ONCE upon a time, Crass had been all but erased from history.
They were at the epicentre of a genuine nationwide cultural phenomenon that changed thousands of lives profoundly and yet, a few years after they had ceased working as a band, where anyone took any notice of them at all, they were reduced to a mere footnote in the tawdry tale of corporate rock n roll.
That wasn’t good enough. Erase Crass and you also erase the experience of thousands of people like me, as if what we experienced had no value or validity.
It offended my sense of decency. I wasn’t having it. There are plenty of things in the world to get upset about, but righting this particular wrong was part of the reason why I started writing this blog in the first place.
And now? Everyone seems to be going on about Crass these days. Coincidence?
Obviously. A dozen books have been published over the last decade looking at different aspects of the scene Crass created. The music of Crass (and the bands on their label) is all over YouTube – although, gigging at a time when phones didn’t have in-built cameras and were often attached to big red metal boxes, there is precious little footage of the bands themselves.
There are Facebook groups where scene veterans and newcomers from across the world discuss, in exhaustive detail, the differences in their perception of anarcho punk. You’ll also find a seemingly endless stream of new bootleg T-shirts and poorly recorded rehearsal tapes from the era here. Decades-old grudges are revisited.
In the non-digital world, there are exhibitions of artwork, artefacts and ephemera. Fanzines are reprinted and reformed bands tour the world, sometimes with just one or two non-dead original members on board, and often with mixed results.
The Daily Mirror even used a Gee Vaucher illustration on its front page the day after Trump got himself elected. It may be familiar to Tackhead fans.
How much some of this stuff adds to our understanding of the era, and particularly that of people who didn’t experience the anarcho scene first time around, I’m not sure. Personally, I’m not into a lot of it – I don’t get the fixation with different vinyl pressings for example, in fact I think it’s missing the point entirely – but I get that other people are into all that shit.
Mostly, I think it’s great that people are interested again. And about fucking time too. It’s long overdue.
Brandon Spivey was not even in his teens when he heard the first Crass single, Reality Asylum / Shaved Women in 1979.
Crass had decided to release the spoken word/musique concrete Reality Asylum as a single on their own label after workers at the plant manufacturing their earlier Feeding of the 5000 EP for Small Wonder had refused to press the track because of its blasphemous content.
It was paired with the stark, atonal funk of Shaved Women, a more oblique examination of patriarchy. The whole package was wrapped up in a sleeve made up of truly extraordinary collages by Gee Vaucher.
“I was a kid when I first heard the seven inch, I think I was literally like 12 years old. It was very powerful and it hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Brandon. “I was into punk, the Buzzcocks and all that stuff, but when I heard Reality Asylum, it really was quite astounding.
“And it was the first time that I’d heard an adult denouncing religion and society in that way. It was a turning point for my thinking, personally.”
Growing up in Oldham and Macclesfield in the late Seventies, he says, “Crass were like an epidemic, that’s the only way you can describe it.”
“We used to go to a club in Gorton called the Mayflower to see gigs just about every week. We’d go into Virgin Records in town beforehand and at one stage I remember they were selling that many Crass records, they just had them on the floor behind the counter. They didn’t even bother putting them on the shelves.”
Brandon and I first ran into each other when we both lived in Leeds a decade or so later. He gave me an excellent tape of what is now regarded as vintage techno and acid, plus bits of electro – stuff like It Is What It Is, The Dance and Al Naafiysh – some of which I’d heard out before but way before I knew what any of it was. I will always be very grateful to him for this.
We both ended up being part of a collective of people from the Leeds punk/squatting scene who put on the Microdot and Interface parties at the West Indian Centre and the Warehouse. Our co-conspirators Jon Nuccle and Mike Humphries went onto make quite a name for themselves as producers at the harder end of techno.
I think Brandon was producing his own music with his mate Richie Anderson before we started doing Microdot, and their stuff – unrelenting acid techno based around raw 303s, set to 130bpm and counting – has been similarly well received over the years.
One of Brandon and Richie’s records was a picture disc, with an excellent agit-prop cartoon of a hand gripping a Molotov cocktail. I think we can be fairly sure Brandon and Richie, who work under names like ACAB, Collective Strength and EVO, do not regard their art as a mirror.
No, it’s definitely a hammer.
I’ve always been impressed by Brandon’s organisational skills. For someone who is so into anarchy and chaos (but not, he reminds me, “subculture chaos”), he certainly takes care of business. He doesn’t go on about it – but he gets shit done.
“I was really into speed at one point,” he tells me, “and I remember someone showing me some books about George Grosz when I was about 17. I got into Dadaism, and especially Berlin Dadaists like George Grosz and Otto Dix, and I ended up visiting Berlin when I was 19, before the Wall came down.”
Brandon was among those who welcomed US president Ronald Reagan to Berlin in 1987. As the NY Times put it at the time:
“The demonstrators marched down the glittering Kurfurstendamm between solid rows of policemen in full riot gear. The police said some 24,000 marchers took part, including 2,000 Anonymous wearing black ski masks.
“Most marchers, their spirits dampened by drizzle, carried placards with relatively tame and standard slogans. But as the march neared its end, the Anonymous began flinging bottles and firecrackers and smashing store windows, and then broke into bands that clashed sporadically with the police and set fire to some cars. The police retaliated with clubs and tear gas.
“Yet it appeared that the violence was the work of a radical and embittered fringe…”
“As I’ve got older and looked at more radical art, I’ve realised how important Reality Asylum is as a piece of art, as an audio montage as well as the artwork of Gee Vaucher,” says Brandon. “I realised how significant the work is.”
“A lot of electronic music from that period, like Throbbing Gristle, all that stuff, was very pretentious. It was up its own arse, really. It was more about style than substance. They didn’t really say anything, other than appearing really macabre.
“They were just about being shocking for the sake of being shocking. I don’t understand that. Even though, apparently, I’m some kind of extremist, I don’t understand that way of thinking.”
“Reality Asylum was critical of religion, misogyny, all that kind of bullshit authoritarian thinking. It was very different to everything else. It stood out.”
Like much of Crass’s work, Reality Asylum is as much about the form as it is the content. The media was intrinsic to the message, and Penny Rimbaud, says Brandon, doesn’t get the credit he should as an electronic artist.
“It’s easy to think of Crass as just discordant punk but those audio montages they did were just astounding. I like Throbbing Gristle stuff, like Hamburger Lady and Very Friendly, but Penny’s work really stands out.”
Similarly, unfortunately, Gee Vaucher’s art seems just as relevant today as it was then.
“I think the artwork of Gee Vaucher is very valid now,” says Brandon, “and it’s buried under a pile of shit by Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst. It’s banal rubbish.”
The current poster boy of ‘radical’ art Banksy – Brandon calls him Wanksy – owes a sizeable artistic debt (and perhaps even a financial one too) to Gee and her instantly recognisable stencils.
Crass sold an awful lot of copies of Reality Asylum, literally hundreds and thousands of them, but, strangely, it does not feature in the lists of top-selling records of 1979 to this day. Ultimately though, does it matter?
Nobody, especially not the people who were in Crass, then or now, could care less whether their records got in the charts or not – it is not a reliable signifier of their relevance by any stretch of the imagination – but this historic and continuing erasure of a cultural force magnifier with the potency of Crass tells its own story.
Brandon wants to set the record straight – or, at least, a small part of it.
He’s part of a group of people, working under the name of Northern Proletariat Films, who are making a film examining the impact of Reality Asylum and Shaved Women, independent of any industry involvement (including finance).
While, at the time of writing, it’s more or less 40 years to the day since Reality Asylum was released, the film is still in production, and will be for some time. But it’s not really about commemorating arbitrary anniversaries in any case. And also, Brandon tells me emphatically, “it’s not about Crass. That’s too big a subject.”
“One of the elements of the film – there are a lot of elements to it – is about the denial of popular culture, the denial of this incredible piece of British popular culture, just because of its content,” he says, indignant even now. “It’s no good looking at Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Tiny-fucking-Bikini popular culture, it’s trash.”
By contrast, the story of Reality Asylum is vital but it remains untold.
“One of the things about Reality Asylum is that it’s like a reference source. Because it was so like fuck off, so in your face – for some people – it’s like a piece of art as a reference point. It’s stark, it’s angry.”
Another part of the impetus behind the film, says Brandon, is the idea of “drawing a line from heavy-duty anti-war art by people like George Grosz and Otto Dix to the work of Gee Vaucher. You know, stuff like that picture of the fucked-up soldier, and it just says ‘welcome home’ – she’s done some really shocking stuff.”
Although you get the impression that this has been swirling around Brandon’s head for some time, he came into contact with many of his collaborators for the film as a result of his involvement in Rage.
Rage is a contemplative and beautifully edited exploration of modern anarchist thought and how it relates to the notoriously difficult-to-program Roland TB-303 drum machine, with particular reference to Brandon and Richie’s music. No, really.
Despite dealing with subject matter that is all about sound and fury and up to 150 beats per minute, Rage has an unhurried pace, and is unafraid of getting into the detail, whether it’s about the power mechanisms of contemporary anarchism or the transistors that control the trademark electronic oscillations of the TB-303.
Quite apart from the involvement of a long-time friend, I found Rage to be an extraordinary and affecting piece of film making, and the idea that Brandon and many of the people who worked on Rage are now working on a film about Reality Asylum fills me with excitement. We can be confident that it will be done properly.
At this point, it’s probably worth pointing out that there’s also a place in the film for awkward fuckers, like myself, who weren’t particularly energised by Reality Asylum.
Without being too much of a smart arse about it, Reality Asylum didn’t really tell me much I hadn’t worked out already – but I was totally blown away by the organic machine funk of Shaved Women on the other side of the single.
In these days of jihadi brides, slut shaming and hairless genitalia, Shaved Women continues to be every bit as relevant now as it was then. And what a fucking groove.
Having gained the trust of many of the people who were central to Reality Asylum and Shaved Women’s creation, Brandon is a bit guarded about what he wants to put out in the public domain at this stage, despite being on what passes for ‘promotional duties’ for the film when we talk.
It seems this is because people have trusted him with stuff that may or may not end up in the film – “and I don’t want to fuck it up” – as much as it is about preserving the exclusivity of the film’s content.
“It’s already much more than we expected,” he tells me.
The film doesn’t even have a title yet. There is no Crowdfunder link that you can follow to get involved. Brandon and his collaborators don’t need your money, thanks (although “any rich benefactors want to bang in a few quid for train fares and air fares, that’d be cool,” he tells me), and they don’t need your social media likes either.
Brandon wants your thoughts instead. He’s looking for people who heard Reality Asylum and Shaved Women and had their worldview utterly transformed by these two songs on this seven-inch piece of black plastic – and the sleeve it came in.
You could have heard Reality Asylum in 1979 or you could have heard it last week. You could be in Berlin, Buenos Aires or Bradford – it doesn’t matter – if you feel like you have something to contribute, get in touch.
The ultimate aim, according to Brandon, is “to give people an understanding of Reality Asylum and Shaved Women, the ideas behind them, and their impact on popular culture. It’s about the sound Crass created, what it conveys, and the record’s place in British culture.”
“We just want to do it justice. I think there’s a historical need.”
Email Brandon at northernproletariatfilms[at]gmail[dot]com