Poly Styrene: The Proto Riot Grrrl

Poly Styrene. Trailblazer. Activist. Mother. Few listeners these days have a clear idea of what the name means or how she influenced women musicians in the years since punk exploded. At 19 years old, with braces, unkept braided hair, and the ‘half-caste’ label thrown her way, Styrene was in 1976 a self-revolution and revelation.

Styrene – born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957 to a Somali father and English mother – was raised with her siblings by her (eventual) single mother in the tough London suburb of Brixton. Predominantly an African-Carribbean community, Styrene was ostracized early on by the boundaries of acceptance: bi-racial, she could neither hang with the white or Black kids. Looking on the outside figured heavily in her musical ambitions.

Finding solace in poetry, her (then) undiagnosed mental health issues were mixed with a drive to create something different, someone different than plain Marianne. Striking out at 15, her travels and hippy lifestyle manifested into “Poly Styrene,” a name she affixed to the culture of disposability and empty shine: refusing to conform to the stereotypical punk image, rejecting the leather jackets and safety pins of her peers in favor of colorful clothing and bold accessories.

After attending a Sex Pistols gig, she became enamored with the sound and biting vocal stance of lead singer Johnny Rotten. Inspired, she placed an ad in Melody Maker, asking for like-minded “young punx” and soon after was joined by bassist Paul Dean, guitarist Jax Airport, drummer BP Hurding, and 15-year-old saxophonist Lora Logic, who only played on the band’s first release from Virgin. But what a single it turned out to be.

“Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” (with sleeve artwork by Styrene) was the declaration that spawned the pre-riot grrrl movement before it was a movement. The half-spoken opening line “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard/But I think, oh bondage, up yours!” secured its place in the punk canon. With her straightforward delivery and no-holds-barred lyrics, Styrene gave serious thought to living creatively stifled as a biracial woman and by turns, an entire generation that could rise up and recognize the dangers of consumerism and conformity.

The band (with new sax player Rudi Thompson) moved to EMI and their debut album Germ Free Adolescents was released in November 1978. However, as the band was showered with rock critic praise, the kinks in the armor were starting to show.

The quirky girl with braces, Day-Glo apparel, and irreverent attitude continually struggled with her mental health and as punk swung down towards the nihilistic caverns of society, Styrene rejected the negative environment and characters that sprung forward. Caught in a web of increasing media scrutiny over her private life and the mainstream rejection of society’s ills in her lyrics that she couldn’t adequately explain, Styrene broke up X-Ray Spex in 1979.

The effects of that intense adoration had ground down her sense of self, having been misdiagnosed as schizophrenic in 1978 while spending time in a behavioral hospital. But the real culprit was bipolar disorder, which only became manageable with medication. It allowed her to swing away from the noisy din of punk and release herself in music and surprisingly, motherhood.

The tentacles of restlessness that should have been calmed by these changes were in the timeline, short-lived. Styrene had met her future husband Adrian Bell and had given birth to a daughter, Celeste. However, as much as she craved stability, she yearned for deeper meaning in her life. Physically separating from Bell, she and Celeste ensconced themselves at Bhaktivedanta Manor, a country house George Harrison had donated to the Hare Krishnas in 1973. Serendipitously, her estranged bandmate Logic was also there, having changed her name, and both found a sense of inner peace with the Hindu teachings.

But these life-altering changes did little for Styrene. Restless and unfulfilled, she left the manor in 1983 and subsequently, gave up young Celeste to the care of her mother. Poly Styrene again was ahead and behind in her quest to find solace and understanding for one whose expansive mind could not stay still.

She made slow progress throughout the 1980s and 90s, working hard to reconcile her past accomplishments that were tethered to a daughter she could barely take care of (and a husband who receded to the background). But somewhere in the extraordinary talent that was wrapped up in a hazy cosmic world and with a one-off X-Ray Spex gig in 1995, Styrene emerged back in the early 2000s.

Having moved to the coastal East Sussex town of Hastings and tentatively reconciled with a now-grown Celeste, they paired together for a gig in 2008 with an explosive rendition of “Oh Bondage” to the ecstatic cheers of an appreciative crowd. But her rejuvenated presence was cut short. Styrene’s Youth-produced ‘Generation Indigo’ in February 2011 shimmered energetically, but a previous breast cancer diagnosis led to her passing in April of the same year.

Since that time, Styrene’s legacy has been curated by Celeste, resulting in a retrospective book and the documentary I Am A Cliche that cuts deeply and with an honest narrative, sheds a more focused light on how Styrene chose to live, as the soulful being she was. Her impact on punk rock and music, in general, cannot be overstated. Her boldness and refusal to compromise paved the way for countless female artists and marginalized communities to enter the world of music and make their voices heard.

-Amy Hughes

Photo: Cover of X-Ray Specs album, Germ Free Adolescents (Fair Use)

PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…

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Amy Hughes is a freelance writer and digital artist. Transplanted from Boston to Chicago to Central Florida, one can only guess it must have the weather. Splitting time (and hairs) between a keyboard and a smartphone, you can be transported to Twitter: @smallmegapixel for a trip or two down the rabbit hole of endless information that calls itself The Beatles.

4 comments on “Poly Styrene: The Proto Riot Grrrl

  1. Would be more touching had she not abandoned her child.

  2. Yeah. Don’t know if you’re a parent or not as I am. That’s not something you “gloss over”.
    Appears she tried to make amends, however.

    Appreciate your work, Amy…

    • Amy McGrath Hughes

      Thanks, John. As a parent myself, I agree – not the best situation for Poly or Celeste!

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