Review #354: Germfree Adolescents, X-Ray Spex

Karla Clifton
2 min readFeb 25, 2023

#354: Germfree Adolescents, X-Ray Spex

It’s been too long since we’ve had a real-ass punk band, and way way way too long since we’ve had a real-ass punk frontwoman. And lucky us, because Poly Styrene is as real as they come.

Styrene’s name is plastic, one of her pet topics. (She says her own stage name in “The Day the World Turned Dayglo,” which is also an accurate description of her personal style.) If you haven’t seen pictures of her, you should look it up. She’s wearing braces in so many of them. Styrene was apparently haunted by hallucinations for much of her life, but she seemed to make it out relatively unscathed. There was a doc released about her in 2021 — though she passed in 2011.

X-Ray Spex was Styrene’s brainchild — she wrote every song on this debut. Which was released in 1979, but felt to me like it could have been released in 1995. It’s proto-riot grrrl — I can hear traces of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney on “Identity,” “I Am A Poseur” and “I Am A Cliche.” (Also loved Styrene railing against society’s treatment of women. “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” is the most explicit, but “Art-I-Ficial” and “Age” are my favorite takedowns of makeup and aging ever.)

Styrene’s forceful voice isn’t the only thing making the Spex so badass — the other reason is the saxophone, a wild choice for a punk band. The sax makes “Genetic Engineering” even more terrifying than it already is, and the chorus of epic “Plastic Bag” is more than a little heartbreaking, sounding desperate and melodic. (See also: “I Live Off You” and “Highly Inflammable.”)

The Spex also follow the grand punk tradition of nonsensically catchy choruses, mostly of which just consist of Styrene wailing the song’s title over and over. “Let’s Submerge” breaks the mold by not featuring the title as prominently, but it’s still got a catchy chorus: We’re going down/ To the underground. (Also love the reference to Richard Hell, of the Voidoids.) She also isn’t afraid to touch nursery rhyme-like cadences, as on “Warrior in Woolworths” and “I Can’t Do Anything.”

Sometimes, I fear that the albums I really like and connect with are the ones that I don’t write good reviews about. And this one falls into that category for sure. So, if you find my review lacking, I apologize. I liked this one too much.

Favorite Love Song: “Germfree Adolescence,” about two extremely clean individuals who fall in love.

Least Favorite Love Song: “Obsessed With You.” Is it a love song? I’m not actually sure, but it’s my least favorite vocal cut.

Fun Fact: This is FKA Twigs’ favorite album!

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