IF EVER there was an archetypal ‘John Peel band’, whatever that actually means, then the Cravats are probably it. It seemed like they were doing sessions for Peelie’s legendary late-night Radio One every couple of weeks at one point but I only really began paying attention when they released their seminal single Rub Me Out on Crass Records in 1982.
Although they largely conformed to the Crass ‘format’ in the single’s packaging, with the front cover featuring the title picked out in the Crass label’s trademark circular stencil, the image in the centre wasn’t some convoluted hybrid CND/anarchy A logo or whatever, but actually featured a member of the band.
I imagined Crass fans all over the UK asking: are these blokes on some kind of ego trip or what? Maybe it was just me being as daft as a brush.
Either way, the music and lyrics were similarly at odds with the perceived norm for Crass Records. The Cravats jazzy art-punk and rather oblique lyrics made them stand out from the rest of the crowd on the label’s roster (although it was always a lot more varied than we all seem to remember), and while the Cravats were never as popular on the anarcho scene as Flux, Peni, the Mob or the bafflingly successful Conflict, they did find a place in the hearts of the more discerning Crass Records enthusiasts.
There was a little sub clique on the Scunny ‘punk scene’ that was just nuts about the Cravats, principally my old friend Peter Lazerbeam, Shelley Fox (later to become a fashion designer of some note, although she was always a very stylish lady) and her mate Gavin, who had impossibly high cheekbones and was the first bloke I’d ever met who wore make up.
We were all from different but equally soul-destroying bits of countryside in what was then known as Humberside. I have a vague memory of all of us dancing to the Cravats at some point. It could have been the Baths, the Henry or the Priory. Take your pick, pointless provincial punk obscura enthusiasts.
I ended up going to visit Gavin when he was living in Birmingham to see the Nightingales, the Poison Girls and the Cravats. The gig was cancelled and so me and Gavin and this lad who I’m pretty sure was his boyfriend (we didn’t talk about sexuality in those days) sat in Gavin’s bedsit, smoked about a quarter ounce of low-grade red leb and listened to the Velvet Underground. I was totally blown away by The Gift.
Meanwhile, the Cravats released a great album, The Cravats in Toytown, and, incredibly, even achieved a modicum of actual chart success as the Very Things (this was at the beginning of the mid 80s indie boom). I was a big fan, although I never did get to see them live at the time, so probably not that big a fan in the scheme of things
I duly mailed them a list of topics for discussion at their worldwide HQ in Redditch (I was a lazy arse who expected his interview subjects to do all the work, even then) and the all-important stamped addressed envelope and eventually got a reply, although I was slightly disappointed that it was only the drummer who wrote back rather than the band’s enigmatic frontman, the Shend.
But you know, on reflection, this was a good thing: Shend interviews are ten a penny. How many people have a Disney Time interview in their fanzine archive?
Accompanying the Q&A was a ton of collateral information, photos, manifestos, a family tree and a truly odd flexi disc, which I still have somewhere, which I recall being solely composed of a sound collage of unhinged conversations and some very strange noises. I asked Gavin to write something about them, assembled everything on the floor of my bedroom and got busy with the Letraset and Pritt Stick.
“What can I say? Nothing?” wrote Gavin. “The Cravats are brilliant, wonderful, fab, cracking stuff etc etc etc. Not that I’m biased of course.
“They’ve been tootling on for years, and it strikes me as fortunate that the music press have never heralded them as the ‘the next big thing’, which would have killed them off.
“These days, they go under a number of guises, including the Very Things, the Babymen and the Dada Cravats Laboratory (DCL for short), and the DCL Locomotive, as well as the original name. This enables these sprightly nymphs to piss around musically, not being clamped down to a single project, objective or style.
“The Cravats sound was always structured around punchy, three-chord thrash, held together by 1940s manic, jazzy sax. It’s a truly original sound which hasn’t been ripped off yet, surprisingly enough.
“They’ve never been commercially successful, sharing a mutual distaste for the music press and business, but at the same time have always enjoyed a small but loyal following. One of their biggest and oldest fans being rhythm hipster John Peel himself. Wow!
“Anyway, I can recommend no better opinion than your own, so find out for yourself. Write to the Cravats (or any other name you can think of) at 81 Archer Road, Redditch, Worcestershire, though don’t expect an immediate response, and when you do get one, don’t expect more than a minimum of sanity. Do it, hip things!”
One of their manifestos proclaimed:
“The DCL is a form of umbrella for all our ideas. The various bands have different directions but common aims. So, all that we do is produced for, in and by the DCL.
“Dr Robin Raymond and the Shend are co-directors of the DCL. There are also many associate members of the DCL, such as Disney Time, Harmful Ray and many others too numerous to mention.
The DCL has always existed. ‘The Gong Man’ was released before the Very Things and the Cravats were incorporated into the DCL, and since they have been incorporated, what a jolly time we have all had.
“After placing adverts in various newspapers, we auditioned certain record labels, and Reflex came up with the necessary requirements, namely that they would allow us to release what we wanted, when we wanted.
“The Laboratory series of flexi-discs are there to inform. They are manifestos. With all due respect. I’d suggest that, because you are confused, you listen to them again and again, and their meaning will become self-evident.
“Even after a cursory listen to the music, anybody could tell that we are not ‘just another Crass band’, whatever this phrase means, and anybody who did think that, well, they’d be foolish. Having said this, we still agree with most of the things Crass say.
“Religion is simply another tool to keep the masses controllable. All religion is shit and cannot be condemned too highly. Personal faith is something different altogether. There’s no need to share your belief with the god club in order to worship life.
“Anarchism means to us: free expression with no constraints on one’s imagination, so the dada thing fits in well. The use of chance is an important and respected element and the mirror of society’s stupidity and blind faith.
“The DCL are not pacifists because we will fight for what we believe in. We are pacifists in the sense that we are against war.”
Here’s the response I got to my Q&A:
“Disney Time calling .. drummer with the Cravats, the Very Things, DCL etc etc
First of all, very sorry about the ridiculous delay in replying to your very nice letter, but it’s often the way with us I’m afraid, as things do tend to get a bit out of hand. Thanks for your list of topics which I’ll answer in a minute.
Anyway, a new TVT single out in approx three weeks (letter written 2.7.85), entitled Mummy You’re a Wreck .. Buy it to believe it! New Cravats single out in approx two months .. entitled Land of the Giants. Keep your eyes and ears open for them!
Best news (which you can advertise in your mag!) is the film we’ve just made to be shown on The Tube summer special on 16th August. Tell all your chums about it and don’t miss it .. It’s great! TVT on TV mate!
Anyway, back to your subjects for discussion. Well …
Thatcher: add potatoes to the boiling water and stir with a briefcase until he arrives
Integrity: can’t beat it, when applied subtly
TV game shows: horrendous
The DCL: workers on the mineface of information, working for a power cut!
Spontaneity: works very well in moderation. A lively injection always increases output
Papal infallibility: “I saw the writing on the wall, the advert in bold print”
Hard drugs: I’d never mess with anyone who was hard
Sex: where’s that then?
Bob Geldof: enough said!
Video nasties: hope I never appear in one
Success: commercial, probably not, but whether you achieve is really decided by your own mind. Respect yourself, allow your own actions to be your own success
Mediocrity: One way or the other, please. No MOR here, thanks
Vegetarians with cats: Mostly very pleasant people (well, the ones I know are)
Uncle Sam: Life knows no mercy
Stupid questions: sensible answers
Thanks for your time. Sorry these answers are a bit short but we are carpets.
All the best and see you soon. This was a message from Disney Time.”
Another photocopied handout elaborated on the themes of the DCL Laboratory flexis:
“Reports have been coming in to the laboratory of feelings of emptiness and unreality. We are not surprised. A diet of action packed melodramas for many hours each day for many days must result in those feelings occurring. This type of entertainment is a drug. It is difficult to re-establish one’s position in the real world after such an overdose. It serves to subdue the imagination, not to stimulate it.
A whole fake world is created in which exciting, impossible lives are lived on behalf of the passive watcher. Stepping out of the front door, after hours of explosions, crashes, blood and sex, live is going to seem quiet when the adrenaline doesn’t rush every few seconds and the vivid, simple, luminous colours are going to make reality seem very dull and grey.
Tune out. It is critical.
Disney took it all a stage further and bridged the gap between this created world and reality by devising Disneyland, where the horrible fantasies are bolstered up by 3D. Perhaps even Uncle Walt began to believe in his ideal state where fantasy disguises the rubbish, as seen in the utopian Epcot.
‘I can’t imagine any child not enjoying the funfair delights of Disneyland and Disney World but they certainly seem a sanitised and theatrical presentation of life rather than life itself.
‘Visitors are manipulated, that’s for sure. You’ll never see a queue – they’re all cunningly hidden inside the various exhibits. And once you’re in, you can’t get out. Shuffling along in a Disney queue reminded me rather uncomfortably of that scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But there’s no crime, no dirt in Disneyland. It’s a sort of lobotomised heaven.’
It’s a ridiculous sickly icing covering the violence, greed and struggle for power. The myth continues. People are incapacitated and persuaded to believe in a perfect world which doesn’t match up to reality, full of bloodless violence and happy endings.
History is rewritten.
The line between fiction and reality becomes blurred, and knowledge of behaviour is based on scripts and actors, and reality is monitored in terms of television.
Disorientation seems inevitable, emptiness and insecurity to result. It is vital to claim our imaginations and control our destiny. There is no authority but ourselves. Point to the kings with DCL Locomotive. Tune out. Dada dada dada.”
Sometime between then and now, the Cravats seemed to disappear, although The Shend occasionally popped up playing some stereotypical heavy in The Bill – and, more memorably, as a member of Doon Mackichen’s anarchic punk band on Knowing Me, Knowing You.
I think I got in touch with the Shend on Facebook a few years ago, and suggested an elaborate email Q&A where, once again, most of the work had to be done by the interviewee. He was spectacularly unenthusiastic. It didn’t happen.
I finally got to see the revived Cravats live a few months ago, when my friend Doug’s band Flies on You supported them in Leeds. It was nice to finally see them in action.
The Shend remains uninterviewed by me.
[This interview first appeared in Airstrip 3 fanzine in 1985]