X-Ray Spex

TrackAlbum / Single
The Day The World Turned Day-GloEMI INT 553
Oh Bondage Up Yours!Virgin VS 189
Germ Free AdolescentsEMI INT 573
Crystal ClearLive At The Roundhouse 2008
CigarettesConscious Consumer
Art-I-FicialGermfree Adolescents
IdentityJohn Peel Session 20/02/78
Highly InflammableEMI INT 583
I Can't Do AnythingLive At The Roxy 1977
Warrior In WoolworthsGermfree Adolescents

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Contributor: Neil Waite

I first experienced ‘X-Ray Specs’ at the age of 7, but the phrase became synonymous with disappointment. In my happy childhood in my parents’ guesthouse by the sea in Eastbourne the highlight of my week would be when Michele, my elder sister, walked me the 500 yards down to Freddy Payne’s sweet shop. (It’s no longer there but it was on the corner of Tideswell Road and Cavendish Place if you know the area). You needed 500 Bazooka Joe coupons to get X-Ray Specs as advertised on the back of the comic strips in every packet of gum. ‘You’ll be Amazed!’ the advert claimed, ‘See through absolutely anything.’ I was desperate for a pair. What small boy wouldn’t want to see through walls, and above all through clothing?

Kylie Minogue Christmas photo

After two years of chewing and collecting I had enough coupons. My mum sent them off with a 10p piece for p&p. The ‘specs’ arrived 6 weeks later, but to say I was disappointed doesn’t cover it. They had cheap plastic frames with swirly plastic lenses. With them on I could see nothing, let alone through anything. On the positive side they at least put me off chewing gum.

The next X-Ray Spex (now with an ‘x’) came into my life around 7 years later. This time no trade descriptions were contravened and they were delivered not by post but by John Peel. The John Peel show was on the wrong side of my sleep curfew, as for many of my age. So I listened under the covers, drifting in and out of consciousness. One night in 1978 my ears pricked up as John recounted in that wry style of his how he’d first seen the Undertones. I was instantly wide awake. He went on to say that some of the fans he’d met had not wanted to miss the X-Ray Spex session, which led him on to playing the song Germ Free Adolescents.

X-Ray Spex would record two superb Peel sessions and many bands were introduced to me this way. The BBC’s bureaucratic ‘needle time’, restricting the hours of music on record that could be broadcast, inadvertently gave rise to some now historic sessions. The X-Ray Spex sessions were both in 1978 and it’s the session version of Identity that I’m including. It has a raw power absent from the heavily produced if more refined studio rendering. The song is no less relevant today, with Poly’s critique of how women are portrayed in the media: ‘Do you see yourself in the magazine? When you see yourself does it make you scream?’ The distinctive saxophone sound was there from the start, though Steve Thompson was responsible on the BBC sessions. The 15-year-old Susan Whitby (aka Lora Logic), the band’s saxophonist, left in order to concentrate on school. As a schoolteacher myself I must approve, though my ‘inner punk’ is not so sure.

It all started in that hot summer of ˈ76. After seeing the Sex Pistols in Hastings, a 19-year-old Marianne Joan Elliot-Said placed an advert in the music press: ‘YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGETHER’. Changing her name to Poly Styrene (because polystyrene is a plastic throwaway product, she later said), she recruited Jack Stafford (aka Jak Airport) on guitar, Paul Dean on bass and Lora Logic on sax. Drummer Paul Hurding (later ‘Big Paul Hurding’) was poached from another band and the line-up was complete. They became regulars at the Man in the Moon pub in Chelsea before signing to Virgin, where they released their debut single Oh Bondage Up Yours!. And what a debut it was. It starts with the classic line ‘Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard, But I think … OH BONDAGE UP YOURS! 1-2-3-4!’ Rolling drums and power chords burst in and the signature sax careers through the song like a neighing horse. This brass addition didn’t quite fit the punk sound but it was part of the style of this left-field band.

X-Ray Spex photo

“No smart lad wants to be an industry doll” Poly Styrene

During the Chelsea period the band played at the Roxy. Thankfully, the show was recorded and Oh Bondage Up Yours! was included in the compilation, The Roxy London WC2. Further material came out in their own release, Live At The Roxy. From this I’m including I Can’t Do Anything, which later appeared on the debut album. The Roxy show was reportedly their second live performance and though the bass is a bit too high in the mix it shows the band to be competent musicians right from start. Poly comes across as relaxed in her role as lead singer. ‘I can’t do anything …’ she intones, to introduce the song, adding ‘I know’ as a quick reply to a barely audible heckler.

All this was a good year before John Peel introduced me to the band that night, as was their second single, The Day The World Turned Day-Glo. This became my favourite and (just) tops my Toppermost ten. Heavy pulsing guitar is overlaid by drums and sax and then Poly’s wailing vocals, with an irresistible chorus: ‘And watched the world turn Day-Glo, you know you know.’ The single’s great sleeve showed a globe with brightly coloured countries and the record was pressed in orange Day-Glo vinyl.

I was fascinated by Poly Styrene. Her style and look were so different from the pinups I was into, like Siouxsie and Debbie Harry. Poly countered the stereotypical female image with the way she dressed and of course her trademark dental brace. Punk was anti-establishment but X-Ray Spex also felt a little anti-punk. Also, with Poly’s exuberant delivery, I struggled to make out the lyrics in some songs. She disliked the artificiality of consumerism – then and for her whole life. Her songs expressed a yearning to get away from our world of bulimic consumption, though unfortunately this forward-looking notion passed me by back then.

In July 1978, Identity, their third single, came out. A few months later came a fourth single and the eagerly awaited debut LP. Germfree Adolescents had a white sleeve showing the band standing in test-tubes and, like the single, it was no disappointment. The songs are upbeat with great pop hooks and yet also with atmosphere. They have that thick guitar sound as well as subtler sax than in the Peel sessions. First is Art-I-Ficial – 30 seconds of vibrant guitar and drums, then Poly bursts in: ‘I know I’m art-i-ficial, but don’t put the blame on me, I was reared with appliances, in a consumer so-ci-e-ty’. All the songs follow the anti-consumerist theme, especially the nicely titled Warrior In Woolworths, in which Jak Airport’s initial distorted riff makes way for a gentle melody. Warrior appeared on the B-side of the band’s last single, Highly Inflammable, which has a great tune and a commercial feel, though it didn’t trouble the top 40.

Poly Styrene left in late 1979 after suffering exhaustion in the band’s only full UK tour. In 1980 she released her solo album Translucence, jazzier and tamer than her work with Spex. Reverting to the name of Marion Elliott, she spent the next few years out of the limelight bringing up her family. But this was not the end of X-Ray Spex. In September 1991 there was a surprise reunion at Brixton Academy and four years later the band re-entered the studio to record a follow-up to Germfree Adolescents at last, with original bassist Paul Dean and Lora Logic back on sax: Conscious Consumer.

Despite the awful sleeve, with poor photos and pointless blotches of colour, the songs were great, showing that Styrene’s voice was still just as good. The punky aggression was replaced by a more mellow delivery. Poly was still feeling strongly about consumerism with such songs as Junk Food Junky and the brilliant Cigarettes: ‘Still they want the money, still they want the tax. But the biggest serial killer is a heart attack’. The album embraced a range of moods with the more subdued India and Prayer For Peace. I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim Conscious Consumer was better than their debut, but it wasn’t a million miles away. Yet it wasn’t a commercial success and promotional work ended when Poly was hit by a fire engine, suffering a fractured pelvis. They were booked to play the next year at a punk festival in Blackpool but she pulled out at the last minute and was replaced by another vocalist aptly named ‘Poly Filla’. X-Ray Spex then disbanded. There was one final, exceptional document still to come, a mere two and a half years before Poly Styrene’s untimely death in 2011 – Live At The Roundhouse 2008.

My favourite track on Conscious Consumer is the hypnotic Crystal Clear, starting with pulsating keyboards that recall the Germfree sound. Though the studio version is great, I have chosen the cut from Live At The Roundhouse 2008. The song shows off Styrene’s voice as she sings ‘How do you feel now, I want to know?’, so softly you could be forgiven for thinking it was Debbie Harry. The Roundhouse show was recorded on 6th September 2008; it was a one-off reunion and it makes a poignant last recording, especially when Poly is joined by her daughter for the encore – Oh Bondage Up Yours! naturally.

Unlike some punk bands X-Ray Spex have not dated. Their genius was their song-writing, with themes no less relevant today. We lost Poly Styrene far too early, to cancer at the age of 53. Her legacy is underrated but her peers think highly of her. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1991 but enjoyed good friendships. John Lydon says in his autobiography “Anger Is An Energy”: “I thought she was borderline genius … She may have been inwardly depressed but outwardly she was good company, a fun person.”

There weren’t many like Poly in the music industry. The nearest may have been her friend Viv Albertine of the Slits, who spoke affectionately of Poly after her death. “Her voice was a cut above everyone else, as was her song-writing. She was the real thing. She was very pure of thought. She didn’t indulge in bad feelings. She was rather innocent, certainly very trusting.”

For me, X-Ray Spex epitomized what British punk was about; the DIY approach, the accessibility, the charismatic singer and, above all, thrilling songs.

 

Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

Jak Airport (c.1955–2004)

 

X-Ray Spex official website

Poly Styrene tributes (Facebook)

BBC “Arena” – Who Is Poly Styrene? (1979)

Poly Styrene solo discography

Essential Logic discography

Lora Logic discography

X-Ray Spex biography (iTunes)

Neil Waite, a teacher of 25 years, has written a number of posts for Toppermost. He lives in Hampshire, England and has always been a music and vinyl addict. He loves a wide variety of music genres but is particularly passionate about Punk. You’ll find him on twitter @NeilWaite1

TopperPost #521

2 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    May 15, 2016

    I too thought the x-ray specs were disappointing, though I didn’t think it was gum. Think I had a friend who had a pair. I also thought, still do, the band was terrific.

  2. Andrew Shields
    May 16, 2016

    Another one that takes me back to my youth. Remember seeing ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ on Top of the Pops. Thought it was a great song then and still do now. Didn’t really explore them further at the time but this list gives me a good place to start. Thanks for that.

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