We speak to the makers of a new documentary about what made the late X-Ray Spex frontwoman such a one-off talent
It’s often said that only 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album, but every one of them ended up starting a band. With all due respect to the late Lou Reed and his band of Factory noiseniks, they were slacking: X-Ray Spex must have pulled off the same trick before they’d even played a note of theirs.
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think – OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS! ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR!” go the immortal opening lines of “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, Poly Styrene’s voice flaring from a babyish coo to a blazing banshee wail as she crashes into the first track of X-Ray Spex’s 1978 debut album, Germfree Adolescents. It’s a call to arms as incendiary as any in punk’s rabble-rousing canon, and one that’s been heard, over the years, by artists as diverse as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, FKA twigs, Morrissey, Boy George and Johnny Rotten (who was reportedly “freaked out” by Styrene’s intensity).
Styrene, real name Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, is an undersung icon of punk whose signature braces, soldier’s hat and DayGlo attire shunned convention just as X-Ray Spex’s music – piercingly bright, anti-consumerist pop lashed with gleeful bursts of atonal sax – defied punk’s more downwardly mobile tendencies. Now, six years after her death from cancer at the age of 53, Styrene may finally be getting her due thanks to a new film directed by Paul Sng and written by journalist Zoë Howe with Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell. Titled I Am a Cliché, the documentary will draw on the musician’s unpublished memoirs to present an imagined conversation between Bell and her mum, weaving in unseen images and performances from a treasure-trove archive of her work donated by the widow of Styrene’s former manager, Falcon Stuart.
All in all, it promises an unorthodox portrait of an unorthodox life, and a timely reappraisal of one of the best and strangest pop stars ever produced by the UK. Head here to pledge your support to the film, which is currently seeking donations on Indiegogo, and read on for Sng, Howe and Bell’s take on just what it was that made Poly so special.
SHE PREDICTED THE RISE OF CONSUMER CULTURE
Zoë Howe: Poly’s lyrics are so satirical and funny and odd. She was looking at things like consumerism and the way things were becoming quite plastic and artificial (in the 70s). It was like she was painting this futuristic, post-apocalyptic world with her lyrics, and I just thought she was completely unusual.
Paul Sng: A lot of Germfree Adolescents talks about how consumerist society was becoming not only prevalent but dominating people’s lives, and I think when you look at the present day, particularly in cities, you see the effects of gentrification and what’s happening with social cleansing of working-class communities. Looking at her lyrics now it’s almost like she did predict a lot about the way society was heading, whether she meant to or not. She was very prescient in how she saw consumerism would affect society. That’s why communities in cities are being swallowed up, it’s down to this society we have that just wants to consume, whether that’s products or the accumulation of property, this dream that we’ve all been sold that you have to own a house. But (Poly’s work is) more social commentary, and I think that’s why it works well, because it doesn’t ram it down your throat, it’s just pointing things out, you know?
SHE WAS A FEMINIST ROLE MODEL
Zoë Howe: Poly almost wanted to come over as asexual, I think; she saw herself as human above seeing herself as a girl. She actually said if anyone tried to turn her into a sex symbol she would shave her head (a promise she would later fulfil at Johnny Rotten’s flat prior to a show at Victoria Park).
Paul Sng: Kathleen Hanna wrote a really nice tribute when Poly died where she said how brilliant (Poly) was and how influenced (she was) by her. Other people have come forward like FKA twigs and Beth Ditto, then (you’ve got) male feminists like Henry Rollins. Feminism is obviously a complex issue but if you boil it down to its essential message it’s that men and women are equal, and there are things you can do as a woman and also as a man to try and make that more of a reality. With her music and what she stood for, Poly made great progress for feminists in that respect.
Celeste Bell: My mum was a single parent and my mum’s mum was a single parent (Poly’s dad, a dispossessed Somali aristocrat, was absent during her childhood in Brixton), so we were both raised with strong female figures in our lives. And she never questioned her abilities as a person, she never thought that being a woman should stop her doing anything she wanted to do, and I was raised just the same, even though the Hare Krishna movement was horribly sexist and all sorts of stuff like that. Whenever I thought about something I wanted to do in life, it never crossed my mind that I might not be able to do it because I’m a girl. And I got that from my mum, because that’s the way she lived her life.
SHE STRUGGLED TO OVERCOME MENTAL ILLNESS
Celeste Bell: Mother-daughter relationships aren’t always the easiest, (and ours) wasn’t perfect. My mum had bipolar disorder and she was in and out of hospital for most of my life. That obviously put strain on the relationship. She also joined the Hare Krishna movement when I was a small child, and I was raised in that for the first eight years of my life (Bell lived with her mum in Hare Krishna communes in Hertfordshire and London). Then I went to live with my grandmother and left the Hare Krishna thing behind, which was also a source of disharmony in our relationship. So I wouldn’t want to sugarcoat that, because that’s the truth of it. But apart from that, we were very, very close. My mum loved me very much and she did her best. She was misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia when she was very young, when she was touring Germfree Adolescents, and the medication they gave her wasn’t right. I think that traumatic experience meant she didn’t have a great relationship with hospitals or medicine. So it took her a long time – and I think this is the case with many people who suffer from any kind of mental illness – to come to terms with that, and once she did, she was able to manage her illness. The more she was able to do that, the better relationship we had, and the more she was able to work again and make music.
SHE WAS AN UNLIKELY FASHION ICON
Paul Sng: A lot of the punks that came after the Pistols basically copied them – three chords and a guitar, the hairstyles and the jackets – it all went a bit to rot, I think. But when I got into (punk) as a teenager I was struck by how different Poly looked.
Celeste Bell: My mum was really inspired by fashion, she put a lot of thought went into the clothes that she wore. She was going to second-hand clothes shops in the 70s and buying clothes that grandmas would wear. And she came up with this really cool look which was essentially granny chic, which no one would have thought to do at the time. Her aesthetic was really different to the other punk artists – she steered away from leather, dark colours, any kind of aggressive or hypersexualised S&M stuff. It was all bright clothes, synthetic materials.
SHE INSPIRED PEOPLE TO CELEBRATE DIVERSITY
Celeste Bell: My mum wrote this diary about the 70s which she wanted to get published before she got ill. There’s an entry for a song called ‘Warrior in Woolworths’ where she talks about working in the typing pool for Woolworths in their offices, there was only one other non-white girl in the office so my mum starts by saying how they sat her next to the other mixed race girl. It’s just these little anecdotes that my mum would do giving the background to the song, moments that inspired her to write the songs.
Paul Sng: There were lots of women involved in punk. But I was drawn to Poly because she was mixed race like me, she was working class like me, and that just resonated. She just seemed like an anomaly. I like how (her work) was quite tongue-in-cheek – even the name she chose was very playful – but the more I began to do research on her, (the more I realised) she was clearly a very troubled person. I’ve always been drawn to people who faced adversity, and how they dealt with it. Poly really did challenge the status quo, which we’ve seen doing this crowdfunding campaign – a lot of people have been in touch saying how much she inspired them. She clearly inspired people to not only accept that they were different but celebrate diversity, and that’s really important.