Voice of Generation Spex
Poly Styrene, one-time singer with punk pioneers X-Ray Spex, has just released a solo album – her first rock-pop record in three decades. The singer tells SINÉAD GLEESONabout her ongoing fight against breast cancer and how she hopes to play the new material live
OCCASIONALLY an interview come a writer’s way with strict caveats and don’t-bring-it-up stipulations from PR handlers. In the case of X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, aka Marianne Elliott-Said, there is a polite request not to mention her cancer. This I’m fine with, even though I know she has spoken about it elsewhere. I consider bringing up my own experience of cancer and chemotherapy, wondering if it might encourage the singer to talk about hers. Instantly I feel an ethical pang. This interview is about her new album, not her health. And yet she has had a troublesome, horrible week because of her health.
Our interview is rescheduled numerous times due to a bad reaction to treatment. When we eventually speak there is no option but to ask – with genuine pity and slight fear – how she is doing. “It’s not been great, but onwards and upwards.” Her new album, Generation Indigohas just been released, and she’s very keen to talk about it. It’s her first pop/rock album in nearly three decades, and there is an untimely cruelty that its release coincides with an aggressive bout of cancer.
Elliott-Said was diagnosed with breast cancer. The accompanying pain in her back is secondary bone cancer. There are tumours on her spine, which have caused fractures, and there is also a “little bit” on her lungs. She is being treated with Herceptin, because her liver is not up to chemotherapy. When we speak she is in hospital. Her voice is weak, but her manner is resolute. The resilience so obvious in performances of Oh Bondage, Up Yours!in punk’s heyday is vaguely palpable.
Poly Styrene became an unlikely feminist figurehead in punk, alongside such contemporaries as Ari-Up of The Slits and Joan Jett. “You don’t think you’re doing anything groundbreaking. I just made music because I wanted to put good energy out there. I was young and optimistic and you feel you can do anything. Once I got beer thrown over me, but mostly we had really lovely audiences. No one knew us when we started out but then we built up this following of loyal fans. I loved it.”
After a clutch of singles, including Germ Free Adolescents, Identityand The Day The World Turned Day-Glo(all released in 1978), the band took the first of many hiatuses. Poly Styrene released a solo album, Translucence, in 1980 and an EP, Gods and Goddessesin 1986. A reunited X-Ray Spex released Conscious Consumerin 1995, but it wasn’t until 2004 that she released another solo album. Flower Aeroplane, a New Age album reflecting her devotion to the Hare Krishna religion. Looking back, she admits the 1980s were a difficult period. After spending time in a Krishna commune and raising her daughter, she withdrew – publicly anyway – from music.
“I’ve always had health problems, and my bipolar illness was a big factor. I was also in the temple for a long time, and then trying to raise my daughter – but I was always, always writing. I didn’t record a lot of it or share it, but it was something I kept at.”
Kristin Hersh has spoken at length of how her own bipolar experiences are both a curse and a blessing for creativity, and Elliott-Said feels similarly.
“She’s right. You get ups and downs. When I was in hospital one nurse told me that being bipolar was the ‘genius illness’ because they treated so many creative people. It’s pretty much under control at the moment, and after this album I feel a bit depleted on all fronts. I’m not ready for another one just yet. It’s too hard at the moment. Not that what I do is social commentary, but I couldn’t cope with all that right now.”
The fizzing pop and reggae influences on the tunes mask many of the themes tackled. Her Krishna faith, which she says is helping her through her illness, is explored in Electric Blue Monsoon. Poly Styrene is vehement that she’s not a protest singer, but is interested in what’s going on in the world around her. Code Pink Dubexamines the war in Iraq, while No Rockefellerreferences poverty in the recession, but she echews the role of polemicist.
“I couldn’t help writing about those subjects. I’m really tuned in to current affairs, so I just channelled what came through. These songs are just where my head was at at the time, but I’m glad I’m not writing the album now. Things are even worse. There are still wars, but now we have Libya, the disaster in Japan . . . I can’t look at the news now.”
In spite of these themes, the musical map here is very upbeat. I Luv Your Sneakers, a text-speak ode of disco-punk, demonstrates why everyone from Beth Ditto to Karen O cites her as an influence.
“I think of this as my first upbeat album. It’s feel-good. To me – although it doesn’t sound like Translucence– there is something about the two albums that’s similar. I wrote the lyrics and melodies, but I wasn’t consciously trying to make it into anything specific.”
Remarkably, her voice still sounds very young, and it’s easy to imagine a Dorian Gray figure with ageing vocal cords stuck in an attic somewhere. Then there are the times – possibly due to a similar pop pitch resonance in their voices – when she sounds like Debbie Harry. “Really? I wasn’t thinking of her, but I really like her voice.”
Generation Indigowas produced by Killing Joke’s Youth, and recorded in Spain. “He makes you work very hard and he’s a big fan of hooks, so he made me write more verses as we were working. He pushes you, but that was quite good for me.”
Slits member Viv Albertine guests on the album, as does Elliott-Said’s sister and her 29-year-old daughter, Celeste Bell Dos Santos, who is a musician and teacher based in Madrid and provided backing vocals. Mother and daughter are very close. “She’s got a really lovely voice. It was great to have her over to sing with me. I’ve always liked her voice and she really enhanced songs like White Goldand Kitsch. There’s a real sense of her energy in the songs, and she’s a really lovely person.”
Bell is due to return to England to help her mother with her mobility and general health. I suggest that they should get hold of a portable recorder and perhaps record some music together. “We were thinking that actually, even just in terms of writing songs for other people, because Youth also asked us if we’d like to write for other people. We may end up as a songwriting team, but then she writes slightly more political songs than me.”
Recording and playing can be arduous at the best of times, and the singer is aware of what she can’t do at the moment.
“I can hardly walk because the cancer is in my spine. It caused fractures, but apparently it’s healing. I’m not quite there with my mobility, so I wouldn’t be able to stand on stage and I don’t want to appear on stage in a wheelchair.”
The interview is clearly tiring for the singer, but there is a spark in her voice when she talks of the songs. Our interview comes to a close when an ambulance arrives to take her back to the hospice. It’s a discombobul- ating end to things, with staff audible in the background, but Poly Styrene is upbeat and resolute, even with her parting thoughts. “I’d really like to perform these songs live. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed and see how well I do.”
Generation Indigois out now