Poly Styrene RIP

Poly Styrene’s Talk of Toytown

*A few people recommended I share this post I wrote yesterday on the chimatli blog. It’s a tribute to one of my musical heroines, Poly Styrene. Sadly, she passed away Sunday in Sussex, England.*

Poly Styrene (Marianne Elliot Said), singer and songwriter for the 70s punk band X-Ray Spex passed away yesterday from breast cancer. I don’t often feel emotional about the deaths of celebrities and musicians but X-Ray Spex and Poly Styrene were such a looming musical presence in my teenage years that I can’t help but feeling the loss of this amazing musician.

I spent a good chunk of my early teenage years hunting down the music of X-Ray Spex. It’s not like nowadays where I find the most obscure songs, things I’ve been looking for for years, ready to download in a matter of minutes. In the 80s/90s being a music lover required much more patience.

I went to Fairfax High School on Melrose in Hollywood. All around my high school were record shops with owners who loved to price their rare vinyl in the double digits. Bleeker Bob’s was the worst, their prices were ridiculously high. But they were the only shop where I’d ever seen my vinyl holy grail, Germ-Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex. After school, I’d wander over to the shop and gaze at the album hanging on the wall. It cost something like $50, an outrageous price, I thought. While standing at the counter admiring the album artwork, I’d often ask some stupid question to the guy behind the counter about the record and he would give me that “Buzz off kid, you’re bothering me” look. He knew I hadn’t the money.

In the tenth grade I saw an odd boy on the bus to school wearing an X-Ray Spex t-shirt. I made friends with him and immediately developed a crush on the guy even though I knew he wasn’t into girls and even after he told me, he found the t-shirt in a pile of clothes at the second hand shop where he worked. “Will you give me your shirt? Pleeeeease?” I’d ask him all the time but he always answered with a firm ‘no’. Despite hanging out with a crew of Hollywood punks, he was the only person I knew that actually liked the band beside myself. I was a punk generation too late.

The funny thing is, I only really knew the song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” It was the X-Ray Spex performance in the documentary The Punk Rock Movie DOA where I remember first hearing the song. That’s when I first saw Poly Styrene and I was captivated by her style, by the crazy energy of the music and by her…color. She wasn’t White and if you are/were are a punk rock kid of color you understand the significance.

Oh Bondage Up Yours from the movie DOA

As my high school years went by, I got caught up in the hardcore scene and my pining for the elusive Germ Free Adolescents album waned as I filled up my ears with the screams and grunts of suburban, angsty White guys from Orange County and Oxnard.

Inside blurb from the Guillotine EP

For years, the Germ-Free Adolescents album hung on the Bleeker Bob’s wall. Even after high school, I’d continue to make my pilgrimage. By then, I refused to give Bleeker Bob’s any of my money and I wasn’t the only one not willing to pay their exorbitant prices because it hung on the wall, untouched for years. Then one day I came across an EP called Guillotine (Virgin Records, 1979), and lo and behold, there was “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” The elusive song I’d been waiting five years to hear! I bought the record, rushed home and felt tingles of joy and excitement as I heard Poly’s famous line “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think…Oh bondage up yours! 1,2,3,4!” I wore the grooves down on this little EP.

For many years, the only way to find their music affordably was through bootlegs

Yup, $18!

Soon after, I got a job at a popular Los Angeles record store and I was able to find all sorts of bootlegs of the album, mostly weird live recordings from England, some released on CD. I also splurged on a few on the 7 inch singles. It was the first time I’d heard many of the songs and I was pleased to find the lyrics resonated with my newly adopted Situationist-influenced politics.

From the song Art-i-ficial

I know I’m artificial
But don’t put the blame on me
I was reared with appliances
In a consumer society

From Genetic Engineering:

Introducing worker clone
as our subordinated slave
His expertise proficiency
will surely dig our grave

From Identity:

When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself
Do you see yourself
On the TV screen
Do you see yourself in the magazine
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream

About a year later, Germ Free Adolescents was finally re-issued on CD. I played it over and over at the record store I worked at, despite the passive-aggressive protests of my Beatles-loving co-workers. “Saxophone in punk? Hmmm…” One of the indie dudes said disapprovingly. “Up yours, pretentious asshole!” I thought to myself.

Around this time, I popped into Bleeker Bob’s and the album was still there on the wall but now that the CD had been re-issued, they had finally lowered the price. I laughed a secret, evil laugh to myself – greedy bastards! The people who loved X-Ray Spex were not the nerdy, I need-the-first-pressing-vinyl kinda folks but people who loved the music for it’s passion, for it’s politics and for the raw, earnest vocals of Poly Styrene’s energetic voice.

It was a mission, a journey and a struggle to finally get to hear the music of my favorite group but once I did, it was completely satisfying musical experience. There have been many drunken nights my friends and I could be heard singing as loudly as possible X-Ray Spex tunes at the top of our voices, the lyrics still timely and humorous. Maybe tonight I will do the same, in honor of the beautiful Poly Styrene, RIP.

Promotional video for Poly’s new album

Coincidentally, Poly Styrene’s new album Virtual Boyfriend is being released today.

Oh yeah, I finally did get the vinyl version of the album and at a decent price.

Previous post on Poly Styrene with excellent documentary footage and interviews here.

5 thoughts on “Poly Styrene RIP

  1. I got into punk more than a couple of generations too late but even then I was surprised X-Ray Spex did not figure on the radio of many friends/people I knew. Oddly, even people who were into the RiotGrrrl scene didn’t realize how much Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill basically took her singing stytle directly from Poly Styrene.

    It really is a loss that she is gone, but she did grace us with some great music that has aged very well.

    And I do remember how difficult it was to track down music in the 90s. I think that is why people got into scenes/communities of music because it was a great way to find out the music you wanted: swap tapes, borrow records, and even watch bad VHS copies of live shows. Now it’s just a couple of clicks away…not that I totally pine for the old days…

  2. Thanks for your post. It brought back a flood of memories. I grew up in Thousand Oaks and often made the 1/2 drive to Melrose with friends who were old enough to drive, & by the early 80’s drove myself. I would save my dough & pay too much for Vinyl at Bleecker Bob’s & Vinyl Fetish. Years later I bought some of the neon clocks out of Bob’s, & while in NYC went in the the basement of the store there & his partner sold me a large Ramones cardboard cut out. Just found boxes of records the other day, & have begun listening… even found some Xray Spex! Cheers jd

  3. like many other tunes i obsessed over later, i first heard “oh bondage” on a late saturday night during the second half of an episode (for lack of a better word) of “12 o’clock rock” on kpfk circa-1982 (?) and was instantly hooked, partly because of that off-kilter sax, but mostly because i was amazed at how poly managed to sound like she was singing AND screaming at the same time. was mightily impressed by that. after some years of looking, i found the tune on the “rock against racism” comp at neal’s records in glendale and it got a lot of airtime with many of us CT punkers. also managed to bypass the actual buying of “germ free adolescents” by taping it off my buddy matt, which made that copy on bleeker bob’s wall i also envyingly eyed less crucial to have in my possession. jesus, i freakin’ loooooved that record, and to this day the subsequent CD i bought years later to replace that dubbed casette remains in regular rotation.

    rare is it when a punk band can mix fun and an important message in a way that doesn’t diminish either. the big boys were one band that could, and x-ray spex were another. love and respect to the memory of poly, and thanks for sharing, chimatli.

    -jimmy tumors

  4. i was still bobbing my head to sabbath and priest when punk came a knocking at my door. i learned “heavy” can be applied to many things besides metal, dude. THAT voice was one of the first ones to call me into the underground. she was just so sure of what she was screaming/singing. how could i not believe her? the x-ray guitars always jumped for me and more so with that unyielding, exuberant, demanding Poly… “when you look in the mirror, do you see yourself…” the 2:25 of “identity” are never enough. then in “let’s submerge” she warned me, “it’s dark and erie and it’s getting late, come on kids don’t hesitate, we’re going down to the underground. we’re going down we’re going down, to the underground.” that raspy scream is unforgettable. to the rhs punk girls i’ll play em some tragatelo or no thanks and x-ray spex and that silent, intense listening followed by “hey, that’s tight” or “what? who is that?” is always perfect. it still sounds fresh, all these years later, as julio mentioned. that voice still matters. btw i am no fan of the saxophone, always found it pompous, but it works with this band, especially live, when it sounds like a screaming wombat in heat.

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