Underground Greats: X-Ray Spex

Maybe underground is an exaggeration for X-Ray Spex.  They were fairly well known in their day and are considered a seminal ’77 punk band, though not as well known as the Clash, Sex Pistols or the Damned.

They also didn’t last long.  They released only one album Germfree Adolescents before Poly Styrene left to pursue a sporadic and not very noteworthy solo career and to become a Hari Krishna adherent.

I had heard X-Ray Spex referenced in various magazine articles and ordered their tape from the one record store we had in our county (yes, county).  I always wondered about that place because its selection was terrible and I remember hearing that its owner was arrested later for dealing drugs.  I don’t know if his second job was because he wasn’t selling records or if the record store was just a front, but that was the end of that place.  There was at least one more attempt at having a record store in the valley that also ended without much success.  Now there’s a Wal-Mart, but no one buys records in stores in 2014.

So I ordered a cassette copy of Germfree Adolescents and it arrived one year later.  This record of total non-dilligence would later be eclipsed by an indie distributor that took even longer but in that case it was a fairly rare recording I got.  In both cases I had totally forgotten about the order and was pleasantly surprised to hear they had arrived.

X-Ray Spex was unique in a couple of ways.  One was their employing a full time saxophone- the only punk band I can think of that has.

The other was their singer, Poly Styrene

Poly (obviously not her real name) was one punk’s first mixed-race stars and one of its first female singers.  She had a unique style that was at times deliberately frumpy- in early videos she was still in braces and a singing voice that was brilliantly ear-splitting.

X-Ray Spex had more pop elements than their contemporaries and work pretty well as a bridge to the later new wave sounds of the 80s.  Their songs were mostly anti-consumerist and had a science fiction edge to them.

Warrior in Woolworth’s is probably my favorite by them- a song about subversive retail employee:

Some of their songs were borderline gibberish- something that influenced my songwriting

They only put out the one album before breaking up after Poly Styrene left.  They performed a few reunions over the years before Poly Styrene died of cancer in 2011.

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