopian sci-fi novels. I love that in a scene dominated by angry young twentysomething white men, a half-Somali teen girl with a mouth full of braces rose to iconic status. “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” is rightfully recognized as the singular most important influence on “feminist punk rock”. But aside from its influence, it’s got to be one of the five greatest punk rock songs ever recorded. I’ve often maintained that early punk rock is the best music that’s ever been made, and there are a handful of recordings upon which I rest my case. “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” is one of them. If I were making a mixed tape for a space alien who wanted to know what “punk rock” sounded like, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” would be one of the first songs I’d pick. That ’76-’77 era of X-Ray Spex - with 16-year-old Lora Logic on saxophone – produced just one single. But what a single it was! As documented on the Live at the Roxy album, early X-Ray Spex was amateurish and discordant in only the best ways. Spearheaded by Lora’s off-key sax and Poly’s screeching vibrato, the young band more than atoned for a lack of instrumental competence with exhilarating levels of attitude, nerve, and youthful abandon. 34 years on, and “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” still hasn’t been topped. And ever notice that 90 percent of the singers who’ve tried to imitate Poly’s singing style have only come off as annoying? The girl was flat-out special.
By the time X-Ray Spex got around to recording a proper album in 1978, they’d really come into their own musically. Germ Free Adolescents is one of the classic LPs of early punk and the 1970s in general. I could play it 1000 times and still not get bored with it. The band’s musical attack had solidified into a classic ’77 pop/punk style with the more accomplished Rudi Thompson now on sax. And Poly Styrene had really emerged as a writer, fashioning an album’s worth of songs opining on consumerism run amok, technology gone too far, and the dehumanizing effects of it all. It’s fascinating to read some of those lyrics today knowing they were penned in the comparatively low-tech ‘70s – long before such things as The Internet, electronic billboards, product placement, social networking, and smartphones proved her prophetic. And in her understanding that the ultimate powers-that-be weren’t politicians but rather corporations and advertisers, she was WAY ahead of her time. While her contemporaries were singing about smashing the state or going out with girls, Poly Styrene was speculating on how genetic engineering could “create the perfect race” and envisioning the world turning Day-Glo. Better yet, she did it with humor (“I eat Kleenex for breakfast/And use soft hygienic Weetabix to dry my tears”) and a remarkable perception of where the world was heading (“I wanna be instamatic/I wanna be a frozen pea/I wanna be dehydrated/In a consumer society”). In its deft mixture of driving, upbeat punk (“I Live Off You”, “Obsessed with You”) and vaguely sci-fi ish mid-tempo pop (“Plastic Bag”, “Germ Free Adolescents”), Germ Free Adolescents manages to epitomize just about everything that was great about the new wave. It’s near the top of any list I’ll ever make of punk rock albums everyone should own. And by everyone, I do mean everyone. You, your next door neighbor, your mom, your nephew, your barber, your boss, your evil twin, your personal trainer, your dog, and your dentist should all own this classic recording. Disliking X-Ray Spex wouldn’t just be unfathomable. It would be unhuman.
Rest in peace, Poly.