On the evening of Monday, April 25, punk legend and former X-Ray Spex frontwoman, Poly Styrene, passed away. She was just 53.
I can’t even begin to tell you how sad I was when I woke Tuesday morning and read the tweet posted to her account, “We can confirm that the beautiful Poly Styrene, who has been a true fighter, won her battle on Monday evening to go to higher places. PSTeam”
I had been working on this piece, with plans to publish it today to coincide with the U.S. release of her incredible new album, Generation Indigo, which I just received over the weekend and had been listening to steadily as I wrote. Instead, I’m sharing the interview with you in remembrance of one of the most celebrated women in punk — and someone who has inspired me a great deal.
I was a freshman in college the first time I heard X-Ray Spex’s iconic punk anthem, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” After one listen, I was hooked. The song was on one of those “women in rock” compilations that were so popular in the late ’90s, during the Lilith Fair era. But after hearing Poly scream the titular lyrics, followed by crunchy guitar and a defiant, screechy saxophone, that was the only song on the album that I cared about. On a different, though similar, compilation, I discovered another X-Ray Spex song, “Identity,” which I loved just as much. Eventually, I acquired the band’s one and only album, Germ Free Adolescents, which I adored.
I discovered bands like X-Ray Spex, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ruts far later in my life than I am comfortable with. Had I been exposed to punk music as a tween or teen, I think I would’ve been much happier. It would’ve given me an outlet for my angst that I wasn’t getting with my steady diet of sugary pop music and my parents’ Elton John and Beach Boys records (not that I don’t love that music).
Once I discovered punk, though, I did my best to get up to speed. I read articles about the punk scene and reviews of albums, trying to find out what I should be listening to in order to catch up, and I devoured that music at a rapid pace. Sometimes, when I watch documentaries like Penelope Spheeris’s Decline of Western Civilization and Punk:Attitude, I wish that I could’ve been 19 or 20 back in the late ’70s/early ’80s to experience the punk scene. I wish I could’ve seen X-Ray Spex perform live — Poly seemed to be so enigmatic and have such a quirky, yet commanding, stage presence.
A couple of years ago, I was hanging out with some friends at a bar in Chicago and I had chosen to play “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” on the jukebox. When the song came over the speakers as we were playing pool, one of my friends, a musician, came over and asked me excitedly if I had chosen that song. When I responded that I had, he told me how much he loved X-Ray Spex and, particularly, Poly Styrene. That conversation led me back to the band, whom I hadn’t listened to in a long time due to the amount of new music I had been devouring as a music writer.
I listened to Germ Free Adolescents quite a bit after that and often wondered whatever happened to Poly. Much to my delight, I discovered last winter that she had returned to making music. She had released a song called “Black Christmas,” a slightly dark holiday tune co-written with her daughter that had nothing to do with sleigh bells and mistletoe. This lead up to the release of Generation Indigo, her first new solo album in decades — in the U.K. last month and, as I mentioned, yesterday in the States.
Generation Indigo is a fantastic mix of pop, punk and reggae with lyrics that, in typical Poly fashion, offer up insightful social commentary. I could give you my review of the album, but right now, all I want to tell you is that I love it and that you should buy it immediately. Here’s Poly talking about the album and the meaning behind some of its songs:
When the opportunity came up to interview Poly a few months ago, I was thrilled. I’m so happy that I got the chance to talk to her, even if it was virtually. Her music has meant so much to me for so many years and I’m thrilled she took the time to answer my questions. Here’s the brief interview in its entirety.
You were inspired by a lot of current events in pop culture and world events as you were writing this album. Was there any particular music you were listening to that inspired you as well?
I wasn’t listening to much music at the time of writing this album, except a bit of Dub. I was more focused on current social affairs and musically I was listening to some Dub and just instrumental music.
You worked with your daughter on the track “Black Christmas.” How has that experience affected your relationship?
Well, it’s all good and all positive, but we have a good relationship anyway, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to write together.
How has your writing style changed over the years? How has your approach to writing a song evolved since your X-Ray Spex days?
I don’t think it’s changed that much; it’s just more painting a picture of today. When I was writing for X-Ray I was painting a picture of the current times with words.
As I was getting into punk, you and X-Ray Spex were very inspiring and empowering to me (and you still are). I’m sure you’ve heard that before from other female fans. Did you realize back then that you were having that kind of effect on your female fans?
Not really, but apparently so. I get quite a bit of female fan feedback and they really liked the whole thing about “Oh Bondage!” ‘Some people think girls should be seen and not heard but I say…’
But I didn’t really consciously go out to create that reaction.
I know you said you’ve felt the punk lifestyle was destructive to you in many ways, but do you feel that way about the music?
No, I think the music is a genre, punk wasn’t totally destructive, its just that it turned into the anarchist movement and sometimes as you can see with the recent riots that can be a bit destructive, like smashing properties and destroying things, rather than peaceful demonstrations.
What inspired you to record an album like Translucence back in 1980? Would you ever consider recording another album like that, or maybe even re-releasing that one (I know a few fans who would love that)?
Well there are a few tracks from Translucence on Flower Aeroplane, which I was selling on my site, but because of my current situation I’ve had to close that shop down.
On recording another album like that, not really, I can’t do the same thing twice.
It’s clear from the press she’d done leading up to the release of Generation Indigo that the album meant a lot to Poly. Despite the fact that she was undergoing treatment for cancer, she was still doing press to promote the record and I applaud her for that. So, again, I encourage you to buy it, either from Amazon as a Limited Edition CD, via iTunes (with a bonus track) or from the official Poly Styrene site, as a special album/LP fan bundle.
Wherever you are now, Poly, I hope that you are at peace. We’re going to miss you.