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All Songs Considered

Poly Styrene, Punk Pioneer, Dies at 53

Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, died Monday after recent surgery failed to slow the progress of breast cancer that had spread to her lungs and spine. Her planned comeback album, Generation Indigo, was released in the U.S. as scheduled today. She was 53.

The biracial daughter of a displaced Somali aristocrat and a legal secretary, Poly Styrene was raised by her mother, first in suburban Bromley and then in London's mixed-race Brixton district. She was best-known as the leader of X-Ray Spex, whose 1977 debut single "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" became a rallying cry of the punk movement five years after she'd set off at 15 to follow the British rock-festival circuit and two years after she'd become an early fan of The Sex Pistols. Female in a male world, heavy in a skinny world, African in a white world, flaunting braces that looked like they could dent a lorry, she stood out as well for her fashion sense, which favored Day-Glo colors rather than basic black. There was always a positive attitude about her.

Released in 1978, X-Ray Spex's album, Germ Free Adolescents, was one of British punk's strongest. But Poly Styrene, who later in life was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, stopped performing with the band after a gig in Yorkshire was followed by hallucinations of pink lights in the sky; management problems also contributed to this decision. When she re-emerged in 1980, she was backed by studio musicians on a quiet, highly un-punk album called Translucence. In the early '80s, she became a Hare Krishna initiate. She left the sect after a few years--"Some of them were too crazy, too misogynistic," she told Dave Simpson of The Guardian in March--but remained a follower of Bhakti Yoga. When she joined Hare Krishna, she was the mother of an infant daughter, Celeste Ball-Santos, who now fronts the Madrid-based band Debutant Disco.

Poly Styrene's recent return to music began in 2008 with a performance of "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" at Rock Against Racism's 30th-anniversary concert and a show celebrating Germ Free Adolescents. Generation Indigo was produced by Martin Glover, who as Youth played bass in Killing Joke and produced for many other bands. The album's strategy is to set sardonic yet positive and sometimes explicitly political lyrics to melodic pop-reggae. She liked to say that she was more a bemused observer than a suffering artist. But she always observed from very close up, and made you feel what she believed.

NPR: All Songs Considered, April 26, 2011