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Poly Styrene: plastic fantastic

X-Ray Spex’s singer recalls stealing bread, being heckled by the Sex Pistols and life as a mixed race kid in 1960’s Britain

Taken from the December 2005 issue of Dazed:

I was born Marianne Elliot-Said, to a white mother and a Somali father. It was Bromley, 1957. My mum was really open-minded, or maybe just colour blind, as she couldn't foresee how hard it would really be for my dad to live with us. After a few years, we moved to Brixton but it still didn't work. Brixton was a West Indian neighbourhood and dad's skin was really light. Everyone thought he was of a lighter caste and so they maligned him a long with the white folks. My mum ended up on her own with mixed race kids, and it was hard, especially when I decided to leave school at 15.

It was that summer the People's Free Festivals' started. When you were hitchiking, if you looked a certain way, certain people would give you a lift, no questions asked. It ravelled all round the country, from festival to festival, eating ferns and the occasional free chickpea burger from stalls called things like the Cosmic Carrot.

By the end of the summer I was living in a squat in Bath, off the Royal Crescent. I got caught for stealing a loaf of bread, and going to court really shocked me. My mum was a legal secretary at Lambeth Magistrates Court and I realised how hard it would be for her if I got into serious trouble. So I went back to London and started temping in various offices around Chelsea. But I still had that itch and decided to follow my childhood ambition of wanting to be a performer. Even when I was still at school, I'd write protest songs about the dinner ladies. While typing away in the daytime, I got involved with people at GTO Records and in 1976 recorded a reggae track called 'Silly Billy' with Eric Bell and GT Moore on guitars. They were both amazing musicians, but I wasn't interested in that type of music.

“When I got on stage, I was a bit intimidated, these girls were wearing dog collars and being led around by their boyfriends. At that point, I still thought a blow job was something you got at a hairdressers” – Poly Styrene

After the single, I quit my day job and started a stall in Beaufort Market on the Kings Road, selling plastic trash, mainly kitsch jewellery and bags, old army cast-offs and day-glo accessories – all the stuff I later wore on stage. I called the stall X-Ray Spex after my aunt, who was an American Gl, sent me these mad glasses in the post.

Hanging round Chelsea wasn't as amazing as it sounds. It certainly had a lot of energy and a lot of live music, but also a lot of crazy, drunk, bored kids with nothing better to do than freak people out, like Mad Mary who was always singing Irish Rebel songs on Vivienne's doorstep. Vivienne's shop seemed to attract all the misfits who would hang there during the day, and at the Man in the Moon at night. We got a residency t here in 1977 and gave Annie Lennox and the Tourists and The Swank one of their first support slots on one of our Wednesday night sessions.

The most exciting thing about Chelsea was that the floodgates suddenly opened. Until then, there was this real aristo-rock establishment and the only way you could get in as a girl was to be a groupie. For the first time kids were really taking control. After seeing the Sex Pistols at Hastings Pier I decided to start a band and put out two adverts, one in the back of Melody Maker and one in NME, that read ' Young Punx Who Want To Stick It Together'. I held auditions and the people who formed X-Ray Spex - Lora Logic on saxophone, Jak Airport, BP Hurding and Paul Dean were the first people through the door. They weren' t punks though, just bored suburban teenagers who had heard something was going on and wanted to play music with a passion and talent and homemade feel that I loved.

I wrote the band's first song after seeing one of Vivienne's 'Seditionaries' outfits hanging in the window. It was more about slavery, the suffragette movement and the silencing of women, but her clothes had such a strong imagery; when you looked at them, a million ideas flooded to mind. 

Our first gig was in spring 1976, at the Roxy. When I got on stage, I was a bit intimidated, these girls were wearing dog collars and being led around by their boyfriends. At that point, I still thought a blow job was something you got at a hairdressers. There were kids in the audience from The Clash and the Sex Pistols, and Stuart Gooding would always come down to our early shows. When I first met him, he was a window dresser in Knightsbridge, all that lot were all much softer than the kids in the moshpit. I know I definitely was. The gig was actually recorded for the Live At the Roxy album even though we'd only had six rehearsals. It didn't matter.

We were soon tight with the Chelsea art crowd and a handful of music journos caught on. We were asked t o do early Rock Against Racism gigs, which happily was one of the biggest crowds we ever played to. After that, it went crazy: John Peel asked us on the show, Richard Branson released 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!', and Hilly Krystal flew us out to do a residency at CBGBs. We played twice a night, every night for two weeks. Richard Hell and some of the kids from Blondie were there almost every night. Hell kept trying it on with me, but I was only 21, and wasn't really interested, but in talking to him and Debbie, I realised how different the New York scene was to London. They all knew what they were doing, they were making a living out of it, while I was still living with my mum in Streatham. It was a different world. 

When we came back to the UK, things were totally out of control; venues got bigger, Keith Moon and the Pistols came to our gigs, and heckled down the front. They had just been dropped from EMI. I remember a rep coming backstage offering us a deal, and Rotten trying to talk me out of it. He was really pissed about the whole thing, but if New York had taught me anything in those few short weeks, it was to look after your own.” 

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