A new documentary film, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, clears up some of the mystery around the remarkable biracial woman born Marian Elliott. The film, directed by Paul Sng and Celeste Bell, Poly’s daughter, is also a welcome reminder of the power of X Ray Spex and London punk scene to shape cultural conversations. It arrives soon after the appearance of Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, co-authored by Bell and Zoë Howe. Neither portrait flinches from the darker aspects of Poly Styrene’s struggles with mental illness, racism and sexism, or her finding refuge as a Hare Krishna devotee. Richie Unterberger spoke with Howe about Poly Styrene for PKM.
Few singles of the punk era, or indeed any era, boast as memorable an introduction as X-Ray Spex’s debut single. “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard,” lead singer Poly Styrene solemnly states. “But I think”—and then her voice rises to a shriek—”OH BONDAGE UP YOURS! 1-2-3-4!”
As the band launches into the song with fuzzy power chords and careening saxophone, Styrene half-chants and half-sings with a giddy rage that often ascends to a creepy wail. As Vivien Goldman, one of the first British rock journalists to cover the punk scene, marvels in the new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, “That sound cut through a sort of glass ceiling of what women singers could do with their voice.”
“I was just talking about all forms of bondage, repression, everything else,” explained Styrene at the time in an archival clip featured in the film. “Sexual bondage tends from that. It’s all part of the same thing, really.” To do with sexual bondage, she was asked? “To do with all bondage,” was her firm reply.
Only twenty when “Oh! Bondage Up Yours!” was unleashed in late 1977, Styrene burned through the early UK punk explosion with four mid-charting X-Ray Spex singles in the next year and a half, as well as the band’s 1978 album Germfree Adolescents. Then X-Ray Spex split and after a much more subdued, jazzier 1980 solo LP, Styrene disappeared from the public eye. There would be comebacks on stage and record, as well as an X-Ray Spex reunion, in the 1990s and early 21st century before her death at the age of 53 in 2011. But for many listeners, her interrupted career remained mysterious, as was the woman behind the Poly Styrene pseudonym.
Much of the mystery is unraveled in Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, co-directed by Paul Sng and Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell, who supplies much of the narration. There’s quite a bit of vintage footage, ranging from sharp color to blurry black and white, of Poly in performance. There are also interviews—heard in voiceovers rather than the more standard talking heads—from a wealth of people who knew or were influenced by her. Also examined are her songwriting’s frequent focus upon identity and consumerism; the inspiration she provided for other women of color in the punk/new wave scene; and her feeling an outsider owing to her mixed-race ancestry.
On the more distressing side, also documented are her mental problems, which resulted in a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia rather than acute bipolar disorder; how X-Ray Spex’s trip to New York and well received gigs at CBGB nonetheless spurred some inner turmoil; and her entrance into the Hare Krishna community after X-Ray Spex split. Her return to musicmaking years later, and rapprochement of sorts with her daughter after Bell was largely raised by others, gets the bulk of attention in the final minutes.
Both the documentary and the companion book of sorts that appeared prior to the film, Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, were co-written by Bell and veteran rock writer Zoë Howe, author of books on the Slits, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Wilko Johnson, and Stevie Nicks. Howe discussed the movie and book extensively with me in our recent interview, by which time the documentary had screened in the US and become available for streaming. (As of this writing, it can be streamed for free in many regions of the US on kanopy.com and hoopladigital.com if you have a current public library card.)
From Marian Elliott to Poly Styrene
When X-Ray Spex burst into the public eye, Poly Styrene looked as different as she sounded. Born to a white British mother and a Somali-born father as Marian Elliott in 1957, she was wearing braces when the band made its splash, which must be almost unique among young celebrities of the time. (In one vintage clip, she’s even asked if the braces were a prop, which they weren’t.) She also sang onstage in a wide and sometimes wild variety of gaudily colored outfits and jaunty hats, which some of her fans found as liberating a departure from the standard image of a woman rock performer as her singing was.
“When Celeste first approached me with the idea to put a book together using the archive she’d inherited, it was clear she was keen to present her mother not only as a punk queen but also to spotlight her other creative sides,” says Howe. “Her artwork, her writing, her fashion and design ideas, the fact that she’d designed the X-Ray Spex logo, for example, and directed the sleeve art – not a lot of people knew about that. We talked quite a bit in the early stages about celebrating her as a style pioneer as well as a trailblazing lyricist. There were so many facets to what made Poly an interesting and important figure in pop culture.”
Marion, to use the spelling she’d prefer in much of her adult life, was raised by her legal secretary mother in modest circumstances. Like many youngsters born to parents of different ethnicities, she and her family suffered plenty of discrimination growing up in London, not gaining full acceptance in either the white or black communities. As her sister Hazel Emmons bluntly states in the film, “My mum never had no friends as such, because they just saw her as a black man’s whore.”
It’s still not too widely known that before X-Ray Spex formed, a teenaged Styrene put out a reggae-flavored single in 1976 as Mari Elliott. Also not so well known is the role that Falcon Stuart played as both manager and boyfriend in guiding her early career. “Sometimes she’d say he was the love of her life,” remembers Bell in the movie. “Other times that he’d ruined it.” Others interviewed for the documentary share mixed memories of Stuart, like promoter and writer Rina Vergano, who viewed him as “a bit like her patron in the Renaissance sense more than a manager.”
In one of many quotes in the Dayglo book that weren’t fit into the film, X-Ray Spex saxophonist Lora Logic spells it out in more painful detail: “She used to come home and he would be with other ladies. That freaked her out. In fact, I think, with hindsight, that’s what caused her first serious emotional problems. I don’t really know what to say about Falcon Stuart. Maybe as little as possible.” In a separate comment she adds, “Falcon wasn’t really musical. He just wanted to hear success.”
Like quite a few young British musicians, Styrene gravitated toward punk, especially after seeing the Sex Pistols perform on the Hastings Pier on July 3, 1976. It wasn’t just the music that was drawing in women and people of color such as Poly. “In a way, we were embraced by punk, we were part of punk, because it was full of people who nobody else wanted,” notes Rhoda Dakar, singer with the Bodysnatchers and then the Special AKA, in her interview. “We were welcome because we were already outsiders.”
However, there was an eye toward exploitation even in punk’s early days. In her voiceover, Logic remembers Stuart’s thinking as X-Ray Spex came together: “Two girls together, it’s gonna be lucrative.”
X-Ray Spex’s Influence
Whatever some behind-the-scenes motives on part of the music business might have been, there’s no doubt Styrene had a healthy positive impact on other aspiring punkers, especially among women. “The first time I heard Poly’s voice, it was like an awakening for me,” Neneh Cherry declares in the film. “Poly being a woman of color on that scene was another reason why she became a huge role model for me. I actually started singing because of her.”
On the other hand, other women in the documentary acknowledge how difficult it could be to get your voice heard. “A lot of men in the media didn’t want women to step into that place,” says the Raincoats’ Gina Birch. “To be given more power, more say, and more visibility.” Adds the Selecter’s Pauline Black, “It’s always very difficult, particularly for women, to make music that has any social commentary to it without it appearing, particularly if you’re black, that you’re the archetypal young, angry black female.”
Quite a few such voices are heard in the film, whether they collaborated with Styrene directly or were more peers or colleagues. Yet more are heard in Dayglo, structured as an oral history with comments that are able to go into considerably greater depth. “There were lots of reasons” for their inclusion, notes Howe, “not least because Poly is sadly no longer here to give her perspective and look back on her life with us. But it’s also always vital to give context and different viewpoints, so we wanted to include as many relevant voices as possible, whether they were fans, family members, bandmates, contemporaries, friends…
“The journalists we included weren’t just journalists, they were friends and fierce supporters of Poly’s – John Robb [of early British punk band the Membranes and now an author of many rock history books], for example, and Vivien Goldman. They loved Poly, and had that personal take, but they were also able to put the stories we were including into a wider social and cultural context. Then you have takes from people who were at the eye of the storm, such as [X-Ray Spex bassist] Paul Dean and Lora Logic, who could give a very close and personal account, but from a point of view of someone who was, at the time, young and wrapped up in the maelstrom of it all.
“People like Kathleen Hanna, on the other hand, were hugely inspired by Poly and took that attitude and sound forward for a new generation, and spoke eloquently about what Poly’s empowering and emboldening creative legacy and attitude meant to women of her generation and beyond. So everyone’s take played a vital part in piecing together the picture.”
Poly Styrene and Lora Logic
As novel and exciting as it was for two women to be fronting a punk rock band, Lora Logic wasn’t in the X-Ray Spex for long. When I interviewed Styrene in January 1997, she gave this explanation:
“She was in school at the time, she was sixteen. She couldn’t really [tour], she had to finish her education. And when we used to play live, she used to play the saxophone over all my lyrics.” Poly laughed heartily. “I could never hear myself sing! I couldn’t actually discipline her into playing in the spaces when I wasn’t singing. Obviously, when I made the last album [X-Ray Spex’s 1995 record Conscious Consumer, on which Logic appears], she was a bit more easy to work with. Well, I actually told her, ‘Don’t do that again, like you used to! Otherwise this isn’t going to work.’ You know how it is when somebody—they want to be the front person, really. So what they do is they just blow all over your vocals so they have the voice. That used to happen a bit, and that was a bit irritating.”
Different members of bands often have different memories of such splits, and this is no exception. “I was quite shocked when I was asked to leave,” is Logic’s version in the Dayglo book. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. Everything was going so well, there was good chemistry. I wasn’t going out of my way to overstep her position. I was just the sax player, after all, I had a couple of backing vocals but as far as I was concerned, she was the upfront vocal talent in the band and it was her band. I was never trying to usurp her in any way. So yeah, quite disappointed…I was heartbroken.” She soon formed Essential Logic, which notched their own fair degree of acclaim with an album and several EPs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Logic isn’t heard much in the movie, although there’s an entire chapter on her in Dayglo. Even considering there’s no way a 95-minute movie can squeeze in as much material as a 200-page coffee table book, I tell Howe I wish there was more of Lora and how she left X-Ray Spex in the film. “I would agree,” she replies. “Lora Logic is fascinating and such a singular creative force in her own right.”I have been working with Lora on the sleevenote material, to which Celeste has also contributed, for a new box set which is coming out soon, and just revisiting that amazing music has been so exhilarating.
“There was simply more space to include her contributions in the book, and so I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to open up her part of the story more. Her importance in X-Ray Spex was tremendous, not just as a musician but also a friend and ally to Poly. It’s tragic that that particular road didn’t run smoothly, as they needed each other – certainly I think Poly needed Lora.
“Lora’s part in the sound of the band, and her creativity, was massively important and really marked them out as different, exciting, wild and strange. Punk hadn’t really embraced the saxophone, it’s fair to say. So there was something kind of brazen about having a 15-year-old girl with this enormous sax just blaring away brilliantly through all these powerhouse punk songs.”
Although it’s unfortunate there aren’t more records with Logic in the lineup, in some ways this worked out for the best, with Lora forming a respected band that might have given her more creative space than X-Ray Spex could allow. At any rate, Logic and Styrene’s paths would cross again in just a few years, in a way neither they nor their fans ever would have predicted.
Consumerism Meets New York
Consumer products were often satirized or mocked in Poly Styrene’s songs, and inspired her stage name, according to an account she gives an interviewer in I Am a Cliché. It was chosen from the Yellow Pages, she maintains, as she wanted “something around today, something plastic and synthetic…Plastic, disposable — that’s what pop stars are meant to be. Therefore, I might as well send it up.”
Yet, as Bell highlights in the movie, “She wrote songs critiquing consumerism, but she was the ultimate shopaholic.” Is this a contradiction, or even hypocritical? Not in Howe’s view. “What’s interesting is that, in most cases, she isn’t really criticizing consumerism. She is observing it, satirizing it, and playing with it – pitching herself as a ‘plastic princess’ super heroine and using humor to experiment with those themes. Poly was very much aware that she was a consumer, and that was the society she lived in. But she could detach sufficiently to observe it in a wry and often surrealist way, like an artist. The way she works with these themes is often quite playful.”
But when X-Ray Spex visited New York to play shows at CBGB in early 1978, she was confronted with consumer culture that was more intense than anything on offer in the UK. To some observers, this marked something of an early turning point in her ability to cope with the demands of surviving in the music business.
“It wasn’t a conscious attempt to be clever,” Styrene says of her consumption-centered lyrics in an interview excerpted for a voiceover in the documentary. “I just thought that I’d write about all these plastic things, because they seemed to be creeping in more and more. Which is why New York totally blew me apart. I saw everything that I’d been writing about in extreme…For them, it wasn’t a joke, the way they lived. For me, it was all a joke…
“When you go there, it’s so bad, that you think, god, if that’s what it’s gonna be like, I don’t want it. The weird thing about all the plastic is that people don’t actually like it. But in order to cope with it, they develop a perverse kind of fondness for it. Which is what I did. I said, ‘I’ll make beautiful because it’s so horrible.’ It’s very perverse, and I realize that. That was what was so frightening about New York.”
Although CBGB was, as Goldman tersely summarizes in the film, “like a stinking toilet of a place,” it was a coup for a British band to get a short residency in the most famous incubator of U.S. punk and new wave. They went over well, too, a young pre-Sonic Youth Thurston Moore getting handed the microphone to sing the “up yours” response to “oh bondage” in the audience. “It was somewhat as if I was being knighted,” he exults in his voiceover.
Yet New York made a mark on Styrene beyond the shock of a city where you could get almost anything and see almost anything advertised on TV for 24 hours a day. “That did destabilize Poly and affect the way she was writing songs,” Paul Dean pronounces in the movie, where he also recalls her being “given something to smoke at a party in New York, and it tipped her over the edge.”
“As Celeste has also said, Poly had been writing about consumerism, but it was only when she went to the U.S. that she really experienced it in an alarmingly full on-way,” says Howe. “Poly was sensitive and being in New York was a bit mind-blowing for her, but she was also feeling isolated within the band, I think. Add to that the thrilling but punishing schedule of their residency at CBGB and what sounded like a sketchy drug-related experience at a party (as Vivien Goldman said, the drug aspect of that scene in New York was heavier than it was in London at that time), it was a bit of a perfect storm.”
As Goldman puts it in her interview, Poly was “resilient, and yet very vulnerable…Her immediate support system of people who really got her was not that large.” Icons of the punk world would tip her closer to the edge back in London.
John Lydon and Rock Against Racism
Styrene apparently had something of a crush on the Sex Pistols’ singer. “I found the drawings of John Lydon extremely touching and sweet,” says Howe. “Beneath the tough punk exterior was an innocent love-struck kid – and the music business is not an easy place for an innocent.”
The punk community wasn’t always easy either, as she found when hanging out with the Sex Pistols themselves. According to Rina Vergano’s account in the movie, on one occasion, Sid “Vicious had locked her in cupboards under the stairs. She asked where the loo was. He tricked her into going into this and slammed the door. He locked her in there for about an hour. She was really, really upset by that.”
On a visit to Lydon’s, as early punk manager/DJ/filmmaker Don Letts adds in his voiceover, she disappeared for half an hour. When she re-emerged, “She’d cut all her hair off. I’ll be honest with you, we were totally insensitive to the moment.” Dean interprets it as a statement of individuality: “She said she didn’t want to be a sex symbol, and she said if she ever thought she was turning into one, she’d shave her hair off. And that’s what she did.” Bell agrees somewhat, but in a qualified manner: “It was a powerful statement, but it was also a cry for help.”
Her head was still shaved when X-Ray Spex made one of their most high-profile appearances at a Rock Against Racism concert before an audience of about 100,000 at London’s Victoria Park on April 30, 1978. Also on the bill were the Clash, the Tom Robinson Band, and Steel Pulse. Falcon Stuart in particular was adamant that she keep her head scarved for X-Ray Spex’s set. Styrene bared her head nonetheless, a possibly risky move given skinhead fashion was heavily associated with youthful followers of the far-right National Front organization.
“I would definitely say the exposure of her shaved head at the RAR show was a turning point in lots of respects,” believes Howe. “From the audience’s point of view it was shocking and completely unexpected. It’s a good point about the connection with skinhead fashion, although if anyone had picked up on that at the time, it probably would have been seen as a mocking gesture rather than anything else. I do think many people saw it as a radical move that connected with her previously stating that if the record industry tried to make her into a sex symbol, she’d shave her head. But while the two do neatly fit together, it would appear to have more to do with a kind of mental unraveling.
“It also seemed to be an act of defiance against her manager Falcon Stuart, who was very keen that she covered her head up and kept it covered. Apparently when she teased on the way to the gig that she was going to show her head, Falcon went ballistic. But when you think about it, she shaved her head as a cry for help, a desperate visual cry of ‘notice me! acknowledge me!’ It’s about being heard, isn’t it? Heard and seen and understood.
“And to be faced with people just trying to kind of tidy it all back up and conceal what was happening as if she was a naughty child doing something inconvenient, rather than try to understand what she was feeling, it must have just made things worse. There was so little real understanding or discourse about mental health in those days. In a sense, in this country at least, it was still all a bit Victorian – cover it up, hide it away.”
More alarming to those around her was her assertion, after a concert in Doncaster, that she’d seen a UFO. “She said at breakfast time the next day, ‘I saw a flying saucer outside,’” remembers Dean in the documentary. “‘It told me to give up the electric and plastic way of life, and go for a simple life’…In the car, she started taking her clothes off. She said, ‘I want to go back. I want to be Marion. I want to go back.’”
X-Ray Spex would soon break up, and Styrene was at one point hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. According to Bell, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, when she was actually suffering from acute bipolar disorder—a condition that still isn’t widely acknowledged or understood among the public, and was much less so more than forty years ago. In a voiceover interview in the film, Poly remembers being told, “‘You will never be able to work again.’ That is a very hard thing to be told at 21.”
Bell offers this opinion in the film: “Poly Styrene had to die so Marion Elliott could survive.”
The Hare Krishna Years
Styrene’s break with the music industry in the early 1980s wasn’t immediate and complete. She put out a 1980 solo album, Translucence, which wasn’t what X-Ray Spex fans were expecting, the arrangements shifting closer to cocktail jazz than in-your-face punk. Or, as her husband, Adrian Bell, phrases it in his interview, from “power pop to something almost akin to Joan Armatrading.”
As yet more of a shock, she lived in a Hare Krishna temple for much of the 1980s. “Hare Krishna kind of saved her, in a sense,” states John Robb, who kept in touch with Poly at the time, in his interview. “It gave her another world to exist in. She’s fragile, and I think they provided a family for her, and a comfort. More than punk…the Hare Krishna was a central pillar of her life.” It wasn’t a pillar that could keep her off the edge at all times, as according to the documentary, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns in the temple.
As a double shock, in the temple she was reunited with Lora Logic, who’d also become a Hare Krishna devotee. “She was very mentally unstable there,” Logic remarks in her interview. “She looked so disturbed…she used to do some wacky things in the temple. I mean, she’d be like in the temple room with no clothes on. She’d be chasing celibate monks around, they were in their pajamas. She went to India, and she’d have to be put on a plane and flown home because she completely lost it. I think a lot of it was just due to a lack of sleep. She didn’t sleep. She didn’t know how to look after herself very well, so she was never quite in her body. She was always somewhere else.”
This phase might baffle or even disappoint some X-Ray Spex fans, but Howe felt it was important to include in the documentary and book. “Her spiritual side was also one that had always intrigued me, and it’s a really important part of who she was,” she says. “She was always a seeker, but I think her spirituality and her raw sensitivity (she believed she was psychic) is something that a lot of people couldn’t really understand, or didn’t give the time to try.
“She struggled with mental health problems throughout her life, and this sense of alienation undoubtedly exacerbated those issues, as well as the inherent racism and sexism she faced. So it was essential that we looked at that in a sensitive way. Not just to put across her story in as full a way as possible, but also because there must be – and are – so many people who feel the same way, but aren’t sure how to process or even put a name to the feelings they are experiencing. People who may identify with Poly’s experiences and take strength and comfort in that connection.”
When I interviewed Styrene in 1997, she stressed that she’d never given up on making music, even if few recordings appeared. “We had a recording studio in the temple, and I wanted to work in the industry, but I kind of got blacklisted because I was a Hare Krishna,” she maintained. “Also, I was known to have had a bit of a nervous breakdown. So that went around too, and that wasn’t very helpful. Because then people thought, ‘well, you know, will she be able to really tour, or will she crack up? Or is she just going to go out there and just be a fanatic?’
“I got labeled as having schizophrenia, because I said that I saw a UFO in an article. I mean, I’m not schizophrenic,” she insisted. “It’s kind of hard to shake that sort of thing off sometimes, when it comes to getting contracts.”
When I tell Howe that Styrene felt she might have been blacklisted for her Hare Krishna ties and ask if this might have something to do with her sparse recorded output for many years, she observes, “I think you have a point there, yes. I am aware that, within the Krishna movement, devotees who were musicians and songwriters were…I don’t want to say obliged, let’s say ‘encouraged’ to ensure their output promoted Krishna consciousness. I think any perceived proselytizing in pop music can be off-putting, to labels, at least.”
Howe does see the Styrene-Logic reunion as a benefit of the Hare Krishna period. “Lora and Poly’s paths would cross again in the Hare Krishnas, which presented them both with a strange but beautiful moment of potential,” she says. “While it could still be difficult, there was clearly a bond there, and they would make music again together both within the Krishna movement and also on Conscious Consumer.”
Life wasn’t easy for Styrene in many respects after she left the temple. There were worries she wasn’t fit to look after her daughter, Celeste, who ended up in custody of Poly’s mother after, as she voices it in I Am Not a Cliché, “a long and bitter court case.” Her hip reputation as a punk icon didn’t ensure survival in the material world, as “she used to joke that being famous and broke was the worst of both worlds.”
Like many who take medication for psychological difficulties, as Bell also states in the film, her mother felt it “had a dampening effect on her creative expression.” When she did start performing live again, “she realized she wouldn’t be able to get through the gig without it. She was terrified that the anxiety of performing live would lead to yet another breakdown.” She did make it onstage, and also managed to put out two solo albums in the 21st century. The last, Generation Indigo, came out just a few weeks before her death on April 25, 2011.
The Making of Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
The Dayglo book came out before the I Am a Cliché documentary, but the film isn’t merely a condensation of the book’s highlights. How was it determined what material was used in which medium?
“We had a lot of material – both in terms of interviews and archive – to work with,” says Howe. “Once I’d put together a (far too long) script with what I felt should be included in the film and made for a coherent chronological order, I handed it over to Celeste and Paul, who made further cuts, changes, additions and so on, as the film project changed over time. In the meantime, I set to work on the book and went through everything we had, flung myself into further research rabbit holes, drew on interview material I had from speaking with Poly myself, and starting piecing together the book into thematic chapters, matching text with suggested pictures and scans from the archive for a scrapbooky feel.
“When the film project started, Paul Sng had the idea that the film should have chapters which would be headed up by letters written by Celeste to her Mum, to punctuate and signpost the story. This ended up evolving, naturally, but the original letters Celeste had written worked well for the book itself. With a book you have a great deal more space to include stories, voices and perspectives that might be great but don’t make the cut in a film because of time etc. But also, the film took its own journey, and is more of an exploration of Celeste’s relationship with her mother than a straight-up ‘the story of’ documentary.
“I was certainly saddened by a lot of what came up in Poly’s story, and the stories Celeste bravely shared of her years growing up with a mother struggling with bipolar were definitely shocking. I guess I just felt this dreadful sense of inevitability as all of these stories unfolded, although one thing I found very heartening was to learn from Celeste that despite years of difficulty and struggle on so many levels, Poly’s final years were the happiest and most stable of her life.”
Rock documentary interviews usually cut between many clips of talking heads reiterating how great (or terrible) the subject is. Hearing the interviews as audio-only voiceover clips as archival footage and photographs fill the screen—an approach also used in another noteworthy recent rock doc, Alison Ellwood’s Laurel Canyon—makes for a refreshing contrast. Did Howe and/or the filmmakers feel this was important to make the film effective?
“This was a decision of Paul Sng’s,” she answers. “I remember us sitting round the table at the British Film Institute cafe talking about it.
He referenced the Oasis documentary, and how well it had worked just using voices and not talking heads. I confess that at the time I thought, ‘Oh no, people want to see people’s faces, their eyes!’ And there was the issue of needing sufficient (often expensive) visual footage to accompany the voices.
“But of course, he was absolutely right to push for that. Many people have subsequently remarked on how effective it was, and I am happy to eat my words! Paul knew that when you see talking heads and they’re being interviewed about things that happened forty years ago, naturally most of them, with respect, look older now, and that discrepancy between past and present can whip us jarringly out of that moment. When we just have the voices to accompany the visuals and the stories, we can time travel more easily!”
Considering the original X-Ray Spex’s short lifespan and merely modest commercial success, it’s a pleasant surprise to see quite a bit of archive footage in the documentary, including live performance at London’s fabled Roxy club and an appearance on the German Muisikladen TV program. “ It was really Celeste and Paul who took on that task [of] sourcing footage,” she acknowledges. “But we were also fortunate that some archive footage was made available to us courtesy of Alice Hiller, Falcon Stuart’s widow, who was also responsible for giving Celeste an archive of images and ephemera of her mother’s that Falcon had kept.”
A previous documentary, Who Is Poly Styrene? (originally broadcast as an episode of BBC television’s Arena series in 1979), was not only a major source of archival clips for Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, but turns out to have been influential in its own right. “Who Is Poly Styrene? was important in so many ways,” emphasizes Howe. “It was one of the ways in which Poly had reached so many people. It was a documentary that was really treasured at the time, then in the ‘90s when the Riot Grrrls discovered it, and again now. It doesn’t just put across a kind of ‘day in the life,’ it conveys a mood.
“I remember watching it many years ago and being really haunted by just how sad and switched off Poly appeared, in a kind of medicated way. I talked about this with Celeste, and it was apparently around the time Poly had been prescribed lithium. Who Is Poly Styrene? may have been a short documentary, but it makes certain things painfully clear, I think, and rather than saying ‘here’s the whole story’, provides us with little doorways that are just ajar, and it’s up to us to push them open if we care to know and understand more.”
Howe also wrote the book Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits, themselves the subject of a worthwhile documentary, 2017’s Here To Be Heard: The Story of the Slits. They too were pioneering women artists in the early British punk and new wave scene, though they lasted somewhat longer than the original X-Ray Spex. Does Zoë have any observations on how the experiences of those women were similar yet different to what Poly Styrene experienced?
“I think one of the key differences was that the Slits were like a girl gang, a dysfunctional family,” she says. “They had each other – as difficult and tense as that could often be – and that was undoubtedly emboldening. But Poly was on her own in many respects. Yes, she had the boys in the band, but they weren’t always able to relate. While she had a great friendship for a while with Lora Logic, that soon became scorched by feelings of insecurity and competition.
“It’s important to remember how young they were, and also that Poly was very influenced by Falcon Stuart. From what I gathered, that relationship did keep Poly somewhat apart during those X-Ray Spex years. The Slits had managers, of course, but I never had the impression there was ever any charismatic Svengali figure trying to control them – I can’t imagine anyone thinking that was a good idea! It just wouldn’t have been possible. They had Ari’s mother, Nora Forster, looking out for them, and her intentions were naturally quite different to Falcon’s for Poly.
“The idea of the unified energy of a group mind, the egregore, is interesting. I think the Slits as a unit was extremely strong in some respects, because that powerful ‘group mind’ energy was like a charging bull. Poly was a very powerful individual, quick-witted and a fighter right from the start, but she was also alone in many ways, often in need of support, compassion and reassurance. I have to acknowledge her mother Joan, because she was a rock for Poly, and Celeste, but that relationship was put through a lot.
“It also has to be said that, while it certainly wasn’t easy for them at times, the Slits were white women, and Poly was bi-racial – she inevitably went through painful experiences and identity crises that would never have affected a white group or a white artist. I often say it, but while punk was for the outsider, Poly was the outsider’s outsider. While that makes her an inspirational figure for so many, it was a lonely place to be, and a difficult path to navigate. But she never compromised, and she was always absolutely herself. And that, in itself, is inspiring and humbling.”