on 17 August 2007
If you like Bikini Kill, Be Your Own Pet, yeah yeah yeahs, well, they wouldn't exist without this album. Much as the other reviewer don't like Polly Styrene's vocals, they've sure been influential, becoming the standard for girl punk yelping. The difference with the Spex is that they always let you know they were having fun, more than they were raging. See old clips of them, they're smiling, not spitting. The lyrics are funny, the kind of pop culture trash that the B-52s and early Blondie were also into. The difference is that X Ray Spex were British, and they were self aware enough to make fun of themselves as much as anyone else. forget clash, sex pistols, no one wants to sound like them today, the really influential punk groups were this lot, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Undertones and TV personalities - their influence is still widespread.
So much bull**it has been written and said about Punk Rock since it was propagandised into a formula by journos obsessed with politics and listeners who wanted nothing but the same old cliches again and again. This process started as early as 1977 when The Clash annoyingly brought the kind of sixties 'social realism' protest ideal into Punk Rock, transforming it into mere Punk (note the distinction).
X Ray Spex were (along with The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Damned, The Adverts and Alternative TV) one of the true early UK Punk Rock bands and like their peers, their watchword was originality. Fronted by half Somali-half White vocalist Poly Styrene and female saxophonist Laura Logic, Spex were signed within three gigs, Logic departing after the initial 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!' single included as one of the bonus tracks on this disc.
How did this originality manifest itself ? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint today's riot grrls by saying that feminism was not overtly on the agenda, making Poly's fronting of the band a more successfully feminist triumph by default -in 1977 Punk Rock UK, women did not have to compete with the boys, they were treated as equals and knew it, so they never had to bleat too much about oppression -Punk Rock transcended such boundaries. What counted in Punk Rock was that one was an individual.
Styrene instead employed a conceptual approach to her lyrics that resulted in a remarkably consistent worldview that anticipated postmodernism -possibly influenced by Andy Warhol's obsession with repetitious consumer images and his statments like 'I Want To Be A Machine'. In the world of the X Ray Spex, the consumer is King and Clown and this includes Punk Rockers themselves. The ersatz nature of a mass production world infects all of Poly's songs, updating the pop art detachment of early Roxy Music for the Punk Rock age. The Spex take on the consumers' need to possess goods for their own sake and their obsession with self-image make for far more interesting and artistically rewarding listening than the agit prop of The Clash et al. In this sense, The Spex have more in common with Devoto's orginal Buzzcocks and the album tracks by The Sex Pistols, where the personal is the political.
The saxophone sets the album apart from the other bands of the era (with the exception of The Stranglers, who used it on their debut single) while reminding us of The Spex' musical influences -the aforementioned Roxy and side two of The Stooges 'Fun House'. Poly's unique keening screech and the amphetamine blast of the guitar/bass/drums backline ensure that the album is pure UK Punk Rock authenticitiy from start to finish.
Not satisfied with the infectious, ecstatic gleefully violent riffing and primeval free-jazz overblowings of tracks like 'Obsessed With You', the Spex also used synthesizers on the title track and 'Warrior In Woolworths', displaying interests in a wider range of tone colours than all of their contemporaries except the magnificent Stranglers. But the best track of all is the breathtsking 'Let's Submerge', the greatest subway train song ever recorded, whose imagery and melody give the listener a real taste of the excitement and fear of Punk Rock London in 1977:
the vinyl vultures dressed to kill/the dagger glares from Richard Hell
is just one stunning snippet from Styrene.
Perhaps it was for the best that there was only ever one Spex album - few of the authentic Punk Rock groups managed more and it was better than they flicked the amp switches off than faded away.
This CD contains all the Spex original recordings, including B sides. It is also a far better bet than the new DVD Audio version, which has fewer tracks and is mixed incorrectly, tnere being an absurd excess of bass in the balance that was never there in the original recordings.
Poly styrene mixed race, part Somali female, London cultured, blasted her way with power and insight to ignite the funeral pyre. TOTP became an ironic staple for the anti girl pin up. No short cropped hair and overalls for Poly. She wanted to turn the world day glo. She showed that women did not need to display their bodies to get male attention. Instead they could display their intellect. Polystyrene what did they do to you? Born too soon and now look around, it was as if they never heard as you blazed across the universe.
The lyrics are a stunning trenchant critique of mindless, soulless hoarding of buy, buy, buy, herd trough snuffling, keeping up with jones, outright stupidity. X Ray saw things as they really were. Ouch, it was very ugly. They saw the present and foresaw the future. They were a pre Gang of 4.
Intelligence is never equated with pop, and at the time, it was not equated with women. They just sang about love. These lyrics were searing, light years away from Shappupyaface, Toast or even the noodling doodling, hand down the zipper, excess of Drog Rok.
"Germ free Adolescence," outlines obsessive compulsive disorder; scrubbing away 3 x per day. How many times has a song about psychological collapse reached the top 20 and become a hit? "I live of you," highlights greed and power, the pimp beating the whore and she just screams for more. Stated clearly in the midst of the feminist revolution this deals with abuse as an addiction to violence. How the middle classes hated it. She revealed a reality everyone wanted to paint in terms of noir/blanche. Polly painted violence in dayglo colours but the born again feminists saw good and evil in their good old God/Satanist religiously bigoted tinged worlds.
Genetic engineering; combines prescience and clairvoyance, the mark of a new beginning. "I am a poseur," makes the fake invisible, the diletante, the follower of fashions, the ambulance chaser, pancake on their face bopping about to self obsession. They inhabit the world, but never exist within it. The one fingered salute to emasculation, rope binds of mortgages, sex, relationships and jobs, bangs a beat in "Oh Bondage up yours," a clever use of puns to usurp the sexual fetish, turning it into a statement of the political realm.
"Artificial" another critique of everything turning erstatz, unreal and essentially unhealthy. This was 1978, the beginning of test tube babies, genetic engineering, artificial insemination, x ray bombarded food and other huge changes in living and being. It was another form of social revolution ignored by Peter Frampton, Yes and Genesis.
"Identity," another take on psychological health. The sense of self fractures with the constant bombardment of images on "who to be" whilst ignoring "how to be."
Ok, so now a new way has been sign posted, listen again afresh mr and mrs mockerney. Diluted to its essence, this was a postmodern critique of everything held dead. You can listen to this without having to wade through the tedium of Deleuze, Guattari, Giddens, Lyotard, Foucault and Baudrillard. Save yourself £28K per year at Eton or Harrow and the £30-50K for a university education.
Polystyrene dissected the world in two minute blasts, distilling the complex sociological, psychological, philosophical debates and arguments into easily digested situationalist quips. Sad, turdious professors should be taken out into the streets and flogged for obfusication. Poly styrene then made it all implacably F.U.N. music to pogo to.
Lesser hardended souls who bleet about noise,cacophony, shrillness miss the sharpened stilleto point. This is it and how it was always meant to be. By all means enjoy eating your white sliced Kingsmill, but do not judge all culinary delights by your particular taste.
These were no cooing love songs to soothe the insurance salesmans beaten brow. They were a necessary call to arms, to destroy the the very existence of these tedious parasites.
King Henry V whispering to his men at Agincourt, with backing harmonies by the Duke of York! Noooo if that is what you want try the green door at the end of the rainbow!
on 18 August 2012
I'd just like to thank Amazon for this amazing product, just got into Poly Styrene and Xray spex, sadly, she's no longer with us. :( Great lyrics, great tunes, what more could you ask for!
Only downside, case broke trying to unwrap it from the cellophane:(
Buy it, and enjoy it!!!!
on 25 March 2013
I loved the singles 'Oh! Bondage...' and 'Identity' back in the day, but never had the album. Thought I'd give it a go a few decades later and it's a bit disappointing to be honest. There is too much sameiness in the songs, plus I find Poly's singing irritating after more than a few tracks. Having said that I love the saxophone, and the overall sound of the band is a good strong punk sound, There is a bit of '77 punk caricature about the Spex, but there are also some intelligent lyrics. I hate the cover artwork, but I suppose it is of its day, and it does go with the ideas in the song-writing. I am listening to the album as I write this, and the way Poly introduces 'Genetic Engineering' makes me cringe, but when the song gets going it is pretty good. I don't love this album, but I don't regret buying it. X-Ray Spex were an important punk band with an original sound and some good ideas. I love the track 'I am a Cliche', but Poly was no cliche.