Poly Styrene, Lost & Found

Like many of her peers, she discovered the sound of being a grown woman

Poly Styrene, Lost & Found
Janette Beckman

It was meant to be a delicious comeback for the transgressive girl whose defiant 1977 single, "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" fired up Afro-Punk, riot grrrl, and every punk worth their peroxide. Instead, the return of Poly Styrene became one of pop's most poignant ironies. Generation Indigo—a bubbly, cuddly, insightful record, her first in seven years—was released on the day her death was announced last week.

The loss of 53-year-old Poly Styrene six months after the death of 48-year-old Ari-Up, the dreadlocked singer-songwriter of the Slits, is a reminder: how few were those brave women who shattered all pre-existing models during U.K. punk's first wave. This ragtag crew was the first self-determined generation of women musicians, and their influence is incalculable; today, their giddy progeny have stormed the malls with their camouflage, neon fishnets, and combat boots worn with gowns. And while their sounds may resonate differently, today's alpha women—Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Pink—still ride the whirlwind of independent female energy that shook mid-1970s London.

Poly's timing was sweet. Several of her peers were also tired of being cut off from music and starting to write, play, and record again: the classically pop Chrissie Hynde; post-punk experimenters the Raincoats; the punky reggae Slits (who released Trapped Animal in 2009; Viv Albertine, their guitarist and songwriter, now solo; and part-time Slit Neneh Cherry, who segued into hip-hop from punk.

"I found my voice and myself listening to Poly Styrene," Cherry says. "There was no other black person in punk then, specially not a woman."

Cherry's completing her first solo album in 15 years, after taking a tactical retreat into family life. She performs with her daughter, Lolita Moon, and singer/producer husband, Cameron McVey, in CirKus, whose album Medicine comes out May 10.

Just as they did in the 1970s, the original wild girls of punk get to gob on the final taboo. By being functioning, working, punk-rocking grown women, they're violating society and the entertainment industry's embedded age and gender phobias.

The idea for Poly's return came on a road trip from the seaside town of Hastings to London to see Debutant Disco, the band of Poly's daughter, Celeste Bell. During the drive, Albertine confided that she was recording an EP. Poly was surprised that she could be bothered.

Both women had lived their music—scuffled and been spat at and had pop success—before leaving the industry in the early 1980s. "It was hard, because in the genre of so-called rock there were no women that we could look to and see where we were going," Viv reflects.

But decades on, things had changed. Viv had tuned in to making punk grow up disgracefully, "without being apologetic." Because he wouldn't let her play music, she left her husband of 15 years. Poly had fought a bipolar diagnosis, lost her daughter to the system, and won her back, all with the support of the Hare Krishna Movement. Though X-Ray Spex had reformed for a couple of shows and a live release, pursuing music seemed to Poly like trying to go home to a place that no longer existed.

Then Viv played Poly her new track, "In Love." Startled by Viv's riveting, confrontational, and mature work, Poly barraged her with questions. "When Poly did something she really got on with it. She moved fast and beat me to it!" laughs Viv, who was later asked to play on Generation Indigo.

"She was scary. She seemed to be able to look right through you. We all acted brash, but she seemed really confident," Viv recalls of first seeing Poly at punk's spawning-ground, the Roxy, in 1976. "Musically, she was very adept. She was only 16, and Ari was 14. They were the youngest."

In chaos lies opportunity. During punk's assault, a novice such as Clash bass player Paul Simonon could play with music notes scrawled on his frets. Women, too, seized the hour, and for the first time, there was a whole gang of girl players in town: Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie, bass player Gaye Advert, the Slits, the Raincoats, the Delta 5, Mo-Dettes, Au Pairs. What a relief, after an eternity of girls having to sublimate their musicality into being groupies, or be deemed fuckable by record execs who then dictated their sound and look. Why not us?

At the heart of it all was cartoonish, acerbic Poly Styrene. The kind of defiant, exultant shout that got her heard round the world—"They say little girls should be seen and not heard. But I say, Oh Bondage! Up yours!"—had never been recorded before; it represented the shock of the new, the thrill a woman feels when exploring every crevice of her vocal range.

And Poly looked as unexpected as she sounded—a curvy, olive-skinned, biracial girl in braces, wearing a black binliner, or retro-futurist neon and plastic, to remind us to cavort carefully in our synthetic world. No punk was more prophetic than eco-satirist Poly, whose first album was named Germ Free Adolescents way before hand sanitizers. Yet the profoundly discouraging climate for progressive female musicians eventually made her withdraw from performing.

Pop's natural wastage is inevitable, but the U.K. punkettes who overcame the derision of the rockbiz ladocracy were pretty much obliterated ASAP. There was some relief; they'd been an embarassment to the rock establishment. (While features editor of a London punk weekly, I endlessly fielded grumbles from the boychick scribes—"Women aren't into music and don't buy records; why should we write about them?")

In the 1980s, the Thatcherite boy bands out-greeded punk's squat rats with a flick of their blow-dried hair. Their slick videos on tropical yachts epitomized the gilded allure of superficiality. It was a Year Zero; influential women were soon so forgotten that the only general book on the era, by academic/musician Helen Reddington, is titled The Lost Women of Rock.

So all the wild women scattered. Ari left for the jungles of Belize and Jamaican sound systems; Viv Slit entered the jungle of TV. Poly found shelter in George Harrison's Hare Krishna commune in Surrey.

"We women were obliterated. We did it ourselves," says Gina Birch, bass player for the Raincoats and a filmmaker. "That door opened for a while and we all rushed through. We didn't expect to always be in bands, strutting the stage; for us, it was all tied up with punk and new wave and (the indie label) Rough Trade. When the scene started dissipating, we let it flow away."

In 1993, Kurt Cobain spearheaded the effort to reissue the Raincoats' out-of-print albums and invited them—then, a mostly inactive concern—to support Nirvana on tour. He died before it happened, but the Raincoats regrouped. "It was riot grrrls and all those young women whose mums were feminists, into the Raincoats, who energized us," she recalls.

Now Gina is a mother of two and the Raincoats are performing again. "Why the fuck shouldn't we?" she asks.

Happily, that's what Poly thought, too, and Generation Indigo now serves as a testament to an artist who insisted on being allowed to grow. The choice to project innocence and joy in its whimsically radical reggae and trance tracks could only have come from the brilliant misfit who helped free a global tribe from bondage in the 1970s.

"Making music is in your bones," notes Neneh Cherry. "You feel like, 'I've done a full circle, accomplished other things. Now it's my time. There's a place for me.' "

Cheerfully, Albertine agrees. "I'm going to be the one they take the piss out of again. But there's nothing a new generation can level at me that I haven't heard before.

"And it doesn't hurt so much the second time around."

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12 comments
Bruno Aleph Wizard
Bruno Aleph Wizard

Nice one Vivien. .I first met Poly in 1976 when she had a stall in Beaufort Market selling day-glo clothes and angora sweaters in the Kings Road. I remained close to her through every aspect of her life until her "going back to Krishna" as she put it.Her stall was round the corner from Vivienne Westawoods shop Sex where The SEx Pistols first hung out and formed(legend has it) around the fifties jukebox Malcolm McClaren had installed. I remember every facet of Poly's life and struggles in a white middle class MALE dominated industry and how the same industry celebrated with glee Poly's first strugglings with her bi-polar episodes .It made it easier for them to attempt to marginalise heras both woman and free thinking visionary artist As with every thing else in her life Poly fought her illness with courage and grace spreading a message of love forgiveness through understanding first ourselves and then the wider world. Her significance as an artist who was a WOMAN OF COLOUR can never be over-stated, apart from her singular vision of the rapidly encroaching consumer society and her unique expression of that vision in her amazing musical outpourings/.. 70's London was a place of intense racial upheaval and prejudicial violence with the Fascist National Front (sic) marching through largely Afro Caribbean and Asian communities....... I was honoured to be asked by Celeste, Poly's daughter, to deliver a eulogy at her cremation and I would like to publicly register thanks to Vivien Goldman for such a beautiful succinct, informative and truthful assessment of Poly's life and work. I remember breathing the same air as Vivien at all the major "punky/ reggae" events and the solitariness that female artists/ journalists/women in general were subjected to at that time.. I have been telling anyone and everyone who cared to listen that Poly Styrene is one of the most important writers/artists/performers coming out of the U.K in the last 40 years..As ever is the case with female artists her passing will start the process of her deserved canonisation as Pop Cultural History revises and re-writes Poly Styrene's history Hopefully Poly's story and life will go some way to enabling female artists to reap the benefits of their work as they create it ..Well done Vivien for keeping the ball rolling all of these years..and the beat goes on and on and on...until the day the world goes Day Glo ..you know you know

Bgogan
Bgogan

It's an indescribable relief to read these words, so it wasn't in my imagination: "Yet the profoundly discouraging climate for progressive female musicians eventually made her withdraw from performing."

being 21 and playing guitar in england at that time was a delicious and furious experience, and you knew you were flying right in the face of the patriarchy. and some men loved you for it and some women hated you.

the beauty and clarity of vivien goldman's writing about Poly Styrene and Lora Logic, their tones continue to resonate in me all these years later, touches the beginnings of the truth of the power of music to explain what words never ever can do. well, she has sound in her soul, that vivien.

Debora Iyall
Debora Iyall

Thank you Vivian for this articulate and important article on our beloved Poly! RIP.

When I first started out women such as Poly, Ari and the Raincoats as well as SF's Penelope from the Avengers inspired me to start a band. I said to myself, "I have something to say." In the 80's, I started Romeo Void. Just last year I decided to make another album. Well guess what? I still do have something to say. It's a solo project called Stay Strong on my own Dottie Records, you can find it if you try.

Kelly
Kelly

This is a great article about Poly Styrene's life and about what she accomplished and stood for, punk rock women making the full circle of self empowerment without apology in their music. I agree with Cherry that, "Making music is in your bones," and Albertine, "It doesn't hurt so much the second time around" in reference to being the one "they take the piss out of again".

Dunia Best Sinnreich
Dunia Best Sinnreich

Thank you Vivien. Again we are dealt the blow of a lost punk queen and again you find her in your own queenly voice. You are the woman.

Brian Michel Bacchus
Brian Michel Bacchus

Beautiful piece by a punk rock icon herself. In fact one of the best music pieces I've read in the Voice in a long time. Great background and beautifully written. Kudos Vivien Goldman and the Village Voice for getting it right again.

Ed Kollin
Ed Kollin

"Rock Stars" die everyday I might get sad a moment then move on. But Poly's death last week really stunned ( I did not know she was ailing and she looked great) and hurt. Maybe it because she was my age, maybe because as mentioned it was just six months after Ari Up's passing. Or maybe it was because Kate Bush another super talented English women of my generation released a video mining the same topic(people who grew up in an analogue era take on today's tech) as Poly's "Virtual Boyfriend" the same day Poly died. Or may all or none of the above but whatever the reason OUCH

felicer
felicer

will always love the freedom of the original girl punks. and we can grow up and have children and still make beautiful music reflecting on the journey. The Slits' Trapped Animal is really good and I look forward to listening to Generation Indigo.

Labrobey
Labrobey

Bravo...as a part of ska punk English band as a teen in London...."Louise and the Creeps" I commend all these women ...my "Anthology" from 1979 onwards is out soon including those early days ....Louise Robey myspace.....and my ska punk band from 1979 is in my late husbands [ Stan Shaffer] book "You Should Have Been With Me" via Amazon....long live those days and Polly!

Andy
Andy

Very well expressed as ever.....

Jane
Jane

Thanks Village Voice for a great article by the legend that is Vivien Goldman... great to see a journalist on there who has authority for a change!!

Ed Kollin
Ed Kollin

Even though its for a sad occasion, nice to hear from you. I remember Romeo Void very well. Glad to see that you and a lot of the groups from that very special era in music history are doing well and still producing good new material even as the old stuff has never been more influential.

 
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