MY FIRST Crass gig was in Sheffield, where a group of people with too much time on their hands had cadged resources from the city council – then led by David Blunkett – to create a community-focussed arts and music venue, complete with vegetarian café, in an old factory near the train station.
The Leadmill opened in 1982, in the wake of rioting in St Pauls, Brixton and Toxteth (followed by a series of copycat mini-insurrections around the rest of the country) and – the way I remember it, at least – keen to head off any youth rebellion in the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, the council had sponsored an opening programme of cheap gigs.
In the same situation now, Blunkett would probably just send in the army, but back then he sent Boy George instead.
Culture Club played the week they hit number one with Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and together with gigs by the likes of the Fall and New Order, it seemed to do the trick. There were no major disturbances in Sheffield. Not until the miners strike, anyway.
John Garbage and I knew each other from school and we met Doug and Paul, who lived in a village a few miles away from ours, at sixth form. We travelled over to the Leadmill to see Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, DIRT, Annie Anxiety and the System for just 50 new pence. The four of us were at that age where everything revolved around sex and drugs and rock’n’roll – well, the pursuit of sex, if not so much actually doing it, four lagers at most, and any decent music we could get our hands on.
“We liked walking through town, spotting ourselves reflected in any suitably large shop window and doing the punk stagger,” remembers Paul, though I remember doing no such thing myself. The ‘punk stagger’, he says, involves, “sort of slouching along, not as if you were pissed, more like the very act of walking was just too much bother and best left to others. We made our own fun in those days.”
“I used to love the feeling of us being ‘The Punks on the Train’, utterly convinced that we were causing silent outrage among the rest of the passengers. They probably just thought we were twats. My favourite item of clothing was a pair of green leopard print trousers so I would definitely have been wearing those, my patchwork leather jacket and my precious brothel creepers, just like Sid’s. I loved those shoes.”
“Of course my hair would’ve been soaped into scores of spikes,” he adds, and this I can confirm, since one young lass on the train over asked if he’d seen a ghost. How we laughed.
Doug was almost certainly wearing tartan bondage trousers and his British Rail porter’s jacket, and while John never bought into the dressing up bit of punk, I have a mental picture of him in one of Paul’s mohair jumpers. Meanwhile, I was sporting a Clash T-shirt and a pair of borrowed red bondage trousers, feeling like a bit of a boutique-punk and too conspicuously colourful for the largely monochrome DIY world we were about to enter.
When we got to the Leadmill, we found a space that Crass and the other acts on the bill had completely made their own. The whole room was bedecked with flags, banners and screens, with TVs on top of the PA speakers and a stage that Paul remembers looking “set for a political rally rather than a musical performance.”
The other bands, even the mighty Flux, seemed to pass by in a blur. We were there for the main event and the anticipation just got more and more intense.
Crass, as Paul explains, “hardly ever gave interviews. You rarely, if ever, saw glossy colour photos of them because they shunned all things showbiz. But all of this gave the band such a seductive air of mystery that it all kind of backfired on them. To me, they were stars. And here we were at one of their gigs, in the same bloody building as them.”
“All of a sudden, the lights dimmed, the PA buzzed and the TVs flickered into life. Dark shapes moved on stage. Did we cheer? Can’t remember. Then the whole room was bathed in brilliant white light, and there they were.”
“‘OW DAZZIT FEEEEEEEL?” screamed Steve Ignorant before the band slammed into the anti-Thatcher single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead? and the whole room just exploded. They were all there – drummer Penny Rimbaud, bassist Pete Wright, guitarists Phil Free and Andy ‘BA Nana’ Palmer, singers Eve Libertine, Joy de Vivre and Ignorant – and we got a bit giddy.
“Fucking hell! To me, this was the Sex Pistols I’d been too young to see five years earlier,” says Paul. “I was down the front for some of it but I mostly remember just staring at them. BA Nana had shaved his head bald. It made for a wonderfully comic rendition of Rival Tribal Rebel Revel, with Nana gurning and hamming it up as the thick bone head. Mainly, I just remember being there.”
I can’t remember much about the gig either, except that it was a big, boisterous, drunken singalong where everyone knew the words. Crass didn’t even need to be there – in fact, in many ways, that was the whole point – but, of course, we didn’t realise that at the time. Either way, it was more celebration than gig and, if nothing else, it made a bunch of unfocussed, disenfranchised and dissatisfied people feel like they were part of something real and important.
We missed the last train back to Doncaster. It was a bitterly cold night but the station was closed and we couldn’t get into the platform waiting rooms, so dozens of bedraggled little spiky-tops huddled up against the walls, still utterly elated by what we’d just witnessed. Ears ringing. Bones aching. Teeth chattering. Minds completely blown. We’d sung ourselves hoarse and pogoed ourselves stupid, and now we had the blank, thousand-yard stares of people who still couldn‘t quite believe what had just happened to us.
The floor was so cold and uncomfortable that me and Paul left Doug and John squashed into a photo booth and walked to the bus station over the road. We even climbed into a couple of the lockers, but they weren’t quite long enough to stretch out and frozen, hungry and dejected, we walked back to the train station through the deserted streets.
It turned out that when Doug failed to show up at home, his mum had rung the South Yorkshire cops and, incredibly, a couple of plods duly came nosing round looking for him around 4am. We’d just spent the whole evening damning Thatcher’s fascist police state and all its works, and here were two of her frontline bullyboys making sure we were alright. In front of half the punks in the north of England.
“Your mummy is worried about you,” said one of the cops with an evil smirk. “Don’t you think you should give her a call?” Poor Doug was absolutely mortified. He still looks distinctly uncomfortable when it comes up.
Many of the songs Crass played that night were from their latest album, Christ The Album, which had been out for a couple of months. It came in a very simple and stylish heavy cardboard black box which would look right at home on an expensive coffee table – that is, until you actually opened it and played it.
Though the razor-sharp production on the studio album of the two-disc set was even more accomplished than Penis Envy, stylistically it harked back to the knockabout hardcore of The Feeding Of The 5000 and Stations Of The Crass, with not much in the way of subtlety in its lean, muscular sound.
That said, songs like It’s The Greatest Working Class Rip-Off, Buy Now Pay As You Go, Reality Whitewash and Rival Tribal Rebel Revel were every bit as good as their titles. Christ was a typically dynamic, imaginative and uncompromising collection, with each track separated by sound collages of news reports and documentaries juxtaposed with adverts and vox pops. It came with another album of live recordings, early punk-skiffle demos, spoken word interludes and tantalising snatches of studio conversation.
It seemed to represent a band at the top of their game although – as the accompanying booklet, A Series Of Shock Slogans And Mindless Token Tantrums pointed out at length – they weren’t playing games.
I’ve no idea when it went west, but I guess it must have been around the same time as all my other punk and indie albums, around 1989, when I was more interested in staying up all night, making shapes and talking love-boat shit than listening to punk rock. I may have even flogged it myself. It’s all a bit hazy.
The albums have all been remastered (at Abbey Road Studios, no less) and re-pressed by Crass themselves and, after much fruitless searching for the original, I got a new copy from Sister Ray on Berwick Street in London’s Soho a couple of weeks ago.
The box is now a single black sleeve and it still comes with the booklet, although the poster – one of Gee Vaucher’s more nightmarish tableaux – is now on glossy rather than matt paper. And the vinyl seems a bit heavier than it was originally. It cost a tenner (you can also get it via the Southern Records shop).
While I’m probably not going to play it every day, Christ remains a fantastically absorbing and enjoyable album, even though, with hindsight, you can see the cracks beginning to show. “Same old stuff, you’ve heard it all before,” it begins, “Crass being crass about the system, or is it war?”
At one point in the relentless Deadhead, Ignorant splutters, “You never really feel it when you’re up the front, And it doesn’t really matter where the hell it’s going, As long as everybody has the hot blood flowing,” and while they weren’t talking about themselves, they may as well have been.
In You Can Be Who?, Ignorant sings about “slogans and badges worn without thought, Instant identities so cheaply bought ..”
They were beginning to get tired of the whole circus.
Crass were, I think, absolutely aware that they were hardly breaking any new ground with Christ The Album. And during the year it took to record they were pretty much overtaken by events – Britain lost and regained the Falklands, Israel invaded Lebanon – and they ended up reassessing their entire way of working. But even now, Christ seems like the pinnacle of their achievement, the perfect marriage of medium and message, form and substance, the political and the avant-garde.
On Nineteen Eighty Bore (which starts with the still-relevant question: “Who needs a lobotomy when you’ve got ITV?”) they look at the way TV reduces our ability to think straight.
“Deeper and deeper and deeper, layer upon layer, Illusion. Confusion, is there anyone left who can care? Yes! The Abbey National cares for you, Natwest and Securicor, We’ll bring out the Branston bren-guns, let’s spice it up some more ..
“Softly, softly, into your life, you’re held in its brilliant glow, Softly, softly, feeding itself on the you you’ll never know. Your life’s reduced to nothing but an empty media game. Big Brother ain’t watching you mate, you’re fucking watching him.”
Despite the talk of Thatcher and ‘the Troubles’, Greenham Common and the Falklands, Christ The Album has as much relevance as it did when it was released 25 years ago, utterly tragic and hopeless though that may seem. The world may have moved on, but it’s not so very different.
There’s still a warmongering idiot in the White House – except these days it’s the son of the man who was vice-president to the warmongering idiot in the White House in 1982. Muslims have replaced miners as “the enemy within” and Thatcher morphed into Blair into Brown.
Where once we had the expensive, unnecessary and immoral Trident missile ‘defence’ system, we’re now committed to an expensive, unnecessary and immoral missile ’defence’ system by the name of Trident.
And now we can watch it all on the internet too.