“3 July 1976, Hastings Pier. It’s my birthday and I’ll party if I want to.” Marianne Joan Elliott-Said is attending a Sex Pistols gig on her 19th birthday. “I stand centre point in an almost empty ballroom; three Swedish babes stared at Johnny.” Inspired by Rotten and co, the teenager decides to form her own band and places an ad in Melody Maker: “Young punx who want to stick it together,” she writes. She adopts a new moniker from the Yellow Pages – a send up of popstar attributes (plastic, disposable) – and shortly after, Poly Styrene and her band X-Ray Spex are playing their first gig at The Roxy in Covent Garden. A British punk legend was born.
“I think the biggest misconception is that she was the punkiest of the punks, when in fact she was much more of a hippy at heart,” Celeste Bell, Poly’s daughter, asserts over Zoom. “She was a hippy before she was a punk, and then she went straight back to being a hippy after. She never considered herself a punk, it was a label that was given to her.” An only child, when Poly died of cancer aged 53 in 2011, Bell became the sole caretaker of her unique legacy. Initially overwhelmed at the responsibility, in 2016 she teamed up with Paul Sng to direct a documentary celebrating her mother’s iconic career. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is the culmination of the pair’s work and follows Poly’s trajectory, from her early poems examining the playground racism she experienced, to Generation Indigo, the album that would formally announce her return to music, released a month before she died.
Born in Bromley to a Scottish-Irish mother and a Somali father, Poly Styrene was brought up in Brixton. Leaving school in her mid-teens, she worked a number of jobs before forming X-Ray Spex, initially entering the fashion industry. “Her first-ever job was as a junior fashion buyer for a high street store. She loved the job and was really good at it,” remarks Bell. “I think it’s incredible that she was able to get that kind of job after leaving school at 15 – it shows you how different the world was.” Her own stall on the King’s Road followed. “She was mad into clothes and she was a really great seamstress. She made her own jewellery, dresses, hair accessories, everything.”
This same creative energy would later feed into the band, with Poly making all the artwork – record covers, gig posters – in addition to writing songs and cultivating her on-stage persona. “My mother being such a highly creative, intuitive and sensitive person meant that she was a great writer. So she was absorbing all these stimuli and was able to translate that into words, and I think she was doing the same thing with clothes,” says Bell. “There wasn’t any separation in terms of visual art, writing, music, fashion. It all was part of the same package, and so my mum put all her creativity into everything she did.”
When X-Ray Spex arrived, the punk landscape that adopted them consisted almost exclusively of white men. A biracial teenager with heavy train-track braces and brilliant dark curls that rejected Eurocentric archetypes, Poly’s presence as a frontwoman was itself radical in that arena. Actively disinterested in the idea of becoming a sex symbol, her wardrobe focused on vintage and hand-made pieces, running the gamut from army helmets to neon-coloured cardigans. This independent approach to aesthetics echoed the singularity of her songwriting, which employed themes like identity politics, consumerism and environmentalism at a time when others simply weren’t interested. Released in 1978, the band’s only album, Germ Free Adolescents, is perhaps best underscored by debut single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”, on which Poly leans into her distinctive vocal style and delivers the famous rallying cry: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think, ‘Oh, bondage! Up yours!’”
For women, and women of colour in particular, Poly was a massively influential figure – Riot Grrrl was effectively born from the principles she established – and her particular brand of feminism continues to inform culture today. “My mum is, as a figure, really loved by fans of punk music, but also by her peers and her contemporaries,” Bell notes. Fans and friends such as The Selector’s Pauline Black and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, Neneh Cherry and Vivienne Westwood lend their voices to the documentary, while the actress Ruth Negga narrates Poly’s diary entries. “She was a fan and loved what my mum symbolised,” explains Bell, who met Negga by chance on a night out in London. “And because Ruth is also mixed race, it made a lot of sense that Ruth would be the perfect person to do my mum’s voice. She could identify with a lot of things my mum was going through herself.”
X-Ray Spex disbanded in 1979 when Poly was just 21; the toll of fame and her increasing scepticism of the industry was affecting her mental health. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia – later correctly identified as acute bipolar disorder – and joined the Hare Krishna movement in 1983 when Bell was a baby. “That was how I saw her, more than Poly Styrene,” she says, detailing the difficult relationship Poly’s poor health manifested in Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. “But she would take me sometimes to interviews – she was still doing interviews throughout the ’80s – and so I knew she was someone people were interested to talk to. When I was at school, a teacher knew who my mum was, he made a big thing about it, and I finally understood, ‘OK, it’s not just something my mum’s saying, she actually was quite famous.’”
‘Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché’ is out now on digital formats.
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