Crass

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For information about the anarchist writer see Chris Crass

Crass was an influential English anarchist punk rock band.

Overview

Crass formed in 1977, based around Dial House, an 'open house community' near Epping, Essex, in England.

Whereas the Sex Pistols' anarchism seemed to be a self-consciously nihilistic prank, Crass's stance was more directly linked to the libertarian socialist or communalistic varieties of 20th century political thought.

Taking literally the punk manifesto of "Do It Yourself", Crass combined the use of song, film, sound collage, graphics 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, religious hypocrisy and unthinking consumerism. They were also amongst the progenitors of the anarcho-pacifism that became pervasive in the punk music scene (see also anarcho-punk).

Origins of the band

The band came together when Dial House founder and former member of avant-garde performance art group EXIT Penny Rimbaud (real name Jerry Ratter) began jamming with Clash fan Steve Ignorant, 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 members of the household began to join in, and it was not long before Crass performed their first live gig as part of a squatted street festival at Huntley Street, North London. Shortly afterwards they 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 immortalised by their song "Banned from the Roxy" [1] and Rimbaud's essay Crass at the Roxy [2]. Other early gigs included regularly playing alongside the UK Subs at the White Lion pub in Putney. These performances were often not well attended; "The audience consisted mostly of us when the Subs played and the Subs when we played." [3]

File:Libertine1.jpg
Eve Libertine performing with Crass at the Wapping Anarchist Centre, London, December 1981

A while later, 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 also introduced their distinctive stage backdrop, a logo designed by Rimbaud's friend Dave King (later of Sleeping Dogs Lie), as pictured below on the sleeve of The Feeding Of The 5000. 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 the 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 symbolise the idea that power will eventually destroy itself). Using such deliberately mixed messages was also 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 also eshewed any elaborate stage lighting during live sets, instead prefering to be illuminated by a simple bare light bulb. The band also 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.

File:Crassbanner1.jpg
Sleeve art for Crass' The Feeding Of The 5000 12" record, illustrating the band's logo

Crass Records

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 also prompted Crass to set up their own record label, Crass Records, in order to retain full editorial control over their material, and "Reality Asylum" was shortly afterwards issued in a re-recorded and extended form as a 7" single. A later pressing of the album on Crass Records restored 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, Rudimentary Peni, Conflict, Icelandic band KUKL (who included singer Björk), classical singer Jane Gregory, and the Poison Girls, a like-minded band who worked closely with Crass for several years.

They also put out three editions of Bullshit Detector, compilations of demos and rough recordings sent to the band that 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 (see 1984 (novel)).

Penis Envy, Christ the Album and a change of strategy

Crass released their third album Penis Envy in 1981. This marked a departure from the somewhat testosterone-driven 'hardcore punk' image that Feeding of the 5000 and its followup 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 an 'MOR' love song entitled "Our Wedding", was given away as a flexi disc with a teenage girl's romance magazine after the magazine was offered it 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 album's title 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 to comment upon political issues, 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.

Direct Action, 'Thatchergate' and internal debates

File:Stations.jpeg
Detail from front cover artwork from Stations of the Crass, illustrating an example of the stenciled graffiti used by the band

From their earliest days of spraying stencilled graffiti around the London Underground network [4], the band had always been involved in direct action as well as musical activities. In 1983 and 1984 they were part of the Stop the City actions that can be seen as fore-runners of the early 21st century anti-globalisation protests. 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 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 garnered enough attention to elicit fears of KGB activity from the Reagan Administration. Known as 'the Thatchergate tapes', this was a cassette featuring a faked conversation using edited samples of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagans' 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 into the public domain, and although put together totally anonymously, the British Observer newspaper was somehow able to link the tape with the band.

Dissolution

Crass all but retired from the public eye after becoming a particularly irritating 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 led to a round of court battles and what the band describe 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 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' 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 house-boat and formed the performance art group Judas 2, whilst Rimbaud continued to write and perform both solo and with other artists.

Influences

The philosophical and aesthetic influence of Crass on numerous punk bands from the 1980s cannot be overstated, 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, from whom, Rimbaud states, some of Crass' riffs are direct plagiarisms), 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.

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. 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. Crass Agenda was declared in June 2005, 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 [5].

Statistics

Members

Discography

(All released on the Crass record label unless otherwise stated.)

  • The Feeding Of The 5000 (12" EP, 1978, originally released by Small Wonder Records)
  • "Reality Asylum" (7", 1978)
  • Stations Of The Crass (LP, 1979)
  • "You Can Be You" (single by Honey Bane, backed by Crass under the name Donna and the Kebabs, 1980)
  • "Bloody Revolutions" (single, joint released with the Poison Girls, 1980)
  • "Tribal Rival Rebel Revels" (Flexi disc single given away with Toxic Grafity (sic) fanzine, 1980)
  • The Feeding of the 5000 (Second Sitting) (1980, a reissue of the 1978 Small Wonder release on Crass Records, with the missing track "Asylum" reinstated)
  • "Nagasaki Nightmare" (single, 1981))
  • Penis Envy (LP, 1981)
  • "Our Wedding" (flexi disc single recorded under the name Creative Recording And Sound Services given away with magazine Loving [6])
  • "Merry Crassmas" (single, 1981, Crass' tongue-in-cheek stab at the Christmas novelty market [7])
  • Christ The Album (double LP, 1982)
  • "Sheep Farming In The Falklands" (single 1982, originally distributed anonymously as a flexi-disc)
  • "How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead?" (Single 1983)
  • "Whodunnit?" (Single, 1983, pressed in "shit coloured vinyl", Crass' response to the re-election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)
  • Yes Sir, I Will (LP, 1983)
  • "You're Already Dead" (single, 1984)
  • Acts Of Love (LP and book, 1985 (described as "50 songs to my Other Self", this features the poems of Penny Rimbaud set to classical music and sung by Eve Libertine and Steve Ignorant. The book is illustrated by the paintings of Gee Vaucher)
  • "It's You" — track on P.E.A.C.E. international anti-war benefit compilation released by R. Radical Records (1984)
  • "Powerless With A Guitar" — track on Devastate to Liberate benefit compilation for the Animal Liberation Front, TIBETan records, (1986) (the title is a reference to a poem by Günter Grass)
  • "Ten Notes On A Summer's Day" (12" EP, 1986)
  • Best Before 1984 (retrospective LP compilation, 1986)
  • Christ: The Bootleg (recorded live in Nottingham, 1984, released 1989 on Allied Records)
  • Christ: The Movie (a series of short films by Mick Duffield that were shown at Crass performances, VHS, released 1990)
  • Semi-Detached (video collages by Gee Vaucher, 1978-1984, VHS, 2001)
  • You'll Ruin It For Everyone (recorded live in Perth, Scotland, 1981, released 1993 on Pomona Records)
  • "The Unelected President" — track on Peace Not War anti-war CD compilation. (This track is actually a remix of 1982's "Major General Despair", with new lyrics and additional instrumentation provided by Dylan Bates), (2003)

Also of note

Related writings and references

  • A Series Of Shock Slogans And Mindless Token Tantrums (Exitstencil Press, 1982) (originally issued as a pamphlet with the LP Christ The Album, much of the text is now published online at [9])
  • Shibboleth- My Revolting Life (Penny Rimbaud, 1999, AK Press)
  • The Diamond Signature (Penny Rimbaud, 1999, AK Press)
  • Crass Art and other Post Modern Monsters (Gee Vaucher, 1999, AK Press)
  • International Anthem: A Nihilist Newspaper For The Living issues 1-3 (Exitstencil Press, 1977-81) (see [10])
  • Love Songs (collected lyrics of Crass with an introduction by Penny Rimbaud, Pomona Books, 2004) [11]
  • There is an extended section covering Crass in the book Senseless Acts of Beauty by George McKay (Verso, 1996, ISBN1859840280)

See also

External links

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