Crass. Just the name makes you think.
And that was the intention: Crass were a punk group who would force you to consider your own ideals, and attitudes, even the way you approached life.
They are a band people tend to either love or loathe, and even those who admire Crass can find them in some way obnoxious, arrogant, musically unchallenging and who’s potential was limited by those very failings.
Personally, I come from the reasoning that as much as they antagonised many people, including those who would naturally lean towards their purist brand of punk, they paved the way for an alternative culture, re-igniting punk and leading to second wave bands such as Conflict, GBH and the Subhumans, as well as non-punk activist bands like Chumbawamba, Redskins and maybe even Rage Against the Machine.
Crass lived a lifestyle they espoused in their lyrics, being pretty much self-sufficient but also keep their distance from the mainstream, giving interviews to fanzines and the alternative culture. If they’d formed in this past decade, they would be the darlings of the non-aligned online media.
Without question is the interest they engender three decades after their peak, a period when questions were raised in the British Parliament about their anti-Falklands War stance and hatred of the Government.
In June last year I reviewed The Feeding of the 5000 in this blog, and have received a regular stream of hits since, in fact, it’s by far the most read thing I’ve done. Click on https://craighaggis.wordpress.com/2009/06/03/lowdown-on-the-new-4/
This surprised me as I’ve reviewed plenty of albums and written features on a broad range of acts. Crass clearly have a fanbase built up through word of mouth and the internet over the years.
Southern Records objected to the term middle class in that review, but they operated out of Penny Rimbaud’s large Essex home, Dial House, and Rimbaud himself admits to being middle class in his book, Shibboleth: My Revolting Life.
Ignorant, on the other hand, was a working class lad, far younger than Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, survivors of the hippy era and much mocked for their background.
The first album, Feeding of the 5000, was a rallying call for the dispossessed, tackling religion, on Reality Asylum (removed because of plant problems with its ‘blasphemous lyrics’), war – General Bacardi – and class control on the album’s standout, Do They Owe Us A Living?
It’s fair to say Crass would not have been the punk band they became without the Sex Pistols and The Clash asking pertinent questions and defying authority. But Crass showed little gratitude, deriding The Clash for supposedly selling out to CBS. White Punks on Hope is a song that really does not stand up on closer scrutiny, especially this line: “They won’t change nothing with their fashionable talks, their RAR badges, and their protest walk, thousands of white men standing in a park, objecting to racism like a candle in the dark.”
Quite why Crass objected to concerts supporting Rock Against Racism isn’t clear as they were instrumental in alerting the public to the threat by the nazi National Front.
But then anarchists, as Crass proclaimed to be, don’t like Socialists in any form so you wouldn’t expect any class solidarity in times of struggle. Anarchists had their own party and brigade in the Spanish Civil War so they were never going to take a unity platform in something as trivial as the Punk Wars.
They followed Feeding of the 5000 with Stations of the Crass (1979), Penis Envy (1981) and Christ – the Album (1982).
None of these were as good as Feeding … , and they had virtually dropped the punk style with something more experimental.
One track on Penis Envy was a brilliant wind up that wasn’t seen until it was too late.
Crass recorded a deliberately saccharine MOR love song called Our Wedding, which was stuck on a flexi disc with a cheesy label and given away free to readers of teenage girls’ romance mag Loving. The idea had been suggested to the magazine by an organisation calling itself Creative Recording And Sound Services (look at those initials).
The tabloids went ballistic at the subtle message, that marriage is about nothing more than control.
Back to basics
Things changed for Crass when the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, sent the troops in to defend a little island of less than 2000 people, the Falkland Islands, from Argentina, who had historically claimed them as their own.
They released two crucial back-to-their-roots singles, Sheep Farming in the Falklands/ Gotcha (the Sun tabloid’s headline when the Belgrano ship was torpedoed with hundreds on board apparently sailing in the opposite direction) and How Does It Feel (to be the Mother of 1000 Dead)? which brought the ire of the Government.
The latter song was particularly vehement, showing an unparalleled amount of anger towards Mrs Thatcher and her warmongering, right-wing Government:
“You never wanted peace or solution,
From the start you lusted after war and destruction.
Your blood-soaked reason ruled out other choices,
Your mockery gagged more moderate voices.”
Tory MP Tim Eggar described it as “the most vicious, scurrilous and obscene record that has ever been produced.”
He also said it went beyond the acceptable bounds of freedom of speech and was an insult to the country and the armed forces. This only added to the fire and How Does It Feel … sold 20,000 copies soon after its release.
The court battles and the barrage of criticism from the establishment around the record sapped the band’s strength and after N.A. Palmer left, they split, in 1984. They’d peaked, they had been given something to get their teeth into but they were gone by the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85 though they played some benefit gigs for striking miners, and their swansong was at one such event, in Aberdare, Wales.
Crass have left an impressive legacy, less so in musical terms – it was basically rehashed punk – but the way they played gigs, gave interviews, and released records, most of which was on their own label. They were part of a genre in which women flexed their musical muscles, that encouraged free expression, an uncompromising attitude and tackled ‘taboo’ subjects like feminism and religion.
I have a vinyl copy of Best Before, the posthumous double album compilation that features some unusual album tracks and infamous singles. It is abrasive, uncompromising, and while sometimes difficult to listen, has some great punk tracks such as Do They Owe Us A Living? and Yes Sir, I Will. Ignorant is at his brutal best on Gotcha and there are times when Crass sound like a truly great punk band.
The arguments for and against Crass could take a whole chapter and I would recommend going to punk77.com for articles both supporting and attacking the band.
For me, they left some classic records and paved the way for bands to release records and play gigs outwith the standard rock and roll way.
But in that review of Feeding of the 5000 I also said this:
“At times, Crass were over-the-top in their criticism of society and capitalism but were guilty of failing to back it up with solutions and alternatives, other than the vague notion of anarchist revolution.”