Poly Styrene was a British musician, singer-songwriter, and frontwoman of the punk rock band X-Ray Spex.
Styrene was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957 in Bromley, Kent, England. She was raised in Brixton, London by her mother. Styrene left home at 15 with only £3. She hitchhiked between musical festivals and stayed at hippie crash pads for two years until she stood on a rusty nail while bathing in a stream resulting in septicaemia. She moved back to London at the age of 18 and set up her own boutique in Beaufort Market, on the Kings Road, in Chelsea. Being brought up by a single mother had imbued in her a ‘puritanical work ethic’ and she was determined to succeed. Styrene’s called her fashion label X-ray Spex and sold home spun, punk autographed couture.
In 1975 Styrene recorded her first demo album using her real name,
Mari Elliott. The album was punk rock and Styrene showed her lyrical talent, her words resonated directly with the period’s youth but her first single “Silly Billy”, a reggae/ska track released a year later, was unsuccessful. In July that year Styrene saw the Sex Pistols perform an early gig at the Pier Pavilion in Hastings. Their set was all cover songs and Styrene was inspired by the fact that anyone could do the same. She put an ad in a British music magazine, searching for “young punx who want to stick it together” and formed X-Ray Spex using the name Poly Styrene. She chose the name while looking through the ‘Yellow Pages’.
X-Ray Spex quickly gained a following and performed one of first gigs at the Roxy club in London. Styrene was surprised at the sight of “girls in dog collars and leads, being pulled along by their boyfriends” but she was just an unconventional herself, albeit in a different way. Styrene was described by Billboard as the “archetype for the modern-day feminist punk”; because she wore dental braces, stood against the typical sex object female of 1970s rock star, sported a gaudy Dayglo wardrobe, and was of mixed race. She was “one of the least conventional front-persons in rock history, male or female”.
In 1977 X-Ray Spex released their debut single ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ which would become their most well known song. It begins with the shouted line “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard” which sets the tone for their loud, brash musical style. X-ray Spex appeared at key events in the punk era including he Front Row festival at the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington, north London, and the huge Rock Against Racism concert at Victoria Park in Hackney, east London. In 1978 they released their debut album, Germ Free Adolescents which is now thought of as a punk classic. The album was a violent criticism of consumerist, braindead society.
In 1979 Styrene left the band, exhausted by their touring schedule. She had also been wrong diagnosed with schizophrenia, sectioned, and told she would never work again. She would later be diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. A year later, Styrene recorded a solo album called Translucence. The album showcased a different side of her musically, with a mellower more jazz orientated sound. In 1991 X-Ray Spex reformed to play a sold-out gig at Brixton Academy in London. Four years later they released a second studio album, Conscious Consumer. In 2008 they reformed once more to play the Roundhouse in London.
Styrene continued to work as a solo artist, releasing Flower Aeroplane in 2004 and the well received Generation Indigo which was far more commercial than any of her previous work. Styrene has inspired many other female performers including Kathleen Hanna who said that Styrene had lit the way for me as a female singer who wanted to sing about ideas.” Styrene died at the age of 53 in 2011.