Wednesday, 20 November 2013

September 1978
Spex and the single girl

On the opposite page of my Jean Jacques Burnel feature, there’s my interview with Poly Styrene. That means I have the whole centre spread of the Evening News. And a photo by-line thrown in for good measure. Who’s the man, the man bringing punk music to Fleet Street instead of punk mayhem?

And it turns out Poly isn’t as cool as we all think, ‘cos when the lights went out in her Day-Glo world, the princess of punk found herself flat on her back in a psychiatric ward. Doctors pumped her full of drugs, and when she emerged from a chemical coma two weeks later, that famous bracing smile wasn’t quite so wide.

‘The band had just come back from the States and we went straight into another tour,’ says the 20-year-old lead singer of X-Ray Spex. ‘We kept playing gig after gig and I started to feel exhausted. I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake every night, fighting to close my eyes, desperately trying to rest. Everything seemed to be closing in on me. It was all so claustrophobic. Finally I collapsed, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in a hospital bed.’

Poly says the main reason for the breakdown was exhaustion. ‘But there were other reasons. Things like kids pretending they knew me and trying to find out where I lived really got me down. And I used to hang out a lot after gigs. I chain-smoked − but that was all I did to calm my nerves.’

Now Poly has made a complete recovery. ‘But it’s taken a long time,’ she says. ‘I haven’t played in front of an audience for ages. My body was really wrecked and I still have to take things pretty easy. In the future I’m determined to be more selective with gigs. I’m not going to play sweaty little clubs any more. I want to stick to bigger venues.’

She’s sitting in the garden of her manager’s Fulham home, sipping coffee in the rain. Those recent traumas are swept aside in one glistening, metallic smile revealing a mouthful of braces. ‘I use them like jewellery, complementing my ear-rings and bracelets. I still have to wear them for a while yet.’

Poly is an anti-glam heroine, singing anti-melody songs for an antiseptic world. She writes of rayon trees and synthetic fibres and germ-free adolescence.

‘We all seem to be preoccupied with cleanliness − but the type pushed in adverts. A clean, tooth-pasty love is used to sell anything from washing powders to floor polishers. Sex and romance help to sell food − what on earth is romantic about that? Especially today’s junk food. I get this recurring dream. What happens when we die after years of eating all this

chemical muck and are buried? Can you imagine all the plant life that will grow up around our chemical-ridden rotting bodies? It’ll be like another planet.’

Strange thoughts from a half-Somali girl raised in Brixton who left school at fifteen to pursue a fashion-buying career. Predictably, the job only lasted a few months. Poly, restless by nature, wanted to see what life was like outside the confines of the city. She travelled all over the country, sleeping rough when she had to, and taking a succession of jobs − including a short spell as a mushroom picker.

She finally settled in Somerset and remained there for eighteen months before returning to London to form X-Ray Spex.

‘I guess I love doing different things. I like changes. I like creating images around me. But I don’t think I would embark on such a journey now. When you get older, you become aware of the dangers of hitchhiking and sleeping on beaches and meeting different people. I was young and naïve, ignorant of the fact that the world is full of odd people, cranks. Sure I met them, but I didn’t realise they meant me any harm. Simply by thinking along those lines, nothing happened to me. Lucky, I guess.’

It was a logical progression for Poly to venture into rock. She had nurtured an interest in fringe theatre for some years and regarded music as an artistic pursuit on a similar level. Attired in obligatory plastic bin-liner and sporting a decadent pose, she acquired both notoriety and a fan club. Many thought her appearance a cheap trick to gain fame – that she was spending hours in front of the mirror trying to look ugly.

Not so, says Poly. ‘I’m not women’s lib, I’m myself. People have said I try so hard to be ugly that I become beautiful. I’m myself. For some people it’s a struggle to be themselves. Sometimes I’m shy, sometimes I’m not the person you see, sometimes I may be myself, but I’m also schizophrenic − an entirely different person on and off stage. I used to fantasise at school, and the songs I write now are merely extensions of those fantasies.

‘I used to hang out, posing, going to endless parties. But that’s all over now. Whenever pos-sible, I flee to the country and lead a separate life.

‘I also ride around London on my bicycle, looking at museums and buying clothes from street markets. Cheap clothes, preferably. Clothes I can wear just as easily off stage as on. I go for those styles you see in old English films of the thirties and forties.’

One more brace-ridden smile. One more sip of coffee. No more Poly. Poly-gone.

(Poly, real name Marian Said, went on to join the Hare Krishna movement. She released a solo album, New Age Flower Aeroplane, in 2004. In 2008 she fronted the re-formed X-Ray Spex for a live show at the Roundhouse. She eventually moved to St Leonards, near Hastings, where she lived alone. Funny how so many punks turned into hippies, the original objects of their venom. She sadly died of cancer in 2011 aged just 53)

Next: The Jam and 10cc

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013

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