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45 at 45: X-Ray Spex say Oh Bondage Up Yours!

Although expressly not the British invention many would have you believe, punk rock was liberating, levelling even. Absolutely anyone could do it, and here‘s a pretty incendiary example: X-Ray Spex’s iconic Oh Bondage Up Yours!

Thanks in no small part to the recent Pistol mini-series on the tellybox and the death of Queen Elizabeth II (don’t tell me you hadn’t heard?), the debate about the flag-waving, spit-inducing Silver Jubilee’d Blighty of 1977 still rages on, but what it is incontestable is that the Sex Pistols helped introduce an aggressive, angry rock to their native land, loaded with street poetry about English society’s decay and dismay.

Then they popularised it, spreading it across the UK, as they jumped in a clapped-out transit van and fell out in distant locales so light-fingered guitarist Steve Jones could damage listeners‘ eardrums and Johnny Rotten could wind them up with non-stop verbal abuse. The boys were were here to destroy, not entertain. And from Morrissey to Mark E Smith, Buzzcocks to Joy Division, innumerable impressionable adolescents up and down the British Isles would witness this veritable youthquake, feeling their lives utterly transformed, triplicate style.

Punk wasn’t just restricted to boys, either. A former hippy from South London, itinerant traveller Marianne Joan Elliot-Said saw the Pistols playing to a half-empty hall at the Pier Pavilion in Hastings on 3 July 1976 — her 19th birthday — and wanted in. And how.

Being part Somalian and completely unconcerned with pop music beauty standards, as X-Ray Spex heckler-as-crooner frontwoman Poly Styrene, Elliott-Said was the freakiest affair: heavyweight feminism and anti-racism in action, not to mention something of a formative David Bowie in reverse, having been born in Bromley and brought up in Brixton.

A tiny, biracial dynamo who wore braces and delivered her brainy lyrics about consumerist self-delusion in a gleefully unholy screech, Styrene was perhaps the most instantly arresting vocalist of ‘70s punk. 

Race and gender no longer precluded people from climbing a stage or entering a recording studio and having a bash, though, especially if you had something to say. And it’s no understatement to say this one woman warrior shattered every -ism each time she gripped the microphone. Combining a depiction of contemporary capitalist materialism as a brand of servitude, her spoken introduction on the band‘s debut single Oh Bondage Up Yours! alone could’ve incited an insurrection:

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think… Oh bondage! Up yours!” 

An S&M fantasy? A feminist rant? The sexual implications of the first verse give way to anti-consumerism in the second; it’s both gleeful and agitated, a helter-skelter flurry of noises, with Styrene’s caterwauling on top of a brilliant shotgun marriage of two-chord Pistols-style crash guitar with a waft of Lora Logic’s careering cocktail jazz saxophone that clearly was on Adam Ant‘s mind when he came to record the gloriously campy Young Parisians the following year.

Released by Virgin Records the last week of September 1977 (coupled with the equally visceral song that became a movie, I Am a Cliché), Styrene later described the single as ”a call for liberation. It was saying: ‘Bondage — forget it! I’m not going to be bound by the laws of consumerism or bound by my own senses.’ It has that line in it: ‘Chain smoke, chain gang, I consume you all’: you are tied to these activities for someone else’s profit.“

A critical though not commercial success, the 45 gave the era one of its most definitive debuts, and the punk rock canon a prototypic example of what you can do with minimal formal training but bags of attitude and energy.

That energy sadly ran out in April 2011 when Poly died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 53.

To the last, she remained committed to her original punk aesthetic (on lost 1980 classic Translucence, she proved just as startling as a solo act), and anything but a cliché: ”Punk attitude lives on,” she said, ”because of the spirit of its fearlessness to try to change things for the better.”

There can be no better epitaph.

Steve Pafford

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