One of the great English punk bands of the late ’70s, X-Ray Spex was formed in 1976 by school friends Poly Styrene (or Marian Elliott as she was named by her Somali dad and white British mum when she was born in Bromley, Kent, in 1957) and Susan Whitby (a saxophonist who chose the new name Lora Logic).
The band exploded onto the punk scene with one of the era’s great singles, the feminist punk rallying cry Oh Bondage, Up Yours. With Logic’s sax driving the melody semi-tunefully and the guitar of Jak Airport (real name Jack Stafford) laying down a wash of distorted chords, Poly’s vocal, especially on the chorus, is a marvel.
Poly Styrene (pictured) was something else. Not just mixed-race, but all chubby cheeks, bin-bag dresses, frizzy mop and mouth braces – a complete contrast to punk’s inadvertent glamour. She was also one of the most potent singular forces to emerge from punk.
As X-Ray Spex instigator and sole composer, Poly used the band as a platform for her futuristic visions, describing and mocking a dystopia where corporate power and consumerism is God, and where personal phobias and personality crises are rampant. Christ on a bike! Did she have a crystal ball?
Poly’s songs were more likely to be about drowning in a sea of corporate-designed consumer fantasies than straight-out attacks against the government. This didn’t mean the songs were any less political; they simply attacked the zeitgeist from a different vantage point.
Led by her hurricane force and classically-trained voice – alive with sarcasm and glee – the band adapted to areas far beyond the three-chord thrash of debut album, Germ Free Adolescents (1978).
A seething sax echoed Poly’s voice and got the band tagged – not inappropriately – “the garageland Roxy Music“.
But the group’s firing of the redoubtable Lora Logic – apparently because Styrene didn’t think two women should be in a band together – and the undeniable influence of Logic on the sax lines of her replacement, Steve “Rudi” Thompson, pointed to trouble brewing.
Tragically, there was no second X-Ray Spex record. But there was Poly Styrene’s debut full-length solo record, Translucence. Abandoning completely the loud guitars of X-Ray Spex, Translucence is quiet and jazzy in a way that anticipates the work of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn in Everything But the Girl.
It’s a bit of a shock coming after Germ Free Adolescents, but it’s a beautiful album, and her singing, though not as exciting and unhinged, is frequently stunning.
At the age of 21, the pressure of work and diagnosis with a bipolar medical condition threatened to end Poly’s career, and the band split up. Poly turned to Hare Krishna after X-Ray Spex but even today it’s a blast to dig out the old vinyl and hear her snarl “some people think little girls should be seen and not heard – but I think, Oh Bondage . . . Up YOURS!”.
Poly emerged from “retirement” in 1986 with a wonderful EP titled Gods and Goddesses. Hurding and Airport went on to form Classix Nouveaux, while Paul Dean and Rudi Thompson went on to form Agent Orange with Anthony “Tex” Doughty (who later become a founding member of Transvision Vamp).
X-Ray Spex reformed for a surprise sell-out gig at the Brixton Academy in 1991. The group reformed again in 1995 with a line-up of Styrene, Dean and Logic to release a new album Conscious Consumer.
The album was not a commercial success and Styrene later explained that touring and promotional work suffered an abrupt end when she was run over by a fire engine in central London!
Jak Airport died on 13 August 2004 of cancer. The band played a comeback gig in front of an audience of 3,000 at The Roundhouse in London on 6 September 2008. A DVD and CD of the Roundhouse performance was released in November 2009.
In February 2011, in an interview published in the Sunday Times magazine, Poly Styrene revealed that she had been treated for breast and spine cancer.
She released her third solo album, Generation Indigo, in March. She died on 25 April 2011.
Jack ‘Jak Airport’ Stafford
Lora Logic (Susan Whitby)
Paul ‘BP’ Hurding
Steve ‘Rudi’ Thompson