Saturday, April 30, 2011
POLY STYRENE (1957 – 2011)
Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in Bromley, Kent, England, Styrene was raised by her single Caucasian mother. Her father, a Somali aristocrat, was not present in Styrene's life.
Styrene ran away from home at 15 and lived a nomadic hippie lifestyle. She eventually hooked up with a boyfriend/manager who would take her around to record company offices, attempting to secure studio time. This approach eventually wore thin.
"I got a bit bored with being a solo artist as I was working with all these session musicians who were a lot older than me and who I had little in common with," Styrene told Penny Black Music in 2005. "I wanted to have a band, and that is really why I formed X-Ray Spex. I was writing and recording, writing and recording, writing and recording, and then I got a bit fed up with it because nothing was really happening, so I thought I’ll put a band together. I put X-Ray Spex together after I saw the Sex Pistols for the first time."
Poly Styrene was not Elliott-Said's stage name of choice. Her manager suggested the moniker and at first she refused it, using it instead for her small fashion label. Eventually she embraced the plastic pseudonym.
Before the release of X-Ray Spex's Germ Free Adolescents, their only full length release, the band spent nearly a year as the house band at the Man in the Moon pub, a bar on King's Road. Styrene was generous to other up and coming acts, giving bands like Adam and the Ants and the Tourists stage time.
One of their most famous tracks, Oh Bondage, Up Yours!, was inspired by the suffragette movement. Bondage was X-Ray Spex's first released recording in 1977. In 1978 Germ Free Adolescents was released receiving moderate success and critical praise. In 2001 Spin ranked the album at #5 on their list of the 50 Most Essential Punk Records.
"I wrote Identity after I saw this girl Tracey slash her wrists at the Roxy. She was a sales assistant in Vivienne Westwood’s shop, Seditionaries. I didn’t write that song about myself at all. I think the idea that I did came from Jon Savage and England's Dreaming," Styrene said.
I Am A Cliché
I Am A Poseur
During one of the many tours in support of Adolescents, Styrene claims she saw a UFO and the experience had a traumatic effect on her. At 21 she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where doctors told her she would never work again. This was effectively the end of X-Ray Spex. Upon her release from hospital Styrene released a solo album, Translucence, in 1980. Her solo work was jazzy and dissimilar from X-Ray Spex's sound. Styrene cited the tranquilizers she was prescribed for the change in her music. Many fans cried foul but most critics embraced the morph.
"I got a bit slated for it," Styrene recalled. "It was like 'Look what happened to her. She was this gung-ho punk revolutionary. Where... [has it] all gone?'"
When Styrene fronted X-Ray Spex there were few lead singers of colour, especially in the punk scene. Her change of tempo on Translucence was seen as an unconventional move; given the success she found with harder music. As if these oddities of her identity weren't enough, her next move would be the most surprising yet. Styrene joined the Hare Krishna movement.
"I have kept the philosophy, but I haven’t stuck with the organisation," Styrene said in 2005. "Philosophy is one thing, but organisations and corruption are other things. I am not saying that the Krishna movement is completely corrupt, but there was some strange stuff happening, and I decided to disassociate myself from it."
Styrene went on to release Flower Aeroplane in 2005 and Generation Indigo earlier this year. The track Black Christmas (below) was co-written with her daughter, Celeste, who is also featured on the song.
In February 2011 Styrene revealed in an interview with The Sunday Times that she had recently been treated for breast cancer but it had spread to her spine and lungs.
"I had a guru who left the mortal world in December," Styrene said in a March interview with The Quietus. "He gave me a meditation on the spirit, it was a female spirit, very beautiful but it made me think about how this body is just a material body, like an outer shell. It will deteriorate and die, but we can leave something behind in our music or art."