More than forty years old, X-Ray Spex’s “Germfree adolescents” retains a capacity to express contemporary culture. X-Ray Spex were a punk band, intentionally counter-cultural, expecting to confront people, to disturb, to question. Listening to it amidst Friday evening traffic, it seems a troubling voice.
Bands like the Sex Pistols with their loud, discordant music and shouted lyrics confronted the world with aggression and anger. Deliberate flouting of the norms of social behaviour combined with huge outbursts of energetic activity presented a picture of a generation unhappy with the ways of the world in which they lived. Johnny Rotten’s bawling rendition of the Sex Pistols’ song “God save the Queen” was the stuff of nightmares for Daily Mail readers.
The sheer confrontational nature of much of punk meant that many people recoiled from it and did not give a second thought as to what may have been its message. Foul language and violent conduct undermined opportunities to talk of alienation and to articulate questions about the nature of society.
In “Germfree Adolescents,” X-Ray Spex are much more subtle in their music and in their lyrics. Undeniably a punk band, they present the song with a reflective thoughtfulness.
“I know you’re antiseptic, your deodorant smells nice
I’d like to get to know you, you’re deep frozen like the ice.
He’s a germ free adolescent,
cleanliness is her obsession
Cleans her teeth ten times a day
Scrub away, scrub away, scrub away the S.R. way.
You may get to touch her if your gloves are sterilized
Rinse your mouth with Listerine, blow disinfectant in her eyes
Her phobia is infection, she needs one to survive
It’s her built-in protection, without fear she’d give up and die.”
The distinctive voice of Poly Styrene, the lead singer of the band, fills the words with a strong sense of angst.
Perhaps being a teenager was always to experience a sense of alienation, to feel cut off from the world around, but “Germfree Adolescents” carries that sense to an extreme. The idea of a teenage girl feeling a need for a “phobia” to retain a sense of identity, needing “fear” in order to be a person, suggests an alienation from the possibility of a personality expressed in positive terms.
The 1970s were an unsettled time both socially and economically, but even as someone who frequently felt lonely, there did not seem the sense of isolation felt by some among the current cohort of adolescents. Identity seems a greater problem now than forty years ago.