Germfree Adolescents was the only album UK group X-Ray Spex released in its initial incarnation.
On it, ebullient, bi-racial front woman Poly Styrene railed of her disdain for the rampant consumerism she saw in society. Their songs are as relevant today as they were in 1978.
Poly’s real name was Marianne Elliot-Said. She was born to a British mother and Somali father. She grew up in a mixed race community in Brixton but racial tension was ever present.
She left her hippie upbringing in her mid-teens to go study opera singing in London. That all changed one day, when she saw a Sex Pistols gig that inspired her to start her own band.
Jak Stafford came on as guitarist, Paul Dean on bass and B.P. Hurding drummed. But a large part of what made X-Ray Spex sound so unique was 16 year old saxophonist Susan Whitby (aka Lora Logic). Her energizing reedy blasts perfectly accompanied Poly’s joyous raging on the perils of consumerism and out of control progress.
Although The Stooges and The Stranglers had used sax before, its presence (through Rudi Thomson, Logic’s replacement on Germfree Adolescents) is prominent.
As the focal point of the band, Poly Styrene was magnetic and her sense of style was unique and purpose driven. Her day-glo clothes, chunky mouth braces and vintage or handcrafted jewelry reflected her optimistic and spirited personality.
The group’s anthemic first single ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, was a strident cry against conformism. It was also a clear snubbing of the Vivienne Westwood bondage threads that were part of the punk scene’s fashion.
Poly Styrene was both celebrating and criticizing how synthetic society was becoming. We see this through the band’s name, the sterility suggested by the album title and through her own chosen moniker. Her lyrics mention latex, nylon and certain consumer brands.
But she was all too aware that she wasn’t above reproach either. ‘I know I’m artificial, but don’t put the blame on me, I was reared with appliances, in a consumer society’ she sings in 'Art-I-ficial'.
She knows that, although she condemns it, she’s also a product of it.
Kim Gordon, Billy Bragg, Beth Ditto, Henry Rollins, FKA Twigs and many more have spoken of Poly’s trailblazing ideals, style and voice. Her influence on the Riot Grrl scene is of pivotal importance. She has empowered a generation of women.
But this album is more than a record with a strong feminist ideology at its heart. Germfree Adolescents' songs are a wakeup call to apathy and mindless obsessions driven by mass media and advertising. It’s about individuality and being free of social expectations to live up to some perceived norm.
Even today, Poly Styrene and her band remind us we still need to ask critical questions about how we live. And that we need to deal with them with a rebellious glint in our eyes and the volume cranked to the max.