“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think: OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!” screams Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, AKA Poly Styrene, in the opening line of the debut single she first performed in 1977 while fronting the British punk band X-Ray Spex. Born on July 3, 1957 in Kent, Styrene was raised in Brixton, a hippie at heart but also classically trained in opera, which obviously contributed to her unique ability to project a childlike speaking voice into the ferocity of punk caterwauling.
Poly Styrene lost her battle with cancer in 2011 at the age of 53, but the radical legacy she leaves behind her is one that will not be hastily forgotten. Thus, as crowd-funded documentary on the life of the late musician, titled Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, reached its go-ahead target this month, we take a moment to jog your memory.
Poly Styrene bought her clothes from anywhere and everywhere, and it looked that way, for most of her ensembles presented as a charity shop rail in motion. But as some of her lyrics recount, “I’m a poseur and I don’t care, I like to make people stare”. And make them stare she did, with a Day-Glo wardrobe worn with military jackets and hats perched on top of her unrelaxed afro, dental braces (that were as much an aesthetic choice as a practical one) flashing silver with every cavernous pronunciation into the microphone. By presenting herself in opposition to the sexualised image of other front-women, exemplified in the likes Debbie Harry and Joan Jett, Styrene stood apart with her unconventionality in the British punk movement. There was, however, one particular outfit that the late singer said she wished she had never worn in hindsight: “a blue foam dress with an army helmet, which I wore to perform at the Brixton Academy in 1991. I looked like the world’s biggest hot water bottle, a giant oblong with protruding limbs. It had little planets all over and was meant to replicate something I wore at the Roxy in 1978. It didn’t work,” she said. We’d beg to differ.
“I was never happy at school. Playground politics always disturbed my concentration and I wasn’t particularly good with authority,” Elliott-Said said of her early teenage years. “Mum taught me to type and I soon realised that it would be either school or the office. Neither option filled me with much enthusiasm.” But then in 1976, at 19 years old, she saw The Sex Pistols perform on Hastings Pier for the first time. It would be a moment that changed her life forever. Soon afterwards, her alter ego Poly Styrene was born – she selected her new title because it represented “a lightweight disposable product”. She placed an advert in the NME and Melody Maker calling for “YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGTHER” and penned the X-Ray Spex hit Oh Bondage Up Yours! shortly after the band formed. The hit song, a pre-cursor to the band’s seminal debut album Germfree Adolescents, became a rallying feminist anthem in the midst of a male-dominated musical field – and remains one to this day.
She’s an AnOther Woman Because…
A self-described rebel, Billy Bragg once quipped that Poly Styrene’s lyrics were a “slap in the face” to male punk bands and rock journalists. But such resilience never came easy for the singer; she encountered a great deal of racism and misogyny throughout her life, and also suffered with deeply affecting chronic mental health issues. Her influence has reverberated throughout music, fashion and feminism, from the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s to her ongoing status as a symbol of non-conformity in queer spaces. “She could write this incredibly prophetic stuff and understand the world in a way I don’t think most of her contemporaries could,” said her daughter Celeste after her mother passed away. “I am truly proud of her work.”