National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Poly Styrene (b.1957)

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Hastings born Marion Elliot was a product of a new and decidedly modern Britain. The front-woman of X-Ray Spex was inspired to form punk group X-Ray Spex in 1976 after seeing the Sex Pistols, of them she said, ‘I liked the way they were writing about their surroundings: it was definitely a change in consciousness.’. X-Ray Spex hit the Top 30 in 1978 with The Day The World Turned Day-Glo and Identity.

Poly Styrene grew up in Brixton in London, and from a young age realised she was destined for an artistic life of non-conformity. She customised and resold clothes at Beaufort Market on the Kings Road in Chelsea, but she also possessed a siren-like vocal style and novel, biting turn of phrase, sharpened by a mind critical of consumerism, capitalism and materialism. Poly found in punk a modus operandi that defined her.

Poly Styrene formed her band by placing an advertisement in Melody Maker. As lead vocalist she recruited Susan Whitby (Lora Logic) on saxophone, Paul Dean on bass, Jak Airport on guitar and BP Hurding on drums. The band’s style merged the urgency of noise, drums and upper register screech with a hastened, bumpy saxophone. X-ray Spex injected a much-needed burst of colour and fun into a punk scene that was nihilistic and destructive. Although not lacking the necessary anger and energy to be successful, X-Ray Spex never took themselves too seriously, and soon distinguished themselves from their peers. Poly Styrene herself wasn’t the archetypal pop princess but was acutely aware of her own novel position within a scene, genre and country as a woman of colour fronting a punk band. But she didn’t want to exploit the things that made her unique; it was the things society exploited that concerned her. She did not hide the braces on her teeth. She wore an army helmet over her Afro. She grimaced and smiled ironically rather than pouted. She once said ‘…if I become a sex symbol, I’ll shave my head’. She did. And she did.

Punk’s visual contradictions allowed critics outside the scene to dismiss any feminist agenda that it proposed. It seemed impossible for feminism to exist where females willingly wore bondage and teamed black fishnets with bin bags. Punk’s intelligentsia liked to challenge established notions and images of femininity, whether they were visual assumptions of sexual docility or androgyny. By taking the dominatrix and having her front a band, the domination was transferred from the bedroom to the stage.

By the time the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones swore on live television in 1976, punk had become a generation’s rebel yell. In-keeping with the genre’s swift tenure, X-Ray Spex were offered a recording contract and made their debut album, all within months of performing at the genre-defining venue Roxy, in London’s Covent Garden. Their debut album, Germ Free Adolescents (1978) still ranks as a noted recording from the era. Following the group’s dissolution in 1979, Poly Styrene turned to religion before releasing the jazz inspired ‘Translucence’ (Receiver) in 1981 and ’Gods and Goddesses’ EP (Awesome) in 1986. She reunited with Lora and Paul Dean in 1995 to record and release X-Ray Spex’s second album, Conscious Consumer. ‘Lets Submerge: The Anthology’ of the band’s material was issued by Sanctuary Records in 2006.

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