‘Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story’
By Celeste Bell & Zoë Howe
(Omnibus Press 2019)
Part of the Writing on the Wall Festival
Poly Styrene’s influence has been exponential. Those who loved her work have taken her attitude and creativity beyond the world of culture, as well as expanding the world that culture touches. So many of these people were at an event to launch Poly’s biography with her daughter Celeste Bell and writer Zoë Howe. Madeline Heneghan is one of those who have taken her legacy beyond the world of music and she brought a rare level of passion as chair of the event. Thanks to Writing On The Wall for making this happen and to Steve Moss for bringing together a review of both an event and a book, as well as an interview, and creating an enlightening testimony for the life of Poly.
From my first glimpse of Poly Styrene on Top Of The Pops with X-Ray Spex in 1978, I have been fascinated by this unique, visionary character. It took me the best part of another decade before I acquired the slim volume of releases and came to really appreciate her genius. My love for this elusive icon has remained with me ever since. Since the shock of her premature passing in 2011 her reputation has grown, and so the publication of a beautiful new book on her life comes as a welcome gift, helping to dispel some of the myths that have grown around her.
The book is co-authored by Zoë Howe, writer of several music biographies including one on the children of famous musicians, and Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell. I was moved to tears by my first sight of Celeste on TV a few years ago, so striking is her resemblance to her mother. She last spoke in Liverpool in 2017 and made a welcome return to the British Music Experience for the closing event of this year’s Writing On The Wall festival. The event was chaired by Madeline Heneghan, an emotional and enthusiastic fan of Poly’s work, and the room was filled with other devotees, many of whom had attended X-Ray Spex shows and never forgotten Poly’s performances. Her attitude and vocals striking in their emotive power.
Celeste: Punk was an art movement as well, and maybe it wasn’t considered too cool to be a kind of soul singer. But my mum was doing it in a punky way. I guess later on other bands did get into that full-on venting thing. That was what she was aiming for…..That is in the family, an ability to shout and yell. My mum was a very emotional and passionate person. She was putting everything into those vocals.
Zoë: I think you can hear that ability to express those that extra level of feelings and emotion in Ari Up as well, Siouxsie Sioux as well. Maybe it is a gender thing, who knows, it is interesting.
‘Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story’ takes the form of an oral history, amassed through interviews with numerous friends, family, colleagues and fans, as well as archive interviews with Poly herself and filled with new insights, even for an avowed fan. It is also illustrated with many artefacts from the large archive Celeste inherited of memorabilia and her mother’s writings and drawings.
Celeste: I had a huge responsibility in terms of my mother’s legacy and making sure it is kept alive, and also to young people who are discovering her for the first time. Then there’s my personal feelings. I knew a lot growing up with her, but I got to interview so many people who knew her or were influenced by her. That was quite special. Also, I discovered how much of the artwork she did for herself and that was the most pleasant surprise.
Her Somali father is thought to have arrived in Liverpool as a stowaway (not a ‘dispossessed aristocrat’ as Poly sometimes told interviewers) and spent some time here before making his way down to London to work on the docks. Osman Said emerges as an important and fascinating figure in Poly’s story, despite not being very present in the young Marion Elliott’s life and her not having any interest in Somali culture or getting to know her father until much later in her life. She felt a great deal of shame in being the child of unmarried parents and unfairly placed a lot of the blame on her mother, despite Osman never having any intention of marrying her and Poly herself opposing the idea of him coming to live with the family some years later.
However, there is a sense that she did inherit an approach to her work from her father. Her songs displayed a maturity and broadness of vision that was more than rare in the music industry. It seems possible that the Somali story-telling tradition has been an unconscious influence on her song-writing.
Celeste: One thing that is so remarkable is that I can’t say where it came from. It is not like she came from a long line of artists. It’s possible that it came from Somalia. My grandfather wasn’t particularly artistic, but his sister was something of a poet. She was involved with groups of women that she would lead in Sufi, and maybe my mum tapped into that history of oral storytelling.
Zoë: Also, she had a background of wanting to be an actor as well. And maybe that theatre side was an aspect she brought to her writing, the ability to observe everything in a different way. To mimic and reflect things. So, there was that life experience that other people in the punk movement didn’t have that fed in as well.
Poly’s mother also appears as a strong character, not least for bringing up three mixed-race children single-handedly in a time of overt racism, moving from Bromley to London to try and offset this, and later helping to bring up Celeste when her mother’s health declined. Like Poly, Joan Elliott was hospitalised and given ECT after a breakdown. Mental health is a central plank of this story, with Poly’s life increasingly affected by her illness. She was diagnosed later in life as bipolar, having been previously misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, understandably as she exhibited all the symptoms when in her psychotic phases. While clearly tragic for her and all around her, one wonders how differently this life would have turned out without this burden. The role of her health in her utter fearlessness and individuality is hard to ignore. Celeste and Zoë discussed the way that her condition meant Poly often didn’t have the fear of consequences that many of us have and was able to make brave leaps into the unknown, like running away from home at 15 with £3 in her pocket or organising the 2008 reunion show single-handedly after years away from the music industry. She had always been a strong and fierce character even as a child, writing her first song at school as a protest against a disliked dinner lady and getting into trouble for teaching it to her classmates!
Her mixed-race identity also clearly affected the way she fitted into society. Celeste spoke of the idea that as an outsider Poly was free from creative shackles – she didn’t belong anywhere and consequently could be whatever and whoever she wanted. Her many name changes over the course of her life were just one demonstration of that.
However, the main reason this book exists and that most people will be reading it is the two short years of Poly’s life she spent as a member of X-Ray Spex, inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols on Hastings Pier on her 19th birthday. Having always wanted to be a performer, she became a bold and compelling singer despite her sensitivity and discomfort at being the object of attention. Poly didn’t really identify as a punk so much seeing it as an opportunity to channel her art and individuality (Celeste says she doesn’t remember Poly ever listening to punk at home while they were living together).
Zoë: Punk was a vehicle for her. She would have done exactly what she wanted anyway.
Celeste: She was experimenting with other music like pop and reggae, but what was good about punk for my mum was that she could be experimental in terms of her image and lyrics and could really push the envelope. She could also sing in her own accent and not an American one.
Zoë: She was unusual in the punk firmament in that there was a crossover appeal into the mainstream. She created this plastic princess that was more engaging and accessible. She was colourful, fun and smiling. So, you would find her in interviews the tabloids and the teenage magazines that wouldn’t cover say The Clash or John Lydon. It is always interesting to see artists who have that humour and lightness of touch that means they can deliver a serious message without bludgeoning away. It is a subtle power that she had.
Her lyrics stood out from anything else happening at the time as looking outward at the world (not writing love songs as was expected of female singer-songwriters) and being ahead of her time in writing about consumerism and objectification.
Zoë: I think there was an awareness that she was doing something different. She was looking outward. She wasn’t writing about boyfriends or crushes, but about issues like consumerism. The Listerine on the bathroom shelf. She was reflecting what was around her. A lot of people call her anti this and that, but in fact she was just shining a light on these issues. This is what is happening in the world, what does it all mean.
Her attitude to life can clearly be viewed today as feminist, although that was a label she would have shied away from at the time, 70s feminism being much more rule-bound and restrictive than today’s and not something this breaker of all rules would have wanted to be tied down by. However, she was enthusiastic about playing a fundraiser for the National Abortion Campaign and was determined not to be restricted as a female.
It was a cruel but fairly inevitable irony that after writing about commodification she then found herself increasingly becoming a commodity herself, which led to her abrupt change of career and style, making softer music motivated by the desire to avoid the rigours of touring, and her withdrawal from the public eye for many years.
Zoë: I think there was a split, but I don’t think that was to do with health. They were already going in different places creatively.
Celeste: I think my mum was over X-Ray Spex by 1978. She couldn’t play the same music over again and again, she had to express herself in different ways. That was not going to be her life, she had to evolve.
Poly made several trips up north to play at Eric’s through 1977-78 with X-Ray Spex and one of these shows is captured in the BBC Arena documentary ‘Who Is Poly Styrene?’, one of very few times Eric’s was caught on camera. This show also depicts an uncomfortable Poly being interviewed on the Mersey Ferry, and the way in which her mental health would impact on her career is foreshadowed.
Celeste: On the Arena documentary they are on the Liverpool ferry and there is a journalist interviewing her and he asks her about Falcon, who was her manager at the time and partner, although they were on and off. He says that he seems like your protector, and she says “oh, I’m not sure about that”. He was in many ways supporting her, but maybe taking advantage as well. I think in the industry, the people who are looking after you are also making a living through you.
Zoë: I think it’s important to remember how little mental health was known and talked about in those days. We still have a long way to go, but there was less empathy and understanding back then. I think, say Paul Dean from X-Ray Spex found it hard to handle when she would say strange things, but he didn’t have the capacity. He was just a kid. Now people may have more space for that.
Celeste: There is more of a conversation now, and less of a stigma, but within the music industry, it is still a real problem. Young people and artists are still dying. Amy Winehouse had bi-polar disorder and was self-medicating. Britney Spears is still under the conservatorship of her father, and clearly is bi-polar and under constant medication, but she is still being pushed out there to keep the machine going. That is the sad reality with a lot of artists. This is the conflict between staying well, and continuing your career going, with all these people relying on that career. We haven’t moved past that.
Zoë: There has been so much enabling. Even if someone isn’t suffering from bi-polar, that is still going on.
Despite all the troubles her illness brought and the many horror stories told by interviewees of her behaviour, all without fail speak very highly of her and with a great deal of love. This is of course so of Celeste too, who had it harder than most. She has spoken previously of ‘having to be the adult’ in the relationship when her mother became too ill to look after herself, never mind her daughter, and I for one am grateful that Poly was fortunate enough to have a daughter who was prepared to take on that responsibility despite their often difficult relationship.
A large part of the book is taken up with Poly’s involvement with the Hare Krishna movement and here is where the presence of multiple interviewees is at its strongest. There are several differing perspectives on whether this association was beneficial to her or not and the reader is left to make up their own mind, although Celeste admits to having trouble with it and is very open about having a pretty tough childhood, going to live with her nan for some years to get away from the closed Krishna community, and Poly herself is said to have felt somewhat exploited by them later on. Despite this, her faith remained with her to the end of her life and helped her tremendously in her last months. The staff at the hospice talk of her remaining upbeat even in the face of death.
She passed away just as she made the last of several brief comebacks but lived long enough to read the positive reviews of her last album, still as multi-dimensional and inspirational as ever. The announcement of her death was as defiant as ever, stating not that she had ‘lost her battle against cancer’ but that she had ‘won her battle to go to higher places’.
Poly Styrene operated on her own terms and stood up to the industry, demonstrating that you didn’t need to be conventionally glamorous to be a successful woman in music. Whilst her creative output was not plentiful (a mere 16 songs from the original incarnation of X-Ray Spex), what she did leave us continues to inspire to this day.
‘Dayglo’ is a vital acquisition for anyone interested in her story and presents her as a fully-rounded flesh and blood person with all her faults but will only deepen the respect felt towards her. All at the event in Liverpool left knowing a little more about her and hoping not only that Celeste will resume her own musical career and continue the family line, but that when the long-delayed documentary about Poly’s life is finally completed that Celeste will return to Liverpool to present it. She knows she has many friends here and is assured of a warm reception.
To find out more about WOW…
Please buy the book from Liverpool’s genuinely independent bookstore…