How polystyrene broke the mold

THE STARS WERE BORNE Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957 to a Somali father and an English mother, who raised Styrene and her relatives alone in a Brixton council estate. In her teens, plagued with art and rebellion, Styrene fled home to lift to hippie music festivals, raising an ecological awareness that she would bring to punk. They immerse themselves in theater, fashion, poetry and music. A bookish autodidact who left school at 15, she gravitated toward philosophy, the occult, Freud and Jung. As a cinephile, she favored the retrofuturism of “Barbarella”. Their rock idols were David Bowie and Marc Bolan. She loved soul and reggae, and Bell said she cited singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Joan Armatrading as great inspirations.

Styrene’s first pre-punk single was a pop reggae song called “Silly Billy” about teenage pregnancy. It was produced by a man 16 years older than Falcon Stuart who would become her friend and the manager of X-Ray Spex. Bell said she received conflicting stories about Stuart, who died in 2002, over the years, and remarked in the film: “Sometimes she would say he was the love of her life; other times , that he had destroyed it. “)

When punk hit, Styrene, at 19, was galvanized. Enamored of the Sex Pistols – a previously unseen clip of Styrene dancing in the crowd during one of her recurring appearances in the film – she placed an ad in Melody Maker in search of “yung punx” to “put it together” and assembled a crew that included bassist Paul Dean and, in short, saxophonist Lora Logic (until Styrene kicked her out).

The band signed with Virgin for the classic “Oh Bondage Up Yours” – their opening statement, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / But I think, oh bondage, up yours!” became feminist punk – before moving to EMI for “Germfree Adolescents.” (Styrene was an uncredited producer on the album, Bell said.) The LP took them to “Top of the Pops” and the BBC, which aired a television documentary called “Who Is Poly Styrene?” where the singer famously described that she chose her stage name because it’s plastic and disposable: “That’s what pop stars are meant to mean, so I thought I might as well post it.”

The early BBC film and “I Am a Cliché” both depict Styrene’s struggle for mental health, which increased the pressure of fame. In 1978, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia; she was in a psychiatric hospital the first time she saw herself singing on television. Bell believes her mother’s condition was exacerbated by her body’s sexist media coverage, as well as the destabilizing nihilism in punk.

“A lot of people think X-Ray Spex was much more underground than they were. But my mom had that brush with celebrity,” Bell said. “There is a kind of fame that you can never escape, and that was the kind of attention that mother had, even though it did not last long. It did not take long for her to come out. “


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