Poly Styrene's Biography
By Celeste Bell
(See also: Offical Poly Styrene website.)
It was on a rare English heat wave during the summer of 1957 when a punk-rock icon was born.
Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Catford teddy boys terrorised the genteel streets of Bromley, a leafy post-war South London suburb. The headlines were dominated by Cold War, Korea and the Canal. British housewives had discovered Hoover, and the Empire docked in the harbours of Bristol, bringing with it a warm alien breeze of multi-culturalism.
Poly Styrene was a product of this new and decidedly modern Britain. Her mother was a young legal secretary from the seaside town of Hastings, who would seek out the bright lights of London, armed with an advanced knowledge of shorthand and a typing-speed of 60 wpm. Her life took a dramatic turn when she met Poly’s father, a young dispossessed Somali stow-away who had made his way from Somalia to Britain via Australia working on a merchant navy vessel for his passage. His English was poor and his income modest, but for Joan, whose only contact with Africa had been through childhood trips to the local cinema, the lure of the exotic proved irresistible.
When a teenage Poly Styrene encountered the notoriety of the tabloids, much was made of her mixed-raced parentage and it was assumed that songs such as ‘Identity’ were autobiographical. In the 1970’s Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ warning against a multi-cultural England still permeated the thought of much of white Britain and it was assumed that mixed-race meant ‘mixed up’. Poly herself maintained that despite the inevitable issues encountered as a mixed-race she was resolutely proud of her genetic heritage and ancestry commenting that "I’ve always been happy, and well, rather intrigued, by a family tree that includes Spanish Princes, Celts, Imams, Ancient Bretons and Somaliland tribal chiefs that descend from Abraham and Sarah”.
Just as Poly was quick to dismiss the stereotypes concerning race, so too did she view the tabloid obsession with her ‘tough’ life of hardships and her so-called ‘wild youth’, with similar disdain. Poly grew up in a tenement block in Brixton, though these were days before the ghetto was fabulous, and unlike many of the young urbanites today, Poly never intended to play on her street cred:
“Mum was forced to leave Bromley because she felt it was too white and judgemental for me to grow up in and that we could never be accepted. That’s why we moved to Brixton. But although life was a bit austere, we were always well fed, clean and respectable – mum was a legal secretary, and where we lived that was considered posh!”
Indeed, from a very young age, Poly realised she was destined for an artistic life of non-conformity.
“I was fascinated by Hollywood glamour. I went through a stage in my teens where I would model myself on a golden era starlet. I always felt uncomfortable living in social housing – it just wasn’t me, I was always fiercely independent”.
Poly does accept however that her upbringing did give her what her public school educated manager would later describe as a ‘puritanical work ethic’. Poly was a young woman with considerable ambition and worked very hard to get to where she wanted. But just where did Poly Styrene want to be?
“I wanted adventure, fame, financial independence, all the things a starry eyed young girl could wish for”.
But unlike most teenage dreamers, Poly was determined to make her dreams a reality.
“I was never happy at school. Playground politics always disturbed my concentration and I wasn’t particularly good with authority. Mum taught me to type and I soon realised that it would be either school or the office. Neither option filled me with much enthusiasm”.
Indeed when running away from home at the age of fifteen to tour the rock-festivals that still lingered on in the forgotten corners of the post-hippie English countryside it can be seen that Poly was escaping a future of mundanity that she feared more than the dangers of the road.
Poly’s hippie adventure would last for over two years, and when she finally returned home at the age of eighteen, she was more determined than ever to establish her identity in the world. She started by setting up her own boutique in Beaufort Market, on the Kings Road, in Chelsea. It was indeed the name of the fashion label that she used for her home spun autographed couture, that would give her the art-i-ficial pseudonym and punky-trade-marks that she would later adopt as front-woman of X-ray Spex.
Poly Styrene was born.
“I started with nothing but a few melodic lyrics and a lot of determination. I got a band together and within a very short space of time we were internationally famous and in the charts!”
Such overnight success was not just down to luck. Poly and her band injected a much-needed burst of colour and fun into a punk scene that was increasingly nihilistic and destructive. Although not lacking the necessary anger and energy to make it on the scene. X-ray Spex never took themselves too seriously, and soon distinguished themselves by their difference to the rest. Poly herself wasn’t the archetypal pop princess. This unconventionally pretty youth with short hair, tooth-braces and a war-helmet perched cockily on her head was the tank-girl-rebel long before the angry grunge queens of the present day.