40 years after its release, X-Ray Spex’s Germfree Adolescents is still a unique expression of original punk creativity; Getintothis’ Roy Bayfield submerges himself into its Dayglo world.
In the early seventies 15-year-old runaway Marianne Elliot-Said lived the hippie dream, walking in forests and rivers, hitching from one free festival to another, sleeping in crash pads – an adventure brought to an end by germs when stepping on a rusty nail in a riverbed gave her septicemia. A few years later, as Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, she would sing about germ free adolescents on one of punk’s classic albums – a joyful, empowering record which inverts and transcends the hippie worldview with its ironic celebration of consumerism.
Poly and X-Ray Spex were unique, and Germfree Adolescents shows how the creative explosion of punk could go in many directions beyond the 3-chord Ramones-based template.
The band had been playing live since the earliest days of the punk scene, back when, as saxophonist Lora Logic claimed, ‘There couldn’t have been more than a hundred real punks in all of England’. One early performance was captured on the seminal Live at the Roxy album, and they played at a key moment of the 1978 counter-culture – the Rock Against Racism Festival in Victoria Park.
While some of the punk acts doing the rounds came across as blokey hard rock with the latest showbiz twist, Spex were genuinely subversive and new. Having a saxophone in the lineup added a poignant, expressive depth to even the most driving songs and Poly’s performances were an explosive revelation. At the time one distinctive, world-ripping aspect of punk was female artists doing what they wanted without having to play any kind of role as rock-women pinups, at least not in a conventional way.
X-Ray Spex, with two women in the initial line up (Poly Styrene and Lora Logic) were a vivid and powerful example of this. They had a way of making music that was a noisy brilliant attack unlike anything else.
By the time Germfree Adolescents landed in November 1978 there had already been more than a dozen British punk albums released. Punk fans with pocket money would be likely to have LPs by the Sex Pistols, the Damned, Buzzcocks, the Adverts, Penetration and several more on their shelves. Germfree Adolesecents was released on the same day as the second Clash album and three days before The Scream by Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Not that punk was all about albums – X-Ray Spex themselves had released four singles prior to the album coming out, so several of its tracks were already out there – arguably it was the singles that made the most impact, achieving top 30 positions and Top of the Pops appearances. The album came as a compilation and expansion of what the band had produced, pretty much replicating that year’s live set lists. Logic had left to complete her O Levels, so for much of the album the lineup is Poly Styrene – vocals, Jak Airport – guitar, Paul Dean – bass, Rudi Thomson – saxophone and B.P. Hurding – drums.
The album cover, featuring photos of the band members apparently trapped in test tubes, gives a muted flavour of their visual image and performance personalities. The Dayglo outfits were a sort of recycled, amped-up anti-fashion, not so much retro kitsch as a vivid pisstake: ‘I am a poseur and I don’t care’.
This wasn’t any kind of punk uniform look; no leathers, fishnets or tartan. There was a DIY aesthetic to the X-Ray Spex anti-style, which could be emulated – crazy old-lady clothes in bright colours still being available in charity shops – or used as an inspiration for one’s own stylistic departures. As a bunch of people the band – not entirely white, not entirely slim, not entirely cool – look like an assortment of real people. Nevertheless the cover is rather contrived and doesn’t do justice to the contents.
Side one kicks off with one of Poly’s trademark keening vocal-only warcries, the title ‘Art-I-Ficial’ proudly shouting the album into being. The song is a blistering rush, giving the album’s manifesto in the first few seconds: ‘I know I’m artificial / But don’t put the blame on me / I was reared with appliances / In a consumer society’, Poly’s voice a kind of defiant yowl that seems to almost break with the strain of its full-on expression. We’re in some kind of weird, unstable territory where ‘existence is elusive’ and it sounds fantastically exciting.
Punky pummeller Obsessed with You skewers celebrity culture, mocking an unspecified ‘you’ who is ‘just a symbol … just a theme … just another figure… sales machine’.
On Warrior on Woolworths blaring glam guitar leads into a more honeyed vocal, celebrating (or gently mocking?) figures whose day jobs are cover for more subversive lifestyles – ‘He’s the rebel on the underground / She’s the rebel of the modern town’. The reference to Woolies, and later mentions of mundane products like toothpaste, connect the songs to our day-to-day world.
The underground features again in the next track Let’s Submerge, now as a concept – amidst the delirious racket of the music ‘we’re going down to the underground‘ of the scary and exciting punk subculture, seen as a type of hell (‘bottomless pit…sulphur vapours’) and also a place where Richard Hell will give you dagger glances – the ultimate place of beguiling cool.
However in the next song I Can’t Do Anything, Poly ‘can’t even get to hell’. Like I Am A Cliche and I Am A Poseur it’s a self mocking lyric, flaunting awkwardness and geeky individuality. The cute comedy of this song sets us up for side-closer Identity, one of the albums strongest and most challenging tracks. Fast and relentless, declaiming that ‘Identity is the crisis can’t you see’, it’s an anguished take on being a self that can’t bear to behold itself in the mirror or on the TV screen.
Side Two opens with the dire science fiction prophecy of Genetic Engineering, followed by another dip into dystopia in I Live Off You. Exuberant-sounding yet with disturbing lyrics, this bleak take on society depicts us all living off each other in a cycle of inevitable exploitation.
Anti-art was the start of punk sensational image-creation in I Am A Poseur, a joyous chant celebrating the fun of making people stare, playing the game of image creation by knowingly causing ‘sensationalism for the feed’. Maybe this track too was prophetic, predicting the present when many of us carry our own TV screens around and project made-up identities through social media.
The title track Germfree Adolescents is perfect hypnotic pop, the album’s consumer world fascination expressed in a compelling trancy sprawl.
Plastic Bag, the longest track on the LP at nearly five minutes, combines all of the album’s themes in one big rocker – mental identity (‘My mind is like a switchboard’), surreally sending up consumerism (‘I eat kleenex for breakfast / And I use soft hygienic Weetabix / To dry my tears’) and punk itself (‘It’s 1977 and we are going mad…apathy’s a drag’).
The album climaxes with the riotous The Day the World Turned Dayglo, an apocalypse of artificiality in which absolutely everything is manufactured, even nature turned synthetic, a latex breeze moving see-thru leaves.
Re-releases have welcomed additional tracks, including the eternal punk classic Oh Bondage Up Yours, the band’s first single. Bondage is the band’s most enduring legacy, a spine-shivering assault on every kind of constraint, a proud scream of liberation. In Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming, Poly is quoted as saying ‘I am not going to be bound by the laws of consumerism or bound by my own senses’, an amazingly audacious statement – not to be constrained by anything, not society, not even the limits of one’s own mind.
In a way it’s the hippie project of enlightenment inverted and transformed. Instead of psychedelic visions, fluorescent products. Instead of blissful journeys to inner space, nightmares of identity. Instead of personal authenticity, empty images and roles. Instead of free-loving communities, a submerged underworld. Instead of fantasy Utopias, the high street. Based on just the lyrics, this could be the most depressing album ever.
But the music and performance make it exhilarating, filled with joyous energy. Germfree Adolescents doesn’t just describe a world of control and confusion, it exorcises it – creating a space for the very freedoms that both the hippies and the punks were striving for.
All of this happened a long time ago. But turn on this record and you tap into the energy, fun and fearless confrontation of real punk rock and the world turns dayglo once again.