TWENTY years ago, Britain was beset by riots, right-wing extremism, simmering racial tension, mass redundancies and a crumbling social infrastructure. Its Tory government, buttressed by a seemingly unassailable parliamentary majority, appeared to be hell bent on cementing the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, no matter what the cost.
Meanwhile, a largely indifferent population shrugged its collective shoulders and got on with checking its bingo numbers.
Britain then was, of course, a very different place to the land of milk and honey we live in today. Times have changed. We’ve all moved on. Haven’t we?
Some would argue not. That’s why a 20-year-old recording of a concert by the anarchist punk band Crass has been released on Pomona Sounds. The album, entitled You’ll Spoil it For Everyone, was recorded at the Lesser City Hall in Perth in Scotland in July 1981 and often makes for unsettling listening. Their apocalyptic, starkly polemical songs are constantly interrupted by frantic pleas for calm by band members as British Movement skinheads rampage through the hall, lashing out at anyone in their way. It sounds like an ugly evening.
“It wasn’t that different to many other gigs that we did,” says the band’s drummer Penny Rimbaud. “We were frequently confronted by that sort of mindless violence. I do remember kicking one very large skinhead in the balls, and him saying, ‘I thought you were a pacifist!’ and I said, ‘well, you’ve just learned what pacifists are like ..’”
You can almost sympathise with the unlucky bonehead’s confusion. Nobody had seen or heard anything like Crass before.
Formed in a commune on the outskirts of Epping Forest during the first wave of punk rock, Crass took punk’s professed DIY ethic at face value. Adopting black clothing to distinguish themselves from the day-glo Benny Hill Mohawk-and-bondage-pants brigade (and to simplify washing day), Crass incorporated sound and film collages into their concerts, which were usually fund-raising benefits for organizations such as CND and Rock Against Racism.
They covered their record sleeves with text and images which gave a radically different interpretation of domestic and international affairs to that found in mainstream media.
And they wrote songs – indignant howls of outrage and righteous anger – which dismantled the edifice of perceived political and social orthodoxy, piece by piece.
“We were Dada-esque and exceedingly angry,” remembers Rimbaud. “The one thing we never were was part of the rock’n’roll circus. We couldn’t have been with a drummer like me – I mean, I can’t play rock drums. I never have been able to.”
“In a funny way, if I listen to our stuff, I can hear it more in the context of modern jazz or of modern classical music than I can of rock’n’roll. When we made the music, we were attempting to create an atmosphere, which is an almost classical approach to music. We were making music which was an emotional expression of what we were singing about.”
But, despite the evidence of You’ll Spoil it For Everyone, in my experience Crass gigs were just enormous fun. There were always lots of interesting people to talk to, numerous flyers and fanzines to read, plenty of ideas to be debated and argued over. When the band played, we’d slam into each other with the vigour of hormonal teens, as often as not as drunk as hell, gleefully singing along to songs like Nagasaki Nightmare, Securicor and Punk is Dead. There never seemed to be any contradiction.
“They were huge celebrations, they were parties. Part of the reason was that we weren’t separate. We didn’t go in dressing rooms, we carried our own gear, we did it all ourselves. We were there on the floor before we played and we were there after we’d played. We realised that the way to deal with situations like Perth was to get back on the floor, not to separate ourselves. Because otherwise, it was the people who came to the gig who would be taking the punishment while we stood there onstage. That was never our way of working.
“I used to feel that far too much was made of gigs like that,” adds Rimbaud, a little sadly. “The majority were just wonderful celebrations where we could all have a cup of tea and a Marmite sandwich afterwards. But inevitably, the ones that went that way were the ones that got talked about.”
Working to a self-imposed seven-year time limit, the band stopped releasing records in 1984, “pretty bloody exhausted” by their hectic gig schedule and relentless pressure from the authorities and their often slavishly devoted following.
“I had about a year where I felt a sense of space, where I was able to look at my own life – and then shortly after that we started to get hassle over the land that we live on and the house that we live in. It’s like having come back over the hill, down to our haven, and having decided, well, that’s it for a while, it was like they had suddenly girded their loins and come down the hill after us. And for the next 12 years we were fighting to save the land and the house that we live in.”
Dial House, the band’s rented home near the village of North Weald, is in the middle of 700 acres of farmland owned by British Telecom. The company decided it wanted to develop that land. Using many of the same tactics they had employed as a band, Rimbaud and the other members of Crass mobilised the local community to help fight the company’s plans. When a public inquiry went against them, BT sold the land to a property developer. After a long and expensive legal battle, the developer’s plans were also frustrated and the house put up for auction.
With the help of an old friend who had a bit of money, the inhabitants of Dial House finally managed to secure their future by buying the lease for just under £160,000.
To pay off the debt, Rimbaud and in-house artist and illustrator Gee Vaucher, the only two members of the band still living in the house full time, decided to formalise the role Dial House has played as a centre for alternative thought and discussion. It was to become the Dial House Centre for Alternative Globalisation. There are various activities planned to raise funds to make this a reality, including the auctioning of Gee’s stunning gouache painting for the poster which accompanied their Christ the Album opus.
Rimbaud has also made a direct appeal to one of Britain’s most popular sporting celebrities, having seen a photo of Elton John and David Beckham in Hello! Magazine – with the latter resplendent in a Crass T-shirt. Crass have never sold a single T-shirt, or licensed their logo to any company. They simply included stencils on their records sleeves which allowed fans to make their own T-shirts.
“To see one of the wealthiest people in Britain wearing a bloody Crass T-shirt actually quite upset me,” says Rimbaud, still clearly irritated. “It was diamante as well – it wasn’t just a Crass T-shirt, it was one with bloody glitter on it.”
“Anyway, I wrote to Beckham saying, ‘I was unaware that you were a Crass fan, it’s great to see you’re supporting us’, explained the situation with the house and asked whether he could make a donation – especially as we hadn’t profited in any way from the exceedingly expensive T-shirt he was wearing. I never got a reply.
“We’ve actually thought of doing a T-shirt with a picture of Beckham wearing that T-shirt. We’ve never made Crass T-shirts but we’re thinking of doing one with the words ‘David Beckham is Crass’ written on it. He’d be very hard pushed to litigate against us ..”
I wouldn’t count on that.
[This interview was first published in the Big Issue in the North in August 2001. Photo of Penny by me, taken at St Clement’s Church, Chorlton, Manchester, April 2018]