Thursday, August 26, 2010

August 26: X-Ray Spex, "Art-I-Ficial"

Artist: X-Ray Spex
Song: "Art-I-Ficial"
Album: Germ Free Adolescents
Year: 1977

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Looking back across the entire history of recorded music, one cannot deny the overwhelming dominance of male performers and fronted bands in nearly every genre from every era.  While there are a few exceptions to this rule, in almost every case, the "best" albums from any given style of music were created by men, and the female contributions are often little more than side notes.  However, one cannot deny the fact that in what one can argue is the most male dominated genre in history, punk rock, one of the most essential records came from a female fronted group.  Though they only lasted a few singles and one full length record, one would be hard pressed to find a finer example of the punk spirit than within the music of the amazing X-Ray Spex.  Making their presence known via their 1977 feminist anthem, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" which opened with the lines, "...some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but i think...oh bondage, up yours!" there are few groups that have had as short lived, yet massively influential as X-Ray Spex.  Filled with an aggression and energy that remains largely unrivaled, the group was also able to inject all of their songs with an amazing pop sensibility that was missing from much of the punk music at the time.  Standing as one of the greatest songs ever written, as well as one of the finest ways to open a record, few songs can compare to the greatness found on X-Ray Spex's 1977 song, "Art-I-Ficial."

Truth be told, there are few songs in history that set as perfect a mood for an entire album as one finds within "Art-I-Ficial," as the guitar riff that kicks off the song is one of the most upbeat and energetic to ever be recorded.  Played by the man known as "Jak Airport" (real name: Jack Stafford), the riff tears across the song and instantly pulls the listener completely into the album.  Compared to most of the punk songs being recorded at the time, the riff is quite different in that the tone is very clean, and the musical progression is someone more complicated than those being recorded by their peers.  However, the spirit of punk rock is undeniable, and B.P. Hurding quickly jumps in with a strong back-beat that makes "Art-I-Ficial" a piece of punk rock legend before the vocals even enter the picture.  Bassist Paul Dean adds even more nervous energy to the song, and as the song moves into the first verse, it is his playing that begins to build into a frenzy.  While all three of these musicians play brilliantly, the one element that set X-Ray Spex even further apart from their peers is the presence and playing of saxophonist Rudi Thomson.  Having replaced band co-founder "Lora Logic" (real name: Susan Whitby), Thomson steps into the role perfectly, bringing to mind the work of The Stooges, and helping to give "Art-I-Ficial" a sound and mood unlike anything else being made at the time.

However, while the music on "Art-I-Ficial" is absolutely fantastic, there is no arguing that the band would not exist both literally and figuratively had it not been for the vocals of the one and only Poly Styrene (real name: Marion Elliot).  Standing today as one of the most influential females in all of music history, her work throughout Germ Free Adolescents is nothing short of stunning, and she also used the album to make her case as one of the finest writers of her generation.  Seamlessly switching between singing and shouting, Styrene has everything her male counterparts had to offer vocally and then some.  The power and spirit in her singing is completely captivating, and there is a phenomenal sense of authenticity and raw emotion that runs throughout the song.  This is largely due to it being clear that every song from X-Ray Spex had a deep meaning for Styrene, as she used the musical form to fight for women's rights in every avenue of life.  On "Art-I-Ficial," she holds nothing back, giving a huge middle finger to society with the lines, "...when I put on my make-up, the pretty little mask not me...that's the way a girl should be, in a consumer society..."  This, in many ways, is the true punk spirit, and few artists have so brilliantly expressed themselves, and it is lines like these that have made "Art-I-Ficial" such a cornerstone within the progression of music as a whole.  Furthermore, countless female performers have used Styrene's "battle cries" as their own inspiration, and both her writing and vocals remain unrivaled more than thirty years later.

In many ways, it is almost tragic that X-Ray Spex released such a little amount of music, as they clearly had far more to offer than an overwhelming majority of their punk rock peers.  Having a firm grasp on how to create frenzy-inducing, high emotion punk rock with a musicality that appealed to non-punk audiences, on many levels, the group was light-years ahead of the other bands of their era.  Whether it was finding ways to perfectly blend saxophone progressions into their music or the mesmerizing vocal work of Poly Styrene, there has truly never been another band equal to X-Ray Spex, and it is much the reason that their only record, 1977's Germ Free Adolescents, continues to show up with a quite high ranking on countless "best of" lists.  The album is truly flawless, and one cannot deny how much impact and influence it clearly had on so many bands that followed.  The album is also significant in the fact that, while it is unquestionably punk rock, it does not follow the sonic trend that dominates much of the famed releases of 1977.  X-Ray Spex took their own approach to the punk style, and their unique blend of crisp, yet frantic guitar work and a high octane rhythm section along with the bleating saxophone set them in a class all their own.  Capped off by the uncanny presence of Poly Styrene, there are few albums that rival the brilliance of Germ Free Adolescents, and few songs from anywhere in history that can compare to X-Ray Spex 1977 song, "Art-I-Ficial."

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