As a music fan, I sometimes wonder if it might be better to go through life enjoying an artist or band’s work in naïve and blissful ignorance of the reality behind their public personas. The majority of music biographies might involve various tales of obligatory Rock ‘n’ Roll bad behaviour and excess but that might not particularly come as a shock. However, sometimes you will encounter far darker stories that often seem to lurk behind those façades which you are least expecting. You only have to scratch beneath the surface of The Beach Boys, Abba, Ramones and Fleetwood Mac for example and you will uncover that the truth might not exactly live up to their familiar public image. Some of these eye-opening stories may involve a cast of dysfunctional characters that are caught up in family, relationship or inter-band feuds. There may well be cases of mental and even physical abuse along with nervous breakdowns, drug use, premature deaths and illnesses for our heroes to contend with. There may also be examples of manipulation and mismanagement by shady Svengalis or record companies. Sadly, there’s quite a few of these issues coursing through “Day-Glo: The Poly Styrene Story”. I think back to the moment that I first saw the striking Poly Styrene on Top of The Pops. Exotic, colourful and unconventional, she challenged all the usual pre-conceptions of, not only what a “Punk” should be, but what a Pop Star should be. I certainly had no idea of the demons that were at play behind the cheeky Day-Glo singer that I watched in awe on the TV screen.
This often harrowing and sometimes distressing read certainly does not pull any punches in revealing the true story behind a unique and inspirational talent. However, what stops this book from becoming too bleak is the fact that it has been written by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell, along with the acclaimed author Zoe Howe and this makes for a unique and intensely personal portrait. The format is based on a series of contemporary interviews with those closest to Poly; family members, friends, journalists, admirers and ex-band members, which I’m guessing are taken from research for the forthcoming “I Am A Cliché” documentary. Don Letts, Neneh Cherry, Tessa Pollitt, Jon Savage, John Robb, Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna and many more contributors all share their own personal experiences with Poly. Original X-Ray Spex bassist Paul Dean comes over really well, his down to earth no-nonsense reflections are refreshing and he admits that at the time they were just too young to know how to deal with Poly’s issues. There are archive interviews with Poly herself taken from various sources such as music papers, magazines and TV shows over the years. The book is beautifully illustrated with examples of Poly’s artwork including ideas and sketches of band logos, record covers and posters but what is particularly fascinating is the inclusion of various diary entries, scribbled notes and lyrics, which give a rare insight into Poly’s state of mind.
The main crux of the story is Poly’s struggle with issues of identity, a theme that might be familiar from the lyrics of various X-Ray Spex songs. Being mixed race, her mother was Scottish-Irish and her father Somalian, Poly didn’t easily fit into ether Black or White cultures and she even pretended to be Turkish to avoid bullying from all sides. She did develop a fiercely independent streak, aggressive even, as is proven by the story of her chasing and confronting a mugger. She ran away from home after being attracted to the Hippie movement and fell in love with a posh photographer Falcon Stuart, who would go on to manage X-Ray Spex and who’s excellent early photos illustrate the book. They both saw the Sex Pistols in Hastings and Poly saw the developing Punk scene, with its acceptance of any creative outsider regardless of sex or race, as perfect for her to develop her artistic talents. Initially starting with a clothing and accessory stall, her recycled Day-Glo retro-futuristic designs soon morphed together with her love of music and the formation of X-Ray Spex. However, Poly suffered from hallucinations, insecurity and mental breakdowns and was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic but she was in fact bipolar. The saddest thing of all is that nobody really knew how to deal with her meltdowns at the time, everyone was so young and self-absorbed. Anyway, back in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s issues of mental health were undoubtedly nowhere near as understood as they are nowadays. We've certainly come along way in that regard.
Poly soon tired of the aggression surrounding Punk and a harrowing residency at CBGB’s in New York was the final straw. Searching for inner peace and somewhere to feel accepted, Poly got heavily into the Hari Krishna sect but also became disillusioned with the negative side of this cult. She tried to get back into music again with a couple of X-Ray Spex reunions but the first attempt was pretty disastrous. However, later on there was another more successful show at the Roundhouse with original member Paul Dean back on bass; but it was clear that Poly struggled with performing in front of crowds. In 2011, Poly did finally release a critically acclaimed solo album “Generation Indigo”, but she sadly died of breast cancer a month after the release. It’s to Celeste’s great credit that she has been so frank in tackling the story of her mother, writing this book can’t have been an easy journey to embark upon and I doubt you are going to read a more honest, heart-breaking yet ultimately uplifting story for a long time to come. For more information on Zoe Howe’s other books please check out her web site here. Celeste has also co-written and narrated a documentary about Poly called “I Am A Cliché” which is currently in production to be released soon.
With thanks to Debra Geddes at Great Northern PR and to Zoë Howe.You can order the book via Rough Trade here or the deluxe box-set edition (limited to 250 copies) from here. This contains a number of exclusive items, including rare pieces reproduced from Poly’s archive: a specially re-released 7” single ("Identity"/"Let’s Submerge") on pink vinyl, a print of a Pennie Smith photograph, a Poly Styrene tote bag, Poly’s handwritten 'concept of X-Ray Spex' note, an 'Identity' card, Poly’s handwritten lyrics for "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" and "I Am A Cliche"’, Poly’s handwritten sheet music for "Identity" and "The Day The World Turned Dayglo", three badges, Poly’s hand-drawn draft artwork for the Translucence album cover, Poly’s hand-drawn illustration, with signature, three press releases and two flyers for X-Ray Spex gigs!