TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Crass released an album called Penis Envy, but you wouldn’t know it.
There will be no ill-informed tributes in the New Musical Express, no fawning retrospective on The South Bank Show and no self-satisfied, smug eulogy in The Observer Music Magazine.
Too young, stupid or docile to get Crass the first time around, our media friends prefer to stick to the easy stuff: Sgt Pepper, Smile, London Calling, anything by Nick fucking Drake.
There’ll be no remix albums, and you will search in vain for deluxe box sets, live DVDs, or tickets for a 25th anniversary tour. And while we should be thankful that this particular revolution will still not be televised – even 25 years after the event – it would be a shame if Penis Envy’s silver jubilee were to pass by completely unnoticed.
Crass were a collective of hippies, artists and troublemakers who lived in a 16th century cottage in Essex. Inspired by the Sex Pistols in the early days of punk, they started to create their own version of punk rock.
They were dismayed to see something dangerous, sexy and exciting turn into a Benny Hill parody, and while the Pistols sang about Anarchy in the UK, Crass actually began organising it. Utilising film, projections, sound collages, banners, leaflets and a fast and furious type of basic punk rock, they promoted their own underground gigs, spreading ideas and information that were rarely found in the mainstream media.
With an interest in performance art, Dada and Situationism, they also messed about with preconceptions, dressing in black combat clothing, playing loud, aggressive music to push what was essentially a pacifist, vegetarian, feminist and resolutely individualistic agenda.
This combination of artistic and political sensibilities perhaps found its fullest expression on their record sleeves. At more or less the same time as Peter Saville was doing his best to bankrupt Factory with ever more intricate sleeve designs, Crass were establishing their own visual identity with starkly utilitarian fold-out record covers.
Their monochrome but incredibly vivid singles sleeves (and those of the other bands on their label) had a visual language all of their own and were crammed with Gee Vaucher’s highly political but beautifully rendered gauache and photo montage artwork, lyrics, graphics, statements, quotes, statistics, addresses. Ideas. Information. Options.
In their view, if the modern, money-orientated world does your head in, it’s up to you to change it – or at least your own little bit of it. Nobody else can do it for you. Take responsibility for your own actions, think globally, act locally, all that. Boner from U2 does not have a monopoly on this stuff.
The irony was that Crass inadvertently became Boner-like figureheads for people like me, who took their entire worldview and adopted it as our own. Clearly horrified at this turn of events, they desperately tried to avoid any kind of counter-culture celebrity – while many fans reacted in much the same way as the faux-messiah’s would-be acolytes in The Life Of Brian: “How should we fuck off, oh Lord?”
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Penis Envy was the band’s third album, and it was a marked departure from what had come before, most obviously in its exclusively female vocals and greater musical sophistication. It was also the first time they’d focussed on one subject – broadly, women‘s place in the world.
The front cover has a grotesque blow up doll peering out from a heart-shaped cut-out, while the back cover has a slaughterhouse worker slicing up a pig carcass. The album’s opening track, Bata Motel, rattles along in vintage Crass style, adopting the language of S&M and ad-speak to talk about women as sexual commodities.
“I’ve got 54321,” sings Eve Libertine over buzz-saw guitars, meandering basslines and martial snares in her ever-so-slightly posh voice. “I’ve got a red pair of high-heels on. Strap my ankles, break my heels, Make me kneel, make me feel. Turn, turn, turn like a clockwork doll, Put in your key and give me whirl. Tease me, tease me, the reason to play, In my red high-heels I can’t get away ..”
While I hope I’ve always treated women with respect, I might have been a little unreconstructed in my attitudes up until this point, which is kind of fair enough as my attitudes had only relatively recently been constructed anyway. Penis Envy’s central idea is that female and male oppression are just different sides of the same coin. It’s about keeping us all in our place. It gave me something to think about.
Musically, the album showed a more considered approach than before, with the all-out sonic attack softened by a few more melodies and a lighter, more feminine touch. The repetition of simple motifs built around big basslines was still there but mutated into a kind of rudimentary punk-funk. Think what would happen if you could combine the grinding, bass-heavy repetition of the Fall, the Velvet Underground and vintage PiL and you wouldn’t be far away from the sound of songs like Systematic Death, Poison In A Pretty Pill and Smother Love.
“The object unspoiled is packed ready and waiting for the moment of truth in this spiritual mating ..” Libertine croons over Berketex Bribe’s bubblegum reggae intro before the song moves up a gear and she spits out the pay-off: “Well, don’t give me your morals, they’re filth in my eyes, you can pack them away with the rest of your lies. Your painted mask of ugly perfection, The ring on your finger, the sign of protection, Is the rape on Page Three, is the soldier’s obsession, How well you’ve been taught to support your oppression ..”
It’s not the kind of tune you play at wedding receptions twice.
If it all seems a bit self-righteous and joyless, you should remember that the world seemed like a very dark place at the time – Reagan was in the White House, the industrial north was collapsing around our ears, Phil Collins had just gone solo – and there was fun to be had in even small acts of defiance.
The album ends with Our Wedding, a disturbingly accurate parody of the schmaltzy sugar-coated mind-crap fed to teenage girls at the time. Posing as a company named Creative Recording And Sound Services, our merry pranksters persuaded sicko teen-romance magazine Loving to give away 130,000 Our Wedding flexi-discs to its readers, just before the album came out.
It was textbook detournement, a stunt straight out of the pages of the Situationist International, where you subvert the machine by appearing to look almost – but not quite – exactly like it. It’s a tactic adopted by people like Adbusters and The Yes Men today.
“Listen to those wedding bells and say goodbye to other girls .. the band gushes. But the song is taken from an album which is a sneering attack on love and marriage,” the News Of The World blathered in its usual cynical, hypocritical and pig-ignorant manner. “And the title of the LP is too obscene to print.”
Why would a national newspaper be interested in an obscure punk band? Well, they weren’t so obscure. Long before iTunes and MySpace created the conditions for the kind of contained, easily-definable youth-culture buzz that makes marketing men go weak at the knees, Crass sold hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of records.
Their wholehearted adoption of the DIY ethic, and the way they combined the personal with the political, avant garde art with three-chord thrash, the obvious with the not-so-obvious, had an enormous impact on kids like me. And while the only bona fide pop stars to come out of the whole scene were Bjork and Chumbawamba, you’d be surprised how many Crass fans you’ll find changing their world – and that of the people around them – in small and unspectacular but individual and effective ways.
Earlier this year, I met a guy called Keith, alias JD Twitch, who runs a Sunday night session in Glasgow called Optimo. We were on a three-hour transfer from Geneva to the French alpine resort we were DJing at – the only time anyone has ever flown me anywhere, I hasten to add. Eventually, the talk turned to Crass, as it inevitably must when two old punk rockers meet. Especially when one of them is me.
Keith first heard Crass as a 14-year-old Hawkwind fan in 1982 (played to him by a kid who grew up to be a surgeon) and got into them in a big way. He said that he plays Beta Motel and a few other re-edited Crass tracks – including, incredibly, Nagasaki Nightmare – at Optimo. When we got to the hotel, he played them on his laptop. It was a joy to hear them.
“There are a few people who remember them,” Keith told me. “One in particular, a guy called Terry, absolutely loses the plot when I play anything Crass-related. He’s taken to coming to the club in a Crass T-shirt.”
Terry is in good company. A few years ago, both David Beckham and Angelina Jolie were seen in T-shirts sporting a Crass logo picked out in diamante. But Crass never sold a single T-shirt. And the idea of copyrighting their logo simply never occurred to them.
The band’s co-founder Penny Rimbaud – who still lives at Dial House with Crass artist-in-residence Gee Vaucher, Eve Libertine and the other main vocalist, Steve Ignorant – tried to get in touch with Beckham to tell him about the problems they were having with developers trying to buy their home from underneath them, and might David perhaps want to make a donation to the cause? They’re still waiting to hear back from him.
They’re still active, still causing trouble, still painting, writing, making music and gardening. Steve Ignorant is now very big in the Punch & Judy scene, apparently. You can read their story in their own words here.
“Obviously, we’re nowhere near as militant or hardcore as Crass were, but a lot of their ideals and attitudes were very influential when we were starting the club,” says Keith. “In the last few years I’ve found myself returning to read more about what they were saying, which is, if anything, even more relevant today.”
I think I lost my copy of Penis Envy when I moved to Armley and left loads of records in Harehills. I got hold of it again at a secondhand record shop in Manchester which shall remain nameless. The good news is that it has aged well and seems much more subtle, nuanced and musically sophisticated than it did when it came out. The bad news is, like Keith says, the stuff Crass are talking about makes even more sense now than it did 25 years ago. As What The Fuck? so eloquently puts it:
“What terrible pain you need to hide, In your hatred you’d seek to destroy the Earth, What is it that you have been denied? Your mind and its rantings are so barren, What the fuck are you thinking? What the fuck? Your eyes and their vision, empty, staring, What the fuck are you seeing? What the fuck?”
Back in the early Eighties, we thought we were dealing with the sharp end of capitalism, and maybe we were. But the millions of people around the world whose lives are being destroyed by the machine’s frantic search for oil and resources would, I think, have even more reason to ask that same simple question today.
What the fuck?
[This piece first appeared on the Reject Musical Trash website in 2006]