Poly Styrene's voice went through me like a stiletto – and she woke me up

Her lyrics on identity could have been written today, and she stood out with her unique style, confrontational and playful at the same time.

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I’m in the Rough Trade shop, surrounded by racks of vinyl and posters of alternative bands. Tessa Pollitt from the Slits is DJ-ing. Loud, apocalyptic, dread-heavy reggae thunders through the sound system. Over there is a young woman who looks a lot like Poly Styrene.

This isn’t some fever dream of 1977: this is right now, 2019, in east, not west, London. And that young woman is not Poly Styrene, but her daughter, who along with writer Zoë Howe, is about to present their new book Dayglo, which celebrates the lead singer of X-Ray Spex.

I heard “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” when it appeared on The Roxy London WC2, a 1977 album of live recordings from the club in Covent Garden. Her voice went through me like a stiletto. I wasn’t sure whether I loved or hated it – but it woke me up.

Apart from it being a style of trouser, I didn’t know what bondage meant, but sang or screamed along with it anyway. A lot of those records were full of terms I didn’t understand, such as “fascist regime” and “anarchy”. The reggae we listened to was made up of biblical-sounding prophecies about Babylon, and Armageddon – and again, I wasn’t clear what it meant. We just nodded and feigned understanding and scrawled the words on our rough books.

But Poly’s lyrics always stood out, as did she: as a mixed race child, Mari Elliot was in the minority in Bromley, where she was born, and so her mum moved the family into London, to Brixton, taking the same route as David Bowie in reverse.

Young Mari took no shit from anyone. Her first song, written at primary school, was aimed at a bossy teacher: “Hey Mrs Johnson, wagging your finger, who do you think you are?” She carried on taking no shit through her teens, chasing a Brixton mugger into a Rastafarian pub, and demanding he return her handbag.

Opening a stall in Beaufort Market on the Kings Road, she began selling that collection of “plastic trash… kitsch jewellery and bags, old army cast-offs and dayglo accessories” which would become her trademark look. Pretty soon she was inspired by the anti-rock-god aesthetic of Johnny Rotten, changed her name to Poly Styrene and formed X-Ray Spex. As singer Rhoda Dakar says, “Now it is completely common to be biracial, but back then it was fairly unusual…we were embraced by punk, because it was full of people nobody else wanted.”

Poly’s lyrics were sharply focused on questions of personal freedom and realisation. That first song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” looked at the conflict between people’s desire to be told what to do “because it gives them an excuse not to think”, and the desperate need to defy regulation.

She was fascinated by the modern world, by image, and what it was doing to us, long before the anxieties about selfies and Instagram. The song “Identity” (“When you look in the mirror/Do you see yourself… On the TV screen… In a magazine… Does it make you scream?”) could have been written last week. She battled visual conformity with her own style, which was playful and confrontational at the same time. And this book gives us a new perspective, a look behind the scenes. There’s a famous photo from 1980 which appears online a lot, containing all our punk heroines in one frame – Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, and Pauline Black. I’ve retweeted it myself.

Here, Pauline Black offers new insight. Kept waiting by the superstar Debbie Harry, she remembers seeing Poly and thinking, “Well, I’m not gonna be the only black person on the shoot… there’s two of us, that’s quite good.” They were seated together at the front, with “all the white girls” standing behind them, and she and Poly exchanged “meaningful looks”.

It’s a great reminder of how we can idealise the past, smooth out contradictions. The photo is fantastic, and it’s great to see all those women in one room, but it’s salutary to be reminded of how it felt from the inside. Poly’s lyrics were constant reminders of the reality behind the facade, the difficulty of fitting in, and the necessity always, of speaking up, fighting back, being heard. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special