“She was ahead of her time”: Celeste Bell on the book she’s written about her mum, punk legend Poly Styrene

The lovingly compiled 'Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story' is out now

Some people seem to exist outside of their own timeframe, and you get the sense they’re such strong characters that they’d be the same whichever period of history they were born into. Poly Styrene, aka Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, was one of those people. Singer and songwriter of the seminal first-wave 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex, she broke through social barriers as if they didn’t exist – and made it look both easy and a hell of a lot of fun. The group’s 1978 debut album ‘Germfree Adolescence’ remains a classic of the genre, a hugely influential record whose presence continues to be felt in current bands like Amyl and the Sniffers.

Poly Styrene died of breast cancer in 2011; she was 53 years old. Now her daughter, Celeste Bell, has teamed up with author Zoe Howe (Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits) for a new book, Day Glo: The Poly Styrene Story, which explores the musician’s legacy through her diary entries, previously unseen photos, her poems, a short story and revealing interviews with her ‘70s punk rock peers, from fashion icon Vivienne Westwood to the DJ Don Letts. NME chatted with Celeste about the book, her mum’s huge role helping to shape British culture and I Am A Cliché, a Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex documentary currently in the works.

Could you tell us about how the book came to be?

“When my mum passed away, it took me a long time to go through all of her things. It took me about four or five years to get my head around it. When I looked through her lyrics and diary entries and all of her artwork, that’s when I thought it would be a really great idea to put all of that together in a book. Because that’s something that she had wanted to do herself.”

Had she prepared material for her own book?

“She had written a diary called the Diary Of The ‘70s, which she wrote about 20 years ago, and that was a retrospective look at the lyrics from the songs. She wrote diary entries to capture what was going on in her life when she wrote all the songs on Germfree Adolescents. She never published the diary entries and I know that’s something she wanted to do. Mainly I just wanted those diary entries to be published, and then it kind grew into something bigger.”

Germfree Adolescents’ turned 40 last year. Could you talk a little about how ahead of its time the album was?

“Yeah – my mum was super ahead of her time. She was writing about what were fringe topics in the 1970s. They were not what people were talking about at the time – they were quite futuristic. And now they’re really relevant. She was talking about consumerism, synthetic culture, artificial culture in relation to environmental degradation, genetic engineering and gender fluidity. Identity was a huge theme. All of these things now are in the mainstream, but weren’t at the time.”

We think of gender fluidity as being a fairly modern idea, but actually artists like your mum were exploring that in the ’70s…

“Yeah, she wrote this song called ‘Highly inflammable’ and there were lyrics in there where she was saying, ‘I thought I was a woman / I thought I was a man’. She was actually encouraged to change the lyrics slightly so would be less ambiguous. She changed it to, ‘I thought I was a woman / I thought you were a man’. So at that time, the labels were afraid to get into those topics. My mum really admired people like Marc Bolan and David Bowie, who were quite androgynous. She was quite fascinated with androgyny. She tried to cultivate an asexual image. She was interested in all those themes. Gender and gender stereotypes.”

You’ve spoken to the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Don Letts for the book…

“It was really important to speak to people who were contemporaries of my mum, because they are historical witnesses. And not just people from the punk scene but also friends of hers – family members, people who really lived through that period. But then we also included people like Neneh Cherry and Thurston Moore, who came a little bit later, because she really inspired their careers. Zoe and I really wanted to look at legacy as an important of the book.”

Did you learn anything from writing it? 

“I didn’t know that my mum had gone to see one of Kathleen Hanna’s gigs in London. She was really excited that my mum was there. And I didn’t know that people had compared her to my mum a lot. So that to me was quite interesting, and she was such a pleasure to interview. She was so touched by my mother’s work; it had a real effect on her. There were tears in her eyes. We did the interview over satellite and I could tell that she was tearing up at moments. That was quite, like, ‘Wow’, you know.”

Why was Zoe Howe the ideal writer for this project?

“Zoe was the perfect person to work with because, first of all, we already knew each other. She’d interviewed me for a book she wrote back in 2008 called How’s Your Dad? Living In The Shadow Of A Rock Star Parent, where she interviewed lots of kids of rock stars. She also interviewed my mum a couple of times. I was following her career was impressed by what she was writing.”

Where’s the film at, then?

“It’s still in production. We had a crowd-funded campaign in 2017 and that was successful, but we didn’t ask for enough money. We thought that if we did a crowd=funder, that would pay for the first bit, and then we’d get funding coming in from various bodies. That didn’t really go to plan, so it put a little bit of a pause on the project. And then there were complications with editing. It costs of a lot of money and takes a lot of time. But I’d say if all goes to plan we’ll have it finished by next year. We’d love to get into festivals. Fingers crossed!”

It’s even more impressive that your mum was so influential in a ’70s punk scene that was predominantly white and male  

“There were other female punks, but they definitely didn’t get as much attention as the male punk bands. In terms of being white – well, it was a very white rock scene in general. And it has continued to be like that, unfortunately, although it’s changing now. So mum definitely stood out because she was a girl, she was young, she was a woman of colour. There were female artists at the time, but even in punk they were quite sexy. You think of Debbie Harry – she’s wonderful, but she was a sexy girl. My mum was one of the few females artists – whether it’s punk or pop – who was not playing on that at all.

“She also wrote all the lyrics herself, she did all the artwork herself. She designed the band’s outfits, she made her own clothes. She was really doing it herself. There were very few people like her at the time.”

Do you think punk will continue to progress in terms of diversity?

“Yes, I think so. For example, there’s Decolonise Fest [in London]. which is a DIY punk festival for punks of colour. I think what they’re doing is really inkeeping with the original punk spirit. Now, because the record industry is in such a crisis, in a way it’s forcing the artists to go back to the roots of music. You’re having to do stuff for yourself, not depending on a record label, managing yourself and the emphasis is on live performance. So in a way it’s positive.”

You must be really proud when you look back at everything your mum achieved with X Ray Spex

Yeah, definitely. And now everything is so much easier because of technology especially in terms of artwork and branding. My mum made the band logo by hand. She had to do it many, many times with stencils and tracing paper – she went to printing shops and used photocopiers – so everything just took a lot longer. Now, even if you have rudimentary knowledge of certain programmes, you could do that much more quickly. My mum had that DIY ethos.”

Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story is available now from Omnibus Press