Marianne Joan Elliott-Said (1957-2011), aka Poly Styrene, was a punk pioneer in ways that are only now being fully appreciated. As the leader of X-Ray Spex, hers was one of the few black faces and voices on the scene. Her daughter, Celeste Bell, has just published Day-Glo: The Poly Styrene Story and is at work on a documentary about her mother’s life. She talks to Amy Haben about growing up with her single mother, a childhood spent at a Hare Krishna ashram and offers fascinating, surprising and even disturbing revelations about the UK punk scene and her mother’s role in it.
“Oh, bondage up yours!” a young, mixed-race woman with adorable braces on her teeth screamed at me on a VHS tape my friend and I watched in my California living room. Amongst the wicker furniture and Birds of Paradise plants in my blonde mother’s apartment, this introduction to pogo-ing British punks and a strong, yet feminine singer, was the most exotic thing I had ever seen. The blood started pumping through my veins as I became increasingly excited. It was empowering that another teenage girl was spitting out the most articulate, feminist lyrics I had heard. It was like she was shoving her worth in every man’s face that ever tried to minimize her voice. The fact that she was dressed in body covering, bright colors, intrigued me as well.
Every other old-school punk chick I had seen wore short, black leather skirts: from Nancy Spungen to Becky Bondage. This Poly Styrene of the punk group the X-Ray Spex was even defying the uniform of her scene. That’s true punk attitude. I never met her, but she formed how I felt about myself. My confidence grew. I learned to say “fuck off” to the kids at school who threw drinks at me for dressing differently. When girls pulled my long hair at punk gigs and told me to cut it off, I kept it to defy them and remain true to myself. Poly Styrene gave future generations of young women the guts to stand up and say my opinions matter. Listen or go fuck yourself.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the daughter of Marianne Joan Elliot (a.k.a Poly Styrene), Celeste Bell, over pints at the Boogaloo Bar in Highgate. We bonded over our similar childhoods of growing up with a somewhat wacky, single mother. As the child of a highly intelligent parent with a mental illness, life wasn’t always easy for her. Celeste is a beautiful, capable, and funny soul who resembles her mother in looks and in her squeaky vocal breaks. Although, she is more of a realist than her mother, who was very New Age. Celeste is an English teacher and singer who wrote a book about Poly’s life called, Day-Glo: The Poly Styrene Story. She is currently working on a corresponding documentary featuring interviews with Kathleen Hanna, Thurston Moore, and Don Letts. Celeste is also featuring her mother’s artwork in exhibitions around London currently and for the U.S. in September to correlate with the U.S. book release. She let me in on fun facts that you wouldn’t expect about her iconic mother, as well as the unfortunate shade Poly received from other musicians in the punk scene.
PKM: How old are you?
Celeste: I’m 37.
PKM: What?! You look like you’re in your twenties. Where did you grow up?
Celeste: In Brixton.
PKM: You’re a teacher?
Celeste: Yes. I teach adults in a community college. I teach refugees and migrants mainly, English and what are called functional skills. I’ve been doing this for a while now. I lived in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain for ten years and I had a band there. I taught English there to pay the bills. I enjoy doing it. I’ve always had to work. My mum didn’t make lots of money with X-Ray Spex. Royalties would come in, in dribs and drabs. So sometimes I would be hungry and other times we would be at the Ritz drinking tea and wearing expensive clothes.
PKM: What did your mom do for work?
Celeste: She never worked. Haha!!
PKM: My mom never did either! I was so embarrassed we were on food stamps and my mom would pull out Monopoly money to pay for food at the grocery store. So I feel like we had a similar background.
Celeste: Yeah. My mom was really good at making money stretch. She never got any benefits, but she was good at saving those royalty checks. We also had family support. We lived with my grandmother for a while. She always made sure we had organic food, but no money to take the bus, for example. So I had to walk far to get to school. One of the worst things my dad did, was he was claiming welfare for us, even though we weren’t with him.
PKM: Are you a vegetarian like your mother was?
Celeste: Yes. I was raised as a vegetarian. Hare Krishnas are hardcore about vegetarianism. They believe if you eat meat, you’re going to hell. I’ve started eating fish because I recently realized that the only reason I was a vegetarian (even though ethically, I do think it is a good thing) was through conditioning and religious indoctrination. Hare Krishnas don’t eat eggs either. So I started eating eggs, which is like the gateway drug of breaking vegetarianism. Could I capture a fish and be cool with it? Yes. Could I kill a cow? No.
PKM: When did you decide to start writing this book about your mother? Was there a trigger?
Celeste: After my mum passed away, it was a very stressful time for me. I was 28 years old then.
PKM: My mom passed away from cancer when I was 26. So we had similar experiences. She died quick because she didn’t know she had it.
Celeste: That is quite similar because my mom didn’t know she had breast cancer until it had spread to the bones in her back. She thought she just had back pain, so it was totally unaccepted. It took five months after diagnosis for her to pass away. You don’t imagine your parents dying while you are still in your twenties.
PKM: Right. I felt like an orphan. I never met my dad and he died when I was 29. Sometimes you just want to call your mom up because you are having a bad day.
Celeste: That’s it. I definitely had a carpe diem type phase. I got divorced. I was married at the age of 25. My mom was only 53 when she died.
PKM: Similar mine was 55. So you thought you should be as happy as possible while you are alive.
Celeste: Exactly. I’m an only child as well. All of a sudden I had to deal with all this stuff that I had no idea about: Wills, solicitors, the estate… She owned a house. It was 2011, the big global crisis. The price of the house had gone down. I was super stressed that I had inherited a lot of debt. I had to move back from Spain to the U.K. for six months to deal with it. I organized the funeral myself. I had to deal with record companies, her manager, and her lawyer.
PKM: Good for you for being so strong. I was a mess during my mom’s funeral and luckily my sister helped. You must have felt like a zombie.
Celeste: I was. It all felt like a dream from the time she got cancer until the time she died. I got an idea about how my mom felt about a lot of things because people didn’t really care about her when she was alive. Then she died and her funeral was packed. There were all these people that I hadn’t invited. Music industry people, fans, and old friends. It felt like they came because it was a social event. Like, “Let’s go to Poly Styrene’s funeral.” Like it was something cool. It made me super mad. Plus I had to pay for the catering and there was a free bar. So I had to pay for all these people to be fed and I had a budget. It made me decide that I will never have a funeral. Just throw me in the ocean when I die. Funerals are bullshit. That’s what I realized.
So then, all these people started to get in touch with me. “Oh, we want to do a tribute concert for your mom.” “The record contract is running out. You need to renew it.” My mom left everything to me. After she found out about the cancer, she made a will. She told me about it. She said, “I’ve done a will and you’re getting everything, but if something happens to you, then my childhood best friend gets everything.”
Celeste: Hahaha! It was quite funny. My husband said, “You shouldn’t have told this friend because she’ll want to bump you off.” Haha!
PKM: Was your husband Spanish?
Celeste: He was Brazilian, but we did meet in Spain.
I was contacted by my mum’s ex-manager’s widow. My mum’s manager was also her boyfriend. They got together when she was 15 and he was 31. He was the manager of X-Ray Spex and they lived in his house in Fulham. They had an intense relationship. So his widow got in touch with me and said, “I have all of your mum’s stuff here and I want to give it to you.” He kept artwork, lyrics, tons of stuff that I didn’t know existed. It was a big suitcase full of my mum’s artwork.
PKM: That’s nice.
Celeste: Yes. It was nice of her, but I was a bit angry that she didn’t give it to me when she was alive.
PKM: Oh yeah. Maybe there was jealousy there, but then she changed her tune when she realized that he took advantage of her being a young girl.
Celeste: She was 100% taken advantage of. My mum absolutely hated him. He ripped her off for a lot of money. He got her to sign dodgy contracts. He was the typical… There were good things about him as well, but there was an exploiter side to him. I moved back to Spain after I sold her house. Then I had two boxes of her stuff. I put in a spare room and then didn’t open them for five years. Even her ashes were in a box. In her will, she wrote that she wanted her ashes put in this specific river in India. It took me about three years. I just didn’t want to do it. I knew it would be emotional. It was really quite special and I’m glad I did it. Then I felt some peace. I was still going through my carpe diem phase. Left my husband and was a bit wild.
Then five years later, I thought I’ll open this box and sort through it. I was amazed. My mum always told me she did all the artwork for the band. I was blown away. She left school early with no qualifications and created her own font and came up with the logo. She was an amazing artist. She used her own image and take photocopies of herself and paint over it. There were so many lyrics that was never recorded. Poems, diary entries… She wrote this thing called “The Diary Of The Seventies”, which was a story about what the X-Ray Spex were doing. Really well written. I thought I could merge the artwork and diary entries into a book. There was a woman called Zoe Howe. She interviewed me for a book she wrote in 2008 about children of rock stars basically. We stayed friends on social media. So I contacted her and asked her if she’d like to work on it with me and she said yes.
The X-Ray Spex went to New York and got a residency at CBGB. That was a huge deal for them. They were one of the few bands from the U.K. to get a residency. It was packed every night and I think my mum felt really overwhelmed there.
PKM: Madness often coexists with genius. I have a friend who is bi-polar and an amazing writer. It seems like your mother was one of those people.
Celeste: Yes. She would often write on the typewriter for hours and hours but she wouldn’t eat during that time. So that was that kind of bi-polar energy. That wasn’t good for me as a child because I was left to my own devices most of the time, but I was also quite creative. So I had to draw and entertain myself. I was bored out of my head most of the time. My mother would say, “You can’t be bored, just create something. I’m never bored.” Haha!
PKM: Haha! The bored are just boring.
Celeste: She would often shop for fabric. It was the most boring.
PKM: Did your mother make any music after X-Ray Spex?
Celeste: Yes, but a lot of it had a Hare Krishna vibe to it. Haha! My mum was over punk by 1978. So her first solo album she did was a lounge/ jazz album. The music is very atmospheric, melodic, and relaxing. I love it because it still feels fresh today. She was still with EMI when the solo album came out. It was well produced but it didn’t sell well, so she was quickly dropped from the label.
PKM: That’s so sad because her punk fans wanted more of that and jazz people didn’t know her.
Celeste: Yes, but I love it because it’s so brave. A journalist asked her back then is she was worried she’d alienate her fans and she said that she didn’t care if even one person didn’t buy it because it was for her. She never felt actually that comfortable with her voice. My mum had power but struggled with range. She had to have singing lessons. You can recognize that it’s Poly Styrene but the music was an early chill out before that was a genre. There are bird sounds, um…
PKM: I love that. She stayed true to herself.
Celeste: Before she did punk, my mum ran away from home at 15 to go to what they called pub festivals. They were music festivals. It was the early Seventies. She would hitchhike and swim in streams. She was very much a hippie.
PKM: Hippies and punks had the same ethos in a lot of ways: freedom and acceptance.
Celeste: I think in her soul she was a hippie. The solo work was going back to who she really was. She loved reggae, soul, Motown, ska, but also progressive rock. She loved Carole King and Janis Joplin. She was a huge Jethro Tull and Captain Beefheart fan.
PKM: What kind of music do you like?
Celeste: I was born in 1981, but I was in the Hari Krishna group so I have no recollection of the ‘80s. I wasn’t exposed to punk music, so I grew up only listening to Indian music. The very late 1980s and early 1990s was the first time I was exposed to TV. I do remember Michael Jackson and Barbie. Someone interviewed me when I was a child and asked me if I liked my mom’s music and I just said (makes a fart sound.) I told them that I liked Michael Jackson and that he was married to Barbie. Which is funny because I was picking up on his plastic-ness, sadly. Haha! My first musical influences were Prodigy, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Salt N’ Pepa, Vanilla Ice, En Vogue, TLC, Boyz 2 Men, B.I.G., Jodeci. That is what I liked. Pop and hip hop. I grew up in Brixton, so it was a very black area. Junior Mafia, and Lil’ Kim. My mum thought it was all shit, so she bought me the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. She was very much forcing me to listen to all the classics. She appreciated the roots of music. Chuck Berry, and 1950s rock n’ roll. Pink Floyd. The last stage was punk and when she introduced me I liked it. U.K. punk I lived mainly. The Buzzcocks, and the more pop and comical bands. I loved the Stranglers.
There was a band called Shelter. The singer was in a band called Youth Of Today. They were straight edge. A lot of them were influenced by Hare Krishna. So my mum was invited to these gigs to play with them, so hardcore was my first introduction to punk.
PKM: My straight edge pals would work out a lot and hook up with girls at Disneyland as their vice.
Celeste: A lot of young men who joined the Hare Krishna movement are very sexually repressed. You see them going mental with drums and music. Haha!
PKM: That makes sense. The ones in NYC always flirt with me while they are trying to sell their religion.
Celeste: Yes. They are celibate and struggling. One of my favorite songs ever is “Institutionalized,” by Suicidal Tendencies. I think it’s one of the best songs ever written actually. The dialogue just goes on and on and it’s so real. I taught a songwriting workshop recently and that’s the one that I chose as a good example of storytelling. My band was a ska/ punk band.
PKM: How old were you when you started?
Celeste: 25. Initially, I didn’t want to do music. She always wanted me to go to University to have something to fall back on. My mum was always on my back to create music. I went to University and she was proud, but at the same time she was all, “Oh, you know… I’d..” Haha!
PKM: She’s thinking, “You’re not as much like me as I thought.”
Celeste: She was always like, “If you want to be an artist, you need to go on the dole, drop out of school, and get a rich boyfriend.” Which is what she had done. Then other times she’d say, “You need to focus on your education.” So there was a lot of mixed messages.
PKM: My mom said just stay skinny and marry a rich man.
Celeste: If we are gonna be real, that is an option as a woman, but you have to be willing to swallow a lot of dignity and pride. My mum had that experience with her manager. That is why she was able to do music, because she lived in his house. He was an aristocrat. He had a house with no mortgage in Central London. He was from the line of Stewards, so a royal lineage. He was half Hungarian Jewish and half English. There was a Steward era and being from that line made him super posh.
PKM: I don’t think you have to be from money to become a successful artist. Some people think that, because you have the time to create and don’t have to have a working man’s job. Everyone that’s a real artist in their heart pursues it.
Celeste: Maybe the case for fine artists. You have a patron or whatever. When you are talking about music, there are barely any great musicians that come from money. They are mainly from working class backgrounds. Any genre: rock, punk, rap… There is always a struggle that makes them want to do something really cool. The hunger and realness is there. I write all the songs for my band, but I haven’t for five years because I’m too busy enjoying myself. My best writing came when I was the most depressed and miserable. Haha! There has to be some fire in your belly, otherwise it will be quite bland.
PKM: David Bowie was also born in Brixton, like your mom.
Celeste: Yes, he was older than my mum. The era he was raised in was not as multicultural. My mum’s era it was transitioning from a white neighborhood to an afro-Caribbean one. I went to NYC for the first time two years ago to film for my documentary and visited John Varvato’s, where CBGB used to be. They were very nice to us. They preserved the stairs and the toilet a bit.
So even if you were in a successful band, you were seen as a bit of a groupie if you were a girl. My mum was trying to go against the idea of selling sex to be popular.
PKM: Is there anything about your mom that people would be shocked to know?
Celeste: Most people wouldn’t realize because of her Poly Styrene image, that she was actually a girly girl. Her favorite color was pink. Her house in Hastings was decorated like a doll’s house. Frills and patterns. Very feminine. A hippy. She wasn’t what you think a typical punk rocker was like. She actually wrote a song which was very true to her character called, “Why Can’t Life Be Pink And Fluffy?” Hahahahaha!!!
She was allergic to animal fur, but she would always rescue animals as a child. That was her vibe. She became a vegetarian at 12 before she joined the Hare Krishna movement. My nan became a vegetarian when she did. She was animal rights as well. She went to the library and found a vegetarian cookbook made in California. Hahaha!
My mum loved the U.S. When she got married to my dad, she took a Greyhound bus across country. She spent a lot of time in Oakland, Orange County, and San Diego. She loved the positivity of Americans compared to the English.
PKM: Was your mother a single mom?
Celeste: She was a single mum. They had a whirlwind thing. She was married to my dad before I was born, but they had only known each other for six months. I was born about six months later and they split up about two years later. I grew up with just my mum for the first eight years of my life. My mum joined the Hare Krishna movement when I was six months old. I spent my early childhood there in the community.
PKM: In a temple?
Celeste: You can call it that or an ashram. It was a country estate, like a manor house in the countryside. There were many other kids there to play with which was quite nice, we all went to school within the compound. There were a lot of things that weren’t that cool about it as well. When I was eight years old, I went to live with my grandmother in Brixton. It was the same house that my mum had grown up in. Stayed there until I was fifteen and then went back to live with my mum who had since left the Hare Krishnas and was living in South London.
PKM: Did your mother shave her head while in the community?
Celeste: It’s very sexist actually. The women are required to keep their hair long. It’s frowned upon to cut your hair or even wear it loose. It has to be worn in a plat.
PKM: I’ve only seen Kari Krishnas in Union Square with shaved heads with a little tail.
Celeste: Yes. It’s kind of silly but it’s supposed to represent… when you are going to heaven, you would be pulled up by that tail. Haha!
PKM: Oh wow! Your mother was so cool to me because she was a feminist but also an entertaining punk rocker. I like that she didn’t feel like she didn’t have to have her tits out onstage to be noticed. She was completely herself. She must’ve raised you with those morals.
Celeste: The big complication to that was that she joined the Hare Krishna movement. Yes, her politics were very much feminist when she was in the X- Ray Spex. You cannot be a devout Kari Krishna and be a feminist. That is a contradiction. You could also argue, that you can’t be a part of any religion and be a feminist because these are all patriarchal systems where men are the leaders.
PKM: Do you think she joined because she felt like she needed some support from a community since she was a single mother? Maybe to help with her sanity or maybe she thought her child might need spirituality. I’m sure there was a pure reason why she started.
Celeste: Yes, I think so. She had a serious breakdown at the end of X- Ray Spex. When the band was at its height and she was at her peak, she had a nervous breakdown. She was later diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I believe the breakdown was caused largely by being in a successful band. It wasn’t a good place for her. My mother was very sensitive.
PKM: It seems like some people might have a little breakdown with drugs but then come back strong. Then there are others like Britney Spears, who dive off the deep end. It seems like it’s true what they say about fame being hard. The reviews and certain people are against you.
Celeste: It’s a lot. Because they broke up early, after only one album, people don’t think of them as being a successful commercial band, but they were. They were a pop punk band in the U.K. at least. They were in the tabloids, they were on Top Of The Pops. They appealed to the teeny-bopper crowd. The average age was 12, 13, 14 years old. They had a lot of attention. She was also mixed race. She had a completely different look. She really stood out from everyone.
She was half Somali and half English. She was quite famous even though it didn’t last very long. The BBC made a documentary about her, Who Is Poly Styrene? Even though the attention was mainly positive, it freaked her out a little bit. The touring. Those early punk gigs were very aggressive. People spitting constantly at you. She would be grabbed and pulled and kissed. There were no boundaries at those early punk gigs. She was only a teenager as well. She felt like it was going to battle every time.
PKM: Plus she was the person they were all staring at.
Celeste: She wasn’t a natural. She had to work hard on being a confident stage person. She had problems with her manager. Creepy guys around. Racism is the main thing she went through. Sexism. She had all these really hard life experiences growing up. I think that’s what led her to join the Hare Krishnas. It was an escape route and it was very blissful, it seemed, and peaceful.
PKM: I think most of us feel like the Krishnas are positive, do-gooders, although I know you lived it, so you had a different experience.
Celeste: She fell for that and believed in it. She was critical of consumerism, and materialism. There was a match as far as what she believed in.
PKM: I heard that when you are bi-polar and unmedicated, that you think small things have enormous meanings so maybe that’s why she jumped in to bringing her child all the way to the country.
Celeste: Definitely. I think the aspects of her character that enabled her to be Poly Styrene and to start this band… She created the band herself, made all the artwork for the band, wrote all the lyrics, she created this character, Poly Styrene…. To do all of that at such a young age, I think the bi-polar aspect of her character allowed her to be a great artist but it also gave her that spiritual inclination more than others. She was always psychic, she said she was, I was always skeptical.
PKM: Did you ever encounter any mental illness of your own?
Celeste: It was something I was always really worried about growing up. My grandmother also had depression, not bi-polar. It never got to a psychotic level, but she suffered from depression in her 20s. She actually spent seven years in an institution. This was in the 1940s and 1950s. She left that institution and never had any problems again. She never took medicine but she went through the whole electric shock therapy.
PKM: Wow. You would think that would make things worse..
Celeste: She generally enjoyed her time in the hospital. There was dance therapy. She stayed there through choice a lot longer than she needed to. My nan was in an institution and my mother was in and out of institutions, so I was thinking, “Am I next?” but touch wood, I’m okay. I guess I went through a bit of an OCD thing for a while where I would wash my hands a lot.
Growing up with my mom, I became an expert at seeing the signs of the sickness. One thing all bi-polar people have in common, is that they can’t sleep well. I’m very lazy and sleep well. I’m really good at taking care of myself. If I ever feel anxious or unsettled, I’ll just go away and disconnect from everyone.
X Ray Spex – Identity
PKM: You look very young, but you are very mature. Do you think that is because you were the parent and your mother was more of the child?
Celeste: Yes. I definitely was.
PKM: The dynamic was that way with my mother as well, She never worked and had abusive men around. In a sense, there are good things about it. Unfortunately, you didn’t get to be a kid and be reckless, but at the same time you are always going to be okay because you’re used to being on top of things. I would say there are more pros than cons.
Celeste: I would definitely agree and it sets you up well for dealing with tough situations. When my friends are stressing about something, I am able to see the grand scheme of things and know that it’s not that big a deal. What I really appreciate about my mother and my mother’s journey in life is that she was going through hell every day internally in her mind. The fact that we don’t have to be in constant psychological battle with ourselves, we are all living amazing lives basically. She had invasive thoughts constantly.
PKM: I’ve also heard that it’s hard to grow up mixed race when you are young because if you are black and getting bullied, you can run to the black kids and they will have your back and identify and vice versa, but if you are mixed, sometimes both sides don’t accept you.
Celeste: My mom was born in 1957, so growing up mixed race in the early 1960s England at that time was… There were a few mixed-race children, but it was a new thing. It was really frowned upon. To the extent that my grandmother received the worst verbal abuse, my mum too, but my mum was physically attacked loads of times. My mum grew up fighting. She was only 5’1, so very tiny, but she was very tough. She was fragile in many ways, but extremely tough. To be quite sensitive, but to have to always defend yourself. She was artistic but having to be street smart and survive. I think that would drive anyone quite mad.
PKM: Was there pressure on your grandmother to go away and have an abortion or give Poly up for adoption?
Celeste: Interesting you say that. My grandmother’s parents were very old, so by the time my mum was born, they had both died. I can guarantee they wouldn’t have been happy from what I was told about them. Her father was Victorian, super conservative. He believed the man was in control of the house and the woman belonged in the kitchen. He definitely wouldn’t have wanted any racial mixing. My grandfather, who was Somali, he told my grandmother, “You need to have an abortion.” He didn’t want to have children. Then he suggested that she give the child to one of his relatives in Somalia. He never married. He wasn’t into that lifestyle. He sent money. He was a seaman so he worked on the docks. He wasn’t in the picture.
PKM: Did your mom have anger about it?
Celeste: A lot. My grandfather would visit once a week and send money, but he didn’t want to marry my grandmother. I think she was angry about that because she cared about her mum. My mum split up with my dad early on. I was kind of brought up to not like my dad. My mum always transmitted this kind of negative impression of him. She had to hear her mum being sad and angry growing up. I think a lot of that was justified. He was kind of an asshole. He told my nan lots of lies. He said he had a wife in Somalia, and that’s why he couldn’t marry her. Which wasn’t true. She really believed it. He just wanted to get laid regularly with the same person, but not marry. They had two kids together. My nan was 30 (which is not old at all nowadays) and desperate to get pregnant.
PKM: How was your nan able to survive raising Marian, a.k.a Poly, alone?
Celeste: People called her Marie or Poly later in life. They lived in a council state which is like the projects to you in the States. There was a playground and community center inside. My nan didn’t get any money from the state, there wasn’t the benefit system that we have now. There were free nurseries back then. So she worked as a legal secretary. From the age of six on, my mum was a latchkey kid. That community was good because all the kids were together. You could go to the neighbors’ house for lunch or dinner if your mum wasn’t home. My mum was in charge as was the oldest. She has a brother two years younger and a sister four years younger but her sister had a different father. She would cook for her younger siblings. I think that’s why she was able to do all she did really young. She was an old soul.
PKM: Did your mother tell you stories about the old punk days?
Celeste: I’ve learned a lot myself writing the book. We interviewed so many people. I found out a lot of stuff that I didn’t know. We interviewed Don Letts who was there when it happened. My mum was a little bit obsessed with John Lydon. She had a crush on him. The worst thing my mum did constantly was get obsessed with people when it was obviously not going anywhere. That was her bi-polar disorder. The Sex Pistols were the only punk band that she really did respect and like. So she was looking for respect as an equal from him which she never got. Another factor maybe for her breakdown was an incident she went through. John Lydon lived in this house on a street called Gunter Grove in Fulham. It was a big house and the place to be if you were in that scene. One day, Don Letts, Sid Vicious, and John Lydon were hanging out there. She knocked on the door uninvited. That was something she would do. She would show up anywhere if she felt like doing so. They let her in and they could see that she was unwell. They were having a party, smoking dope or whatever. She sat in a corner being totally ignored and something switched inside of her. So she went to the bathroom and shaved her head. They were all freaked out by that. I could tell Don Letts felt really guilty that they weren’t able to help her. Maybe they were making fun of her. Somebody called her manager, who then turned up at the door with a bunch of guys in white suits and took her to the mental hospital.
PKM: Oh no…
Celeste: Shaving your head is a big deal as a woman. She should have been more respected as an artist by her contemporaries.
PKM: Punk was supposed to be about smashing the old ideals. You would think that women would’ve been accepted.
Celeste: The reality was it was a boy’s club. If you were a girl, you were allowed to join, but you were still secondary.
PKM: Like Steve Jones would talk about how fat Nancy Spungen was, even though he had sex with her.
Celeste: So even if you were in a successful band, you were seen as a bit of a groupie if you were a girl. My mum was trying to go against the idea of selling sex to be popular. She made a conscious decision to not show off. She was a very beautiful woman and had huge boobs and could have showed them off if she wanted to. Before the punk movement, she was a disco babe who was quite flirtatious. So she made a conscious choice, but was also ignored because of that.
PKM: Was there racism in the music industry?
CeleSte: Yes, as a whole. People either assumed she was white, or they just wanted to ask her about race constantly.
PKM: Oh, that sucks. It reminds me of Basquiat. He was always asked, “Do you feel you’re a black man’s artist?” All of that.
Celeste: She was the only black person in punk at that time.
PKM: So she was fetishized as a novelty. Did she turn to drugs?
Celeste: She smoked a lot if weed. She thought excessive use of weed may have led to her bi-polar breakdown. She would drink to get onstage. To get a bit of Dutch courage. I did the same thing when I was a performer. Then she would be wound up after the show, and smoke to come down. One story she told me, which could have been a catalyst for her breakdown. The X-Ray Spex went to New York and got a residency at CBGB. That was a huge deal for them. They were one of the few bands from the U.K. to get a residency. They did really well and there were a lot of people there: Richard Hell and the Blondie people. It was packed every night and I think my mum felt really overwhelmed there. They were staying at a low budget hotel off Times Square.
PKM: Filled with hookers probably. CBGB had barely any windows, dog shit on the ground, bathrooms near the stage. It was probably hot and sticky inside…
Celeste: Yeah. They would hear gun shots nightly. London wasn’t as rough then. There were bad parts but not on that level. They were kids, so they felt overwhelmed. The fandom was more invasive there. People would come up to her and give her bits of plastic. Being very in her face. They were somewhat nice, but she felt like they only related to her based on the persona she had created. Everything she wrote about consumerism in her music, was very amplified there. She was exaggerating in her lyrics, but when she got to the U.S. she thought it was exactly what she was describing. The drugs were much harder in New York. Speed was the drug of choice for punks in the U.K. along with weed and alcohol. In New York, it was heroin and cocaine. They were going to parties night after night. Someone gave her something to smoke and she kind of broke. She started having hallucinations.
PKM: Maybe PCP?
Celeste: When they got back to England, they had a gig in a small town in the North of England. She was seeing pink U.F.O.’s everywhere and told a journalist. So the next day it was in all the papers.
PKM: Don’t you think the swastika symbols that certain punks wore in 1970’s U.K. was meant as shock value as opposed to true racism?
Celeste: I agree, but at the same time it’s distasteful and if you are doing it for shock value and to pose… because essentially that’s what it is.
PKM: It’s very lame.
Celeste: My mom was very critical of that aspect of punk. Not taking these seriously enough and playing with imagery that has a very serious history.
PKM: What is crazier is that they were closer to the generation which went through the Holocaust then we are now.
Celeste: A lot of it was posing and not genuine. John Lydon and the Sex Pistols were into the shock value. Lydon would be in favor of Trump and Brexit now, for example, because it is shocking.
PKM: Who are you interviewing for this documentary?
Celeste: It’s quite exhaustive, the list. I interviewed Kathleen Hanna, Nina Cherry, Pauline Black, Thurston Moore, Don Letts, so many old friends and family. I went to NYC for the first time two years ago to film for my documentary and visited John Varvato’s, where CBGB used to be.
For me, the thing I enjoyed most, was interviewing young Somali people. There is a list of famous people from Somalia and my mum is on that list. There are a lot of negative stuff associated with that country: famine, pirates, civil war, terrorists, it’s a 99% Muslim country… So X-Ray Spex have gotten popular with the Somali people, as she is a positive role model for them. I got to ask these kids what Poly Styrene meant to them. Which was very cool.
PKM: You are still working on the documentary? Have you tried pitching it?
Celeste: Yes. We did a crowd funding campaign which was successful but now we need more money. You have to pay for music, archives… You have to work with producers. It’s soul destroying asking for arts funding to help out with the film. You are filling out forms that take months to complete and then you don’t get it. Sales agents will research the market and see how sellable the film is. Then they will say the X-Ray Spex are not as big as the Sex Pistols, so investors don’t want to invest. We have to convince them that they aren’t throwing their money into a deep, dark pit. Haha! We will probably just have to do it D.I.Y. and find our own sources of money. We will get there though. I’m quite confident.
PKM: Where can people find your book?
Celeste: The book in the U.K. was published in March and can be found on Amazon and it’s been selling quite well. It’s called Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story and will be available in the U.S. in September. I am excited about the U.S. publication because I organized an exhibition of my mum’s artwork in Brixton and we are taking it to the U.S. to coincide with the book.
PKM: Are you doing any talks?
Celeste: Yes. We are going to do Q & A’s. We had a big one at the British Library July 4th with Jordan and there will be some in the U.S.
PKM: You are so funny. I can’t wait to go to those events!