In contrast to the Sex Pistols ‘anarchy’, Crass’ attitude was more directly influenced by libertarian socialist philosophy and anarchism’s nineteenth century roots. In the process they promoted anarchism as a legitimate political ideology, way of living, and as a resistance movement, popularizing the seminal peace punk movement and touching on such overtly political issues as anti-consumerism, direct action, feminism, pacifism, anti-corporatism, environmentalism, anti-globalization, anti-racism, religious power, and squatting.
Taking literally the punk manifesto of “Do It Yourself”, Crass combined the use of sound collage, graphics, song, film, and subversion to launch a sustained and innovative critical broadside against all that they saw as a culture built on foundations of war, violence, sexism, prejudice, capitalism, religious hypocrisy and unthinking consumerism. They were also critical of what they perceived as the flaws of the punk movement itself, as well as wider youth culture in general. Crass were amongst the progenitors of the anarcho-pacifism that became common in the punk music scene.
Origins of the band:
The band came together when Dial House founder and former member of avant-garde performance art groups EXIT and Ceres Confusion Penny Rimbaud (real name Jerry Ratter) began jamming with Clash fan Steve Ignorant (real name Steve Williams), who was staying at the house at the time. Between them they put together the songs “So What?” and “Do They Owe Us a Living?” as a drums and vocals duo. For a (very) short period of time they called themselves Stormtrooper, before choosing the name Crass, a reference to the David Bowie song “Ziggy Stardust” (specifically the line ”The kids was just crass”).
Other friends and members of the household began to join in, including Joy De Vivre, Pete Wright, Andy Palmer, Steve Herman and Eve Libertine (originally “the Band’s first fan”), and it was not long before Crass performed their first live gig as part of a squatted street festival at Huntley Street, North London. Here they had intended to play a set of five songs; however, the “plug was pulled” on them by a neighbor after three. Guitarist Steve Herman shortly afterwards left the band to be replaced by Phil Clancey, who adopted the alias Phil Free. Other early Crass gigs included a four date tour of New York as well as regularly playing alongside the UK Subs at the White Lion pub in Putney. These latter performances were often not well-attended; “The audience consisted mostly of us when the Subs played and the Subs when we played.”
Crass also played at the legendary Roxy punk club in London’s Covent Garden area. By the band’s own account this was a drunken debacle, ending in the group being ejected from the stage, and immortalized by their song “Banned From The Roxy” and Rimbaud’s essay Crass at the Roxy.
Following this incident the band decided to take themselves more seriously, particularly paying more attention to their presentation. As well as avoiding drugs such as alcohol or cannabis before gigs, they also adopted a policy of wearing black, military surplus-style clothing at all times, whether on or off stage. They introduced their distinctive stage backdrop, a logo designed by Rimbaud’s friend Dave King (later of sleeping dogs lie). This gave the band a militaristic image, which led some to accuse them of fascism. Crass countered that their uniform appearance was intended to be a statement against the “cult of personality”, so that, in contrast to the norm for many rock bands, no member would be identified as the ‘leader’.
The aforementioned logo represented an amalgamation of several “icons of authority” including the Christian Cross, the swastika and the Union Flag combined with a two headed snake consuming itself (to symbolize the idea that power will eventually destroy itself). Using such deliberately mixed messages was part of Crass’ strategy of presenting themselves as a “barrage of contradictions”, which also included using loud, aggressive music to promote a pacifist message, and was in part a reference to their own Dadaist and performance art backgrounds.
The band eschewed any elaborate stage lighting during live sets, instead preferring to be illuminated by simple 40 watt household light bulbs (the technical difficulties of filming under such lighting conditions in part explains why there is such little live footage of Crass in existence). The band pioneered multimedia presentation techniques, fully utilizing video technology and using back-projected films and video collages made by Mick Duffield and Gee Vaucher to enhance their performances.
Crass’ first release was The Feeding of the 5000, an 18 track 12” 45 rpm EP on the Small Wonder label in 1978. Workers at the pressing plant initially refused to handle it due to the allegedly blasphemous content of the song “Reality Asylum”. The record was eventually released with this track removed and replaced by two minutes of silence, ironically titled “The Sound Of Free Speech”. This incident prompted Crass to set up their own independent record label, Crass Records, in order to retain full editorial control over their material. “Reality Asylum” was shortly afterwards released on Crass Records in a re-recorded and extended form as a 7” single. Later pressings of the album (also on Crass Records) restored the original version of the missing track.
As well as their own material, Crass Records released recordings by other performers, the first of which was the 1980 single “You Can be You” by Honey Bane, a teenage girl who was staying at Dial House whilst on the run from a children’s home. Other artists included Zounds, Flux of Pink Indians, Omega Tribe, Crucifix, Rudimentary Peni, Conflict, Icelandic band KUKL (who included singer Björk), classical singer Jane Gregory, Anthrax, Lack of Knowledge and the Poison Girls, a like-minded band who worked closely with Crass for several years.
Crass Records also put out three editions of Bullshit Detector, compilations of demos and rough recordings which had been sent to the band, and which they felt represented the D.I.Y. punk ethic.
The catalog numbers of Crass Records releases were intended to represent a countdown to the year 1984 (eg, 521984 meaning “five years until 1984”), both the year that Crass stated that they would split up, and a date charged with significance in the anti-authoritarian calendar due to George Orwell’s novel of the same name.
The second Crass Album, Stations of the Crass, was released in 1979 and was an ambitious double album featuring three sides of new material and a live side from a gig at the Pied Bull in Islington. Stations saw the band beginning to experiment with new sounds and styles whilst maintaining a heavy punk aesthetic.
Crass released their third album Penis Envy in 1981. This marked a departure from the ‘hardcore punk’ image that Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass had to some extent given the group. It featured more complex musical arrangements and exclusively female vocals provided by Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre (although Steve Ignorant remained a group member and is credited on the record sleeve as “not on this recording”).
The album addressed feminist issues and once again attacked the institutions of ‘the system’ such as marriage and sexual repression. One track, a deliberately saccharine parody of a ‘MOR’ love song entitled “Our Wedding”, was given away as a flexi disc with ‘Loving’, a teenage girl’s romance magazine having been offered it by an organization calling itself “Creative Recording And Sound Services” (note the initials). A minor tabloid controversy resulted once the hoax was revealed, with the News of the World going so far as to state that the album’s title was “too obscene to print”.
The band’s fourth LP, 1982’s double set Christ The Album, was certainly the band’s most ambitious project: featuring not just two sides of new songs floating between the softer, layered, sound of Penis Envy and the more classic punk sound of their earlier work, but also two live sides (all of which were heavily interspersed with tape loops, media samples and other studio innovations). The LP came with the - by now ubiquitous - collection of posters and other artwork, and also featured essays by three band members on issues such as education, pacifism, and the failures (and successes) of the punk and hippie movements.
Christ The Album took over a year to record, produce and mix, during which time the Falklands War had broken out and ended. This caused Crass to fundamentally question their approach to making records. As a group whose primary purpose was political commentary, they felt they had been overtaken and made to appear redundant by real world events. Subsequent releases, including the singles “How Does it Feel to be the Mother of a Thousand Dead” and “Sheep Farming in the Falklands”, and the album Yes Sir, I Will, saw the band strip their sound back to basics and were issued as “tactical responses” to political situations. They also anonymously produced 20,000 copies of a flexi-disc featuring a live recording of “Sheep Farming…”, copies of which were randomly inserted into the sleeves of other records by sympathetic workers at the Rough Trade records distribution warehouse as a means of spreading their views to those who might not normally hear them.
Direct Action, ‘Thatchergate’ and internal debates:
From their earliest days of spraying stenciled anti-war, anarchist, feminist and anti-consumerist graffiti messages around the London Underground system and on advertising billboards, the band had always been involved in political as well as musical activities. On December 18th, 1982, Crass coordinated a 24 hour squat of the Zig Zag club in West London primarily for an all day event attended by approximately 500 people to prove “that the underground punk scene could handle itself responsibly when it had to and that music really could be enjoyed free of the restraints imposed upon it by corporate industry”.
Bands playing at the Zig Zag (in running order) were Faction, D And V, Omega Tribe, Lack of Knowledge, Sleeping Dogs, The Apostles, Amebix, Null & Void, Soldiers of Fortune, The Mob, Polemic Attack, Poison Girls, Conflict, Flux of Pink Indians, Crass and Dirt.
In 1983 and 1984 they were part of the Stop the City actions instigated by London Greenpeace that were arguably fore-runners of the anti-globalization actions of the early 21st century. Explicit support for such activities was given in the lyrics of the band’s final single release “[track artist=crass]You’re Already Dead”, which also saw Crass abandoning their long time commitment to pacifism. This led to further introspection within the band, with some members feeling that they were beginning to become embittered as well as losing sight of their essentially positive stance. As a reflection of this debate, the next release using the Crass name was Acts Of Love, classical music settings of 50 poems by Penny Rimbaud described as ”songs to my other self” and intended to celebrate “‘the profound sense of unity, peace and love that exists within that other self.” A further post-Falklands war hoax that originated from members of Crass became known as ‘the Thatchergate tapes’. This was a cassette featuring a faked conversation using edited recordings of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s voices, in which they appeared to allege that Europe would be used as a target for intermediate range nuclear weapons in any conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Copies were leaked to the press, and although put together totally anonymously, the British Observer newspaper was somehow able to link the tape with the band.
Crass all but retired from the public eye after becoming a small thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher’s government following the Falklands War. Questions in Parliament and an attempted prosecution under the UK’s Obscene Publications Act for their single “How Does It Feel…” led to a round of court battles and what the band describes as harassment that finally took its toll. On July 7th, 1984 the band played their final gig at Aberdare in Wales, a benefit for striking miners, before retreating to Dial House to concentrate their energies elsewhere.
Guitarist Andy Palmer had announced that he intended to move on from the band in order to further his art college studies, and the reported group consensus was that replacing him would be “like having a corpse in the band”. This catalyzed the affirmation of Crass’ consistently stated intention to split up in 1984.
Members of Crass were involved in one subsequent release, Ten Notes on a Summers Day, which owed much more to Penny Rimbaud’s interest in free-form jazz than to punk and was concerned with more abstract, ‘positive’, themes than Crass’ other work. Rimbaud in particular saw this release (along with Acts of Love) as something of an antithesis to the negative and reactionary work of the post-Falkland era. A posthumous collection of singles and EP material - Best Before 1984 - was released in 1986.
Steve Ignorant went on to join the band Conflict, with whom he had already worked on an ad hoc basis, and in 1992 formed Schwartzeneggar (sic). From 1997 to 2000, he was a member of the group Stratford Mercenaries. He has also worked as a Punch and Judy professor and as a solo performer. Eve Libertine continued to record with her son Nemo Jones as well as performance artist A-Soma. Pete Wright concentrated on building himself a houseboat and formed the performance art group Judas 2, whilst Rimbaud continued to write and perform both solo and with other artists.
2002 onwards - The Crass Collective/Crass Agenda/Last Amendment:
In November 2002 several former members of Crass collaborated under the name The Crass Collective to arrange Your Country Needs You, a concert of ”voices in opposition to war” held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank that included a performance of Britten’s War Requiem as well as performers such as Goldblade, Fun-Da-Mental, Ian MacKaye and Pete Wright’s post-Crass project Judas 2. In October 2003, the Crass Collective changed their working title to Crass Agenda, and they continue to perform regularly. During 2004 Crass Agenda were at the forefront of the campaign to save the Vortex Jazz Club in Stoke Newington, North London, which has now relocated to Hackney. In June 2005 Crass Agenda was declared to be ‘no more’, subsequently changing the name of the project to the ‘more appropriate’ Last Amendment.
In 2007, Steve Ignorant performed two shows at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire venue, under the name “The Feeding Of The 5000”. Ignorant, along with a band featuring no other Crass members, performed the album of the same name in it’s entirety, along with other Crass songs. In 2010, Ignorant announced a tour called “The Last Supper”, during which he intends to perform Crass material from the period 1977-1984. He has stated that this tour will be the last time he performs Crass material with a band.
Crass had a huge influence on the anarchist movement in the UK, US, and around the world. With the growth of anarcho-punk came new generations of people who became interested in anarchist ideas.
The philosophical and aesthetic influence of Crass on numerous punk bands from the 1980s were far reaching, even if few bands mimicked their later more free-form musical style (as on Yes Sir, I Will and their final recording, 10 Notes on a Summer’s Day). The band has stated that their musical antecedents and influences were seldom drawn from the rock music tradition, but rather from classical music (particularly Benjamin Britten, on whose work, Rimbaud states, some of Crass’ riffs are directly based), Dada and the avant-garde such as John Cage as well as performance art traditions.
Their painted and collage-art black-and-white record sleeves produced by Gee Vaucher themselves became a signature aesthetic model, and can be seen as an influence on later artists such as British graffiti artist Banksy (Banksy and Vaucher have latterly collaborated) and the subvertising movement.
In 2007, US anti-folk singer-songwriter and graphic artist Jeffrey Lewis released an album of Crass covers called 12 Crass Songs. Crass were also name checked in Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip’s 2007 song “Thou Shalt Always Kill,” as ‘just a band.’
Official Crass Website
Edited by OTH12 on 2 May 2013, 16:58
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