Poly Styrene - Translucence
Once upon a time I was accused of disappearing into my world of books and films where darkness came too soon. Total nonsense of course. There was music too. But the suggestion was that I was missing out. Total nonsense too. Products have so much to teach us. So many stories to tell …
This is lovely isn’t it? It’s that Heron compilation I was telling you about. I’d argue the case for it being the best of the UK folk rock recordings. There’s a beautiful purity to it. But it’s rooted firmly in pop so there’s none of that fol-de-riddle-di-day rustic authenticity. Although you have to mention the fact that they chose to do their recordings al fresco, out in the Berkshire countryside, which is a pretty lovely idea. Though I would have been rubbish at all that hippy idyllic stuff with my hay fever. Ok here’s the six million dollar trivia question. What’s the connection between this Heron record and Poly Styrene’s solo LP? Hmm thought that one might stump you. But at least it gives me a chance to tell my Poly Styrene story.
You see, the thing is, I once saw Poly Styrene walking down Oxford Street sometime in the 1980s, and it was obvious that she knew that I knew who she was, but I was too dumb and shy to go up to her and say how fantastic I thought she was, and how she helped shape my life, and and and. And well I just sort of smiled goofily, and let the moment pass.
I’ve got a bit of history doing that with punk goddesses. Some years ago I popped down to Tottenham Court Road to get some Sniffin’ Glue compilation in my lunch hour when it came out. And when I got on the tube at Euston I did a sort of double take because I was absolutely certain that one of the women sitting down in the carriage was none other than Gaye Advert. How appropriate was that? She looked fantastic. And again I could see the flicker of recognition in her eyes which meant she knew that I knew and that I knew that she knew that I knew. Eek we’re getting into Kursaal Flyers territory. But again I bottled it. I just sort of stood there struggling with the etiquette of approaching a very good looking lady and asking if she was Gaye Advert. I mean on one hand it seemed a sure fire short cut to a black eye and a night in the cells. On the other hand I had recently read she was working at Camden Council so it sort of fitted. But again it didn’t seem very punk rock to confess to a childhood crush. And she is still with TV Smith after all these years apparently which is really sweet.
So the next time I saw Poly Styrene I knew I wasn’t going to waste my chance. And bizarrely my opportunity came at one of the strangest shows ever. Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear at the Conway Hall in Holborn back in, well, it must have been ’93. I remember it was the day before my birthday. I bought myself a copy of Don Quixote as a present in one of those Wordsworth editions, though I have to confess to still never having finished it. One day I swear I will. Don’t ask why I remember all this. The show itself was a daytime one, which was pretty weird for a weekday, so every waster and lowlife and hipster was there. Though you have to give whoever had the idea credit. Fantastic. It might have been Liz Naylor actually because she was on the door with Richard Boon, getting everyone to sign in, or sign up for the riot grrl revolution.
For this was the time when momentarily the riot grrl thing was all the rage. Lots of fanzines, lots of zealous noisy groups, lots of questioning. It meant a lot to a lot of people. I struggled a bit though because most of the groups were rubbish. Straight ramalam punk thrash. Akin to the melodic end of the Crass spectrum or more in line with US hardcore uproar which really was rather too route one for me. And at that time I was more into the Sabres of Paradise, Black Dog, A Tribe Called Quest or Digable Planets or whatever, so I really didn’t need a right old racket.
But I loved the fuss these groups were kicking up. Huggy Bear especially. It must have been around the time their Her Jazz single was out, and they got on The Word and kicked up a bit of a rumpus. So I was kind of curious. I did find it all a bit strange as I remember some of the group buying fanzines off me some years before, and they were the sort of people you’d see dancing to the Jasmine Minks or wearing Razorcuts badges. Suddenly they were possessed revolutionaries, but why not?
And some of the old punk gentry were out to take in what their children were up to at the Conway Hall. Pete Shelley definitely. And Poly Styrene no less. Don’t forget the official story was that she had disappeared off the face of the planet after becoming involved with the Hare Krishna people. Though did she appear on that fantastic Boy George record? Oh what was that called? Anyway this more about Sister George. And Poly was the great symbol of punk’s feminine empowerment. What a fantastic pop star she was. So right and so wrong. Dressing like a jumble sale Mary Quant mannequin. Mixed race. Braces on her teeth. Shall we say somewhat dumpy? But totally beautiful.
And the best poet of her day. You can stuff your Philip Larkins and your Betjemans. Poly had it all. Her songs were full of insights about consumerism, alienation, whatever. Her lyrics said more about the future than all your JG Ballards and Burroughs and the Barthes boys did with their theoretical naval gazing. She was very bright, and people warmed to her. X Ray Spex were pretty successful and the odds were against that. I remember my mate at school, Simon Day, his mum, who rather unfortunately was called May, and to make it worse his dad was called Ray, well she heard Poly on one of those Sunday lunchtime discussion shows which Jimmy Saville hosted. It might have been Saville’s Travels or something. Anyway she thought Poly was wonderful. Very articulate and clever. It really made her rethink what punk was all about.
So Poly was there at this very strange show. And I was not going to miss my chance. There was no alcohol so you can’t suggest anything untoward. But I did make a complete idiot of myself by going on and on and on about how great she was. Except I was not talking about X Ray Spex, I was raving about how revolutionary her solo LP was. And she looked mildly surprised as though she really had not been expecting to hear that. I’ve no idea how many people know that LP or even like it but I really do think it’s one of the best records ever. And it was completely out there on its own. It was light and airy, very bright and breezy but in an almost sinister way.
For where X Ray Spex had often been a bit bombastic and overbearing musically, this record was totally unrock, and rather folky, with a bit of a bossa thing, some light funky and reggae touches, and just a generally exotic MOR vibe, which was rather like Mike Alway's el records several years before the event. Indeed she was almost ahead of Vic Godard in respect of the inventive MOR thing as he hadn’t yet recorded Stop That Girl or got into the swing thing. Poly did a lounge version of Age for her solo LP like Vic would later redo Chainsmoking.
So I was gushing, like a starstruck kid, and talking about this radical departure, and she was insistent on crediting GT Moore, but I was having none of it because to my simplistic mind at the time GT Moore and his Reggae Guitars were synonymous with the pre-punk pub rock denim clad gig circuit, but she just smiled enigmatically and turned away.
And it was some years later that I found out about Heron and the part that GT Moore played in that group, and how he was integral to the beautiful sound they created. But to this day I’ve not heard GT Moore and his Reggae Guitars. I have a suspicion I may have to stand corrected on that one too. I only found the other day that he got to record with Lee Perry around the same time he was working with Poly. Hey ho …
The funny thing is that I still wonder what Poly thought of Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill. I found it all so desperately disappointing. The girls in Huggy Bear were brilliant but the bloke singing was just so annoying like the one who played off Bjork in the Sugarcubes, and I’m just stood there thinking you’re adding about as much value as the bloke in Boney M. And Bikini Kill were just awful. Desperately credible and admirable but like just trad rock. I think that might have the show where Jon Langford was heckling “less structure ..”. Though that was pretty rich coming from such a dinosaur. I just sat there pretending to read my Cervantes, which was pretty unforgivable really.
So there you go, that’s the connection between Heron and Poly Styrene’s Translucence.
© 2007 John Carney