The Elusive Existence of Poly Styrene
Who knows where anything starts anymore? Back in the old days, I went round to a friend's house to discuss a plan to get a freaky art thing underway, which turned into the pair of us scribbling away independently. Being a good host, my friend invited me to choose some music to put on. Paralysed as usual by the prospect of making a revealing choice in a social context, I opted for the last CD I had bought, a live album recorded at a reunion concert. My friend nodded and smiled. 'Play X-Ray Spex,' he commanded his virtual assistant. We sat in thoughtful silence for a minute or so while Oh Bondage! Up Yours! racketed out of his speakers. 'Stop playing X-Ray Spex,' were the next words in the room…
Fifteen or sixteen years earlier I had been in the early stages of one of my infrequent but inevitably ill-advised excursions into online dating (or 'the donkey ride to hell' as I have come to refer to it) and we were at the getting-to-know-you stage in proceedings. Things were going reasonably well until I admitted to having been spending a lot of time listening to Germfree Adolescents, the 1978 debut album by (a pattern develops) X-Ray Spex. I would say it's usually difficult to communicate unconstrained hilarity via an email, but my correspondent had no difficulty doing so. 'I can't believe anyone still listens to X-Ray Spex,' came the response. Suffice to say things did not proceed very far…
…I suppose the root cause of all this, really, was the experience of having to study very intensively for my university finals back in the mid-1990s, not least because I'd spent the bulk of the preceding three years messing about in the film and media studies section of the library rather than doing much work on my own subject. My study routine included repeatedly listening to The Best Punk Rock Album in the World… Ever!, with the benefit of hindsight a slightly embarrassing and certainly inauthentic artefact which redeemed itself by being stuffed with banging tunes from bands I'd barely been aware of. As well as an almost Pavlovian conditioned response to Talking Heads' Psycho Killer (the track I would unfailingly listen to immediately before an exam), it also left me with an abiding fondness for the band with the saxophones and the shouting.
Nevertheless, as you can see, most peoples' reaction to X-Ray Spex is that they are weird and/or a novelty band ('novelty' in this case having the same pejorative connotation as in 'novelty record'). So it goes, I expect. Or maybe not, for if the cinemas were open at the moment, I expect that one or two of them would be showing Paul Sng and Celeste Bell's documentary Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché, about the life of the prime mover behind the band.
The title is ironic, or at the very least tongue-in-cheek, for there is very little about the life of Poly Styrene (real name Marianne Elliott-Said) that was entirely conventional: born in the late 1950s, of mixed English and Somali heritage, she always seems to have been one of life's questing spirits. Perhaps the most predictable part of her story is her attendance at a Sex Pistols gig in 1976, which inspired her to have a go herself, hiring a band and changing her name. (There are variations on this story featuring New Order, Morrissey and many other musicians and bands.)
Then again, I suppose you could argue that the trajectory that followed was broadly speaking quite predictable: success, media interest, too much too young, personal and psychological problems, an unfavourably reviewed solo album, and then retreat from the music industry into a Hare Krishna community, from which she intermittently emerged until her untimely death in 2012.
There is, obviously, a great deal of potential material here, all mixed up with the social and cultural history of the UK. At first listen most of the songs on Germfree Adolescents sound the same – snarling guitars, frantic saxophones and Poly Styrene yowling over the top of it all – but the lyrics deal with topics of personal identity, feminism, the environment, and much more. One of the paradoxical things about the film is that while it reinforces Poly Styrene's status as a punk icon, it also suggests the punk rock movement was a really a collection of disparate individuals, misfits who only really had in common the fact that they didn't fit in anywhere else.
The general tone of the film arises from the fact that it is directed by and prominently features Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene's daughter. Bell narrates the film, appearing on-screen throughout, and the piece is framed as her looking back on her mother's life and significance. This gives it an undeniable resonance and impact, even if it does threaten to turn the film into a meditation on the extent to which it is possible to really know another person – for all the archive footage and material the documentary includes (Ruth Negga narrates some of Poly Styrene's diaries), you inevitable come away realising you're just getting tiny glimpses into what was really an extraordinary life.
On the other hand, it doesn't have the measured thoughtfulness of Who is Poly Styrene?, a contemporary documentary made at the height of her success and popularity – the best moment of which comes when a journalist asks the singer how she sees her music developing in the future. 'Who knows, maybe it'll turn into the sound of a hoover,' comes the chirpy reply. Nor is it really surprising that the film skates very lightly over some aspects of Poly Styrene's life that might give a less positive image of her: there is a reference to her 'cruelly sacking' Lora Logic, the saxophonist responsible for much of the classic X-Ray Spex sound, but no elucidation of just what occurred (in one of the great karmic ironies, Poly Styrene and Lora Logic both ended up living in the same Hare Krishna community in later life).
Then again, this is standard operating procedure for most musical bio-documentaries, which are after all largely pitching to fans of their subject, who may be turned off by a warts-and-all approach. For the most part this is still a colourful and satisfying look at someone who is perhaps too little remembered these days. It doesn't have the depth or detachment that makes for a really great documentary, but it's still a thought-provoking and illuminating film.