Monday, 5 May 2008
‘I’LL MAKE NO SUBSCRIPTION TO YOUR PARADISE”: GETTING CRITICAL ABOUT CRASS
A condensed version of this piece appeared in Last Hours 17
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. (As if they’d previously behaved as an autocracy or something.) This in turn led them to sporadically resume performing, though you now need to call them 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 the sweary bovver band were actually singing about anarchy and peace. But that didn’t make me any more enamoured of 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 rantings.) But, though I wouldn’t have been able to define it at the time, there also felt something 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 (aka Disinformation) has claimed their recordings “change people’s lives forever, immediately 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 like themselves.” With the reformation and with 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.”) Perhaps the most hilarious case is their song Banned from the Roxy, which suggested they’d been censored for their radical vision (‘They said they only wanted well behaved boys, do they think guitars and microphones are just fucking toys?'), then compared the event to Mai Lai and Hiroshima. In fact, as they later admitted, they’d simply been booted off for being too drunk to play!
They were many who tried to use the band as a measure of anarchism’s failings in toto,portraying them as a strange cross between fulminating fanatics and hopeless idealists. However, as their more knowledgeable adversaries admitted, in actuality Crass ran a quite formidable operation on a shoestring. They not only launched their own independent label (which paid its way despite absurdly cheap prices) but raised cash for numerous benefits (often playing only benefits for years at a time), were instrumental in the Stonehenge free festival, persuaded bridal magazine Loving to give away their songs on a free flexidisc, had questions raised about them in the Commons… you probably already know all this to be reading about it.
Crass often claimed to have sold the equivalent of gold records which were ‘hyped’ out of the charts by a nervous music industry. Yet it is not enough to measure their success by units shipped. As they said themselves: “The true effect of our work is not to be found within the confines of rock'n'roll, but in the radicalised minds of thousands of people throughout the world.” The real question, is did they affect people’s minds for good or ill?
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, with a degree of stage shock which can only appear ridiculous today. 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. Though the band even sang about this (‘Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be/ And it ain’t got a thing to do with you or me’), at the time few got it. After all, punk had brandished the slogan Never Trust a Hippy. (Normally thought to be devised by Jaime Reid, himself an old hippie who now looks like a crustie!) So Crass’ critics would continually harp on their hippie origins. (One hilarious example being Special Duties’ ‘Bullshit Crass’ – ‘Commune hippies, that’s what they are/They got no money – ha ha ha!’) Their fans would either deny the whole thing or defend hippy ‘peace ‘n’ love’ values against the Pistol’s ‘negativity’. Both would miss entirely their motivation came from a critique of hippy.
Crass’ age advantage also contributed to their presenting themselves with a ‘sussed’ image. Against the cartoon shock of most punk, Crass could even come across as rigorous – slagging off not merely the Clash and the Pistols but Buddha, Jesus and Marx! Perhaps their critique of the Labour Theory of Value wasn’t the world’s most incisive (“Do you really believe in Marx? Marx fucks!”) But within a movement that was predominantly exceptionally young (often school age), they became anarcho’s central band partly through their appearance of having worked it all out.
However, despite this and despite frequently being painted as political fanatics by opponents, 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. (They’d earlier even flirted with the term ‘nihilist’.) However, this isn’t necessarily a criticism, cultural movements can have advantages over political ones. Many anarchists then (or even now) commendably sought to keep alive the memory of previous movements, in Russia, Spain etc. But they saw their own role as curators and archivists, seeking to keep the precious memory alive. This frequently turned inspiration into baggage. Crass conversely encouraged their fans to do something.
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.” Anarcho-punks were encouraged to behave not as fans or consumers, but to do it themselves. However, its arguable that the very success of this laid bare anarcho-punk’s greatest failure - the rallying call was often interpreted as duplicating for themselves what Crass had already done. Growth became cellular, spreading widely but only 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. In the short term, this vagarity was even beneficial as it allowed Crass to continually shift the terrain. One example is their involvement in the Stop the City actions, which were initially effective but soon stymied by a greater mobilisation of police. Crass then claimed that this ineffectiveness was actually a victory, as the lack of action had allowed participants to “get to know” each other instead! But in the longer term problems were being stored up…
Another downside of subculture Crass epitomized 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.’ “ Their legendary antipathy to Christianity could easily be pinned to their perceiving it as a rival moral system. (Joe Banks concedes their “moral sensibility” had “similarities… to Christian idealism.” Meanwhile the Crass section of Southern Studio’s message board would suggest may old fans have now ‘found religion’ of some form.)
But this moralism was at it’s 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.’) But in the meantime workers remained gullible minions, as yet deprived of the insights to be found on poorly printed lyric sheets. The disdain and contempt, unmissable in songs like Systematic Death (‘Poor fucking worker, poor little serf/ Working like a mule for half of what he’s worth’), is made more noxious when you consider that most of the band came from priveliged backgrounds. ’Not for me the factory floor/ Sweeping up from nine till four…’ Not even, it would seem, the knowledge that five is the standard clocking-off time.
But 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 the shininess of 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… The opening track on Crass’ first release was blank (entitled The Sound of Free Speech), as the pressing plant had nixed the intended track (Asylum). Yet it was the plant’s workers, not the management, who had refused to handle the song’s “blasphemous” content. Simultaneously Joe Strummer was forgotting 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.
Nevertheless, deprived of any sense of class, Crass struggled with conceptions of power relations. At times this verged on the superstitious, for example in their fixation with the ominous year 1984; which would not only herald an Orwellian dystopia but usher in every conceivable nightmare – death camps appearing, nuclear bombs dropping, punks “selling out” to major labels. (The darkening political background of Eighties Britain gave a sheen of credibility to this apocalpse-porn.) Catalogue numbers counted down to this dread date, at which point it was preordained the band would split up. Against this ‘heavy shit’ talismans were raised that contained the magic needed to dispel power – singles than cost 45p or less, boutique-boycott clothing bought from Army Surplus Stores, righteous vegan diets, etc.
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." (Crass’ critique of hippy consisted of dragging it back to basics, but never questioning those basics. As founder Penny Rimbaud was to claim in his book Last of the Hippies "if each individual can learn to act out of conscience rather than greed the machinery of power will collapse." It’s tempting to speculate whether a few days spent working under that big blue sign might have helped him face some of those ‘realities’.
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 another tradition – an older one. Rimbaud later lamented “one of the major elements that people missed in us was the tradition of Dada. We used confusion and confrontation in much the same way.” (In fact he’d previously performed in Exit, a post-Dada outfit where instead of drums he played a bicycle wheel.). 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? Why bother slagging off Ford workers who weren’t there when you could insult your audience who were?
Punk’s Not Dead was already becoming a rallying call in anarcho circles, a claim it’s heart was still un-coopted by chainstores. Crass promptly wrote Punk is Dead. (‘I see the velvet zippies in their bondage gear / The social elite with safety pins in their ear / I watch and understand that it don’t mean a thing / The scorpions might attack, but the system stole the sting.’) 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 in Wikipedia terms the reply might be ‘citation needed’ let’s use the parlance of the time – bollocks! It defies credibility that there was any “strategy” or masterplan hatched at the beginning, any perfect blend of wind-up and polemic plotted over herbal tea in their commune. Nevertheless, such assumptions are typical. 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. Yet on Where Next Columbus they had exposed all ideologies not as perfect systems but movements which merely start with someone’s “confusion”. They were no exception to their own rule.
In this way you’d need to contrast Crass with a contemporary band like Gang of Four, who chose quite deliberately to seek out and intensify the contradictions involved in being an anti-capitalist band. For example, they coined the collision term ‘militant entertainment’. Significantly Gang of Four chose to sign to a major label (EMI) but as as political gesture. “”The point for us was not to be ‘pure’”, they explained. ‘It wouldn’t be on our agenda to be on a truly independent label, as if such a thing could even exist.” Crass, conversely, could never completely break from their ‘sussed’ image.
Moreover, the content of their message was increasingly vying with the chosen form, 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.
Perhaps this was behind their decision to pre-emptively announce their own sell-by date; like a banger propelled by rocket fuel, they’d guessed into advance they were onto something powerful which could never be maintained. The music was moving further and further away from their basic ‘street’ sound, their final (little-heard) album was a set of poems recited over neo-classical music! (Rimbaud exulted: “I should think a lot of punks will be thoroughly pissed off, 'cause it doesn't say fuck in every song.”) Also, as the Eighties grew progressively nastier cracks began to appear in their once-unified façade, in particular over their pacifism.
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 Chumbawamaba. 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. Things were pulled back inside a ‘right-on’ comfort zone, where the only remaining ‘punk’ element was the haircuts. Rimbaud later eulogised the early days: “Ideas were open, we were creating our own lives together. These were the glorious years before the free alternatives that we were creating became just another set of bigoted rules, before what we were defining as real punk became yet another squalid ghetto.”
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 fans 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.