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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

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