Poly Styrene was working the promotion for her latest album from her hospice bed, conducting phone interviews and tweeting her personal and professional status to her fans and followers. “It’s been a bit of a battle fighting this cancer but hey ho I’m still alive,” she posted on Twitter. Later, “Hoping & praying I can fight this cancer. Thank u all 4 ur positive vibes, I’m overwhelmed, ur keeping me in the land of living. Luv Poly X.”
But Styrene lost her battle with advance breast cancer, dying Monday at age 53.
Styrene made her significant impact on music as leader of the British punk band X-Ray Spex. It was a brief moment — just one album, 1978’s “Germ Free Adolescents” — but what a moment. Her atonal rants against consumerism and conformity were early paving stones on the path to the riot grrrls of the 1990s, the tough flamboyance of singers such as Beth Ditto (Gossip) and Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), even Lady Gaga’s theatrical empathy for the alienated.
Countless boomer musicians formed bands after seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; Styrene, born Marianne Elliott-Said in 1957, formed a band after seeing the Sex Pistols on her 18th birthday.
She introduced herself to the world with X-Ray Spex, moaning the opening lines to their punk classic, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / but I think — oh bondage, up yours!”
This influential debut came after Patti Smith had already claimed the mantle of “godmother of punk,” and before Morrissey donned hearing aids and plain clothes to make himself seem more misfit. Half-Somalian, wearing braces and fluorescent thrift-shop fashions, Styrene was authentic punk outcast through and through, howling with contempt of modern consumer culture ins songs like “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” and “Warrior in Woolworths.” “The whole world lives off of everybody,” she belted in “I Live Off You.” “See we’re gonna be exploited / by somebody, by somebody.” In “Oh Bondage,” she continued: “I consume you all … I don’t think at all.”
X-Ray Spex, she recently told the Guardian, were “not trying to be like anybody else, but being yourself. High energy, youthful music, creativity. Better than expressing yourself through crime. Being in a band, saying what you want. It was better than being in a girl gang.”
The band, however, fell apart after the first album, and Styrene recorded a solo album, “Translucence,” before following her anti-materialist beliefs and joining a Hare Krishna sect. She resurfaced in 1986 with a bright, perfectly pop EP, “God’s and Godesses” [sic]. By 1995, X-Ray Spex reunited for a second album, “Conscious Consumer.”
More solo work followed, including “Flower Aeroplane” in 2004 and “Generation Indigo,” the album scheduled for U.S. release Tuesday — the day after she died.
She is survived by her daughter, Celeste Bell-Dos Santos, leader of the band Debutant Disco.