[9 August 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard… but I think, “OH BONDAGE! UP YOURS!!! ONETWOTHREEFOUR!”
During the initial punk explosion in both the UK and America, there was no shortage of highly talented female artists, but nobody managed as potent a combination of rage, wickedly acerbic social commentary, pop hooks, and pure rock ‘n’ roll fun quite like X-Ray Spex did in 1977 and 1978. Led by a precociously talented, 20-year-old young woman of English-Somalian descent who named herself Poly Styrene, X-Ray Spex made a brief, but influential splash during punk’s initial heyday, kicked off by Styrene’s unforgettable, empowering rallying cry at the beginning of the band’s debut single, “Oh! Bondage Up Yours!” Over a simple punk rock arrangement, Styrene howled sarcastically in a powerful, upper-register scream, “Bind me tie me chain me to the wall/ I wanna be a slave to you all,” accompanied by a 16-year-old saxophone player named Lora Logic. The combination of sax solos and punk rock at its most feral was an odd combination, as if the musical Grease had been transported to late 1970s London, but as strange as it was, it was an effective gimmick for a while, as X-Ray Spex enjoyed a brief flirtation with mainstream success in England, before disappearing from the face of the earth for nearly 20 years.
X-Ray Spex remains one of punk rock’s most underrated bands, especially in North America, primarily because their 1977 debut album Germ Free Adolescents took a good 14 years to make its way Stateside, but the record is so timeless, so bursting with energy, it’s never too late to listen to it for the first time. Thanks to a snazzy re-release of the album, complete with nearly a dozen bonus tracks, Germ Free Adolescents not only shows younger listeners where Corin Tucker and Kathleen Hanna copped their vocal styles from, but it both skewers and celebrates consumer culture so brilliantly, it feels as pertinent now as it ever has.
As her London peers sung about anarchy, life on the dole, and the growing irrelevance of the monarchy, Styrene chose to focus more on consumerism and the increasing artificiality making its way into every facet of popular culture, and the theme runs rampant on Germ Free Adolescents. “I know I’m artificial/ But don’t put the blame on me, she sings on the opening track, “Art-I-Ficial,” “I was reared with appliances/ In a consumer society.” On “Identity”, her attacks on the airbrushed female body image as portrayed in the media sound even more relevant today (“Do you see yourself in the magazine?/ When you see yourself/ Does it make you scream?”), while she takes a poke at youth culture on the title track (“I know you’re antiseptic/ Your deodorant smells nice”). Plus, with a name like Poly Styrene, it becomes more than obvious the lady has an obsession with modern material goods, as her songs mention synthetic products like plastic, latex, nylon, polypropylene, as well as name brands, such as Kleenex, Weetabix, and Woolworth’s.
The subject matter all seems so volatile, but it’s all brilliantly underscored by some jubilant, upbeat rock ‘n’ roll. By the time the album was recorded, Lora Logic’s charmingly amateurish saxophone had been replaced by several seasoned session musicians (Rudi Thompson would eventually be hired as a full-time member), and the constant presence of slick sax solos adds a slick sheen to the music that matches Styrene’s lyrical themes. Jak Airport’s guitar avoids the buzzsaw simplicity of Steve Jones and the reggae-infused licks of Mick Jones, instead going for classic, Chuck Berry-infused riffs, as drummer BP Hurding provides relentless four-on-the-floor drum beats throughout. Styrene’s vocal melodies effortlessly tread the line between catharsis and bubblegum, best exemplified by such songs as “Obsessed With You”, the insanely catchy “I Can’t Do Anything”, the more pensive title track, and the fantastic “The Day the World Turned Dayglo”, which boasts the same kind of retro swagger that The Cramps would perfect several years later.
However, it’s the great “Oh! Bondage Up Yours!” that remains the band’s finest moment, the passion in Styrene’s singing giving listeners chills. The song kicks off the CD’s impressive collection of bonus tracks, including the memorable B-side “I Am Cliché”, as well as two Peel sessions from 1978.
Of all the classic recordings from 1977 and 1978, Germ Free Adolescents remains one of the smartest and accessible of the lot, but as Never Mind the Bollocks and The Clash have gone on to become part of the classic rock canon, X-Ray Spex have sadly been ignored by many. Styrene would disappear from the public eye a couple years after the album came out, becoming a Hare Krishna in the early 1980s, only to resurface in 1995, releasing the Spex’s follow-up Consumer Consciousness, but it would prove to be impossible to duplicate the near-flawless debut. A record that pre-dated the ferocious, smart feminist punk of the Olympia, Washington Riot Grrrl scene of the early 1990s, it sounds especially prescient today, as our consumer culture continues to spiral out of control. As opposed to the usual crap we buy ourselves every day, this splendid reissue is truly money well spent.