Written by Standard Issue

Arts

Celebrating the queen of punk

A film saluting punk pioneer Poly Styrene is in the making, and garnering shitloads of crowdfunding love. Its writer Zoë Howe tells us more.

A unique voice: Poly Styrene, frontwoman of X-Ray Spex. Photos courtesy of Falcon Stuart.

Poly Styrene always struck me as a tremendous force for good.

Compassionate, a self-confessed ‘conscious consumer’ and certainly one of the most interesting and positive characters to emerge from punk, she was an artist who transcended the genre and much more besides to earn her place in the firmament as a true maverick, a thinker, a creative pioneer, a star.

She looked outwards, using her songs in X-Ray Spex and beyond to hold up the deadening aspects of life – consumerism, materialism, ‘bondage’ – to the light to be looked at, questioned, sometimes with drama, often with biting humour. Most of us are in bondage now: the most obvious and widespread bondage being soul-sucking social media and the need to be ‘liked’. Poly would have had a few things to say about that.

Many roads have led to Poly throughout my adult life. I always loved the album Germfree Adolescents (Let’s Submerge is my favourite track) and we crossed paths a few times, initially when I was writing my first book Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits, and then when we worked together around the time of her 2008 comeback show at the Roundhouse.

I felt affection for her instantly – it was impossible not to. She was a delight, almost childlike but with an inner core of strength, the core that could conjure up that warrior-cry voice at any moment, or satirise the artifice and posery of showbiz with incisiveness and style. There was innocence there, but Poly was no fool.

I’d also worked with Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell during the writing of my book How’s Your Dad? Living In The Shadow of a Rock Star Parent, for which Celeste shared some fascinating and often very funny insights from her childhood. So I was over the moon when, last summer, Celeste contacted me to say she wanted to put together a book about her mother’s life.

She explained that she had inherited an incredible archive of previously unseen material, kept safe for years by the late Falcon Stuart, Poly’s former manager. (Thanks must go to Falcon’s partner Alice Hiller for passing this collection on to Celeste.)

This felt like a gift, and I was instantly excited by what we could do – visions of collating a highly illustrated, super-colourful coffee table book sprang to mind (and, thanks to Omnibus Press, who have taken on the book with great enthusiasm, that’s exactly what we’re going to do).

Serendipitously, I’d also recently become pals with the very talented director Paul Sng (Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain; Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle). Paul had asked whether I had any ideas for music documentaries that we could collaborate on, and when I considered the visual treasures Celeste had in her care, it seemed natural to ask her whether she’d be happy making a film as well as a book.

Happily, she said yes, as did Paul – and now, here we are, working with Doc‘n Roll Films. Paul has made a stunning trailer which thrills me every time I watch it, and we are currently crowd-funding production costs via Indiegogo (we have just a few days to go at the time of writing, so please dig deep if you can/are so inclined!).

It’s been so gratifying to see how much support the campaign has attracted – £30,976 at the time of writing. It shows that now is the time for a celebration and reconsideration of Poly Styrene. All being well both the film, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, and the book (as yet untitled) will be out in November 2018, to mark the 40th anniversary of Germfree Adolescents. (Apologies if that makes you feel old.)

“Most of us are in bondage now: the most obvious and widespread bondage being soul-sucking social media and the need to be ‘liked’. Poly would have had a few things to say about that.”

There was so much more to Poly Styrene than the howl, the braces, the dayglo, and rather than concentrate solely on the punk years – punk being a story which has already been told many times and in many ways – the thread running through this film will be the enduring, evolving connection between a mother and her daughter.

Our director Paul came up with the idea that each ‘chapter’ of the film should open with a letter written and narrated by Celeste to her mother, charting each stage of her life. It works beautifully. We can’t give away too much more at this stage, but suffice to say this is not going to be your average rock doc.

Poly Styrene singingTragically, Poly was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the Noughties, and she passed away on 25 April 2011, but her final album Generation Indigo was fresh, fun and simultaneously sounded contemporary and reflected her punk roots, with observational and often haunting songwriting and spirituality all in one fell swoop.

Poly really was – is – the queen of punk, and it is a real privilege to be working on these two projects with Celeste and a great team. Poly deserves to be remembered with love and appreciation, and my hope is that both book and film will help carry Poly’s blazing flame far into the future, so that people will be inspired and motivated by this incendiary spirit for years to come.

To find out more and to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign for Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, visit the Indiegogo page.

Zoë Howe is a music writer, musician and artist whose rock biographies include Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits, Barbed Wire Kisses – The Jesus and Mary Chain Story, Stevie Nicks – Visions, Dreams & Rumours, Lee Brilleaux – Rock ‘n’ Roll Gentleman and Wilko Johnson – Looking Back At Me. Her debut novel, Shine On, Marquee Moon, was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize for Fiction in 2016.

@zoehowe

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Written by Standard Issue