Poly Styrene, Lost & Found


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.”