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Throwback Review: X Ray Spex “Germfree Adolescents”

I’m constantly stunned by my tendency to obsess and fixate on what I know I love. It’s easy to fall into a routine and to keep the same, favorite bands on repeat, but my conscience knows that there is a literally bottomless well from which I can extract important albums and artists I 100%, undoubtedly should have heard of before. I’ve done my best to do a thorough skimming of the surface of modern punk and what that even means or constitutes, but recently when I asked my friend where she would start she immediately turned me onto X Ray Spex.

X Ray Spex first formed in 1976, when Poly Styrene put an ad in Melody Maker for “YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGETHER.” It worked, and the band went forward to put out the album, Germfree Adolescents. While their discography is limited (they only ever released one more album in the 90s), their impact on Punk music was huge. Poly wrote lyrics with a specific angry poeticism that not many other bands ever reached – she, like many others, was deeply upset by mindless consumerism, and by the powers that be filling bodies and the earth with artificial substances and ideologies. She definitely wasn’t afraid to be transparent, but she focused on funny little details that introduced a layer of humor over her woes “I wanna be Instamatic / I wanna be a frozen pea / I wanna be dehydrated / In a consumer society,” she sings in “Art-I-Ficial.”

On my first ever listen of this album I’m excited, I’m pumped up, I’m angry! I’m also, increasingly anxious about the world’s current state of affairs and about my health and safety in relation to them. As it turns out, things really haven’t changed all that much since the late 1970’s. When it comes to the music itself, it’s still totally relevant—you can see how and why tons of bands are still trying to duplicate this sound today. It wouldn’t be out of place if it was released in 2018 by a DIY band from Austin.

However, at the time, this record from X Ray Spex was revolutionary and it helped shape what Punk music became. First and foremost, to have a woman of color front a Punk band was pretty much unheard of—she faced far more obstacles on a daily basis than the other white male dudes occupying space in the genre. With the original opening track of Germfree Adolescents, “I Am a Cliche,” she spouts gibberish, “yama yama yama yama” shamelessly in between versus (if you want to call them that) proclaiming, “I am a cliche, I am a cliche / I am a cliche you’ve seen before / I am a cliche that lives next door / I am a cliche you know what I mean / I am a cliche pink is obscene.” She addresses any criticism she might receive head on, with humor, with wiley energy, and with a half time distorted guitar chugging along underneath her vocals.

I feel like a damn fool whenever I discover something like X Ray Spex so late though to be fair, I hadn’t even been born when they recorded the seminal album. The songwriting is political, precise, poetic, and it defies the linear concept of time. Between Poly’s wild unleashed vocals, the saxophone riffs piercing through heavy guitars, and frantic drums, X Ray Spex created something every current and future punk should listen to.

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