Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sad News: Poly Styrene Dies at 53

Poly Styrene (a.k.a. Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) died of breast cancer yesterday. One of the first, most important and coolest women on the U.K. punk scene, Poly Styrene formed the X-Ray Spex in 1976. Styrene and her contemporaries the Slits were the undisputed queens of UK punk, with a live resume that includes early gigs at the Roxy, the landmark Rock Against Racism concert of April 1978 and renowned shows with the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks and Wire, among many others. On vinyl, the band is most famous for the single "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" and the classic album Germ Free Adolescents, a touchstone of U.K. punk and one of the most influential punk albums of all time.

photo:Marianne Joan Elliot-Said (aka Poly Styrene)
Poly Styrene

At age 18, in addition to forming X-Ray Spex, Styrene also opened a fashion boutique on Kings Road, a street that was also home of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's famous shop (where the key characters in U.K. punk first crossed paths and began exchanging ideas of fashion, music and art that would give rise to the most potent counterculture in modern British history). Styrene was not just a vocalist, she was one of the punk movement's true visionaries, helping shape the scene's cultural landscape.

But even looking only at Styrene as the frontwoman of the Spex, it would be hard to overstate her importance. As a band, the Spex were more fun than their contemporaries. However, despite not taking themselves as seriously as most of their contemporaries, the band was highly political, radically feminist and pivotal in changing preconceived ideas about who could play music. In addition to being female, Styrene was also of mixed race. In the late 70's, skinheads, fascists and neo-nazis were gaining traction in the wake of a floundering economy and the conclusion of most of Britain's colonial activities. Against this backdrop, Styrene cut a controversial and fascinating figure, and on a personal level, Styrene was a hurricane, even managing to freak out king of the freaks John Lydon with her unpredictable antics.

In addition to her battle with cancer, Styrene faced a life-long battle with mental illness. After leaving the X-Ray Spex in 1979, she mostly retreated from the public eye, eventually becoming a Hare Krishna. Aside from a small handful of public appearances and solo releases, her music career took a backseat to her spiritual quests. Before her death, she recorded one last solo album. Today is the official U.S. street date for Generation Indigo.

Styrene is survived by her daughter and by an enduring legacy that will continue to shape rock music for generations.

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