Picture the scene, it’s 1978 at the Hope and Anchor, the filthy North London venue, where a year before the Stranglers had laid down their legendary bootleg. Johnny Rubbish, a twenty something, looking thirty something, try hard in a custom leather jacket, is spitting introductions like a bad vaudeville routine. A tubby kid mounts the stage. She wears a garish trouser suit and braces, and her curly hair is slammed down under a black trilby. The crowd heckles, and in a dirty East End accent, she tell them “Shut ya’ mouth”, and yells out, “Art-I-ficial!”.
Janet Street Porter filmed the gig, an early X-Ray Spex show, for London Weekend Television; interviewing a shy and gigglish ‘Poly Styrene’ (Marion Joan Elliot), then 21, but looking 15, just before the band released their debut, ‘Germ Free Adolescents’, and hit the punk rock big time. The footage would later be included in the gritty French documentary ‘Degeneration Punk’. “I know I’m artificial, but don’t put the blame on me, I was reared with appliances, In a consumer society.” Before Minor threat, before Dead Kennedy’s, and Earth Crisis, before Rage against the Machine, before political punk became a cliché, a short hand for boringly earnest xFuckinx tatts and bat wielding Youth Crew militants, came a little known new wave punk band, with socially conscious lyrics and big ambitions. This is the story of that band, of it’s head, a mixed race girl and a mess of contradictions, a trained opera singer and rampant creative, who would ultimately retreat from the world of consumerism, into the mystic promise of Krishna, and the anonymity of the East. X-Ray Spex would produce just two LPs, and be all but forgotten; but in their brief time together the band, considered a fluffy novelty in the anarchic milieu that birthed the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Specials and the Buzzcocks, would have an influence greater than many of their more ‘credible’ contemporaries.
“Wanna be instamatic,” Poly sings, “wanna be a frozen pea. Wanna’ be dehydrated, in a consumer society.” The video tape is grainy, and heavily interlaced, the crowd melting to a muddy sludge, but the band rise up, day-glo on the screen, pastel blurs streaking from the darkness. Her voice is husky, dark and cataclysmic, “Introducing worker clone, as our subordinated slave, his expertise proficiency will surely dig our grave.” She drops words, keeping pace with the frenetic melody, yelling out like a proto Jello Biafra. Later, Poly tilts her head under the gaze of St Porter’s camera, a knowing grin. She’s well aware of the commodification already turning punk into just another product. Polly has no pretensions “I just like to dress in bright colours and things like..jolly,” her humour a joyous counterpoint to the the bleak vision of her contemporaries. “I wanna be freeee,” she says, voice rich with self mockery. Street Porter, looking for feminist credibility, gets a reluctant “What I write, you know, I think should be good, or should mean something anyway, should be relevant to whats happening now.” And they were, and remain as relevant today, three decades later. The Spex seem to have sprung onto the music scene, fully formed; after only six rehearsals, a recording from their second ever gig appeared on 1977’s ‘Live from the Roxy’ mix LP. They were to disappear just as quickly, just two years later, with their first album still charting, and the audience readier than ever, for their minty fresh brand of agit-punk.
As with Vivian Westwood’s stable of pet punk rockers, X-Ray Spex unique visual impression was far from accidental. Poly had a stall on the Kings Road, designing and selling her own ironically synthetic clothes. Like the situationists of the 60’s, Poly was an expert at detournement, the art of subverting the cultures media. “If somebody said I was a sex symbol, I’d shave me ‘ead tomorrer,” she told ‘Sounds‘ in ’77, instantly turning her self into one. The Spex quickly built up a following, gaining a weekly residency at Chelsea’s ‘Man in the Moon’. Lacking the obvious dub and reggae influences of later two-tone bands, didn’t stop them including a heavy dose of saxophone in their music; and escaping the defeatism of their contemporaries couldn’t prevent their lyrics from being timely and even prescient. Poly’s songs swing from the dangers of cloying consumerism, to genetic engineering, obsessive compulsive disorder, and media constructed narcissism. Somehow they manage to remain topical without ever seeming trite. The Spex signed with Virgin to release their first single ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, and EMI for the album ‘Germ Free Adolescents’. After Janet Street Porters intellectually acceptable seal of approval, and an appearance on John Peels much lamented Radio One sessions, X-Ray Spex got their big break; a two week residency in CBGB’s, the club which served as the beating heart of the nascent New York punk scene.
“Do you see yourself on the TV screen? / Do you see yourself in the magazine? / When you see yourself / does it make you scream?” Much of Polys colourful aesthetic, and politicised rhetoric, would be borrowed later, by the 90’s Riot Grrrl movement; and X-Ray Spex upbeat, ‘musical’ sound influenced much of the melodic punk and ska that was to follow. But somehow, the band were doomed from the start. Their anti-consumerist bent, and positive thoughtfulness couldn’t gel with a commercialising, darkening 80’s punk scene. Tired of the jiggery pokery of their manager Falcon Stuart, and disagreements about their future direction, Poly left the band in 1979, and though a new line up struggled on for a few months, without their leading light and creative force, the X-Ray Spex were doomed. The band briefly reformed in ’95 to produce a new LP, ‘Conscious Consumer’, but in an eerie quirk of fate, touring and promotion of the album ended when Poly was pulled under a fire engine in central London. Sounds like a piss take right? After leaving the Spex, Poly went on to produce her own music, and to join the Hare Krishna movement, – rumour has it she’s there, somewhere in the backing vocals of Boy George’s novelty flop ‘Bow Down Mister’ – to which she and her husband still belong. It wasn’t the same. Like the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, or Bjork’s Debut, ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ is hooked in time and space, a memory of a moment of vibrant creative anarchy that has long since disappeared.
It’s 1978, and the crowd at CBGB’s are belligerent, maybe expecting Malcolm Mclaren’s media demon juggernaut ‘The Sex Pistols’ to fire off a trade mark drunken set. Poly’s on stage in a leather apron. She’s got her hair curled in 1950’s schoolgirl ringlets, a couple of dominoes pinned to her lapel and a golliwog doll hanging round her neck. Into the decades chaos, over the puking and fighting and fucking, she yells out “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think…” And there’s a pause, the crowd pull in closer – sure Siouxsie and the Banshees play here all the time, but a frontwoman is still a novelty – and Poly yells again “Oh Bondage, Up yours! One, two three, four,” and the Spex break into their furious sax driven hit. The place goes wild. For a moment it seems the kids are listening. It seems like somewhere in the nihilism and self destruction of late 70’s punk, there’s room for a little black girl from Brixton with something important to say. Poly flaps her arms and bounces around the stage, hot and hip despite herself, leans into the mic “Chain-store chain-smoke / I consume you all / Chain-gang chain-mail / I don’t think at all.” Stop, freeze frame. Hold her steady now. There she is on the right, mid-verse, iconic in black and white, twenty one forever.
More on X-Ray Spex
X-Ray Spex Live at the Hope and Anchor
Degeneration Punk Documentary
Or check out X-Ray Spex Official Site