POLY STYRENE


With punk legend Poly Styrene having tragically passed away recently, Vive Le Rock takes a look back at a classic VLR interview with the former X-Ray Spex frontwoman. Pick up the
new issue of Vive Le Rock for more on her incredible life and career. RIP Poly Styrene.

Art-I-Ficial intelligence: a word with Poly Styrene



A truly original voice in UK punk, X-Ray Spex vocalist Poly Styrene (née Mari Elliott) remains a model of do-it-yourself individuality. Against the stark 1977 backdrop of black leather and dole queue psychosis, the ‘Spex were a vivid burst of colour, a riot of sax-led punk rock fronted by this charismatic south Londoner, clad in bizarre mix-and-match pop art clobber and belting out her funny, often satirical lyrics. X-Ray Spex’ initial run was brief; after five singles and one album, 1978’s Germ Free Adolescents, the band folded. While Poly’s relationship with the music business has been on-off since, September 2008 saw a reconstituted Spex take the stage at Camden’s Roundhouse, a momentous event documented for posterity on a joint CD and DVD ‘Live At The Roundhouse London 2008’ (Year Zero). VLP hooked up with Poly for a few words on Spex matters past and present…

What do you think made the time right to get X-Ray Spex back together in 2008?

Well it was the 30th anniversary of Germ Free Adolescents. So that was really why, ‘cause it came out in ‘78 I think. It was just something I felt like trying. It was myself and Paul Dean who are the original members and then we got some of our friends. Sid Truelove played drums, who plays in Rubella Ballet. Flash on saxophone who has played with the Slits, Essential Logic and Rip Rig and Panic. And Saxby, we call him Great Saxby just for a joke, who played in Arnold before.

Rubella Ballet I seem to recall shared a bit of the Spex aesthetic, they were quite colorful…

Yeah, they were sort of X-Ray Spex day-glo fans, but they’re old friends of mine, I’ve known them for years now!

The Spex sound is slightly harder to pin down than some other punk groups, what had your teenage musical diet been?

Everything, from Marc Bolan to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, that’s what I grew up with and I suppose what everybody else heard on the radio. And obviously Motown as well. Yeah, a mixture, that’s originally what I listened to. Even things like Tubular Bells! It hasn’t really influenced X Ray Spex particularly, but I suppose female icons would have been people like Janis Joplin, maybe Grace Slick, but I also really love people like Aretha and Diana Ross as well. I just like music, I’m not into tribaling into particular genre of music that goes with a particular sort of group of people, I just like music, even some classical.

There’s this great story that you and your friends gatecrashed Queen’s rehearsals in Kensington?

We wasn’t really gategrashing, it’s just that Brian May was my schoolteacher, my maths teacher. And we just happened to be in Biba’s, he used to rehearse in the top, in the roof gardens. And our teacher used to come out and see us there because we’d skipped games or something, he’d say ‘Girls, what are you doing here???’ He was still on duty! I did run into him years later outside the Krishna temple, and I sort of bumped into him, he was there parked with his son, he asked me ‘Are you married?’, ‘cause I used to ask him that in school. ‘Sir, are you married? Sir, if you’re married, why doesn’t your wife iron your shirts?’ I used to have a little thing going with him about that, in class, it was just a joke. You know, I was a bit naughty. I was in a special maths group, underachievers, I wasn’t good at maths, he was one of the supply teachers, ‘specially for us difficult ones. He was a student teacher, we knew there was a difference, he used to come in with long hair and holes in his shoes, and we used to tease him a bit. He was very good actually, very good teacher, he used to say ‘Do you want to learn maths or not??’

Before you even got X-Ray Spex together, you’d made a solo single?

I did, I did this sort of reggae thing with GT Moore and the Reggae Guitars, it was just this jokey thing really, I wasn’t expecting much to come of it. I was singing it to my manager for a joke and he arranged to record it, he obviously thought it had some potential, but I didn’t really, it was something that happened, and next thing I knew it was on a label and out! I used to write lots of songs and demo them, and that one was released, my other demoes didn’t get released. It was just experimental songwriting really.

Shortly after that you had your Sex Pistols moment in Hastings…

Yeah, well it wasn’t just the Sex Pistols, I did see the Pistols on Hastings Pier when I was 18, but they weren’t like the ‘Sex Pistols’, they didn’t have that album that everyone knows them for, they were doing quite a few covers. It was very early, they weren’t famous or anything, there was only about 3 people, perhaps 4 or 5 girls, language students, from Scandinavia that were in the audience. But it struck me, they didn’t have a big following, they didn’t have a record company behind them, they weren’t famous, but they were about my age group and it just made me think if these people – I didn’t know they’d go on to become really famous – if these people can just do their own thing, even if they’re doing covers, I could have a band as well. Before that I’d only seen big bands – Led Zeppelin, the Who, Frank Zappa, I hadn’t seen anybody… they looked a bit different as well, they had a different image. They had shorter hair! Shorter hair and straight leg trousers, I remember that much. I remember thinking this is a departure from the long hair, sort of aristo-rock style flamboyant thing. It wasn’t the music or that they had Anarchy In The UK or God Save The Queen, they didn’t have those songs. In fact I think they were even doing some cover versions of the Stones as far as I can remember. It was very early days for them. But because it was new and there wasn’t many people there, it made me think, well they’re still out there doing it, they’re young and they’re doing it, I could do that as well rather than making demos for record companies. I could do a live thing.

How did you go about finding like-minded people for the band?

I put an advert in NME and Melody Maker with my manager for ‘Young punks who want to stick it together’ and lots of people came for that, believe it or not. Even though it was very early days and punk wasn’t really a big thing.

Did you have saxophone in mind when you started out?

No, I didn’t, I was just, when Lora (Logic, sax) came along I just thought ‘This is great’!

She must have been very young then…

About sixteen. She was still in school. We didn’t do that many dates, mainly at the Roxy and I think we did a few at the Man In The Moon with Lora. And then she went back to school… it was that and I think she wanted to do her own thing, Essential Logic. Because I was the main songwriter in X-Ray Spex, and she wanted to write songs and sing. I mean even now, recently, I’ve seen Lora and she said she’s not playing saxophone any more because it’s too heavy around her neck. And if she does do anything again she’s going to be doing Essential Logic with singing. She always really wanted to be a songwriter and it wasn’t very punky exactly what she was writing. So she might bring a song to X-Ray Spex rehearsal, she brought one called Petrol Pump Blues and I thought, this isn’t really what we’re doing. So I think she got a bit frustrated as well like that.

Didn’t she do a guest spot on a Stranglers album, Black And White?

She did, yeah… she did play on Conscious Consumer as well…

Oh yeah, there’s the nineties X-Ray Spex album too…

There was, she played on that, but I don’t know, it all went a bit skew-whiff around that time. I got knocked over by a fire engine and then they tried to reform X-Ray Spex, with a girl called Poly Filla! It didn’t really work out, so it all got left for a long time. And then I met a promoter at a Goldblade gig and he wanted to put on an X-Ray Spex show, and I thought, I’ll try it. So I did it and it was really a one-off, I wasn’t really planning to do a lot. I thought I’d do it and just see what the reception’s like! It was actually quite good!

So you enjoyed doing the show?

I found it very stressful, but it was a great turnout of people and a really great audience. I was a bit surprised because there were all these young girls that turned up that knew all the songs that were singing along. But before that I did the Love Music Hate Racism in spring in Victoria Park last year, that was about 70,000 people, I did Oh Bondage Up Yours there with Drew McConnell from Babyshambles, and Flash who plays with X Ray Spex and everybody, all these people knew the song, I was really surprised then, I thought oh everyone’ll know who Babyshambles is, they won’t know my song, I felt really nervous about going on, but to my surprise there were all these kids in the front singing Oh Bondage Up Yours! So if you haven’t done it for a long time you don’t know, you kind of get a surprise, ‘cause I haven’t been very public or very active, that all these people know all my songs. On top of that at the Roundhouse the girls even knew the songs from Conscious Consumer that I sang, so it must’ve been just going out there and records just have a momentum of their own.

There’s a sort of duel nature to X-Ray Spex songs, on one hand they’re very poppy and fun, but there’s this dark underside, like the character in Identity self-harming…

Yeah, well unfortunately I was around, I was young and impressionable at the time, and I witnessed things like that while I was at the Roxy, it was Tracey I think that used to work in Seditionaries, she was in the ladies’ at the Roxy and I saw that and just wrote about it. I didn’t think, oh this it too dark, I just literally wrote about what I was seeing that year really, and that’s how that one came about. So I know there is a dark element to it, and I feel a bit weird, when I had to revisit it, to do the show last year, listening to it all again, I did actually change some of the words, not on Identity, because I’ve seen that in hospitals, lots of young girls doing that, it’s not very nice, but you see these young girls, you see the razor marks up their arms. I don’t like to promote things like that particularly, but that one came out like that because I’d seen that and wrote about it. But on I Live Off You, I changed the words where it says ‘The pimp beats the whore, she just screams out for more and more’, I changed it, ‘She just screams out no more no more’. So I tried to change them a bit because I just thought God, these are a bit dark!

There’s also that line in Plastic Bag, ‘I dreamed that I was Hitler’!

Yeah, but that was just a silly one, anybody can have a silly dream! I left that one in, it was just meant to be dreaming you’re a bit of a power maniac, a megalomaniac, and Hitler sums that feeling up, of megalomania,
But obviously in a very negative way. But I’m obviously not anti semitic anything, otherwise I wouldn’t have done the Anti Nazi League Rally.

Yeah, ‘cause at that time the far right was more high-profile than it ever was in this country, you had this backdrop of the National Front at their height…

Well the BNP’s becoming quite big where I am at the moment (south coast). My mother lives here as well, in a sort of retired block, and I know one of her friends is going to vote BNP, said he’s always voted Labour, but now he’s voting BNP and he goes, ‘It’s alright the ones that were born here, they’re ok! It’s the new ones from Iraq and Afghanistan’. They’re all on their high horse about this because there’s a few Iraqis here, but the way I look at it, if we weren’t there having a war, they wouldn’t be here. I couldn’t vote BNP, and I don’t believe it is ‘alright if they were born here’, I believe they want everybody to go back, even mixed race people. They wonder which half they want to send back!

Another troubling part of the backdrop in punk days seemed to be this flirtation with negativity within the movement, as with Sid Vicious…

Yeah, well that mainly came over from America, when like the New York Dolls and those bands… Johnny Thunders, I think that was the influence, that was the heroin that came in with the American bands, so Sid got involved with Nancy, and she was a dealer I think. So I think that and being young and impressionable, but also I believe his mother was an addict. So poor kid didn’t really stand much of a chance…

So what was your relationship like with the US punks, ‘cause you namecheck Richard Hell in a song…

Oh yeah, I just liked the name, I just thought it was funny, but I did meet him in America, you know, I thought they were all nice, they were nice to me… but I wasn’t really on that whole heroin vibe, that was more Chrissie and Debbie, more caught up in that, but they all detoxed, all clean now… I think Tessa got a bit involved with heroin, but she’s cleaned up through Tai Chi. A lot of people got through it if they didn’t die, Sid was one of the unfortunate ones. But luckily I never got into it. I saw very early on when I was a young teenager, I had a boyfriend, he was sixteen, that died of heroin, I don’t even think he knew what he was doing. I witnessed that at a very young age so I was very careful about drugs during X Ray Spex. I don’t think drugs are glamorous. Not really. I think there was a flirtation with it, just like with cocaine it’s sort of a rich person’s drug and therefore it’s ‘glamorous’, and heroin had a glamorous thing to it in the punk days, from America, because those bands were quite glamorous, but when you think about it, I just think it victimizes people, it makes artists made more vulnerable to be able to be worked without proper payment, just for their drugs. When you hear about it in modeling, it all goes hand in hand with a negative outcome I think.

So you managed to sidestep that with Spex…

Oh yeah, we were pretty clean, I think our boys might have drunk a little bit but that’s about it really.

To what extent were X-Ray Spex lambasting arficiality, were you to some extent celebrating it?

I know people always say I was always really anti-it, but I don’t think I was, I was just sort of writing about it because it was around. I did think it was a bit tacky… but it wasn’t that I’m totally anti-capitalist, I’m not a capitalist really but I’m not against everything material that makes money, because that’s the nature of the world, the way it goes around unfortunately, that’s the way it’s been set up. So really I was more just painting a picture with the words about it. You know when I say in Art-I-Ficial ‘When I put on my makeup, the pretty little mask not me, that’s the way a girl should be in a consumer society’. Well that is just the way it is, it’s just stating a fact. It’s not really saying it’s bad, I’m not saying isn’t that terrible. That’s the way I saw it, I saw that we live in a consumer society and… I don’t know, it all rhymed!

That reminds me of a quote of Strummer’s, that 100 years of political thinkers hadn’t come up with the answers so how four guys from London with guitars could…

Ha ha! Well I mean, I think it’s bad, I don’t believe in the trickle down effect and the whole laissez-faire every man for himself. I don’t really believe in that, but I do believe in socialism really, social democracy. But at the same time I’m not like, you mustn’t buy a lipstick. I am careful, I don’t buy meat, because I think that’s really cruel and unnecessary and I’ve survived without that, so I’m vegetarian in that way, but I wouldn’t say I was an anarchist. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I believe in ‘Anarchy’. I’m not really talking about people that are politically anarchists, I’m talking about social mayhem where everything’s anarchic!

The album’s title track is a curious song, this very hypnotic, almost psychedelic-sounding guitar figure…

Well I was just very influenced by reggae at the time and I wanted that reverby dubby thing happening. We had a pedal and I said to Jak (Airport, original Spex guitarist), you know, put the reverb on it and slow it down so we get delayed echo on the guitar and we get that kind of hypnotic sound. I know it’s not obviously reggae but that was just our attempt at doing something that had a reggae influence

I’d supposed it to be influenced by psychedelia rather than reggae!

I suppose it does come across a bit like that, in our naivity we thought we were doing modern reggae… not really modern reggae, but you know what I mean, we were only young and we were just experimenting with that delayed reverb thing… it’s slow, it was easy to dance to, in those days when you were into reggae you did skanking, that slow dancing, and I could do that to that, so that was one of the reasons I liked that track.

By 1978 you’d come from small clubs to the Hammersmith Palais, and getting the cover of Smash Hits – were you comfortable with stardom?

Not really, I remember seeing Smash Hits and complaining to my manager, he said he thought that’ I’d have liked it and I said ‘Noooo, it’s not cool anymore, it’s not underground! It’s gone pop! Totally!’ but in hindsight it wasn’t a bad thing it was popular, that was good really, but at the time I was a bit sort of ‘that’s not cool and punk, being on the cover of Smash Hits!’ I didn’t really read it I just remember seeing it in the newsagents and going ‘that’s not what I wanted!’

And there was an Arena documentary about you around that time?

Yeah, there was, I’ve seen that, my daughter saw it the other day, ‘cause she’s writing an X-Ray Spex musical, or she’s trying to do a rock opera! So she looked at the documentary and she thought it was good, but when I saw it I thought I was quite depressed…

Do you remember being depressed at that point?

Yeah, I probably was, I did later get diagnosed with bipolar, so I was probably on a low phase rather than a manic high phase!

At that time that would have been a bit of an inexact science, people didn’t really understand much about the illness…

Yeah, I was totally misdiagnosed in the beginning with schizophrenia, because I said I saw that UFO…if you hallucinate or hear voices, they diagnose you as having schizophrenia. I remember being given huge amounts of Largactil

That’s heavy, isn’t it, like prison medication?

Yeah, it’s like a cosh… a chemical cosh, and I was on that during the Arena documentary, so I think that’s why I was a bit, you know…

What’s on the market now is presumably far gentler on the system?

Yeah, I do have to take medicine, but it’s not like that now… it took a long time for them to get there! I have to watch what I do, that’s one of the reasons I can’t do too much live work because it’s very charged, and that can create a manic attack, so I have to be careful what I do… I’m better off when I do more chilled out music, when I can, I was doing a dub track yesterday, with Sid actually, I was just messing around doing a dub track. I did a dub track in 2007 against the Iraq war called ’Code Pink’, it’s a woman’s group in America that are anti-war, it’s just a dub track about the war, anti-war, not really horrible, but just talking about weapons of mass destruction, it says, ‘Do you get what we’re talking about guv? How many trustafarians do you know with shares in weapons of mass destruction ?’ it’s quite a funny one, it’s a little bit cheeky. We did send it to Downing Street, I didn’t but my engineer did, I thought thanks a lot, you’ve got me blacklisted now! It’s not a Spex one, I was going to put it out on the DVD but Shirin at Future Noise music who’s putting out the live album and DVD she said make a solo album like it, so that’s what I was doing yesterday. I’m okay with the recording but the live stuff can be a bit…

High pressure?

Yeah, a bit, yeah.

So the band folded in 1979, do you remember how it ended?

I think there was a lot of pressure building up to it. There was the whole thing about the Pistols splitting up, because I think that’s when John was in PIL wasn’t it… but there was also the hatred in the press, about the ‘venom of the youth of today’ and a lot of people began to feel singled out for being a punk… I personally felt that and I don’t know whether that’s why a lot of bands split up… but also it was just like, it was a grass roots movement that came about organically and all of a sudden turned into this big, possibly a money spinner, but also a lot of worry, older people worried about the new generation of people ruining society, what was happening to the youth of today. So there was like a stigma attached to punk rock as well as a commerciality that was crossing over and I know that people were quite frightened of it. I know my manager, his father was the royal sculptor, his studio was at St James’ Palace. And they said that they were worried about the Sex Pistols, Anarchy In the UK and God Save The Queen. They were quietly worried and there was this feeling you’d been doing something that was anti-establishment and wrong, and you’d get into trouble for it…

So people had been demonized for what had started out as a fun thing…

Yeah, just a bit of youthful satire really…

It can’t have been comfortable, for instance being John Lydon, he was publicly attacked twice within a very short space of time…

Yeah, I remember even my manager got attacked, we were walking in Fulham and he got attacked by sort of a football hooligan type, and if you dressed like a punk… that was why they started calling themselves scum punks, and then they became travelers, because they really dropped out of society in the end because they were made to feel they were bad…

So at the time you felt you needed to back off from the situation…

Yeah at the time I did, I started feeling I was scared to say who I was. That might have come about because I used to spend a bit of time at Gunter’s Grove, not that much, but occasionally I used to drop in there and see John and he always had the curtains drawn and was always a bit paranoid. So I think that maybe I picked up on that as well and got a bit paranoid about the whole thing. Not only that, ending up in the Maudsley after seeing a UFO and being put on Largactil I just kind of did back off ‘cause I felt, I was a bit paranoid at the time, I thought the establishment was against me and that’s why they’ve given me this chemical cosh!

You followed Spex with your solo album Translucence, which was a very different direction…

Yeah, a lot of it was just therapeutic, but I suppose that might be reflective of the bipolar where you do something like X-Ray Spex which is quite manic in the high period, without even knowing that you’ve got bipolar and then you do something quiet in the low period and it comes out like Translucence! I did feel I wanted to get away from punk for a while and anything that went with it. I remember being quite scared in the King’s Road when all these punks with Mohawks turned up, hanging out, all drunk and wasted on the Kings Road, I remember thinking ‘This is all my fault, I’ve done this!’

It did all turn a bit self-caricaturing, at that point, like it was becoming a uniform…

It did and you still see a few kids around like it now, really young ones…

So it was a more open field in the early punk days…

It was more like everybody being an individual and doing your own thing, and then it became, as you say, a uniform, not that there’s anything wrong it, I quite like some of that as a look, just on a fashion level with the boots and the hair and everything, I do quite like the look, but at the time it got a bit scary for me, the look, whereas now I’m used to it, when I see it now, it’s just a look… at the time it was like ‘Aaghhh!’ because not many people really dressed like that at the beginning of punk, that all came up later.

So you were in and out with music after that, there was the Gods and Goddesses EP in the late 80s…

Oh yeah, I actually quite like those tracks, there’s only four of them, but that was when I lived in the Krishna temple, I wrote those, hence why it’s called Gods and Goddesses. That song Paramatma Is about the super soul within everyone. It’s spiritual pop really, but it doesn’t come across as spiritual, it comes across quite cool, the music’s not gospel or anything, it’s not sort of hallelujah, it’s more philosophical. It’s trying to write in a simplistic pop way and explain to people, a bit like when Bob Marley wrote Natural Mystics or when the Rastas say I and I, that’s what they’re talking about, the super-soul in the heart of every living entity. It was just very influenced by Krishna philosophy that EP. And I wanted to share that with other people, the Hare Krishna movement is a preaching movement really, it’s about enlightening other people. So naively I thought I could do that through music, but obviously it’s not that easy! It just turns out some of it is just good pop tracks!

Outside of music what keeps you busy these days?

Well there’s all the backup to the music! After the Roundhouse there was a lot of work because I produced the live album and the DVD, so I was doing that all this year really. And then there’s all the backup stuff, it sounds boring, but it’s just trying to get your online royalty statements, all that paperwork that goes with that, you’d be surprised how much paperwork there is, admin! But I’ve been writing and I wrote the new Spex album… but some of it I’m using for my solo album. At the moment I’m just experimenting with dub stuff, to see if we can pull it off as good as Rhythm and Sound – they’re like a dub duo, I think they’re from Germany, but they use Jamaican guys to front it, but it’s all about what effects you’ve got, and Sid’s got a lot of effects, we’re just experimenting up there, round at his house, at some stage I’ll try and record an X-Ray Spex album, that’s if somebody wants to put it out, I could do a few new songs if I do another live show, but I’m not planning a live show in the near future. But I’ve got a few new songs for X-Ray Spex anyway, but it’s just a whole album’s worth, whether somebody really wants to put it out, because if you’ve got no way of getting it to people, it’s a lot of time and energy making an album and then it doesn’t go out… but Future Noise have shown an interest, so did Sony, but they haven’t got back to us! To be honest, you don’t know whether it’s best just to work with an independent anyway, it’s not like we’re selling millions of copies. We’ll just have to wait and see and play it by ear. But for pleasure, what I do mainly is mess about with this dub stuff, it’s very chilled and very relaxing and I quite enjoy doing it. It’s day by day, I also run x-rayspex.com, so I have to answer those emails every day as well. It’s not too much, but there is something every day and there’s a myspace as well, I’ve just set up an official one. Just in case we do another gig in future we can get to everybody a bulletin.

You’ve sold out a 3,000 seater on the basis of your album of 1978, why do you think Germ Free Adolescents continues to resonate with people?

Something with the title of that album, Germ Free Adolescents, resonates with young people, it’s almost like a rite of passage, to have that album when you’re young, a teenager, because of the name of it. So it’s something to do with that, and I think the older people that came, I think it just takes them back to their youth, it’s that feel good thing, when you hear a piece of music, it resonates, you’ve got all these other associations with it. When you hear it again it takes you back to a period of your life, that probably might have been quite good and makes you feel good. I know people say the lyrics are really ahead of their time and this and that, and there is that to it, but I also believe there’s something, it also has a feel good factor, the feelings that you associated with when you first heard it, it transports you back.

Reminds me of when I was Smash Hits reader! But I played the album again last night and it’s not lost what made it exciting back then…

It was quite modern wasn’t it, the lyrics apply to today…

Well the theme of consumerism is still topical…

I was writing about it before it was really big, so when you look at it now, you go ‘That’s really now’!

Poly Styrene’s final solo album ‘Generation Indigo’ is out now on Future Noise.
Live At The Roundhouse London 2008 is out now through Year Zero

Hugh Gulland

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