“I know I’ll probably be remembered for ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’. I’d like to remembered for something a bit more spiritual.” – Poly Styrene
If not for the spiritual, then Poly Styrene will certainly be remembered for her spirit. Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, was the original riot girl. Growing up in Brixton and mixed-race (her father was allegedly a Somalian aristocrat), Poly Styrene ran away from home at 15 to live a bare-foot existence, moving from hippie-pad to music festival.
After seeing The Sex Pistols play Hastings Pier on her 18th birthday in 1975, she placed a newspaper ad looking for “young punx who want to stick it together”, and X-Ray Spex were formed. They were a band to rival the Pistols; exciting, assertive and topical. As a punk, if you had any two albums in 1977, you had Never Mind the Bollocks and Germ Free Adolescents.
At the height of X-Ray Spex’s fame, Poly Styrene shaved her head. “I’d read that girls in concentration camps did that after being raped by the Nazis, to get cleansed.” No man was going to stand in the way of her liberation, not even Sid Vicious, who once threatened her with a scythe.
She certainly didn’t care whether people thought she was cool or not. She wasn’t interested in being a pin-up, in fact she was determined not to be one. “There’s nothing wrong with beauty,” she said, “but whether it’s actually helping the female cause of being equal to men, you have to judge for yourself.”
Entering the scene that levelled the playing field for women in music, she was an icon to my mother Jackie, a fellow young punk, because she was an outsider; a dark-skinned woman with huge dental braces who loved her body. “With punk, you weren’t required to be beautiful,” says Jackie. “Poly Styrene wasn’t pretty, she had a mouth full of metal, and a result, she was perfect. We could all relate to her. The ‘real girls’ were united.”
Poly Styrene continues to be a heroine for girls, even after death. 30 years later Heather, who is in her early twenties, thanks her for the inspiration. “She had a hugely positive influence on me growing up,” says Heather, “even though it was long after she gave up music. I loved her with all my heart! She was a goddess to my teenage self.”
Poly Styrene didn’t want to live in a world where everything was “made of plastic”; when punk became the mainstream, it was time to move on and by 1979 she wanted a new sound. She quit the band in 1979 after being pelted with tomatoes during a gig in Paris. “We’d tried to change our sound,” she explained. “They didn’t like that, the anarchists in their black leather jackets. They thought it was the French revolution all over again.” She recorded her first solo album, Translucence, the next year.
Marianne, having survived being hit by a fire engine in 1995 and being sectioned in the 80s, with misdiagnosed schizophrenia, lived up to the Poly Styrene legacy:
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but i think….OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!!”
Poly Styrene (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), musician, born 3 July 1957; died 25 April 2011