"BE WARNED: THE NATURE OF YOUR OPPRESSION IS THE AESTHETIC OF OUR ANGER"
The huge poster was the first thing I saw when I entered London's Naational Film Theatre (the NFT). The NFT, indeed - how civilised! The Never Mind the Jubilee punk retrospective hosted at the South Bank to offer a contrast against the Queen's own golden Jubilee celebrations. And no punk retrospective would have been complete without Crass, who I would argue were matched only by the Sex Pistols in terms of importance and influence, although the two bands were worlds apart.
I was listening to and communicating with Crass when I was at school, just over twenty years ago. The Sex Pistols woke me up, but Crass were my mentors. They spawned a million dreadful and a few rather good look and sound-a-likes, the worst of them idiots who wrote a set of rules on how to be an anarchist and, as legend has it, condemned Crass themselves for stopping at red traffic lights and therefore being puppets of ‘the system’. The band was more patient than they should have been with this, and, too, with my childish letters. "Tell me everything!" I demanded, to which they responded, "Please be more specific….". They politely turned down my request for them to play at my band’s first gig, but sent me stacks of literature. It was their writing, together with Gee Vaucher’s incredible artwork (her Thatcher, Queen, Pope and Statue of Liberty dressed as punks, standing on a street corner, is one of her most bizarre, amusing and enduring images) that inspired me. The music, the least accessible aspect of the band, I only came to later. At age 14 or 15, I had my eyes opened to the horrors of Nagasaki and the meat industry and, as a counter balance, the work of the peace movement. It was the early 1980s and the political stage was frightening. The then USSR and the USA seemed bent on the nightmare of Mutually Assured Destruction, waving their respective nuclear phalluses at one other and the rest of the world. You could say that it wasn’t just the size of their arsenals that scared me so much, but what they wanted to do with them. Margaret Thatcher was at Ronald Reagan’s side, constantly egging him on, and for quite some time I thought I would not live past my teenage years.
So here we are, two decades on, with two nuclear powers squaring up to one another and George W. Bush’s post-September 11 America claiming the right to attack any nation it considers a threat. In the past few months I’ve found myself playing a lot of the anarchist/pacifist music I listened to back in the early-mid 1980s, especially Crass and the Poison Girls, and so the opportunity to see the band that shaped me more than any other was not one I was going to miss.
After happily checking out Gee’s artwork that hung in the lobby, I entered the cinema and was handed a photocopied sheet. Of course: no event involving Crass would be complete without one. Instead of lyrics, though, this was four sheets of prose by Penny Rimbaud, Oh, America, a response to the attacks. The audience – a mixture of older hippies and punks and a few youngsters – were treated to spoken word, songs by Eve Libertine, whose beautiful voice surprised me and a nervous looking Steve Ignorant. The films, shown in chronological order, became progressively more coherent but remained unrelenting; images of Hiroshima, Margaret Thatcher, dead animals chain sawed in half, suburban ‘life’ and the hilarious and totally genuine public information broadcast of what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. ‘Choosing Death’? We were then and, it appears, we are now. Crass’ belief in anarchy and peace – more evolution than (bloody) revolution – is still my utopia. And recent events have convinced me that Crass’ ideas, ideals and anger are still relevant, depressingly so in many respects.
Penny Rimbaud, arguably the heart of the band despite Crass’ insistence on near facelessness, can be very direct (see his excellent autobiography, Shibboleth) but still knows how to cut a short story long, as Oh, America proved. The text was read by an American, a solid man who resembled a member of Limp Bizkit, (and it rather grated when his bulldozer voice made numerous references to corporate tycoons as ‘obese’). Much as I understood the analogy of excess and waste, I wondered where Rimbaud had been throughout the 1990s, with its emphasis on the dynamic businessman, from the Wall Street yuppie to the President, more likely to go jogging and religiously follow a fitness regime than waste time in endless business lunches, the midday meal, after all, being for wimps. But this is, perhaps, a minor detail in the bigger picture; the individuals that were Crass have neither mellowed out, sold out (God forbid!), nor gone away. As the brains behind the Stop The City protests they’ve played a part in the growing anti-capitalist/globalisation movement. The rambling house they rented in North Weald, Essex, Rimbaud’s home for thirty years, has recently been purchased to save it – and them – from the profiteering of property developers, and continues to provide a space for communication, the exchange of ideas. A bunch of more genuine people you might be hard pressed to find.
The Crass homepage.
A Guardian bio. focused on the Dial Home commune.
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