Today we received news of two sad deaths. There were several similarities between the two women who died: both were singers who had one big hit in the 1970s, both took stage names with the initials P.S., both died young – in their fifties. And then the differences begin: most notably, between their musical styles, with one a mellow, bluesy crooner and one a screamer who set the stage for the Riot Grrrl movement. These women were Phoebe Snow and Poly Styrene, and we’re missing them both today.
Phoebe Snow was born on July 17, 1950 as Phoebe Ann Laub – she took her stage name from a character in a railroad advertising campaign. In her teen years, she played acoustic guitar and sang in clubs around Greenwich Village, and by the time she was 22, her debut album had hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It included the cool, groovy single “Poetry Man.”
In the months that followed, Snow appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, and toured as the opening act for Jackson Browne and Paul Simon. She also became pregnant with a daughter who would change the course of her life and career.
Snow’s daughter Valerie was born with severe brain damage. Her decision to care for her daughter herself, rather than putting her in an institution, meant a full-time caretaking job with much less time to devote to music. Snow did continue to record albums, but she stayed lower on the industry’s radar and never repeated the success of “Poetry Man.” Still, music lovers treasured her four-octave voice, and she continued to work for much of her life, performing at Camp David for President Bill Clinton and at Howard Stern’s wedding. Phoebe Snow died on April 26, 2011, from complications of a brain hemorrhage.
Poly Styrene struck a much different chord with listeners. If Snow’s music was perfect for a candlelit evening, Styrene’s was more like the soundtrack for a riot. Born on July 3, 1957 as Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, Styrene was a teen runaway who hitchhiked to music festivals. After releasing a reggae single under the name Mari Elliott, she discovered the music that would launch her career at an early Sex Pistols show. The wild energy and raucous music inspired her to put an ad in the paper, looking for “young punx who want to stick it together” and be in her band. Soon, X-Ray Spex was formed, and their most celebrated single followed – the “joyfully angry” feminist anthem “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
It wasn’t exactly the type of single that was hitting the Billboard charts in 1977, but it gained the band attention with critics and punk fans, as well as leading to a record deal. X-Ray Spex released Germ Free Adolescents and gained fame playing on John Peel’s radio show and at New York’s CBGB. A UK tour followed… and led to the dissolution of the band. Exhausted by the tour, Poly Styrene left the band.
Like Phoebe Snow, Poly Styrene found it hard to reconcile the personal and the professional: her departure from the band coincided with a diagnosis of schizophrenia (later revised to bipolar disorder), which sometimes kept her from recording and performing. But also like Snow, Styrene strove to continue her music even in the face of a difficult personal life. Though X-Ray Spex brought Styrene the height of her fame, she went on to record several solo albums, including Generation Indigo, released less than a month before her death and receiving high marks from reviewers. Styrene died on April 25, 2011, after battling breast cancer that spread to her spine and lungs.
Phoebe Snow and Poly Styrene may have had little in common beyond the superficial, but their deaths both resonate, and their music still inspires.