“I somebody said I was a sex symbol, I’d shave my head tomorrow.” – Poly Styrene
Before Minor Threat and Rage Against the Machine, before political punk was a term that made you wince with awkwardness, there was the little known band X Ray Spex fronted by arguably one of the greatest songwriters of her generation; Poly Styrene.
Our feelings on Poly haven’t ever really changed. A classically trained opera singer, Poly, real name Marion Elliot, picked her name out of the phonebook and decided almost then and there to start a band. But while the Pistols and The Clash at the time were rallying against anything and everything they could, X Ray Spex had a honed and curated message.
In the clip below, taken from a Janet Street-Porter film for London Weekend Television, we see the journalists dissect the credibility of the new wave and the one band everybody hoped would be riding it, X Ray Spex.
The fury of punk had begun to subside by 1978 and had become a part of the national lexicon, removing the shock and awe factor that previous bands like the aforementioned punk legends, survived on. As the dust settled it was now more important than ever to have a message which cuts through the bullshit.
Poly Styrene was a glinting blade in an increasingly crowded space, able to scythe through the muck and implement her own vision. Arriving on stage at the Hope & Anchor, a famous pub around London for brokering burgeoning punk talent, Poly is every bit the punk idol.
As perhaps to compound our point, the band are introduced by Johnny Rubbish, the kind of square kid that has all the right clobber but somehow still looks like Geography teacher. Poly was the polar opposite. She wore an affronting trouser suit, a black trilby and her iconic braces.
A Brixton native, Poly takes her jaunt to the north of the river seriously and proclaims upon entering the stage “Shut ya mouth” before launching into ‘Artificial’, an album track from the band’s seminal record Germ Free Adolescents. It’s a song which speaks of her message as she proclaims she “wanna be Instamatic, wanna be a frozen pea, wanna be dehydrated, in a consumer society,” the band were the real deal.
The clips below also come equipped with an interview in which Poly reaffirms her points. At just 19 years of age her wisdom is well beyond her time yet effortlessly fused with the energy of youth, and is well aware of the commodification of punk itself. It’s something she can’t get ton board with “What I write, you know, I think should be good, or should mean something anyway, should be relevant to what’s happening now.”
It was this determination that would see X Ray Spex become one of the most beloved flashes in the punk pan. While the band’s contemporaries were hell-bent on defeatism, Poly used her unstoppable optimism to help carve a path for the future. She would accept the world was on its knees but was more intent on picking it up than pushing it down.
Below you can see it all unfold as Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex announced themselves on punk’s stage for a game-changing performance.