Sometimes albums surprise you in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily describe as good or bad, but make you want to know more about the artist. So it was with this selection of mine. I was drawn to it through a short interview in the Guardian by Neneh Cherry. She of course has some links to the post-punk scene of her own through her former group Rip, Rig and Panic. This band also featured one Andrea Oliver – the mother of Miquita Oliver, the former host of Pop World…ok, too far down that branch of the family tree now. But, somehow Poly Styrene was intertwined with her life enough to make her also want to know more about her. A crowd-funded film is being produced about Poly, which is due out next year. But just how this strangely iconic woman burst onto the punk scene, and beyond into critically acclaimed obscurity via a Buddhist community is enough to intrigue. Neneh mentioned this album in her interview, which at the time confounded and confused the post-punk scene, preferring instead to draw more heavily on jazz- infused folk. It really is not what you would expect had you only listened to the shouty in your face X-ray Spex (whom I also love). What you have to understand though is before Poly Styrene emerged onto the punk scene, she spent some time floating around the mid-1970s hippy festival scene (from about the age of 15 till her 17th birthday I believe). This album takes her back there and it is as delightful and beguiling as the front cover – with only the eyes present behind the headdress.
The first track, ‘Dreaming’ is immediately softer than its predecessors, with reggae-style drum rolls, and a drifting flute floating across the chorus (“I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming of you’). Her voice is lighter, less in your face, and she manages to reach vocal levels not achieved on the punkier songs on Germ Free Adolescents (X-Ray Spex’s only album). Straight away, a surprise, and in a nice way…’Toytown’ is in a similar vein. Trading raging guitars and roaring sax for light keyboard and reggae beats. The similarities with early Blondie are there. Later tracks with jazzier tones pre-date Everything But The Girl. The change in tempo displayed on ‘Bicycle Song’ is subtle and sophisticated, and the overlaid sound effects have a touch of the playful Barrett-esque psychedelia. ‘Translucence’ has a beautiful flute backing that make you feel like your gliding through a 1970s hippy folk festival waiting to catch the end of Pentangle’s set.
Poly Styrene went into hiding after this album. Her next ‘Generation Indigo’ was released when she knew she was dying from cancer. I can’t wait to hear her again in the crowd funded documentary film out next year. I bought a very fine mug (polystyrene cup?) designed by her daughter to help fund the project to pay tribute to this fascinating, perhaps underrated and secretive figure in UK music.