Rip it up and start again! Punk, yeah, that used to be a thing. Revolution and stuff like that, for ever!
To my mind it never, ever sounded as bracing, fresh and revolutionary as X-Ray Spex Germfree Adolescents. Most punkers were white boys thrashing out cheap speed riffs, X-Ray Spex were one of the few back in ’78 that saw beyond that scorched Earth/scorched nostril approach and wondered what would happen if you tore out the bit of the punk rule book that said everyone had to sound like Chuck berry on 45RPM. What would happen if you let one of those things sing, you know what I mean, ‘girls’ I think they were called. Oh and how about chucking another 15 year-old one on sax too while we’re at it?* Even 40 years later nothing else ever sounded like this.
The key to this headlong sugar rush into barely harnessed chaos was the wonderful, irreplaceable, irrepressible Poly-Styrene**, a front woman like no other – all dayglo clothes, awesome swingy arms dancing, shrieks, surreal lyrics and absolutely boundless charisma. She came on like an explosion in the paint factory across the grey late 70’s cultural landscape of England. She just sounded new and dangerously other. Which is not to diminish any of the other X-Ray-ers here all of whom could really play, Jak Airport is a great guitarist – the riff on ‘Art-I-Ficial’ would have stood tall and proud on any 80’s glam rock LP; the rhythm section of BP Hurding and Paul Dean are solid as hell and Rudi Thomson’s sax adds a genuinely chaotic edge to much here, sounding equally poised between Andy Mackay and Nik Turner^.
But enough pleasantries, let’s get down to the real tofu of the job here. I may have hinted at it earlier but Germfree Adolescents is just freaking brilliant from the run-in groove on side A, right through to the run-out groove on side B … and the songs are even better.
The whole album is not just a wonderful anti-consumerist rant, but a rant dressed up in all manner of exciting propulsive punking, mewling pop. No matter how rock the band get on the likes of ‘Art-I-Ficial’, or the fast-rocking ‘Let’s Submerge’, the sax is always there to undercut the normality of it all and Poly’s voice takes of into different realms, flirting with discord but never trying our patience. The latter’s hymn to the punk scene is definitely one of my real favourites:
The subterranean is a bottomless pit
The vinyl vultures are after it
Molten lava sulphur vapours
Smoulder on to obliterate us
In the mood for some strange? check out ‘Warrior in Woolworths’ which sounds like listening to AM radio after drinking 2 gallons of cough mixture, all sweetness on the surface but you know something strange is going on just around the corner that really is going to make you puke. Check out the angry, unfocused ‘Plastic Bag’ which nudges us almost into Zappa territory, or the poison pop of the title track:
I know you’re antiseptic
Your deodorant smells nice
I’d like to get to know you
You’re deep frozen like the ice
I love the way that Germfree Adolescents never goes where you expect it to, there’s always another twist and twirl around the corner to stop you pigeonholing it in any way. Producer Stuart Falcon in conjunction with the band does a sterling job here, every sound is clean, warm and bright, but definitely not germfree. The more I listen to it the more I hear Roxy Music in all but the gnarliest bits, you could imagine Bryan ferry adding his blue suede croon to the likes of ‘Genetic Engineering’ and that has to be a very good thing indeed.
Sadly the band stalled as Poly-Styrene had one hallucination too many in 1978 and ended up being sectioned^^, she left X-Ray Spex the following year and that was that. There were brief reformations but she passed in 2011, far too young. All this means that Germfree Adolescents stands as the sole effervescent snapshot of the band, lending it even more potency and poignancy. When I listen to it today I hear the seed of an awful lot of 90’s music being sown right there and then.
PS: Article from 2002 I stuck inside LP cover, because that’s the sort of crazy antics I get up to.
*Laura Logic had gone back to her education after playing on debut single ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!, but Germfree Adolescents uses her arrangements, played by Rudi Thomson.
**Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, she was part Somali by birth.
^just slip into ‘The Day The World Turned Dayglo’ which could be a female fronted Hawkwind. Trust me.
^^she was diagnosed as bipolar in 1991.