One of the more enigmatic and unique sounds to emerge from England’s burgeoning 70’s punk scene was the female fronted X-Ray Spex. After witnessing an inspirational Sex Pistols performance, former flower child Marianne Joan Elliot-Said decided to form a punk rock band. In late 1976 with help from her boyfriend/manager Falcon Stuart, she took out ads in Melody Maker and NME seeking “young punx who want to stick it together.” Shedding her real name for that of Poly Styrene, she installed teenage saxophonist Susan Whitby, Paul Dean, Paul B.P. Hurding, and Jack Stafford to hurl her anti-consumerist lyrics into the faces of London’s rebellious youth. The sax lent an atypical approach to the three-chord aesthetic of classic punk rock with slightly funky tinges and a definite new wave angle. Alongside Jak Airport’s soaring guitar and Poly’s (at times abrasive and shrill, rarely melodic and sweet) voice, the band was able to become an overnight sensation. Only their second live appearance was onstage at the Roxy and they even managed to take up a near residency at local Man on the Moon pub. Recording companies were eager to cash in on the punk rock craze, and X-Ray Spex released their first single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” on Virgin. The song became a proto riot grrrl anthem and is still heralded as one of the finest punk singles released. Although Poly claimed the song actually stressed strong anti-consumerism views rather than remarks on sexism. It is still no mistake that she became widely recognized as an innovative feminist figure in an aggressive scene dominated by nihilistic young men. Born of British Somali descent and unabashedly wearing braces, Poly Styrene was an audacious archetype for rock n’ roll front woman. Denouncing the idea of being conceived as a sex symbol, she in turn became a punk poster child, often receiving more recognition than the actual band itself. Whitby, better known as Lora Logic, was replaced early on by Glyn John then eventually Rudi Thomson, but also must be credited as a crucial role in the early incarnation of X-Ray Spex. Being only fifteen at the time, Logic left the band to pursue her education. She would later go on to form Essential Logic and work with several influential acts throughout her own interesting post-punk career.
While living under the roof and creative control of Falcon Stuart, three of the band’s five singles charted, they appeared numerous times on television shows including Top of the Pops, recorded a John Peel session in early 1978, and performed twice nightly for two weeks at the punk rock ‘rite of passage’ CBGB’s in New York. Their first full-length effort, Germfree Adolescents was put out on the EMI label before mounting differences led to the group’s subsequent disbanding. In April of ’78, during their performance at the Rock Against Racism fest, Poly unraveled a freshly shaved head to the crowd. Done in true pop princess meltdown mode, the haircut signified the result of a traumatic experience for the singer and marked the beginning of a downward spiral. The band embarked on only one UK tour and after months of allegations, announced their split in 1979. They would struggle to rekindle the fire in ‘88 with the release of Conscious Consumer. Remaining band members Jak Airport and BP Hurding continued to work with Stuart, forming band Classic Nouveaux from the ashes of the original Spex. Paul Dean and Rudi Thomson went on to take part in the short-lived UK hardcore outfit Agent Orange.
Described as “one of punk rock’s most dispossessed souls” it isn’t all that surprising that Poly would abandon the attitude altogether on her solo material. 1980’s Translucence finds her venturing into more subtle and jazzier territory. She would eventually resign from the music scene to become a follower of the Hare Krishna faith. As would original member Logic. However, Poly would again re-emerge in the late eighties to grace us with more thought-provoking music material. She continued to be a recording musician until her untimely death at 53, when she succumbed to a battle with breast and spinal cancer. But Poly Styrene will forever be immortalized as an inspiring young front woman who was unafraid to take risks and shattered the ideal image of female pop star.
While watching the interview footage between sets at the infamous Hope and Anchor, there is an uncertainty in the teenage Poly’s answers. But nothing can be mistaken when asked about the meaning of “Oh Bondage Up yours!”...To which she quickly quips, “It means Fuck Everyone. Fuck Everything…I wanna be free.” If that doesn’t encompass the essence of punk rock hard to say what does.