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My mum, The Punk Rock pioneer of X-Ray Spex : Poly Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell

My mum, the punk pioneer: Poly Styrene’s daughter remembers the X-Ray Spex leader

Six years since her death, the punk singer remains hugely influential. Her daughter reflects on learning ‘the family business’, how fame nearly broke her mother – and why she’s making a film of her life

Celeste Bell

Poly Styrene in her early days.
Poly Styrene Punk girl icon

 Poly Styrene in her early days.
Photograph: Anorak London

Even when I was really young, I knew what my mum did for a living. She was always working on something: writing music, recording, doing interviews. As I got older, she’d tell me about the punk movement, about the musicians she knew and what it was all about.

We lived with my grandmother on and off through that period, and she saw punk very differently. For my grandmother being a punk meant things like wearing odd-coloured socks, which she didn’t approve of. Even Mum didn’t like a lot about punk, too. There was loads she found exciting, of course, but she’d tell me plenty of the negative stuff: the aggressiveness of the crowds, the spitting on stage, how very few women were present at many of these gigs – and how that made her terribly anxious about performing. I realised later she was trying to warn me off becoming any kind of performer, in case I got any ideas.

Poly Styrene with her X-Ray Spex bandmates in 1978.
 Poly Styrene with her X-Ray Spex bandmates in 1978. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

My mum was really a girl when she started playing music: she was 15 when she began performing, younger than most of the other female artists on the scene. Even though she was more talented and had more important things to say than a lot of her contemporaries, she felt she wasn’t taken seriously – not only because she was a young girl, but also because she was working class and didn’t finish school. All of this made it a massive challenge to get any respect from people in the music industry.

Poly Styrene: The Spex factor

When I was a young kid, in the late 80s, she was involved in the Hare Krishna movement. Through that she became friends with people such as Boy George and Chrissie Hynde. I assumed all this spiritual stuff and having well-known people coming and going was the norm. At some points, we were pretty much living in a temple, and everything revolved around Hare Krishna, including her music. I used to tell her: “Nobody’s interested in hearing songs about Krishna, Mum.” But she didn’t care.

Then, when I was 10 or 11, she reconnected with X-Ray Spex and started work on what would become the Conscious Consumer album. Soon after, she had her first website and she started being more in touch with fans. I began to realise just how many fans she had, and how worldwide her support was.

When I turned 15 she gave me a copy of Germfree Adolescents, and I started to understand what a great writer she was. I’d grown up listening to hip-hop and music like that of Rage Against the Machine – which, in the way of all parents, she didn’t approve of, as she told me it would encourage bad behaviour!

X-Ray Spex did a comeback gig at the Roundhouse in London in 2008, playing Germfree Adolescents in full, and my band opened the show. I’d already seen them play Brixton Academy but being up on stage brought home the size of the audience. I was also able to meet a lot of people in the audience at that gig – people would come up to me, say how much they loved X-Ray Spex and what my mum meant to them, which brought home how deep an impact she’d had.

Poly Styrene in 1991.
 Poly Styrene in 1991. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Redferns

When Mum passed away in 2011, lots of people came to the funeral who I wasn’t necessarily aware she’d known. There was so much genuine love, and genuine sadness – I was moved to see that depth of feeling for her.

My mum was quite a businesswoman in how she approached her music and legacy, and she always got me involved in “the family business”, such as writing for her website. And she even suggested I take over as leader of X-Ray Spex. She still hated performing, it brought back all those old anxieties, and I guess I could have done it – I do sound a lot like her, and in a certain way it could’ve been fun. But it would have been way, way too weird for me.

She was contradictory, though, and she remained apprehensive about me being a performer, because she said music remained a toxic environment for women. I wonder if my mum might have had a happier life if she hadn’t had that level of fame. She was always wondering what might have happened if she hadn’t dropped out of school, and although the music brought her excitement and opportunities that most people never have, it also robbed her of her mind in a sense. I think the experiences she had probably triggered latent mental health problems.

Poly Styrene performing

When I saw the documentary about Amy Winehouse, with her getting trapped by her success so young, I did notice a lot of parallels: fame, even on a small scale, really does break some people. But Mum didn’t let it get her completely – that’s why she never did what was expected of her musically. She might not have been able to recapture the unique thing she created with Germfree Adolescents, but she never let anyone tell her what to be. She was true to herself, always.

For these reasons, I wanted to make a film about her – I’m currently raising money to create Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche. Whenever I talk about her, I think what I really want people to realise is just what a great writer my mum was. Not just a symbol of something, or another part of the punk story, but an amazing talent. With Germfree Adolescents she built this whole world that touched on sci-fi, dystopias, social criticism, the role of women, all these things. I honestly think it’s one of the greatest records of the late 20th century. She was 15 or 16 when she started composing those songs, she hadn’t done her O-levels, she’d got into all sorts of trouble – but she could write this incredibly prophetic stuff and understand the world in a way I don’t think most of her contemporaries could. I am truly proud of her work, and my long-term goal is to get more people to understand this.

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Poly Styrene Xray Spex a legend of Punk Rock

Punk icon Poly Styrene dies at 53

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Punk icon Poly Styrene, former X-Ray Spex singer, dies aged 53

Punk singer Poly Styrene, former singer with the X-Ray Spex, has died at the age of 53 after suffering from cancer.

She was one of the first female punk icons, whose unorthodox yet infectious style was highly influential.

Real name Marianne Elliot-Said, she had cancer of the spine and breast.

A statement on her official Twitter feed said: “We can confirm that the beautiful Poly Styrene, who has been a true fighter, won her battle on Monday evening to go to higher places.”

Singer Billy Bragg was among those who paid tribute, saying: “Punk without Poly Styrene and the X-Ray Spex wouldn’t have been the same.”

Poly Styrene formed her band after watching the Sex Pistols perform on Hastings Pier on her 18th birthday and became known for her unpolished vocals and energetic rallying cries against consumerism and environmental destruction.

Poly Styrene

Poly Styrene released her third solo album only a month before passing away

X-Ray Spex’s signature tune was Oh Bondage Up Yours!, a riotous rejection of social and gender norms that began with Poly Styrene’s spoken line: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard.”

The band released just one album, Germ Free Adolescents, in 1978, before splitting up.

The singer went on to record a more subtle and subdued solo album, Translucence, in 1980, before retreating from the music industry to join the Hare Krishnas.

She moved into a Krishna temple in Hertfordshire with her daughter, and struggled with bipolar disorder.

Boy George – who once tried to break her out of the temple – wrote on Twitter: “I was a fan of Poly before I got to know her, she was a Krishna follower too, oh bless you Polly you will be missed! Legend!”

Former Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock praised the “general joie de vivre nuttiness” shown in songs like Oh Bondage Up Yours!

X-Ray Spex with Poly Styrene, right

X-Ray Spex, with Poly Styrene, right, recorded just one album before splitting up

“She wouldn’t kow-tow to even what the punk fashions should be, I think that’s what that song is about,” he told BBC 6 Music.

“I did see her not that long ago so it’s sad. Again, somebody from the punk rock scene has died far too young and it’s a loss.”

Billy Bragg told the radio station that Oh Bondage Up Yours! was a “slap in the face” to male punk bands and rock journalists.

“It’s always hard for women in rock music but it was particularly hard in the 70s,” he said. “I think she cut right through that. The work that she did and the things that she produced always stayed true to that original spirit of punk.”

TV presenter Jonathan Ross said his first concert was an X-Ray Spex gig, adding that the singer had “changed lives”.

Poly Styrene occasionally re-emerged into the limelight, holding a sell out 30 year celebration of xrasy spex live at the Camden Roundhouse in 2007 and released her third solo album, Generation Indigo, in 2011

“I know I’ll probably be remembered for Oh Bondage Up Yours!” she told 6 Music last month. “I’d like to remembered for something a bit more spiritual.”

 From Concrete Jungle Festival to Xray Spex

What was I thinking, the day I decided to get involved with Punk Rock. My youth was way behind me, long gone were the days when I thought we were going to change the world. Call it a mid life crisis, or just plain madness, but I would like to think it was more the desire to preserve and celebrate a time in British culture and music.I had been away, become a father, worked for many years as a television actor, seen the world, discovered foreign cultures and philosophy. I didn’t need a pair of doc martins to define myself.Whether it was because I had often played skinhead roles on television shows, the bond I had with my friends, the memories of punks queuing up outside the town hall when I was a kid to see our local band the Xtraverts. The Clash at Brixton, Madness in Hammersmith Odeon, The fact Gavin Watson had made a living from photographs of my friends and me, or the TV documentaries I took part in on the subject. whatever it was, inside me was a belief which I discovered in my teenage years, which had kept me safe throughout my life. that said whoever you are, from where ever you come, you can get up there and do it. Punk Rock was a lot more than fashion and clothes, records and rock stars. It was a belief system, shared and loved by thousands.

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