The Joy Of Spex

X-Ray Spex in ZigZag, No. 86, August, 1978.

The Joy of Spex

My mind is like a plastic bag
That corresponds to all those ads

It sucks up all the rubbish
That is fed in through by ear
I eat kleenex for breakfast
And I use soft hygienic Weetabix
To dry my tears

My mind is like a switchboard
With crossed and tangled lines
Contented with confusion

That is plugged into my head
I don’t know what’s going on
It’s the operators job,
Not mine I said

(Lyrics by Poly Styrene)

THE lyrics above came from My mind is like a plastic bag, one of the best songs that X Ray Spex have in their strong set. The words are a good example of the kind of hatred that Poly Styrene holds against the plastic society we live in. On paper you can see the serious aspect of Poly’s writing, yet when you witness Spex on stage, Poly treats these lyrics to her own brand of fun. As Poly says herself, her lyrics are “Serious, ‘n’yet not serious”.
All Spex songs are like statements about the synthetic world we live in. Poly doesn’t tell us to tear down society. In fact if there is a message in her lyrics, it is to sit back and have a good laugh at ourselves.

I clambered over mounds and mounds
Of polystyrene foam
Then fell into a swimming pool

Filled with fairy snow
And watched the world turn day-glo, you know
I drove my polypropylene car
On wheels of sponge

Then pulled into a wimpy bar
To have a rubber bun
The X-rays were penetrating
Through the latex breeze
Synthetic fibre see-thru leaves
Fell from the rayon trees

(Lyrics by Poly Styrene)

It’s taken “Zigzag” a long time to write about X Ray Spex, but believe me it was never intentional to miss out on them. Spex have been one of my favourite live bands since their early days when they could barely fill the small Man in the Moon pub in Kings Road, Chelsea. Since then, they’ve headlined at the Roundhouse a couple of times, been over to New York to play a residency at CBGB’s, been involved with two record companies, played with The Clash and TRB for RAR and been on Top of the Pops singing “Dayglo”.
The nucleus of the line up has always been Poly Styrene (vocals), Paul Dean (bass) and Jak Airport (lead guitar) but the positions of saxophonist and drummer haven’t really been very stable until recent months. In fact there have been three drummers and three saxophonists in the short (so far) life span of the Spex. Holding down the posts at the moment are Steve Rudi (sax) and B. P. Harding on drums. Former (and original) sax player Laura Logic has recently cut a single of her own, using ex-Spex-drummer Richard Tees. Laura left the Spex because of her schooling, but is now, it seems, trying to get back into the music scene.

X Ray Spex started, naturally enough, with Poly Styrene. She had written a lot of songs and wanted to form a band so she could get out on the road and perform them. She advertised for musicians and the first two to arrive on her doorstep were Paul and Jak. They soon got themselves a drummer and it wasn’t until Laura Logic rang Poly to ask if she could be in the band that the sax entered the scene. Since that day, of course, the sax, coupled with Poly’s flamboyant characteristic voice, has become a trade mark of the Spex.
The band kicked off their musical career down the Roxy in March ’77. It was when the Roxy was still buzzing with talent and Spex proved to be no exception. It was shortly after this that the band grabbed themselves a residency every Sunday at the “Man in the Moon”. The dive bar was very tiny, without a stage, and the equipment was so shabby that it suited the surroundings. All the same, the place had a certain kind of atmosphere all of its own. The gigs were advertised by way of photocopied ads left lying around in “specialist” shops such as Rough Trade or by word of mouth. The regular support acts for Spex at this time were The Unwanted and Adam and the Ants. This was where X Ray Spex gained their regular following and when they stopped playing there, the place never really caught that atmosphere again (though small bands like Defiant and Local Operator did attempt to recreate it – but to no avail).

Poly Styrene has always been the centre of attraction in X-Ray Spex though bassist Paul Dean is quick to point out that the rest of the band are quite happy with the current situation. Paul is the oldest member, though to look at him you’d imagine he was the youngest.
Paul informed me that it was always Poly who would bring in a set of lyrics and hum a tune for him and Jak Airport to work into a new song. Paul has writtn songs, but they are used solely for his own purpose of singing them to his friends. He has no immediate ambitions to use any of his material within X Ray Spex. As he says, this is Poly’s band and it always has been.
Whether the rest of the band’s laid back attitude of allowing Poly to be the sole centre of X ray Spex is wise or not, only time will tell. Personally I believe that Poly is going slowly under with all the pressure she is getting. Oh sure, she may seem very calm in her interviews but I have read between the lines. She is constantly being bombarded with questions about racism, how she feels about RAR and how serious people should take her lyrics. Well, in regard to Poly’s lyrics, I find it obvious that if she sits down and writes such thought provoking words as those in “Plastic Bag”, “Germ Free Adolescence” and “Genetic Engineering”, then she must want them to be taken seriously, But at the same time Poly strives hard to remain her fun-loving self and adds this all-important ingredient to the whole plastic artificial language soup that she is cooking up for her public. Of course the lyrics are important. Spex are a very important band.

Genetic engineering
Could create the perfect race
Could create an unkown life force
That could us exterminate

Introducing worker clone
As our subordinated slave
His expertise proficiency
Will surely dig our grave

It’s so tempting
Will biologists resist?
When he becomes the creator
Will he let us exist

Bionic man is jumping
Through the television set
He’s about to materialise
And guess who’s coming next

(“Genetic Engineering” –
lyrics by Poly Styrene)

Poly knows we all live in a celophane wrapped-up world and she not only sings about it in her songs, but she tries to combat it in real life. She wears outrageously coloured plastic clothes and sings songs like “Iama Poseur ” and “I am a cliche” as a kind of reassurance to herself as to what she is totally against. She is forever struggling to remain plain ol’ Poly Styrene from Brixton. In a way, it’s the same as Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69. Jimmy is another who is forever being quoted in the press as being like a kid off the street. I believe you, Jim, I also believe Poly. They only repeat it so much so that they can remind themselves, not others.
Poly really was shocked when she realised that her over-exaggerated plastic look was “For Real” in New York. She was treated as a fellow poseur, when the whole idea was to send up these poseurs. To use an old hippy sayin, it must have been “mindblowing” for Poly to see what could happen here in down to earth UK.

When I spoke to Paul, I aske him about the fun-kind of image that Spex tend to put across. He assured me that this was never contrived and that the band really are all great friends and they love playing on stage. They just can’t wait to get out there and, of course, Poly is a gem once she’s onstage. X Ray Spex records may be good, but when you get right down to it, they’re no substitute for seeing the group perform live. Poly, like all great live performers (Rotten, Pursey, Jagger, etc.), is compulsive to watch. She has outstanding originality on her side.
I asked Paul how he felt about bands like Subway Sect or the Buzzcocks, who tend to take a more serious attitude to their music. He sensibly replied that there was room for both attitudes and gave a preference for liking the Buzzcocks. I then asked him if he was happy with the way that the new wave had developed. He said he thought that the media were hyping the more psychedelic bands (Devo, Pere Ubu) and that it was going the same way as the ‘sixties. He was also a little sad that a lot of bands had split up. He said that he could never see the Spex having to split up, because everyone was happy in his or her role in the band at present.
Spex have made two singles and both have been successful. The latest, “The day the world turned dayglo” taking them into the national charts. Another single should already be out by the time you read this article. In fact they should soon complete their first album. It should be a classic.
They left Virgin after releasing “Oh bondage, up yours” because of the contract they were offereed. Not for them a long term contract to produce albums like Heinz produce cans of beans. They chose to work with EMI International, who agreed to them signing a short contract at a time and also having an “X Ray Spex” label just for their own records. This is obviously a very happy arrangement for the Spex as well as EMI, who surely can’t fail to make money, with such a great band.

RAR has had an unusual side effect after the large open air gig in Hackney and Paul and the band have noticed it. It’s a funny ol’ subject called “Politics”.
Paul explains: “I really believe in RAR and I know that the rest of the band do as well. We did the gig at Hackney because we are all totally against racism of any kind, but a lot of Socialists used that event for their own political reasons. I am not a socialist and I just want to say that I was not there for that reason. It’s like we get a lot of Sham 69 fans at our gigs and they say it’s ‘cos we’re a street band, whatever that is. I live in St. Albans, so I wouldn’t know.”
The rest of the band live together with their manager, Falcon Stewart in his house. They are a very close unit and that is why they should stay together for some time. I haven’t interviewed Poly for this article as I thought it would make a change to read the views of another member of the band – Paul Dean. However, I will end with some of the very clever lyrics she has written for her band.
I know the pressure is on you, Poly and a popular saying is “It’s tough at the top” but I’m sure you’ll survive when you remember a quote from Lemmy of Motorhead – “It’s tougher at the bottom”. Stay on top, Poly.
Here are the lyrics from what will probably be the new single by X ray Spex. It’s called “Identity”.

Identity is the crisis
Can’t you see
Identity, identity

When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself
Do you see yourself
On the TV screen
Do you see yourself
In the magazines
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream.

When you look in the mirror
Do you smash it quick
Do you take the glass
And slash your wrists
Did you do it in a fit
Did you do it before
You read about it.

Alan Anger

She Knits Well

Poem from Rising Tide. This was a 1984 anthology of poetry and prose from the London Voices Poetry Workshop.

She knits well

‘My sister knits well, doesn’t she?’
The scene was the living room of the Czech family I was
staying with for my holiday. The speaker was the family’s
mother, a Hungarian who had married a Czech army officer.
The children had grown up as Czechs and their father, a
bourgeois patriot, had refused to allow their mother to teach
them Hungarian because Hungary collaborated with Hitler’s
I remembered the old lady’s sister knitting rapidly,
skilfully, Continental style. Her arms were bare and I saw again
the small blue tattooed number on the right forearm – the mark
of the concentration camp. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She knits well.’

Pat O’Gorman

Clockwork Boredom

From Alternative Communication, the Kent anarchist zine, first issue, 1981. The zine was by Gary Seymour and Andy Savage.

Wasted Life

Dull corporation
bleak council block.
Grey weary faces with
a bleak empty look.
Tea and toast for breakfast,
early morning call.
White plastic lunch box,
must obey the rule.
Keep to the middle
the unbending line.
Wasted nothing normal,
wasted nothing life.
Regulation drainpipes are
regulation red.
Regulation Sundays
spend the morning in bed.
Stained flower wallpaper,
television set.
Up at six, bed at nine.
The roundabout of death.
Unquestioning acceptance
unthinking thoughtless mind.
A life of clockwork boredom
with no hope to shine.
To offer inspiration
to drag you back to life.
A spark of aspiration
to see the strong true light


Studio One

Killer compilation reviewed in the NME, 15 October, 1983.

Best Of Studio One (Heartbeat Import)

“When I started I didn’t realize it could be a commercial business to the extent I’d sell my own records. So after the first three or four sessions the feedback was really good because the people started dancing.”
Well, the people haven’t stopped dancing yet as the current sound system popularity of old Studio One Steppers will testify. The quote comes from Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, possibly the single most influential figure in the history of reggae music, through whose hands have passed such luminaries as Dennis Brown, Johnnie Osbourne, Marley himself and a host of other Jamaican singers. Coxsone’s Brentford Road studio IS historically important as the place where ska was slowed down, the bass turned up and rock steady was born: thus the link was forged that metamorphosed into contemporary reggae.
This selection highlights the period – ’67 to ’74-from the days when Alton Ellis was the cool ruler, witness his plaintive vocals on’Can I Change My Mind?’ to the DJ innovations of the Michigan-Smilie duo.
In between the lineage is traced through select cuts from the likes of The Gladiators, Marcia Griffiths, The Heptones (the classic ‘Party Time’), as well as lesser known gems like The Cables ‘Baby Why’ and The Termites (!) ‘My Last Love’. There isn’t a duff song throughout and the rhythms have been reworked an infinitum ever since, seldom matching the authentic Studio One Sound.
That says it all.

Sean O’Hagan

Running Riot In ’84

The Cock Sparrer album reviewed in Hard As Nails, number 4, 1984.

Cock Sparrer – “Running Riot In ’84” (8/10)
The history of Cock Sparrer is one of more troughs and peaks than a BBC weather map. To these ears their debut “Shock Troops” was an all-time low from a band who could and should have rivalled the Pistols, they should have been among the greats of punk, but here was punk without the “punk”, anonymous, unremarkable and with my memories of the band, completely unlistenable. After that debacle I thought the rest of the band would join Rooster Booster Gary Lammin in calling an end to the ‘Sparrer project…Fortunately they didn’t.
“Running Riot In ’84” sees ‘Sparrer rising phoenix-like to their highest peak yet. This is the band I know and love, and this is the album that could have upped “Never Mind The Bollocks” – had ‘Sparrer not missed the boat – just listen to “The Sun Says”, there’s more spit and venom in ‘Sparrer’s vocal department than Rotten ever had, and more relevance to boot! Likewise “They Mean Murder”, a blistering attack on the gories (sic.) of war. The stomping power of “Is Anybody There” is the sort of stuff churned out by the Purple Hearts a few years ago, and I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the influence.
Material of this standard should have ousted the necessity to pad out the album with previously released numbers. Of course I loved “The Sun Says”, “Running Riot” and “Chip On My Shoulder”, but I’ve already got ’em – two of them twice! I’d rather have heard three new tracks of the same calibre as the rest of the album, the mighty “Run With The Blind” for example. Surely they’re not drying up already?
Anyway, moans aside it’s still worth it for the new tracks – now I’m just waiting to catch ’em live. OK so it won’t be in London, but there’s plenty of other decent venues outside the smoke, and plenty of sussed provincial skins across the nation yearning to hear this great band, other than on vinyl. Go to it lads!

Anti Social Workers At The LSE

Anti-Social Workers reviewed in Sounds, 26 May, 1984.

Anti-Social Workers

Don’t let the moniker put you off, negative they’re not. An ASW set is one hell of a punk reggae party mix of thinking fun.
The fab four, three blokes and one girl, groove about the stage with dance steps borrowed from Bananarama and toast over reggae backing tapes in a way that recalls the Fun Boy Three. Girl singer Paula looks very French and stunning, Tim the Skin looks so innocent you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, Mark is a Simon Le Bon lookalike, while Paul’s the real live wire natural frontman and the angriest of the combo.
They’re four complete individuals whose diverse personalities combine in a totally complementary manner that makes for a compelling rant ‘n’ rap attack.
With songs about race, class, laughs, and underdogs winning, ASW are the whoopee cushion of political protest, while their Mad Professor backings recall a heavier mixture of 2-Tone and classic Trojan. Jerry Dammers would make an ideal producer for their next vinyl outing.
At the moment ASW are where it’s at. Along with Billy Bragg, the Redskins, Billy Mayell and The Farm, they’re in the frontline pushing a message of hope and survival.
They’re not dogmatists cos they crack their faces too often for that. And they ain’t poseurs, cos they move too well.
They’re an iron fist behind a beery grin. I’d prefer to see them playing with a band rather than singing to backing tapes, though I suppose it’s all good training for Top Of The Pops.

Garry Johnson

A New England

Billy Bragg’s first record in Jamming!, number 16, 1983.

Billy Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy

Richard Branson recently achieved his lifetime ambition – to own Genesis and Peter Gabriel. By merging Charisma into the Virgin empire, all other acts on the label have been left to fend for themselves, and one Billy Bragg, with an album just out, managed to sneak away to pastures new with Go! Discs. ‘Life’s A Riot …’ – a seven-track 45 rpm 2″ – has just been re-released by said independent to coincide with Billy’s Tube appearance and growing reputation.
Billy Bragg is one of those solo artists thrown up from time to time whose talent is so apparent, yet method so unusual, that major success is always there to be grabbed, but sometimes infuriatingly out of reach. The last great example was Patrik Fitzgerald; Bill Bragg, though different in so many ways, could prove a similar case.
Billy’s voice is most instantly comparable to Weller’s; his guitar, a rabid jangle of dislocated chords, is his only companion; and his lyrics are biting and to-the-point, yet full of wit and humanity. Check out ‘The Milkman Of Human Kindness’ and in particular ‘A New England’ for perfect examples of how to sound angry, compassionate, young, and yet also very tongue-in-cheek and witty. Elsewhere, ‘Lovers Town Revisited’ and ‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’ are two more impassioned examples of Billy’s grievances with the modern world.
Although I think £3 for a twenty-minute record that obviously had minimal recording costs is a bit off-putting, there is no doubt that Billy Bragg is on his way to becoming a cult hero of the ’80s. The interesting point will come when the public get bored of hearing just him and a guitar; then we’ll see whether Billy can create a more populist career for himself, or fade into obscurity, as did Patrik Fitzgerald in the same situation. I await with interest, but in the meantime, I enjoy.

Tony Fletcher