Smash Hits meet Poly Styrene
Like a lot of females on the scene, Poly Styrene seems to be known less for her music and more for her offstage activities. When X-Ray Spex broke out of the punk pack in 1978, largely by dint of their leading lady’s very special talent, Poly became something of an overnight celebrity.
Poly’s pictures, Poly’s opinions, Poly’s fashions have turned up in numerous publications. Earlier this year, the BBC made her the subject of an hour-long TV documentary.
It’s common knowledge that all that sudden fame, and the pressures that came with it, caused her to suffer some kind of nervous breakdown.
She’s yet to live down stories that appeared in the press at the time when she said she’d been visited by pink flying saucers.
Then at Christmas the NME dug up an old publicity shot of her from 1976 when she was signed to GTO Records, the people who brought you The Dooleys among others. It showed her with a more wholesome-looking pop image (without the famous braces), publicising a slight little pop ditty called ‘Silly Billy’. She was known then by her real name, Mari(on) Elliott.
Seems that everywhere Poly turns these days, the past is eagerly trying to catch up with her.
Yet in person she seems relaxed about most things. Talking to Poly is a bit like watching someone who isn’t really hungry pick their way through a meal. She listens as you talk about music or image, and then just adds a few words here and there.
She says now that she hasn’t any earthshaking theories to pass on. She seems to be having enough trouble talking about herself. On the subject of her breakdown and stories that still circulate, she sighs.
“It’s just me growing up isn’t it. It’s me going from 17 to 21. Everyone does some funny things then. It’s just made more difficult by having every thought you think written down and printed in a newspaper. I’d rather be home alone all day trying to write a song than sitting here where I feel self-conscious about every word I say.”
Writing songs is predominantly what Poly has been up to in recent weeks. She’s been taking formal piano lessons to enable her to read and write music properly. This won’t affect how she teaches the band her songs. It will not even affect what she writes.
It just makes things easier. I pointed out to her that some songwriters, like Paul McCartney, don’t want to learn to read or write music in case it changes what they create.
“It’s not a case of learning what’s right or wrong to play, being able to write the notes down just takes up less time. It’s coming to me quite readily. But also, I think there’s a difference between having to learn to do something when you’re a kid, and wanting to learn something when you’re older.”
Poly says she’s fairly lazy, so she has deliberately set aside time where she just plops herself down at a piano.
She’s made it clear to all that her music will change from album to album. Though she’s now outgrown the plastic obsessions that came through songs like ‘The Day The World Turned Dayglo’ and ‘Identity’, she finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly what sound she’s creating at the moment.
“Visual words . . . she says quietly, that’s the best way to describe the new songs. I’m stringing together groups of words that sound quite nice together. They create a picture.”
Do the songs tell a story or make sense in a conventional manner?
“No, not really. But, I know what you’re getting at.” She continues, “The new songs are not totally abstract. I’ll admit that there are a few which will probably only make sense to me. But I want to leave a kind of feeling of mystery. It’s more important to me that you find what you want in my songs rather than me telling you exactly what is what.”
Despite her image, which seems to preoccupy most writers, Poly feels that music is more effective in the long run.
“I still love The Beatles”
“I grew up with a radio long before I went to concerts. I didn’t know what half the groups looked like. I didn’t always remember the names of the groups who did the songs I liked. But you quickly recognised something you liked, by the sound. I still love The Beatles.
“These days, when I’m writing, I tend to get up at mid-day. I play music for whatever mood I’m in. At the moment, my favourites are The Beach Boys and a very old Aretha Franklin album from when she was about 18.
“Sometimes I buy records when a weird sleeve catches my eye, but usually you lose out on those. I like buying old records.”
Poly doesn’t envisage doing too much promotion on the new X-Ray Spex single ‘Highly Inflammable’. touring is not her favourite pastime.
“It really can get to you sometime when you sense that all the audience wants is the same heavy rhythm over and over again.
“The new stuff I’m writing is more relaxed, which may come off better on an album than live. I get more pleasure from writing than seeing a roomful of boys jumping up and down.”
She shies away from questions about her private life. “I always think most performers lead boring private lives and therefore they are best kept private.” she sighs without mentioning whether she includes herself in this generalization.
These days, she’s given up the flat she shared with a friend in Chelsea. After a period living back home with her mum in Brixton, she now lives in the basement flat in Fulham of her manager Falcon Stuart.
We moved into the silly queries division. Is that her real hair? At first she looks stunned at the question. Then she laughs. “Why would anyone think it isn’t.”
When are the braces coming off? “May 4th or so”, she comments emotionlessly.
I point out that some people will be devastated.
Seeing that the questions have slowed to a natural stop, she sums herself up with a casual shrug of the shoulders, “I’m so uninteresting.”
Okay, she may not be a glamorous poseur when it comes to musical small talk, but when it comes to social observation in musical rhyme, Ms Metalmouth still says a masterful mouthful.
Smash Hits, April 1979