|NME MAY 13TH 1978
NO POP, NO STYLE
POLY STYRENE IS
STILL STRICTLY ROOTS
In which our lady of X-Ray Spex
forgoes a career as this years model in Chelsea for earthier
delights of Brixton family life.
Interview and intrigue: Charles Shaar Murray
Pix & Sympathy: Pennie Smith
SUNDAY NIGHT in Croydon, and Poly Styrene's voice is shot.
Flu goes for the throat like a cornered rat: when the victim's a singer, the midrange
of the voice gets ragged and shot through with static and the top end disappears
Singing with the flu is like dancing with a sprained ankle or running with a stomach-
ache: you can just about do it, but it's no fun.
Poly's a trouper, though: a professional. The show must go on, even if three
numbers have to be dropped and the performance runs only a little over 45 minutes,
including encores, top whack. Even when calling off the title of the number and
giving it that patented Poly Styrene "1-2-3-4!" count-in (which must be confusing for the four male/instrumental members of X-Ray Spex, since it rarely bears any relationship to the actual time the song happens to be in) requires two or three run-ups.
Poly's flu is a drag for her, a source of worry and inconvenience for the band, their manager, their sound mixer and their roadies. But the kids at the Croydon Greyhound don't seem to notice, and if they do notice they don't care. They're more concerned with cheerful disobedience of the absurd "No Pogoing" (yeah, the management of the Croydon Greyhound has a sticture against that particular modern-world activity) and with having a bit of a pose.
The audience was pretty much straight punk dressed up to
the nines; the kind of audience I hadn't seen for quite a
while. Curiously, the strongest flash was of the similarity
between hard-core punx and hard-core teds.
There was that same tight, enclosed, just-us atmosphere of
highly specialised rituals performed in highly specialised
outfits in front of (mostly) highly specialised bands, and that
weird feeling that — at the very least — a small proportion
of these kids'Il stay with punk for years in the same way that
teds have retained that loyalty for all the trappings of a high
point in their lives.
After what seems like an unconscionable length of time but
what is in fact the standard rock and roll decompression/
setting up the gear time, X-Ray-Spex hit the stage: Rudi on
saxophone (he looks like a New Wave Bill Nelson and has
only been blowing for eight or nine months, though you'd
never know it), BP on drums (big, blond and bulky; only
been playing a year, and it doesn't show either), Jack
Airport on guitar (whacking out the blowtorch ramalama in
the finest tradition of Steve Jones and Johnny Ramone) and
bassist Paul Dean (the oldest member of the band though
he looks the youngest, wheeling out fine looping
Rickenbacker bass lines) . . . and Poly.
The overwhelming impression that you get off Poly Styrene
on stage is her sheer, unassuming friendliness and high
spirit. She doesn't seem to be performing so much as
simply singing the songs and dancing around and grinning
and having a good time, and it is this seeming absence of
artifice that makes her such an excellent performer.
The conventional discipline of New Wave performing styles
has eliminated a lot of the old posturing only to replace it
with a new set of anti-postures, which are ultimately no less stylized, but Poly cuts through all the bullshit just by bopping round the stage with that mile-wide grin, free from any hint or taint of artifice, just having a flat-out good time, a genuine, communicable enjoyment of the right here and right now.
The thing is that to considerable masses of people Poly Styrene is some kind of media event, and somewhere in the background of all the garf is the fact that she's in some kind of rock band called X-Ray Spex. Girls' junior glossies and Sunday supplements know all about Poly's taste in shoes, family background, Views On Life In General and so on. One could almost imagine Honey or 19 phoning her up for a quick quote about what she thinks about abortion or Princess Margaret; all the standard celeb stuff. She is therefore a Face to people who've never heard her records or seen her perform.
Which is an indication of how the mass media's collective mind works, because the whole reason that Poly Styrene is now famous is precisely because she sings and writes for X-Ray-Spex. But then if you say "Poly Styrene" to people who aren't particularly into rock and roll they may well know who you're talking about. Say "X-Ray Spex" to those people and watch their faces go blank.
It's through circumstances like these that you get situations where certain people get incredibly famous for no other reason than that they're well-known, and their celebrityhood is the most real thing about them. They may nominally be actors or singers or models, but that's jive: what they are is really Celebrities.
Roddy Llewellyn is the classic current example of someone who is a Celebrity for no reason whatever. He's made a record and signed with Phonogram (who should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves) but I very much doubt if he'd have gotten anything other than the bum's rush if he'd walked in the door with a demo tape. He's not a celebrity because he's a singer; he's a singer because he's a celebrity.
This whole syndrome automatically devalues anyone it grips: that's why Poly Styrene would be in real trouble if it wasn't for the fact that she writes great songs, fronts a good band and performs with such transparent joyfulness that you'd have to have lemon juice for blood not to dig her, just like they did in Croydon the other week.
She's an Original, and it is to be devoutly hoped that all the readers and witnesses of the Poly Styrene Media Event Show who haven't already done so bend an ear and eye to X-Ray Spex before they file her under "someone heard of vaguely, possibly a singer ..."
BUT OF COURSE the real reason that Poly
Styrene will ultimately never be swallowed up by
fashion and by Thuh Sceeeeene is that hanging
out with the scenemakers and tastemakers and
groovy useless people that infest the London
version of this particular universal snakepit holds
less than zero attraction for her.
She did the whole Chelsea riff, living in a self-
contained flat in the basement of Spex' manager's
pad in Fulham, until the creeping plastic started
getting too close and she got out, packing up her
stuff on a day's notice and moving back to live
with her mother and sister in the house in Brixton
where she grew up.
"You feel all the time that people are draining
you, draining off your energy all the time until you
think, 'Blimey, I haven't got anything left to give.
Leave me alone.' That's why I came back to live
down here, because living in Chelsea got to be a
bit too much. This is what I know: my family and
my old friends and I feel normal again."
She explodes into laughter: a volcanic eruption of laughter that encourages you to laugh with her. All but her most serious statements are punctuated with frequent laughter — the kind that you find described as "infectious" by the lazier variety of popular novelist, but when you hear Poly's laugh the cliche ceases to be a cliche. There's just the faintest hint of a suspicion that it's a sign of nerves; rooted somehow in a defensive reflex.
Still, if the hangers-on and the hangers-out and the energy vampires
are already affecting Poly to such an extent at this comparatively early
stage in her career, what's it going to be like later?
"Later it'll be all right. I'm a fast learner and I make lots of mistakes, but
only once. It'll get to the point where I'll change and start again.
When I was living there, it was all these people who kept coming up to
me and feeding me up with all these images and ideas which easily
got me carried away as to what I was, whereas I'm really not that way
"I just want to be like me. Me: normal person.
"They were trying to project all sorts of things on to me. People start
coming up to you and pretending that they're your sisters, and coming
to my flat and probing me to find out the answers to all sorts of
questions. I don't know where they come from, all these kids, but they
always seem to find out where you are ... it's just a whole little scene,
that area, which is why I moved out.
"They think they're something special, but they're not. When it comes
to the crunch they're really not very substantial. They're posers
pretending to be something special and they treat you like you're
something special so that they can know you and become something
Is that what "l am a Poseur" (the B-side of the excellent "Day The
World Turned Day-Glo" single) is about?
"In a way, but in a way I think posin' is a laugh. But just dressing up
and having a laugh — and only providing you know the difference
between the reality of it and the fantasy of it. There's a line between
what's real and what's games. What I was frightened of down there
was becoming a thing like all the other people down there. I could see
what I'd become like, which is why I changed and came back down
Spex have just returned from a brief season in New York (at the
personal invitation of CBGB boss Hilly Kristel, no less) and the
reality/fantasy line is a lot thinner over there . . .
"There it's even stranger, because they really idolise people. They scream and things like that. Oh, strange! People had already heard about us and came specially to see the band; kept coming up to me
and asking me all these questions about this, that and the other. They try to make you special, because that's what they want . . . you wouldn't be worth anything to them if they thought you was
That giggle explodes again.
"It's strange there because it's not very real. I tried not to get involved
in any of it, but up to a point you can't help it because people try and
get you sucked into it and pull you into their little games, and I don't
want to get pulled into anybody's little games.
"That's why I feel so drained, so totally exhausted, as if I hadn't got
anything left to give. Well, I have, but it's as a performer and a writer,
and to write you can't get involved in anything like that. You have to be
detached from everything in order to write, I have to observe things in
order to write about them: I can't get too directly involved.
"That's why I get a little frightened sometimes, because if I feel I'm
getting too involved in hype and other things, all that sort of crap. . . .
interviews are all right, because they help work things out of your mind,
but the other stuff is pretty self-indulgent.
"I don't want to become totally self-indulgent, because I write things that
other people can relate to. If I get totally into myself I won't be able to do
that. What I write will just become a reflection of me instead of a reflection
of everything else. For some people that works, but it's not what I'm
about. "I don't personally want to indulge in my own fantasy, my own
THE DAY The World Turned Day-Glo" and the equally impressive but
as yet unreleased "My Mind Is Like A Plastic Bag" are reflections of
Poly's fascination with the synthetic excesses of the (you should
pardon the expression) Modern World.
She celebrates the supermarket culture in the same way as the
Topanga Canyon geeks and Woodstock dude-ranchers celebrate
Nay-Chur. In America, Poly came face-to-face with Tack on a grander
scale than she'd ever previously dreamed of, and it damn near put her off for life.
"It wasn't a conscious attempt to be clever: I just thought that I'd write about all these plastic things because they seemed to be creeping in more and more, which is why New York totally blew me apart. I saw everything that I'd been writing about in extreme but for real.
"For them it wasn't a joke, it was the way they lived for real. For me it was all a joke: play with it, indulge it, have fun with it because there's not really that much of it over here. But when you go there it's so bad that you thing, 'God, if that's what it's going to be like I don't want it.' "
Poly fights the encroaching wave of plastic by meeting it half-way. Her shirt front is adorned with carefully selected examples of exquisitely awful tack plastic jewellery: her very stage name is a comment on product-isation. Could she see herself going the other way and fleeing the tack by (gulp) going to live in the country?
"The weird thing about all the plastic is that people don't actually like it, but in order to cope with it they develop a perverse kind of fondness for it, which is what I did. I said, 'Oh, aren't they beautiful because they're so horrible.'
"It's very perverse and I realise that, and that was what was so frightening about New York. People had developed a real fondness for all this stuff and when I'd go round to someone's house they'd give me things and say 'This is a Polystyrene present'. I just went, 'Oh no! I don't like it! I don't want to develop a perverse liking for it! Take it away! Leave me alone!' "
JUST ONE OF the pitfalls of success: being taken too literally by people with little humour and less insight. But — in order to avoid the pitfalls of success — do you have to avoid success itself?
"No, I don't think you have to avoid success; you just have to avoid all the bullshit. If you can evade the bullshit and the hype you'll be okay, but if you start getting involved then it's dangerous.
"Sometimes I'll go along with it because I think it's funny and I think it's a laugh, but I don't believe any of it. When it comes down to the crunch I don't believe nothing! I'll pretend I believe it. I'm a bit wicked that way because I enjoy pretending, I enjoy letting people think that I'm being pulled along in this little game, but always knowing when I'm going to make it stop.
"That's my saving grace. That's how I've survived all my life.
"I've been around a lot. I left home when I was 15, and I've been all over the place, and that's how I survived. I've done all kinds of silly things, but I always knew when I'd got to the point where it was time to stop. I got into a lot of tight spots, and up to a point I quite enjoyed them, because I've always liked playing the victim . . . up to a point. Beyond that point . . . ah ha! No wayyyyy!"
COULD YOU see yourself drawing that line within rock and roll; saying this is where it stops and getting out of Da Biz entirely?
"Nope. I'd love to get out, but not yet. I don't want to go on doing this forever an' ever, but then again I have the temptation to do something else. What I'd really like to do is direct a film or write a screenplay. I'd do exactly the same thing; create a whole bunch of fantasies and projections and silly little games and do 'em on film.
"I like to feed up other people's fantasies, make 'em think that they've really got me going and then I'll shock 'em: I'll change. I like to be underestimated just a litile bit. It's not just you that does it, other people like to feed you up with their little games and you take advantage of it until you think uh uh, time to go ho-ommmme . . . "That's what I'm like. "No 'death to the individual' for me. That's all I've got. Without it I wouldn't be able to write or anything. That's why I'm so careful of not being manipulated by anybody. Temptation's great: people will try and manipulate you, specially if they think you're easy, a soft touch, which I appear to be up to a point because I make myself that way. But I ain't easy: I do know what's going on.
"Or maybe it just goes on in my head."
Yeah, maybe you're just getting all sweated up playing table tennis with
"Yeah, probably. That's because I think too much. I'm not completely mad
. . . well, l am at the 'moment; it's because I've only just got out of Chelsea.
It was driving me mad.
"Nothing actually took me over, but I could see that it might and I felt very
vulnerable. There's so many fakes up there . .. you get boys coming round
trying to find out if you're gonna screw 'em because I've got this sort of
asexual image ..."
You've got what???
"You know, I said that I wasn't a sex symbol and that if anybody tried to
make me one I'd shave my head tomorrow. And so they come round and
they say Oh, I really fancy you and they want to see how far you go and
I say all right you can sleep under the table. A lot of them come round
probing me up about sex.
"That's quite weird. And of course, if I sense that someone's trying to
probe me about something I just feed 'em up with bullshit. I just give
'em what they want to hear.
"Young kids would come around dressed up from Seditionaries and
they're probing me about all these rumours that they've heard about
me. Such sexual questions; they must be perverts, you know what I
mean? If you can't sort sex out for yourself there must be something
a bit wrong with you. What sex is . . I think a lot of kids are hung up
about sex and that's bad.
"A lot of kids come up to me and they say, 'Oh, I'm on the game', and I just say, 'Oh yeah?' or they say they hustle because they think that 'Oh, maybe she was on the game when she was younger'. Or they say, 'I don't do nothin', I just give blowjobs,' trying to see what makes me blink, trying to suss me out. Or they say, 'I don't like sex, I'm bored with it' just to see what you say.
"I'll say, 'Oh really? I think it's great.' And then I'll say that I hate sex ... I'll contradict myself all the time because I don't like being probed about questions like that.
"If they really want to know, sex to me is like a beautiful thing and it shouldn't be abused, you know what I mean? You shouldn't sleep with just anybody, you shouldn't sleep with anybody for money, you should just sleep with somebody you really like and that's it.
"And it's not a power or control thing. That's what I don't like about sex; that's why I haven't slept with anybody for two years . . .no, about a year and a half. With too many guys, if you sleep with 'em it's like a power/control thing."
Yeah, but that ain't something that's wrong with sex, it's a basic flaw in the human character and it permeates all aspects of human life and interaction. Sex is just the place where it seems least appropriate.
"That's one of things I find most dangerous and disturbing, because it shouldn't be like that. I object to people thinking that I'm into that as well and trying to put me through those kind of things. It's all inferiority complexes etcetera etcetera etcetera.
"When I was younger I used to be really insecure, really full of complexes, I used to think, I'll never get a boyfriend because I'm half-caste; I'll never get a boyfriend because of this or that . . .'you think all sorts of stupid things about yourself, and of course that's what's wrong. You have to think more about other people . . .
"I've talked so much about myself that it's really disgustin'. I should talk
more about the band.
"A lot of people focus on me and think it's all me, but the music is good
and if you could listen to it piece by piece and instrument by instrument
you'd see how good it is. None of them have been playing long, but
they're all good. I wouldn't like to say that any of them are better than
any of the others or that I'm better than the others. I'm at the front
because that's what I do and I write the songs, but each and everyone
of them in their own right is as good as anybody else and as good as
"It's important to me that that's made clear, and also that I don't tell
anybody what to do or what to play. Nobody treads on anybody else's
toes. It don't work like that. When I formed the group I looked for
people who had a natural talent. It didn't matter to me how long they'd
been playing. If they had something there that was really good then
it'd be all right and it would develop ..."
X-RAY SPEX are very much a product (so to speak) of right-here-
right-now, but they're good, real good; they could have emerged
anytime and happened anytime because ultimately they don't depend on the scene from whence they sprang. They've got charm and vision and scope; qualities that rock and roll can always use. As a lyricist, Poly Styrene reminds me a lot of Chuck Berry: he, too, had that obsession with the detail and minutes of Modern Life and his observations were sweet and sly and sharp and sentimental all at once, just as Poly's are. Whether "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo" becomes the "Too Much Monkey Business" of the '70s and '80s is a highly contentious point, but — decades apart — Chuck and Poly look at the world through the same telescope.
Unlike Berry, though, Poly loves paradox: she'll take any ride as long as she knows where the ejector seat is; dream any dream as long as her internal alarm clock can tell her when to wake up, be totally easy going until her self-preservation instincts tell her when to get hard, play any game as long as it's clearly understood that it's a game, be completely receptive until she's absorbed all she needs and cut off before she gets swamped.
Underestimate her at your own peril; overestimate her at hers.
You can check out Poly's official site here X-RAY SPEX