(The following article was written for ARTROCKER MAGAZINE, issue # 110, May 2011)
NO LOOKING BACK.
Ask any music fan, any age, what the name POLY STRYRENE means to them and the answers will doubtless include some or all of the words: punk; X-Ray Spex; tooth-brace; red jacket; The Roxy; Top of the Pops. Whatever the response, it’s unlikely to include the word ‘who?’
Hers is one of the most enduring names of a generation and thirty-plus years out of the media and music spotlight has not diminished the reverence by which she is regarded. Just why she remains such an iconic figure while most of her contemporaries and those for whom she paved the way to follow have slipped to the recesses of the public’s memory, is something the modest Poly struggles to explain.
(Hazel O’Connor, for instance had as many Top 40 singles as X-Ray Spex, but all three made the Top 10 whereas Poly’s band’s best effort was ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ which reached #19. In total, Hazel spent a total of forty-six weeks in the Singles Charts, against X-Ray Spex’s thirty-three.)
It matters not the reasons, it is however a fact that Poly truly appreciates – especially at this particular point in her life as we chat about her eagerly awaited and critically acclaimed ‘comeback’ album, ‘Generation Indigo.’ You see, having been diagnosed with cancer, Poly is speaking from the confines of her bed in the Hospice close to her home, where she has been resident for several months whilst undergoing treatment.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in late November last year,” she says. “I had suffered a sore back for about six months, and it was picked up a bit late by which time the cancer had spread a little bit to the liver and bowel. I can’t take chemo because my liver isn’t strong enough, but I’m on this new drug that has to be given intravenously and that’s why I’m in the Hospice between treatments. I feel I’m getting better, the doctors are optimistic and have told me that twenty-five per cent of the battle is down to mental attitude, so I’m trying to keep positive.”
‘Battle,’ is a word that Poly is well acquainted with, having allied her determination and Hare Krishna philosophies to overcome a series of personal, professional and business set-backs that seem to have blighted her life. She is very open in talking about them, dismissing them simplistically as “these things that just come up….. like trials and tribulations of life.”
Others, I would suggest, may not have such strength.
Marianne Elliott-Said was born in 1957 of a Scots-Irish mother and Somalian dad. Originally from Bromley, she moved with her mother to Brixton in the hope that it would be easier for her estranged father to visit. (Remember, although less than thirty years ago these were days when racism was very apparent and blatant.) Aged just seventeen, she signed to GTO Records and cut the reggae track ‘Silly Billy’ under the abbreviated name of Mari Elliott. It was at this point she also recorded the first demo of the now infamous ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ Playing guitar on this track was the recently deceased blues guitarist and erstwhile Thin Lizzy man, Gary Moore.
“I did the demo with him and then re-recorded it with X-Ray Spex, because I thought he was a really good guitarist, but very sophisticated and not really right for what I wanted.”
(This was obviously an early sign of Poly’s self-assuredness – how many times do you think Gary Moore got a knock-back in his glittering career?!)
After seeing The Sex Pistols play on Hastings Pier in 1976, Marianne decided to form her own punk band, and the seminal X-Ray Spex were born. The original line-up started playing together in January 1977 and between then and March 1979 (with a few personnel changes along the way) they released the sum total of five singles and one album before Poly brought it all to a close after a show in Paris in August of that same year.
The ensuing thirty-two years certainly brought their fair share of ‘trials and tribulations:’
- a breakdown in the spring of 1978 was initially put down as schizophrenia, but re-diagnosed as bipolar disorder in 1991 – a condition she now has under control through medication.
- there was not much money around despite her band’s success (“I made some bad deals and just signed anything when I was young”) and following the collapse of her marriage, Poly turned to Hare Krishna and joined the ladies ashram at the Bhaktivedanta Manor temple (which was donated to the movement in the early seventies by George Harrison.) She remained there for five years, during which time her eight-year-old daughter chose to live instead with Poly’s mother. (They are now happily reconciled.)
- having left the temple, in 1995 Poly was knocked down by a fire engine responding to an emergency call and hospitalised for two weeks.
- not so long ago, the stock of a shop she owned selling Indian artefacts was stolen, from which the business never recovered.
On the music front, prior to joining the temple, in 1980, Poly released a solo album ‘Translucence,’ as well as a single, ‘Talk In Toytown.’ 1986 saw the release of the ‘Gods and Goddesses’ 12” single. Splitting the short-lived X-Ray Spex reunions for the 1995 album ‘Conscious Consumer’ and the live DVD / CD recording at The Roundhouse in 2008, there was the 2004 album ‘Flower Aeroplane,’ intriguingly described on the X-Ray Spex website as an ‘eclectic mix of soothing transcendent sounds with a metal edge.’
“I have been writing,” says Poly, “but not really on commercial projects – more sort of spiritual stuff. I’ve not really been listening to a lot of music either – mainly just spiritual Krishna music. When I was at home, before I entered the Hospice, I was keeping the ‘Earth Mantra’ track from the ‘Floral Aeroplane’ album on loop. It kind of kept my house transcendental and I was more like ‘channelling’ lyrics and melodies into my head, rather than trying to listen to what everybody else was doing music-wise. But I do occasionally buy the odd compilation CD featuring the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell –music I couldn’t afford when I was a girl.”
(Although Poly now considers herself a ‘plain clothes Hare Krishna’ it’s clear her beliefs still run strong and offer her much solace and inspiration.)
So what prompted this return to the commercial music scene? Why now – why 2011?
“During the Iraq war I wrote a song called ‘Code Pink Dub,’ and I was going to put it on the ‘Live At The Roundhouse’ CD / DVD as a bonus track. But Shirin at the label (Future Noise Music) thought it too good for that and asked if I’d like to make a new album and would I be interested in working with Youth? I just thought it was too good an offer and so just did it! I got on really well with Youth and his assistant, Michael. Making the album was a whole lot of fun, done over just about four or five weeks.”
It’s often the case isn’t it, that spontaneous decisions bring out the best results, and ‘Generation Indigo’ (which Poly explains is a ‘new age’ reference to an astrological generation of children born in the Eighties meant to change the world for the better) has attracted an abundance of favourable reviews, including a five-star rating from this very magazine.
All songs on the album were written by Poly a few of which, like ‘Code Pink Dub,’ have been ready for some time, while others were prepared more recently after she became inspired to write again following The Roundhouse gig in 2008.
“My daughter Celeste helped with ‘Kitsch’ and ‘Black Christmas’” (released as a single, but not on the album.)
The twelve tracks that comprise ‘Generation Indigo’ reflect an eclectic mix of styles.
“Youth suggested I get together about twenty songs in all and we’d then ‘lose’ some from the final cut. (These will maybe come out as ‘bonus tracks’ in any later ‘Special Editions of the album, since I can’t say if I’ll do another one …. depends on how well I get.) Anyway, he wanted to use some that were a little nod to the past and X-Ray Spex, like ‘L.U.V.’ and I liked the idea of variation, with some electro-pop and reggae thrown in as well.”
The album has a wonderfully buoyant and positive feel to it, which, despite her pain and worry truly reflects Poly’s mood when she excitedly talks about her latest work.
Throughout the years, she has not had her troubles to seek, but her attitude to life and her present situation really is quite inspirational. And although she concedes, “I try to be in the ‘present’ as much as I can,” the words from the chorus of ‘Virtual Boyfriend’ could become the new mantra for Poly and indeed all of us:
“I’m looking to the future and not looking back!”
(Poly would really like to thank everyone who has sent her good luck and messages of support. She is genuinely overwhelmed by the kindness of people and would like to give a special mention to the ‘angels’ at the Hospice for all their care.)
(You can read the LOUD HORIZON take on ‘Generation Indigo,’ here.)
(You can get updates on all matters POLY STYRENE through her website here.)