ON Hastings Pier in 1976 the Sex Pistols played cover songs to a virtually deserted hall. In the crowd was a young girl from Brixton, just turned 18. With a twinkle in her eye and a smile encased in braces, she witnessed the intensity, the blossoming musical rebellion and thought; “I can do that”. Later, as she flicked through the Yellow Pages she renamed herself, Marianne Elliott became Poly Styrene; the little girl that was seen and heard.
Welcome to the late 1970’s, the BeeGees are number one, you’ve watched Grease at the pictures more times than you’d care to mention, and every girl is desperate for pair of wonder woman boots. Sound like a riot? We’d rather join the white riot instead. Punk was escapism from Olivia Newton-John’s perky perm, Kate Bush’s woeful cries and Donny Osmond’s creepy smile. What music fans found in Poly Styrene was a much needed anti-pop heroine, revolting against the mainstream- an antidote to the fakery.
Punk was England’s retaliation against the poor economy and unpopular politics. The youth were rebellious and out of work. With time on their hands young men were hurling music into a new intimidation direction. But what of those feisty females? Previously, politically motivated women artists would be pigeon-holed as political folk musicians. And then there was punk, far more inviting, raucous and alive- I know which one I’d have gone for.
After putting an ad in Melody Maker for ‘young punx who want to stick it together’, X-Ray Spex was formed. A small but significant revolution was brewing; girls with guitars were approaching and angry. Here come the girls! Arm in arm with her sisters in battle; the Slits and Siouxise Sioux and the Banshees, Poly Styrene was a true innovator in the female resistance.
Yet even in the alternative revolution X-Ray Spex stood out a mile. Not only was their singer tiny, mixed-race, with short cropped hair and a smirk lean with NHS metal- the band had a saxophone. Brass had no place in punk, but this was the movements first tentative steps into the unknown, or as we call it; post-punk.
You can forget Bono and Geldof, as the sole writer for the band Poly was ahead of her time by writing about eco matters. Society’s obsession with synthetic products, manipulation through garish advertising and an unnerving future of genetic engineering was on her mind. In her eyes the world really was turning day-glo and Poly was ready to express her distaste.
Listening to their one and only album ‘Germ Free Adolescent’ is like a grab to the shoulders and a manic shake. Poly was forcing people to ‘wake up’ and witness the ludicrous society she was seeing. ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours! Is a kick in the crotch to men and old ideals, with the iconic opening line in her innocent tone she utters; “some people think little girls should be seen and not heard…” Not this time. Operatically trained, her husky voice would soar up the scales with passion, control and plenty of attitude. Her piercing intro of ‘Identity’ was so distinct and razor-sharp, it had her court-shoe print stamped all over it- every song did.
Poly Styrene was the essence of anti-fashion; “I am a poseur and I don’t care, I like to make people stare”. A young feminist, she fed off the attention of being the odd one out, proclaiming she’d shave her head if she ever became a sex symbol. She was aware of how essential her image was for the X-Ray Spex message. In a BBC documentary she said; “clothes aren’t really you, that’s why people wear them.”
Stomping around grimy stages in a military jacket and hat, she was an original power dresser, commanding the room with forceful yelps to rival an army officer. She also became the product she so despised in her lyrics; in charity shop clothes she transformed, tongue in cheek, into the housewives at the mercy of advertising.
As I flick through the blur of markets selling insurance, cartoon germs sliding down immaculate toilet bowels and women in a daze over how nice their home stinks after they’ve been pelted with artificial scents, I kind of understand what Poly was getting at.
Poly proved that looks could be deceiving by conflicting musical styles with fashion, that still resonates with musicians today. Remember Courtney Love rough drawl vocals as she swished in a long red prom dress for Hole’s power chord riddled Celebrity Skin? Or perhaps our introduction to Yeah Yeah Yeah’s on Top of the Pops? Karen O performed in an innocent floral 50’s dress and screamed and cavorted in a less than innocent manner.
Poly Styrene christened herself so, as it’s a lightweight, disposable product. In her eyes that was what a pop star was meant to be. Unfortunately she embodied her namesake far too well and X-Ray Spex quickly came to an end, and so did Elliot’s plastic persona.
Last year, aged just 53 Marianne Elliot died of cancer to the spine and breast. Making music until she died, Elliott left a legacy for women in music. She helped push music into new places with alternative sounds and songs with a strong lyrical backbone. Poly oozed confidence, leaving people simultaneously intimidated and infatuated. She dressed and spoke for herself, and boy, isn’t that the best way to be? Much to her dismay music is more disposable than ever, but our favourite plastic fantastic-Poly, will live on as our art-i-ficial second selves.
This piece was written for upcoming website, Atomic. A superb idea for a magazine for women, music-heavy and fashion-light.