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 Gleeson about her ongoing fight against breast cancer and how she hopes to play the new mater
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 Indigo has 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 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, Identity and 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 Goddesses in 1986. A reunited X-Ray Spex released Conscious Consumer in 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.”