It’s all over the internet and there will be better obits written by folks who knew her or were around to see X Ray Spex play. But Poly Styrene died yesterday after a battle with cancer and it just wouldn’t be right to not mention it.
X Ray Spex was one of those bands that was almost mythical those of us who were into that kind of thing. The only made one record before they dispersed into drugs and Krishna, but what a record it was! Not that anyone I knew had ever seen it… Out of print for a long time by the early ‘80s, we all had crappy cassette copies or vinyl bootlegs. Anything above 4th generation was highly sought after.
Those of us into that kind of thing liked punk rock but weren’t sold on the idea that the newest (at that time) kind of punk was the only punk. Hardcore* was in ascendance in the USA and while I loved that too, I always had a soft spot for edgier new wave and – to be honest – music made by people other than straight white dudes (like me). Much has been written about the way that the more rigid musical style* and violence of early ‘80s hardcore pushed out the women and the queers, but there were also a lot of people who kept those flames alive, trading tapes of bands like Au Pairs, Delta 5, Raincoats, Slits and supporting bands like X or The Mutants even if we didn’t talk about it much.
But X Ray Spex, they were extra special. Maybe the effort we had to go to listen to them added to the intrigue – as did the fact that the lead singer was a biracial, female teen-ager — but they were not a derivative band. They sounded totally new to us. Personal lyrics about the times we were growing up in… alienation that was unafraid… saxophone… no one was like them.
Clearly riot grrrl owed a lot to X Ray Spex. Bikini Kill – even without a horn section – sounded more like them than any other band. It didn’t seem like it in the ‘80s, but their sound, style, and message was dormant but not dead.
Goodbye Poly Styrene. You may have only made one listenable record, but it was one of the best punk records ever.
*I always feel the need to explain this now because things changed so much but “hardcore” in 1981-85 meant stripped down, super fast, political, and not afraid of violence. It did not mean backpacks, whining about one’s feelings, or guitar noodling. Nothing wrong with those things, it’s just not what was going on back then. Minor Threat was mad about social situations, not sulking in the corner.
** My favorite example of this is from the Big Boys. Funk punks themselves, they felt the need to write, “I’m a punk, and I like Sham (69). / Cockney Rejects are the world’s greatest band. /But I like Joy Division, Public Image to / Even that’s not what I’m supposed to do” Imagine a time when liking Joy Division or PIL was seen as selling out!