Listen to this track by class of ’77 London punk band and shouty social commentators, X-Ray Spex. It’s “Plastic Bag” as taken from 1978’s Germ Free Adolescents, their debut full-length which would have no US release until the early ’90s, but helped to document their place in the UK punk pantheon.
The band forming at all was down to inspiration that came out of their regular attendance at shows by the Sex Pistols. But, unlike that band, X-Ray Spex incorporated a few changes to the British punk template by the time they’d put out their first single (“Oh Bondage, Up Yours”), and eventually this song and album.
One was the use of a saxophone, played here on this tune by one Rudi Thompson, giving their sound something of an R&B sort of feel. Another was a more ambitious approach to arrangements that includes changes in tempo and in tone, even if the rawness of punk is very much in place.
And perhaps the most important ingredient sprung from its lead singer, who was also the primary songwriter, Poly Styrene (neé Marianne Joan Elliott-Said).
With her songs, there wasn’t talk of “No Future”. Rather, it was more about no present, or at least not the one that should be accepted by critically thinking citizens. So, the ambivalence for which The Sex Pistols were known is undercut here. With this tune, there is a genuine statement being made about society, a criticism that went beyond “she ain’t no ‘uman beeeen…“.
It touches on an important theme in the oeuvre of X-Ray Spex, with many of their songs dealing with the place of women in society, and with rampant consumerism as a means to deaden our impulses to criticize those in power, and to have control over our collective destiny. This was a band that had things to say about how the individual is very often dehumanized in modern society, when the capacity for critical thinking is exercised less and less because the powers that be actively discourage it.
The plastic bag in this tune is about something that is empty, can be filled with meaningless objects or products, and is ultimately banal, with no real meaning outside of its limited function. It is a symbol for the mind of the thoughtless consumer, who is a cog in an exploitive system. As such, this is punk rock not as an anthem of nihilism. It’s a protest song. And again, Poly Styrene isn’t concerned with “No Future”. She’s literally singing about 1977 here, the year in which this song was written, checking it in the song’s lyrics several times. The bitter irony is that it could have been written yesterday.
But, with that kind of agenda, life in a touring punk band that was also selling a record on a major label (EMI) was not sustainable for Poly Styrene, who would eventually leave the band in order to drop out of mainstream society altogether. She joined the Hari Krishnas! Well, she did so for a while at least. The band would reform later in the 1980s, and would be an on-again-off-again concern for many years after, through the ’90s and into the 2000s, and with a new record Conscious Consumer, that would explore some of the same themes, although not capture the zeitgeist as they once had.
In 2011, Poly Styrene died of cancer after having made three solo records, and returning to play to appreciative crowds only a few years before in a reformed X-Ray Spex. But even after she was gone, what she left behind was a unique persona that is instantly recognizable, and one of the greatest examples of a punk singer not in place to shock, but with something legitimate to say about a broken society, too.
You can learn more about the band at the X-Ray Spex official site.
And here’s an article on the BBC published after Poly Styrene died about her life and work.