I am a Cliche: The Life and Identity of Poly Styrene
By Beth Reeves
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with the X-Ray Spex. Somewhere back in the late 90’s sitting there in my grandparents’s living room, my neighbor Chris DiTommaso came over to hang out after school. He, so very much like myself, found salvage in music and especially our fast and ever growing love for punk rock. I’ll never forget as right then he opened his backpack and pulled out a tape and put it on and pushed play. Over my stereo came the first words I heard Poly sing:
“I know I'm artificial, but don't put the blame on me
I was reared with appliances in a consumer society
When I put on my make-up, the pretty little masks not me”
X-Ray Spex - Art-I-ficial
That was it, I was hooked. I begged my friend to let me copy his tape so I could play it on repeat and learn all the lyrics. I found myself constantly singing, “I am a poseur and I don't care” and “My mind is like a plastic bag”. Poly was one of the first voices in punk that not only stood out to me as unique but has lyrical content that I connected with.
So of course when I heard that they would be releasing a Poly Styrene film based on her life, I knew I would have to make a night of it. Poly Stryene: I Am A Cliché was showing at The Frida in the beautiful arts district in downtown Santa Ana. The movie was showing at limited release capacity around smaller venues which proved to be intimate because upon arrival that was assigned reading: sold out, as it should.
About Poly Styrene:
Marianne Joan Elliott-Said or better known as “Poly Styrene” was a revolutionary voice in the early years of punk. Although Poly didn’t bother herself with labels or actually see herself much as a “punk” she would embark on a musical legacy that still influences many voices still on stage today. Poly ran away from the house at the age of just 15. She stayed from couch to couch in the Sussex, England flats where she would go to many shows in her self designed wardrobe. Her style caught a lot of attention and she would quickly become well known for it around the scene. Some of her rebellion would be expressed through her fashion as well as in her lyrics, not conforming to the typical sexy front woman façade that was popular at the time in England. She also often got criticized for her body, gender and even race.
Everything would change for Poly Styrene on the night of July 3rd 1976 when a well known punk band would play the Pier Pavillion Hastings on her nineteenth birthday- the band was The Sex Pistols. It was after that day she would put out an add out in the paper to find members to form “The X-Ray Spex. The first lineup would consist of Poly Styrene on vocals, Jak Airport (Jack Stafford) on guitars, Paul Dean on bass, Paul 'B. P.' Hurding on drums, and Lora Logic (born Susan Whitby) on saxophone. Lora would only be featured on one album but the addition to the band added an element to a punk band that was certainly unique and would be a definitive part of the band- besides the most outstanding instrument in my opinion: Poly Styrene‘s voice. Poly not only had a voice that stood out, but lyrics that were powerful and poetic that just seemed to be more thought out than just your typical punk band.
If Poly wasn’t creating art through her love for fashion she was writing lyrics, poems and other thoughts constantly. She could never say enough in her journal, keeping entries since she was a very young teen. Now, her daughter is not only the owner of all of Poly’s very valuable memorabilia but she is also owner of the years and pages of deep and sometimes complicated thoughts. Poly’s daughter reflects on not only her sometimes complicated relationship with her mother but the aftermath of being the daughter of such a well sought after celebrity who never really got to see the benefits and fortune of said fame. This film is a important puzzle piece to the story behind one of punk’s (whether she claims to be or not) most iconic women.
The last show and final years
Poly Styrene would play on 28 April 2008, with a performance of "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" in front of more than 10,000 people at the Love Music Hate Racism free concert in Victoria Park, East London with the X-Ray Spex. After reforming and reuniting with original members Lora Logic and Paul Dean that would not be enough to keep the band together. Poly Styrene, now moving on to her third and final solo album she ends up bonding with her daughter, who by now both know Poly is slowly losing a battle with cancer. A long history of misfortune and mental illness I think of all of the things Poly had to go through in her later years. After a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and a stay in the mental institution she still even after often suffered from her bipolar disorder. Her struggles as a mother with her mental illness and the sad reminder that even with fame doesn’t come fortune. She was never able to profit off of her talents which wasn’t why she created art to begin with.
Poly Styrene died of spinal and breast cancer on 25 April 2011 in East Sussex, England, at the age of 53.
A true artist in my eyes, a visionary, a voice of the past that had such a big affect on not only my future but the future of so many. Please do yourself a favor and see this film, enjoy the history and sad mental decline one of punks most overlooked and outspoken voices.
You can see Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche at select theaters and on these streaming services: