Poly Styrene: Taking Moral Stances Solo

Apr 25, 2011
Originally published on April 26, 2011 8:22 am

Poly Styrene stood out in British punk. Female in a male world, heavy in a skinny world, half-African in a white world, flaunting braces that looked like they could dent a lorry, she's linked in history to a song as iconic as "Anarchy in the U.K." itself.

Though many remember Poly Styrene solely for "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" the X-Ray Spex album Germfree Adolescents was a Britpunk monument, bristling with unforgettable statements of principle like "Genetic Engineering" and "I Am a Poseur." But just two years later came her quiet, slick, melodic, uncategorizable solo album Translucence. Then Poly Styrene joined Hare Krishna, quit the movement but kept the faith, raised a daughter who leads her own band, and just now released her third album, Generation Indigo.

In "I Luv Ur Sneakers," the line "No animal died or lost its soul" — and that accelerating hook — is enough to put the song on the fashion victim's edition of the all-time vegan hit parade. Though her ingrained defiance coexists peacefully with her religious commitment, Poly Styrene claims she's still a poseur. But she's never let image get in the way of lucidity. She always says what she means plainly, winningly and tunefully, and on Generation Indigo those meanings are moral.

If songs like "Colour Blind" suggest a do-gooder's pop-reggae album, well, tough. Good is what Poly Styrene wants to do with Generation Indigo. Producer Martin Glover balances his biggest credits with a range that suits her perfectly: Killing Joke and Paul McCartney. Sadly, treatment for recently diagnosed breast cancer has caused the postponement of an American tour. But Poly Styrene is ready to meet you anyway, on her own idiosyncratic terms.

Update, April 26: Poly Styrene reportedly passed away last night. We'll have more news throughout the day.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Few punk bands from the 1970s have had much of a shelf life. Many disappeared almost as soon as they surfaced. But Poly Styrene, who fronted the band X-Ray Spex, is trying to buck that trend. She's out this week with a new solo album, and our music critic, Robert Christgau, has this review.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Poly Styrene stood out in British punk. Female in a male world, fat in a skinny world, half-African in a white world, flaunting braces that looked like they could dent a lorry, she's linked in history to a song as iconic as "Anarchy in the U.K." itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!")

POLY STYRENE: (Singing) Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall. I wanna be a slave to you all. Oh, bondage, up yours. Oh, bondage, no more. Oh, bondage, up yours. Oh, bondage, no more.

CHRISTGAU: Though many remember Poly Styrene solely for "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" the X-Ray Spex album "Germfree Adolescents" was a Britpunk monument, bristling with unforgettable statements of principle like "Genetic Engineering" and "I Am a Poseur." But just two years later came her quiet, slick, melodic, uncategorizable solo album "Translucence." Then Poly Styrene joined Hare Krishna, quit Hare Krishna but kept the faith, raised a daughter who leads her own band, and just now released her third album, "Generation Indigo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LUV UR SNEAKERS")

STYRENE: (Singing) The Calvins(ph), the color, the rubber toe. No animal died or lost its soul in the production of your beautiful sneakers. The jewels, the bling, the zin zin zin, you look so cool with your funky rubber soles and your purple (unintelligible).

CHRISTGAU: The line no animal died or lost its soul plus that accelerating hook are enough to put "I Luv Ur Sneakers" on the fashion victim's edition of the all-time vegan hit parade. Though Poly Styrene's ingrained defiance coexists peacefully with her religious commitment, she claims she's still a poseur. But she's never let image get in the way of lucidity. Poly Styrene always says what she means plainly, winningly and tunefully, and on "Generation Indigo," those meanings are moral.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLOUR BLIND")

STYRENE: (Singing) I can see duality day and night. The contrast of the colors, it's very, very bright. But when it comes to my brethren, I am (unintelligible) we choose to remain colour blind.

CHRISTGAU: If that snatch of "Colour Blind" suggests a do-gooder's pop- reggae album, well, tough (unintelligible). Good is what Poly Styrene wants to do with "Generation Indigo." Producer Martin Glover balances his biggest credits with a range that suits her perfectly: Killing Joke and Paul McCartney. Sadly, treatment for recently diagnosed breast cancer has caused the postponement of an American tour. But Poly Styrene is ready to meet you anyway, on her own idiosyncratic terms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KITSCH")

STYRENE: And I don't care what they say. I'm kitsch all the way. I'm just a little bit kitschy, a little bit kitsch. I've got my head in the clouds but my feet on the ground. I'm just a little bit kitschy, a little bit kitsch.

NORRIS: The new album from Poly Styrene is called "Generation Indigo." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KITSCH)

STYRENE: You can call me a (unintelligible) or the girl with a heart, but I would dance just a little bit hot. And I don't care what they say. I'm kitsch all the way. I'm just a little bit kitschy, a little bit kitsch. I've got my head in the clouds but my feet on the ground. I'm just a little bit kitschy, a little bit kitsch.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.