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Punk of the Month: Poly Styrene

June 9, 2011

Girl Germs might be an all-female show, but we have plenty of supportive gentleman friends – and even some honorary ladies – who number among our compatriots (see: DJ Phizzy, King Cole and Marinos of On the Corner; Evan and co. over at Fancy Pants Gangsters; and Chris and Qualler of Blogulator Radio, among others).

You might remember our friend Nate from his days on Radio K’s Out of Step; he guest DJ’d on Girl Germs back when we were all the same station. Nate is our go-to expert on all things punk and he’s kindly agreed to write a monthly feature for you all called Punk of the Month! Watch the blog every month for a profile of a female artist who has broken ground on the punk scene. 

A strong case could be made for canonizing the recently deceased Poly Styrene as one of the undisputed greats of the classic punk era.  As visually arresting as she was outspoken, Styrene (born Marianne Elliot Said) led the revered UK act X-Ray Spex with personality and provocation.

A diminutive Londoner of a mixed English-Somali background, Styrene stood apart from her scene in important ways.  First, there was the visual aspect: her fluorescent wardrobe, dark spools of hair and memorable mouthful of braces.  Then there was her voice—an enthusiastic and earsplitting shriek.  Anything but conventional, Styrene once remarked, “I wasn’t a sex symbol, and if anybody tried to make me one, I’d shave my head tomorrow.”

The brief but essential career of X-Ray Spex began with the impossible-to-ignore single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”  Released September 1977, it announced the arrival of a new breed of in-your-face feminism in a firestorm of buzzing pop-punk, saxophone squeals (courtesy of then-saxophonist Lora Logic), and of course, those giddily outraged vocals.  It was a defiant broadside, not against sex (as a casual listener might guess), but consumption and materialism.

Styrene’s lyrics obsessed on the synthetic and superficial satisfaction that she witnessed permeating English consumer society.  This preoccupation found itself on full display on X-Ray Spex’s definitive moment, 1978’s Germfree Adolescents.  A twelve track manifesto rallying against the sort of artificially-induced sense of contentment by which Styrene felt ensnared, the LP was a pitch-perfect snapshot of the burgeoning punk movement.

X-Ray Spex found itself without its leader, however, when Styrene left the group following a metaphysical vision she had experienced. She reappeared in 1980 with her jazz-inspired solo LP Translucence, but shortly withdrew from the music business to join a Hare Krishna sect, eventually releasing the spiritually-minded Gods & GoddessesEP in 1986.

Poly Styrene in 2010

Styrene reunited X-Ray Spex in 1991, leading the group in recording its second LP, Conscious Consumer, in 1995.  She appeared again in late 2010, releasing the Black Christmas single with her daughter, musician Celeste Bell.  Styrene subsequently recorded another full-length, the electro-pop Land of Indigo, in 2011.  Sadly, she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and soon passed away at age 53.

Poly Styrene’s untimely passing provides us with a moment to reflect on both her tragic loss and her cultural impact, which may be traced in the sound and spirit of such outspoken contemporary feminist musicians as Kathleen Hannah and Corin Tucker.

–Nate Rastetter

Nate is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a former co-host of Out of Step on KUOM Radio K. He has volunteered at Extreme Noise Records in Minneapolis since June 2000 and presently serves on its Board of Directors.  He seriously, fanatically loves record shopping.  Music is his mistress and vinyl is his vice.  He is also a moderately talented bass player.

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