'Indentity' Confirmed: X-ray Spex - Live at the Roundhouse London 2008 (CD/DVD)

X-ray Spex

X-ray Spex - Live at the Roundhouse London 2008

Label: Year Zero
US Release Date: 2009-12-01
UK Release Date: 2009-12-01

It remains one of the great moments in an otherwise factually questionable film. As the members of the Sex Pistols (or in this case, Alex Cox's interpretation of the band) stand around in a local bar, acting bemused, a raucous band with what looks like a little girl as frontwoman takes the stage and blows the roof off the place. As the aggressive lyrics argue for this quirky adolescent's desire to be a "slave for you all", the cinematic audience erupts in a maelstrom of unbridled pogo passion. If you didn't know your punk history, if you failed in following the mid '70s eruption of musical DIY in England, you'd never know this was Sid and Nancy's dolled up representation of one of the eras greatest acts - X-ray Spex, and their amazing songwriter/singer, Poly Styrene.

Before she abandoned the three chord snarl for the equally daring life of a Hari Krishna, the group's de facto leader (actually named Marian Joan Elliot from Bromley, Kent in the UK) was also the movement's main spokesperson. She had only one other lyrical equal - and even he (the Pistol's Johnny Rotten) couldn't keep up with her superb youth in retail revolt spirit. With sentiments that both mocked and embraced the shallow, consumerism in which she lived, the lax country she came from, and the dead-eyed kids she communicated with everyday, she became the poet laureate of the lacking. Combined with a drive that only comes from being young (18) naïve, and unafraid, Styrene created the era's most enduring statement (the amazing album Germ Free Adolescents) before purposefully pulling herself from the limelight.

Even today, songs like "Art-I-Ficial", "I'm a Cliché", "Warrior in Woolworths" and "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" remind us that punk wasn't all anger, aggression, and anti-royalty screeds. In Styrene's perfect couplets, Lydon's blatant "no future" pronouncements found pragmatic illustration. Indeed, there is such a matter of fact truthfulness to a line like "I'm a poseur and I don't care/I like to make people stare" that it's almost impossible to take the political prostylitizing of band like The Clash seriously. To put it bluntly, X-ray Spex was the voice of those everyday story of smalltown rebels, the kids who congregated outside the local shops and pubs whose only ideology came from how more (or little) they got from the dole. They should still be considered the people's band, even with an output was extremely limited (five singles and an album before breaking up).

And yet today, few outside the faithful recognize X-ray Spex as anything other than a curiosity. That's why the new CD/DVD release of Live at the Roundhouse London 2008 is so important. Not only is it a fantastic overview of the band's entire career (including material from their 1995 reunion LP, Conscious Consumer, as well as stuff from Styrene's solo career as well), but it's a chance to see one of rock's mythic mainstays doing what she does best - fronting a fantastic punk outfit and tearing it up. From the opening sonic salvo - a rip snorting reading of the classic "Oh Bondage, Up Your!" to newer tracks like "Melancholy" and "Bloody War" X-ray Spex sound as vital, as volatile, as they did more than 35 years ago.

Now in her early 50s, Styrene is still the emblematic center of attention. Her voice has barely changed, a few faltering high notes the only indication of the passage of time. Her onstage presence and banter may be more subdued, but her words - and more importantly, the ideas behind them - are as challenging, or even more so than in the '70s. In fact, the more you listen to the songs Styrene penned, the manic materialism and phony social policies she ranted against before seem just as viable - and vile - today. In fact, the advertising tenuousness of Germ Free Adolescents' title track is as pertinent now as it ever was.

Surrounded by a collection of former bandmates and new supporting players (sadly, original guitarist Jak Airport died of cancer in 2004), the saxophone infused bravado of this otherwise infectious pop art is undeniable. The audience responds with expected reverence, really letting loose when songs like "I Can't Do Anything" and "Genetic Engineering" rev up. There is no denying the musicianship - after all, the songs are simplistic in their pure punk aesthetic. Yet Styrene found a way to turn the limited chord structure into the backing for one brilliant melody after another. Combined with her insights and all around proto-feminist philosophy, each X-ray Spex tune is like a call to arms, even if the battle each time around is one of self-reflection, degradation, and/or improvement.

This is not the most cinematic concert ever offered, to be certain (the accompanying CD sounds excellent, however). The angles are more or less restricted to backstage shots, full on middle of the theater perspectives, and the occasional 'up skirt' point of view. In fact, this is more of a souvenir than a true representation of what X-ray Spex are capable of. Indeed, there is a real feeling of being part of some casual communal celebration, Styrene and several hundred of her closest friends getting together to spin hits and reminisce. They love the band and she loves them. Yet the moment she let's loose with a set ending savaging of "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo", you're reminded of the group's place in punk's history. Anthemic just doesn't begin to describe its impact.

In fact, X-ray Spex Live at the Roundhouse London 2008 stands as one of the best documents of a criminally underrated group ever. As an artifact, it stands alongside the so-called punk-poseurs of today, while illustrating the importance of Styrene's contribution to the genre. Sure, there were other famous female icons from the time period - Siouxsie Sioux, Ari Up and Palmolive from The Slits - but the naïve teen with the mouth full of braces and an equally abrasive attitude stands head and shoulders above the rest. Though their output was minor, X-ray Spex's greatness and influence remains massive. This reunion package proves why.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.