Pin It
Poly Styrene I Am A Cliche 2
Photography Falcoln Stuart

Poly Styrene: seven records that define the punk pioneer’s rebel life

The singer’s daughter co-directs Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché, a bittersweet documentary about the X-Ray Spex frontwoman. Here, Celeste Bell tells us about the songs that reflect her legacy and life

“You can’t imagine how painful and embarrassing it was to wear some of the things she made me wear,” Celeste Bell tells me about her mother, Poly Styrene, the legendary musician who fronted X-Ray Spex. “There was one outfit like a clown, with a harlequin. I was three, and had no choice. If you’re the child of a punk icon, you can expect to be dressed in some pretty bizarre outfits.”

In 1977, aged 19, Poly Styrene formed X-Ray Spex, thus becoming rock music’s first woman of colour. The band skyrocketed to fame with their debut single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, and the corresponding album, Germfree Adolescents, was guitar pop heaven. During this period, Poly Styrene garnered press attention for defying social norms. She wore dental braces on TV, wrote protest songs with a sci-fi flavour, and shaved her head. But Bell, who was born in 1981, admits, “For most of my childhood, it meant little to me. My mum was my mum. I understood she was a bit different, and that understanding grew the older I got.”

When Poly Styrene died in 2011, Bell’s grieving process involved confronting a wealth of archive material. Bell’s mother, whose name at birth was Marianne Elliott, quit X-Ray Spex in 1979, and spent years as a Hare Krishna, mostly out of the limelight. Poly Styrene released solo material, including the stellar Generation Indigo, but her post-70s level of fame was encapsulated by a 1997 appearance on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. She was one of five options in the Identity Parade, a round traditionally for forgotten musicians, but was recognised immediately by a panellist (“I have her poster on my wall!”), and the typically sour Mark Lamarr exclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, my hero, Poly Styrene!”

In Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, a documentary co-directed by Bell and Paul Sng, the complexities of Poly Styrene’s life are conveyed via diary entries (narrated by Ruth Negga), footage both joyful and heartbreaking, and contributions from superfans like Thurston Moore, Vivienne Westwood, and Kathleen Hanna. There’s the singer’s hospitalisation through mental health, the court battle when Bell ran away to live with her grandmother, and when the mother and daughter reunited – eventually collaborating on an album.

Here, Bell tells us about the seven songs that define Poly Styrene’s life and music, why there’s more to X-Ray Spex than “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, and if we should actually be referring to her mother’s legacy as punk. One thing’s for sure, though – she’s definitely an icon.

The nationwide virtual cinema release of Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is Friday March 5. Available to watch at Modern Films. Viewers can select a participating local cinema or music venue to share the revenue of the virtual box office