GETTING CRITICAL ABOUT CRASS
Back when the countdown to the invasion of Iraq was on, I was busily telling everybody the reason for my war opposition – I feared it would lead to Crass reforming. This proved prescient because, after years of rumour, an anti-war benefit did go ahead under the rebranded heading Crass Collective, in turn leading to sporadic performances as the Last Amendment.
As this story might suggest, back in the day I had little empathy for Crass. I can remember the moment of surprise when I discovered that this sweary bovver band were actually singing about anarchy and peace. But that didn’t make me any more enamoured to them. That may have been partly down to the tribal nature of youth culture. No small part was due to the notoriously terrible state of their ‘music’. (I listened happily to Throbbing Gristle, the Fall or Neubauten, none of them exactly top-forty-friendly outfits, but drew the line at Crass’ tinny racket.) But it was more that, though I wouldn’t have been able to define it at the time,something felt confining about their strictures – something strangely at odds with their message of personal liberation.
Crass’ brand of anarcho-punk was and remains controversial, stirring up devotion, hostility and plain bewilderment in roughly equal measure. Joe Banks has claimed their recordings “change people’s lives forever, immediately as they experience it for the first time.” (Sound Projector 10) The Punk 77 website describes them as “new puritans who criticised everything left right and centre and offered in its place some unfeasible nirvana which… would be peopled with people like themselves.” With the [partial] reformation and renewed interest in the band (with two books and one documentary appearing), perhaps now is a good time to get beyond such polarised responses and develop a more nuanced response to what they did.
The band themselves fed the fire, often being absurdly self-aggrandising (“It is not grandiose to claim that we have been one of the most influential bands in the history of British rock…it was us who almost single-handedly created anarchy as a popular movement for millions of people.”)
Though the band started gigging in 1977, it’s vital to understand anarcho-punk as something which followed the original punk wave. Of course anarcho-punks castigated the original punks for selling out on their early commitments. But if anarcho-punk was full of invective about this, it was equally vehement about itself – it was propelled by self-criticism and negative energy to a degree that verged on fundamentalist. If Anarcho was a second chance, a means to avoid making punk’s mistakes all over again, this could only be achieved by setting yourself a Spartan lifestyle of permanent outsiderhood.
Crass’ crucial contribution to this was to add a generational layer. The majority of the band were old hippies, who had lived together in a commune since 1967. As Richard Cross argues in ‘The Hippies Now Wear Black’: “Importantly, Crass claimed punk as an extension and redefinition of elements brought forward from the culture of hippy…. Even so, Crass’s was never an uncritical reading of hippy, but rather a reclamation of what were seen as common principles… castigating the self-satisfied hedonism of sixties counter-culture, whilst romanticising its more consciously political elements. Disappointment with the decline and corrosion of hippy may help to explain the intensity of Crass’s subsequent investment in punk. It had to work where hippy had failed.”
In short, if the young anarcho-punks wanted a scene to express two years’ worth of festering resentment, here was a band who had twenty such years saved up! They’d seen Jefferson Airplane (“all your private property is target for your enemy”) become Jefferson Starship (“we built this city on rock’n’roll!”) years before the Clash had appeared on Top of the Pops.
Moreover, despite being frequently painted as political fanatics and their own attempts at a ‘sussed’ image, the band remained hippies first and anarchists second. Though they undoubtedly blurred the line between artist and activist, their mindset remained with their origins – in subculture. Many members later admitted that at the time they knew little of the meaning of the circle-A flags they’d hang behind their stage. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, cultural movements can have advantages over political ones.
However, while political groups can easily become cults perhaps there is something inherently conformist about cultural ones. As Richard Cross says “anarcho-punk… would sustain and extend its influence through the self-directed activities of its adherents – who would form more bands, produce ever greater numbers of publications, set-up record labels and radical co-operatives.” Growth became cellular, spreading widely but only spreading copies of the template. Bands who didn’t don the necessary black, detune their guitars and sing about the importance of a punk diet could find audiences antagonistic. “Anarchists can be a conservative lot, I’ve discovered”, Zounds’ Steve Lake was later to reflect.
While Crass were themselves often critical of this tendency (something we’ll come onto later), in some senses the form of anarcho-punk made this inevitable. The politics simply had to be cut down to fit inside the stenciled slogans and short shouty songs.
Another downside of subculture Crass epitomised to the nth degree is a tendency to moralism and superiority. The Anarchist Workers Group found in anarcho-punk “the worst kind of elitism – the politics of ‘if everyone was like me wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place.“
This moralism was at its worst in the band’s attitude to class. Though rightly wary of Leftist groups like Socialist Worker, Crass then throw the baby out with the bathwater. Class divisions were supposed to come merrily tumbling down through the transforming act of putting on a punk gig with a low door price (‘Punk’s the people’s music, so you can stuff ideas of class/ Middle class, working class, I don’t fucking care.’)
Perhaps the most telling lines came on End Result, a sanctimonious diatribe against the workers they’d see entering the Ford plant near their commune base: ‘I hate the living dead and their work in the factories / They go like sheep to their production lines / They live on illusions, don’t face the realties / All they live for is that big blue sign / It says… Ford.’ Subcultures are of course voluntaristic. You choose to go to the punk gig that’s a benefit for animal rights. Here Crass completely lose the plot and assume that workers must similarly choose to enter their factories – quite oblivious that the bait of work is more often thought to be wages than shiny signs. For a band so obsessed with 1984 they might have paid more attention to Orwell: “if there’s a hope for the future, it lies with the proles.”
Then again at the same time Joe Strummer was forgetting his own public school origins to dress himself in the boots ’n’ braces uniform of a rebel worker – an absurd stereotype which bore no relation to the realities of Thatcherite Britain. Oi took up this class-identity-as-fashion-statement, which made them one of Crass’ frequent targets. Perhaps an antidote to such romanticism was needed. As Sid Vicious pointed out “I’ve met the man on the street. And he’s a cunt.”
And it should also be said that Crass’ actions were often ahead of their stultifying rhetoric. For example, many anarcho-punks loftily refused to support the striking Miners unless they all collectively gave up eating meat. Crass, conversely, played them benefit after benefit – their last ever gig was for the Miners.
But they chiefly clung to their hippie origins – imagining power as ultimately nothing more than a state of mind. As the Bureau of Public Secrets put it in On The Poverty of Hip Life, “the hippie thinks that alienation is merely a matter of perception – ‘it’s all in your head’…existing conditions will go away as soon as everyone acts as if they didn’t exist.” So Penny Rimbaud was to claim in Last of the Hippies “if each individual can learn to act out of conscience rather than greed, the machinery of power will collapse.”
Yet, before we side with the nay-sayers and dismiss Crass as nothing but old hippies hidden under new haircuts, we should add they were as much influenced by Dadaist tradition. Penny Rimbaud said, “We used confusion and confrontation in much the same way.” The Dadaist spirit of provocation cross-bred with the anarcho-punk fetish for denunciation to infuse the band. After all, why inspire when you can goad?
They’d perpetually taunt their audience with singalong lines like ‘I’m not going to change the system, you’re not going to change the system’ or ‘Who’s your leader? Who do you watch?’
However, Crass’ Wikipedia entry remarks how “using such deliberately mixed messages was part of [their] strategy of presenting themselves as a ‘barrage of contradictions’” While fans and critics of Crass would argue endlessly, both would make the same elementary mistake – taking them at face value. Fans assumed they had it all worked out and were right. Their critics agreed with all of that right up to the last word.
The content of their message was increasingly vying with the pedagogical pronouncements grating against their genuine desire to generate a critical audience. Crass therefore tended to batter their audience with their slogans, then curse them for fools should any of them follow any of it! This was no plan but simply a matter of trying to get the best from the bind they found themselves in. If they couldn’t transcend their limitations, they could do the next-best thing – exploit them. So these contradictions came to fuel the band at the same time they beset it – what made the mix conflicted also made it heady, what made it confused also made it vital and unpredictable.
In their wake some bands did continue to duplicate Crass’ weird, sometimes heady mix of Dada and dogmatism – Uncarved Block-era Flux or Ssh!-era Chumbawamba. But Crass’ role as the aristocrats of anarcho went to Conflict. Songs titled Rival Tribal Revel Rebel or Where Next Columbus became songs titled Stand Up and Fucking Fight. For all their (quite unstaged) militancy and ceaseless run-ins with the authorities, Conflict’s relation to their audience was always to confirm and validate their beliefs and expectations.
Perhaps the era is best summed up by the autonomist magazine Aufheben. “Far too many anarchos simply changed their clothes, diet, drugs and musical tastes, deluding themselves that by doing so they were creating a new world within the belly of the old which would wither away once it recognized its comparative existential poverty.” Of course, if we were to wonder how well that worked out then hindsight could be our guide. But the beauty of Aufheben’s critique is that it continues at the point so many others stop… “But most of the criticisms of lifestyle politics, then and now, were and are mere defences by militants prepared to accept the continual deferral of pleasure in favour of the ‘hard work’ of politics. The desire to create the future in the present has always been a strength of anarchists. How one lives is political.” Or as Rimbaud commented, when asked in the fanzine Mucilage if some weren’t going to the gigs just to have fun: “So fucking what? It’s better than not having fun.”
In the run-off from their final record, a voice can be clearly heard intoning their final slogan – “we only did it for a laugh.” Crass attempted, perhaps harder than any others, to become more than merely a band. Though their efforts brought successes, those very successes soon tied them in a set of contradictions they were unable to cut through – so instead decided to emphasise. In the end, they are best understood not as political thinkers (and certainly not as musicians) but as provocateurs. And we were provoked! Some of us still are. That counts as a success.
Handy links on Crass:
George Berger’s The Story of Crass was reviewed in Last Hours 15