The Roots of Indie: Poly Styrene
The news got me thinking about where it all began; well, maybe not where it all began. Flashpoints are always disputable, but arguably the mother of rock and roll is Big Mama Thornton, whose 1952 cut 'Hound Dog' is one of the earliest hits of the rock era. Granted, it wasn't a hit until four years later and only when sung by Elvis Presley, but we're talking about roots here, and as women in rock and roll go, they don't go much deeper than Big Mama.
But we're looking for a more specific root -- the one that bore the tree of punk, which begat grunge and riot grrrls, amen. Siouxsie Sioux is a great candidate, but listen to the opening line of this 1977 punk classic:
There it is: a manifesto for a new generation of women in rock. The band was X-Ray Spex, their frontwoman Ms. Marianne Joan Elliott-Said -- Poly Styrene to you, a stage name chosen in true punk rock fashion for its artificiality.
Like Siouxsie, Poly Styrene was right in the middle of London's first generation of punk. It was while watching a Sex Pistols gig on her 18th birthday that she decided to form X-Ray Spex. That event marked the birth of Poly Styrene, but it wasn't the singer's introduction to the music business. The previous year she released the ska single 'Silly Billy' under the name Mari Elliott:
Anyway, once X-Ray Spex were up and running they were adopted readily by the burgeoning punk scene, playing dates alongside future legends like the Stranglers, the Ruts, the Clash, and Sham 69.
'Oh Bondage''s follow-up, 'The Day the World Turned Day-Glo,' went Top 30 in the U.K., as did the original lineup's lone album, 'Germfree Adolescents':
X-Ray Spex made it through a single tour of the U.K. before Poly Styrene left and joined the Hari Krishnas. The rest of the band soldiered on for a bit, but eventually split. There were some reunions during the '90s, and the singer released two solo albums during the new millennium. Her last, 'Generation Indigo,' was released just a month before her death from cancer in April 2011.
It's a solid record, not as brash as her X-Ray Spex days but soaked in post punk goodness:
Writing in the Telegraph after her death, Neil McCormick summed up the trail Poly Styrene blazed quite well:
Poly Styrene’s moment in the pop spotlight was short and it is likely that most of today’s female pop stars haven’t even heard of her, but it says something of her bravery, boldness and pioneering spirit that if Lady Gaga went on stage in ill-matched DayGlo second-hand clothes, sporting dental braces to sing ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, no one would bat an eyelid.
Like Big Mama Thornton before her, Poly Styrene provided the giant shoulders that scores of women in alternative music stand upon. We'll leave you with this tasty cut from X-Ray Spex's BBC Radio One session with John Peel from 1978: