Breaking The Mould: Marianne Elliott (aka Poly Styrene)

An interview with her daughter Celeste Bell

Marianne Elliott was a musician, singer-songwriter and, under the pseudonym of Poly Styrene, the frontwoman of X Ray Spex. Here, in an exclusive interview with Punk: Rage & Revolution, her daughter, Celeste Bell, remembers her mum, a pioneering musician who was way ahead of her time.

1. Fitting In
Like most small children, my mum wanted to fit in and not stand out. But she always stood out, she had no choice – she was a very small, mixed race girl, half Somali, half British and she was conscious of that from a very early age. There was no one else like her in school or in the neighbourhood and even though that sort of upset her, it kind of became who she was. Before punk, it would have been hard for her to break through the class system but suddenly it became trendy to sing with a regional accent. So she could actually be herself, even though it was only a character, and I think only punk would have allowed her to do that.

2. Who was Poly Styrene?
Poly Styrene was a character created by my mum. She wasn’t contrived, it was well thought out, something she put together with a lot of care and attention. Poly lived in a fictional, futuristic, dystopian world, a world of plastic, modernity, mod cons and convenience, which I guess seems more familiar to us now than it did in the 70s. Mum was very clear that it was a send up, even the name was a send up of celebrity and pop stardom. She said that people expected pop stars to be disposable, they were plastic, largely made up in terms of their public image, so she was really sending that up. Underneath the character though was Marianne, who was a very deep thinker, very artistic, very sensitive, with the soul of a hippie rather than a punk.

3.  Her Greatest Attribute
Mum’s writing was her greatest attribute, she was a really fantastic songwriter specifically at that period of her life. As is often the case with songwriters, they write their best stuff when they are young and mum was just so insightful for such a young age. The songwriting, the crafting, was something that stayed with her throughout her life, even when she wasn’t performing. She had this wonderful, introspective, philosophical way with words that separated her from the others, especially during the punk era. There weren’t many songwriters, male or female, who were producing such high energy, catchy pop-punk.

4. The Lyrics Behind The Song: Identity
The lyrics to Identity reflect the trauma of having a fractured identity, specifically being mixed race and not really fitting into either cultures. On the one hand you had the white western English culture of her mother and on the other, the black Somali Muslim eastern culture of her father and she didn’t fully identify with either. It was a big struggle for her and I think as she was growing up, she also became aware of it on a social level. So many people at that time were grappling with this question of what it meant to be a certain race or gender.

5. The Look: An Alternative to the Alternative…
My mum was doing something alternative to what was alternative. The clothes she was wearing on stage in the early days were the ones she was into. She had a store where she sold this kind of stuff so she’d wear what she was selling. She’d make plastic jewellery, go to market stores and buy granny clothes from the late fifties and sixties, little skirt suits and twin set cardigans. She was just playing with what existed already, what was cheap and accessible and then she put it all together in her way. No one else was doing that because it wasn’t cool at the time to dress like your grandmother but my mum saw something that other people couldn’t see.

6. Feminist Icon
My mum never set out to be a feminist icon however she did represent a lot of what feminism is about or should be about which was inspirational to both women and feminists. She would never describe herself as a feminist, she was always wary of labels, she really disliked any attempt to pigeonhole her or to put her into any type of box, be that political or cultural. You’d never be able to pin her down on the issue of gender within punk, I think that was extremely important to her. She wanted to be compared to her peers, certainly as an equal, whether or not they were men. What she didn’t want was to be was put into this ‘punk girl’ category.

7. Mental Stability
Punk certainly wasn’t conducive to the mental stability of my mum, it was highly stressful for many reasons. The spitting and the lack of women present often made her anxious about performing and she got tired of it very quickly. Those early punk gigs were very raucous and the crowd, who were 90% male, were often drunk and encouraged by the scene to be rough, uncivilised and hostile. She wasn’t having great relationships with a lot of the other male punks either, many of them treated her quite badly, so by the time she’d left X-Ray Spex, I think she was quite cynical about the whole thing. The scene wasn’t who my Mum was, she was a highly sensitive, very feminine person who was suited to a more genteel kind of environment. I think that’s why she struggled so much with performing because it forced her into being someone that she wasn’t, she had to go on with this mask every day.

8. Legacy
The punk period was very short if we think of it as a genre of music but the spirit of punk, being uniquely creative and fearless, carried on throughout my mum’s life. I think what she represents has kind of transcended punk to a large extent. There are so many young people who discover my mum, who are not necessarily punk music fans, but they’re just really inspired by her and her image and just everything about her. I think that’s a testament to her creativity, it’s quite timeless and it definitely transcends labels, and that’s what she would have wanted.