Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obituary - Poly Styrene

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard; But I think Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
Those were the first detonating words I ever heard from one Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, who is better known to all as Poly Styrene, vocalist in the band X-RAY SPEX. I was mid-teens and the song that followed, ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’, sounded screeching and a tad annoying. But, the energy of the song captivated, inciting me to play it again... and again. The b-side, ‘I Am A Cliché’, had an equally abrasive almost unorthodox vocal and just as much jarring energy, but it was ‘Oh Bondage...’ that lured me into the day-glo world of X-RAY SPEX. Soon after I managed to hear another track, ‘Identity’. I was hooked.
Incredibly, that was 27 years ago and the memory is still extraordinarily vivid, as is the sleeve of that ‘Oh Bondage...’ 7” with Poly’s eyes staring out and that jagged, orange logo embedded over the black and white image.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that day when her raw but emotive vocal made my tender, 14-yr-old ears prick up. I started reading rumours just yesterday of the passing of Poly Styrene; there seemed little in the way of confirmation but today her passing, on 25 April 2011 due to advanced breast cancer, was confirmed.
Marianne Elliott-Said was born on 3 July 1957 in Bromley, Kent. She was the daughter of a dispossessed Somali aristocrat but raised by her mother who was a legal secretary. After a flirtation with the hippie culture, she cut her first record in 1976. Under the name of Mari Elliot, the single was a Reggae song titled ‘Silly Billy’. It was after seeing the SEX PISTOLS that she placed an ad requesting ‘young punx’ to form a band. It was also at this stage she re-christened herself as Poly Styrene.
The resulting band was, of course X-RAY SPEX. The band’s history is well documented elsewhere but clearly, they became one of the most instantly recognisable bands from that original wave of Punk. They played twice during the first 100 days of the infamous Roxy club with the band appearing on the ‘Live At The Roxy WC2’ album. The sound, as stated was a strident, energetic and slightly discordant rush, with Laura Logic’s saxophone and Poly's natural, untutored howl setting the sound apart from any other band on the fledgling Punk scene. And visually, Poly herself instantly stood out from the crowd with her mixed-race ethnicity, prominent thick braces (on her teeth that is!) and day-glo wardrobe. She also rebelled against the stereotypical notion of the female pin-up and championed the roll of female equality stating, “There's nothing wrong with beauty, but whether it's actually helping the female cause of being equal to men, you have to judge for yourself."
November 1978 saw the release of the classic ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ album – an album which has stood the test of time as well as any of the classic albums (and much better in many cases) of the era.
In 1979 Styrene left the band. A Jazz-influenced album, ‘Translucence’, followed the next year. In 1983 she became a follower of the Hare Krishna movement and was initiated as a devotee while living at the Bhaktivedanta Manor. During this time, she released the EP ‘God’s and Godesses’. She remained in the movement until 1988.
Less fortunate news occurred in 1991 when she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (this following a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia in the very late 70s). The same year, X-RAY SPEX reformed for a sell-out gig at the Brixton Academy with another reformation occurring in 1995 and the recording of the ‘Conscious Consumer’ album.
Another solo album, this time a set of soothing musical mantras – ‘Flower Aeroplane’ – was released in 2004.
In September 2008, to celebrate 30 years since the release of the ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ album, a gig at the Roundhouse saw Styrene and the band play the album in its entirety. The same year also saw Styrene hook with John Robb’s GOLDBLADE for a one-off Christmas single, the rather excellent ‘City Of Christmas Ghosts’.
As recently as March of this year with the single ‘Virtual Boyfriend’ and the succeeding, critically-acclaimed album, ‘Generation Indigo’, Styrene was back in the public eye and warmly received at that. "I just channel my songs like a medium," she said of the new material. "If my friends like them, then I'm quite happy that they're good songs." She had planned to take the new songs on tour.
The album was a particularly poignant and triumphant release due to the fact that, just one month earlier in an interview with the Sunday Times, Styrene had talked of her battle with breast cancer and of the fact that it had spread to her spine and lungs.
On Monday 25 April 2011, aged 53, bed-bound due to a fall that broke her back in two places, she passed away as a result of the cancer.
She is survived by her mother and daughter, Celeste Bell-Dos Santos.
Additional obituary here.