Legendary punk pioneer and X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene, born Marianne Elliott Said, passed away last night from breast cancer at the age of 53. In an unfortunate coincidence with the passing last week of TV on the Radio's Gerard Smith, her new solo album Generation Indigo sees release in U.S. stores today (listen to it on Spinner.)
"Undoubtedly one of the least conventional front-persons in rock history, male or female" an Allmusic biography once termed her deservingly. In Styrene's heyday, punk singers were male, white, usually gangly, and dressed to menace. Decked out in neon outfits and braces, with a mix of Somali and British skin tone and a considerable roundness to her figure, Styrene was none of the above. In fact, the woman responsible for a pointed anthem called "I Am a Cliché" was never a predictable presence. A trained opera singer, she debuted the iconic single "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" (with its unforgettable "some people think little girls should be seen and not heard") with punk band X-Ray Spex, followed by the now-classic Germ Free Adolescents. The album surprisingly reached the UK Top 30 with its innovative blend of intense guitar-punk and New Wave-ushering sax (courtesy of Styrene's schoolmate Susan Whitby, performing as Lora Logic). The lyrics helped connect the hippies' anti-consumerist rhetoric with punk satire, and the song's success resulted in even more signature tunes: "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo," "Identity," "Genetic Engineering." Styrene was known to say things like, "I said that I wasn't a sex symbol and that if anybody tried to make me one I'd shave my head tomorrow." (She did that, too -- at Johnny Rotten's place.)
In a complete reversal of expectations, Styrene later joined a Hare Krishna sect, and her name next popped up on Translucence, a surprisingly gorgeous go-it-alone record that zooms through traditional Chinese flutes, burbling analog synths, and seductive reggae soul in the first three tracks alone. In part because of bipolar disorder, Styrene's appearance in the public eye became increasingly scarce. Despite this, her influence exploded throughout the '80s and '90s, appearing in the work of post-punk bands (Raincoats, Slits, Kleenex/LiLiPut) and New Wave artists (Romeo Void). Styrene attained further recognition when her piercing howl was echoed in the chaotic sound of the riot grrrl movement, most notably by Kathleen Hanna and Corin Tucker of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, respectively. In 1995, a little-known X-Ray Spex reunion album, Conscious Consumer, was released. It's no throwaway slouch--see the hypnotic "Crystal Clear."
At the tail end of last year, Styrene resurfaced with a holiday single, "Black Christmas," recorded with her daughter Celeste Bell. She released Generation Indigo today, despite the inability to tour following her cancer diagnosis. Styrene still had farther to go: Indigo opener "I Luv Your Sneakers" (because "no animal died or lost its soul") suggests that neither her political nor musical appetite (electro-dance!) had mellowed. It's also the catchiest thing the punk godmother's ever written. Few of Styrene's peers had sides this vital unfurling into their 50s. A novice who happened upon "Sneakers" -- an LCD Soundsystem fan, say -- might swear that Styrene was just getting started.