Tim was one of the first punk rock pals I met in college. We eventually fell out over acute personality differences, dysentery but not before I squandered the first semester of my freshman year tagging along as Tim showed me some of the out-of-the way places I missed during my stint as a suburban hardcore kid — dusty, cure hole-in-the-wall record and book stores hidden away in the grimy corners of pre-gentrified East Cambridge and Allston.
One of these studentland basement bazaars had a smallish wooden crate of bootleg cassettes, an assortment of hand-dubbed jobbers recorded on unlabeled Maxell tapes and sporting grainy photocopies labels. The prices were on the steep side considering the dodgy nature of the product, but the selection of offerings was a punk enthusiast’s dream come true.
This was a time before the 1990s alterna-splosion and subsequent CD reissue craze, when punk had retreated to a host of isolated scenes ignored and willfully ignored by even the hipper segments of the media. Artists and works which have since been branded as essential classics — the Slits, the Adverts, “no wave” acts, even Wire’s early recordings — had long since fallen out of print and were for all intents and purposes unobtainable, save as horrifically overpriced “collectibles” or vinyl imports.
As a consequence, there were a slew of bands I knew of (from places like Lipstick Traces or various fanzines) but had no means of listening to apart from a chance spin of one of the low-power college radio broadcasts that managed to bleed west past the I-95 curtain.
Though money was tight at the time, I was more than willing to throw caution — and my food money for the week — to the winds and drop seven bucks on a illegally duped cassette of X-Ray Spex’s 1978 Germfree Adolescents LP.
I got in late that night, so I didn’t get to listen to it until the following morning when I staggered out of bed long enough to pop the tape into the stereo. There have been many — too many, in fact — instances in my life where the reality of a long-coveted artifact falls far short of the fevered anticipation.
This was not one of those cases. Fifteen seconds in to the first track and I knew exactly what Greil Marcus meant when he said a good punk song sounds like the best thing you’ve ever heard.
X-Ray Spex sounded how I thought the Sex Pistols should have sounded. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Pistols, but their musical accomplishments were muffled by the managerial hucksterism and publicity stunts which ultimately destroyed the band and left behind a handful of outstanding singles amidst a pile of puerile filler.
Though X-Ray Spex were no more prolific nor longer lived than McLaren’s runaway publicity stunt, they (and by “they,” I mean the band’s frontwoman Poly Styrene) maintained a consistent a consistent vision — a weird and wonderful (not to mention feminist) exploitation of post-WW2 society where utopian dreams of prosperity and progress have resolved themselves as into a world of dingy molded plastic where consumption determines identity.
The album’s songs offer a historical tableaux of dadaism and ad slogans, freeform jazz and bubblegum wrapped up in blistering blasts of punk raucousness marked by Styrene’s singular voice, a marriage of Shirley Temple and banshee shriek. She was a teenager at the time, astonishing to consider in light of the sophistication of the material and the power of her delivery.
Such was the true power of punk, giving unique voices like Poly Sytrene a platform for self-expression.
I’m not sure what happened to my bootleg cassette of Germfree Adolescents. I assume it got packed up in a box somewhere when I picked up the CD reissue a few years later. Though it occupies a place of honor on my “most favored listens” shelf, it hasn’t gotten much place in the past few years…mostly because I’ve internalized the songs to the point where listening feels redunant.
I did dust it off for a spin or three this morning, in order to revisit its timeless wonder and to pay tribute to Poly’s amazing legacy.
Recommended listening: X-Ray Spex – Art-I-Ficial (from Germfree Adolescents, 1978)
Goodbye, Poly. And thank you.