When I was in graduate school in the late ‘70s, I was drawn to such male-driven punk rock bands such as the Ramones, The Clash, Dead Boys, Green Day, Buzzcocks and, of course, the most obnoxious collective of them all, England’s the Sex Pistols. But only a few females were as front and center Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics, who I once witnessed onstage as she toted her chain-saw guitar and bared her breasts save for her nipples, at a club in a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb. Other lady performers who punked out such as Siouxsie Sioux, Joan Jett, Courtney Love, Lydia Lunch, Chrissie Hynde, Lene Lovich, Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon and Courtney Love usually sported some kind of sex appeal.
But I never got acquainted with Poly Styrene, aka Marian Joan Elliot-Said, the frontwoman of England’s X-Ray Spex. This mixed-race daughter of a Somali dockworker and a Scottish-Irish legal secretary initially filled her time with travel, sewing alternative fashions and failing as a pop-reggae singer. But she stopped in her tracks when she saw the Sex Pistols perform on her 19th birthday and that was how her stage persona was born. That gave her a chance to put together a band with three male musicians along with female saxophonist Lora Logic, whose instrument went way outside the punk aesthetic. Styrene even designed the logo for the band and was fond of Day-Glo colors.
Now, we have Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell, who was born in the ‘80s after the height of her mom’s initial fame, to thank for co-writing and narrating this bio-doc Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché that is co-directed by Paul Sng. And, yes, I realized at some point I had heard the band’s signature song, “Oh Bondage Up Yours” when Styrene sings it on the film soundtrack. While other punk female artists conformed to sexy, haughty and gutsy attitudes, Styrene cared more about the state of humanity and of the world at large.
That said, the band only released five singles and one album during the height of their existence. Quirky worked well for her on stage, as she sewed her synthetic clothes from plastic, bore brazen braces on her teeth, had a bushy head of dark curly hair and popped her eyes wide. Her singing style was once described by New York magazine as “a bold keening yelp” and “fierce but fiercely feminine.” Yes, she had to deal with misogyny and racism given her background. One time when she went to Johnny Rotten’s abode. she was locked in a bathroom by Sid Vicious, who lived up to his nasty reputation.
We get to see and hear Bell, who sort of resembles a blonde Drew Barrymore. She wrote a book about her mom with co-writer Zoe Howe titled Day Glo: The Poly Styrene Story. We also see her shuffling through her mother’s paper work, writings and clippings that she inherited after her death in 2011 when Styrene died from metastatic breast cancer at the age of 53. Actress Ruth Negga provides a voice for Styrene as she reads from her diary.
But as much as Styrene felt joy in being able to be herself while performing, the music industry often sucks artists dry without concern with their mental state. That would prove true for Bell’s mom, whose downturn began when she took a trip to New York City and had a residency at CBGBs. But the punk scene wasn’t the healthiest atmosphere to begin with, including drugs, drinking, violence and grungy urban environments.
Weirdly, in 1978, this punk pioneer after finishing a gig in South Yorkshire experienced a vision of a pink light in the sky and felt objects that crackled when she touched them. Her mother took her to a hospital where she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and told she wouldn’t work again. In 1991, she would learn she had bipolar disorder. But Styrene did work again, starting with a 1980 solo album “Translucence,” which represented a jazzy change of pace. She also released a New Age solo album, “Flower Aeroplane” in 2004. Her final solo album was “Generation Indigo” from 2011.
If you are like me and never got fully acquainted with X-Ray Spex, I can’t help but leave you with the opening lyrics to ‘’Oh Bondage! Up Yours”: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard! But I think, oh bondage, up yours!” Just inject your own sense of punk attitude while pogoing around the room.