||June 2, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
As with many great rock bands, X-Ray Spex’s career began with a
declaration of defiance and contempt. "Some people say little girls should
be seen and not heard," Poly Styrene cooed on the band’s debut single. "But
I think: OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!"
Contemporaries of the Sex Pistols and the Clash during the English punk
explosion of the mid-’70s, the quintet made only one album in its original
incarnation. Like the Pistols’ "Nevermind the Bullocks," this disc rounded
up a series of scattershot singles that preceded it, and which were never
intended to stand as a collection.
But 1978’s "Germfree Adolescents" is in fact a near-perfect rock album,
brimming with energy, intensity, and personality, and continuing to
influence a legion of bands (both female-fronted and otherwise) a quarter of
a century later.
The daughter of a Somalian father and an English mother, short, pudgy,
frizzy-haired Marian Elliott had been a pupil of Brian May’s when he was
still a school teacher before hitting it big with Queen. She started her
career with a reggae single in 1976, when she was only 15, but her direction
changed abruptly when she stumbled upon the Sex Pistols performing at
London’s Hastings Pier.
"There was something that was a little bit more of my generation," she
told Richie Unterberger in the 1998 book, Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’
Roll. "I thought, ‘Oh, if they can get a band together, I should be able
to do that, too!’" And so she did, recruiting guitarist Jak Airport, bassist
Paul Dean, drummer B.P. Hurding, and original saxophonist Lora Logic, and
rechristening herself Poly Styrene.
Like Johnny Rotten, Styrene was an exceedingly unconventional rock front
person; in addition to her age and looks, there was the fact that she wore
big, shiny braces on her teeth. Her voice squeaks, screeches, and squeals
whenever she attempts to hit a note out of range of the basic Patti Smith
monotone, but she never lets that stop her. In fact, it’s the major source
of her appeal: [ITAL] Nothing [ITAL] can stop prickly Poly.
Arguably rock’s first post- of second-wave feminist, Styrene’s concerns
are extremely political, but there is always a sharp and winning sense of
humor, as well as an obvious lust for life. Her targets include rampant
consumerism ("Warrior in Woolworths," "I Am a Poseur"), racism and sexism
("I Live Off You," "Oh Bondage Up Yours!"), and the dehumanizing tendencies
of the modern world ("Genetic Engineering," "The Day the World Turned Dayglo,"
and the title track). But all of these issues are attacked with a silvery
smile and an enticing if unique sexuality.
In Styrene’s hands, the famous verse of "Oh Bondage"--"Bind me, tie, me
chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave to you all!"--sounds as much like an
invitation as it does a sarcastic critique. And her analysis of
capitalism--"I live off you/And you live off me/And the whole world lives
off of everybody/See we gotta be exploited"--is delivered with a celebratory
vigor that belies its strident anger.
"I think the message was different lyrically because I was writing about
things that at the time were a bit futuristic," Styrene told Unterberger.
(The album cover depicted the five band members trapped in giant test
tubes.) "Like ‘Genetic Engineering’ was just something that was sparked off
by me reading an article about genetics in Time magazine. Now it’s a real
thing, isn’t it?"
Indeed it is, and so is the anti-corporatization movement that Styrene
seemed to predict. "My mind is like a plastic bag/That corresponds to all
those ads," she sings. "It sucks up all the rubbish/That is fed in through
Lyrics such as these are backed by brilliantly minimal pop hooks and
propelled by a simple but accomplished rhythm section and Airport’s
restrained yet potent buzzsaw guitar. When it came time to record, Logic
(who was even younger than Styrene) was jettisoned in favor of more adept
session players; Styrene has said she had a tendency to play all over the
lyrics. It was a wise move, because the occasional bursts of sax are what
makes the album really special, underscoring the melodies, and drawing a
line that connects the classic rock ’n’ roll of the early ’50s with the
so-called No Wave/free-jazz noise movement of the ’80s and beyond.
At the same time, Styrene provides a link between rock’s female pioneers
and the riot girls of the present. "People said, ‘Oh, you sing just like
Poly Styrene,’" said Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. "And I was like, ‘Yeah,
great!’ A lot of girls had never heard of Poly Styrene; maybe they’ll hear
me and then buy an X-Ray Spex record."
Unfortunately, "Germfree Adolescents" was never officially issued in the
U.S. until a Caroline Records reissue in 1992. "It came to a point where it
was just like quit while you’re ahead, or go down," Styrene said, and X-Ray
Spex broke up shortly after the album’s release. The singer went on to
become a Hare Krishna, and she believes that hurt her with a close-minded
music industry. "I was blacklisted… It was just considered unhip," she said,
though she’d eventually provided Krishna chants to recordings by the Dream
Academy and Culture Club.
In 1980, Styrene released a solo album called "Translucence" with a cool,
cocktail-jazz vibe, and in 1996, X-Ray Spex reunited for a respectable
effort called "Conscious Consumer" that pretty much found it picking up
where it had left off (but with a more adept Logic now back on sax). Still,
nothing beats the focused assault of the 16 tracks on "Germfree
Adolescents." It remains an essential soundtrack for a revolution that is
still very much alive. Call it fight songs for the barricades--and turn it
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