Second Look: X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents

The glitz of glam rock had faded away to make room for the noisier, more distorted visions spewed forth from bands like Suicide and The Dead Boys. The free-spirited attitude of the ’60s was long since forgotten, and the world was back to being one fucked up place. Not that it hadn’t been all along, but people were just more willing to focus on the hippies and psychotropic drugs and less so on the general poverty and despair. Ignorance was a powerful drug, and it was a habit that most people weren’t especially eager to kick. With the approach of the ’80s, things didn’t seem to be getting any better. People were getting angry and, in a fashion similar to the protest songs of the ’60s, punk rock seemed as good a way as any to vent. Even still, most punk bands were still singing about getting drunk, getting laid, and consuming vast quantities of drugs. The politicism and anti-consumerism of punk that was to come had not yet taken hold. But it was coming. 
Punk rock in the United Kingdom, specifically anti-establishment punk, was already well entrenched by the time it made its first waves here in the States. The Sex Pistols and The Clash were tearing up bars long before the majority of the US took notice of their overt political viewpoints and decided to co-opt the sound. When it took hold, however, bands began springing up from every dark corner of every bar. This punk insurgence came about side-by-side with the No Wave movement which incorporated elements of jazz, punk, avant garde, and experimental music.

While No Wave could be said to have the more varied approach to music, punk was the more affecting and longer lasting of the two. Taking their cues from the jagged rock of The Stooges and MC5 and turning them into a kind of mantra, these artists developed a style that emphasized an overwhelming emotional overhaul in the form of punk culture. The mohawks, piercings, and generally haphazard appearance all became as much an aspect of the punk movement as the music itself. And as is often the case, the things that the genre became known for were the very things which came to be thought of as synonymous with its excess. Before the inevitable fall, however, punk was a vital force in music and had a legitimate claim to call for social change. No band exemplified this serious call to arms better than X-Ray Spex.
Based in London, the band released very little in the way of official recordings in their short time as a band, but their influence can be felt and heard in bands throughout the interceding years between their first 7” release in 1977 and today. Where would the grrrl riot movement have been without X-ray Spex lead singer Poly Styrene? The frenzied embodiment of female empowerment, Styrene was a walking, screaming tornado of unrepressed sexuality, anti-consumerism, and political determination. She would make a difference, come hell or high water. And they had a saxophone player in the band. Who thinks that a saxophone player has any business being in a punk band? She did. And that saxophone is one of the most raucous, invigorating things you’ll ever hear. Their lone full-length (not including their ’95 album Conscious Consumer…ever), 1978’s Germfree Adolescents, was an album so determined in making its own history that it rose above the sometimes banal punk truisms and became something else entirely. It meant something. It was a serious record in a time when punk rock was being derided by the majority of mainstream media. How do you make people pay attention to your message when all they see is the dyed hair, screaming kids, and torn clothes? You begin by tossing out all the old punk attitudes and musical confinement and creating something new and determinedly vitriolic. You record an album that can’t help but be noticed, and Germfree Adolescents was certainly that, which makes its geek-music obscurity all the more mystifying.
But why is it that the canon of punk rock so casually overlooks their place in its storied history? Why do most people remember The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Richard Hell so much more clearly than Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex? Obviously, their short tenure as a band has played a large part in their relative anonymity, but punk rock was notorious for having important bands release just an album or two of significance and then fade away, leaving other bands to pick up their mantle and carry on.

I think some of the problem also comes when the group, after having broken up, went off and started other bands, and in their enthusiasm for these new bands, they may have inadvertently short-changed the importance of what X-Ray Spex had come to mean to their fans and to the evolution of the punk movement. By taking their own clearly acknowledged influences (The Dictators, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground) and merging them with this burgeoning self-aware political punk movement, the band had created something singular and intensely conscious of itself. And something that was, up to that time, only hinted at in the foremost recordings of the bands who were beginning to understand what punk rock could be. Germfree Adolescents was a true incongruity in punk canon up to that point, and I think that it’s for this reason that so many who claim to hold punk in high esteem have little regard or knowledge of the album.
The opening lines of the album, “I know I’m artificial/ But don’t put the blame on me/ I was reared with appliances in a consumer society” set the tone for the next 36 minutes. The commercial and possessive aspects of society are all unmistakably in the band’s sights. That opening song, “Art-I-Ficial,” clearly lays the sonic and thematic groundwork for every song that follows. From the outset, the guitars charge forward, recklessly trying to outdistance everything else, and when Poly Styrene’s vocals come in, you know that this is something different, that this is something you need to pay attention to. The title track “Germfree Adolescents” drops the churning guitars and hypersonic beats in favor of a slower tempo and a more reflective take on the Spex musical worldview. They’re approaching a proto-’80s synth-pop sound on this song (although it is somewhat of an anomaly on the album), and it is all the more effective for its seeming prescience.

“Identity” races along with its swirling guitars struggling to keep pace with the intensely catchy saxophone, some small piece of funk from a Stax masterpiece that never got released. And despite its decidedly non-militant sound, it is one of the most lyrically zealous descriptions of society’s inability to help the youth of the UK and, by association, the US. The song is based on an experience that Poly Styrene had where she witnessed a girl slashing her wrists in a bathroom at a local nightclub. It draws a connection between the girls’ beaten outlook and the pressure that society places on young people to conform to a uniform standard. Rocker “Obsessed With You” hits straight from the gate, the guitars chugging along like a freight train. The saxophone isn’t superfluous here, adding squeals and backing atmosphere where it’s needed and silence when it’s not. The album is also a good deal more melodic than you might expect.
One of their most memorable songs, the angrily propulsive “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo,” with its kinetic saxophone riffs and scorching vocals, seems right at home closing out the record as it could be seen as a kind of mission statement from the band. But you may be saying, “Hey, The Stooges had saxophone in some of their songs. What’s the big deal?” And you would be right, but I feel that there is a musical kinship between The Stooges and X-Ray Spex that hits on a deeper understanding of people’s ability to relate to music. The manic spirit that infused The Stooges is found in abundance on Germfree Adolescents, and the record revels in this connection. The rest of the record is a whirlwind of sardonic anthems (“I Am A Poseur,” “I Live Off You”) and punk aphorisms (“Let’s Submerge,” “I Can’t Do Anything”) concerning the difficulties of attaining and maintaining your own unique personality. This ability to disconnect yourself from the modern world and reject the strict conformist attitude and materialism of contemporary society was one of the most personal and fervent ideas that the band ascribed to.
The album fractured the idea of what I thought punk was capable of. After Germfree Adolescents was released, people began to notice that punk was more than just a group of screaming people in torn clothing, that it could be more than that. The songs that made up the original album felt more like political and anti-consumerist tirades than straight punk songs. X-Ray Spex seemed to be heavily indebted to the ideals of French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who argued that the current system of capitalism values consumption over production, and that as we find better and more efficient ways to tell people that they need to possess “things,” we lose our own individualism at a parallel rate. This idea of exposing consumerism’s ugly underside and promoting the assertion of individuality was at the heart of why X-Ray Spex was founded. 
By looking at the history and circumstances of the band at the time of the album’s release, we get a better understanding of the album itself. This was a band still in its infancy, not wanting to wait to have its say. Due to their lack of maturity as a band, coupled with Styrene’s fiery political and social rhetoric, X-Ray Spex was always going to have a short shelf life. This kind of intensely honest street corner sermonizing always burns out very quickly. And after the exhaustion of a full UK tour in 1978, Poly Sytrene left the band around the middle of the following year. After her departure, the band fell into disrepair and disbanded. Their mammoth intensity for X-Ray Spex all but burnt out, the band members fell apart and went off to join and found other bands like Classix Nouveaux, Agent Orange, and Transvision Vamp. Even now, the memory and love of the band endures, and this is in no small part the responsibility of their cosmic punk statement Germfree Adolescents, an album that showed the world what music could accomplish if backed by the drive and ferocity of true artists.