One of the most exciting punk bands to emerge from Great Britain in the late 1970s, "X-Ray Spex were a wonderful, shambling musical mess of rebellion, fashion and fun," wrote Al Spicer for Rock: The Rough Guide. "Main muse Poly Styrene danced, yelped, screamed and sang over the joyful noise belted out by her punchy buzzsaw 'n' biscuits-tin band while fighting off Laura Logic's sax hooks from stage leftll with a smile of pure glee." The only problem with X-Ray Spex, say critics and fans alike, was that they didn't record enough music.
Despite their brief time together, X-Ray Spex nevertheless made a lasting impression on punk music. In addition to standing as one of the first outfits on the punk scene in the wake of the Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex was the first to use saxophone. The instrument's aggressive shrill, along with banshee-like vocals and fast pop melodies, dominated their sound. Furthermore, X-Ray Spex, in direct opposition to many of their contemporaries, emphasized the lighter side of the punk movement. Rather than relying solely on outright anger and aggression to express their purpose, X-Ray Spex instead embraced wit and mockery, and their look, shunning the stereotypical black clothing, was pure kitschots of plastic and latex in bright colors.
Fronted by two women, X-Ray Spex also inspired later female acts such as the alternative groups Sleater-Kinney and Luscious Jackson, though Styrene seemed like a rather unlikely punk role model. A decidedly un-glamorous lead vocalist remembered for her distinctive braces, she looked like a real, multidimensional person and not just an object. This sense of sexual reality, not asexuality, now represents what many women musicians look for in their heroes. Kate Schellenbach, drummer for Luscious Jackson, grew up admiring women-led British punk bands like the Slits and X-Ray Spex, both of which subverted conventional ideas about sexuality and beauty. In particular, Schellenbach was enamored by the presence of Styrene, a teenage girl that others could easily identify with. "She was sort of little, chubby, with bracesike any of us," she recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone's Donna Gaines.
Lead singer and songwriter Poly Styrene (born Marion Elliot), who had already recorded a pop single for GTO Records, was a member of the counter culture working in a stall at London's Beaufort Market when she decided to create a musical group that would serve as an alternative to the consumer-driven atmosphere of the mid 1970s. According to legend, a then- 19-year-old Styrene, after seeing the Sex Pistols open for Budgie at the Hastings Pier Pavilion in July of 1976, was instantly converted to punk music. Searching for other like-minded young punks, she placed an ad in Melody Maker magazine. Guitarist Jak Airport, bassist Paul Dean, and drummer B.P. Hurding answered the call. And with the addition of 16-year-old saxophonist and old school friend Laura Logic (born Susan Whitby), the lineup was complete.
Taking the band's name from childhood comic books sent to her from cousins living in the United States, Styrene next penned a handful of songs for X-Ray Spex in preparation for local pub gigs. The subject matter of Styrene's creations dealt with everyday life, reflecting both the beauty of and her disgust with the society she observed with a sense of wit and sometimes wry imagery. Musically, the group's repertoire varied among full-powered punk thrash ("Obsessed with You" and "I Am a Poser"), gentle teenage reflection ("I Can't Do Anything" and "Germ Free Adolescents"), and mocking, angry commentary ("The Day the World Turned Day-Glo"). At their most aggressive, "the images and music stormed round your head like an ancient fury with a severe hangover," suggested Spicer.
After their first professional gig at the Man in the Moon in the King's Row in London, X-Ray Spex quickly gained notice, landing a spot on a weekend youth television program and exploding onto the punk scene with one of the era's great songs, the feminist rally "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" Featured on the 1977 live compilation album for the Harvest label entitled The Roxy, London WC2, recorded at the group's second ever gig, the song, along with the early singles of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, is considered one of punk rock's great moments. With its screeching vocals and off-key saxophone chasing and baiting one another over driving guitar riffs, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" was typical of what would become X-Ray Spex's signature sound. The press reaction resulted in a studio version of the song. Although somewhat lackluster in comparison to the original live recording, the remake of "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" was released to a receptive record-buying public on Virgin Records as a single within weeks.
The pairing of Styrene and Logic proved a winning combination. However, Logic departed not long after the release of the live album and the single. As stated by some sources, she was persuaded to leave X-Ray Spex for receiving too much media attention at the expense of her bandmate. Remaining in the music business, Logic went on to form the five-piece group Essential Logic in 1978. Characterized by sax rhythms and punk elements, Essential Logic recorded a number of EPs and singles, but enjoyed only limited commercial success. Therefore, in 1979, Logic dissolved the group to embark on a solo career. As a soloist, she released the EP Wonderful Offer in 1981 and the album Pedigree Charm in 1982. Logic also worked as a guest musician with other groups including Red Krayola, The Raincoats, The Swell Maps, and the Finnish band Kolla Kestää. Incidentally, Logic's mother was a native of Finland, and in that country, the saxophonist became known as the "Godmother of Punk."
In the meantime, X-Ray Spex enlisted a new saxophonist named Rudi Thompson, who played with the group before their largest live audience at the Rock Against Racism concert in London on April 30, 1978. Historically, this eventful rally saved punk groups from being lumped together with neo-fascists. After charting three more hit singles that same yearIdentity," 'The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" and "Germ Free Adolescents"-Ray Spex released their full-length debut Germ Free Adolescence, which climbed to number 30 on the British album chart. For years to come, rock historians argued over whether the correct title should read "Adolescence" or "Adolescents," as the sleeve notes changed between the two words throughout.
Critics, however, agreed upon one thing: that Germ Free Adolescence was a great album. The songs, combining guitar-driven punk-pop with outrage and aggression, revealed feelings of alienation, a disdain for rampant commercialism, and a view of the world as an increasingly sterile and artificial place. Although Styrene expressed such sentiments through seemingly corporate-designed consumer fantasies rather than with straight-out attacks against the government, her words were still political; X-Ray Spex simply attacked from a different vantage point.
In April of 1979, X-Ray Spex returned with another hit single, "Highly Flammable." But by now, it appeared as though the group had run out of steam. Thompson left the group, and new saxophonist John Gun stepped in. Unfortunately, his arrival did not prevent X-Ray Spex from splitting up shortly afterward. Gun went on to found The Living Legend, while Hurding ended up joining the band Classix Nouveau, and Airport and Dean became the aptly titled duo of Airport & Dean. Styrene, who never felt totally comfortable with the idea of being a pop star, backed away from the music business altogether.
Renouncing the material world, Styrene reverted to her real name of Marion Elliott and turned toward religion as a member of the Hari Krishnas. She returned to music in 1980 with a beautiful solo album entitled Translucence, a set that found Styrene abandoning the loud guitars of X-Ray Spex in favor of a quiet, jazzy sound. Spending the next several years raising a family, the singer emerged from retirement again in 1986 with an EP titled Gods and Goddesses, then had a brief stint with The Dream Academy in 1990.
In September of 1991, fans were elated when a re-grouped X-Ray Spex played a surprise sell-out show at Brixton Academy, and rumors began to circulate about a permanent reunion. Although the group would not enter the studio until some four years later, the result was well worth the wait. On October 31, 1995, the band released a new studio album called Conscious Consumer, written and produced by Styrene and recorded during the summer of that year with original members Logic and Dean. The standout track, "Junk Food Junkie," could have easily been on Germ Free Adolescence, yet the greater musical maturity of X-Ray Spex was evident. In support of their comeback, the band embarked on a tour of England and Japan in the fall of 1996.
"Oh Bondage, Up Yours!"/"I Am a Cliché," Virgin, 1977.
"Identity"/"Let's Submerge," EMI International, 1978.
"The Day the World Turned Day-Glo"/"l Am a Poser," EMI International, 1978.
"Germ Free Adolescents"/"Age," EMI International, 1978.
"Highly Flammable"/"Warrior in Woolworths," EMI International, 1979.
The Roxy, London WC2 (live compilation album), includes "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" Harvest, 1977.
Germ Free Adolescence, EMI International, 1978; reissued on CD with bonus tracks including "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!," 1993.
X-Ray Spex: Live at the Roxy, Receiver, 1991.
Conscious Consumer, Receiver, 1995.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Graff, Gary and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Rolling Stone, November 13, 1997.
Punknet 77-Ray Spex, http://www.hiljaiset.sci.fi/punknet/xraysp_e.htm#DISCO (September 26, 2000).
X-Ray Spex, (September 26, 2000).
X-Ray Spex Fan Page, http://www.terrapin.co.uk/xrayspex (September 26, 2000).
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