When we talk about punk music, a certain hierarchy seems to be in place to describe its history and of its most pivotal bands.
Of course we have the holy punk trinity, which is made up of the Sex Pistols, the great rock & roll swindle conducted by Malcolm McLaren and performed by Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, The Clash, the worldly and idealist Joe Strummer outfit and the only band that mattered, and the Ramones, the fake band of brothers who started it all, followed by a whole group of other worthy punks who either influenced these bands or helped evolve the punk sound – The Stooges, Patti Smith, Television, etc. – whom many would argue are just as important if not better than the father, son, and holy ghost.
All these bands are a part of the punk hierarchy because they are the most famous bands of the genre and, in a sense, the most appealing. These are the bands that you see on Urban Outfitters t-shirts, Guitar Hero video games, and on Dewey Finn’s blackboard explaining the history of rock. These bands are no longer bands but are now brands that sell a very specific youth-oriented idealism. These bands, especially their image, are lucrative, since the kids who first saw the Ramones in CBGB’s are now the CEOs of your major music labels and they understand punk’s appeal to their target demographic of adolescent boys and girls: the cool look, the “fuck everything” attitude, and the emphasis on having some sort of outlet for your angst – even today, countless teenagers are buying guitars and starting bands after hearing this song.
However, if we remind ourselves of the ethos of punk music – fight the establishment, DIY, and “anarchy” – it is ironic then to think that the bands who are most associated with anarchy and destruction are now a part of the fuel for music capitalism, which is not very punk.
Of course, we haven’t talked about Crass yet.
Crass, the legendary English anarcho-punk band that was officially active from 1977 to 1984, belongs to that rare group of bands that are far more influential than they are famous, and in no way do they belong to this mainstream punk hierarchy. Even in 2015, when all it takes is a bandcamp or a soundcloud to become at least internet-famous, Crass have yet to experience that kind of online revival that forgotten bands like American Football and other 90s emocore bands have enjoyed this year.
Crass is more well known back in their native England, but in the United States, Crass is usually known only amongst students of punk history or those who have a friend or older sibling who had a copy of ‘Christ – The Album’ or ‘Penis Envy’. You’ll never hear Crass on the radio, and you won’t see any teenage girls at Bonnaroo wearing a Crass t-shirt inscribed with their logo pictured above, a logo that, with a mix of the Christian cross, the Union Jack, and a double-headed serpent mimicking an ouroboros, might be second only to Black Flag’s bars as punk’s most beloved symbol.
Crass also belongs to the special group of bands that you either passionately love or hate. It is impossible to casually like Crass; depending on your political stance and your musical taste, Crass is either the only actual punk band that ever existed or a bunch of whiny Brits who couldn’t play their instruments. That last part might be the only thing that most people can agree on; you’ll also never hear Crass on the radio because they don’t sound good on record. In fact, they sound pretty awful. Imagine listening to “Sister Ray” for a hour with more noise and less melody and you’ll get a sense of listening to a Crass record.
So what’s the story of Crass, and why should you care?
In a nutshell, Crass might the only band that actually followed the teachings and ethics of punk, and they were one of the few political bands of their era that actually understood politics. What made Crass different from the typical “destroy everything / no future” aesthetic was that Crass did want to destroy everything, but they also had a future in mind. When they sung of anarchy, they weren’t singing of disorderly state but of an ideology in which a lack of government would actually encourage an individual’s absolute freedom. The band lived and work as a community in the literal sense; they all lived in an open-house community and they all wore black not as a bleak aesthetic but as a practical way to wash everyone’s clothes all at once.
In a 2009 Guardian profile on Crass, John Robb speaks highly of the band’s legacy and of their approach to backing up their noise with actual insight: “They were active in promoting pacifism, vegetarianism, communal living and hope in the middle of the collapse of punk rock. While others were spraying ‘anarchy’ on the wall, Crass were patiently explaining what that term meant and how it could work.”
Crass were also one of the first art-punk bands, matching their hot anger with tape collages, spoken word storytelling, and poetry woven into their songs. They were, for better or worse, the truest punk band, both it its stereotype and in what punk music could be.
Crass was a true collective, but if there were any sort of leaders it would have been drummer Penny Rimbaud and singer Steve Ignorant. Rimbaud was the founder of Dial House, the open-house community in Essex where members of the band and other artistic people lived and worked, and he was a fan of avant-garde performance art and a writer of many political theory books. Rimbaud was interested in using punk music as a means for communicating ideas and innovations that were meant to be taken seriously, and he would provide much of the band’s political backbone. Ignorant, on the other hand, was a fan of The Clash and David Bowie, and he wanted to start a band that would be fun for people to see (the band’s name came from Ignorant when he heard the line in Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”: “The kids was just crass”).
Together they wrote the songs, though this wasn’t as clear cut (or as good) as Lennon-McCartney. But it was a partnership nonetheless. Many band members came and went, but the core people included Gee Vaucher, Pete Wright, N. A. Palmer, Joy De Vivre, and Eve Libertine.
Crass’s first noticeable work was their single “Reality Asylum” off their first album ‘The Feeding of the 5000’. That first album, along with their follow up ‘Stations of the Crass’, was not much to listen to, but it was full of such energy and passion that you couldn’t help but to have some sort of strong opinion on the music. The third album, ‘Penis Envy’, is notable for not having any of the men singing and instead having Libertine and De Vivre sing all the songs, which all addressed different feminist issues (something that punk music wasn’t addressing back then).
The next album, ‘Christ – The Album’, was released in 1982 at the height of Margaret Thatcher, decaying British nationalism, and the Falklands War, all of which Crass made a mission to fight against. This is also the time when the band became infamous in a particular way; in 1982 they spliced together the voices of Thatcher and President Reagan to make it seem like they were arguing over the Falklands and launching nuclear weapons, and for the next two years the MI6, the CIA, and the US State Department were investigating the band (click here for some more background information on the situation).
Crass somewhat fizzled out after that whole episode, releasing a few (by their standards) mediocre albums, but the legend of Crass was built upon their live shows and their insistence on doing everything on their own, including being their own roadies, selling their own music, and handling all business matters themselves. For Crass, DIY was not a fun association but an actual way of live.
The story of Crass is also one of constant harassment, poverty, and a strange lack of sex and drugs that usually comes with the rock & roll. While the Clash were selling out stadiums, the members of Crass were barley getting by, living on the road in a shitty van and losing money on every record they released (being a true artist for your fans, financially speaking, does not work in the long run). Crass is also famous for being a band that, for the most part, stayed away from drinking and smoking; they saw their performances as work, and they did not want to show up to work drunk or not able to give it their all.
I can go on about Crass since there’s so many interesting stories within their music and their approach towards art, but I’ll just say pick up George Berger’s book The Story of Crass, which is a fantastic read and will (maybe) compel you to listen to a whole Crass album.
You might listen to Crass and find nothing worth investing in, but it should be noted is that, while no one in this band was musically talented, they all wrote and performed anyways because they all believed in what they were doing. If nothing else, Crass proved that you didn’t need to be big to start a revolution. What’s more punk than that?