X-Ray Spex - Biography
While London's 1977 punk rock explosion wasn't entirely bereft of female talent —there was Gaye Advert, Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits and Penetration frontwoman Pauline Murray — X-Ray Spex lead singer Poly Styrene was clearly the reigning empress. Her combination of sheer lung power, insightful, poetic lyrics and a walloping, highly original sound was impressive — all the more so because Styrene was singlehandedly responsible for the band’s entire set. X-Ray Spex' songs scorned modern consumer society's values and dissected the elemental roots of the punk psyche, examining the phenomenon and its self-imposed consequences with scalpel-precise accuracy. Styrene epitomized both punk rock's tender, eruptive nature and its short-lived fragility. As soon as X-Ray Spex gained a degree of commercial success and critical acclaim, Styrene flamed out. Very shortly after a prestigious UK tour of the Odeon theater circuit she broke the band up and completely disappeared. In just three years time, with a handful of singles and one stunning long player, Germ Free Adolescents (1979 EMI), it seemed as if Styrene and punk's own premise had completely exhausted themselves.
Born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said on an undisclosed date in 1957, Styrene was unconventional from the start — her mother was English, her absentee father, Somali — and growing up as a mixed-race child in England's repressive, oft-racist society was no picnic. After moving from suburban Bromley to the racially diverse south London borough of Brixton, life scarcely improved — she was whacked on the head with a cricket bat at one point. Styrene was always restless and acutely conscious of her outsider status. Equally obsessed with Hollywood glamour and Richard Wagner's turbulent musicality, the teenaged Styrene was forming her own distinctive set of aesthetic values. She left home shortly before her sixteenth birthday and drifted throughout the country, hitchhiking along the itinerant counterculture route of hippie rock festivals.
Back in London at age eighteen, she rented a stall at the fabled Beaumont Market on Kings Road (punk's nominal, formative epicenter where Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies also congregated) and inaugurated her Poly Styrene boutique. Specializing in gaudy, PVC proto-punk fashion, Styrene took the logical next step (after witnessing a show by the newly minted Sex Pistols) in the summer of '76 and set to forming her own band. After some fitful attempts, she placed ads in both the New Musical Express and Melody Maker with an eye-catching headline that called for "Young Punx Who Want to Stick It Together." In short order, guitarist Jak Airport, bassist Paul Dean, drummer Paul B. P. Hurding and teenage saxist Lora Logic gained Styrene's approval and X-Ray Spex was formed, playing their first gig at the infamous Roxy after only six rehearsals.
At the very forefront of the punk break out, X-Ray Spex were among the most unusual of them all. With two females, one of them a sax player no less, the band was downright unique and the combination of Styrene's exquisitely minimalist, metaphorically rich lyrics and the band's tumultuous, hard hitting musical assault, they quickly gained in popularity. A regular Wednesday night residency at a Kings Road pub, The Man in the Moon, built more momentum and the band were featured on seminal live compilation album Live at the Roxy, performing "Oh Bondage Up Yours." That recording’s audacious, brilliant, sloppy bite resulted in a one-off single deal from upcoming indie Virgin Records in mid-1977, resulting in a fantastic studio version of "Oh, Bondage" that, with a superb backing track "I am a Cliché" became one of the era's all-time classic double-sided statements. But Styrene had a trove of them; each of her songs — the penetrating "Identity," the subversive "Warrior in Woolworth's," the weirdly vivid "My Mind is Like a Plastic Bag" — were more sharply etched and deftly crafted then just about any others in contemporary punk, pop or rock. Their live shows were wild and Styrene, often with gobs of her audience’s saliva oozing down her plastic outfit, proved to a show-stopping performer and a powerhouse song stylist. Her singular sound blended Cherie Currie's declamatory "Road to Ruin" shout with Lulu's high gloss pop dramatics and an almost Shirley Bassey-range power.
Lora Logic dropped out of the band to return to school and was replaced by sax man Rudi Thompson. The band's reputation was growing and the notoriety enabled them to fly to New York, where they played a series of well-received shows at CBGB's — their only US appearances. Back in London, punk was going at a mad dog, full tilt, frenzied pitch and X-Ray Spex met it head on. Along the way, Styrene’s life was further altered by a post-gig sighting of a "Day Glo UFO… it was a bright ball of luminous pink, made of energy — like a fireball," she told the Independent newspaper. While her mother feared Styrene was cracking up, the experience resulted in an amazing new song, "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" Signed to EMI Records in late 1978, they managed to capture almost all of Styrene's originals on their debut album, a set that has withstood the test of time more than admirably and ranks alongside Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols and Damned Damned Damned as one of the movements essential records.
But the tour that followed the album’s release proved fateful. Between punk's own nosedive into commercialism (which Styrene abhorred above all else in modern society), simmering tensions with management over non-payment of royalties and Styrene's own intensely creative but not exactly stable personality; by the time of their climactic tour closer at London's Hammersmith Odeon, X-Ray Spex was falling apart at the seams. Within a week, the band evaporated, announced their end as a working unit and Styrene dropped out of sight completely.
When she re-emerged with solo album Translucence (1981 Receiver Records), it was a complete departure from X-Ray Spex' high impact style. Styrene favored a contemplative, low key approach (deeply spiritual, Styrene has devoted herself to Krishna ever since) but few paid notice. Styrene maintained a low profile until a mid-1990s reunion — with all original members — and a nominal second X-Ray Spex album Conscious Consumer (it was primarily a collection of Styrene's recent non-punk compositions). Following one performance at London’s Brixton Academy, the whole thing fell apart again — Styrene was run over by a fire truck, crushing her pelvis. She was fortunate to have survived that and in the following years she has re-assembled necessarily updated versions of the band (guitarist Jak Airport died in 2004) for sporadic gigs. But thanks to Germ Free Adolescents, X-Ray Spex' remarkable music will be altering consciousnesses for years to come.