By Steve Newton
Before I watched the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, I had no idea who Poly Styrene was. I vaguely remember hearing about a late-’70s punk band called X-Ray Spex and their quirky single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, but I had no clue about the band’s extraordinarily unique singer.
Now I’m a huge fan of Poly Styrene.
The 2021 film, codirected by Styrene’s 39-year-old daughter Celeste Bell, recalls the trials and tribulations of the woman born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, as seen through narrator Bell’s eyes. As a mixed-race female frontwoman in Britain, Styrene had to overcome rampant racism and bigotry; later she struggled with mental illness.
Viewing Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, it doesn’t take long to be won over by the rocker’s personality. In early interviews with British music journalists Styrene, just out of her teens, comes off as childlike and sweet. As Bell explains on the phone from her home in Barcelona, Spain, that vulnerability was something she wanted to portray in the doc.
“My mom had a lot of vulnerability,” she says. “She was a very sensitive person, which I think is part and parcel of being a creative person. It enabled her to create wonderful music and write these brilliant songs, but of course it also opened her up to negative experiences. So it was really important to highlight this aspect of her character in terms of what she was dealing with behind the scenes.”
Although X-Ray Spex only released one album during the punk era, 1978’s Germfree Adolescents, the band made a big first impression with Styrene’s unusual look–which included an unorthodox fashion sense and braces on her teeth–and her provocative songs about consumerism and identity politics.
“I think it was my mother’s lyrics that really made X-Ray Spex stand out from the other bands,” offers Bell. “I don’t think there were many bands in the punk era that were writing in such an insightful way as my mother was. It was quite unusual. So a lot of people, especially the music critics and other artists, were impressed by her lyrical output, which is why X-Ray Spex were so highly regarded.”
As well as showing her retracing her mother’s steps by visiting various venues and locations, Bell’s documentary takes advantage of the abundance of archival footage of her mom that was available. It appears as though Poly Styrene had a lot of cameras pointed at her during the heyday of X-Ray Spex.
“It was a short-lived band,” notes Bell, “but they definitely seemed to capture interest very early on. They were seen on various TV shows in the UK, and there was even a documentary film made about my mom by the BBC. There was always a lot of media attention on X-Ray Spex, but in particular on my mom.”
At one point in I Am a Cliché a clip is shown from a Top of the Pops Top 30 chart countdown, with X-Ray Spex coming in at #23, ahead of bands like Wings, Squeeze, and Suzi Quatro. But although they enjoyed a fair amount of notoriety, especially in their native England, X-Ray Spex never thrived financially.
“It was a very bad time for artists in terms of the contracts they were getting,” explains Bell. “The contract that my mother and the other band members signed had very unfavourable terms. They were young kids, basically, with no knowledge of the music industry or how it works, and they signed these contracts that gave them a pittance.”
Things were looking up for X-Ray Spex’ chances of making it big when they traveled to New York City to play four nights at the famed punk club CBGBs, but as the film artfully depicts, the trip to the Big Apple spawned negative consequences, most involving Styrene’s mental state.
The band’s time in New York did wind up delivering one joyous moment for Sonic Youth guitarist-vocalist Thurston Moore, though, who recalls in the film how Styrene handed him the microphone at CBGBs so he could holler the “up yours” part during “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
“It was like I was being knighted,” raves Moore, who was interviewed for the film along with the likes of singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill.
“We had quite an extensive list of people we wanted to interview,” says Bell, “which was based on three main criteria. The first would be friends and family, the second would be contemporaries–like peers of my mother’s who were around at the same time–and the third was people like Thurston Moore that had been inspired in some way by my mom.”
The story of Poly Styrene’s life–and by extension her daughter’s–is downbeat at times. Her struggle to come to grips with fame and her own identity leads her to, among other things, cut off her hair in the apartment bathroom of her idol, Sex Pistol John Lydon.
But there’s also uplifting moments in the film, particularly during Bell’s beautifully shot journey to India to spread her mother’s ashes. As the doc winds down Bell explains how her mom–who died from metastatic breast cancer in 2011 at the age of 53–always told her that she shouldn’t cry when people die because death is a beginning, not an end.
Earlier in the film Bell is heard saying that she thought her mom was trying to carve out a name for herself as Poly Styrene. But if so, did she accomplish that goal?
“I think to a large extent she did–well maybe not for herself, necessarily; she wasn’t able to enjoy the fruits of her labour, in that sense. She had to leave the music world relatively early on, but I think what she did was she carved out a place for a lot of other people later on–especially women in music, and women of colour in rock music, specifically. She definitely laid some important foundations that could provide some support for other people like her.
“The message I hope people get from the film is that a life may not always be happy, but it’s still worthwhile. What my mother did will live on, and she had to go through some tough times for that to happen, but everything that she did was worthwhile–not just for herself but everyone else.”