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Crass

Crass were a punk rock band formed in 1977, based around Dial House, an anarchist community near Epping in England. They were progenitors of a militant anarcho-pacifism that became pervasive in the punk music scene (see also anarcho-punk). Whereas the Sex Pistols' anarchism seemed to be a self-consciously nihilistic prank, Crass's anarchism was more directly linked to the libertarian socialist or communalistic varieties of 20th century political thought. Taking literally the punk manifesto of "anyone can do it", they 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, religious hypocrisy and blind consumerism.

Crass, originally thus named as a reference to David Bowie's song "Ziggy Stardust" (specifically the line "The kids was just crass"), 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 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. Other members of the household began to come onboard, 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 the band adopted a policy of wearing black clothes at all times. This, along with their distinctive stage backdrop (a banner featuring an amalgamation of several 'symbols of authority' including the Christian Cross, the swastika and the Union Jack combined with a two headed snake consuming itself (a representation of the idea that power will eventually destroy itself)- see cover of The Feeding Of The 5000 below) gave them a militaristic image, which led some to accuse them of fascism. However Crass explained that their uniform appearance was intended to be a statement against the cult of the personality, so that, in contrast to what was the norm for many rock bands, no member would be identified as the group 'leader'. It was also part of Crass' strategy of presenting themselves as a 'barrage of contradictions', which also included using loud, aggresive music to promote a pacifist message.

Above; Sleeve art for Crass' "The Feeding Of The 5000" 12" single

Crass' first release was in 1978 on the Small Wonder[?] label. This was an 18 track 12" single entitled The Feeding Of The 5000. However the group encountered problems when workers at the pressing plant contracted to manufacture the disc 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, wryly retitled "The Sound Of Free Speech". This incident also prompted Crass to set up their own record label 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 (NB. A later repress of The Feeding Of The 5000 on Crass records restored the missing track).

Above; Crass pictured at the Digbeth Civic Hall, Birmingham, 1981

As well as releasing their own material, Crass were able to use Crass Records to make available recordings by other performers, the first of which was the 1980 single "You Can Be You" by Honey Bane[?], a teenage girl who at the time was staying at Dial House whilst on the run from a children's home. Others who recorded for the label included Zounds[?], Flux Of Pink Indians[?], Conflict, Icelandic band KUKL[?] (who included singer Bjork), 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 that had been sent to the band 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 (see 1984 (novel)).

Crass released their third album Penis Envy in 1981. This marked a departure from the somewhat 'macho', 'hardcore punk' image that Feeding of the 5000 and it's follow up Stations of the Crass had to some extent given the group, for it featured more obviously complex musical arrangements, as well as 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 sacharine parody of an 'MOR[?]' love song entitled "Our Wedding", was given away as a flexi disk[?] with a teenage girl's romance magazine after having been offered it by an organisation calling itself Creative Recording And Sound Services (note the initials). A minor tabloid furore erupted 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 bands' forth LP, 1982s double set Christ The Album, took over a year to record, produce and mix, during which time the Falklands War had broken out and been fought. This caused Crass to fundementally question their approach to making records, for as a group who's very reason for existing 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 album Yes Sir, I Will saw the band strip their sound 'back to basics' and issued as 'tactical responses' to political situations.

From their earliest days of spraying stencilled grafitti[?] around the London Underground network, 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 twenty first century Anti-Globalisation Protests[?]. Explicit support for such activities was given in the lyrics of the bands' 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.

Crass all but retired from the public eye after becoming a particularly irritating thorn in the side of Mrs. Thatcher's Government following the Falklands War. Questions in Parliament led to a round of court battles and what the group describe as harassment that finally took its toll, and in 1984 the band retreated to Dial House to concentrate their energies elsewhere.

The philosphical and aesthetic influence of Crass on numerous punk bands from the 1980s on cannot be overstated, even if few bands mimicked their often free-form musical style, as evidenced on the album Yes Sir, I Will. Their collage-art black-and-white record sleeves produced by Gee Vaucher themselves became a signature aesthetic model.

In November 2002 several former members of Crass collaborated under the name of 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". At the time of writing (March 2003) The Crass Collective continue to perform on a regular basis at the Vortex Jazz Club in Stoke Newington, North London.

Table of contents

Crass were

Discography

(all released on the Crass record label unless otherwise stated)

  • The Feeding Of The 5000 (12" single, 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)
  • "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 teenage girls magazine Loving [1] (http://www.southern.com/southern/label/CRC/09410))
  • "Merry Crassmas" (single, 1981, Crass' tongue in cheek stab at the Xmas novelty market... [2] (http://www.southern.com/southern/label/CRC/09417))
  • Christ The Album (LP, 1982)
  • "Sheep Farming In The Falklands" (single 1982, originally distrinuted 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", this was Crass' 'tribute' 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 Gunther Grass)
  • "Ten Notes On A Summer's Day" (12" single, 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)

Recommended reading

  • 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 [3] (http://www.southern.com/southern/label/CRC/text/09438a) )
  • 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 [4] (http://www.southern.com/southern/label/CRC/misc))

See also

External links



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