Let’s Submerge

The story of Poly Styrene, as told in a new biography, intersperses the dayglo with a more quotidian grey.

In nearly every photo in this large format biography of Poly Styrene, the lead singer of punk band X-Ray Spex has her mouth open. Beneath the army helmet, which she wore for performances and photo shoots, her mouth is open. It is agape on the picture cover of singles. She sports an open, beaming smile in photos, from gigs and on holidays, by manager and lover Falcon Stuart. Of course, this open mouth is the shape formed when articulating an ‘O’ for the band’s most notorious punk anthem, from September 1977, ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’

An open mouth evokes associations with Marilyn Monroe, for she was, likewise, often photographed with parted lips – in 2008 in an interview for the Guardian Poly Styrene cited Marilyn Monroe as a style icon. Asked about her often parted lips in an interview in 1956, Monroe denied it was a conscious effort to appear sexy. It was, she said, just what her mouth did, and she knew that, because it fell open even when she was unconscious, asleep. Poly Styrene too might have said the same. 

From the very earliest photographs in the book, all dressed up in her primary school uniform, she is open-mouthed, with a bighearted smile, her eyes directly engaging the camera. Of course, this open mouth would become infamous, when her teeth got braces, which were seen as a sign of the refusal to conform to conventional standards of female beauty. But the train-tracks only appear on her teeth for short period, round about 1978, coinciding with the point when X-Ray Spex released their debut – and only – album Germfree Adolescents.

After that highpoint of exposure came rapidly mental breakdown, the painful aftermath of fame, familiar enough in the rock business. The flight to living as a devotee at Hari Krishna Bhaktivedanta Manor, worsening mental health and, then, terminal cancer make this book, for all its dayglo verve, into a journey into a certain bleakness.

How small a part the Dayglo is in this book. A brief burst of fascination with synthetics, consumerism, the fake and cliched coalesced into some striking lyrics which appeared at their best when backed by the raucous saxophone of Lora Logic – who was only 15 at the time – until the two of them fell out. The lyrics of Germfree Adolescents imagined a future that was desiccated, all tears dried up, emotions frozen. On the fluorescing horizon appeared a SF world to come of genetic engineering, mental and physical sterility and zealous hygiene.

But, most powerfully, the songs articulated a present that had already crashed in, conjuring a nightmarish but recognisable world out of brand-names, S.R. toothpaste, Listerine, Weetabix, Fairy Snow, Instamatic, Woolworths and Wimpy. Frozen peas and plastic popper beads are the fetishes of this throwaway, denatured world, in which there are too many adverts, too many screens – and from which the only escape is self-slashed wrists or knifings at the tube station. A translation of Huxley’s Brave New World into 1977, Poly Styrene shrieks of identity crisis and facades, seeing herself as ‘reared with appliances in a consumer society’. One especially brilliant line seems to pivot into our present: ‘My mind is like a plastic bag’. 

Poly Styrene, or Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, or Maharani Dasi, wanted to move on, after recording 16 songs with X-Ray Spex, to do something else – but nobody much wanted to hear it. Was that punk’s bigotry, record company insistence on the tried and true or her own ineptitude? Various conclusions might be drawn from the text, a biography compiled by her daughter Celeste Bell and experienced music writer Zoë Howe and told through fragments of interviews, collaged along the timeline of a life and clustered thematically. The warp of cradle-to-grave linearity is shot through with the weft of memories from different times and places, old music press sources, new interviews.

Sometimes these voices contradict each other, speaking across time and at cross purposes. Certainly, this technique allows the tensions to emerge, the strains of the era – its inevitabilities such as squabbles over money and rights – which destroyed mental equilibrium and broke up a band. These tensions become retrospectively palpable too, for example, in Pauline Black’s recounting of the circumstances around a 1980 photograph of Punk’s leading women, herself, Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Viv Albertine and Siouxsie Sioux. We look at the image through Black’s making visible of the frictions of pecking orders and the fractures of race. In its recounting, this story of Poly Styrene takes on the concerns of ethnicity and gender. That is what the present fills in for it, both as celebration and lamentation. 

The testimonies that glow brightest, against the quotidian grey of increasing disappointment, failures, rip offs, exploitation, family break-up, misalignments and decline, are those of the US wide-eyed puppy punks, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. Their outsider memories convey inspiration, delight and the opening up of opportunities, into which they stepped. Their positivity finds resonance in the book’s reproduction of the resourceful ephemera of the time, hand-drawn and stencilled flyers for gigs, collaged posters with contraceptive pill packaging and teen romance comic strips, Dadaistic record sleeves, eccentric DIY styling, all stuff that is pretty much unprocessed, uncalculating. 

What persists is a glowing afterimage of someone who, as the cliché goes, did burn more brightly than those around her, for a while at least. Reflecting in the early 2000s on Lucy Toothpaste’s enquiry, for a fanzine interview, as to whether ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’ was about women’s liberation, Poly Styrene responded with a tumble of connections that were putatively in her head back then when she wrote the lyrics. She had seen bondage trousers in Vivienne Westwood’s shop SEX on the King’s Road; she had read a book by Wilhelm Reich and discovered a newfound sense of freedom; she recalled images of chained suffragettes, which segued into Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’, which gave way to sepia images of ball-and-chained African slaves, which resolved unto a Cecil B. DeMille epic on the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt.

She desired to be free, and also free from desire. There is a canny intelligence there, a riffing on words and puns, tangling collective and individual destinies, connecting oppressions, historically and across space. Such perceptiveness, perhaps, went along with the bi-polar with which she came to be diagnosed, eventually, after a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia – commentators in the book rightly put this down to the racial biases of the UK mental health system. She was first sectioned, when, after a gig in Doncaster, she hallucinated a luminous pink light in the sky, a UFO. Later, she would see an electric blue monsoon on Oxford Street, the colour of Krishna, of enlightenment. The world turned dayglo for her twice, twice a jaw-dropping experience  – that may be more than many get to experience.