Crass - Biography
It is hard to imagine anyone reading the lyrics to a Crass song and missing the point. Crass expressed its anarchist, feminist, pacifist agenda in words and images more explicit, and often more crude, than any of the band’s London punk contemporaries. However, the explicitness and crudity of Crass’ creative output were considered strategies. Crass had its origins in a house full of artists and outcasts committed to avant-garde forms of expression and radical politics. The members of Crass strove to embody their collective ideals: the band lived communally, grew its own food and ate a vegetarian diet. Crass also used its income from records and shows to finance the Anarchy Center, an art/performance/action space, as well as numerous bands, fanzines and artists. Crass’ label, Crass Records, became a platform for a diverse group of bands often classified as “anarcho-punk” or “peace punk,” including Rudimentary Peni, Flux of Pink Indians, Poison Girls, Dirt, Annie Anxiety, Honey Bane, Zounds, The Mob, Conflict, Chumbawamba and Björk’s first band, Kukl. Many of them were remarkably well recorded by engineer John Loder at his Southern Studios — first located in Loder’s garage — and Crass Records insisted on fixed, low retail prices, which were printed or stickered on record sleeves to prevent retailers selling them for more.
Crass formed in 1977 when Steve Ignorant (born Steve Williams) and Penny Rimbaud (born Jeremy John Ratter) formed the two-piece punk band Stormtrooper, whose music consisted entirely of Rimbaud’s drums and Ignorant’s vocals. Rimbaud was a 34-year-old artist, writer and musician, and the founder of Dial House, the communal house near Epping, northeast of London, that Rimbaud had opened in the late 1960s, which continues to function with an open-door policy to this day. Ignorant, in his late teens and from the East London suburb of Dagenham, was a Bowie fan, recently converted to the new sound of punk, whose older brother had introduced him to Dial House.
According to Ignorant, the two-piece Stormtrooper had agreed to play its first gig at a free festival at a Central London squat and picked up two guitarists and a bassist in the six weeks between the agreement and the date. Rimbaud writes in his memoir Shibboleth: My Revolting Life (1998 AK Press) that rhythm guitarist Andy Palmer got into Crass with the words “I know where there’s a guitar I can rip off.” Palmer was an untrained guitarist who, Rimbaud writes, “to his credit, for the seven years that he played with the band, never learned a single chord, a problem remedied by open-tuning his guitar.” Original lead guitarist Steve Herman had a beard, a rainbow t-shirt, a cheerful sound, and an extremely limited future with the band; he was permanently replaced before the end of 1977 by Phil Free (born Phil Clancey), who met Rimbaud when the two were working as housepainters. Bassist Pete Wright played in a folk band that rehearsed at Dial House, and it was at one of these rehearsals that Ignorant recruited him into Crass. Wright’s distinctive barking baritone takes the lead on some early Crass songs.
The women in Crass, Eve Libertine (born Bronwen Jones), Joy de Vivre (birth name unknown) and Gee Vaucher (birth name unknown), had initially formed their own group, Splinter, a band that “outdid the Slits at being appalling,” according to Rimbaud. Vaucher, a gifted visual artist whose unsettling, detailed collage artwork would in some respects overshadow Crass’ music, had been romantically involved with Rimbaud on and off since the two met in art school in the 1960s. Vaucher and Rimbaud collaborated in the experimental performance and music group Exit in the early to middle 1970s, which involved Phil Free’s brother and, once, a very young Steve Ignorant. Vaucher would design and illustrate Crass’s newspaper International Anthem — A Nihilist Newspaper for the Living, as well as all of Crass’s elaborate record sleeves. Eve Libertine first encountered Penny Rimbaud when he was an art teacher and she a student at Loughton College of Further Education, and she became a Dial House regular. Joy de Vivre had begun to visit Dial House as a teenager, as she was interested in avant-garde expression and radical politics.
Libertine and de Vivre each take lead vocals on one track on Crass’ first album, The Feeding of the 5000 (1978 Small Wonder, rereleased on Crass Records), but overall the vocals of Steve Ignorant and Pete Wright predominate. The Feeding of the 5000 was bargain-priced at £1.99. Initial pressings of the album did not include the opening track “Asylum,” Eve Libertine’s frankly blasphemous renunciation of the death cult and person of Jesus, which the Irish pressing plant used by Small Wonder refused to manufacture. On these pressings Crass replaced “Asylum” with blank space, which it titled “The Sound of Free Speech,” and then self-released an even more frankly blasphemous performance of “Asylum” titled “Reality Asylum.” The “Reality Asylum / Shaved Women” 7-inch, with Eve Libertine on lead vocals for both songs, was the first release on the band’s Crass Records label. The single attracted the interest of Scotland Yard investigators, whose covertly recorded visit to Dial House can be heard, briefly, between tracks on the Crass compilation Best Before… 1984 (1984 Crass Records).
Crass Records’ catalog numbers counted down the years to 1984, the year of George Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia 1984 — the double album Stations of the Crass (1979 Crass Records), for example, has the catalog number 521984. Stations is more musically varied than The Feeding of the 5000, though every bit as wordy. Its cover shows a wall in a London Tube station covered with Crass’ stencil graffiti. Each graffito includes a slogan, and most include Crass’ circular symbol: “FIGHT WAR / NOT WARS. / DESTROY POWER / NOT PEOPLE,” “AN.OK? / 521984,” “ANARCHY & PEACE.” In 1980, the band released a split single with comrades Poison Girls, with whom Crass toured and worked closely for several years: Crass’ “Bloody Revolutions” with Poison Girls’ “Persons Unknown.” “Bloody Revolutions” was the most musically ambitious Crass song yet, with a sequence of distinct musical parts backing up Ignorant’s sensible, if verbose, refusal to die for left- or right-wing ideology; one of these sections includes a truncated phrase from the opening of the French Revolutionary tune “La Marseillaise” repeated on guitar. Crass also released the “Nagasaki Nightmare / Big A Little A” single in 1980. “Nagasaki Nightmare” is a strange, frightening song, on which Crass try at first to approximate the tones and modalities of Japanese music, and then to approximate the sound of nuclear destruction, while “Big A Little A” is a rousing “boot song” that turns into a reggae. Crass’ music was developing.
Penis Envy (1981 Crass Records), which Crass intended as an explicitly feminist statement, features lead vocals by Eve Libertine on every song except “Health Surface” and the uncredited last track, “Our Wedding,” both sung by Joy de Vivre. Crass, posing as “Creative Recording and Sound Services,” managed to convince teen magazine Loving to offer the insipid song “Our Wedding” as a “FABULOUS RECORD OFFER — Loving’s Wedding Day Single,” and then proudly exposed the hoax. Creative Recording and Sound Services also issued the 1981 Christmas single “Merry Crassmas,” several minutes of Santa’s cheer and terrible versions of Crass songs dressed up as holiday music, ending with a jarring animal-rights statement.
Crass perpetrated a more serious hoax in 1982-1983, when the band created a tape that seemed to represent a telephone conversation between UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan. Though the conversation is somewhat garbled, the gist is that Thatcher was responsible for the sinking of the British destroyer Sheffield in the contemporary Falklands War, which Crass vehemently opposed, and that Reagan is threatening to nuke London “for effective limitation of the Soviet Union.” Several months after Crass secretly released the tape on the European continent, the US State Department announced that the tape was a fabrication and attributed it to a KGB disinformation campaign. Crass’ involvement in the creation of the tape was revealed by UK newspaper The Observer, who traced the tape to the band. The original version of “Sheep Farming in the Falklands” (1983 Crass Records) appeared on a 1982 flexidisc the band anonymously distributed. Both versions of the song appear on the compilation Best Before 1984 (Crass 1986).
Christ — The Album (1982 Crass Records) is another double album, part live and part studio, like Stations of the Crass, and some fans’ favorite Crass record. Yes Sir, I Will (1983 Crass Records), a long, atonal disquisition on violence and oppression performed live in its entirety several times after the album’s release, is few fans’ favorite. Crass disbanded in 1984 after a July show in Aberdare, Wales, in aid of striking miners. Best Before 1984’s liner notes announce the coming 10 Notes On A Summer’s Day (1984 Crass Records), Crass’ “last ‘formal’ release,” though Acts of Love (1985 Crass Records) — fifty poems by Penny Rimbaud set to music — followed the next year. “We may well continue recording as Crass, should we consider that it makes sense to do so,” the liner notes to Best Before 1984 say, but Acts of Love was the final release under the name Crass. After the breakup, Ignorant sang with Conflict, Schwartzeneggar, and Stratford Mercenaries. In summer 2002, Rimbaud, Libertine and Vaucher, still at Dial House, formed the free-jazz collective Crass Agenda, which performed regularly and released the album Savage Utopia (2006 Exitstencil Sound / Babel). Crass Agenda currently goes by the name Last Amendment.