If you ever want to attain a full understanding of the depths punk-rock has slipped into, listen to The Anthology: Let’s Submerge and then throw in an album by any number of modern mall-punks; the disparity, if it doesn’t cause you to openly weep, will at the very least hip you to something most of us Indie-genous folk have known for a long time: the wonderfully reckless abandon of late ’70s punk and early ’80s hardcore is gone, and it ain’t comin’ back.
Poly Styrene was X-Ray Spex’ lead singer, and she’s not important because she yelled “Up yours!” every few minutes at concerts or because she talks about “cliché” and “poseurs” in her lyrics – she’s a mini-legend because, like many of her peers, she didn’t give a fuck. The image pressures and marketing infrastructures that have turned punk into a Beach Party companion simply weren’t functioning at full-bore yet, at least in the underground. And so a string of rebels maintained a ‘scene’ – both in America and in the UK, where the Spex are from – so insular that even the most precocious music-industry leeches didn’t know how to go about sucking the life out of it.
Ironically, the albums recorded during this period, threadbare as they were, have become artifacts even noble lo-fi-ers can’t seem to duplicate. While modern – or, should I say, post-modern – bands have been at least marginally successful in recreating the pastoral folk of the early ’70s or the psych freak-outs of the late ’60s (not to mention that swing resurgence most of us have blocked from our memories), the emergence of a truly Punk retread, in the classic sense of the word, has yet to occur. On the surface, this discrepancy may appear to be disappointing – will the young kids ever truly know punk? – but that’s exactly what makes it so magical. Think about it: when an industry that fills its coffers by recycling the Same Old Shit can’t come up with an Nu version (or at least one anyone cares about), it’s truly a reason to celebrate.
And we do, with four-disc box sets, CBGB comps, still-running mags that can’t seem to Get Over the late ’70s (ever read Jack Rabid’s Big Takeover?), and, last but not least, disgustingly thorough anthologies that try to turn one-trick ponies like X-Ray Spex into a cerebral band through revisionist history and loads of live tracks, John Peel Sessions, demos, and alternate versions. “Whoopee,” you might sarcastically say. After all, Let’s Submerge is on a major label that wouldn’t have deigned to touch X-Ray Spex with a ten-foot A&R pole back in the day. But we’re talking about history here, so don’t sweat the semantics; just be glad these goodies aren’t long lost on old 78s like much of the folk/blues/country of the early 1900s. What’s more, none of the recordings offend. While there are several track repeats – many songs see four different versions – many of them are different enough to warrant inclusion, especially the revealing live takes.
Did I mention Styrene doesn’t give a fuck? As sax player Lora Logic’s horn bleats on unnecessarily – yet so necessarily – in the background and the guitars and bass players barely keep up, Styrene rants so hard and loud your ears will feel like they’ve been sliced, diced, and payin’ the price like Cool J’s rivals on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” To be frank, I can barely stand listening to her for extended periods of time, and this anthology – unlike, say, their only full-length, Germ Free Adolescents – isn’t blessed with brevity. (Just thank your lucky stars the 1995 reunion album Conscious Consumer isn’t included, as it would undoubtedly water down the content of this scrappy, ankle-biting affair.) Styrene’s so emphatic, in fact, that it’s no surprise she joined the Hare Krishnas soon after X-Ray Spex disbanded; after all that purging – today’s modern bulimic could learn a lot from Styrene’s puke-free method – she was probably ready to mellow out for a spell.
Best of all, she didn’t go on to form a shitty solo band. It’s better to burn out fast than to fade away where punk is concerned, and Styrene hasn’t bored us with endless attempts to replicate her golden years, save for the aforementioned reunion. This secures her legend more than her so-punk-they’re-almost-not antics – dayglo clothes, braces – and ensures that true appreciators of punk, music’s flunky, will echo her influence, whether directly or indirectly, for years to come.