Author: Segal, Dave
Date published: April 20, 2011
Back in the horrible early 1980s, when the United States and USSR appeared hell-bent on annihilating the human race for stupid reasons, Crass seemed like the ultimate band
of the times. They embodied the culmination of punk rock's purportedly revolutionary ethos with an obsessive fury. The huge irony running through the whole Crass story, though, is that they had more in common with hippies than they did with punks.
Over five albums from 1978 to 1984, Crass wreaked havoc with punk's more commercial, careerist aspects. Operating out of an East London commune called Dial House run by Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud and graphic artist Gee Vaucher, the anarchist collective launched scathing verbal and sonic assaults on the genre's orthodoxies, as well as skewering hypocrisies and machismo among politicians, religionists, consumers, capitalists, sexists, and other foes of peace and reason.
Crass crammed their LPs with screeds, manifestos, damning photos and illustrations, and plenty of anarchy symbols with an almost pathological anality; wasting space made you a waste of space, apparently. With their austere fervor and righteous vehemence, Crass made nearly every other punk band seem like innocuous decadents. As Joe Strummer-at whose band (the Clash) Crass vocalist Steve Ignorant spewed venom with "White Punks on Hope"- cattily quipped: "Crass have done it in the ultimate way... self-sufficiency. I'm surprised they don't make their own guitar strings."
Crass exhibit another irony in the music itself. Rimbaud's drums often deviated from punk's rigid 4/4 time, instead possessing at different times a martial discipline and an avant-jazz unpredictability. N. A. Palmer's and Phil Free's guitars and Pete Wright's bass sprayed poisonous geysers of abrasion more in line with no-wave atonality than with punk's greater reliance on roughshod melody. Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre's voices harangued with vinegary spite. Songs writhed and sputtered unconventionally (check "They've Got a Bomb" for an example of Crass's apocalyptic urgency). That said, Crass could pen an instantly memorable tune when they wanted: See "Big A, Little A" and "Punk Is Dead." Over it all (except on Penis Envy, which featured only female vocals), Ignorant inhabited the über-pugnacious-frontman role with a frothing determination that should've made Johnny Rotten swallow his phlegm in shame. Steve meant it, maaaan.
But by 1984, Crass had burned out. They ceased their righteous mission and parted ways. "In the end, we were trying to be so perfect for so many people for so long that it became impossible to breathe," Ignorant observed in his autobiography, The Rest Is Propaganda.
Ignorant's post-Crass life has involved stints in bands such as Conflict, Schwartzeneggar, Stratford Mercenaries, and Current 93, with lots of odd jobs in between, including acting gigs in the traditional puppet show Punch and Judy and Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime. In November 2007, Ignorant and guest musicians performed the entire 1978 debut LP, The Feeding of the 5000, at Shepherds Bush Empire. Crass's original members weren't pleased, but Ignorant argued that many of the songs' lyrics remain relevant in the 21st century. Besides, it was fun. Remember that?
Following the 2010 CD-reissue campaign of Crass's back catalog, which was controversial among certain Crass alumni (deluxe rereleases aren't anarcho punk, mate), Ignorant decided to do one final jaunt to perform Crass songs. Dubbed the Last Supper Tour, it includes guitarist Gizz Butt, bassist Bob Butler, drummer Spike T. Smith, and vocalist Carol Hodge. They're going to play songs from every Crass record except Yes Sir, I Will, which "just doesn't work anymore live," Ignorant says over the phone from England. "It would take too long for Spike to relearn how to play the drums. The drums were all over the place; it was sort of free-form, avant-garde jazz stuff."
As for the tour's motivations, Ignorant says, "A big part of the reason I'm doing this is so people can come up to me face-to-face and ask me questions. I want those songs, I want that band, to be remembered for the good things it was about and not this old bullshit [interband bickering].
"The other reason I'm doing this is because I've received so many messages from people around the world who never got to see Crass live," Ignorant continues. "Why not for one last time perform those songs? If there's a bit of nostalgia in there, what's wrong with that? What would people rather have us do? Mug people in the streets or something? Nah, we're too old for that now. If this is the last time I'm going to do it, let's just enjoy it. We've had a really hard time of it in our little lives."
One could snipe at Ignorant's motives for this tour, but the cool thing is getting to hear Crass's music live, done by players who love it to death. Crass's sonic approach often gets overshadowed by their lyrics and ethos, but the music is as radical as the message-it's extreme and adventurous for songs that are ostensibly punk rock.
"None of Crass apart from Pete Wright were musicians," Ignorant notes. "When Penny and I first got together, we were just going to be drums and vocals. But my musical influences ranged from when I was a 14-yearold skinhead, [falsetto voice] my balls hadn't dropped yet. I came up through bluebeat, ska, rocksteady, which led into the Faces and the Who, which led into David Bowie, Slade, Alice Cooper, etc., and eventually into punk rock. Penny's influences came from classical music, because of his background; then he discovered Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Then he got into jazz and started to work with avantgarde people all over the world."
Of the 100-plus songs that Crass wrote, which do Ignorant think have held up best? Without hesitation, he replies, "'Do They Owe Us a Living.' Because that seems to be global and timeless. The funny thing is, it's such a simple ditty. I'm not putting it down, because I wrote the bloody thing. But now I ask, at the age of 53, do I still think that they-whoever they are-owe me a living? [Perfect comedic pause.] Yes, of course they fucking do. I mean, I get my own living; I always have done. But they do owe us a living, because they owe us dignity and honor and respect. They should stop pushing us around and let us live and enjoy it, instead of making it into a horrible thing that makes us create a mess about it.
And also 'Big A, Little A' stands the test of time. There are quite a few. We're doing about 30 songs in the set [on this tour]. And all of them have a funny sort of timeless aura about them, even though some of them mention Margaret Thatcher or something. But they've not lost their relevance, and that's a really strange thing. They're written of the time and they're about that time, but they're still sort of timeless."