By Emmanuel Legrand
Poly Styrene was more a screamer than a singer, and as such she embodied the ethos of the punk scene – if you have something to say, flaunt it, and even if you cannot sing or play music, just do it!
For many teenagers (including yours truly) living around that time, the end of the 70s were a musical desert. Bands topping the charts in the US – think Boston, Kansas, ELO and a few others – were a bore, the old guard (Led Zep, Who, Stones, Floyd) was physically tired and creatively drying out, and disco was turning R&B into a formulaic soulless dance thing.
Thankfully, bands like the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, The Jam and X-Ray Spex in the UK and Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Ramones, Patti Smith Group on the other side of the pond blasted onto the music scene, most of them with moderate levels of success. But they were a breath of fresh air and reignited faith in music as a means to change things (or at least as a way to express views on the state of the things, which, in the case of punk music, was more about expressing anger at the world), something that was lost somewhere between the end of the 60s and the late 70s.
In a matter of just a few years, from 76 to 79, with just five singles and an album to their credit, Poly Styrene and her band X-Ray Spex, made a mark before fading. But what a mark! Even by today’s standards, tracks like ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’, ‘I Am A Cliché’ and ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ are killers. Poly Styrene remains an under-rated songwriter (all 12 songs on their debut album were written by her).
Her lyrics are as relevant today as they were then. The opening lines of ‘Oh Bondage…’ (‘Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard’) echoe those of Patti Smith’s in ‘Gloria’ (‘Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine’). And she knew how to put together choruses that could catch your imagination.
Poly Styrene would have never made it on the X-Factor – too outré, too outspoken, too un-musical, too innocent, too punk. But she made it more difficult to listen to, say, Linda Ronstadt, after you had been exposed to her liberating screaming. And we should be thankful to her if it were just for that. R.I.P.