X-Ray Spex’s debut album is a brash, vivid masterpiece of the germinal punk era. Its songs tackle identity, feminism, and consumer society with fire and joy.
Who is Poly Styrene? On January 20, 1979, the BBC endeavored to find out. “I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight, disposable product,” Styrene stated, with an absurd serenity, while scrubbing her teeth on national television during a 40-minute special on her London band, X-Ray Spex. “It sounded alright. It was a send-up of being a pop star—plastic, disposable, that’s what pop stars are meant to mean, so therefore I thought I might as well send it up.” Only two months had passed since the release of X-Ray Spex’s Germfree Adolescents, a brash, vivid masterpiece of the germinal punk era. An incisive 1977 interview with the fanzine Jolt, penned by one Lucy Toothpaste, was revealing in other ways. “She’s a girl and she’s half-black,” goes Toothpaste’s introduction. “HOW OPPRESSED CAN YOU GET?” (Caps Lucy’s.) “Doesn’t seem to keep her down though,” Lucy added, before quoting a patch of Poly’s more impressionistic lyrics: “‘Yama yama yama yama yama yama.’”
Poly Styrene was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the daughter of a Scottish-Irish secretary and a dispossessed Somalian noble, in 1957. While UK punks were screaming about cutting ties with their pasts, Poly spoke of her fascination with her own history, her uniquely multicultural family tree; plenty of punks played Rock Against Racism gigs, but Poly was one of few active participants of color. After working in fashion in her youth, she ran away from home between the ages of 15 and 17 and spent a year touring Britain’s hippie music festivals, including the Trentishoe Earth Fayre—after the fest, she lived with fellow travelers in the countryside, where they brewed dandelion tea and bathed in streams. This wandering all stoked the ecological consciousness that would fuel her ethos in punk. Armed with her itinerant background, Poly Styrene became one of the most original pop stars in music history—trained in opera, acutely anti-authoritarian, braces cemented across her teeth—and she was indeed the sharpest punk lyricist that Britain ever saw.
She rolled her Rs over supercharged riffs with more tenacity than Johnny Rotten. She yabbered gibberish more wildly than the Ramones. She naturally did punk-reggae better than the Clash or the Slits, and she was upending the notion that “cleanliness is next to godliness” when Kurt Cobain was in elementary school. With guttural, soul-cleansing, full-body wails, Poly sang of our sanitized culture’s lethal obsession with sterile perfection long before pop culture had sniffed “Teen Spirit.” Poly Styrene’s prescient lyrics could serve as epigraphs to scholarly books about identity politics, commodified dissent, or consumer society. They are also fun.
On her 19th birthday—July 3, 1976—Poly saw the Sex Pistols at Hastings Pier and was changed. She swiftly put an ad in Melody Maker seeking “young punx who want to stick it together.” X-Ray Spex—name inspired by ads in True Detective mags, and brilliantly evoking punk’s impulse to dissect life below the surface—was managed and produced by one Falcon Stuart. Sixteen years her senior, he was also Poly’s boyfriend and produced her pre-punk reggae single “Silly Billy,” released on GTO—the UK label that put out Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” One of the “young punx” to reply to that ad was 16-year-old Lora Logic, a Bowie-child who wrote and performed the band’s definitive sax arrangements before getting unceremoniously chucked out (allegedly for claiming too much of its spotlight). “Poly just wanted some men that would blur into the background,” Lora once told me, and she got a formidable lot in guitarist Jak Airport, bassist Paul Dean, drummer BP Hurding, and later sax player Rudi Thompson. They released four singles before EMI put out their only album, Germfree Adolescents, in November ’78.
X-Ray Spex is what I consider capital-P Punk—meaning, of the original movement—more than lowercase-p punk—meaning, by current vernacular, an action. Though raw, strange, and legitimately subversive, the songs of Germfree Adolescents have traditional structures. There are persistent verses and choruses and swaggering solos, steady beats and percussive hip-shaking claps; there are overdubs, candy hooks, chiseled little flourishes in the form of “oh-oh”s and (on “Highly Inflammable”) even some galactic synth shimmer. Germfree Adolescents holds up, in some sense, like pop music, albeit pop that is equally scorched and joyful, liberationist, charged with intellect and insurrectionary zeal. It inspires in ways that transcends genre, which explains why an artist like FKA twigs has called Germfree Adolescents her favorite album ever. Its musicality is honed; the musicians here are obviously amazing players. Its chugging faster-harder chords accelerate by the second, like the culture Poly describes. It is steely, shit-kicking, and bright; like an unbreakable machine, its build reflects the industrialization at hand. Germfree Adolescents’ singular sax-punk sound is, to borrow a word from Poly’s lyrics, “bionic.”
Along with her hippie inklings, Poly devoted much of her teenage years to watching fringe theater groups, and so she was visually inclined. This manifested in her striking and unusual sartorial choices—such as a green tin army helmet or a lipstick-red conductor’s jacket—as much as in X-Ray Spex’s music. The riffs were tonally fluorescent, but Poly’s language also made immediate appeals to the imagination. Her images—of “warriors in Woolworths,” of her mocking desire to turn into a “dehydrated” “frozen pea”—become 3D in your head. And Poly is refreshingly funny. “I am a poseur and I don’t care!” she sneers on the galloping “I Am a Poseur”; sarcasm vivifies “I Am a Cliché”’s pogoing titular chant. On the vibrant, almost-slapstick “I Can’t Do Anything”—“I can’t read and I can’t spell/I can’t even get to hell”—Poly cheerfully fights back against a guy called Freddy who tried to “strangle” her with plastic jewelry. Each word is an embodied exclamation point: “I hit him back!/With my pet rat!”
The prevailing theme of Germfree Adolescents is the inescapable horror of daily life in consumer society. Poly’s voice and the music—always peaking, always cranked to 100%—is persistently in-your-face, just like the most garish excesses of capitalism. “There was so much junk then. The idea was to send it all up,” Poly said in England’s Dreaming. “Screaming about it, saying: ‘Look, this is what you have done to me, turned me into a piece of styrofoam, I am your product. And this is what you have created: do you like her?’” The original tracklist opened with revving drums and Poly roaring “AAARRT-I-FIIICCIAL,” a reverbed rallying cry. “I know I’m artificial/But don’t put the blame on me,” she blazes. “I was reared with appliances/In a consumer society.” There is a scene in Who Is Poly Styrene, set among the modern industrial wasteland of the supermarket aisles, where Poly is pushing a shopping cart beneath the glare of fluorescent lights, grabbing at products: Daz laundry detergent, Special K, Anadin painkillers, Comfort fabric conditioner, Sunlight lemon liquid cleaner. The Raincoats’ Ana da Silva once told me she wrote her 1979 song title “Fairytale in the Supermarket” after watching it and realizing that Poly’s songs were like “fairytales, but in a consumerist society.” In 1978, Mick Jones was lost in the supermarket; Poly Styrene stared its offerings dead in the eye.
Anthems like the unsparing “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” and “Plastic Bag” anticipated the anxieties of a world made of hidden cancerous chemical detritus. “Day-Glo” has an ominous gravity, but it’s catchy, sneaking into you like a sweet, hastily-torn packet of Splenda. Poly explores the toxicity of daily life in excruciating, relentless detail: our homes (“nylon curtains” and “perspex window panes”), our infrastructure (“the acrylic road”), our transport (“my Polypropylene car”), our fake food (“a rubber bun”), irradiated air (“the X-rays were penetrating through the latex breeze”). It culminates with an image of fake plastic trees years before Thom Yorke sang of a “cracked polystyrene man” (“synthetic fiber see-thru leaves fell from the rayon trees”). X-Ray Spex songs are like musical Andy Warhol soup cans; they find a spiritual predecessor in Warhol’s pivotal 1964 exhibition The American Supermarket. Look around, both whisper to you: Everything is plastic.
On “Plastic Bag,” Poly coupled her eco-critique with an incendiary indictment of advertising: “My mind is like a plastic bag/That corresponds to all those ads/It sucks up all the rubbish/That is fed through my ear/I eat Kleenex for breakfast/And I use soft hygienic Weetabix/To dry my tears.” Her sly reversal—Kleenex for eating, Weetabix for crying—underscores the interchangeability of these artificial products. Poly knew advertisements were inescapable, were rewiring brains; look out, they are coming for you right about now. But she was also genius enough to speak their mass language: “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” was an unlikely chart hit in the UK, reaching No. 23 in April ’78.
In an age of burgeoning A.I. and rampant outsourcing, the sci-fi poetry of “Genetic Engineering” is even more prophetic, as Poly declares that “genetic engineering could create the perfect race… could exterminate/introducing worker clones/as our subordinated slave.” Her grim propositions have lost none of their daunting edge. Punks were screaming “NO FUTURE,” and fair enough, but Poly went further, deeper; her songs dared to imagine just how bad hellish normalization could be. And here we are.
Words like “disinfectant,” “Listerine,” and “sterilized” have never sounded so oddly seductive as they do on the postmodern love song “Germfree Adolescents,” the era’s greatest punk-reggae ballad. “I know you’re antiseptic/Your deodorant smells nice/I’d like to get to know you/You’re deep frozen like the ice,” Poly beams through this dubby, surreal waltz. In her futuristic tale of boy-meets-girl, purity reigns; “he’s a germfree adolescent” and “cleanliness is her obsession.” “Cleans her teeth 10 times a day,” Poly sings, “Scrub away, scrub away, scrub away/The S.R. way.” Both “deep frozen like the ice” and “the S.R. way” (sodium ricinoleate) reference a promo for Gibbs S.R. toothpaste, the very first television commercial broadcast in England in 1955. As Poly’s voice cracks out with each repeat of “10 times a day,” the desperation—the casual corner-store apocalypse of unpronounceable additives—pierces through the song’s swirling veneer. “Germfree Adolescents” became X-Ray Spex’s most successful single, reaching No. 19 on the charts in November ’78.
Somehow, Poly’s two most radically feminist statements—debut single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” and a later B-side, “Age”—were left off the original Germfree Adolescents tracklist, only added back to the 1991 reissue. All punch and bounce, “Age” takes on ageism, body dysmorphia, and the beauty myth perpetuated by Hollywood in a fell swoop: “Age/She’s so afraid/Age/She’s not the rage.” (Check the mellow, reggae-tinged version of it on Poly’s lovely, misunderstood 1980 solo album Translucence.) The iconic “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” was, and is, like dynamite to patriarchy. It is a succession of lightning bolts, dizzied with ideas, as Poly’s profoundly unhinged voice skyrockets into the red to cap each chorus line. “Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall/I want to be a slave to you all,” Poly seethed. It’s the ultimate punk song, and also intersectional feminist scripture: “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard/But I say oh bondage, up yours!”
In 2005, excerpts from Poly’s “diary of the seventies” appeared on her website. Poly muses on Superwoman, on vegetarianism, on reading about genetic modification in the glossy pages of Time. But she also reflects on Lucy Toothpaste probing her regarding “Oh Bondage! Up Yours.” “Is it about women’s liberation?” Lucy asks, and Poly replies vaguely, mentioning bondage trousers she saw at Vivienne Westwood’s SEX boutique. Then her entry continues forth, tracing the DNA of each line. She alludes to The Sexual Revolution by Wilhelm Reich, to images of “Suffragettes chained to the railings of Buckingham Palace,” to “pictures of ball-and-chained African slaves stored in my psyche.” Poly Styrene would often deny that her songwriting was autobiographical; six months before Germfree Adolescents came out, she told NME, “You have to be detached from everything in order to write. I have to observe… I can’t get too directly involved.” But you can’t escape yourself. The glimpse into Poly’s inner life shows just how innately distinct her perspective was from all around her in UK punk. Transcending time and place, though, in Shotgun Seamstress—the indispensable zine by and for black punks founded by Osa Atoe in 2006—the author repeatedly dubs Poly “Captain of the Brown Underground.”
Poly did not have to try to be this different; she simply was. At the core of Germfree Adolescents is a mantra that could summarize all of popular culture in 2017: “Identity/Is the crisis can’t you see.” Just over a year ago, Wesley Morris in The New York Times Magazine declared 2015 “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity,” situating our world “in the midst of a great cultural identity migration” where “gender roles are merging” and “races are being shed,” and of course this is felt at the turn of any axis. But a migration has a destination; identity is always fluid. On “Identity,” Poly wisely presents these dilemmas of personhood as perennial question marks: “When you look in the mirror do you see yourself?/Do you see yourself on the T.V. screen?/Do you see yourself in the magazine/When you see yourself does it make you scream?” Eviscerating and empathic in equal measure, “Identity” is a most logical anthem for today.
When X-Ray Spex imploded in mid-’79, they cited creative differences, but there was a darkness churning below the gleeful surfaces, which boiled over before Germfree Adolescents was released. The wages of Poly’s exuberance had a cost; she lived, to some degree, within the extremities of the hyperactive mindset she sang from so intimately. (It was not until 1991 that she was diagnosed as bipolar.) In the mid-2000s, Poly referenced a “traumatic experience of a sexual nature” she’d endured in ’78; she had a breakdown, went to John Lydon’s flat, and shaved her head (if she ever became a sex symbol, she promised early on, she’d shave her head). On tour that summer, she claimed to have seen a UFO fly past her hotel window “like a fireball.” (“I wasn’t mad, but I went into the hospital after that,” she said.) Lydon wrote of Poly in his 2014 memoir: “They used to lock her up occasionally… She’d break out and always make a beeline for my house… She was good fun until the ambulance turned up for her.” Poly soon remembered chanting with Hare Krishnas during her teen hippie years, began reading The Bhagavad Gita, and aligned with the movement. One need only look at the muchness of what Poly writes about to understand the potential sources of her struggle. In England’s Dreaming, Poly said she wanted Germfree Adolescents to be like “a diary of 1977.” It is also a diary of survival in a world closing in on us all in ways that can go hauntingly unseen.
Elsewhere in her journal, Poly meditates on her own ascending fame with three quotes:
“We will be famous just for one day.” —David Bowie
“Everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.” —Andy Warhol
“I am a cliché.” —Poly Styrene
But clichés do not hold. They dissolve. Poly Styrene is solid; Poly Styrene lasts. With her inclinations towards Eastern spirituality, perhaps she would relish in how the status of Germfree Adolescents now feels sky-like. Poly Styrene is the future, and she is now.