Last night I was lucky enough to go along to a very special night celebrating Queens Of Punk at The British Library. Hosted by self proclaimed ‘Professor Of Punk’, Vivien Goldman, the panel discussed the release of two books about two of the most legendary ‘queens of punk’: Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story and Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story.
Prior to talking to the authors, Goldman (also having recently released her own book Revenge Of The She Punks) delivers a poignant and stirring introduction, describing both Jordan and Poly Styrene as “prophetic” in the topics they addressed through their work, asserting that the most important aspect of punk was that women finally found a voice. Considering artists such as Jordan and Poly Styrene, as well as bands such as The Slits and The Raincoats, this would certainly seem true – the 1970s seeing these women coming to the fore and finally being heard.
And now, nearly 50 years later, when we’ve witnessed almost a regression in politics and equal rights, the spirit of punk – and in particular these strong female voices – is needed now more than it has been for decades.
To be honest, I hadn’t really been aware of Jordan’s prominence in the world of punk before tonight, and so her discussion with Goldman was both enlightening and inspiring. Describing how she wanted to create herself as a work of art, the way she dressed becoming a part of who she was, she explains that being self aware was a major part of being ‘punk’; it was about being aware of you are and “not giving a damn” what other people thought – a community for people who didn’t fit the mould. And, hearing her talk about her vibrant fashion choices (and work in in Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s ground-breaking boutique, SEX, then Seditionaries and, later, World’s End), and position as a woman in the industry at the time, it becomes clear just how courageous and innovative she has been.
Discussing the writing of the book, Jordan’s co-writer Cathi Unsworth (Sounds, Bizarre, The Guardian), describes their writing process as like making a dress; together they cut and pieced together Jordan’s memories to fit a narrative. However, Unsworth asserts that this wasn’t difficult, as Jordan is just like a person she’d invent to be a heroine of a novel, her life being filled with fearless adventure and outrageous events. Whatever the process of writing, it seems to have worked; Goldman describing Defying Gravity as like a “window into the [punk] culture”.
Asserting how “punk encapsulated everybody”, Jordan credits the gay clubs of Brighton and the role of the gay community in helping her feel comfortable in who she was, before discussing her work with Derek Jarman (he cast her as the ferocious Amyl Nitrate in his 1978 film Jubilee) – who she describes as oozing the essence of punk, as he didn’t care what anyone thought – and Adam Ant. Of the later, she recalls a night at The Roundhouse where Adam and The Ants were playing alongside X Ray Spex…
And so to Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe (Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits; Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumours) who worked together on Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story. Having initially met Zoë when she was writing her book about children of ‘rockstars’ –‘How’s Your Dad?’ Living in the Shadow of a Rock Star Parent – Celeste decided to write a book about her mother on realising she had a large archive of material from Poly Styrene’s life, that had mostly been in the hands of her old manager prior to her death. Including artwork, diary entries, and hundreds of unrecorded lyrics, as well as letters that Celeste has since written to her mother, Howe explains that they put the memories and archive together like “one big conversation”, trying to reflect Poly’s character as much as possible.
As well as the book, Howe and Bell have also recently been working on a documentary about Poly Styrene: Poly Styrene – I Am A Cliché. Directed by Paul Sng, the film includes never-seen-before footage of Poly throughout her life, as well as interviews with other people in the industry including Kathleen Hanna and Thurston Moore, about the great influence she had on them. We’re lucky enough to be treated to an exclusive showing of the trailer, and it looks like it’s going to be a wonderful watch!
Resuming the discussion about the book, Celeste opens up about her mother’s struggle with having Bipolar Disorder, and other people’s perception of her as being ‘psychic’. Celeste explains that her mother was very intuitive and would soak up any energy that was around her, which would often aid her creative process – her feelings being transformed into poetry – but could be psychologically difficult to deal with.
Celeste continues to explain that her mother had had mixed feelings about her following in her footsteps and making music; although she encouraged her daughter to learn to play instruments, she was concerned about Celeste being a woman in a sexist industry, having being affected by her own experiences. Throughout her career, for example, Poly Styrene had always been described by journalists and others in the industry as “not conventionally beautiful”, which often had a negative impact on her state of mind; as Celeste explains, her mother would get extremely frustrated by the industry’s focus on her looks rather than the work she was creating, and – in any case – she was “fucking beautiful!” no matter what anyone else said.
Recalling another instance of the industry’s ingrained sexism, Howe describes how a certain review of an X Ray Spex show seemed to pit Poly and saxophonist Lora Logic against each other, making out that Logic was the star of the show. Celeste describes how much this upset her mother, resulting in Lora being sacked from the band. This is a prime example of how the industry has, and continues to, pit females against each other, purely because of their gender, judging them on appearance, playing on insecurities, rather than focusing on the music being created. Lora and Poly, however, reunited years later, when they were both part of the Hare Krishna movement, and even performed together at Glastonbury.
It’s not only inspiring to hear about all the incredible steps Poly Styrene took as, not only a woman, but a woman of colour, in the world of punk, but particularly moving to hear Celeste talk about her mother and their relationship. Although rose-tinted spectacles are firmly off, it’s wonderful to hear her talk about Poly Styrene not only as the innovative figure for women in music that she remains to this day, but as a mother and a person.
Hearing about both Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story and Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, and all the pivotal steps that these women before us have taken in a quest to be heard, leaves me feeling inspired and motivated. As Goldman said at the beginning of the evening, now is certainly the time to revive the punk spirit, to unite and overcome adversity: we need strong figures like Poly and Jordan now more than ever.