In July 1978, British punk band, X Ray Spex, released 'Identity', a song that embodies just about as much teenage spirit and rebellious energy as any from the world-changing genre. With its chorus "Identity is the crisis can't you see, Identity identity" delivered by lead singer Poly Styrene in a fierce inflexion comparable to that of her punk peer John Lydon, the song tackled the thorny issues of mental health and self-esteem in an unapologetic head-on manner. The song marks the midpoint in X Ray Spex's shortlived discography, the third of five singles, though in just five singles and one LP the band made a huge yet often overlooked contribution to the subcultures of the following four decades.
With a mixture of Scottish-Irish and Somali ancestry, Poly Styrene was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said. Embracing counterculture from an early age, Marianne left home at 15 years old moving around with hippies in the early 1970s. Possessing opera training, she recorded some reggae demos, but it was a gig on her 19th Birthday in 1976 that changed her outlook forever. The gig was an early live outing of Sex Pistols at Hastings Pier. Much like their famed 76 gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall, (credited with catalysing the formation of Joy Division, The Fall and The Smiths), the Hastings gig led Marianne to advertise her desire to form a punk band, and soon enough X Ray Spex were formed, and Marianne became Poly.
Alongside Poly, the initial line-up consisted of Lora Logic (saxophone), Jak Airport (guitar), B.P. Hurding (drums) and Paul Dean (bass). Things escalated quickly and before long the band were playing at The Roxy, sharing the bill with Buzzcocks and becoming key players on the London punk landscape. Lora's sax sound, along with Poly's vocal style was one of the things that made X Ray Spex stand out from the punk crowd, but Lora left the band shortly after recording their first single, the hugely empowering song 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!' (released September '77).
Now regarded as the original anthem for Riot Grrrl culture Poly Styrene claimed that the song's message was intended to be more anti-capitalist than feminist in its intent. Never the less, Poly Styrene's unconventional interpretation of punk aesthetic didn't fit many people's established preconceptions of a sexy female singer fronting a band, making her a feminist icon of punk. With her 'granny chic' put together from items from her own vintage shop, and her dental braces, she presented a very different version of female fronted punk to that of Debbie Harry and Blondie for example. Poly Styrene created an alternative to the leather and safety pins cliche of punk, her style echoed by the women of the '90s alternative rock scene on either side of The Atlantic years later. An artist in every sense of the word, Poly's DIY punk ethic carried through to her designing the single's cover.
"My mother was never a follower, she always danced to her own tune, whether it was cool or not. When most punks were wearing black bondage gear, dog collars and spiky hair my mum wore second-hand clothes usually seen on grandmothers of the time, super bright colours, wild ringlets and plastic toy accessories." - Poly Styrene's daughter, Celeste Bell
April 1977 saw the band make a notable appearance at Rock Against Racism alongside names such as Steel Pulse, The Clash, The Ruts, Sham 69 and Generation X.
Bondage was followed by 'The Day The World Turned Day Glo', 'Identity' and 'Germfree Adolescents'. By late 1978 the band were ready to release their debut and only album, also titled 'Germfree Adolescents'. By now Lora Logic had been replaced on sax by Rudi Thompson and the band enjoyed a busy schedule that included two John Peel sessions, and the Front Row Festival in Islington, the latter putting them on the same bill as The Stranglers and 999. The band toured to support the LP release - which would be their only UK headline tour.
Despite the fact that the album hadn't had a US release, a two-week residency in New York's CBGB proved a storming success, and it was in a moment of serendipity at one of these nights that Poly Styrene inadvertently launched the recording career of Thurston Moore. A fan of the band, the young Thurston Moore was at the front of the crowd singing along to every word when Poly Styrene held the mic in front of him to add his "up yours" to the chorus of 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!'. Thurston Moore later recalled it was the first time he had ever sung into a microphone, and by chance, the gig was recorded by bootleggers, complete with the Sonic Youth founder's vocal additions.
Single number five 'Highly Inflammable' followed but it soon became evident that the heavy touring schedule had taken its toll on Poly Styrene's health. By the Summer of 1979 Poly Styrene had left the band and X Ray Spex was no more.
The influence the band exerted in their short time though was felt immediately and ever since. In 1980 Michael Putland took a now-famous group photo intended to capture the women of the new wave scene of the period. The six women were Siouxsie Sioux, Viv Albertine, Debbie Harry, Pauline Black, Chrissie Hynde and Poly Styrene.
Pauline Black of The Selecter explained - "They wanted to put a woman on the front cover, but we all know that the music business, especially in those days, was slightly misogynistic, and they didn't really feel that any one woman was big enough to carry the front cover of a rock paper, so they decided upon the six of us there. I guess we were the women that were around at that time that sort of ticked all the boxes... Poly Styrene was a big hero of mine".
Poly Styrene released a solo album in 1980 and two more between the turn of the new century and her untimely death in 2011. Poly Styrene did return to the stage to perform X Ray Spex material a handful of times throughout her life. Notable performances included a rendition of 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!' at Rock Against Racism's 30th anniversary in 2008.
John Lydon, years later in an interview said about X Ray Spex "...they came out with a sound and attitude and a whole energy–it was just not relating to anything around it–superb."
In just one album of material X Ray Spex managed to contribute more than most bands do throughout their entire bloated discography. Their political voice added weight and breadth to the UK punk movement, Poly Styrene's style challenged male-dominated convention from every angle and their giddying sax fuelled energy made them infectiously catchy and entertaining.