Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock: X-Ray Spex - Oh Bondage Up Yours!

Polly Styrene and the boys blow away the patriarchy while bringing sax into punk.

The performance above is taken from a 1977 documentary, Punk In London, which really captures the explosion of UK punk in real time. Hugely influenced by the Ramones and New York Dolls, London's disaffected youth took the ragged rock concept to a whole new level starting in that year.

Things got weird - politically - along the way. Since the punks were rebelling against a hippie world, they started skewing a little conservative. And their desire to shock meant some of them appropriate Nazi symbology - Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxie and the Banshees would wear swastikas, for instance. And the scene wasn't exactly full of gender equality. As for racial equality - forget it. Punk was largely a white scene. 

Which is what makes the bellowing pipes of Polly Styrene all the more special. Her voice is a powerful weapon of rebellion, a blasting cap of dischord. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, daughter of a Celtic woman and a Somali immigrant, Styrene had first released a reggae single in 1976, but seeing The Sex Pistold play changed her life. The band she formed after, the X-Ray Spex, was a perfect model of the punk philosophy of nihilistic disposibility - they released five singles and one album, Germ Free Adolescents.

Oh Bondage Up Yours! is their first and best single. Styrene, who shaved her head before a performance in order to not be a sex symbol, said that the song wasn't necessarily feminist in nature but rather anti-consumerist. But how can you listen to that opening line - "Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!" - and not hear it as a defiant spit in the face of the patriarchy? It's so fucking thrilling.

Adding to the band's strange and compelling sound is the sax. I can't think of another punk band (we're not talking ska or oi or anything here) that used sax as a regular instrument. The wailing - as piercing and slightly off as Styrene's voice - creates a deranged bumblebee throughline that propels the song along. 

Styrene left the band to become a Hare Krisha, leaving X-Ray Spex with a perfect catalog that sounds totally unlike anything else that came out of the late 70s UK punk scene. In 1988 the band briefly got back together, using a drum machine, but it didn't quite take off. When Styrene got hit by a fire truck and fractured her pelvis the whole thing was called off.

Polly Styrene died in 2011 of spinal and breast cancer, but the legacy of that one album resonates still. X-Ray Spex were one of the primary influences on the 90s riot-grrl scene, perhaps the most exciting female rock movement of all time. I like to think that in a world of boring chantreuses and auto-tuned pop wonders, Polly Styrene's voice is still waiting on wax, ready to kick-start another revolution.

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