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

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

Comments () | Archives (14)

So sad!

So sad to hear this news....X Ray Spex were one of the most original, smart, and musically diverse bands to come out of the 77' punk era. Godspeed Polly, may you rest in peace...

Saddened, as I'm sure many are, by the loss of Poly Styrene, but mostly thankful for her work and spirit.

A point of correction though, is that it was not an "all male band" behind her. The saxophone, which as you mentioned was a key part of their sound, was played by a woman, Laura Logic.

Blessings and rest, Poly.

What a loss to the music world

I hadn't heard that song. It grows on you.

Such sadness...I can remember GERM FREE ADOLESCENTS being in a state of permanent heavy rotation in my house many years back, before I stupidly loaned it out only to see it slowly absorbed into some long-gone friend's collection.

And yeah, she was fearless in taking on all the right targets (sexism, mindless consumerism, etc.), but she did it with a buoyancy and irreverence that set her apart (and above) most of her Class of '77 contemporaries. Equal helpings of humor, keen social insight and the sheer optimism of punk's possibilities. Brilliant.

Thank you, Poly.

One brilliant, original singer/songwriter, one iconic album Germ Free Adolescents, and we were set free from the will-o-the-wisp floral-print future that up till then we thought we would have to live. Thank you, Poly Styrene, thank you, from girls everywhere.

This is sad news. I loved "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!"


this is sad. x-ray spex was spex-tacular. she was a genuine one-off. saw them at the roxy, london, in '77. unforgettable. she had all this garbage safety pinned all over her. toothpaste cartons, random consumer junk. the music was wild. atonal saxophone tootling all over the place, great guitar, great lyrics, and her one-of-a-kind vocals. they were one of the very best of that first wave of english punk bands.

Christ what trash....Pain of my Heart.

I cry at her passing..

Not an all male band on Oh Bondage, at that time Lora Logic was in on sax.

RIP Poly you will be sadly missed, all our thoughts to your family and friends

Sad, never got to see her live. She was a great poet.


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