Crass, May 1984.
|Origin||Epping, Essex, England|
|Genres||Anarcho-punk, Punk rock , post-punk, art punk|
|Years active||1977 – 1984|
|Labels||Small Wonder Records, Crass Records|
N. A. Palmer
Joy De Vivre
Crass were an English punk band, formed in 1977, which promoted anarchism as a political ideology, way of living, and as a resistance movement. Crass popularized the seminal anarcho-punk movement of the punk subculture, and advocated direct action, animal rights, and environmentalism. The band both utilised and advocated a "Do It Yourself" approach, producing sound collages, graphics, albums and films. Crass also criticized and attempted to subvert the dominant culture with messages promoting feminism, anti-racism, anti-war, and anti-globalization.
Crass practiced their "direct action" philosophy by spray-painting stencilled graffiti messages around the London Underground system and on advertising billboards, coordinating squats, and organising political action. The band also expressed its ideals by dressing in black,military surplus-style clothing and using a stage backdrop which amalgamated several "icons of authority" (including the Christian Cross, the swastika and the Union Flag) and an Ouroboros.
The band were critical of the punk movement itself, as well as wider youth culture in general. Crass promoted the type of anarcho-pacifism that eventually became more common in the punk music scene (see anarcho-punk). They are also considered part of the art punk genre, due to their use of tape collages, graphics, spoken word releases, poetry and improvisation.
The band was based around Dial House, an open house community near Epping, Essex when Dial House founder and former member of avant-garde performance art groups EXIT and Ceres Confusion Penny Rimbaud (real name Jeremy 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 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, N. A. 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 neighbour 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, a gig at a festival in Covent Garden at which Charles Hayward of This Heat stood in for Rimbaud on drums , 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 twice at the legendary Roxy punk club in London's Covent Garden area. By the band's own account the second occasion was a drunken debacle, ending in the group being ejected from the stage, and immortalised 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'.
Originally conceived and intended as the cover artwork for a self-published pamphlet version of Rimbaud's Christ's Reality Asylum, the Crass 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 symbolise 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 utilising 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, 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 DIY punk ethic. The catalogue 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.
Crass released their third album Penis Envy in 1981. This marked a departure from the 'hardcore punk' image that The Feeding of the 5000 and its follow up 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. The last track on Penis Envy, a deliberately saccharine parody of a 'MOR' love song entitled "Our Wedding", was also made available as a white flexi disc to the readers of 'Loving', a teenage girl's romance magazine. The free flexi offer had been suggested to Loving by an organisation 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 title of the flexi's originating album was "too obscene to print".
The band's fourth LP, 1982's double set 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.
From their earliest days of spraying stencilled 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 18, 1982, Crass co-ordinated 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-globalisation actions of the early 21st century. Explicit support for such activities was given in the lyrics of the band's final single release "You're Already Dead", which also saw Crass publicly express growing doubts regarding 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."
|Problems listening to this file? See media help.|
This was a cassette featuring what appeared to be an accidentally overheard telephone conversation, due to crossed lines. In reality the tape had been constructed by Crass, using edited recordings of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagans' voices. On the Thatchergate tape they discuss the sinking of the HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, and appeared to allege that Europe would be used as a target for nuclear weapons in any conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Copies were leaked to the press, and the US State Department believed the tape to be propaganda produced by the Soviet KGB, a story reported by both the San Francisco Chronicle and The Sunday Times. 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 7, 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 N. A. 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 catalysed the affirmation of Crass' consistently stated intention to split up in 1984. 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 1997-2000, 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.
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. 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. A "new" Crass track (actually a remix of 1982's "Major General Despair", with new lyrics), "The Unelected President", is also available.
On 24 and 25 November 2007 Steve Ignorant performed Crass' entire Feeding of the 5000 album live at the Shepherds Bush Empire, United Kingdom, backed by a band of "selected guests". Other members of Crass were not involved in these concerts. Rimbaud initially refused Ignorant the right to perform Crass songs Rimbaud had written, but later changed his mind. "I acknowledge and respect Steve's right to do this", he said, "but I do regard it as a betrayal of the Crass ethos"[36 ] Ignorant had a different view: "I don't have to justify what I do. (...) Plus, most of the lyrics are still relevant today. And remember that three-letter word, 'fun'?"[36 ]
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 Banksy (Banksy and Vaucher have latterly collaborated) and the subvertising movement.
(All released on Crass Records unless otherwise stated.)
The group was first of all made up of Penny Rimbaud (playing drums) and Steve Ignorant (who sang). Later they were joined by other people who also lived together in their shared house (or commune) called Dial House.
Crass did their first concert at a squatted festival in Huntley Street, North London. Soon after they played at the famous punk club The Roxy in London's Covent Garden area. However the group were made to come off of the stage because they were very drunk. They also did early concerts with punk band the UK Subs, but not many people went to watch these concerts.
After this members of Crass decided to be more serious about what they were doing. They decided to wear black clothes all of the time, whether or not they were on stage. This was so that no member of the band would be seen as the group 'leader'. They also made a banner that they hung up behind them when they were playing live. This had a logo on it that was made up of symbols like the Christian cross, the swastika and the British flag, as well as a snake with two heads that is eating itself. The meaning of this logo was the idea that "power will destroy itself".
Crass released their first record in 1978. It was called The Feeding of the 5000. It was meant to have 18 songs on it, but one song was banned by the people who worked at the factory where the records were made. This was because they thought it was blasphemous. This song was called "Asylum". The band instead released the record with a 2 minute gap where that song had been, which they called "The Sound of Free Speech". After this they set up their own record label called Crass Records. This was so that they could control what was on their own records in the future. They re-recorded and released the song that had been banned as a single. They also re-released the first LP with the banned song put back on it.
The second LP released by Crass was the double album Stations of the Crass. It was released in 1979. One side of this LP was a recording of a live concert that the band played at the Pied Bull pub in Islington, London on August 7, 1979.
Their next LP was released in 1981. It was called Penis Envy. The band had deliberately changed their sound for this record. The lyrics and the record cover artwork had a strong feminist message. Steve Ignorant did not appear upon it. Instead only the women members of the band, Eve Libertine and Joy DeVivre sung the songs.
The Crass Records label also released many other records by other musicians and bands. These included Flux Of Pink Indians, Conflict, Poison Girls, Zounds, Honey Bane, Rudimentary Peni and others.