Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex (EMI)

MUCH as we hate to admit it, blokes often develop what little musical taste we possess from hanging around with women.

We might bemoan their inability to put the right CD in the right fucking case, get all condescending about their blissful ignorance of the intricacies of Jah Wobble’s early career or straight take the piss out of their lamentable regard for Coldplay, but women tend to like stuff because they actually like it, not because it’s fashionable and they think they should. Unlike many blokes. I once had a bit of a blind spot for soul music. No, it’s true. I didn’t see the point of it. Who needs sappy love songs when you could be listening to Killing Joke? Even disco seemed more worthwhile. At least you can dance to disco. What can you do to soul music?

I found out exactly what you could do to soul music thanks to a couple of girlfriends who played Midnight At The Oasis, Lovely Day, Sexual Healing and the like, all day and all night. Eventually, I got the point. I think psychologists call it positive reinforcement.

Similarly, years earlier, it was a glamorous, slightly older girlfriend who taught me the finer points of the act of sexual congress and then, when she’d finished doing that, she introduced me to the joy of X-Ray Spex. We’d lie around her bedroom – after her parents had gone out, obviously, her dad was supposedly an ex-special forces type after all – in a teenage post-coital haze, listening to Germ Free Adolescents, the first and only album by Poly Styrene’s gaggle of ridiculously exuberant snot-nosed day-glo punkers. She had a bit of thing for Elvis Costello too but nobody’s perfect.

The album had been out for years by then, but I catch on slow. I wasn’t keen on all the daft day-glow stuff either; at the time, ‘real’ punks dressed in black and sang, or more accurately, shouted songs about scientists squirting shampoo into poor little bunny-rabbits’ eyes rather than any old crap about The Day The World Turned Dayglo. Humourless? Me?

In fact, Germ Free Adolescents went a little deeper than your average early punk rock album, forgoing the ‘smash the system’ platitudes of groups like the Clash for a witty, acerbic and slightly surreal commentary on the culture of conspicuous consumption. Their brilliant debut single Oh Bondage! Up Yours! was more about freeing yourself from the manacles of capitalism than it was about kinky sex.

Fuelled by guitarist Jak Airport’s jumbo guitar riffs, some incendiary sax lines from the disappointingly-named Rudi Thomson (his much more interestingly-named predecessor Laura Logic had been booted out of the group after their first single) and Poly Styrene’s eviscerating screech – which, according to rock historian Greil Marcus, was capable of disinfecting toilets – X-Ray Spex were a breath of fresh air.

Styrene articulated a strong, no-bullshit, female perspective, while casting a despairing eye over an increasingly homogenised punk scene. In Identity, for instance, the far-from-svelte singer, with her teeth-braces and charity shop plastic shoes, sang:

‘When you look in the mirror, do you see yourself? Do you see yourself on the TV screen? Do you see yourself in the magazine? When you see yourself, does it make you scream? Did you do it for fame? Did you do it in a fit? Did you do it before you read about it?’

Interestingly enough, bearing in mind that this was a time when the NF was making its odious presence felt across the UK, the entire band, apart from drummer BP Hurding, were the kids of immigrants, from bassist Paul Dean, who was of Polish descent, to the half-Somali Styrene.

So anyway. The girlfriend binned me and I had to buy a copy of the album myself, though I could never listen to Art-I-Ficial, Warrior In Woolworths, I Can’t Do Anything, Let’s Submerge, I Am A Poseur and Germfree Adolescents without thinking about those long, languid afternoons in Winteringham.

X-Ray Spex had split up long before, prompted by Styrene’s growing disillusionment with punk rock’s descent into parody, and what seems like a very strange experience in a hotel room in Doncaster while on tour.

‘I was still awake in the hotel room at three in the morning,’ the singer explained to journalist Jon Savage. ‘All of a sudden I looked out of the hotel window and I saw this sort of energy. It was bright, bright luminous pink, and it had a disc shape. It was faster than the speed of light. I was inside but the radiation effect hit my body …’

Doncaster can do that to you. You don’t know what’s real and what’s not. Styrene was always a bit of a trip-head by all accounts, but I’m ashamed to admit that it tickles me to know that she lost the plot so massively just a few miles down the road from the village where I lived. Or maybe she actually had a moment of clarity. Either way, she ended up becoming a Hari Krishna devotee.

I’m pretty sure one summer in Leeds, utterly skint, I sold the album, probably for a quid, to Desperate Dan’s, that secondhand record and bookstore in Hyde Park. But I could be wrong. Who knows? I do know that I found it again in the racks of Manchester’s premier secondhand record emporium last year and had to pay a tenner for it. But it sounds even better than it did before.

There’s a moral in there somewhere, I’m just not sure what it is.

[This piece first appeared on the Reject Musical Trash website in 2006]

POSTSCRIPT:

And the good news is, the spirit of X-Ray Spex is alive and well:

So, what are your favourite things about Manchester?

“The music,” they say as one. “It’s all happening here,” says Taz.

“The music and the people,” says Asma.

That’s good enough for me. Can I take some pictures? Cue pandemonium.

“Oh, look at the state of us!” says Farha.

“My hair’s a mess! What will people think?” asks Taz.

And then they strike a pose like the rock’n’roll stars they so clearly are.

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5 Comments

Filed under hip replacement, punk rock

5 responses to “Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex (EMI)

  1. Ian

    How anyone could question X-Ray Spex’s attitude is totally unbelieveable – the greatest punk band ever – possibly even the greatest band ever.

    Poly Styrene managed insights in the short period of time that it took to produce one album that most people will not ever achieve in their lifetime.

    I can understand why she bacame a hari krishna – but am not sure that when she did it that her insight was at the level that produced tracks like Identity.

  2. undeleted

    What are you on about Ian?

    I’m not questioning their attitude – though I might question your assertion that they were the greatest band ever.

    Two words: UB40.

  3. Pauly T

    So, blokes get what little musical taste we possess from hanging around with women. Well you speak for yourself mate but if I had relied on the women in my life for my musical tastes, including the one I married, two more words, Def Leppard!

  4. Pauly T

    I have to point out that while my wife does have an inexplicable weakness for hair metal her tastes are otherwise virtualy flawless & we concur on lots of stuff.

  5. Hahahaha! I bet you do! I am currently listening to the Glee cd courtesy of the missus. I’m quite enjoying it. Even Don’t Stop Believin’. And the version of Gold Digger is the shit, homeboy.

    Where did it all go wrong Paul? I’ve gone off the deep end.

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