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Poly Styrene, influential singer for X-Ray Spex, has died

April 26, 2011 |  7:05 am

Poly Styrene, whose clarion call, "Oh bondage, up yours!" became the rallying cry of punk feminists everywhere and foretold the Riot Grrrl movement, died Monday at the age of 53 after a long battle with cancer. 

As a member of X-Ray Spex, Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in Kent, England, became a symbol: The sight of a teenage girl with braces, chubby cheeks, and quirky nonsequitur outfits screaming "Thrash me crash me/Beat me till I fall!/I wanna be a victim/For you all!/Oh bondage up yours!" was transformative in early British punk rock; it served as an indication to both the musicians and the fans involved that the movement, which at the beginning comprised mostly of angry, jobless young men, could be a wide enough tent to support not just that disaffected male lot, but girls with their own set of complaints (including the way angry, jobless punks treated their women).

About "Oh Bondage, Up Yours." It begins with Poly making a point heard round the world: "Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard. But I say, 'Oh bondage, up yours!'" before the all-male band behind her launches into a furious set of riffs that made countless girl bands possible.

The way she delivered the words -- angry but still dancing, lips barely covering her braces -- served as one great big no to oppression in all its forms; that its lyrics are so rudimentary and to the point only clarifies the song's central concern. (And perhaps even more shocking, she was able to do it while a very un-punk instrument, the saxophone, blew in call-and-response).

Her fame was relatively short-lived, though. Styrene struggled with what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and though she released a gorgeous, underrated solo album, "Translucence," on the United Artists label in 1980, it and subsequent releases, including a New Age album (!), Flower Aeroplane, in 2004, failed to make an impact on the general public. She had just released a highly anticipated new full-length "Generation Indigo" in mid-March. The album, produced by Youth, featured Styrene returning to her New Wave/punk rock roots.

Pop & Hiss will have more on Poly Styrene's legacy in the days to come.

-- Randall Roberts

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