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“Punk is dead – long live anarcho-punk” was the word on the streets when hard-nose radicals CRASS confronted the establishment head-on in the late 70s/early 80s. Owing as much to The FUGS and The DEVIANTS, as to The STOOGES and The SEX PISTOLS, socially-aware commune dwellers Steve Ignorant (alias singer Stephen Williams) and veteran drummer Penny Rimbaud (alias Jeremy John Ratter) shook up the system, spray-painted stencilled graffiti designs on the London Underground by Gee Vaucher (before Banksy made it de rigueur) and salvaged respective phrases like “indie” and “DIY” to stand for what they truly mean. While some pundits tried to brand them “oi!”, anti-racists, anti-fascists, or anti-establishment, CRASS were indeed the antithesis of this other punk-rock subculture; their goals, to create a war-free society, not to destroy it with hatred and violence. Their music would deal with global hypocrisy and double-standards; the nuclear threat, religion and a broad-church of topics the would scare the “yes” men (and woman) in power, so that house raids were common under Britain’s “Reality Asylum”.
Formed mid-’77, in North Weald, Essex (basically in the “Dial House” commune/squat), artists/scribes Steve and Penny were eager to maintain the ethos of punk after seeing The CLASH perform in Bristol’s Colston Hall. With a line-up completed by lead guitarist Phil Free (alias Phillip Clancy, who superseded Steve Herman), rhythm guitarist (Andrew) N.A. Palmer, bassist Pete Wright, flautist Mick G (Duffield) and manager/engineer John Loder, the pseudonymous crew unleashed the first instalment of their anarchist manifesto for Walthamstow’s Small Wonder independent. Entitled THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND (1979) {*8}, the 18-track, 32-minute mini-LP introduced the raging punk blitzkrieg of CRASS in full flow: `Do They Owe Us A Living?’, `General Bacardi’, `Securicor’, `Banned From The Roxy’, `You Pay Angels’ and `Sucks’ – needling pinheads everywhere. These raging chants over military-style drumming, shouting down religion and “the system” in all its multifarious guises, there was allegedly trouble at the pressing plant, leaving two minutes blank (“the sound of free speech”) where blasphemous opener `Asylum’ was omitted. In the event, CRASS decided to take any flak by duly releasing the “5000 – The Second Sitting” record on their own self-named enterprise; restoring `Reality Asylum’ – as it was now called in single form also! – to its rightful position. Originally costing £2.00 until the realisation that they were losing out to the dreaded value added tax system, Joy de Vivre (aka Virginia Creeper) made her entrance on the track, `Women’, while the second of two feisty frontwomen, Eve Libertine (alias Bronwyn Jones) would be heard on the aforementioned opener, and future releases.
In a quest to give openings to other like-minded “anarcho-punk” bands, forming their own label would yield opportunities for POISON GIRLS, CONFLICT, RUDIMENTARY PENI, et al. The next logical step for such an avowedly anti-establishment operation, was the autumn ’79-release of STATIONS OF THE CRASS {*8}, a 3-side studio/1-side live, 2×12-inch album’s worth of caustic diatribe and bawdy bile, directed at all the usual subjects and some surprising ones (i.e. The CLASH for `White Punks On Hope’); even taking a pot shot at media outrage over Myra Hindley on `Mother Earth’ and tabloid scribe Bushell on `Hurry Up Garry’. Others to positively burn the eardrums were the studio machine-gun ranting of `You’ve Got Big Hands’, `Darling’, `Heard Too Much About’, `Tired’ and `The Gasman Cometh’.
A couple of politically charged-singles shaped up next, the first, `Bloody Revolutions’, a split affair with POISON GIRLS on the flip-side, while the peerless epic `Nagasaki Nightmare’ (b/w `Big A Little A’), represented the pinnacle of outrage over the killing of 250,000 innocent victims of the nuclear bomb… and the rest who died of other diseases and horrors indirectly.
The CRASS line-up fluctuated according to whoever was living with them at the time; the band’s democratic approach seeing Eve (and Joy on `Health Surface’) take on the vocal chores for feminist tract, PENIS ENVY (1981) {*7}. Pay no more than £2.25 was emblazoned on the jacket – the excellent `Bata Motel’, `Systematic Death’, `Poison In A Pretty Pill’, et al, emblazoned from the vinyl within.
CRASS, so far, had not a fighting chance when it came to listing the official weekly album charts (non-eligible), however, that changed when CHRIST – THE ALBUM / WELL FORKED – BUT NOT DEAD (1982) {*7} gate-crashed the Top 30. Not a band to do things by halves, their second double set (disc 2 live at The Roxy in June ‘81) saw them widen their musical horizons and intersperse songs with spoken-word entries by Steve and others; Paul Ellis (of Scots act The ALTERNATIVE) was added on keys. Tracks a tad longer and almost industrial in nature (buzzsaw and feedback an accessory!), `Birth Control ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll’, `I Know There Is Love’, `Major General Despair’ and the spiky “oi oi oi” of `It’s The Greatest Working Class Rip Off’, were only tempered by Joy’s off-kilter but heavenly `Sentiment (White Feathers)’, a mantra about the hypocrisy and cruelty to animals in order for man and woman to live in luxury.
If CRASS were straying too far into neo-hippie territory for some fans’ comfort, there was no doubting the strength of feeling behind `How Does It Feel (To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead)?’, a single directed squarely at Margaret Thatcher and taking her to task over the Falklands conflict. As the war raged, Crass Records had tapes confiscated by the government and found themselves charged under the Obscene Publications Act. Not surprisingly, no records were ever given a release outside the UK until much later.
The album that had spawned such apparently dangerous fare (alongside `Sheep Farming In The Falklands’, another sarcastic classic) was YES SIR, I WILL (1983) {*6}, an even more experimental set that divided opinion in its no tracks (just 2 sides) policy. Staying true to their original vow of breaking up in 1984 (which was indeed the meltdown year predicted by George Orwell in 1948), following a final single, `You’re Already Dead’, that was that.
Released belatedly in 1986, `10 Notes On A Summer’s Day’, proved to be CRASS’s swansong,
While Eve and Penny worked together in ’85 on a set of revised poetry by deceased friend Wally Hope (from 1968-73), `Acts Of Love’, Ignorant subsequently joined fellow anarchists CONFLICT, for whom he’d deputised in the past. EVE LIBERTINE was back in 1989 with the ambient/nature set `Last One Out Turns Off The Lights’ (with A-Soma) and, in 1992, with `Skating The Side Of Violence’ (with her guitarist son Nemo Jones). Post-millennium, CRASS fans might’ve cottoned on that 2001’s `The Death Of Imagination’ was indeed “A Musical Drama” by J.J. Rather aka PENNY RIMBAUD; he released an album in 2004 as Crass Agenda.
2007’s “12 Crass Songs”, re-imagined by New York anti-folkie JEFFREY LEWIS, was met with a mixed response by purist CRASS fans of old, but the artist did at least keep the sentiment and music – however twee and irreverent – in the public eye. On the other side of the spectrum, was the bold and bald STEVE IGNORANT’s “The Last Supper: Crass Songs 1977-1984” gig, at Shepherds Bush Empire on 19 November 2011 (released on DVD only), while his album with Paranoid Visions (`When…?’) saw the light, so to speak, in 2013, having earlier been part of Schwartzenaggar, Stratford Mercenaries; nowadays, Steve sings for Slice Of Life.
© MC Strong 1999-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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