When Crass’ debut album was released, on their own Crass Records, in October 1978, punk was moribund; the frenzied chords, the gobbing, the swastikas, the safety pins and most of the bands had become footnotes of history. It had died a horrible death in San Francisco at the Sex Pistols’ final gig in January of that year, but in reality it had long since been a movement of the dispossessed, taken over by charlatans, the greedy and the downright opportunistic.
This was something Crass were well aware and alluded to on one track, Punk Is Dead.
“Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
And it ain’t got a thing to do with you or me.”
Singer Steve Ignorant was partly right, punk had become a fashion, but it hadn’t become “bubbelgum rock” as he proclaimed; punk had become something far bigger by 1978, partially experimental, and occasionally obtuse. It spawned PiL and the Gang of Four; the uber-DIY Desperate Bicycles, the confrontational Throbbing Gristle, and numerous others standing in left field. Punk had moved on, but Crass had faith in the original ideas and concept and weren’t for giving up on the idea of punk as a vehicle for radical change.
Crass are often regarded as an anarchist, shouty-shouty punk yob chant noise band. Uncompromising ‘we never sell out’ anti-capitalist, anti-Thatcher, anti-bloody everything actually. In some respects they were hard to stomach in 1978, and that remained largely so until their demise during the Miner’s Strike of 1984.
Feeding of the 5000 was a rallying call for the dispossessed, General Bacardi being a brutal assault on war and the album’s standout, Do They Owe Us A Living? was a bitter attack on class control. And then there were the attacks on religion, infamously on Asylum (later titled Reality Asylum) which was removed from the first pressing because the plant workers had problems with its ‘blasphemous lyrics’.
It is hardly surprising that repressed plant workers would have problems with the contents, with its juxtaposing of religion and Auschwitz.
I found this brilliant description from the Music, Musings and Miscellany blog, from a writer describing himself as someone who grew up attending Sunday school and a Church of England school, and who first heard Asylum as a 16-year-old.
“I considered myself a broad-minded young man, but this broke taboos by the score. Hell, in 1979 you got censured for saying “fuck” on the telly, and there had only just been a lengthy court case to determine whether the cover of Never Mind The Bollocks was obscene! But as I studied the lyrics, I understood the message. That the real obscenity was the notion that us mere mortals should seek forgiveness from a figure whose followers were responsible for 2,000 years of genocide, war, torture, rape, oppression and a never-ending crusade against knowledge, reason and enlightenment.”
There were more acerbic lyrics about faith, as Crass laid the boot into organised religion.
“So what if Jesus died on the cross/ So what about the fucker, I don’t give a toss/ So what if the master walked on water, I don’t see him trying to stop the slaughter.”
Religion has taken a hit in Britain, and in many western countries, over the past three decades, but back in the 1970s, there was still a reasonable attendance at Sunday school church and there remained a feeling that you had to be careful about what you said and thought about Christianity. Crass weren’t just taking risks, they were taking on the whole concept of religion and other sacred cows.
The lyrics were spat out fast and furiously and you need to be on your toes to catch it all. It was punk, but not as we know it. Even the ‘old wave’ of 1977 were caught out by this barrage of anti-conformity. While some people regard it as sacrilege to bash The Clash, Crass had no such reservations, accusing them of selling out by signing to CBS.
Listening to it now, with much time having passed, and societal changes haven taken an impact in the West, you can see Feeding of the 5000 as a testament of its time, a canon that launched the first offensive against an emerging monetarist, Thatcherite society that I explain in some detail in a previous blog:
But, even now, Feeding of the 5000 sounds as confronting, independent, radical and thought-provoking as it did then. In fact, it is easy to imagine that if a band, punk or rap, or whatever, took on board some of the same subjects today, and wrote about them with a similar viewpoint, they would be on the end of a critical and conservative backlash. Alas, there are few such acts around and the tendency for musicians in the 21st century is to make music that skirts controversial issues, sells lots and keeps the controversial elements aside. No wonder there’s a revival in interest in Crass.
- Two years ago I reviewed this album as part of the Attic Dweller series when the site was in its infancy. I wasn’t entirely happy with that review, as it was partially flippant, hence this fuller review.