Poly Styrene: Non Recyclable Plastic
Oh Poly you brace-faced pioneer, plastic wrapped princess of punk. To celebrate the release of the book Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story and the opening of Identity! A Poly Styrene Retrospective, John William pays tribute to the Warrior in Woolworths and fills in the gaps with Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell.
Words JOHN WILLIAM
I had been listening to, and enjoying all the classic boy punk stuff. The testosterone loaded, guitar thrashing been-to-Borstal sound. It sort of matched how I felt, but it was always a bit of a sample-sale jumper. Disappointing. Itchy. Something you know doesn’t look great but that you persevere with bloody-minded. That was how I wore boy punk. I really didn’t want to be a poser, and I did get it, it just didn’t fit right. It didn’t answer any of the questions I had at fifteen years old.
I bought a Live at the Roxy compilation reduced to £1 from Music Zone – a fluorescent stickered discount CD and video franchise up North. All my usual suspects were on it: Sham… Buzzcocks… Damned. It was a hot summer and I put it on fuzzily loud when my parents were out and enjoyed the faster more fucked up versions of the punk sing along songs I already knew. Wearing M&S underpants and left-over eye pencil (MAC ‘Prunella’) I collapsed onto my bed to the closing white noise of The Adverts Bored Teenagers. The crackle of the next song began, and I heard her voice for the first time. “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard…” It all happened so fast. For one and a half minutes my adolescent frame wriggled in bliss, took hold by a saxophone wielding succubus.
Popping on my X-ray Spex made the world shift into dayglo focus, everything else could go in the bin. On finding Poly Styrene I realised why I couldn’t commit to the punk stuff – it was all of those angry boys. Just the same as the ones I’d spent a life loathing. Toxic manspreading jism spurting degenerates. At the back of the bus. Outside the school gates. One time, aged fifteen, I was stood at a bus stop and out of a Ford Cortina a Red Bull huffing scally hurled an uncooked potato at me. Moments later a police van slowed down as it passed, windows winding down. I thought the officers were going to ask if I was OK but instead I was subjected to a primate chorus of abuse. The next two bus drivers did not stop for me. Part of me had always known the only thing separating the boys in Sham from the gangs of scallies on every corner of Widnes were leather jackets and monkey boots. I wasn’t willing to pledge subcultural alliance. Then Poly barges in. Angry. Funny. Train track braces clamped to her teeth. Mixed race. Not posh. Screaming. All this and looking like a neon Bon Marche clad storm trooper single handedly trying to kamikaze the Nuremburg Rally. Listening to X-Ray Spex I pictured Poly in a PVC Maggie Thatcher twinset, pulling sticks of dynamite out of her handbag and lobbing them through the window of Mens’ Clubs, kicking Lacoste clad scallies in the balls (with Ferragamos spray painted rancid green.) Finally. I was not alone.
“Did Poly tell you about the time she saw a UFO in Doncaster?” I ask Celeste Bell, daughter of Poly Styrene, co-author of Dayglo! And co-curator of Identity! “Yeah, definitely. I found out about that because my mum kept old newspaper clippings, and I came across the story about that when I was twelve. I was like ‘oh my god, what was this?’ And she kind of explained what happened. According to my mum, she definitely did see a UFO. I already knew my mum had a massive breakdown during the peak of the X-Ray Spex period… so I guess the truth lies somewhere between the two. But she really seriously believed that she was psychic and that she experienced a lot of paranormal experiences… and that led her to being misdiagnosed with different mental health labels.” That psychic sensitivity is perhaps what made Poly’s lyrics worlds ahead of the other punk groups. The songs on Germfree Adolescents (Art-I-Ficial, Plastic Bag, I Am a Poseur, The Day the World Turned Dayglo…) could have been written this morning. Songs blinding the male gaze, exploring intersectional identities, eulogizing a plastic wrapped dead planet. “I drove my polypropylene car on wheels of sponge / Then pulled into a wimpy bar to have a rubber bun.”
“When I was interviewing people for the book, those who had known her or who had been inspired by her work, they described her as an antenna. She would literally just absorb everything that was around her, use the information to create something new. But that openness was also very overwhelming.” Celeste began working on the book after Poly died in 2011, leaving behind a huge archive of lyrics, artwork and photographs. “I have such vivid memories from being a kid of my mum typing endless lyrics. She also had this ‘Diary of the 70s’ – written in retrospect of the whole punk movement. In it she had written a diary entry to go with each particular song from X-Ray Spex.” Putting together the book led onto the making of the documentary I Am A Cliché and the exhibition. Celeste had no experience of book writing or film making or curating. “I guess my mom was like that, she just threw herself into projects without worrying whether she has any kind of formal training. Sometimes it works out really well, you know, it’s good to give it a go.”
“I guess my mom was like that, she just threw herself into projects without worrying whether she has any kind of formal training. Sometimes it works out really well, you know, it’s good to give it a go.”
Did having such an unconventional mum make for an unconventional upbringing? “Yeah, it was absolutely unconventional until I went to live with my grandmother.” Celeste was born into the Hare Krishna movement and lived in a commune with Poly for the first eight years of her life: Bhaktivedanta Manor, donated to the Krishna’s by George Harrison. “I guess nowadays a lot of the things I experiences are very mainstream. Being a vegetarian, buying your food from health food stores, doing yoga and meditation and crystals. All of that stuff is popular now but growing up it was my reality and it was really unusual. Before I went to the Hare Krishna school my mum would send me to primary school with a thermos filled with either houmous or guacamole and a piece of bread. The kids sitting next to me would be like ‘what are you eating’ with their ham and cheese sandwiches.”
What was life like growing up in a Hare Krishna boarding school? “We were often segregated – boys and girls. And from an early age we were very much indoctrinated into the beliefs of the whole Krishna movement. It was heavily religious and there was no room for any kind of questioning what we’d been told. I definitely had an issue with that. I still do. But on the other hand, there were amazing things like the amount of freedom we had. We were in this country estate running in the woods and camping outside. A lot of the adults were so caught up in their Hare Krishna worship and the saintly life they were trying to lead, they weren’t that great at looking after the kids, so it meant that we had a lot of opportunities to just have fun without without too much control.”
Coming of age in a pre-internet world, two decades after Punk had been and gone, it was almost impossible to find anything out about Poly beyond the much thumbed CD booklets blue tacked to my wall. Old timer friends of mine alluded to Poly simply disappearing into the Krishna incense smoke. “I guess the thing is that my mum never stopped making music. She was always Poly Styrene. She was always writing and performing. For a while her work became Hare Krishna inspired. I think this idea that she disappeared, she would want to question that narrative. The reality was that the music world didn’t want to know. She felt rejected by the music industry and maybe by her fans to an extent, those early fans… irrespective what happened with her spirituality she had wanted to change the musical direction. All of her albums after Germfree Adolescents were a complete departure from punk. She was an artist, she wanted to evolve and do something new. And, you know, she received such a hostile reaction. My mum was a stubborn person by nature and very tough and that kind of made her even more resolved: to just do what she wanted to do and not care at all whether people liked it or not. That’s something that’s really the most inspirational thing about my mum, it’s such a brave thing to do at such a young age. Even joining the Krishnas was a rebellion. ‘Oh, that Poly has lost the plot,’ the more people would laugh at her the more she would be tempted to do things her own way.”
For me Poly Styrene became something of a cultural skeleton key, unlocking different worlds from Riot Grrrl to John Waters movies. Tracey Thorn recently wrote “Poly Styrene’s voice went through me like a stiletto – and she woke me up.” From Boy George to Beth Ditto, she has inspired generations of misfits and broken biscuits, leaving an indelible dayglo footprint though culture. I hope that Poly’s impact on the world won’t fade. I hope like a Styrofoam cup that will never return to the ground, she’ll always be here reminding us to be noisy and make change and wear odd socks. Non Recyclable Plastic.