"Same old stuff// You've heard it all before// Crass being crass..."
You may think that here at Streetlamp HQ we swan around in smoking jackets, sipping the finest Chardonnay, watching Bulgarian arthouse movies and trawling the Internet for Twee Pop and Folktronica....and tragically, you'd be pretty spot on. BUT....there was a time when we were prepared to get our hands dirty. Just like the shellshocked dead-eyes who returned from the Somme, we rarely speak of our time in the later stages of the Punk Wars....but we were there, and we've kept our silence....till now! For you see it's time for us to tell you about Crass, and Crass are a band who TOTALLY polarise people. You don't just like or dislike them, you either bought in totally to their ethos, their ideals, their way of life, their dark, uncomfortable, scary world view....or you listened to Sting!
It's not often that Griff and I admit to being wrong about anything to do with music, and we'd certainly never say it out loud, but we WERE wrong about Crass. Not just once...but TWICE! How so? Come with us on a journey into a black and white world of anarcho-punk and the small matter of the end of the world. Folktronica and Field Mice fans be warned....rudeness will most definitely abound!
"Said they only wanted well behaved boys// Do they think guitars and microphones are just fucking toys?// Fuck'em, determined to make my stand// Against what I feel is wrong with this land"
My first encounter with Crass was through Griff. He gave me a tape of himself accompanied by drums 'singing' Crass's 'Do They Owe Us A Living' from their debut 12" 'The Feeding Of The 5000'. Crass had emerged at the same time as The Sex Pistols and The Clash but had refused to sign up to any corporate record label. Many called them old hippies jumping on the Punk bandwagon, but in truth they were more university drop-outs who took John Lennon a little too seriously, and fed off the energy of Punk to deliver their anti-war, anti-government, anti-meat eating, anarchist message. They lived in an artistic community called Dial House in Epping, near Essex, dressed in black militaristic clothes, eschewed elaborate stage lighting for basic 40watt bulbs, and bedecked their stage in flags bearing slogans such as "Fight War Not Wars, Destroy Power Not People" and the Crass logo.
Crass almost immediately began to criticise their fellow punks for selling out to the big record labels, and by waiting till they could press up their own records, their debut didn't arrive until the Winter of 1978. But, by almost constant gigging, they had built up a formidable following. Their opening salvo, a 7" single called 'Reality Asylum' was also given to me by Griff, and it proved a shattering and uncomfortable listen. As far removed from the music of Punk as it is possible to get(but force-fed by the energy of Punk)'Reality Asylum' is a disturbing sound-collage over which female vocalist Eve Libertine narrates a poem/rant decrying the use of Jesus Christ a tool to oppress women and keep the masses in line through the power of guilt. Uneasy listening indeed, but also quite far removed from Crass's usual fare.
"Do you get a buzz when you reminisce?//"Too much man, it was better than this"//I don't want a relativity talk//If that's the bus ride, I'd think I'd rather walk".
'The Feeding Of The 5000' and it's almost immediate follow up 'The Stations Of The Crass' pretty much set out the blueprint for Crass's oeuvre; from the black and white sleeves designed by Gee Vaucher, to main vocalist Steve Ignorant(Steve Williams) snarling, profanity-drenched lyrics, to the usual subjects like 'the system', the suppression and oppression of women, right-wing thuggery, media brainwashing, the nuclear arms race and the imminent destruction of the planet.
Both albums sold in massive quantities, as did brilliant accompanying singles like 'Bloody Revolutions', 'Nagasaki Nightmare' and 'Big A Little A'. By this time Crass had set up their own record company, putting out releases by Poison Girls, Conflict, Flux Of Pink Indians, Rudimentary Peni, The Mob and Zoundz, to name a few.
Debunking The Myths Of Crass#1: Crass's music is basically Punk-by-numbers! Not so; for me, Punk-by-numbers is the rubbish churned out by The Exploited, GBH, Discharge, Chaotic Dischord and Disorder etc. What Crass tended to play was more Post-Punk, often the bass would form the basis of the 'melody' and one guitar would form some sort of backdrop while the other would become almost a percussive instrument. Sometimes Crass would show that they really COULD play and would pepper their albums with piano ballads, avant-garde soundscapes, and acoustic folk weirdness.
"They sell us love as divinity// When it's only a social obscenity//Underneath we're all lovable!"
In 1981 Crass released what is my own favourite record of theirs, 'Penis Envy'. On this album ALL vocals were delivered by the two female vocalists, Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre, and the album is pretty much an attack on the phalocentric media and it's depictions of women as nothing more than goddesses, mothers and whores. It contains some of my favourite Crass songs of all time such as 'Berkertex Bribe', 'Health Surface', 'Where Next Columbus?' and 'Bata Motel'. On some of these tracks the playing seems to have stepped up a gear; check out the Calypso introduction of 'Berkertex Bribe' or the eerie synthesizer on 'What The Fuck?'.
Second pressings of the album came with a new final track, 'Our Wedding'; this was an infamous prank played by Crass on a teen girl magazine called 'Loving'. Calling themselves Creative Recording And Sound Services they gave away a flexi-disc ('Our Wedding') with the magazine. The song features a sweet synthpop backing over which Joy delivers a simpering vocal parodying a young Bride promising to be forever true whilst all the while knowing her new Husband will soon be back out on the pull. Trust me, this could have been a chart hit!
"Good old Crass// Our make-believe secret society// Our bland passport to perversity// They're nothing but a caricature....and a joke!"
Crass's next statement of intent was their own 'White Album'; a double set called 'Christ - The Album'. Two full albums, a poster and a book entitled 'A Series Of Shock Slogans and Mindless Token Tantrums' all housed in a jet black cardboard box sleeve which resembled the monolith in '2001: A Space Odyssey'. This was seen by many as Crass's ultimate statement, an unrelenting, pitch-black slamming of the world in general. The problem for Crass however was that the album had taken over a year to record, mix and then produce in full, during which time Thatcher had instigated a 'war' against Argentina over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands in a bid to sweep back to power in the following year's General Election. By the time 'Christ - The Album' was released it was already seen as out of step and redundant. This forced Crass to reassess their whole recording strategy. Records would be released more immediately now, like news bulletins. All that aside, 'Christ - The Album' is still regarded as their masterpiece, containing many favourites like 'Rival Tribal Rebels Revel', 'It's The Greatest Working Class Ripoff'(an attack on Garry Bushell's racist OI! movement), 'Major General Despair', plus a couple of left-field avant-garde pieces, 'Sentiment (White Feathers)' and 'Birth Control 'n' Rock 'n' Roll'. And in 'Reality Whitewash' there was ALMOST a commercial sounding 'rock' song, an excellent downbeat and melancholic track dealing with a young wife chained to the kitchen while her spouse drives up and down looking for women, or being seduced by the models on the billboards.
Debunking The Myths Of Crass #2:They are a bunch of humourless tossers! Again, not true. This criticism seems to stem from their own opening lyric on 'Christ - The Album'; "Same old stuff, you've heard it all before// Crass being crass about the system or is it war?// We ain't got no humour// We don't know how to laugh// If you don't fucking like it...fucking tough!". There is a lot of humour in Crass, from the 'Our Wedding' flexi to singles like 'Merry Crassmass' and 'Whodunnit?'(on shit-brown vinyl), from tracks like 'The Smelliest Arse' and 'Salt & Pepper' to Gee Vauche's surreal artwork. If there hadn't been any humour they'd have been practically unlistenable!
"If it's a fight they want, it's beginning// Throughout history, we've been expected to sing their tired song// But now it's our turn to lead the singing..."
Almost as a direct response to missing such a target as the Falklands Conflict, Crass spent the rest of 1982 and all of 1983 singing about nothing else; 'Sheepfarming In The Falklands', 'Gotcha!', 'How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of Thousand Dead?' and virtually all of their next album, 'Yes Sir, I Will'. 'Yes Sir, I Will' was their most extreme gesture to date, the album is practically one huge song stretched over two sides...this tested even their most loyal fans. I'm pretty sure I've only played it in it's entirety about three times.
"Surface agreements, statements of fact, trying to prove we can do it//But sometimes when I'm alone like this I wonder just who can see through it".
Crass always said they would cease in 1984....and they did. One more experimental album, '10 Notes On A Summer's Day' and a final single 'You're Already Dead'. This last single, excepting the shouty sweary opening 30 seconds, was their most commercial song to date. Over a polished sound Steve Ignorant pretty much raps the lyrics. The song is practically saying "We've tried all we can, but we've as good as failed", the lyrics bear this out; "By letting it happen without a fight// You're already dead, You're already dead!" and "Four hundred thousand people marched for CND//They're already dead, They're already dead!". On the last verse of the last Crass song Steve practically shrugs his shoulders and gives in, "In a world where the people can't make it//They've simply got to learn to break it// And if the wealthy aren't prepared to shake it...//O.K., we'll simply have to take it...".
And that was it!
Steve Ignorant would go on to join label-mates Conflict, whilst Crass founder and drummer Penny Rimbaud wrote and recorded spoken word and poetry albums, almost always voiced by Eve Libertine.
For me, Crass were a sorbet(I'm guessing the first time they've ever been described as such) between Adam & The Ants and The Smiths; cleansing the palate after the pantomimic fantasies of Adam before the emotional songs-as-lifeblood of Morrissey.
Pretty soon Griff and I turned our backs completely on Crass. We began to openly criticise them, to admit we had been wrong. We spoke angrily of their awful music and their dodgy ideologies, we bemoaned all those teenage hours spent listening to their appalling drivel when we could have been listening to far better music. Griff even once suggested we burn all their records as a grand statement, we weren't going to listen to them again anyway! Then, we eventually just stopped acknowledging them altogether. We would never speak of them, we became like the battle scarred of Paschendale, never alluding to what we had seen or heard....Crass no longer existed to us. For the next 20 years or so we would remember Crass only through gritted teeth and clenched fists.
The change back happened slowly. A few years ago I bought Rough Trade's 'Indiepop' collection CD which came with a booklet with stories and essays by such Indiepop players as Stephen Pastel, Everett True and Matt & Claire from Sarah Records. Most of the stories came from main compiler Sean Forbes though, and in his stories of Tallulah Gosh, The Popguns, Modesty Blaize and Lush etc, he mentioned over and over again that his favourite band of all time was Crass. Huh?? How can that be? How can anyone possibly like Sarah Records and Twee Pop AND like Crass? That doesn't work! That cannot be right! Then it dawned on us....of course it was right! It was us who had been wrong!
And as the dark clouds of the Cameron/Clegg Utopia descend upon us with it's twin leaders looking like a pair of Uberstumpenfuhrers from the Hitler Youth, with un-reality TV brainwashing the huddled masses, with glamour models and football stars treated like royalty, with huge spending cuts in the NHS whilst money is poured into weapons and surveillance equipment, with Murdoch's media empire educating the populace of Britain which way to vote, with a ghostly terrorist enemy being used to keep the public in line....the time has never been more ripe for Crass. In a previous Blog I remarked that tragically The Beatles aren't coming to save us this time, and neither are Crass....BUT, to the kids armed with guitars and computer software, they may not become the new Beatles but they CAN become the new Crass. Already we've seen Botched Fairytale claim Crass as an infuence and their songs already grasp the nettle, and as Griff wrote in his previous Blog, female post-punk bands are on the rise....we need the new Crass NOW. Looking at you all, I know one thing...we CAN win! I want you to sense you're own strength....go back to your constituences and prepare for Pop Music!
Crass are dead! Long live Crass!
"The rich are in their bunker, the poor are at the gate//Use our head to avoid confrontation// Our love to avoid exploitation// If the uniforms choose to stay// They'll have to learn to get out of the fucking way!"
And to finish off, perhaps their greatest statement: 'Bloody Revolutions'
"The truth of revolution, Brother....is Year Zero!"
Crass Personel 1977-1984: Penny Rimbaud, Steve Ignorant, Eve Libertine, Joy De Vivre, Phil Free, N A Plamer, Pete Wright, Gee Vaucher, Mick Dufield
If your curiosity has been piqued by this Blog, you can download all of Crass's albums, just click on the titles below:
Feeding Of The 5000
Stations Of The Crass
Christ - The Album
Yes Sir, I Will
10 Notes On A Summer's Day
Acts of Love