The Herald - The Herald Magazine
My mum, the punk legend
Poly Styrene’s daughter on her film tribute to a pop pioneer’s legacy
CELESTE Bell didn’t always have the easiest relationship with her mum Marianne. Creative people, Bell points out, don’t necessarily make the best parents. But it can’t help when your mother is also dealing with severe bipolar disorder mistakenly diagnosed as schizophrenia.
“It doesn’t make for a stable childhood,” Bell admits, looking back. Chaotic is another word she uses for it.
Born in 1981, Bell spent some of her early years with her mum in a Hare Krishna temple in Hertfordshire. Later, she would be shunted around from one relative to another.
“I moved back to living with my mother when I was 15. That was quite tough, actually, because I was a hormonal teenager and she was nearing the menopause, so not the best combination, and we fought a lot,” Bell admits.
“I think our relationship was the best it was when I moved to Spain, interestingly. Because we didn’t see each other all the time, the moments when we did reconnect were all the more special.
“Just that little bit of distance was really healthy for our relationship.”
That distance has helped, too, in allowing Bell to see what made her mum so special.
Marianne Joan Elliott-Said was known by a number of names. When she lived with the Hare Krishnas she called herself Maharani. Some people called her Mari, and then there were those who knew her by her stage name, Poly. Or, if you want to be formal about it, Poly Styrene, one of the most vivid and original artists of the punk era.
Punk singer, artist, clothes designer, religious devotee, inspiration (Beth Ditto and Kathleen Hanna have both sang her praises), mum. Poly Styrene, who died in 2011 while receiving treatment for advanced breast cancer, aged 53, was all of the above and more. Her daughter is now trying to help the rest of us realise quite how much more.
When I call Bell, she’s in Barcelona. “I came back just before Brexit so I could maintain my Spanish residency,” she says. “For now, I’m a European citizen.”
The pandemic being what it is, she won’t, unfortunately, be in Glasgow for the world premiere of Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche, the film she has co-directed with Edinburgh-based filmmaker Paul Sng. But maybe that’s appropriate, she says.
“My mum wrote a song called Germ Free Adolescents. It’s apt that we can’t be together and spread our germs. Life is antiseptic now.”
Germ Free Adolescents was just one of the songs that Poly Styrene sang when fronting X-Ray Spex, the band she formed when she was just 19 after seeing the Sex Pistols.
X-Ray Spex were a short-lived but wildly original presence during the punk era on singles like Oh Bondage, Up Yours!, The Day the World Turned Day-Glo and Identity. And that owed much to Poly; her writing, appearance and unique vocal style.
The daughter of a Somali father and a Scots-Irish mother, the teenage Poly declared herself to the world in clothes
she’d made herself, sporting a mouth full of metal and a voice that was strident and unapologetic, her very own form of Sprechgesang (“spoken singing”).
“In the summer of 1977 the 19-yearold Poly Styrene screamed in a voice pitched so high that it was like talking in tongues.” Jon Savage writes in
England’s Dreaming, his epic account of the punk era.
“She was actually not that confident about her voice,” Bell suggests now.
“She was always working on her voice and she took singing lessons throughout that period. She was training herself to sing.
“She really struggled with polyps on her vocal cords because she was shouting so much. She actually had to train herself to sing without straining her voice. But she had so much power in that voice and I think that’s what really stood out. There weren’t really any female singers doing what my mum was doing with her voice.”
Punk, her contemporary Rhoda Dakar, who fronted The Bodysnatchers and worked with The Specials, notes in the film, “was full of people nobody else wanted”. As such, it was the perfect platform for Poly to celebrate her difference.
“My mum was an unconventional person,” Bell adds. “She wasn’t your stereotypical pop star. She was mixed race, she was very small, she was quite chubby. I think she was beautiful but she wasn’t described at the time as being conventionally beautiful. She had braces on her teeth. So she was going to struggle to find mainstream success as a pop star and punk allowed her difference to be celebrated.”
The late 1970s and early 1980s offered a rare window for women in the music industry not to be judged – and sold – solely on their looks.
“That’s true but unfortunately my mum still came under a lot of pressure and she felt very insecure about the way she looked as a result of being in the public eye,” Bell says.
“She started off not caring about what people thought about her in terms of the way she looked. By the end, she definitely did, because, even when celebrated for being unconventional, she was still affected negatively by the scrutiny of the way she looked.
“The whole experience of being famous is for many artists traumatic.”
And Poly Styrene was also part of that first generation of mixed-race children in the UK. As such, she had grown up against a background of horrific racism.
Bell adds: “She really struggled with that growing up and that definitely added to her sense of insecurity throughout her life.”
In the end, hit singles and music covers didn’t repair that insecurity. If anything, they exacerbated it. Things came to a head when the band travelled to New York in 1978 to play the
legendary punk club CBGB. “It was the pinnacle moment for the band. But, at the same time, it was probably the most intense and overwhelming experience of her life because there was a huge culture shock element. The UK and the US were very different at that time. And New York, I guess, was like London times 1,000.
“The punk scene there was darker than the UK scene. There was heavier drug taking. The crowd at CBGB were even more hostile. It was just a very intense experience for her.”
Poly Styrene left the group in 1979. “I think the other band members were shocked and dismayed but I think a large part of her breaking up X-Ray Spex was that she was bored of it already,” Bell believes. “She constantly
wanted to evolve, and she got tired of the experience of being famous very quickly and wanted to move onto something else in her life.”
At the start of the 1980s Poly Styrene released a solo album, Translucence, which drew on jazz and folk influences and saw her soften her voice. Struggling with her mental health, however, she then retreated to a Hare Krishna temple with her infant daughter.
“Her mental health was terrible. As a result of touring, the experience of being famous, all the public scrutiny, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns,” Bell explains. “And she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, although her bipolar disorder was a very severe form of bipolar and she hallucinated and heard voices which led the psychiatrists to think she had schizophrenia because those are common features of the schizophrenic experience.”
In the film, music journalist John Robb suggests Hare Krishna saved her life at that point.
“Yes, in a way, it did,” Bell agrees. “Let’s say it saved her spiritually. She felt something was lacking in her life. She wasn’t raised particularly religiously and she was searching for meaning throughout her life. Hare Krishna filled that longing. And it was an escape, a retreat from the harshness of the life she was experiencing.
“But it was no panacea. Her mental health continued to suffer and there were lots of ups and downs throughout the rest of her life.
“When she was close to death, that’s when her spiritual beliefs were the most beneficial and gave her so much strength to face the end stoically.”
POLY Styrene had never given up making music in the interim. There were X-Ray Spex reunions and she even worked with her daughter on new music. Her last album, Generation Indigo, was released just a few weeks before her death, a marker to the world of what it was about to lose.
In the years since her death, Bell has been busy in her mother’s archives, resulting in a book, Dayglo, co-written with journalist Zoe Howe, an exhibition and now the film.
If nothing else, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche reminds us that punk, for all its laddish, macho image, was also full of creative, outspoken women. It’s to the film’s credit that those women (and the women they inspired) get to have their say in the movie.
“I think women in punk are often overlooked,” Bell says. “I do feel it’s a shame that the male artists are more prominent. There’s a lot of talk about Sex Pistols, The Clash. And they were great bands. But there were many women involved in punk. They didn’t always have an easy time of it, so it was really important that the voices of women, of female artists, were prominent in this film.
“There’s still a lot of improvement that needs to happen for female artists today. The music industry is still a relatively hostile place for many of them. The issues that my mum was dealing with are issues that female artists are dealing with today. So it was really important for us to make a femalecentric film. Hopefully other young artists find some inspiration in her work.”
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche receives its world premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival today and will stream until Tuesday. Visit glasgowfilm.org/Glasgow-film-festival for details
My mum was unconventional. She wasn’t your stereotypical pop star