Looking Back: ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours’ and the Power of Poly Styrene

It is a hot summer’s day in Central London and my friend Millie and I are jumping up and down screeching along to “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex. Their flat above the Charing Cross Road holds some punk memorabilia that belonged to their late mother, with the face of Johnny Rotten staring down at us from a high-up corner as we mosh in the living room. The song came to me as a godsend, at a point where I briefly lived with Millie at the end of 2016, a year of my life that was fuelled by sex and anger. When I first heard Poly Styrene utter the words, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think – ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’” I saw myself walking into sixth form covered in hickeys and bruises, I saw myself in screaming fits against my family, and I saw myself kicking and cursing at bully boys in the primary school playground. It is a call to arms for angry girls everywhere, and 44 years down the line it still holds that same electric energy that first hit the punks of London in 1977.

In the award-winning 2021 documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, we watch Celeste Bell explore her relationship with her mother, Marianne Elliot-Said, known to most as Poly Styrene. No stone is left unturned as Celeste guides us through lyrics, diary entries, and some of her darkest memories of being raised by a woman struggling with her demons and the price of fame. The result is tender and loving, full of forgiveness and understanding, as well as being one of the most intimately painted portraits of an artist that you could wish for. Her lyricism ekes through every second, actress Ruth Negga providing a voice for long-lost diary entries and poems. As for her vocals, writer and musician Vivien Goldman put it best: “Everybody always talks about ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours’ because, in a way, just that sound cut through a sort of glass ceiling of what ‘women singers’ could do with their voice.”

Before writing this, I asked Millie what the song means to them, to which they sent me a voice note: “‘Oh Bondage’ vibes with me because it takes a very fun and powerful outlook on sex, especially because there was a point in time where sex for me was inherently tied to abuse. To me, it’s all about reclaiming the fun and the power in the midst of the submission and the darkness and the horror. Does that sound insane? Don’t publish this if it sounds insane.” 

It doesn’t sound insane, the song holds a ferocious sexual female power that was ahead of its time. Kink and BDSM have recently become more openly discussed in mainstream culture, but there was a point where having the mere implication of bondage had X-Ray Spex barred from the radio. It’s hard to think, in the desensitised and hypersexual age we live in, of the impact that a mixed-race woman had on listeners when she first sang about her complex relationship with ideas of domination and submission. Much like the Sex Pistols with “Submission,” featured on the infamous 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks, Poly Styrene took inspiration from SEX. Owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the store was a centre of gravity for the London punk scene in the 70s. However, the inspiration she derived from the shop wasn’t truly about fetish or sexual expression. In a 2008 interview with Mojo, Styrene said:

“Most people think it was a kinky S&M song. But it was about breaking free from the bondage of the material world. I come from a religious background and in the scriptures, the whole idea of being liberated is to break free from bondage. I had an idea of the bondage of slavery and all those images in history like the suffragettes or slaves being chained up. When I saw Vivienne Westwood’s shop (SEX) and all her bondage trousers it symbolized all the other bondage elements I’d grown up with.”

Despite Poly Styrene’s main messaging within most of her lyrics being anti-capitalist and against consumerism, it is no surprise that everyone walked away from “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” with their own meanings behind the song. Religion ties hugely into people’s relationship with sex, and in some elements, it ties strongly into BDSM communities. The 1970s were a very transformative period for the feminist movement, who co-opted the song as being about liberation from patriarchal oppression. It is also important to note that the year of the song’s release was the year of the Battle of Lewisham. In the wake of the unlawful arrests of twenty-one young black people following a series of muggings in South East London, the National Front organised a march from New Cross to Lewisham as a means of intimidating local black communities. They were met with thousands of counter-demonstrators, who in turn were met with extreme police brutality, whilst the National Front had an escort to safety. The rage of the song matched with that of Black communities across the UK, even the US, and this rage still rings true when you think of the police brutality that is still more than prevalent for these communities over forty years later.

Marianne was born and raised in Brixton, not far from where the riots took place. She was growing up half-Somali in an age where being mixed race was still commonly referred to as being ‘half-caste’. As seen in other X-Ray Spex songs, such as Identity,” “Oh Bondage! Up Yours” also shows us Poly Styrene as she wrangles with her sense of self. Domination vs Submission, White vs Black, two cultures within her that were always at war in the world around her. In the documentary, Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers says this about London’s mixed-race youth: “In a way, we were embraced by punk and a part of punk because it was full of people who nobody else wanted. We were welcome because we were already outsiders.” 

But as punk shifted to the mainstream, who was looking out for Poly Styrene and women like her? Throughout the film, we hear stories of Sex Pistols and bandmates belittling her, of her aversion to the idolatry that came with fame, and of her entire career being pulled from beneath her feet after she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. The speed and mania of the corporate music industry weren’t designed to be productive for women like Marianne, it was made easy for white male musicians and designed to create products for consumers, two glaring points against her entire being and ethos. Punk died as soon it became a sellable product, and in my eyes, Poly Styrene got out before it probably would have killed her.

As I said earlier, it is no surprise that everyone walks away from “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” with their own meanings behind the song. They’re all correct, and there’s really no wrong answer. Where someone sees freedom from oppression, someone else sees freedom of sexuality. Where an individual could take it as an anthem against capitalism, another could read it as a sermon to free them from religious trauma. What ties all of these causes together is the fire in Poly Styrene’s voice, and the rage that each of us can relate to. It is a testament to her power and how she presented herself to the world, that so many can take so much from a mere 2 minutes and 45 seconds. It’s a song that says, “Fuck you,” “Fuck me,” and “I don’t fucking know,”’ whether you were Poly Styrene calling it out to the violent crowds in the Roxy and CBGB, or if you were two furious 18-year-olds unleashing it upon the streets of Soho in 2016. 

I have some advice for you, should you choose to take it. Go read the news, listen to “Oh Bondage! Up Yours,” and let yourself be angry. Let it run its course, let your eyes glow red before you take that rage and do something magnificent with it. If not for yourself, then do it for Marianne.

Indie/Indie Rock Pop/Indie Pop Reviews Uncategorized

Indie Idols: Will and the People

Image by Daniel Harris

Have you ever attended a concert and decided to skip the support acts? After all, they’re not who you’re there to see and one more drink in the bar is so tempting! If you have, I must say I think you missed out on some possibly brilliant music. I used to think that the support acts were just an unnecessary warm up to the main event, however, I have come to realize the error of my ways, and have since discovered some impeccable artists supporting others. This month’s Indie Idol is evidence of that. In 2019, I attended a Barns Courtney concert at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, London, and had looked up the support acts, Ulysses Wells and Will and the People, on Spotify before going in. Now I must admit, I was not entirely convinced of Will and the People’s music when I first heard it but after seeing them perform, in their underwear I might add, I was hooked. Their performance was incredibly energetic, charismatic and addictive, and I have since seen them again – most recently at Boardmasters festival just over a week ago. At which their performance was once again sublime and full of frontman Will Rendle’s usual antics – crowd surfing for example.

Hailing from Brighton, Will and the People formed in 2010 with brothers Will and Jamie Rendle (although Jamie joined later), Charlie Harman and Jim Ralphs and are considered by many as one of “the most down to earth bands, who appreciate every single one of their fans and put 110% into their live shows!”* It is with no doubt that Will and the People definitely go over and above with their gigs, the atmosphere is electric and shows tend to be a generally riotous experience, whether they’re the support or headline act, Will and the People will be a highlight of your night. The band have so far released four albums, with a new one promised for November, and it is difficult to classify Will and the People’s music into a single genre as every song is so distinct from each other that the variation is like a signature of the group. One of the band’s earliest tracks, Lion in the Morning Sun, for instance, has some very obvious pop music vibes but is full of ska and reggae fervour, with a strong but fast paced walking beat, almost reminiscent of the ska-punk or 2 tone genre that rose to popularity with bands like The Specials or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whereas more recent tracks like Justify, a track released in September of last year, has a more emotional rock ballad sound merged with rap elements and ethereal aspects similar to that of the band Evanescence. 

Of the band’s work, the song that stands out most to me as something special is the 2019 single Gigantic. Lyrically, the track tells the story of love, specifically familial love and how the people you choose to surround yourself with and those who love you can make the world better than anything. It discusses the sentiment that you would do anything for your family and friends, as evidenced in the first lyric, “I could be there for you, if you want me to,” as well as, the idea that even if you’re feeling down or lonely you will always have your family and friends to fall back on, just as they would have you, no matter how far away you are. The accompanying music video effortlessly depicts the warmth and sentimentality of the song, as it is presented as a sort of home video, going from door to door collecting relatives, young and old, to go to a large family get together. Hearing Will call his grandmother in the opening seconds really elevates that feeling of the music video and overall creates a human connection with the audience as you almost feel like you are part of the family.

Lucky for all who love them, Will and the People have a new single coming out on the 27th. In two days! Animal, a long awaited song that has been all over the world in its production stages, is sure to blow your mind. And! To add to the excitement, are on tour around the UK right now, and then all over Europe in the first few months of 2022.

*Quote from Tom Embling, who saw WATP on the 22nd in Bristol, where they, once again, performed in underwear. The tour wardrobe must be very compact!

Why We Love

Why We Love: Insecure Men

Three years ago today, the London-based band Insecure Men released their eponymous debut album.

After releasing two albums (Insecure Men and Karaoke for One) back to back in 2018 and wading through the subsequent touring, Insecure Men have maintained radio silence. However, rumors that the much-beloved band are due to surface in one form or another continue to buzz round the niches of the internet. 

Formed in 2015, Insecure Men is composed chiefly of Saul Adamczewski (Fat White Family, Warmduscher) and Ben Romans-Hopcraft (Childhood, Warmduscher) with sax player Alex White and a rotating array of keyboardists, percussionists, back-up singers and lyricists. 

In certain circles, Insecure Men are seen as veritable gods of the London alt scene—or maybe something better than gods, as the fruits of their labor are generally to be had more directly (and can be replayed until the groove wears out on the vinyl, or your Airpods die.) Their music is both soothing and thought-provoking: it makes you pay attention. It wakes you up.

Their Bandcamp bio attempts to explain their complex, layered sound: “Insecure Men…blend together exotica, easy listening, lounge and timeless pop music…”

Karaoke for One (which features a photo of Rasputin on the cover) is a record entirely composed of covers. Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl makes an unforgettably bizarre and touching appearance, in which Adamczewski’s vocals somehow manage to turn the pop ditty into something deeper, a sincere paean to a cold, unreachable lover-–up until the last five seconds, in which he spits out an exasperated, “Fuck!” followed by a hack of phlegm. That’s Insecure Men for ya, keepin’ it real. 

Their debut album, Insecure Men, was produced by Sean Lennon, and features original compositions running the gamut between effervescent pop (Subaru Nights and I Don’t Wanna Dance with My Baby) lilting, pseudo-Hawaiian melodies (Heathrow and Ulster) and songs to make the skin crawl (Mekong Glitter and Whitney Houston and I.)

There are many crossovers from Romans-Hopcraft’s highly acclaimed band Childhood in the instrumentation and vocals, and traces of the Fat White Family in the lyrics (often insidious subject matter delivered in dulcet tones that make you forget exactly what story you’re being told.)

During the touring efforts for the album, Insecure Men were quite vocal about their intentions to continue on as a band, going so far as to announce in an interview that they’d already written a third album. Whether or not it will be come to fruition remains to be seen, but we can certainly hope that a release date hovers on the horizon.

Insecure Men have a knack for making the roughest bits of life bearable—or at least, they succeed in provoking us to have a laugh at ourselves, to let go of seriousness and embrace the escapist pleasures of “exotica pop,” with every fibre of our beings.

And God knows, we could all use a bit of escapism right now. 

You can find Insecure Men on Bandcamp and Spotify. 

Header Photo Credit: Neil Thomson

Jazz/Blues Soul/R&B

Premiere: FAZE – Carried Away

Offering up a standout blend of Funk, Soul and Jazz with even more elements thrown into that mix, FAZE are a band proving they aim to sound like no one else with the release of their debut single ‘Carried Away’. A truly unmissable playing style along with some fantastic vocals, these young but extremely talented musicians wouldn’t seem out of place performing alongside some of the outstanding artists who first inspired them.

To find out a bit more, we caught up with the 5-piece neo-funk band from London just after the release of their new single. Be sure to expect many great things from this group, there’s no shame being Carried Away when it comes to FAZE.

J: Here with me to talk a bit about their new single is FAZE’s very own Yazmine, Ryan and Indigo. Hey, guys! How’s lockdown 2 been for you so far?

Yazmine: Hey, James! Lockdown 2 has been less of a nuisance than Lockdown 1 so far. I’m still at work, so not much has changed for me! A pain we can’t rehearse or record properly, but we’re hoping to be free December 2nd!

Ryan: Lockdown 2 has been a period of adjustability for me to be honest! Being under lockdown is not ideal but being able to adjust to circumstances is key.

Indigo: It’s been painful, just as musicians were starting to get gigs again! Luckily, we’ve still got a couple of function gigs lined up in 2021.

J: So for those only just finding out about you, tell us a bit about the music you’ve set out to create.

Yazmine: We write wacky, funk tunes with elements from 70s disco, neo-soul and classic rock. Expect rhythmic keys, groovy bass, sharp beats, lavish solos and cheeky lyrics! Everyone so far has had a different interpretation, so we’re calling it ‘neo-funk’!

J: Have most of you been in bands in the past, or is your first experience writing with other musicians?

Yazmine: Yes, we’re all pretty experienced musicians. I’ve been in jazz bands, orchestras and rock bands during my time at school and college! I also write solo stuff but FAZE is obviously my favourite 😉

Ryan: I have worked with quite a few bands in the past – my main role is behind the kit though!

Indigo: Yep, I started with youth jazz bands, and I’m now playing with many bands of many genres, including neo-soul, blues and big band jazz.

J: A big question; Why do you all enjoy playing ‘neo-funk’? What was it that inspired you so much that you just had to form a band?

Johnny: Neo-funk is something fresh and exciting. It’s not a well-known genre yet, but we’re setting out to change that!

Ryan: Neo-funk is a fusion of some of my favourite genres which also allows room for a lot of creativity – especially from a drumming perspective. When the opportunity came around to join FAZE, I was excited to get on board.

Yazmine: I got inspired to form a band whilst I was at college, I wanted to get into function work and started a band with some of my mates at school. We all got pretty busy, and the function work fell through so I thought ‘Screw it! Let’s meet some new people’. I downloaded this app Vampr which is basically Tinder for musicians, I met Ryan first, he had some crazy drumming riffs on his page and lived nearby, so we set up a rehearsal, and the rest is history- haha!

J: How would you all describe your music taste, was it tricky finding people who wanted to write in the same sort of style?

Yazmine: I think we’re all heavily influenced by R&B, Gospel, Jazz, Funkadelic and Disco tunes – it was very lucky that we all connected so quickly and had that in common. I grew up listening to CHIC, Parliament, Jackson 5, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and I love them all so much. When you’ve heard so much fantastic music, I think you become like a sponge and just soak it all in! The tunes just came bursting out when we started jamming together.

J: So tell me, how does a band even go about recording and releasing their first single in lockdown? Has it been harder/easier?

Ryan: It isn’t the most straightforward process, but we’ve all had to adjust to new ways of doing things. It would ideally be a lot easier without restrictions!

Yazmine: We were lucky that Carried Away has been waiting in the wings for a while before we decided to release. We had to finish up mixing and mastering which could be done remotely by our friend CHRIS XYLO (he’s an absolute wizard!) Planning the single release has actually been easier since I’ve had more time to stay at home and work on it. Since more people are at home, I think we’ve all had time to listen to more music/ read more books/ discover more art, so we’re grateful for that!

Johnny: We’ve successfully recorded three lockdown sessions during this weird time which you can find on our YouTube channel, that process was interesting and was easier than expected thanks to Ryan’s spotless drumming. We’re saving our new tracks for recording after Lockdown so we can get them perfect, we are certainly perfectionists!

J: Tell us all about your new single ‘Carried Away,’ why did you decide to start writing your own tunes and what gave you the idea for this track?

Timmy: After a couple of months playing covers and function gigs, I think we quickly discovered that we could write. During rehearsals in-between songs I’d often play these soulful chord progressions off the top of my head, and we’d go off on this wild jam tangent with loads of improv, different feels etc.! We were all feeling the vibes, so I think it was that first original jam was when FAZE started.

Yazmine: I wrote this track after coming home on the train one night after a fantastic gig. The crowd was wild, and we all went out afterwards and had such a great night. I pulled a bit of an all-nighter that night and woke up the next afternoon exhausted but filled with such excitement. That high you get after you come off stage is exceptional, and the feeling lasts for days afterwards! The lyrics just started coming out, and I sat at my piano and wrote the first draft. I put it to the boys a couple of weeks later, and they brought the vision to life!

J: So this new song is all about ‘life as a musician’ and the highs and lows that come with the job – is that something you’ve all felt an especially relevant subject at the moment?

Yazmine: We know none of us can hardly get carried away with anything at the moment! For us, it’s about fantasy and hope as well as reality. We want listeners to be able to listen to our track and escape from the current world at the moment as well as get inspired for the future. Soon it’ll be all of our jobs to get out there and support live music again. We ain’t going nowhere!

J: What sort of things can we expect to see next from you guys? Any hints?

Johnny: Trust me when I say Carried Away is only the tip of the iceberg! We’ve got so much music written – about to record our next two singles. Our next track will be called MALIBU – think palm trees, indulgent groove and holiday fantasy! Whilst sitting on our sofas at home in the middle of winter, we can only dream – so why not!

You can keep up to date with all the upcoming music from FAZE on their Instagram and Facebook @fazebandofficial

Find FAZE on Spotify here.