In Loving Memory of Poly Styrene

Poly (far right) performing with The X-Ray Spex

The X-Ray Spex not only expanded punk rock’s palette sonically, but stylistically and demographically. They presented a cogent, creative anti-Capitalist critique that was miles ahead of the adolescent anger of many of their peers, to say nothing of the intelligent radicalism of their race and gender politics. And they were fun. Poly was plenty pissed off, but she sure knew how to have a good time singing about what was fucked up in her world. The X-Ray Spex personified what I, as a highschooler, thought of as Real Punk Rock when such a phrase actually meant something to me. They were daring, rebellious, and spat in the face of convention, including punk rock convention. Poly was an ideal punk front person–bold and unique and passionate, with truth after truth she insisted on telling through The Spex’s series of indelible singles. She dressed as oddly as she pleased, as any good punk should, and her excellent style pushed the boundaries of punk’s commentary-through-fashion. Her plastic dresses and braces were a revelation. She virtually remade punk rock into the big umbrella of intelligent misfits its true believers like pretend it can be. According to my memory of what Poly’s said, The Spex ultimately disbanded because their post-Germ Free Adolescents sound refused to stagnate. They got musically weirder, and more experimental, and a chunk of their base turned on the band, heckling and pelting them at shows. I can’t for the life of me find the interview where she says this right now, and I don’t want to perpetuate a convenient myth of a narrative, but it’s sadly unsurprising if Poly and the Spex, ultimately were too challenging to the emerging genre they helped define.

I haven’t even talked about her voice. Poly’s vocals were both immense and relateably human. She could employ a ‘luded out sing-song, then turn on a dime and let loose an earthquaking bellow that shook you deliciously to your core. Large swaths of Bikini Kill-era Kathleen Hanna’s extremely effective vocal qualities and techniques are directly reminiscent of Poly’s pioneering style, a comparison Hanna herself acknowledges as legitimate. When I was in high school, I was able to take for granted that women could not only scream into a mic in front of loud guitars (and sax!), but fuck with their delivery in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. Poly had an amazing voice, but the way she utilized it was revolutionary. Most of the riot grrrl and other feminist-ish punk/influenced singers I listened to in high school owed much to Poly’s brave and experimental approach (as they do to kindred spirit and rabble rouser Ari Up, who also recently died tragically young of cancer.)

This is probably my favorite X-Ray Spex song:

Today, all the songs on Germ Free Adolescents, the band’s classic 1978 album, feel both timely and timeless. The band still manages to sound ahead of the curve of what passes for punk music today, and the lyrics…well, the lyrics, despite being very much of their moment, hold up impeccably. “1977 and we are going mad/1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/1977 and we’re gonna show them all/Ah-pah-thy’s a draaaaaag!” Poly thrillingly railed on the chorus of “Plastic Bag”, and you could just as easily substitute 2011 to make the song work, if you had a singer with even half as much talent, charisma, and conviction. On the ironically subdued chorus, in between the narrator’s moments of white hot clarity, she muses “My mind is like a plastic bag/that corresponds to all those ads/it sucks up all the rubbish that is fed into my ears/I ate Kleenex for breakfast/and used soft, hygenic Weetabix to dry my tears” and “My mind is like a switchboard/with crossed and tangled lines/contented with confusion/that is plugged into my head/ I don’t know what’s going on/It’s the operator’s job, not mine”

This resonates with me as much today as it did in the ’90s, when I wore out my CD copy of the blessedly, finally reissued album. The reissue had a different song order than the original, supposedly, and I’d often program my CD player to the original pressing’s sequence (I felt the album worked better with “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” as a thrilling bonus track coda rather than up front, and generally enjoyed being a bit obsessive in my fandom of a band this awesome). The Sex Pistols were fun, at least when they weren’t whining about some lady having an abortion, but The X-Ray Spex were a real blast. They were not only entertaining as hell, but convinced me that older punk must have a lot to offer (the first time I heard the Pistols I was pretty underwhelmed–this angsty pop was what caused all that fuss?) leading me to some highlights of the golden age (loosely defined)–The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Slits, the stuff I still listen to today.

Poly Styrene
Why was there a painting of this iconic photo hanging in the Facebook office in The Social Network?

Sadly, Germ Free would be the Spex’s last album until (most of them) reunited in the ’90s for the disappointing (to me) Conscious Consumer. Poly released a difficult to find solo album called Translucence in 1980, and a couple other unrock-y works over the decades, but generally slipped off the musical radar. She found solace with a Hare Krishna temple for some time, until they, like the punk rock, proved too screwed up and stifling. According to an interview published just last month, she left over reports of pedophilia in the community, as well as her fatigue over pressure to get married. “I did get engaged once, but couldn’t go through with it. Some of them were misogynistic, too crazy,” she said. This interview was part of Poly’s tragically truncated promotion of her recently released solo album, Generation Indigo. I want to post this asap, so I’m not going to wait til I can include a proper reaction to the record, but you better believe it’s in my iTunes and I’ll be listening carefully.

This blog post could go on for days. Memories and anecdotes have been flooding my brain since I heard the terrible news earlier this week. The Spex remain one of my all time favorite bands to this day, and Germ Free Adolescents one of my absolute favorite albums. Poly Styrene is the #1 reason why. I’m so grateful for what she’s given me, and hope those of you who haven’t had the good fortune of listening will do so, now.

Poly Styrene 1957-2011
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RIP Ari Up

Where to begin. It’s been a few days and I’m still sad, still a bit shocked, still listening to The Slits a lot, but the latter is nothing new. I always listen to The Slits a lot because they continue to be a reliable source for joy and inspiration. And they’re always just a lot of fun.

Ari Up

I’m sorry I didn’t see Ari Up live more, I took her constant stream of New York shows for granted. I did see a reincarnation of The Slits open for Sonic Youth’s live presentation of Daydream Nation a few years ago. I was delighted by Ari’s undying punk spirit, spitting in the eye of confused, misogynist hipster who were horrified to see a woman in her 40s unapologetically jumping around the stage in a flippy little skirt while singing odes to shoplifting. Ari Up exuded boundless love for her audience and herself, at the same time as flipping off all the bullshit surrounding us and within us.

A friend recently asked why I single out Vampire Weekend for criticism for cultural appropriation when the entire history of pop music is of the same. It would be an injustice to the question if I tried to fold a real response into this post, but a short answer is: compare Vampire Weekend and The Slits. The difference (besides one being boring and the other revolutionary) is a matter of sincerity and respect. With the encouragement and mentorship of Don Letts, the Slits began incorporating reggae into their punk rock, creating a mind blowing new sound with all kinds of interesting and complicated implications. While one could critique The Slits and Ari Up on grounds of cultural appropriation, their orientation towards the music that influenced them was more one of sincere engagement and exchange than opportunism, gimmicks, and entitlement.

You can hear the difference in the music. The music still moves me so much. The funny thing is, when I first started listening to The Slits as a high school Riot Grrrl, I liked their earlier, dirtier, straight-forward Punk Rawk more than the reggae stuff. At that point I really connected to loud messy guitars and cared less about rhythm than the energy with which one hit the drums. I loved the first half of In The Beginning and tended to skip the second. Everything reasonable I read about punk history was like “Cut, Cut, Omg Cut is the classic of classics” but when I first heard it, it was like the premiere performance of Rites of Spring. My brain just couldn’t make sense of it–how was this punk rock? That delightful puzzle is what has kept me listening for more than a decade, new gifts unearthed each time I hear these songs.

Apart from the Slits contribution to The Punk Rock, where would pop music be without them? The lineage runs directly into so many vital artists–Bjork, M.I.A., Madonna…

Almost everything I love about Ari Up can be heard on The Slits cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, a song that by all means should be a gimmicky train wreck. Instead it’s transcendent.

“New Town” is one of my favorite songs on Cut. Budgie (better known for Siouxie and the Banshees) is drumming here, and while he was only briefly a Slit, I wanna give him his due because I fucking love his work on this:

“New Town” is a great example of Ari Up’s imaginative and emotionally resonant lyrics.

Since we’re on it, here’s another of my favorite Slits songs, “Shoplifting”. This is a beloved Peel Sessions version, more up my high school alley. Ari was just a young teenager herself:

Here’s the song as performed by a recent incarnation of the group less than a year ago:

“Ten quid for the lot? We pay fuck all!”

A good in-depth look at The Slits can be found in Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits.