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Poly Styrene:
I Am A Cliché

Words by Celeste Bell

The story of X-Ray-Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene, lovingly compiled by her daughter Celeste.

The unconventional lead singer of British punk band X-Ray-Spex, Poly Styrene was a singer songwriter, artist, and a postmodern style pioneer of the 1970s. The first woman of colour in the UK to front a successful rock band, she introduced the world to a new sound of rebellion, using her powerful voice to sing about issues such as identity, consumerism and postmodernism. A true punk icon.

Following her death in 2011, Poly Styrene’s daughter Celeste became the guardian of her mother’s legacy. In a bid to understand Poly the punk icon as well as Poly the mother, Celeste set out on a journey, examining the musician’s unopened artistic archive and travelling across three different continents.

Featuring unseen archive material and rare diary entries, ‘Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché’ is a documentary following Celeste’s incredible journey. Narrated by Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga and featuring interviews with Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna and Vivienne Westwood, the documentary traces the musician’s legacy and the demons she battled with throughout her career and personal life. Co-directed by filmmaker Paul Sng, the film is available to watch from Friday 5th March.

Artwork by Poly Styrene
Artwork by Poly Styrene

Made in collaboration with Zoë Howe, Celeste Bell also released a lovingly-compiled book about her mother. ‘Day Glo!: The Poly Styrene Story’ showcases the punk icon’s art, handwritten lyrics and diary excerpts. A physical reminder of the radical legacy she left behind.

We speak with Celeste about her mother and the journey she embarked on to compile this personal book.

Artwork by Poly Styrene
“Poly exuded to me, like pure honesty.. being an artist and being somebody who had a vision” - Thurston Moore

In 1979, she was the subject of a BBC Arena documentary titled Who is Poly Styrene? In the program she says that she chose the name because it’s a ‘light-weight disposable product’. She was clearly neither of those things but the comment was typical of her sharp-witted insight into the role of the pop star in a consumerist society.

There was nothing straightforward about my mother. Her playful, plastic Day-Glo take on punk stood in sharp contrast to black leather nihilism of her contemporaries. She was also a young girl leading a band of boys at a time when powerful female figures in rock were few and far between. She wore braces on her teeth and swore she would shave her head if she ever became a sex-symbol. She did. She slowly whipped off a bright green turban she was wearing during a performance at the Rock Against Racism gig in Victoria Park in 1978, revealing a fresh ‘number’ to the gasping crowd.

In the 40 plus years since she burst onto the music scene, she has proved to be an inspiration for weirdos and outcasts across the globe, whether OH BONDAGE UP YOURS! for her warrior cry voice, her fearless expression of individualism or for her refusal to be bound by gender and race barriers. In the song Identity, she grapples with issues yet to dominate political discourse as they do today. She questions her own identity, how the world saw her, how she saw herself, and the way in which identity labels could affect personal freedom and self-expression. It was an issue which affected her most throughout her life.

Poly and Celeste
X-Ray Spex badges

As the child of a Somali father and a British mother, she struggled with and sought to understand multiple and often conflicting identities; black- white, muslim- christian, western-eastern, and as a mixed-race child in 60s Britain was confronted with racism and abuse of the worst kind. She was a child of the diaspora, of colonialism, of empire. But it was this unique cultural melange from which she emerged that enabled her to create music, art and words that were so idiosyncratic. The iconic punk anthem, Oh Bondage Up Yours! was her hymn to the world, a rage against subjugation, whether real or symbolic and with those lyrics she dares the listener to reconsider what it means to be truly free.

The book I have written together with Zoë Howe, Day Glo: The Poly Styrene Story, pieces together the many varied and complex strands of my mother’s life; through her own diary entries, lyrics as well as interview testimonies of those who knew and loved her most and my own letters to her which form a kind of call and response dialogue between mother and daughter. The book is also a celebration of my mother as a multidisciplinary artist; she sold her own clothes in a shop on the Kings Road before getting into music and she brought this design sensibility into the band; designing the artwork and branding herself as well as curating the look and style of X-Ray Spex in terms of clothes, colours and even hairstyles.

In an age where the image of modern pop star is largely engineered by a behind the scenes army of stylists, public relations and branding experts, my mother’s D.I.Y ethos and entrepreneurial spirit at such a young age is really something to celebrate.

“And then I listened to X-Ray Spex and I was like, this is the best thing I've ever heard in my life...if her work wasn't there, I am not positive Riot Grrrl would exist” - Kathleen Hanna
Identity card for Poly and her band mates
“It’s (Poly’s music) about pure energy. And like, pure expression. And I think, if you look at where we are in the world now, and what’s happening around us, it resonates because it means something” - Neneh Cherry
Lyrics: Identity by X-Ray Spex, their second single released in 1978

Poly Styrene: Runaway Excerpt

The first day was the worst. Even packing was bad enough. I’d been waiting for this day, for this journey, since I was 11. I’d said I’d wait till I was 16, but things had gotten so bad I couldn’t wait another three months. Now the moment had come I felt strange, half scared, half excited. It was weird looking at the things I had always taken for granted, never bothered to think about, things like pets, friends, places I went to. But I knew I had to go then or I never would. I had £3 in my pocket. I went to Victoria station and took a train to Hastings. Outside of London that was the only place I’d ever been. It was sunny when I got there so I sat on the beach and went for a paddle, but the novelty soon wore off when it began to get dark. I watched the people on the promenade. Most of them looked the same, but two guys caught my eye. They were dressed like hippies, long hair, beads, bands round their heads. All I really knew about hippies was that they were into love and peace. I reckoned they must be alright. I was grateful for their offer for somewhere to ‘crash’ for the night, but when I saw the place I began to wonder. It was filthy – a den for the dossers of the town, the alcoholics, the petty thieves and junkies. There was a filthy mattress on the floor covered with a heap of foul blankets. The floor was littered with sour empty milk bottles, fag ends and rubbish. It was a hovel. Boy was I naive then. A real little sixteen-year-old virgin.

Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Logo sketches

The Diary of Poly Styrene Excerpt

The infamous ROXY club on Neal Street, Covent Garden, London WC1.
Jon Savage, X-RAY SPEX manager Falcon Stuart and I drop in to check out the ‘talent’, names that scream out; Billy Idol & Generation X, The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Captain Sensible & The Damned, Johnny Moped & Chrissie Hynde, Patti Palladin & Judy Nylon, Ari-Up & The Slits, Knox & The Vibrators, Dee Generate, Alternative TV, Gaye Advert & The Adverts, Bruno Wizard and the Rejects.

A cutting edge showcase to an audience of spiky tops with studded dog collars and girls on leashes in ripped & torn fishnet stockings, school blazers and vamp makeup.

Stuart and Savage chat to Andy and Susan the proprietors of the ROXY, while I go to the loo. Tracy a sales assistant from Seditionaries crouches on the floor in a corner of the ladies powder room scratching, slashing her wrists with a razor. Dazed and confused I return to the dance floor to meet Savage, Stuart, Susan and Andy. Poly Styrene & X-RAY SPEX are booked for the following week.

X-Ray Spex identity card

The Diary of Poly Styrene Excerpt

Read Time magazine over continental breakfast in the South of France. Genetic possibilities filled glossy pages. On a golden stretch of sand in Cannes, I worshipped the Sun God, in a sunshine yellow towelling bikini. Toying with the idea of a genetically modified super race. Said NO! to a photographer, who wanted to shoot me for Oui magazine. I’m very flattered, but I would rather be known for my wit than my voluptuous form. Serious Glamour, I courteously took his calling card, ‘thank you so much’. I scribbled the words ‘Genetic Engineering’ on the back.

Gig poster artwork for X-Ray Spex in London