Former X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, real name Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, has passed away aged 53. James McMahon explains why she was one of popular music’s great voices
Many words will be written about Poly Styrene today. The word punk will feature significantly. In many respects, this is fitting. Whether on ‘Germ Free Adolescents’, her band X-Ray Spex’s sole contribution to the punk rock discography, or just last month, returning from the wilderness with excellent new solo work ‘Generation Indigo’, Poly Styrene was the real punk. Strange, different, challenging – and at her best when she was turned up very, very loud.
But to simply describe Marianne Joan Elliott-Said as a punk is to imprison her memory within perimeters – it doesn’t allow the full story to be told. Poly Styrene’s music was thrillingly, achingly human, containing sentiments and emotions vital within any era, not just in Xeroxed, safety pin pierced snapshots of yore.
Over her band’s trademark sax – both sassy and contrary when compared with so many of their punk peers pub rock origins – Poly bellowed questions of identity confusion, spirituality vs. consumption, how to stay afloat when the tides of boredom are rising fast – all eternal concerns of young and the lost, regardless of the date of their issue.
Yet while her sound was shocking and different, even within the musical upheaval of her bands era, the young Poly’s principal power was in raising her head above the cultural parapet – thrift shop clothes, hedgerow hair, NHS-issued mouth brace and all – and yowl, “This is me”.
We live in an age where Jarvis Cocker and Beth Ditto are long established alternative icons, where Lady Gaga dressing head to toe in offal barely raises a shrug. Within the reign of Olivia Newton-John, like all the best popstars of their time, Poly Styrene must have seemed like she’d fallen to earth from another – most likely day glo daubed – world. She was to the spirit of individuality what Christopher Columbus was to having a wander.
But it was her words, fired from her gullet like nails embedded in fireworks, that were perhaps the most startling. “When you look in the mirror do you smash it quick?” she howled on ‘Identity’. “Do you take the glass and slash your wrists?”
It’s a delivery, let alone the sort of sentiment, that has formed the DNA of Riot Grrrl and DIY alt. rock for almost twenty-years, far-flung specks of which you might find in the larynx of Courtney Love, Karen O or Alice Glass. Poly possessed one of popular music’s great voices, often imitated, never bettered. Not so much a singer as a force of nature, these sounds, these words, the feelings that result when the two parties collide – the result isn’t music, it’s lifeblood.
While it might lead you to her music on iTunes, for all the efforts of the best modern day audio hoodlums, the word ‘punk’ is a decaying, archaic word. Poly Styrene is worth more than being buried beneath such a cold, dead misnomer. She was not, and is not, a museum piece.
In death as she was in life, Poly Styrene is an inspiration. She was a punk rocker yes, but she was all sort of other wonderful things too.