Poly Styrene, who passed away yesterday (Monday April 25), aged 53, was an iconoclast and a rebel in a way today's crop of guitar bands can only dream of. A daringly dressed explosion of fierce intelligence and anti-fashion brilliance, grinning like a Cheshire cat with braces and expressing herself with an air-raid siren wail, Styrene was the outsider's outsider, a true one-off who ripped a hitherto unsuspected space in pop culture for weirdos to set the trends and break the rules. Styrene was a punk, a feminist, a deeply spiritual person who cared passionately about what humanity was doing to the world and itself. She wrote and performed short, sharp, lacerating, loving blasts of genius noise, songs which pulsated with joy, mischief, fear and terror.
Born Marian Joan Elliott-Said in Bromley, Kent, the mixed-race daughter of a dispossessed Somali aristocrat, Styrene grew up knowing what it was like to be a misfit even before she discovered punk. Aged 15, she left home with £3 in her pocket, hitch-hiking around Europe, drawn to festivals and relying on the kindness of hippies. She flirted with a music career from an early age, and in 1976 released 'Silly Billy', a gently lilting reggae single which has more in common with her later solo work than the garage rock she would release as a punk firebrand. That same year, on her 18th birthday, she caught The Sex Pistols play an empty hall on Hastings pier and her perception of what music could be, and the role she could play within it, was forever altered. "They had drainpipes, shortish hair, and played covers," she recalled in an interview with the Guardian, "But they must have had something because I thought, 'I can do that!'"
And she did. With her band, X-Ray Spex, she unleashed a string of great pop moments (Oh Bondage! Up Yours', 'The Day the World Turned Day-Glo', 'Identity', 'Warrior in Woolworths'), every one a complete manifesto of intelligence and subversion, notes on how to survive and thrive in the debris of trash culture. And best of all? This was undisputed pop music. With the mainstream's gates blasted off thanks to punk, the path was momentarily clear for those on the margins to push their way to the front of the queue, off the grubby pages of NME on on to Top of the Pops. Styrene was briefly, gloriously, a bona-fide pop star, her opinion sought on boys, spots and fashion.
It couldn't last, of course. The whole of pop was actually too small a place of Poly Styrene, whose dislike of consumer culture found expression in a number of X-Ray Spex songs, perhaps most pertinently on 'I Live Off You': "I live off you/ and you live off me/ and the whole world lives off of everybody/ See, we're gonna be exploited/ by somebody." Visions of a pink light in the sky after a gig in Doncaster led to Styrene being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. She was sectioned and X-Ray Spex disbanded. It would over a decade before Styrene was correctly diagnosed as bipolar.
She released solo albums (Translucence, Flower Aeroplane) and X-Ray reformed in 1995 to release Conscious Consumer, but her crowning glory remains the band's debut album, 1978's Germ Free Adolescents. The album is one of the enduring and most complete statements of punk, full of sideways glances and thumbnail sketches of late-70s Britain, by turns wry, surreal, knock-about and horrified. Musically, the combination of thrash guitar and parping, imprecise sax meant X-Ray Spex stood way out from their more dower punk brethren. X-Ray Spex were, and remain, so much fun to listen to, you're seduced, sucked into Poly's day-glo world before you know what's happening. Taken together with the band's early singles (and their uniformly fantastic b-sides), Germ Free Adolescents is an unassailably strong body of work. If you do not own it, you should feel sick with shame. And yet, you are to be envied. You get to discover it.
Styrene's influence on those who came after her has been well documented. She was a hero to many a riot grrrl including, of course, Beth Ditto. Less obvious fans include David Bowie and Noel Gallagher. After a period of absence from music, she released a new solo album, Generation Indigo, last month. Her place in the punk and pop history books is assured. But perhaps her greatest achievement is more subtle. If you've ever risked getting a punch for the way you dressed, expressed a belief even though you knew you wouldn't be thanked for it or decided to go your own way no matter what anyone else thought, take a moment to remember Poly and say a little thank you. She did it first. She did it best. Heaven just got a whole lot noisier.