When, in 1976, punk first spewed itself across the nation's headlines with the message
'do it yourself', we, who in various ways and for many years had been doing just that, naively believed that Messrs.
Rotten, Strummer etc. etc. meant it. At last we weren't alone.
The idea of becoming a band had never seriously occurred to us, it simply happened. Basically anyone was free to join in and rehearsals were rowdy affairs that invariably degraded into little more than drunken parties. Steve and Penny had been writing and playing together since early 77, but it wasn't until Summer of that year that we had begged, borrowed and stolen enough equipment to actually call ourselver a band... CRASS.
Having finally managed to rehearse five songs, we set out on the road to fame and fortune armed with our instruments and huge amounts of booze to help us see it through. We did gigs and benefits, chaotic demonstrations of inadequacy and independence. We got turned off here, turned down there and banned from the now legendary Roxy Club. 'They said they only wanted well behaved boys, do they think guitars and microphones are just fucking toys?'
By now we had realised that our fellow punks, The Pistols, The Clash and all the other muso-puppets weren't doing it at all. They may like to think that they ripped off the majors, but it was Joe Public who'd been ripped. They helped no one but themselves, started another facile fashion, brought a new lease of life to London's trendy Kings Road and claimed they'd started a revolution. Same old story. We were on our own again.
Through the alchoholic haze we determined to make it our mission to create a real alternative to music-biz exploitation, we wanted to offer something that gave rather than took and, above all, we wanted to make it survive. Too many promises have been made from stages only to e forgotten on the streets.
Throughout the long, lonely winter of 77/78 we played regular gigs at The White Lion, Putney with the UK Subs. The audience consisted mostly of us when the Subs played and the Subs when we played. Sometimes it was disheartening, but usually it was fun. Charley Harper's indefatigable enthusiasm was always an inspiration when times got bleak, his absolute belief in punk as a peoples' music had more to do with revolution than McClaren and his cronies could ever have dreamt of. Through sheer tenacity we were exposing the punk charlatans for what they really were, a music-biz hype.
Our gigs remained wild and disorderly, we were still too scared to play without a belly full of booze and invariably we were in such a state that we'd realise half way through a song that each of us was playing a different one. For all the chaos it was immense fun, no one bitched about leather boots or moaned about milk in tea, no one wanted to know how anarchy and peace could be reconciled, no one bored our arses off with protracted monologues on Bakunin, who at that time we probably would have thought was a brand of vodka. 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. We even played a Rock Against Racism gig, the only gig that we'd ever been paid for. When we told the man to keep the money for the cause, he informed us that 'this was the cause'. We never played for RAR again.
As the charlatans increasingly headed Stateside, to get a sniff of that which refreshed them best, we became hardened by the isolation. We determined to stop fucking about with booze and to start taking ourselves that much more seriously. We adopted black clothing as a protest against the narcissistic peacockery of fashion punks. We started incorporating film and video into our set. We went into production of handout sheets to explain our ideas and a newspaper, International Anthem. We designed the banner that hung behind us to the end, and we committed ourselves to see it through at least until the end of the then mythical 1984.
Later in the Summer of 78, Pete Stennet, owner of the much missed Small Wonder Records, heard one of our demo tapes and loved it. He wanted to put out a single but couldn't decide on which track, so we recorded all the songs we'd written and made the first ever multitracked 45. We named the album The Feeding Of The Five Thousand because 5000 was the minimum number that we could get pressed and some 4900 more than we thought we'd sell. Feeding is now only a few hundred short of going golden, though I don't suppose we'll hear too much about that in the music press.
So, with our entire stage set on record, wrapped in what was then highly innovative black and white, the music press were able to commence on the barrage of attack that has followed us throughout the years. They hated it and us and their loathing positively overflowed. It is not grandiose to claim that we have been one of the most influential bands in the history of British rock, true we have not greatly influenced music itself, but our effect on broader social issues has been enormous. From the start the media has attempted to ignore us and only when its hand has been forced by circumstances has it grudgingly given us credence. It's all fairly simple, if you don't play their game, that is commercial exploitation, they won't play yours. The music biz doesn't just buy its groups, it pays for the music press as well. The charlatans were spread thicker and deeper than we could ever have imagined.
Nonetheless, realising that we were a threat to its control, the first offers started coming in from the enemy. Mr. Big tried to buy us with cheap wine and an offer of £50000 if; we'd join 'Pursey's Package'. He also informed us that he could 'market revolution' and that we'd never succeed without his help. It was the first of many offers that we refused, we never looked back and, incidentally, we didn't hear too much more of Jimmy Pursey.
When Feeding came out in the Spring of 79, the first track had been silent and named The Sound Of Free Speech. The pressing plant had decided that the track that had been there, Asylum, was too blasphemous for their, and your, tastes. Such is the true face of censorship in the 'Free World'.
Eventually we found a pressing plant willing to deal with Asylum, so we re-recorded it along with Shaved Women, printed the covers at home, sold it for 45p, and totally broke ourselves.
On its release, the Reality Asylum single ran into immediate troubles. Complaints from the 'general public' led to police raids on shops throughout the country and a visit to us from Scotland Yard's vice-squad. After a pleasant afternoon sharing tea with our guardians of public morality, we were left with the threat of prosecution that hung over us for the next year. Eventually we received a note informing us that we were free, but that we'd better not try it again. The nature of our 'freedom' made doing it again inevitable and so the endless roundabout of police harassment set itself in motion; it has continued to this day.
It was around this time that we did our one and only radio session for John Peel. From then on our growing reputation as foul mouthed yobs precluded us from being given airplay, although we did appear on several chat-shows which led to us being temporarily blacklisted by the BBC. Apparently, expressing dissident views on the Falklands is not acceptable to the listening public who jammed the BBC switchboard with complaints.
To offset claims in the press that we were nothing but leftist/rightist thugs, they never could quite make us out, we started to hang an anarchist banner alongside our own. At that time the circled A was rarely seen outside the confines of established and generally tedious, small-time anarchist literature. Within months the symbol was to be seen decorating leather jackets, badges, and walls throughout the country, within a few years it spread worldwide. Rotten may have proclaimed himself an anarchist, but it was us who almost single-handedly created anarchy as a popular movement for millions of people.
At the same time, having discovered that CND did actually still exist, albeit in a downtrodden, self-effacing manner, we decided to promote its cause, something that at the time CND seemed to be incapable of doing for itself. From then on, despite screams of derision in the music press, we also displayed the peace symbol at gigs.
Our efforts on the road slowly brought CND back to life. We introduced it to the thousands of people who would become the backbone of its revival. A new and hitherto uninformed sector of society was being exposed to a form of radical thought that culminated in the great rallies, demos and actions that continue today.
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. From the Gates of Greenham to the Berlin Wall, from the Stop The City actions to underground gigs in Poland, our particular brand of anarcho-pacifism, now almost synonymous with punk, has made itself known.
Since early 77 we had been involved in maintaining a graffiti war throughout Central London. Our stencilled messages, anything from 'Fight War Not Wars' to 'Stuff Your Sexist Shit', were the first of their kind to appear in the UK and inspired a whole movement that, sadly, has now been eclipsed by hip-hop artists who have done little but confirm the insidious nature of American culture.
To celebrate our success with the spraycan, we decided to call our next album Stations Of The Crass, the cover of which was a photo of some of our work on one of London Underground's stations. Stations featured the first ever six-fold wrapper and came complete with a sew on patch that we printed at home.
By now, Pete of Small Wonder was beginning to tire of the kind of police attention that we were drawing to his shop, so we borrowed the money to release Stations ourselves. It sold so well that after only a very short time we were able to pay back the loan and get the covers folded by machine rather than doing them at home by hand.
Stations continued to sell and soon we were able to consider releasing material by other bands. Crass Records was created and we kicked off with a single from Zounds [actually, Penny, Donna & The Kebabs was first...jb], the first of well over one hundred bands that we have introduced to the unsuspecting public.
In the Spring of 1980, having played several benefit gigs for the defence fund of the jailed anarchists, known paradoxically as 'Persons Unknown', we were asked by them on their release if we could contribute to the creation of an Anarchist Centre. We recorded Bloody Revolutions, with Poison Girls' Persons Unknown on the reverse side and the centre was opened on the proceeds. For over a year an unhappy liason existed between the old school anarchists of Persons Unknown and the anarcho-punks. Eventually the ideological pressure got too great and the centre closed.
The relative ease with which we were able to raise money for the center demonstrated to us the enormous power that we had to generate not only ideas, but the wherewithall to make them possible. By now we were drawing large crowds to our gigs so we decided that the best use to which we could put the situation was to play nothing but benefits. Over the years we were able to create funds for a wide variety of different causes.
It now seemed time to launch a feminist attack. For some time we had been aware that we were being labelled as a bother band and that the feminist element within our work was largely ignored. We released Penis Envy and the music press, missing the point entirely, heralded it as having been made by "the only feminists physically attractive enough to make you sure they're singing out of choice rather than revenge". What do you do with these guys? The reaction from many Crass 'fans' expressed similar prejudices, but from an entirely different angle. They wanted to know why we'd only got 'birds singing'. The devil or the deep blue sea?
The final track on Penis Envy entitled Our Wedding, a satire on slush MOR romantic bullshit, was offered by 'Creative Recording And Sound Services' to Loving, a magazine specialsing in the exploitation of teenage loneliness. Loving proudly offered it to their readers as 'a must for that happy day'. When the hoax was exposed, Fleet Street rocked, while heads at Loving rolled.
The release of Penis Envy confirmed a suspicion that we had had for some time. After one week in the shops it entered the national charts at number fifteen, next week it wasn't to be found anywhere in the top one hundred. The same fate had befallen Nagasaki Nightmare, we knew that it just wasn't possible to be that high in the charts one week and nowhere to be found the next. It seemed obvious to us that if the major labels paid to get their records 'in' the charts, they'd pay to get ours 'out'. We knew that we were disliked by EMI, they'd sent out a circular to their A&R departments forbidding all contact with 'Crass personnel' and their HMV shops have not touched any of our material since they took exception to the poster on Bloody Revolutions. What other devious tricks were going on behind our backs?
For some time now we had been touring far and wide throughout the UK, bravely treading where no band had trod before. Village halls, scout huts, community centers, anywhere that was neither the rip-off clubs or the pampered university circuit. Hundreds of people would travel to join us in unlikely spots to celebrate our mutual sense of freedom. We shared our music, films, literature, conversation, food and tea. Wherever we went we were met by smiling faces, ready and willing to create an alternative to the drab greyness all around.
It was not always easy, there were always those who wanted to destroy what we had created. We tried to play the Stonehenge Festival but got beaten up by the bikers; we had gigs smashed up by the National Front and the SWP; we played host to the RUC in Belfast, sent the British Movement packing in Reading and got thrashed by the Red Brigade in London. There was a lot of trouble, but it never outweighed the joy.
Throughout 1981 we were recording Christ - The Album, which by the Summer of 82 was ready to release. This time, however, the trouble did outweigh the joy. 'Great Britain' had gone to war.
Insignificant events on an island called South Georgia, which no one had ever heard of, led to significant events on an island called the Falklands which no one had ever heard of. The first pin-prick had been placed in the anarcho-pacifist bubble, a pin-prick that would in the space of a few months tear the bubble to shreds. As young men died by the hundreds, our songs, protests and marches, our leaflets, words and ideas suddenly seemed to be worthless. In reality we knew that what we had to offer had value, that what we believed in was worthwhile, but for the moment it all semed futile.
Thatcher wanted war to boost her party's flagging pre-election image. If she wanted war, she'd have it, along with anything else that took her fancy. Cruise, Pershing, PWR's, Unions, Dennis.
At risk of being seen as the 'traitors' that we are, through devious routes we rushed out an anti-Falklands War flexi and were instantly labelled 'traitors' by the music press. We also received a severe warning from the House of Commons to 'watch our step'. Protest against the War seemed to be virtually non-existent and criticism in the press was being supressed. When the issues had been abstract, the Peace Movement had been all too happy to shout 'No more war', now there was a war to shout about, the silence was painful.
However it wasn't until the war had ended and we released How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead? that the shit really hit the fan. After Thatcher had been asked in the House of Commons whether she had listened to the record, it was inevitable that she and her party would want to punish us. Tory MP Tim Eggar had the hapless task of fronting prosecution proceedings and right from the start couldn't put a foot right. The case crumbled completely when Eggar was exposed by us on live radio as a complete fool. The Tories backed down immediately after his miserable performance and even went to the trouble of circulating a note in which members of the Party were ordered to ignore all provocation from our quarter. Suddenly we started receiving letters of support from members of the 'Opposition'. Maybe we weren't on our own. Fall guys or what!
We found ourselves in a strange and frightening arena. We had wanted to make our views public, had wanted to share them with like minded people, but now those views were being analysed by those dark shadows who inhabited the corridors of power. Eggar had created a great deal of publicity for our cause and the press had lapped it up, especially those who, literally at gun point, had been prevented from gaining any real information on the war. It was as if we'd hooked a whale while fishing for minnows. We didn't know whether to let go of the rod, or keep pulling until we exhausted ourselves, which we knew, inevitabiy, we would.
The speed with which the Falklands War was played out and the devastation that Thatcher was creating both at home and abroad, forced us to respond far faster than we had ever needed to before. Christ - The Album had taken so long to produce that some of the songs in it, songs that warned of the imminence of riots and war, had become almost redundant. Toxteth, Bristol, Brixton and the Falklands were ablaze by the time that we released. We felt embarrassed by our slowness, humbled by our inadequacy.
At the end of 82, aware that the 'movement' needed a morale booster, we organised the first squat gig for decades at the now defunct Zig Zag Club in London. Along with free food and copious supplies of ripped-off booze, we celebrated our independence once again, this time joined by twenty other bands, the cream of what could truly be called 'real punk'. Together we supplied a twenty-four hour blast of energy which inspired similar actions throughout the world. We'd learnt the lesson. 'Do it yourself' has never seemed so real as it did that day at the Zig Zag.
In many respects the Zig Zag consolidated our thinking, the job was by no means over. So, deciding that we should hang onto the rod and fight the whale, we launched an all out attack on Thatcher and her allies. The run up to the 83 Elections had started, the 'Opposition' had all but collapsed. Labour had made the inevitable, revolting turnabout on its anti-nuclear stance and the Peace Movement was in tatters, muted by its own fears.
The album Yes Sir, I Will was our first 'tactical response', it was an impassioned scream directed towards the wielders of power and those who passively accept them as an authority. The message in Yes Sir was loud and clear, 'There is no authority but yourself'.
As our political position became increasingly polarised, we felt it necessary to define our motives in a clearer fashion than perhaps we had done before. The what, where and why of our anger needed explaining, as did our idea of 'self'. We had often been accused of sloganeering, now was the time to come out into the open. Several members of the band produced Acts Of Love, fifty poems in lyrical settings, in an attempt to demonstrate that the source of our anger was love rather than hate and that our idea of self was nor that of an egocentric social bigot, but of an internal sense of one's own being. The ambiguity of our attitudes was beginning to disturb us. Was it really possible to have a bloodless revolution? Were we being truly realistic? Were we being destroyed by our own paradoxes?
It was at this time that we sent the now infamous 'Thatchergate Tapes' to the world's press. The highly edited tape, which took the form of a telephone conversation between Reagan and Thatcher, had her admitting responsibility for the sinking of the Belgrano, an issue which at that time she had not been confronted with, and implying knowledge of the Invincible's decision to 'guinea-pig' the Sheffield, a fact that still has not come to light. So as to leave no stone unturned, we caused Reagan to threaten to 'nuke' Europe in defence of American heritage, a hypothesis which is probably not as wild as it seems.
The tape lay dormant for almost a year before surfacing in the State Department in Washington DC. The categorical denials that were issued in relationship to the tape and its contents acted as a clear indication that the methods that we had employed to discredit Thatcher and Reagan were in no way dissimilar to those of The State Department. Why else would they have taken our somewhat amateurish efforts at tape forgery so seriously? Inevitably, they waved the accusatory finger in the direction of the Kremlin. Shortly after that, several papers in America, and The Sunday Times in Britain, ran the story as proof of KGB 'foul-play'. It was the first time that the press had run any story that, albeit in a roundabout fashion, questioned Thatcher's integrity concerning the Belgrano. We were overcome with a mixture of fear and elation, should we or should we not expose the hoax?
Our indecision was resolved when a journalist from The Observer contacted us in relation to 'a certain tape'. At first we denied knowledge, but eventually decided to admit responsibility. We had been meticulously careful in the production and distribution of the tape to ensure that no one knew about our involvement. How The Observer got hold of information that led to us is a complete mystery. It acted as a substantial warning, if walls did indeed have ears, how much more was known of our activities?
Since the graffiti days of 77 we had been involved in various forms of action, from spraying to wire cutting, sabotage and subterfuge. We had been concerned that if we went public on the tape all manner of other 'offences' might bubble to the surface. Now we had exposed ourselves to that risk and the telephone started to ring.
The world's media pounced on the story, thrilled that a 'bunch of punks' had made such idiots of The State Department, and 'by the way, what else had we done?' Throughout the years as a band we had never attracted such attention, the telephone rang incessantly, we travelled here and there to do interviews, all of a sudden we were 'media stars'. We were interviewed by the Russian press as American TV cameras recorded the event, we were live on American breakfast TV, we talked to radio stations from Essex to Tokyo, always giving the anarchist angle on every question. We had gained a form of political power, found a voice, were being treated with a slightly awed respect, but was that really what we wanted? Was that what we had set out to achieve all those years ago?
After seven years on the road we had become the very thing that we were attacking. We had found a platform for our ideas, but somewhere along the line had lost our insight. Where once we had been generous and outgoing, we had now become cynical and inward. Our activities had always been coloured with a lightness and humour, now we saw that we had been increasingly drawn towards darkness and an often ill-conceived militancy. We had become bitter where once we had been joyful, pessimistic where once optimism had been our cause. Throughout those seven years we had attracted almost constant direct and indirect State harassment, now, inevitably, they struck again.
1984 had arrived, rather worse than Orwell had predicted. Unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger. The police state had become a reality, as the miners were going to discover. 'Accidental' death from Thatcher's private army of boys in blue had become an acceptable norm. The balance of a whole society was hanging on the apron strings of a vicious and uncaring despot. Far less important by far was our own fate. We were hauled into the courts to face an obscenity charge that almost broke us. 'We have ways of making you not talk'.
That summer we played what was to be our last gig together, a riotous benefit for the South Wales miners. From the stage we vowed to continue working for the cause of freedom, yet, as we drove home, we all knew that the particular path that we had been taking had been exhausted. We needed new ways in which to approach our objectives and, a few weeks after the gig, Hari Nana left the band to seek his. We felt no compulsion to continue gigging. We were no longer convinced that by simply providing what had broadly become entertainment we were having any real effect. We'd made our point and if after seven years people hadn't taken it, it surely wasn't because we hadn't tried hard enough.
'There is no authority but yourself', we said that, but we'd lost ourselves and become CRASS. We are still involved in the often painful process of refinding that self, of seeing each other again, of healing ourselves from the self-inflicted wounds of 'public life'. In Lennon's words, 'the dream is over'.
The 'movement', from Class War to Christians For Peace, needs to regain the dignity that it has lost in the process of attempting to confront problems that appear to be created by others. We have all been guilty of defining the enemy, and indeed there are those who would obstruct the course of liberty, yet ultimately the enemy is to be found within. There is no them and us, there is only you and me.
We need to consolidate, reassess, reject what patently does not work and be prepared to adopt ideas and attitudes that might. We need to find the 'self' that can truly be the authority that it is. We need to look beyond the barbed-wire and the ranks of police for a vision of life which is of our choosing, not that which is dictated by cynics and despots. The exponent of Karate does not aim at the brick when wishing to break it, but at the space beyond. We would do well to learn from that example.
We have spent too much of our time, energy and spirit attempting to dispell the shadow of evil cast over us by the violence and terror of the nuclear age. That shadow has become a stain on our hearts. It is time to wash away that stain and to step out of the shadow into the light. We have become trapped in fear outside metaphorical Greenham Gates. 'Knock and ye shalt enter... the kingdom of heaven is within you.'
We know enough of the sickness of the world, we should be careful not to add to it through our own physical and mental exhaustion and ill health. If we are ever to achieve our shared objectives we must each of us be strong enough to do so. We have all failed and we have all succeeded. This is no tail between the leg ending, but a proud, albeit painful and confused, beginning.
Love, peace and freedom,
what was CRASS, but now knows better.