Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Communal Cacophony of Crass

A Review of "The Story of Crass" by George Berger

Crass is not your average punk band. Come to think of it, they’re not really a “band” in any conventional sense. Come to think of it, they’re not really anything in any conventional sense. What with their all black clothing, their album covers and broadsides that would offend pretty much anyone with a belief system, the Dial House commune that is such an inseparable part of their story and music, their fear-inducing logo. 

And then there’s Crass’ self-imposed isolation from the mainstream capitalist economy, their D.I.Y., anti-authoritarian, pacifist, feminist ethic whose echoes can be heard in a slew of punk bands, protest movements and, more recently, Occupy Wall Street. With all this material, George Berger’s “The Story of Crass” almost writes itself.

The difficulty of telling Crass’ story lies in the complexity of the individuals involved, and in Crass’ refusal to be categorized. It’s hard to analyze a group that eschews all labels. Even my classification of Crass as a “seminal British punk band” is contradictory. In my mind Crass is probably the most polarizing and most misunderstood “punk” group of all time. “Nobody, it seemed, was neutral about Crass,” writes George Berger in his chronicle of Crass, “and the people that didn’t love what they were doing hated them…”

“You can’t just tolerate Crass,” the book quotes music journalist Paul Du Noyer, “you must either reject them outright or else prepare to get every idea in your head radically shook up – they probably won’t ‘convert’ you but they’ll sure as hell confuse you, and often that can be the healthiest effect of all.” I agree that getting “every idea in your head radically shook up” is healthy. But it’s neither comfortable nor easy. The average person doesn’t want to have their beliefs questioned and the average bloke doesn’t spin a record because he wants to fuck with his own assumptions about punk, music, sex, gender roles, libertarian ideals and government. This is one of the many reasons almost everyone chooses to “reject them outright.” It’s easier to condemn that try to understand something, especially something as complicated as Crass. Of course, this is one of the reasons they’re so fucking interesting to me.

Crass was simultaneously punk as fuck and not punk. They drew as much inspiration from experimental composers like John Cage and free jazz than from other punk bands. A journalist wrote of a 1979 Crass show: “It’s sharp music of fiction and friction that requires too much concentration to fully appreciate.” Berger writes: “Crass, drawing on both the wide artistic and cultural experience of their members and the spirit of the times, had metamorphosed from a bunch of lads out on the glorified piss to a serious multi-age, multi-gender, multi-media assault on conformity and narrow minds.” Their records, stage presence and messages had a “dada-esque intention to confuse.”

The mainstream understanding of British punk is usually focused on the Clash and the Sex Pistols. The Clash is also complicated, and I’ll leave that for another essay. Sure, the Pistols were great, but let’s be honest: it was a gimmick. The Sex Pistols were insecure prigs begging for a spotlight, any spotlight. Johnny Rotten had a great stage presence, and, yeah, he pissed off the status quo by screaming about being an anarchist and an antichrist, but in the end it was more about showmanship and fashion than anything else. (Stepping off soap box…) But Crass was in a whole different category. They took seriously the punk ethic of D.I.Y. self-sufficiency. They didn’t just yell “Fuck the system!” they bent it over and fucked it. Again and again. Where other bands, media and the culture at large saw the raw energy of punk and tried to make a buck off it, Crass tried to operate outside of the monetary system. When they first started putting out records they spent more on the vinyl and the revolutionary inserts and collage artwork that they lost money on every record they sold. Think of the worst example of a band or artist “selling out,” however you define that term. Got it pictured in your mind? Okay… Crass is the polar opposite.

When Crass finally did make some money, they didn’t know what to do with it. They had almost no expenses, no expensive tastes, no desire for swimming pools or heroin. They lugged their own musical equipment around and rarely toured outside of the U.K. So what’s a bunch of anti-materialist communards to do? Well, they started Crass Records. Singer Steve Ignorant says: “apparently for tax reasons you needed to get rid of [the money], put it into things so you don’t have to pay the taxman.” Penny Rimbaud, drummer and driving force behind Crass, said the band wanted to help other bands out: “I didn’t look for what was commercial, I didn’t look for rock ’n’ roll, I looked for people I could and would believe in.”

I’m not talking much about their music, but that’s because Crass is so much more than music. For example, it’s important to note that Crass is not Crass without the Dial House, a communal property and outside of London where the members of Crass lived, worked, gardened, and, on occasion, played their instruments. The house functioned as a boarding house, with thousands of people coming and going over the years. Dial House was held together not by the exchange of money or rent but by an anarcho-punk gift economy. The communards at Dial House lived out the anarchist maxim “to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.” Working together, they kept the Dial House functioning as a home for all sorts of creative activities. And, believer it or not, they apparently kept the place very clean.

I want to focus on some of the band members, but for purposes of this essay, I’m limiting discussion of Crass to Penny Rimbaud, Steve Ignorant (singer and walking contradiction) and Eve Libertine (singer and ass-kicking feminist.) There were too many other characters that played a role in Crass and I couldn’t possibly go through them all in this essay.

Penny Rimbaud – songwriter and scatter-brained theorist – had been living at Dial House since the late 60s, but it wasn’t until the late 70s that the other future members of Crass came to stay there. Rimbaud is portrayed in Berger’s book as a committed artist, a rebellious intellectual, a perpetual agitator and an open-minded punk who lived out the courage of his convictions. When the band first got together Rimbaud was older than the other members, and he had much more experience with the art world, communal living and anarcho-libertarian thought. Heavily inspired by Dadaism, the Situationists and the hippie movement, Rimbaud seems worthy of praise for Crass’ experimental and aggressive approach to music and messaging. Rimbaud also seems to have the self-confidence to rise above the cliquish sectarianism that plagued a lot of punks in the late 70s and early 80s. Maybe author George Berger gets a tad lazy or maybe he just really likes what Rimbaud has to say, because the book contains a lot of excerpts from Rimbaud’s own writings, including “The Last of the Hippies” and “Shibboleth: A Revolting Life.” Rimbaud goes more than just a little off kilter, as this book demonstrates. For example, he occasionally claims to have started punk, been guided by a “flying tribesman” in Kenya and seeing hippie Wally Hope perform “weather miracles.” His explanation for these phenomena? “There’s a big world out there.”

It’s not fair to call Steve Ignorant the lightning rod of the band, because all members attracted visceral reaction from government, police, even people who considered themselves punks. But Ignorant is definitely the hardest member of Crass to sympathize with. I never knew (although it makes sense) that Steve Ignorant once considered himself a Christian. “I wanted to be a missionary,” he said, after reading “The Cross and the Switchblade” as a teenager. Steve Ignorant exemplifies the contradictory nature of the band he fronted. He can be very petty when it came to dealing with journalists and other bands, and the book contains endless snippets of him railing against one person or another. He seems to make up his mind quickly, and when he decides for or against something, he seems to stick to it. He says Crass “stopped being fun” in their later years, which seems like a fair criticism, but Steve Ignorant doesn’t sound like a lot of fun either.

Then there’s Eve Libertine, by far my favorite character in the Crass chronicles and the one I respect the most. First, she’s a woman in a punk band, and I’m not talking about No Doubt or The Donnas or some bullshit like that. This was the late 70s in England, where shows frequently exploded into fights, brawls and mini-riots. Berger notes that most of the gigs at this time were frequented almost exclusively by men. Even though Crass was a left-wing, feminist band it’s not like all the punks and skinheads at the gigs were full of awe and respect for Eve. But Eve Libertine has a fire in her gut made of molten iron. And her passionately sharp voice haunts me every time I listen to it.

These and other individuals existed as Crass only from 1977 to 1984, during a time when the punk scene around them was in constant flux and chaos. Crass, unrelenting and uncompromising, was always the outcast from a scene composed of outcasts. By the early 80s, Berger writes: “Punk itself had gone from being a decidedly non-macho, gay and woman friendly movement to a place where men strutted around in big boots, leather jackets and Mohicans in a barely related parody of what they thought punk was originally about. But whereas many of the original punks… had scuttled off in disgust at this sea change, Crass decided to respond with a feminist concept album.”

The album Berger is referring to is Crass’ third, “Penis Envy.” In my opinion this work of art is Crass' most important contribution to the punk counter-culture. It’s simply stunning for a variety of reasons. Musically, it’s their most complex and profound record. Politically, socially, sexually, its an affront to all barriers and prejudices, and I'm willing to call it one of the best punk records ever made.

I’ll stop at this point, because this essay is as jarring and chaotic as a Crass song. I hope I’ve at least piqued your interest in Crass. They’re not just for punks, but for anyone who believes in art as a tool for personal and social liberation. Here's a great documentary on Crass, for free, of course!

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