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Oh Bondage! Up Yours!

REMEMBERING FEMINIST PUNK ICON POLY STYRENE 

As we approach the end of Black History Month and nearly ten years after her departure from this dayglo world, now seems a poignant time to remember the legend that was Poly Styrene. 

The little girl who refused to be seen and not heard rose to prominence in the late ‘70s London punk scene as the feisty frontwoman of X-Ray Spex. Their 1977 track ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ would go down in history not only as an embodiment of punk rock, but as a powerful feminist tagline.  

A pair of bondage trousers in the window of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s shop SEX were Poly’s inspiration for the song. Despite its connotations, the song wasn’t really anything to do with sex, but a statement about freedom (or lack thereof) and the fickleness and vacuousness of humans.  

In an interview for Australian music show Countdown, Poly elaborates on bondage as a metaphor for the cognitive dissonance of conformity versus free thinking: 

“Most people want to be ‘tied up’ because it gives them an excuse not to think, but on the other hand they don’t.”  

Poly Styrene on Countdown

Poly’s warrior-cry voice and refusal to conform to perceived gender norms opened new doorways for women in the music industry. She formed the band after seeing a Sex Pistols gig when Johnny Rotten’s high-energy, intense performance sparked a thought: maybe she could do that too.  

And that she did – if not better! Music journalist, Vivien Goldman, made the bold and impassioned statement in Dayglo, “From the very first sound of Poly’s voice, nothing could ever be the same.” 

The sheer passion behind Poly’s guttural, though tuneful, screeching was totally pioneering for the time. Everything about her voice and performance, even down to the clothes she wore was a vibrant display of unwavering individuality.  

Whilst she was capable of traditionally “good” singing, Poly was much more interested in utilising her voice to deliver an expressive and unique performance.  

Poly’s pioneering performance style was an influence on Bikini Kill frontwoman and Riot Grrrl spearhead, Kathleen Hanna (amongst many others) who said in Poly’s biography:

 “If her work wasn’t there, I’m not positive Riot Grrrl would exist.” 

Kathleen Hanna in Dayglo

She stuck out like a sore thumb amongst her contemporaries, and not just because of her voice. Whilst much of the punk aesthetic encapsulated a widely felt sense of darkness and nihilism, Poly had no interest in conforming to this.  

The Slits’ Tessa Pollitt notes in Dayglo that punk was about “doing your own thing” and amidst a sea of leather and bondage clad posers, Poly and X-ray Spex were “beyond punk”. 

Poly dressed in outlandish outfits with garish colours and tacky, plastic accessories, courtesy of the stall she ran on King’s Road which ultimately became the band’s dress-up box. 

Poly’s quirky wardrobe and child-like dental brace paid little credence to stereotypical notions of sexual attractiveness, though comically, she once contacted a journalist who had noted this to tell her just how sexy she really was.  

In spite of this, overt sexuality was deliberately excluded from her act; she was once famously quoted saying: 

“If somebody said I was a sex symbol, I’d shave me ‘ead tomorrer!”

Poly Styrene in Sounds

Before Poly Styrene though, there was Marion Elliott. Or was it Marian? Or Marianne? Or Maharani? Clearly, identity was something she struggled with throughout her life, in part due to the social isolation she experienced growing up on a working-class estate in Brixton.  

Mari, as she was most often known back then, was the daughter of an English mother and mostly absent Somali father. She grappled with insecurities about her father’s absence, something which was heavily frowned upon at the time, let alone being the mixed-race child of a single, white mother.  

Racism was prevalent in Britain at the time and being mixed-race meant never fully identifying with white people, whilst often facing vitriolic abuse from the black community too.  

Most of Poly’s friends growing up were white, so she pretended to be white too – she used to tell people she was Greek, which she sometimes got away with on account of her loose ringlets and lighter skin.  

In an interview with Lucy Toothpaste for the fanzine Jolt 2, she described the experience as “frustrating” and recalled finding it jarring to hear her friends call people “n*ggers” in front of her. They would say, “Oh you’re alright, you’re one of us.” 

She claimed she had it worse from the black community though, who would make misogynistic comments about her white mother. At the worst of the racial abuse, she was brutally attacked with a cricket bat.  

Poly’s struggles with racism and her rocky home life eventually pushed her to run away at the age of fifteen when she met an older man named Falcon Stuart, who would go on to be the manager of X-Ray Spex. She felt she was destined for greater things, and that she was. 

Poly found an outlet to express her ‘Identity’ crises with X-Ray Spex’s 1978 single of that name. Her haunting vocals are enough to raise goosebumps and her words feel almost accusatory as they are punctuated with a punchy saxophone riff.  

In ‘Identity’, Poly spits a venomous critique of an increasingly image-conscious society. Her lyrics blame the ‘TV screen’ and the ‘magazine’ for the fragmentation of the consumer identity. She was a visionary in that sense; her lyrics become ever more poignant as time goes on. 

Ironically though, despite her criticism of posers and this false breed of identity, it is apparent that deep down she knew this was exactly what she was doing herself. Whilst unique, Poly Styrene was a character as synthetic as her namesake. 

Poly was the first to admit that she was never really that into the punk scene, but it was a vehicle for her talent. She had always wanted to be famous and was never one to let her dreams escape her.  

 “Did you do it for fame?” she asks with contempt in the second verse. By this point in her career, it was already becoming clear that, like many young artists, she was starting to feel overwhelmed by her fame. 

In 1978, the band travelled to the States to film; this was a difficult time for Poly. She and her lyrics had always been conscious and wary of capitalist consumerism in the UK, but consumer society, the constant buzz and the underlying darkness of New York was a huge culture shock. 

When she came back from New York, Poly experienced her first breakdown. In a vivid hallucination, she believed she saw a bright pink UFO. She was initially misdiagnosed with Schizophrenia and spent spells in hospital in this period.  

Eventually, doctors recognised that she was suffering from Bipolar Disorder. In an interview for Huck, Poly’s daughter, Celeste Bell, voices her feelings on discussing her mother’s mental health:  

“It’s really important to address the breakdown and the Bipolar, without focusing too much on it – it was an illness she struggled with her whole life, but it didn’t define her either. For my mum it’s something she probably wouldn’t have even wanted to talk about, so it’s important to be respectful of how my mum would’ve wanted to talk about it.” 

Celeste Bell in Huck

It is suffice to say that the swift decline in Poly’s mental health at this time meant that the exhaustion of touring and the negativity of the punk scene were no longer in her best interests. Her artistic vision was also beginning to drift away from punk altogether.  

Against the majority of the band’s wishes, she tried out some softer, acoustic material at a gig in Paris. The Parisian punks were less than welcoming to the unfamiliar sound. They viciously gobbed, drenching Poly in phlegm, and she walked offstage. 

Following this devastating experience, Poly split from X-Ray Spex to begin a solo career with full creative freedom. In 1980, she recorded her first solo album, Translucence, ditching the punky energy of X-Ray Spex to opt for a soft and tranquil sound with an almost psychedelic feel to it. 

As if by fate, the year of the album’s release coincided with the birth of her daughter, Celeste, after a short-lived relationship with Adrian ‘Ady’ Bell. Motherhood solidified Poly’s decision to start afresh.  

After becoming a regular at the Soho Street Hare Krishna temple, Poly uprooted with Celeste one day to make a new life as devotees at Bhaktivedanta Manor where she lived for a spell under the name Maharani Dasi.  

Poly reformed with X-Ray Spex in 1991 to play a sellout gig in her hometown at Brixton Academy. They would reunite once more to release the Conscious Consumer album in 1995 and have sporadically performed reunion gigs in years since, including a performance at the Roundhouse in 2008. 

Tragically, in early 2011, Poly was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer which had spread to her lungs and spine. Prior to this she had been working on another solo album, Generation Indigo. The album, which would be released posthumously, features a contemporary sound unlike any of her previous work, surprisingly incorporating elements of dubstep amidst a fusion of various genres. 

Sadly, Poly Styrene “won her battle… to go to higher places” (her official Twitter) in 2011. Since then, her daughter, Celeste Bell, has been determined to keep her mother’s legacy alive. In 2018, she released Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, which she co-authored with music biographer, Zoë Howe. In an article for Fred Perry’s website, Celeste writes:

“The book… pieces together the many varied and complex strands of my mother’s life; through her own diary entries, lyrics as well as interview testimonies of those who knew and loved her most and my own letters to her which form a kind of call and response dialogue between mother and daughter.” 

Celeste Bell

In 2017, Celeste launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché, a documentary film in which she will travel across the world to explore her mother’s legacy and piece together the jigsaw of her life.  

Following the success of the crowdfunding campaign, I spoke to Zoë Howe, who is collaborating with Celeste for the second time, hoping to confirm that Poly’s story does not end here. 

“The film is definitely coming!” She reassures me over Twitter DMs. 

“These things always take longer than one hopes, but it is a when, not an ‘if’.” 

Until then, you can watch the trailer below:

Poly Styrene was many things: a maverick, a mother, a visionary. Her contagious optimism and fighting spirit would not be dimmed in her dying days.

“You remember that old song ‘Que Sera Sera, Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see’? I’ve always felt that. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Poly Styrene (The Guardian)

By Karis Naomi King

I am a final year BA Film and Media student at the University of Sunderland.

One reply on “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”

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