Monday, June 15, 2009

June 15: X-Ray Spex, "Germ Free Adolescents"

Artist: X-Ray Spex
Album: Germ Free Adolescents
Year: 1978
Label: EMI

Every band in history has a few faults to their name. Frustratingly, there are a number of cases where the worst thing the band did was simply not make ENOUGH music! It seems that the bands you want less of will never go away, yet the most brilliant bands seem to have the shortest careers. Another way of saying it is, "Why is Joe Strummer dead, yet that #*&^@! from Nickelback is still making music?!?" Bringing it back to the point, one of the many bands who seem to get constantly overlooked within the 1970's UK punk explosion were the female-led band, X-Ray Spex. With as much energy and angst as their contemporaries, they are truly one of the most brilliant bands that few people have ever experienced. Amazingly, and frustratingly, they only have one record released by the original lineup. The group's sensational 1978's release, Germ Free Adolescents, gives a peek into a "group that could have been."

X-Ray Spex, formed by schoolmates Poly Styrene (Marion Elliot) and Lora Logic (Susan Whitby), the group proved to be worthy of being spoken in the same breath as U.K. legends like The Clash and Sex Pistols. The songs have the same forceful delivery, both musically and lyrically, along with a strong message underneath each track. Serving as the archetype for bands like Vice Squad and Vivian Girls, in many ways, Styrene was the link from Patti Smith to later "female empowerment" performers. It was also within their lyrics where the group separated themselves from their peers, taking a far more proactive approach and calling for action instead of "dropping out" as was encouraged by many of their peers. Soon after their formation, their live shows became some of the most popular shows in London, and they shared bills with the likes of Wire, The Buzzcocks, The Clash, and many other seminal U.K. punk bands. X-Ray Specs were also invited to participate in a "Peel Session" with legendary producer, John Peel. Accomplishing all of these feats in just under three years is further testament to just how extraordinary a band there was in X-Ray Specs.

Easily the most significant aspect of the music of X-Ray Spex is the tenor saxophone of Rudi Thompson (who replaced Lora Logic before the album was recorded). Its presence alone sets the band aside from anything else at the time, and such a prominent saxophone on a punk record had not been heard since the days of The Stooges. Guitarist Jak Airport (Jack Stafford) is every bit as capable as the other band members, and whether it is crushing chords or stunning solos, he can clearly hold his own with any other punk guitarist on the planet. The rhythm section of Paul Dean on bass and drummer BP Hurdling are equally impressive, and with just a few minutes of listening, it is evident that X-Ray Specs were poised to be one of the most amazing bands in the world. Truly, X-Ray Specs were a bit ahead of their time, as they took the punk aesthetic and presented it in such a mature manner that most people in the scene simply couldn't wrap their heads around the sound. The songs had far more structure and melody than those of The Sex Pistols, yet even with these more mature compositions, the music retained the spirit of the scene.

The true genius behind X-Ray Specs is founder and front-woman, Poly Styrene. Throughout Germ Free Adolescents, her voice is nothing short of mesmerizing, in both how she sings, as well as what she sings. Even on the few songs with a more relaxed tempo, Styrene's voice remains nothing short of a rallying cry, she demands change, and her delivery has often been described as "effervescently discordant." With more energy and attitude than nearly any of her peers, Styrene is unrelenting throughout the entire album, and her unmistakable singing and yelling is almost intoxicating. As she was responsible for writing all of the lyrics and music found on Germ Free Adolescents, the lyrics revolve around themes of Styrene's general distaste for the "artificial" society she saw around her. Taking a stand against corporations that wanted nothing to do with "normal" people, many of the songs are rather feminist in nature, as again, they are all from her own point of view. One of the most stunning moments is on the song, "Identity," when she sings, "When you look in the mirror, do you see yourself? Do you see yourself on the T.V. screen? Do you see yourself in the magazine? When you see yourself, does it make you scream?" Even more than twenty years after its release, one would be hard pressed to find more relevant lyrics.

From the objectification of women to "poseurs" within the punk scene, nobody is safe from the pen of Poly Styrene. Unrelentingly blunt, yet undeniably talented, it is her music and lyrics that helped to make X-Ray Specs one of the most talked about and legendary acts in the blossoming U.K. punk scene. Bringing an intensity equal to that of any other band, yet presenting a far more crafted and mature sound, there has truly never been another band like X-Ray Specs. The group further distanced themselves from their peers by the fantastic, full incorporation of a saxophone into the groups' sound. This adds another dynamic to the groups' music, yet the basic elements of screaming guitars and a pulverizing rhythm section enabled the group to keep their appeal to the "punk" scene. However, at the end of the day, everything great about X-Ray Specs comes back to the phenomenal vocal work of Poly Styrene. Captivating and crushing, her voice is truly beautiful, yet so powerful and pointed that she demands respect and action with every word. Sadly one of the most overlooked groups, mostly due to their short career, X-Ray Specs and their 1978 album, Germ Free Adolescents, remain one of the most important and impressive bands of the early U.K. punk scene.

Standout tracks: "Art-I-Ficial," "Identity," and "Germ Free Adolescents."

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