Existence is elusive: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 29, 2022)

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Black is beautiful
White is alright
Your half-caste child
Do you wanna fight
Do you wanna fight
Black girl carries
Her flick knife
Will she cut me up
For being half white

The national front
Are after me
I’m infiltrating
Can’t you see

“Half-Caste”, unpublished poem by Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

I was leafing through my dog-eared copy of George Gimark’s exhaustive Punk Diary 1970-1979 (currently out-of-print) and came across this entry under September 14, 1977:

X-Ray Spex have just been signed by Virgin Records. The group is fronted by a mulatto Brixton youth calling herself Poly Styrene. She’s no stranger to the recording world and had a single out under her real name Marion Elliot last year. Since seeing the Pistols play, she’s become a regular around the Roxy Club, resplendent in her dayglo vinyl, psychedelic kilt and full set of dental braces. They’ll be releasing X-Ray Spex’s debut single on the 30th. This is not X-Ray Spex’s first appearance on vinyl though. You remember they were included on the “Roxy” album singing “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” the same song they will re-record for Virgin in the next few weeks. Other members of the group include Jak Airport on guitar, Paul Dean on bass, B.P. Hurding on drums, and Laura Logic on saxophone. They’ve been playing together since January, and now are prepared to hit the big time, invading the male-dominated punk world.

I reckon very few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether it was by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She was not only “invading the male-dominated punk world” of the late 1970s (which, despite its imminent association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was still an overtly “laddish” club), but was doing so as a woman of color (the Anglo-Somali singer-songwriter is credited as the progenitor of the Riot Grrrl and Afro-Punk movements).

If you’ve ever seen X-Ray Spex’s video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, you know that Styrene had a charismatic presence and powerful voice that belied her diminutive stature. With its “fuck you” lyrics and strident vocal, that song is now a feminist punk anthem; but according to an absorbing new documentary called Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (co-directed by narrator Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, with additional narration by Ruth Negga) Styrene never really identified as a feminist or a punk.

Bell (Styrene’s daughter) confides her mother “…always said she’d never considered herself a ‘punk’…that it was just a label, coined by journalists. At the same time, she recognized that the scene was a perfect vehicle for her own creative transformation.” That’s one of many unexpected twists in an artist’s journey that begins in working-class Brixton, makes a life-changing whistle stop in the Bowery, and ends in one of India’s most sacred rivers.

By the time Bell was born in the 80s, her mother’s initial fame as a punk-rocker had waned; Bell’s earliest childhood memories stem from a period when the pair lived in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna commune in Hertfordshire (they would later resettle in Brixton). Upon Styrene’s death from breast cancer in 2011, Bell became custodian of her mother’s artistic estate. Bell’s access to those archives provided impetus for the film.

Sadly, Styrene struggled with a bi-polar disorder throughout her life (initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia). Bell navigates this aspect with the sensitivity and compassion as only a close family member could, and it is genuinely moving.

Fame, in and of itself, can do a number on someone’s head; especially for women in a business where appearance is (right or wrong) …everything. As Bell explains, “When mum was young, she was pretty confident about the way she looked. She’d never been short of admirers. But the experience of being famous made her insecure; the public scrutiny over the way she looked started to grate on her. She felt like journalists were celebrating her by insinuating that she was unattractive and overweight-totally not getting what she was trying to achieve choosing not to expose her voluptuous form on stage.”

A perfect illustration of this maddening double-standard comes in a recollection of one incident. After a humiliating experience wherein a member of the Sex Pistols played a cruel prank on her at a party, Poly disappeared into the bathroom for a spell. Upon re-emerging, she sported a shaved head. The timing was unfortunate, as X-Ray Spex was on the bill for the now-historic Rock Against Racism event the next day. The 1978 rally/music festival (headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band) was held in London’s Victoria Park, and attended by an estimated 100,000 people.

To her band mates’ relief, she showed up to the gig with a woolen scarf on her head. While performing the song “Identity”, she slowly unraveled the scarf to reveal a bald pate. There were audible gasps from the crowd, but giggles from her band mates. Obviously, she was not expressing solidarity with the racist National Front skinheads (AWK-ward!). She had once told her band mates she never wanted to be a sex symbol, and joked if she ever were to become one, she’d shave her head. Always fearless; and hopefully, thanks to this lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist, never forgotten.

“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” premieres On Demand February 4th.

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