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.