The siren-wail of Poly Styrene’s voice was the authentic sound of punk: derisive, subversive, yearning and romantic. No one could have been less of a cliche. This riveting and valuable documentary is co-directed by Paul Sng and the musician’s daughter Celeste Bell, and evidently structured in a similar way to Bell’s book, Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, published last September. Hearing X-Ray Spex again is a madeleine and an intense pleasure.
Poly Styrene was born in 1957 as Marianne Elliott-Said, from a white-British and Somali background, who had a stunning, epiphanic conversion to punk (so many people’s experience) on seeing the Sex Pistols play at the Pavilion on Hastings pier in the long hot summer of 1976, and was born again as Poly Styrene, the name being, as she politely explained to smirking journalists, a “send up of being a pop star”. (A student smart-alec would have overdone the joke by making it Polly with two Ls.)
With bold entrepreneurial flair, she assembled a great band and became a driving force of punk and new wave, before her more introspective solo album was critically disliked. She quit the business, having battled against depression and being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when she had bipolar disorder, accelerated by an introduction to drugs while on tour in the US. Again, this was a very common experience for so many Brit musicians of that era, innocent souls for all their swagger, who were unused to much more than warm beer. (It was certainly true for Sid Vicious, emerging here as an odious bully who mistreated Poly Styrene.)
She was a radical and a rebel but also a mystic and a gentle soul, who later embraced Krishna and Indian culture. Her song Identity is an amazing premonition of the 21st-century culture wars (“Identity is the crisis you can’t see / Identity, identity / When you look in the mirror do you see yourself’) although she utterly rejected victimhood-upmanship. The same goes for her fiercely confrontational and unpindownable BDSM-liberation anthem Oh Bondage Up Yours! (Bind me, tie me / Chain me to the wall, / I wanna be a slave to you all, Oh bondage, up yours!”)
Elliott-Said’s story is another confirmation of how liberating punk rock was. Who else in late 70s Britain would give the time of day to this hugely talented working-class woman of mixed race? Publishing? Media? Television? Theatre? Of course not – it could only be punk, which she helped to define and energise. There was something authentically heroic about Poly Styrene.
• Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is released on 5 March on digital formats.