NO, CRASS haven’t just gone disco. They went disco years ago.
What, precisely, Crass were trying to do when they released Walls on their first proper album Stations of the Crass remains unclear, even 42 years later.
Maybe it was one of their famous pranks that didn’t come off.
As one YouTuber comments:
“This is such a bizarre song, by Crass standards, but so brilliant. It is great to dance to, that bass line is filthy when audible, honestly they should have done a 12-inch extended version of this that went on for 10 to 12 minutes.”
Ten to 12 minutes at the very least.
Either way, what is clear is that the wobbly, bass-heavy groove that accompanies Joy de Vivre’s falsetto vocal, probably owing more to PiL or ESG than it does Chic or Earth Wind & Fire, makes Walls sound like nothing else in a hugely diverse back catalogue.
Well, it sounded like nothing else in their back catalogue until very recently.
Towards the end of 2019, the stems for the individual elements of each track on the first Crass release, The Feeding of the 5000 were made available as a free download from One Little Independent Records.
According to OLI’s website, the intent was for “people to create their own remixes and interpretations and breathe fresh life and ideas into this revolutionary music. Crass encouraged people to rip apart the sound and ideas and create something new, then send the files to Crass Records for future releases and charitable projects. The message is DIY like it never was before.”
“Yours for the taking, yours for the making,” continued Crass, apparently. “You do it, we’ll stew it. Mix it backwards, forwards, and upside down. Turn up the heat and fix it with a downbeat, bring in the trumpets and let ‘em blow, let the piper call the tune to let us all know, it’s up to you to do what you like with it.
“The only limitation is your imagination.”
Actually, I can imagine Penny Rimbaud saying this.
The idea seems to be to release some kind of Bullshit Detector-like compilations but, in the meantime, OLI has paired dancefloor-orientated cuts by the likes of EDM cake enthusiast Steve Aoki and XL Recordings boss (and half of vintage rave act Kicks Like a Mule) Richard Russell with more leftfield interpretations from people such as Paul Jamrozy of Test Dept and longtime Eve Libertine collaborator Charles Webber.
These remixes have been released as a series of limited edition 12-inch EPs under the name Normal Never Was, with all monies raised donated to Refuge – a UK charity providing life-saving and life-changing services for women and children who have experienced domestic violence and abuse.
Responding to the release of these remixes, one unimpressed older fan, posting on the mostly wonderful Crass Facebook page, described the project as “Crass go disco”.
Funny, but as I think we have established, Crass went disco years ago.
And what’s wrong with disco anyway?
THE SHOCK OF THE NEW
THANKS to a combination of word of mouth, fanzine and music press coverage, and the patronage of the Blessed John Peel, once Crass began releasing records in 1978, they quickly went viral. The stark, angry, apocalyptic music they produced, it seemed, was perfectly in tune with the times.
A united kingdom in name only, at the end of the 70s Great Britain and Northern Ireland was, in today’s parlance, a total fucking shit show. Widespread unemployment, rampant inflation, unrepentant racism, misogyny and homophobia combined to create an ugly, oppressive, stifling atmosphere of everyday menace.
Aki Nawaz was brought up in a traditional but fairly liberal Pakistani family in Bradford – and although he’s talking about his hometown, he could easily be referring to any number of places in the UK at the time, particularly in the big cities and the north of England:
“We grew up in a very diverse community,” says Aki. “There were natives, Polish, Italians, Afro-Caribbean and Chinese. That brought its own conflicts but it also brought liberation. You heard different languages and heard about different experiences.”
“There was British culture, Yorkshire culture, Pakistani culture, Muslim culture, all the other cultures that you get in Bradford. They were really tough times, there was racism all over the place. It was oppressive but it was also liberating. It was interesting.
“When you wake up in a morning, you’re one person before you go to school, you’re another person at school, you come back, you’re a different person,” says Aki of the hoops the children of immigrants had to jump through at the time.
“Then you spend some time with your family and you’re a different person, and then you go out with your mates, up to some mischief or playing sport, and you’re a different person.”
“So there were like all this playing out every day, in terms of language and culture and food. And there was the Yorkshire thing too. Billy Liar meets, I dunno, Ravi Shankar.”
And then Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party won the 1979 General Election.
Before she began her political career, Thatcher’s contribution to science was to (supposedly) invent a way of injecting air into ice cream to bulk it up without adding actual ingredients that would have cost money.
Later, as education secretary, she decided to save the state a bit of cash by removing the right to free school milk for younger school kids. If parents wanted their kids to drink milk, it was their responsibility to provide it.
Thatcher adopted the monetarist model of capitalism, where direct taxes on salaries are reduced and indirect taxes on ‘luxuries’ like fags and booze are increased. Despite supposedly being against the principle of big government, the Thatcher government raised interest rates to limit the amount of money in the economy and reduce inflation – which did eventually happen but at the cost of crippling anyone who happened to be in debt.
State-owned monopolies were bad, it seemed, and free market competition was good. Financial services were to be deregulated and state-owned assets – British Rail, British Steel, British Telecom – sold off to the highest bidder. Powerful trade unions that fought for their members’ interests were not part of the equation.
For anyone unaware of just how much of a crank she was, Thatcher’s genuinely unnerving victory speech on the doorstep of Number 10, like an unblinking Norman Bates in his mum’s twinset and pearls quoting the Prayer of St Francis, makes it disturbingly obvious:
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony, Where there is error, may we bring truth, Where there is doubt, may we bring faith, And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
The irony is, the utterly cynical bullshit that Thatcher spouted that morning could almost serve as a manifesto for Crass themselves.
Apart from the harmony bit, obviously.
Either way, the battle lines were well and truly drawn.
“I thought I was a punk, and I was listening to the UK Subs, people like that,” says Mark Goodall of his early years in North Yorkshire. “I was still living at home, and I ordered the Feeding of the 5000 from a Small Wonder mail order ad in the back of Sounds.”
“And when it came, first of all, the first track wasn’t on it. You know, because the people at the pressing plant had refused to press Reality Asylum. So there was this silence.
“I had to listen to it with my headphones on in my room, because I didn’t want my parents to hear it, and the needle seemed to go around this groove for ages. I thought, there’s nothing here. And then the first track after that is Do They Owe Us a Living. So that comes in and you just think, shit! It was so uncompromising.
“And you’re doing that thing where you’re listening to an album by the Beatles, or Wings, and you’re reading the lyrics – except it’s Crass and they’re using all the language that you weren’t allowed to use. The subject matter, for a teenager, was just mind blowing.”
“A friend of mine bought Reality Asylum and we were pretty shocked to be honest with you,” says Chris Liberator. “I’d seen punk on the telly, saw Mark Perry talking about how earlier music had got to go, I bought Peaches when it came out.”
“I was only 13. Reality Asylum just totally rocked my world. I just got into independent music completely, listening to John Peel every night, buying Desperate Bicycles records, all that kind of stuff.
“But Reality Asylum really did knock me for six. I remember my friend saying he’d got this record and it was 45p and it’s really brilliant and you need to read all the anti-religion stuff on the sleeve. It was shocking for me because I’d be brought up in a religious house – well, not really religious but religious enough for me to be shocked by it.
“It was a big moment for me.”
“I got into punk, like a lot of people my age, in the 70s when I heard Never Mind the Bollocks,” says Matt Grimes. “The things that attracted me to that was that I immediately knew it was something that would upset my parents. It was the perfect excuse to get into it.”
“I grew up in a household where there was always music, so I was always into it. Punk rock just seemed to speak to me in many ways. It didn’t take me long to move on from what, with hindsight, seems like that very commodified, mainstream punk, to stuff like Crass.
“I remember being turned onto Crass by another punk who was a year older than me. First time I heard Feeding, I just thought, well that’s a load of fucking rubbish. But I persevered with it until I got it. I think the thing that really cemented it for me were the lyrics – and Crass were kind enough to provide lyric sheets with their albums.
“I used to spend hours listening to it – really, the music was almost in the background, secondary to what you were reading. I remember reading this stuff and thinking, this absolutely articulates the things that I don’t have the language to articulate. I would have been 15.”
Dev Jonlin grew up in Beeston, close to Elland Road in south Leeds. He says he was not long out of his altar boys clothes when the first Crass single was released.
“I’d been getting into punk and seen a few bands live but this record threw me sidewards,” says Dev.
“At the time, Reality Asylum wasn’t punk. I played it just once and instantly sent it to the weird section. I remember hearing Shaved Women and absolutely shitting myself. It was the train sound, the repetitive screaming babies, the jagged guitar. There was no verse and chorus and singalong bits like on the Clash’s first LP.”
Dev says that he had the definite feeling that he was stepping out of the normal and everyday.
“More than anything I thought what am I getting into? I know punk was all new to me and a whole world of discovery but this felt evil and that I was getting drawn into some sort of a cult.”
Everything changed for Aki Nawaz one day in 1977 when he came home from school to find his brother had bought the first Clash album.
“I put it on and it was almost like the Bible being read to me, y’know, I’d gone up to see the burning bush,” he remembers. “God had spoken to me through punk.”
“I never had any money to buy records. And I don’t know how my brother managed to buy them because he never had any money either.
“The day after, I went to school, I spiked my hair up and I had a baby’s dummy stuck onto a really bad waistcoat.”
Aki ended up having to sneak his clothes out the house when his parents weren’t looking.
“But by then, the community already knew that I was just a lost cause,” he says. “It wasn’t even like they were saying, oh he’s rebelling, it was like, he’s having a mental breakdown. They didn’t see it as rebellion, they just thought, he must be taking drugs, he must be drinking. Look at the state of him. He’s a tramp. So there’d be all that narrative running.”
The first gig Aki ever went to was the Sex Pistols when they played in Keighley later that year.
“It was at a club called Knickers. It was a strip club wasn’t it? We got there earlier in the day and tried to get in for free but we never managed. We got in just after the soundcheck and I remember Sid Vicious walked out and he’s like pretending to be drunk, or he was drunk. But yeah, it was a great gig.
“But then we’d go home and it was late and my dad would say, where have you been? Look at the state of you, and all that shit, and we’d say, dad, we went to see Star Wars. What? At one o’clock in the morning? Well, yeah, we went to see Star Wars and then we saw uncle Choudhury – we’d just make up somebody’s name – and he wanted to talk about you.
“Y’know, we were completely and utterly lying through all them years.
“Bless him. My dad was a lovely guy but he was like just a broken man because both me and my brother got into punk.”
Aki threw himself into the burgeoning Yorkshire punk scene, seeing just about everyone on the circuit – including the Clash, PiL, Joy Division, the Banshees, Penetration, the Ants, Wire, the Drones, 999 and the Angelic Upstarts.
Aki, his brother and their fellow Bradford punks would pile into Aki’s dad’s car and go anywhere that wasn’t Bradford – London, Manchester, Newcastle, it didn’t matter. Aki, it seems, was the permanent designated driver.
“I’ve never drunk alcohol,” he explains. “And I never took any drugs in all this madness that’s going on around me, people taking whatever they wanted to take, sniffing glue, y’know, doing Zof – that stuff that you use when you’ve had a plaster on? Everybody was at it. I was almost like the carer of the Bradford punks.”
“And then we’d get into trouble, or get into fights, or I’d get picked on because I was the only Asian or the only black guy or whatever. It’d get really heavy. You’d have to run out of places. Leeds was very dangerous at that time. The skinheads were very violent there.
“But punk was like a new religion for me. And we were around a lot of old hippies and bikers so we were getting like a mature advice on how to rebel even more.”
A few of Aki’s mates, and a kid called Chris Boredom in particular, “were very into anarchy” and introduced him to the music of Crass. Previously, all he knew about Crass was that they were “really loud and brash”, but once he heard their records and saw their artwork and record sleeves, he began to understand “they were pushing the envelope of punk, probably to what it should have really been all along.”
“Punk had already started to sell out,” he says. “The contradictions and the hypocrisy of punk had already begun by then. On one hand they were saying, we’re anti system, we’re anti this, we’re anti that. And they’re all on major labels. But Crass gave us something that was a bit more honest in terms of philosophy.”
“As far as Crass were concerned, they didn’t even think the Pistols were real punks. I just thought they were fresh. They weren’t following anything. They were unique.”
“I got into stuff like the Sex Pistols when I was about 11 or 12,” says Brendan Hodges. “The Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, all that kind of stuff. I read an article about Crass in the NME in the school library, and it was the most scurrilous blasphemy – this was around the time when Life of Brian came out. That just did it for me, I was like, I’ve got to find this band.”
“I couldn’t find anything locally, and then I went to Portsmouth and got a copy of Bloody Revolutions when it came out. I listened to it and that just blew my mind.”
David Oliver, stuck in the middle of nowhere in Wiltshire, first heard the early punk stuff on John Peel’s week-nights radio show. One of his friends bought Smash it Up by the Damned when it came out “and then we just started going around smashing things up in the town, spray painting and glue sniffing and whatever you do when you’re a young punk.”
“And then suddenly the Crass thing fell on us, at some stage, after the real punk thing. They were pretty scary, because their lyrics were so different to the Damned or the Stranglers or PIL, you know. It was a total sort of reality wake up.”
Mark McKenzie – everyone knows him as Choci – is a Londoner by birth but grew up in Cambridgeshire. Although Choci missed out on the Pistols, he was really into bands like Stiff Little Fingers, the Ruts, the Damned and the Ants “before they became popular” at a “proper young” age.
“Punk rock was very angry. Fuck the system. Never trust a hippy. It was there to shock. You had the swastikas, upside down crosses, Seditionaries bondage. My mum came in one night and I was sticking a safety pin through my nose.”
“I used to have Wasted Youth painted on the back of this raincoat and I remember one day in Cambridge this old lady came up and gave me a fiver and said, it’s okay mate, you’ll be fine, you’ll find a direction in life. I was like, thanks!”
Choci first came across Crass at Andy’s Records in Cambridge.
“We used to travel into town on a Saturday morning and flick through the singles,” he says, although the first Crass record he actually bought was Stations of the Crass.
“The cover was this big fold out thing, like this big collage. I’ve still got it. As a young impressionable, it was quite the thing. It was quite left of the field. And they all wore black and were quite faceless. And then I put it on and I was like, yeah. Wow!
“There was the whole political content. You could feel the anger. You could feel the passion and drive, the dislike of authority and imperialism and colonialism. And war. And I was like, yeah, I’m aligning with this. This is cool.
“It was kind of a hippy vibe. The hippies were all like ‘Make love not war’ and Crass talked about ‘Fight war not wars’. There are similarities there. It’s almost like Crass were hippy punks. They’d taken this political ideology from the hippies but instead of promoting it with flowers and acid it was all speed and Tuinol and fucking having it.”
While it’s an entertaining notion, it wasn’t quite speed and Tuinol and fucking having it for everyone in those days. Paul Hartnoll, for example, was a music-loving 10-year-old in Dunton Green near Sevenoaks in Kent when he first saw punk rock on TV:
“I absolutely loved the whole Sex Pistols thing,” he says. “I liked the anti-establishment and anti-parent swagger they had. Everything that came out of their mouths upset adults and I just thought that was brilliant.”
The first musical movement that Paul was truly able to feel a part of, however, was 2Tone.
“When I first heard the Specials and Madness, I went mental. I literally went from playing with Action Men and toy soldiers to wanting to dress smart and be a bit of a lad when I heard 2Tone. It was like, there you go – that’s the way forward.”
“And when 2Tone kind of fizzled out, that whole second generation of punk, the more boisterous stuff, the Exploited, Anti-Nowhere League, Vice Squad came along and I got into all of that,” he says.
Paul listened to John Peel, tentatively it seems, but never heard Crass.
“John Peel used to be a bit scary though. I listened to him when I was younger and it was always like, right, is this going to scare me or is it going to interest me? But I also remember hearing Blue Monday on John Peel and thinking, that’s weird. I’ve never heard a drum do that before.”
Paul’s introduction to Crass came in 1982 through a mate that he only saw in the summer, when their families would holiday in their caravans on the same camp site in Hastings. He was, says Paul, a real connoisseur of punk, and having told him what he was into since the last time they saw each other, he was informed:
“No, no, no, no. You’ve got to listen to Crass. So I used to carry a tape recorder around all the time and he had tapes. He played me Bloody Revolutions. And I just went, FUCK.”
“Okay. I’m in. Brilliant.
“And from there I went onto Tube Disasters by Flux of Pink Indians and it just blew my head off,” he adds. “It wasn’t just the music – although the music was brilliant – but it was the fact they were properly saying something and making sure that you could hear what they were saying. And all the lyrics were printed out. It was almost like an instruction manual for life.”
Not everyone got Crass. Harry Harrison was introduced to the band by his friend Pete Birch in their home town of Bolton, also at some point in 1982.
“I’d seen Crass on the back of people’s jackets,” remembers Harry. “I met Pete when I was 15 and he introduced me to loads of stuff, including Crass – who we both hated musically.”
“But I had a mate called Whitey who lived in Bromley Cross and went on to drum for the Electro Hippies, and he went to stay with Crass in the New Forest or wherever they live.
“He was a bit older than us, he was 17, this supercool Bolton punk with his own car – if you can imagine such a thing. So, he was into Killing Joke and I got more into them.
“I was already into the Damned, like classic punk rock, and the American hardcore thing, and a bit later, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Fugazi. But what I really loved was the Mob.
“I liked a bit of Zounds. But the Mob, and Let the Tribe Increase, that album. And Chumbawamba. I’ve always liked a tune, to be honest.
“Crass, musically, just never did it for me at all. Politically, I thought it was fantastic. I got the whole thing. I just didn’t like the music.”
Having seen the new punk phenomenon on TV, Alice Nutter found some records in a phone box on Burnley bus station, including a copy of God Save the Queen, only for her dad to smash it to pieces when she took it home and played it.
Crass were another thing again.
“I was utterly freaked out. Is it Stations of the Crass that the Myra Hindley song’s on? What happened is, I played it at the wrong speed. It was an album but you had to play it at 45 – and I didn’t know. So I played it at 33 and I was listening to that Myra Hindley song in my bedroom, and I thought, these people are evil.
“Honestly, I had my hands over my ears, going, these are very sick people.”
“It really upset me. And it was only when I said to somebody, they’re fucking weird, and they were like, what are you talking about? You’ve got it on at the wrong speed!
“When I actually unfolded the sleeve, I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never seen anything like all those words on that kind of paper, in black and white. And those images.
“Obviously, I had lots of albums, but the punk albums I’d had before that were more day-glo. Like Give ‘Em Enough Rope was completely colourful and bright. It looked like an album. You didn’t look at it and think, what the fuck is that? I opened up that Crass album, honestly, and I’d never seen anything like it.
“And then you had to work out how to fold it up again. It were like, what is this weird thing?”
SHAVED WOMEN, DISCO DANCING
THE MUSIC that Crass made was never quite as monochrome as their seemingly fold-resistant record sleeves might have you believe.
While their music was strictly utilitarian in that it only existed to provide a platform from which they could deliver ideas, the collision of changing abilities, attitudes and perspectives within the band meant that their music continually evolved and mutated throughout their self-imposed seven-year lifespan.
“It was an interesting band because of that mixture of characters,” says Mark Goodall. “It’s rare that you get some old hippie, some seriously feminist singers, a punk singer – like a Johnny Rotten character, Steve Ignorant – and you get this weird collective, which I think might be the key to why they were so different.”
It’s a good point. As well as their trademark blam-blam-blam punk rock – which got more and more extreme the closer they got to 1984 – the Crass back catalogue also contains inventive and sophisticated post-punk jams, elaborate musical parodies and pastiches, and evocative audio collages with cut up and transposed found sounds.
There were snatches of TV ads, Women’s Hour and public information films – all accompanied by righteously indignant monologues by one of the band’s four singers.
They even found time to produce sequenced, seaside organ-style reinterpretations of their greatest hits for family Christmas get-togethers. I mean, can you imagine?
All this, and contemporary classical music too. It’s quite the body of work.
Similarly, for every Conflict, Anthrax or DIRT banging out rabble-rousing, loud, fast and, let’s be honest, strictly by-the-numbers, rough and ready street punk on the Crass label, there were more acts releasing genuinely inventive, innovative and uncompromising leftfield music.
Let’s hear it for the utterly transcendental Rudimentary Peni, the Mob and the Poison Girls, the Cravats, the Snipers and Flux – not to mention such wayward talents as Annie Anxiety Bandez, Andy T, D&V, KUKL, Sleeping Dogs and Hit Parade.
The label even put out something approaching pop music with releases by Zounds, Omega Tribe, Captain Sensible and the label’s first signing, Honey Bane.
There were also a number of top-quality bands that first appeared on the three Bullshit Detector compilations, including Chumbawamba, Passion Killers, Napalm Death, the Sinyx, Naked, XS, Kronstadt Uprising, Metro Youth, Destructors, Riot Squad and APF Brigade.
That is what you call a roster. But music for dancing? Not so much.
In Crassland, remember, not only are the ‘Shaved women shooting dope’, they are also ‘disco dancing’.
What next? Shaved women popping pills?
In the anarcho scene, ‘disco’ became shorthand for anything mainstream, soulless and inauthentic – not a million miles away from the tired tropes trotted out by the racists and homophobes who supported the ugly-as-sin ‘Disco sucks’ campaign in the US in 1979.
But we had different prejudices over here. The demo that won Amebix a place on Bullshit Detector 1 included a 12-minute jam called Disco Slag that sounds very much like ESG having an argument with the Butthole Surfers in some shithole squat in Bristol – but not in a good way.
You can see why a different track – ironically enough, the wonky tribal yob funk of University Challenged – ended up on the compilation.
A few years later, Flowers in the Dustbin somehow ended up playing in some glitzy club in the Midlands and felt so alienated by the experience they called their debut EP Freaks Run Wild in the Disco.
‘Interestingly’, when Merry Crassmas was released in 1981, the Dutch production act Starsound aka Stars on 45 (led by a former member of Golden Earring, no shit) were doing well in the charts with mind-numbingly banal medleys of sequenced pop hits, an idea they ripped off from sequenced disco records that were designed to allow DJs to take extended bathroom breaks – although the first person to string different songs together in one extended sequence (both on vinyl and live) was Hansi Last, probably.
We can only guess why Crass didn’t do at Stars on 45-style Crass on 45 with a stupid ‘disco beat’ underneath their greatest hits – they loved being different from everyone else, the little scamps – but I think it would have been much funnier if they had.
Either way, disco, it seemed, was not for us.
Crass punk wasn’t music for dancing, although Zounds, Crass and Poison Girls occasionally produced a strange kind of edgy punk funk – tracks like Subvert, Nagasaki Nightmare and Reality Attack, have definitely got a groove.
But there wasn’t much room for subtlety in the moves you could pull at Crass gigs, which were usually at full capacity (if not beyond it).
It was generally just a case of pogo-a-go-go.
Plus, all too often, the crowd contained right-wing nutjobs intent on mayhem. For many of us, Crass gigs didn’t exactly feel like the kind of places where you could relax and get your groove on.
And, of course, they weren’t meant to be. Crass gigs had a different purpose entirely.
“The first Crass gig I went to,” says Sid Truelove, “they played an intro tape that was a mix of these suddenly very violent sounds, and they had screens with like film of abattoirs. It was an audio visual nightmare.”
“And I thought, fucking brilliant.”
“They used sound and films to great effect,” says Zillah Minx.
“It made such an impact,” adds Sid. “People were going, fucking hell, what the fuck? And I loved that. I loved the shock value of that.”
“When I saw them live, I became a vegetarian that night,” remembers Alice Nutter. “It was that film playing behind them. It were like a Christian conversion.”
“And I feel terrible about this, but my mum had bought me a flying jacket out of the catalogue – because I loved Julian Cope. It was really expensive, and obviously a copy, but it were leather. And I was so proud of it.
“And I wore it to the Crass gig. And I tried to leave it in the cloak room, because I was like, I can’t have a leather coat on in here. My poor mother had spent all this money and I took it home and I was like, I don’t want it anymore. I’m a vegetarian now.
“She had no idea what to do with that. My mum was picking bits of meat out of stuff and going, oh, it’s all fine. It’s fine, I’ll pick the meat out. It was an overnight conversion for me.
“But what really got me was the similarities to a Nuremburg rally. It was so similar to that Nuremburg set up with black, white and red, people standing up straight and barking at you, in uniforms – it was so strong. And attractive. I’m not saying I was a fascist, but it was just the imagery of it. It just pulled me in.
“I were like, wow! That’s what I want. I want to be in that gang! Not particularly with them – but if you remember at the time, there were thousands and thousands of us wandering round the country looking like Crass.
“You’d get off a bus somewhere and you’d just see people that just looked like Crass. They didn’t get any airplay, apart from a bit of John Peel, and yet there were thousands and thousands of us. I think it was that period when I thought, I’ve found my people.”
Matt Grimes travelled from Brighton to Digbeth Civic Hall in Birmingham to see Crass for the first time in 1981.
“It was a great gig but like a lot of Crass gigs, there was always contingent of skinheads that would turn up. It could be quite violent.”
The confusing contradictory spectacle of it all – the multimedia experience, the cups of strong tea the band shared with the audience, the Charlie Parker and Shostakovich tapes they played before the live music began, the flags and banners, the intensity, the sense of community, everyone knowing all the words – was both disorientating and seductive.
“I wouldn’t say I was suspicious, but it all made me feel a bit weird,” remembers Matt. “I’d gone to this gig and then this gig is totally not what I expected a punk rock gig to be.”
The artists supporting Crass was also important, says Matt, pinpointing people like Poison Girls who were “very much connected to that 70s counterculture. The idea of the band being very open to meeting people was unusual. I didn’t feel like I was clever enough to be able to speak to them, so I tended to avoid those situations.”
“As a 14/15 year old, I was very much going there for the music and the sense of going to something that felt important and significant.”
“At Crass gigs, I used to spend like half an hour saying goodbye to everyone,” remembers Sid Truelove. “It was just so hard to say, okay, bye, and just walk off from that unity – that love even. There were people that didn’t have any family would go there because Crass would be sitting around saying, do you want a cup of tea? Do you want a fag? Sit down, have a chat. And they’d fucking talk to you.”
Aki Nawaz thinks he first saw Crass in Halifax, but it could be Huddersfield or Rochdale or Burnley or Oldham. Either way, it was an experience.
“I liked the energy of the crowd. And I liked the anger,” he says. “But the thrashiness was a bit hard for me at that particular time. And seeing all those symbols and signs, in a way, it was a bit scary. Really strong symbols like that, they remind you of swastikas and fascism. I didn’t really know where I stood.”
Nevertheless, Aki decided that he wanted to put them on in Bradford.
“At that time, they refused to play at normal venues, for normal promoters, and I think they were sick of all that. Or whatever reasons they had, I don’t know,” he says. “I somehow got a number and just phoned them up and they said they’d come up. I think I booked them for like 120 quid, that’s what they were charging at the time.”
“And they said, the only criteria is that you can only charge a quid in. And I said, fine. And they came up with the Poison Girls.
“The club they played at was actually an Italian community club in Bradford. It’s still there. Me and my brother, we were sticking posters up in Leeds and Halifax and Huddersfield, everywhere. We worked hard because this club was quite big, about 350-400 capacity, I think. It wasn’t even officially licensed.”
On the night, after what seems like a slightly ludicrous comic interlude with Slaughter & the Dogs’ manager turning up, straight outta Wythenshawe, giving it the large one about taking the venue off him, Aki then had to deal with Crass.
“We’d got the PA system in and then they arrived,” he says. “They had like a massive following, and they gave us a guest list with like 50 names on it. And I went to them, you can’t have 50 people on the guest list.”
“And they’re like, what do you mean we can’t? We are.
“And I’m like, but you can’t. I’m sure you want to be paid at the end of the night. And they’re like, yeah, course we do. Yeah, but how am I supposed to pay you if there’s 50-odd people getting in for nowt? If I get 100 people in, what am I going to do? I’m skint. I’m signing on the dole and everything.”
Halfway through this increasingly heated discussion, Aki decided he needed to buy himself some time.
“It was getting really heavy,” he remembers. “I mean, I wasn’t a heavy guy at all. I just got really worried, like, oh no, how am I going to get the rest of the money? So I just said, I need to go to the toilet.”
“So I’m in the toilet, sat there, and I hear two people come in, and I hear them have a piss and then one of them says, have you heard about that Paki promoter? He’s making Crass pay for us to get in.”
“I fucking hated racism. The one thing I couldn’t handle in the punk movement was racism,” says Aki. “You wouldn’t think followers of Crass would come out with that stuff. I don’t know. It was just interesting.”
The fact is he’d had to put up with this kind of casual, matter-of-fact racist abuse from his school days onwards, even from so-called friends. People would say this stuff to his face, never mind on the other side of a toilet stall door, and what could he do when faced with all that?
“The punk scene was full of it,” he says. “I would have been in a fight every night.”
“I’d heard that kind of stuff before, I just didn’t expect it at a Crass gig. They could have said, that fucking promoter, he’s a right tight get, but as soon as they dropped in the word Paki, I’m like, oh no, fucking hell.
“At that particular time, I couldn’t even speak my language properly. I was probably more English than the fucking English. But being called that kind of shit, I was like, fucking hell. I can’t get away from all this.
“That’s why I loved punk. In general, it was a tribe of people from all parts of the world and racism wasn’t really involved in it. I felt a belonging.”
Resisting the temptation to throw the pair out on their arses – probably wisely, as he was pretending to be the security for the evening and he would have had to do it himself – Aki returned to the fray and eventually managed to negotiate Crass down to just 20 people on the guest list.
“They got a bit pissed off with me,” he says. “But what happened was, it was amazing. Nobody had ever played at this place before. And it got absolutely rammed. People came from all over. I think we managed to get about 500 people in. I was kind of overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do. It was a brilliant night.”
Dev Jonlin had travelled over from Leeds for the gig. He remembers being greeted by people distributing leaflets – “just like being given a hymn sheet when entering church”.
“The atmosphere was heavy and dark. Everyone was dressed in black and the stage was littered with banners, TV screens and projectors. I remember Poison Girls coming and going without too much fuss. And then, after a while, films were projected onto the stage with some audio in the speakers, talking about bombs and stuff, I imagine.
‘The anticipation was incredible and the crowd was rammed up front as Crass took to the stage. The next hour or so was unbelievable. It was a total bombardment of all the senses – the band on stage, the films being projected, backing tapes of voices and as one, the sweaty crowd responding to various songs.
“It was thrilling and mesmerising to witness and be part of. The power and the energy in the room was off the scale. It wasn’t like bands on stage that I’d previously seen, It really felt like the high priests and priestesses were in town and their faithful disciples had come to celebrate and pay homage.
“Afterwards, lots of folk loitered around chatting with various band members – like the priest saying farewell to his congregation after mass.
“It was,” says Dev, “an incredible night – and my initiation into the cult of Crass.”
Not a little freaked out by the whole experience of the gig, Aki left it to his brother to settle up with the bands.
“I wasn’t really a businessman, and I felt that they might take the piss. I’d got a bit scared after the interaction about the guest list. I was still young. My brother’s only a year older but he’s a bit more mature than me. I think he gave them 150 quid and they were all happy with it. I think I got about 300 quid which paid for the posters and the rent of the hall.”
“And then I just went off in the morning and bought myself a drum kit.”
REPETITION REPETITION REPETITION
A FEW YEARS before he started Crass with Steve Ignorant, Penny Rimbaud and John Loder were in an experimental performance art group named Exit. They used a Putney VCS3 synth, which, in the early 70s, says Penny, was “a very rare object. It didn’t have a keyboard, you had to put these little pegs in. It was very strange.”
A few years later, prices for Korg and ARP synths had dropped to the price of guitars. Plenty of bands on the Crass label are using synths and drum machines – usually but not exclusively alongside guitars – but nobody became the anarcho Kraftwerk. Or even the anarcho Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
The Mob, Flux, the Snipers, Lack of Knowledge and the Poison Girls all to a greater or lesser extent incorporated synthesisers into their music – some of which may have been added by Penny Rimbaud and John Loder without the bands knowing anything about it until they heard the finished record.
On the Bullshit Detector compilations, generally using either synths or drum machines – only Attrition seem to have used them both at the same time – bands like Youth in Asia, APF Brigade, Avert Aversion and the excellently named Dandruff (who sound a little bit like a more strident Young Marble Giants), seem to have arrived at the party already fully onboard with the electronic revolution.
Even Boffo’s low-fi takedown of Garageland is built around the sound of a borrowed drum machine, a Boss Dr Rhythm DR55.
But synths and drum machines were rarely front and centre of the sound of the bands who released singles on Crass Records.
The main exponent of the new technology revolutionising music production in the early 80s, at least as far as the label was concerned, was Belfast-based Hit Parade Dave.
His 1982 single Bad News looked at the conflict in Northern Ireland via the medium of giddily expressive and uncompromising synth-based diatribes (“We watch the TV every night. Jesus! What a load of shite!”).
As usual, the sleeve for Bad News was packed full of context and background information, this time about the H Block hunger strikes, the British Army’s indiscriminate use of rubber bullets, the state’s use of non-jury Diplock courts to imprison people as quickly and efficiently as possible – and how media coverage of all this served to distort rather than reflect reality.
Uniquely, Crass printed up a communique to accompany the record, clarifying their position that “our concern for the H Block prisoners is humanitarian and not sectarian”.
While he’s been a fan of obscure electronic music since the 1970s, Dave, who has namechecked John Cage and Karl Heinz Stockhausen as influences in the past, was actually using the same equipment as people like the Human League or Georgio Moroder – and as a result, disconcertingly given the subject matter, often used similar sounds.
“Stockhausen and all the rest, I think I’d take that with a pinch of salt,” he says, disarmingly. “Obviously, I did like electronic music going way back to the 70s, but I also love rap music – I love rhythm.”
“Inevitably, if you were using synthesisers at that time, they’re the sounds you come up with. That definitely happened – but I always tried to make an effort to make different sounds.”
Predating the now-widespread solo producer model by a good few years, Bad News was very much a one-man band, although it seems this was more by accident than design:
“The type of politics I had, especially here, I didn’t believe that anyone would ever want to make music with the type of lyrics I was doing. So my only alternative was to do the whole production myself. And I was always intrigued by synthesisers, so that was why I did it on my own. I would have loved to have done it with a band but I couldn’t get anybody.”
“The challenge I set myself – and I don’t know if I did it – was that the music would somehow reflect the politics of what I was singing about. So I tried to create the kind of atmosphere and rhythms, offbeat rhythms and so on, that would be part of the presentation of the politics.”
Dave was “pretty poor and couldn’t afford what they called the polyphonic synthesisers – the Yamaha DX7, which, to me was the Rolls Royce. They were absolutely gorgeous. They cost about a thousand pounds.”
“So all I could afford to buy were what they called monosynths. You could buy a mono Wasp synth and then couple it with another one and then you buy the sequencer, and you could build up this kind of polyphonic sound very cheaply. I think they were about £100.
“The technology began to evolve and became less expensive. There were a few things on the horizon which really liberated me in terms of structure and sound and so on.”
“There was this thing called the [Roland TB303] Bass Line – people still use it now – and the [Roland TR606] Drumatix, and you could ally those two things together and they would keep in rhythm with each other. You could use a click track and therefore you could put the synth in with the bass and the drums, and that was how I would structure tracks.
“I thought it was absolute genius being able to construct patterns and join them all up. What happened in the studio was that everything sounded a bit weedy, but because it was all synched, it was easy enough to replace the bass drum or the snare drum with really expensive drums or whatever. The songs ended up sounding very lush, but certainly the stuff I presented was pretty basic.”
There are bits where Eve Libertine sings backing vocals, and it sounds genuinely poppy.
“I certainly didn’t think of it like that,” says Dave with a laugh. “And don’t forget, whenever I went into the studio I had the kind of very basic structure of instrumentation. But inevitably, Penny would orchestrate it a bit more – and made it a lot slicker. Which is fine, some of the orchestration on it, I absolutely adore it, but I did decide that the next album I did, I would produce myself.”
Talking of which, some of the music on the Nick Nack Paddy Wack album sounds a bit like Italo disco, sort of spacey, synth slow-mo disco – except it’s got this furious Irishman shouting over the top of it. Were you aware of any of that Italo stuff?
“I can’t say I ever listened to any. The problem was that the music I was making, it didn’t have the traditional verse chorus verse thing. Maybe a couple of songs were a bit like that, but mostly I disregarded all that. Repetition was much more important to me and I couldn’t hear anyone else doing that.
“Some people did use the same sounds and the same instrumentation but they didn’t chop up things, and have patterns that never repeated. I’d just bang it all together and hope that I’d got something.”
Although Dave later became a fan, it’s difficult to believe that tracks like Here’s What You Find in Any Prison didn’t draw some influence from hip hop.
“That’s not rap, as far as I know,” he says. “I would just talk over a track and gradually it would evolve into a song.”
“But I think the Roland TR808 and the 606 played a big role in the democratisation of music. It was really compact, and it had a nice sound, but what it was brilliant at – and I thought, this is going to change everything, and it did – the bass drum went boom.
“I think the rappers were the first people to realise that you could make some really interesting rhythms with this fantastic drum machine. It was a revolutionary piece of equipment.”
Penny Rimbaud’s pre-Crass group Exit had made tape loops by sticking long runs of tape together, literally with sellotape, and running it through an old tape machine. A few years later, the Crass take on Musique Concrète found them sampling source material as diverse as Revolution 1 by the Beatles and La Marseilles on Bloody Revolutions.
The Bullshit Detectors brought us any number of unhinged tape manipulation experiments (or maybe they’re just playing records at the wrong speed) from the likes of Andy T, Waiting for Bardot and Funky Rayguns.
On their 1982 Topics For Discussion demo, the Apostles used sound collages lovingly prepared by Ian Slaughter, of Pigs for Slaughter and Autonomy Centre infamy, who went on to become a sound recordist and archivist of some note, founding the London Sound Survey amongst many other notable achievements.
Chumbawamba got to work with a borrowed Tascam four-track recorder, drawing inspiration from various sources.
Boff mentions the Last Poets, Revolution Number 9, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the Liverpool Scene (“they made an album where one side was a travelogue of visiting the States, it used samples of ads and speeches”), and Slush by the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band.
The latter song, says Boff, is “a piece of haunting keyboard music overlaid with a single laugh, repeated over and over again. It’s the track I want played at my funeral.”
“We had cassettes and we’d play them by hand into a track, winding onto the next bit and playing that same bit again, and repeating,” says Boffo. “It was really hit and miss. We had one early on about the miners’ strike, which was a cut up of Margaret Thatcher speaking at the Tory party conference.”
So basically, you could have been Cassetteboy 40 years early?
“Looking back on it now, you think, oh that was us sampling but we did it with a tape recorder next to a microphone and going are we ready? It’s coming up to the beat. Press it .. now! The Tascam Portastudio, if you turned the cassette over, it played backwards. This was a revelation because then you could record drums and flip them round.”
Inspired by the sound collages of Crass, as well as the work of people like Throbbing Gristle, who just lived down the road from them in East London, and the strange, random mixtapes of their friend Richard Heslop, Sid Truelove began using a Sharp SS55 double cassette player to piece together intro tapes for Rubella Ballet gigs.
These tapes, it seems, were just Sid “messing about mixing samples from recordings of the TV and the radio and splicing the tapes. Putting them back together again and then running and recording that, putting that through a Wenn copycat and then spin that back again. I used to play that at the beginning of the gigs and people were like, what the fuck? It had bits of Batman with loads of echo on it, stuff like that.”
“And then we’d pipe in some weird Arabian FM radio channel – woooosh – and put it through the copycat. Oh my god!”
Annie Bandez, working with Penny Rimbaud, was all over this from the outset, sampling, looping and cutting up her source material, and combining that with her own uniquely visceral verse to produce very unsettling vignettes of fear and loathing on her debut single for the label, Barbed Wire Halo.
Annie’s family lived above her dad’s print shop in New York and she grew up hearing the sound of the presses throughout his working day. Later, travelling around the city, she would write to the shake, rattle and roll of rickety old subway trains.
Repetition was the starting point:
“And then I would hear melodies within that. I still do,” says Annie from her home in Miami. “My reference points were old blues and soul.”
“When I went to England, I really thought I was working on disco stuff,” she adds, implausibly. “When me and Pen were making that first single, we thought what we were making was disco. Seriously, we thought we had a top 40 hit on our hands”.
Annie was singing for a band called the Asexuals when she met Crass visual artist Gee Vaucher when Gee was working as an illustrator in New York in 1977. Crass played a few gigs in the city a year later.
“I grew up on the cusp of everything,” says Annie. “Everybody was dead, all the big rock acts, they’re all dead, aw you missed it, you missed this, you missed that, that was all I used to hear. That was what was great with punk, it was like a fuck you to these people, that pomposity.”
“I remember going to Philadelphia when I was about 17 to see the Stones. I used to like them. Me and my friend had like dyed blue hair, whatever the fuck.
“First, we’re getting abused by the audience, who were all like these fucking cracker rockers, and then the fucking Stones turned up nine hours late, it was 90 degrees and we’re wearing vinyl, like idiots. We were kids. And I remember seeing Jerry Hall, with Jagger, getting out of a fucking helicopter drinking champagne, while people were like passing out from the heat.
“And it was like a major fuck you moment.”
Annie ended up accompanying Crass when they returned to the UK. Was it a big culture shock?
“I guess the biggest difference between New York and the UK at the time was that New York was broke. You could live there for almost nothing because nobody wanted to be there. It was pretty hairy.“
“Punk there was like the old meaning of punk, just being a delinquent, being a rebel. Whereas in the UK everything’s got political connotations. I had to learn new words – I’d never heard the word anarchy before.
“I kinda related to it in that I was always just doing my thing, trying to kick, as one does, against the status quo.”
But you didn’t give it a name?
“Right. I didn’t give it a name. I was just in trouble all the time. I was always getting kicked out of classes and stuff. But I didn’t know much about the UK at all until I got there, about the classes, the royal thing, which always seemed just absurd, Northern Ireland, colonialism.”
“I was just a kid. I don’t think I ever cracked open a book until I got to the UK. I really didn’t know what people were talking about.”
THIS IS RADIO CLASH
“I NEVER really wanted people to dance to it,” says Dave Bad News of the music he made for the Crass label. “I remember I was in Soho once, and I was passing this strip club, and I was hearing this music – I think it was Rod Stewart singing – but I thought to myself, I do not want the music to be separate from what I’m saying.”
“I was very into the idea that you couldn’t digest the music without somehow listening to what I was singing about.”
Crass, the bands on their label and the associated scene didn’t operate in a vacuum but while much of the time they seemed to be studiously ignoring – or actively opposed to – the possibilities of making music aimed at the dancefloor, other punk and new wave bands around at the same time thought very differently.
Early adopters such as Kraftwerk, Can and Cabaret Voltaire had shown us the way by adapting – and even originating – the technology of the time to create, respectively, an icily austere Teutonic take on Motown, organic, improvised and cut-up ethno-jazz, and a weird, JG Ballard-suffused kind of northern soul – much of which was very firmly aimed at the dancefloor.
The UK’s colonial legacy, and the influx of people from the Commonwealth that began in the early 1950s, has long exerted a strong influence in food, fashion, literature, language and music – and for that we should be truly grateful.
It’s no bed of roses in the UK at the moment, but just imagine how shit this country would be if it hadn’t been revitalised by the fresh ideas and new flavours that people brought with them from the Caribbean, Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh – never mind the people who’ve come here since. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
The British working classes have always been very comfortable with Jamaican music, for example, right from the bluebeat and ska days through to the glory days of reggae in the late 70s.
Thanks to the sterling efforts of people like John Peel, BBC Radio Lancashire DJ Steve Barker and Don Letts, who was the resident DJ at the Roxy when punk first began to manifest itself in London in the mid 70s, an appreciation of reggae and dub quickly became an accepted part of punk rock culture.
Songs like Germ-Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex, Offshore Banking Business by the Members and Jah War by the Ruts make this influence clear. The Clash covered Police & Thieves and released extended versions of Armagiddeon Time on 10-inch dubplate, while the Slits produced their best work when they were working with Dennis Bovell – and then PiL released Metal Box and changed everything forever.
At the same time as all that was going on, Martin Hannett was busily soundtracking the future at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, using back-engineered Roswell technology supplied by AMS Neve and a veritable pharmacopia of drugs, to poke, prod and provoke bands like Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, ESG and Portion Control towards the dancefloor, whether they wanted it or not.
Bands as diverse as Wire, the Gang of Four, Killing Joke, the Au Pairs, Basement 5 and Urban Shakedown, the Raincoats and the Pop Group were, to varying degrees, all about a beautiful collision between the groove and rhythms of reggae/dub and funk and the energy of punk.
Talking Heads, Liquid Liquid and Material were doing similar things in New York. The Electrifying Mojo, doyen of the Midnight Funk Association, mixed up every kind of music under the sun – well, funk, new wave and electronic at least – over the radio airwaves in Detroit from 1977 onwards, inspiring young local talents such as Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson along the way.
2Tone was a wonderful flowering of multicultural creativity and positivity in the face of unrelenting adversity and shite, fusing the sound of JA ska and British punk – and (like hardcore and then jungle a decade or so later) it couldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world apart from England at that exact moment in time.
And yet again, this was music for the dancefloor.
By 1980, when the Clash released their Sandanista album, The Magnificent Seven single was supposedly the first hip hop track recorded by a rock band – although it was when Blondie released Rapture six months later that most of the world got introduced to hip hop and these ideas really began to seep into the mainstream.
A year later, This is Radio Clash appropriated the bleep-heavy stylings of electro and added a shitload of echo and delay, soundsystem-style, to devastating effect. While it was absolutely on the musical cutting edge, This is Radio Clash didn’t have much in the way of politically meaningful lyrical content – but that didn’t seem to matter at the time.
Similarly, when Brian Eno and David Byrne released their seminal sample-based, dancefloor-orientated indigenous funk opus, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts the same year, it became apparent that vocals could act as merely one element in a greater whole. It signposted the way to a different type of clarity, but hardly anyone took any notice at the time.
Even John Lydon, pretty much a spent force artistically by 1984 (don’t @ me), eventually got in on the act and, due in large part to the contribution of Afrika Bambaataa (see above), produced one of the finest moments of his career with World Destruction.
The point is, punks and like-minded people doing dance music was not unusual at any point during the seven years in which Crass operated.
Obviously, there is a tension between the requirements of the groove for uncluttered time and space, and the desire to make a coherent political point – but most of the 2Tone bands seemed to manage it.
The Au Pairs, Gang of Four and the Pop Group did too.
How brilliant would it have been if Crass had tried to do the same thing?
There were plenty of people on the scene who already knew about life on the dancefloor, after all.
While Annie Bandez loved the energy of New York’s burgeoning punk scene towards the end of the 70s, disco was, she says, “much more important.”
“It was a cultural revolution, in a real way, because it brought together black and white and latino and gay and straight, y’know, it was the first time that had happened and it was pretty revolutionary.”
The big cultural touchstone for disco in NYC in the 70s is the supposedly iconic Studio 54 – where, let’s not forget, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards couldn’t even get through the door when Chic’s music was being played inside, inspiring them to write a song called Fuck Off. They later changed its name.
Wasn’t that place all about the velvet rope?
“I went to all of those places and got kicked out of every one of them,” says Annie. “I went to the opening of Studio 54 with my friend Bobby. He lied and said he was writing a book – he was no writer. I thought, well, they’ve got nice flowers. I was impressed.”
“But I’d been sneaking into clubs since I was 14, mainly gay men’s clubs, where that music was busted out before anywhere else. I’d go along for the ride. It was downtown. First place I went, it took me weeks to realise it was all men.”
Aki Nawaz says that, besides hearing the Clash and seeing the Sex Pistols, 1977 was also an important year for him because that was the year he sneaked into the ABC in Bradford with a mate to see the X-certificate Saturday Night Fever.
“I was contemplating the John Travolta look,” he says. “I was quite tempted. I quite liked all that disco stuff.”
While my man could definitely rock Travolta’s trademark white suit, unfortunately, this vision in crimplene was not to be.
“I was a secret disco lover. I always used to listen to disco before I went out, Diana Ross, Saturday Night Fever, put the vinyl on, get in the mood, and then go out to a punk gig. I always loved disco. I think most punks loved disco but they didn’t want to admit it. It was supposed to be the thing that we hated.”
“I didn’t really like disco, to be honest with you,” says Paul Hartnoll, although at this point he was too young for anything but village hall discos. “To this day, I still don’t really. I appreciate some of it. I like Sister Sledge. A bit. But I don’t actually own any disco records.”
Meanwhile, in Scotland, a young Stirling resident by the name of Chris Low first heard punk via John Peel. Although his first big gig was Sham 69 at Glasgow Apollo, other influences were at play.
Chris’s love of punk rock was matched only by his love of disco – although you probably wouldn’t get this from listening to the bands (including Political Asylum, the Apostles, Oi Polloi and Part 1) he’s played in since.
“The house I grew up in overlooked a discotheque, the only discotheque in the Bridge of Allan,” explains Chris. “1976, 1977 was when I really became conscious of music, so basically, every night, I would just sit and look out of the window and listen to music from this club.”
“I remember really being hit by stuff like I Feel Love, but at the same time, I was also really struck by the first punk records I heard on the radio.
“So I’ve always kinda been into dance music.”
Having had a thorough grounding in anarcho punk theory by interviewing bands like Crass and Discharge for his fanzine Guilty of What, Chris joined the Apostles at the age of 14 and began to get more practical experience.
He’d bunk the train, spend the weekend in London, and then go back up to Stirling for school on Monday morning. As often as not, he’d be carrying fresh new electro from London’s record shops.
“I remember going down to stay with the Apostles to go to record the third Apostles record and I bought the Mob album and the 12-inch Shep Pettibone mix of Madonna Lucky Star – and everyone was like, what the fuck is that? It’s fucking brilliant!”
“I was bang into disco, underground disco, and mainstream soul,” says Choci.
“I was brought up as a kid on Motown and Philly soul. My mum and dad would get drunk on a Sunday afternoon and the music would be on dead loud. I was open-minded about music, although it wasn’t deemed cool to be into disco when you had like a green mohican. I was a closet disco fan.”
But, in late 70s/early 80s Britain, there was more to dance music than disco, particularly in the Midlands and north of England.
Alice Nutter had been going to northern soul all-nighters around the north west since age of 14 (quite a pivotal age in the 70s, it seems).
“I used to practise dancing all week. I used to spin and do all that stuff,” she tells me over the phone as he takes the bins out.
“Dancing to northern was all about free expression. You had to be in tune with your body to dance like that. It wasn’t all the same steps that you did. You knew the steps, but you put things together that reflected how you felt about certain sections of songs, and you made that up as you went along.”
Two or three years in, however, Alice had begun to tire of some of the attitudes she encountered on the northern scene. It was, essentially, a working class movement and working class people in the UK at the end of the 70s were not necessarily a particularly enlightened group of people.
Then again, neither was anyone else.
“Basically, the northern crowd, when they weren’t on drugs, they were quite reactionary,” Alice remembers. “Not everybody. But I remember sitting in pubs after being up all night and talking about music and people were like, you’ve got the wrong haircut, love.”
“The men collected records and the women trailed after them. I didn’t have words for it and I didn’t realise I was rebelling against it, but I never wanted to do it. I never wanted a steady boyfriend. Y’know, I’d sleep with somebody and then not want to carry on seeing them. In northern circles it were a bit like, but no, we’re supposed to get engaged.
“So when punk rock came along, I didn’t fully understand it. I can’t pretend I heard it and thought, I’ve found my people, but I did think I’d found a bit of that thing I was looking for where you don’t have to be somebody’s girlfriend.
“I didn’t have a word for feminism but I were looking for it,” decides Alice. “I got the bus to Manchester on my own to go to a bookshop and look for stuff about girls and women because there were nowt in Burnley – you had to make a conscious effort to try and find stuff.”
“What got on my nerves about northern is that you were expected to settle down and be somebody’s girlfriend. And I never did. I was as wild as the blokes and that weren’t really acceptable.”
Did you carry on dancing once you got into punk?
“There were always discos in Burnley that would play Being Boiled by the Human League and all that sort of stuff. So you could actually go and dance to quite decent records.”
“But at gigs, when everyone started pogoing, it weren’t really me. I mean, I followed Adam and the Ants on a whole tour, in like 1979 or 1980.
“And then I got into that Ant dance thing.
“But it was never the same as when you danced to northern. I mean, you had a routine, you’d have to really know your steps and know what you were doing. And just let rip and let go. Punk dancing were never like that.
“I have to say, the dancing in northern was absolute freedom. Because you had a lot of space as well. People don’t think about this when you go to discos now, but when you went to an all-nighter, you would mark your space out by dancing in a certain bit of the floor – and everyone would leave you that space for you to do your thing in.”
Sid Truelove grew up in the Midlands, also in thrall to northern soul – he was a regular at Wigan Casino – before moving to London to work as chef just as the initial punk explosion began. Meanwhile, Zillah says she was “a 75/76 punk. I saw the Sex Pistols before they were on TV.”
Rubella Ballet were pretty much the only people from the extended Crass family who were flying the flag for the dancefloor throughout this whole period.
Rubella’s debut live appearance came after Crass asked the audience at a Conway Hall gig if they’d like to use their instruments, and the initial line-up included Vi Subversa’s kids Gem Stone and Pete Fender, as well as Annie Bandez. They played loads of gigs with Crass, the Poison Girls and Flux of Pink Indians, for whom Sid also drummed.
Basically, Rubella Ballet were about as anarcho punk as you could get without releasing a record on the label. Or wearing black clothes.
Sid was also big into Adam and the Ants back in the day.
“Those two drummers, you know – chunka-chunka-chunka – that was really dancey and tribal,” he says. “And I think I took that tribal feel into Rubella Ballet and Flux.”
“Like, someone like Discharge was all hi-hats and snare. I heard the two drummers really early, when they were just called the Ants, and it was a stunning sound. I mean, what a sound. So I thought if you could hit the drums twice as hard as you’re supposed to hit them, you could create that kind of sound.
“I just put a bit of expression into it. I was a really good friend of Lance de Boyle – Gary from the Poison Girls – he’d have videos of Burundi drummers and stuff like that. That’s how I started drumming, because he let me use his drum kit in the rehearsal studio at the Poison Girls house in Epping.”
Right from their very first release, the Ballet Bag cassette in 1981, however, it was clear that Rubella Ballet were willing to engage with new ideas in an attempt to do something different – in a scene that could sometimes seem disinterested in musical innovation.
When they recorded the tracks for Ballet Bag, Sid says, the music they were listening to was “Grandmaster Flash, all the time. And dub. Anything that was completely bonkers.”
Krak Trak and Blues were very raw and basic funk tracks that weren’t a million miles away from what ESG were doing in Brooklyn at more or less the same time. No really.
But blues as in blues dances or blues as in pills? Or just the blues?
When they first jammed Blues, Zillah remembers they thought it sounded like a blues song, but “it also reminded us of blues speed and blues party. Later, it morphed into Death Train about the trains taking the Jewish people to camps, and the blues idea of drug use being a train ride to death.“
With bands members coming and going on a fairly regular basis, says Zillah, developing ideas that they had jammed into finished songs was often “a long, weird drawn-out process.”
“I think we always wanted to do something different but it didn’t always come across as well as we wanted it to,” she says.
A few years later, when the pair were living in a tower block with thin walls and lots of neighbours, Sid found himself unable to practice his beloved drums.
“I couldn’t use the drum kit in there because everyone would go nuts, so it was about doing anything musical I could with the headphones on,” he remembers. “I even went crazy and bought like a midi keyboard in 1981, which was loads of money and it probably had about eight sounds.”
“It had a sequencer on it, and you could have 16 bars and eight channels, but then you had to do live mixing. You had eight channels and you could just fuck around with that. I used to drink Special Brew, and I smoked hash at the time, and I would do that all night.”
If Sid and Zillah did not exist, we would have to invent them.
THE KIDS WERE JUST CRASS
CRASS were a response – outrage, anger, disgust – to the absolute insanity of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction during what turned out to be the last days of the supposed ‘cold war’.
Thatcher agreed to host US cruise missiles, a so-called first-strike weapon, despite having no control over their use. The missiles were sited at USAAF/RAF bases across the UK, effectively making the entire country a target.
Peace camps, including exclusively female protests, sprang up around Greenham Common airbase, the Menwith Hill and Fylingdales listening bases, and the Faslane naval base that housed the UK’s supposed independent nuclear deterrent, Trident.
The people at these protest weren’t any kind of extremists – a good number of them were actually Quakers – but a truly extreme and reactionary government had put them into a position where they felt they had no choice but to do something. It was a very polarising time.
Alice Nutter first saw Crass play live just as she was in the process of joining the gang that was Chumbawamba. While never exactly slavish followers of Crass, it’s probably fair to say the Southview House lot took a good deal of inspiration from the ideas and methods that came out of Dial House.
“They lived in a commune, so we looked at them and thought, right, we’ll get a commune. And we did. You know, we shared our money for a lot of years. They started us off,” she remembers.
“And it was like, right, we’re a group, we can change the world, we can do this, we can do that. It was a different set of people to what I was used to. They were really creative, and I think that’s what I’d been looking for. Because I’ve always been quite a creative person. Not musical, but creative.
“Eventually we morphed out of replicas of them into a version of ourselves. But I thought that scene was really powerful. Suddenly, you had a group of people who were linked by this musical movement, and we hadn’t quite worked things out, but all those Stop the Citys and demos, you go and you’d see the same people, who were on the move the whole time.
“I thought it was an amazing thing. It had somehow moved beyond rhetoric. And I somehow belonged to this group of people. We didn’t even have to know each other to be part of this revolutionary underground. That felt amazing.
“And also, it looked pretty cool when you had hundreds of people wandering around in black rags. It just did.”
Choci saw Crass, the Poison Girls and the Fatal Microbes in early 1979 at the Sea Cadets Hall in Cambridge, at a gig promoted by his mate.
“It was raucous. And very raw. It just seemed like a bunch of mates having a laugh,” he says.
There was lots of pogoing and spitting. And lots of sniffing glue.
What did you make of the presentation of the gig? The films and sound collages, the banners, all them geezers dressed in black?
“What they were saying, it just felt right to me,” says Choci.
“Punk was going in different directions,” he explains. “There was new romantics, there was the goth thing, and then you had the really heavy stuff like Discharge and the Exploited. To me, it just felt like Crass were on point. I definitely wasn’t going down the new romantic road, for sure.”
Rather than the Damascene conversion experienced by many people seeing or hearing Crass for the first time, Choci says that, for him, their influence was a little more subtle.
“I was kind of leaning that way already, that kind of Fight War not Wars ideology. I was starting to hang out with feminist women, so all that shaved women, screaming babies stuff seemed on point. It seemed like an evolution of the suffragettes, this is women taking a stand against the patriarchy.”
“So it wasn’t something that changed my life because I was already going in that direction – but it just confirmed I was going in the right direction. There were other people feeling the same.”
Although he never got to see Crass live, listening to them and the other bands on the label had a profound effect on Paul Hartnoll in the early 80s.
“There was an element of it that was like, oh, you’re saying what I think, that’s amazing. That you can be yourself, that you don’t have to follow the crowd, and don’t piss on anyone else’s bonfire. I was like, yeah, that’s exactly the way I feel.”
Paul says that two records in particular taught him some “massive lessons”.
“It was mostly Flux and their song Sick Butchers that got me into vegetarianism,“ he remembers. “But the biggest eye opener – and I think the hardest lesson to learn, coming from Dunton Green, a Kentish village attached to a market town – was when I got the Penis Envy album and got informed and schooled about feminism.”
“It took me years for me to fully take it all in. Have you ever see dogs looking at something that’s weird and they can’t quite understand it and they’re turning their heads to one side? That was me.
“Oh women are equal? Yeah, I kind of knew that. But hang on a minute, surely they’ve still got to do the cooking and cleaning? The men have to go to work. That’s all I see around me. What?”
Though he couldn’t really put it into practice, what with him being 15 and living in Dunton Green, “the stuff on Penis Envy really rang true with me. I understood it. I was like, fucking hell. This is mental. We’re all doing it wrong. It blew my head off.”
Paul bought everything he could on the label.
“I had a real lucky break. I went to the Spinning Disc, a local record shop in Sevenoaks after school one day. They had a secondhand singles section and someone had offloaded a load of Crass label seven-inches. I just bought the whole lot. There are a few missing – I didn’t get Honey Bane or Captain Sensible but I think I’ve got pretty much everything else.
“And when I went to London, I just used to collect anything on the Crass label. And Corpus Christi. And I followed the bands off into their own little directions, like Omega Tribe.
“And another huge band for me were Rudimentary Peni. Fucking hell! Those first two EPs, especially the second one with The Gardener on it.”
“I was so waiting for the album,” adds Paul, “and it didn’t disappoint. But they weren’t anything like Crass. It was sort of experimental punk music. They were really out there, musically.”
Stephen Spencer-Fleet, having bought Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass, listened to them “again and again and again” at home in Swindon.
He became a regular at the Freedom bookshop, the Wapping Anarchy Centre and Centro Iberico, and hung around Hackney with the likes of Genesis P Orridge and the Hackney Hell Crew. Stephen attended the Zig Zag squat gig and was also one of the regional coordinators for Stop the City in late 1982 and early 1983.
As well as all that, Stephen and his band Disturbance From Fear organised gigs in Swindon with bands like the Snipers, Subhumans, Flowers in the Dustbin, Shrapnel and Lifecycle.
One gig at the disused slaughterhouse known as the Bacon Factory, says Stephen, featured an all-star line up that included “the Chumbas and Passion Killers, Sanction from Exeter, with Rich Cross who now does The Hippies Now Wear Black, and Smart Pils, who wrote a song about the experience.”
“In the early 80s, there was an existing uniform. Form a band, do a zine, dress in black, follow these bands around, squat. And I won’t lie, I’ve done most of these things,” says Stephen. “I think it’s about finding a route out of that in a way, to take on board other sorts of influences.”
“Crass were hugely influential and opened up a whole set of ideas that were then manifested by other anarcho punk bands,” says Matt Grimes. “I was really into the scene, really into the ideology, the politics. I went to the Stop the Citys, I joined Class War, I became a vegetarian and then a vegan.”
“I didn’t go for the whole wearing plimsolls and rolled up black trousers, I still maintained my leather jacket. But I used to go hunt sabbing on the back of all this.”
“I just became a Crass head completely,” says Chris Liberator. “I got involved in the anarcho scene and really got to respect Crass. They really did rock people’s worlds. It was hardcore political statements that had never really been heard by people before, in a really direct style.”
Chris grew up in Hornchurch in Essex and his first band, Cold War, did a gig with the Apostles and the Sinyx in Southend. They got chatting to the Apostles on the train home.
“They told us about this thing they were helping to set up with the money from Bloody Revolutions down in Wapping. On Sundays, we’re going to go down to this warehouse, get it cleared out and set up.”
“So we got involved with it and ended up playing the first gig at the Anarchy Centre and then obviously, that became really big and an epicenter for the scene in London. And that’s how I met the other Hags.”
It turns out I have been mispronouncing Hagar the Womb for the best part of 40 years.
When Aki Nawaz used the money he made from his Crass gig to finally replace his crappy drum kit, he was playing in a band called Violation with two mates from the Bradford punks scene, Buzz and Barry, and a succession of not-very-good singers, including one called Oxfam Harry.
Shortly after the Crass gig, Violation were rehearsing downstairs at the house shared by Joolz and Justin Sullivan, who was in a band called the Hustler Street Band (wisely, they later changed their name to New Model Army). Buzz came in and started enthusing about a guy he’d seen dancing to Bowie at a new romantic club the night before.
“He was talking about this guy dancing really weird and how it was brilliant,” remembers Aki. “Buzz was an art student. He likes weird dancers.”
The guy he was talking about was Ian Astbury who, it turned out, was actually staying upstairs as Joolz and Justin’s houseguest at the time.
“Their house was like the centre of Bradford. It was almost like the 1 in 12 hotel,” says Aki.
Aki, Buzz and Barry, with Astbury singing, found themselves playing their debut gig as Southern Death Cult at the 1 in 12 Club shortly after.
“We were on a learning curve,” says Aki. “There were older people around, who were into socialism and communism and anarchism. They had a better understanding of the world, we were just negotiating our way through a lot of stuff. I was just observing and learning.”
Although considerably less in your face, musically and lyrically, than Crass and most of the bands on the label, Southern Death Cult definitely made music with a message.
Their moody drum and bass-heavy post-punk sound – with Aki’s unconventional, unshowy drumming style owing more to Mo Tucker than Rat Scabies or Paul Cook – provided the perfect platform for Astbury’s vaguely mystical musings on the lessons to be learned from Native American culture, as well as the dangers of the Man, and the Bomb, on songs like Fatman and Moya.
Think Adam and the Ants meet the Poison Girls – but in a good way.
Aki says his dealings with Crass had a real impact on the way he approached booking gigs for Southern Death Cult:
“I liked the way they worked in terms of getting things done,” says Aki.
“I liked how Crass had got this commune together, and they’d got this following, and they looked after them, and also being a bit more choosy about where they played. I knew they were trying to fight the system. I think I kind of used their business model, believe it or not. I was inspired by them being really assertive, and keeping things straight.”
Having joined Virus at the age of 17, David Oliver dived headfirst into the southwest anarcho scene. His first gig was supporting DIRT at a squat in Bournemouth.
“We were really nervous but Bowz, who was the original guitarist, RIP now, we spent the afternoon walking around the squat, because It was huge, it was an old slaughterhouse and a lot of people lived in it,” he remembers.
“We went into this one room and there were about 14 people in there, and they had the windows boarded up. And all we seemed to do was smoke Zero Zero this whole fucking afternoon until we were tripping.”
“And then this old hippie guy, he invites me and Bowz in to this kitchenette sort of bedroom for – what was it he said? – do you want some ice cream? But it’s not the ice cream that you think.”
Our internet connection goes down.
You got cut off in mid flow there, David. We didn’t find out what kind of ice cream it was.
“Well, that was it. Neither did we. We got really paranoid and just legged it. We never did find out what it was. Definitely some form of drug.”
“Anyway, the gig was amazing. I spoke to one of the girls from DIRT. I can’t remember anything she said though.”
Stay away from Zero-Zero, kids.
“We did gigs for the Animal Liberation Front, and other factions working against animal cruelty, we used to go hunt sabbing, locally. We’d throw rotten eggs at them, letting down the tyres on their Range Rovers, stuff like that.”
“But it was quite hectic because a lot of the farmers and the hunt supporters went to the same school as us, and were in the same year. It was quite cut throat, you know. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of threats. You watched your back, you know what I mean?”
it was a scary time in general.
“Growing up in the Thatcher era, we were all really scared,” says David. “Thatcher really put the shits up us. I wasn’t a very good writer back then, I’d got dragged into the band, I hadn’t written a song before. They wanted me to write lyrics so I had to learn about politics.”
“But while all this was going on, you were still trying to fucking live your youth, you know, and have a good time. And it was difficult. It was quite oppressive, because of Thatcherism, sending us pamphlets through your door about what you should do if there’s a nuclear war. I got that through the door when I was 16. It fucked me over. It put me in a dark place.”
THE END IS NIGH
THINGS went from bad to worse. It was a grim time to live in Britain.
One of the ‘big ideas’ in the Conservative Party’s 1979 was the idea of giving council housing tenants the opportunity to buy their homes at discounted rates (although the Labour party was also thinking along the same lines at the time).
The justification was that everyone should be able to participate in the housing market. Obviously, the fact that homeowners were more likely to vote Conservative, presumably as a result of cap-touching deference to our betters, gratitude to the self-same benevolent emancipators, and a large dollop as well of naked self interest, was neither nor there.
And it seemed to work for the best part of a generation, so what do I know?
You could look at it as yet another way to divide and (continue to) rule the working classes. It created more feelings of them and us. People who owned their houses could borrow against them and pay for extensions and double glazing, while people who still rented from the council had to wait until the council had the money to pay for improvements for the entire estate.
Thatcher’s Conservatives went on to limit councils’ ability to build new housing, effectively laying the foundations for the housing crisis we’re still dealing with today. Just for good measure, they began to close the remaining holes in legislation to remove squatters from otherwise empty properties.
British industry was uncompetitive in the 80s because, it seems, those pesky unions would insist on workers being paid a fair wage for their labours. If companies couldn’t survive without government support, they simply closed their UK factories and moved operations to somewhere in the world with cheaper labour.
Fewer people in work meant fewer people in unions, and the people who did join a union were less inclined to vote for strike action because they might lose their jobs too.
With more people looking for work in this country, job applicants had less bargaining power and employers could reduce the wages they offered. If you weren’t prepared to work long hours for the derisory amounts of money they were offering, they could easily find another 10 people who would.
Fortunately, in these days, it was possible to just about survive on the dole, even if it might involve a bit of low-level ‘ducking and diving’ in what was still largely a cash-in-hand economy.
Which was just as well, because there were literally millions of us signing on.
Not all of us, to be frank, were entirely serious about our job hunting, but in those days you could get away with it. There was so little work and so many people looking for it that the DHSS had a relatively relaxed attitude to doling out its jolly green Giros – and if you lived in the countryside, you could even sign on by post.
You could use all that spare time to do other things, whether that be a setting up a fanzine, a food co-op or ALF cell. Or even starting a band.
It was an incredibly creative time for a generation that had been inspired by Crass and the other acts on their label.
But at the same time, the UK was awash with cheap, top-quality heroin grown by the Afghani mujahideen to fund their war against the Russians. After a disastrous irrigation scheme lowered the water table across much of the country in the 1950s, and years of drought, the most viable crop in Afghanistan was opium, a particularly hardy plant it seems.
Soon after the Russians invaded in 1979, the mujahideen, including a poor little rich kid from Saudi Arabia named Osama bin Laden, had hundreds of hectares of fat little poppies oozing sticky brown gold in the sunshine.
The high-grade heroin that came from this was exported all over the world, with either the tacit acceptance or the active participation of the CIA, who were bankrolling the mujahideen as a way of tying up Soviet resources without getting directly involved in the conflict.
Much of this shit came in the UK’s direction.
Incredible though it may seem, for many of us, smack seemed like a viable leisure option, a cheap and cost-effective way to pass a bit of time when a lot of people had a lot of time on their hands. And it wasn’t just confined to the big cities. It was everywhere.
While all this was going on, events such as the anti-police riots that swept across the UK in 1981, the Falklands War in 1982 and the Miners’ Strike, which began in 1984 and lasted for a year, made it increasingly clear that the way Crass worked – essentially the standard rock n roll cycle of write-rehearse-record-release-perform – simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of events in an increasingly chaotic world.
The story goes that Andy Palmer informed the rest of Crass that he was leaving the band in the van on the way back to Essex after a gig in Aberdare in July 1984, and the band announced they were no longer working together shortly after.
Although the catalogue numbers of their records literally counted down to 1984, it was still a bit of a shock for us all.
“Yes, it was big deal. No, I hadn’t moved on,” says Paul Hartnoll. “Although, to be fair, the last few releases that Crass did weren’t my favourites. I keep meaning to return to Yes Sir, I Will. It was too noisy for me. I’m sure the sentiment was fabulous, as it usually was, but I found it quite unlistenable as a piece of music.”
“When Crass split up, the one thing that did my head in completely was this leaflet they put out,” remembers Alice Nutter. “Now I might be wrong on this but this is how I remember it – we’re splitting up because we’ve done all this to change the world and it hasn’t changed, so we’re taking our ball back.”
“I remember reading it and thinking, fuck me, the arrogance of it. People haven’t done as they’re told, so you’re not going to do this thing anymore? What is that?
“I just thought, well, you were never really part of the movement then, if you just thought that you were telling people what to do. And now they haven’t done it, you’re sulking. I found that quite upsetting, because what they did was utterly amazing.
“I held them in high esteem, and I still do.”
The miners were already a couple of months into the strike by the time Crass played their last gig, a benefit for striking miners. Flux, Chumbawamba, KUKL and D&V did a tour to raise money for pit communities – although it seems a tour bus in terminal decline ate most of the money they made.
A few months after the end of the strike, the IRA very nearly killed Thatcher with a bomb in her hotel for the Tory party conference in Brighton. A couple of weeks after that, the BBC broadcast the first reports of what we now call the Ethiopian famine.
And then the animatronic cadaver known as Ronald Reagan was elected president of the US for the second time, with a landslide victory.
The world seemed to be locked into an endlessly repeating cycle of violence and inequality.
The following year it became obvious that the world was in fact changing – but not necessarily for the better.
The recently identified AIDS virus began to kill a lot of gay men in the US. In the UK, the miners were essentially starved – and battered and criminalised – into submission and went back to work in March.
Two or three months later, with concerns over law and order at the Stonehenge free festival – that is, it was getting too big and uncontrollable – a high court injunction prohibited gatherings on the site and the police proceeded to batter, criminalise and, just for good measure, trash the homes of the travellers who made up the Convoy.
The so-called Battle of the Beanfield was one of the more shameful episodes in a decade characterised by almost routine police incompetence, corruption and brutality.
It was also the year that Gorbachev came to power in the USSR and every nation in the EU bar the UK and the Republic of Ireland signed the Schengen Agreement allowing border-free movement across continental Europe.
The British Antarctic Survey found a massive hole in the ozone layer, but French secret service saboteurs sunk Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour anyway. Live Aid, the first Nintendo games console and the Bhopal disaster followed in quick succession.
Mirroring the chaos of the real world, by the time Crass split up, half of the scene seemed almost diametrically opposed to the other. There was often quite a judgmental, holier-than-thou vibe to the way people interacted – wrong diet, wrong haircut, wrong footwear etc.
The other half of the scene adopted a blearily nihilistic attitude of having a good time, all the time, which mostly seemed to involve doing loads of Special Brew, glue and bathtub amphetamines. And, increasingly, smack. It was bleak.
“The Ambulance Station on the Old Kent Road, that was my regular haunt for going to see anarcho punk bands,” says Paul Hartnoll. “Living in Sevenoaks, we could just get the train up to New Cross then walk up there. I used to do that when I was very young, I don’t think my mum would have let me go if she knew what we were going into.”
“It was like walking into the set of the Young Ones. It was a big squatted ambulance station, and it was unbelievable. You’d go into wait for the gig and you’d be in a kitchen, and they had big jars of lentils. I was like, fuck. What? How do you even eat these things? This is something you stick onto paper in primary school. This is mental.
“And then in the loo, there’s syringes, and I’m like, fucking hell, there’s people doing heroin here. We were little 15 or 16-years-olds and we were terrified. But we kept going because we got to see Flux, we saw KUKL. I mean Bjork was so young when we saw them. It was pretty intense. Not what we were expecting.”
The irony was, bands like Flux, KUKL, the Poison Girls, Blyth Power, Culture Shock, Thatcher on Acid, Crow People, Toxic Shock, the Ex, Dog Faced Hermans, Jackdaw with Crowbar and the Chumbas were producing innovative, exciting and occasionally even accessible music with a radical edge.
It was certainly as interesting as anything that came out of the broader independent scene at the time.
Elsewhere in the punk scene, however, the growing influence of US hardcore and straight-up heavy metal meant that many bands were more interested in getting harder and louder and faster than pushing at any artistic or creative boundaries.
It was a strange time. A bit like a cult whose members have just realised that God is dead, we aren’t going to Venus, and this lemonade tastes weird, the anarcho ‘family’ began to disintegrate.
Looking back now, Alice thinks part of the problem is that it all got a bit too earnest.
“In the end, we sickened ourselves because we were so earnest,” she says. “You can’t keep that up forever. You know, I’m sure everyone who was in Chumbawamba says this, but the miners’ strike was a really good thing for us because it just knocked the edges off us.”
“It was like okay, now you’re not just turning up at an animal lab or a peace camp, now you’ve got to deal with real people’s lives in the real world, you’re going to be on a picket line with this guy tomorrow and you’re going to be staying at his house, and there’ll be porn under the bed – just fucking deal with it.
“It just made our politics a bit less .. zealous. Because we were, we were complete zealous puritans. And for me, because I’d been so wild before, I think I was one of the worst, because I wanted to disavow what I’d been before.
“Part of being creative is changing what you do,” she decides. “That doesn’t mean you change your politics. And that movement just wasn’t willing to change creatively.”
“It was very nihilistic,” says Chris Liberator about life on the scene after Crass.
“I got disillusioned with it all. It got really hardcore. The sound of the music was not going anywhere.”
“After the Anarchy Centre finished, the bands within that scene just seemed directionless, and soon became a second generation of just hardcore, generic punk. I was into a lot of those bands but I always had other strings to the bow. I always liked other kinds of music.”
“The original Hagar split up because we argued over the entrance for a gig. I think it was at the Venue or somewhere in London and it was like 10 quid to get in or something – more money than we’d ever had as a door price before – and half the band immediately left on principle. It carried on for a bit but my heart wasn’t in it.”
“A lot of the bands on that scene seemed to collapse around that time,” says David Oliver, who’s band Virus were offered the chance to do a 12-inch single on the Subhumans’ BLUUURG label.
“We were all ready to do it and then the Subhumans split up. We supported Culture Shock on their first couple of gigs in Redruth and Dorchester. And then we split up. I can’t really say why.”
“And then the crusties and the travellers came along, coming out of that scene. It all seemed to change. The political thing went out the window, the Stop the Citys weren’t happening – purely because they sussed out how to stop big demonstrations by bringing in the horses and everything.
“There were a lot of travellers around here, obviously, it’s rural, but they weren’t doing much apart from drinking a load of Special Brew, getting high on substances and not really doing much – just giving it a load of mouth.
“It seemed to me like the bottom fell out of anarcho punk. And I think a lot of that was to do with Special Brew. You know, Special Brew was quite a nasty drink back then.
“We saw a few people in Bristol that we used to knock about with just get involved with squatting and drinking all day and then they went onto various harder substances. The demonstrations went out of the window, because of alcohol and harder drugs.”
There were plenty of options for people looking for a new direction, or a new distraction, after the demise of Crass.
Joe Rush, inspired by 2000AD and the first wave of punk, began throwing elaborate Mutoid Waste Company squat parties in west London around this time. Joe told the BBC for the I am Mutoid documentary:
“It was a very depressed country at the time. There was a big recession going on, there was a lot of derelict and empty houses, there was hardly any work about, they were tough times. We had to start a culture because normal culture didn’t provide for us, it didn’t include us. We weren’t part of it. We weren’t even allowed in the door.”
“The thing about the London clubs is that there’s very much a feeling that you’d go in there and it’d be like, yeah, we’ve had your money, now fuck off. Or you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Behave yourself.
“We basically started doing free festivals as one-night parties, in warehouses, in the city, and people would come in from the countryside. There was the most mixed bunch of people you’ve ever seen in the place, travellers, executives, students, everybody came to these parties, this mad world, this adult Disneyland, where you could do anything you liked.”
Aki Nawaz, Buzz and Barry had continued to work together after Ian Astbury left Southern Death Cult (classily, Astbury immediately started a new band called Death Cult).
On the recommendation of an old friend from Armley, Mark Manning (then working at Zig Zag magazine but soon to be reborn as Zodiac Mindwarp), Aki and co were soon joined by a former keyboard player for the Danse Society, a striking, androgynous young man from Barnsley named Bee Hampshire.
Under Bee’s influence, they decided to call themselves Getting the Fear after the Manson family prank of breaking into people’s houses and, without making it obvious, moving just enough furniture around to unsettle them when they returned. It almost seems relatively benign now, considering what happened later.
Although Aki reckons it was more about how they looked than any of the music they ever produced, Getting the Fear very quickly found themselves signing a “massive” deal with RCA. The label clearly didn’t have a clue what to do with them, as seen in the production talent they assigned to them: the guy behind the Stray Cats, Curiosity Killed the Cat’s producers and Hugh Cornwall.
“They were throwing money at us like nobody’s business but we were shit, to be honest,” says Aki. “It all happened really quickly and we hadn’t developed. But it’s fine. It was just part of the experience.”
What was more interesting, says Aki, was what they were getting up to by hanging out with Bee, a former Temple Ov Pyschic Youth devotee who had the job of organising the entertainment when the band went down to London.
“He took us to some really dark places. Weird clubs, weird people. Weird shit,” remembers Aki. “For me, it was like, where am I? Who am I? What am I? Is this what my mum and dad were talking about when they going on about the devil and the cave?”
“We’d go into bizarre, secret S&M clubs. I’d never seen that before. I’d seen people at the Warehouse dressing a bit bondage. And we’d got this Yorkshire attitude. Like, what the fuck is that? Fucking hell. There’s women in high heels holding leads with guys on all fours with masks on. It was surreal.
“We hadn’t seen that in Bradford.”
Bee also took them to visit Genesis P Orridge at his place in Hackney.
“When I use the word dark, I don’t mean in a negative sense,” clarifies Aki. “It was pretty interesting, put it that way. It was different. You’d go down into his cellar and you’d see this fucking dentist chair with all these chains on. You knew some mad shit was going down.”
“There were empty bottles that were supposedly going to be filled with people’s blood. And you heard about politicians going down there.”
Rubella Ballet, having graduated from their early days supporting Crass and Flux, and to a certain extent had moved on from the anarcho scene, were now headlining their own gigs at venues like Conway Hall and the Moonlight.
Supporting Rubella, remembers Zillah, were bands like Sex Gang Children, Ritual, Blood & Roses, “many of who came from anarcho punk.”
“Ian Astbury was a big fan,” she says.
It’s that man again.
“He was always round at the Poison Girls and Crass houses. That’s how we ended up touring with Death Cult.”
“And they kicked us off the tour after four dates because we were too good!” adds Sid.
“The anarcho thing wasn’t getting very far,” says Zillah. “A lot of people were running out of money. We were spending money getting to gigs that sometimes weren’t happening, or would just lose money, or we wouldn’t get paid anyway, whether the gig happened or not.”
“We were just doing something different,” adds Sid. “We never said we didn’t like Crass, we just said we were doing something different. Like, you’re wearing a one-piece swimsuit, I’m wearing a leotard. It’s still a fucking swimsuit. You know, I’m not wearing black, I’m wearing all the colours of the rainbow. It doesn’t mean that I’m against black.”
Elsewhere in the country, it wasn’t such a binary choice. Harry Harrison had one foot on either side of the anarcho punk divide.
“The Bolton punks saved my life,” he says. “I don’t think they meant to. They were just the maddest bunch of bastards I’ve ever met in my life. I’m sure it was the same in Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield, wherever, any big northern town, the punks were just mental. They were proper.”
“So, on one side, there was all this real idealism and they were all vegans, and they sort of claimed to be feminists, and they got involved, and organised gigs. They put on Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, Poison Girls, and most of them were benefits, they set up a housing co-op and all that.
“But at the same time, they used to get absolutely wankered. So I was experimenting with glue and cannabis, obviously alcohol and cigarettes, and then I met them lot and they were just hardcore. Anything goes. They were all living in council flats in Skagen Court in Bolton, very aptly named. I was impressed.
“I was 16 or 17 and used to go to the Golden Lion and the Blue Boar in Bolton and they were just full of skinheads and punks, and there were lots of fights. And just any old drugs to be had, largactil, smack, speed particularly, acid, mushrooms ..
“No coke, nobody could afford coke, it didn’t exist in Bolton. No ecstasy, because ecstasy hadn’t arrived yet.
“So yeah, there were these twin drivers. Kids out on the margins of society, organising against the state, but at the same time getting absolutely wankered.”
Harry has a vivid memory of going to see Play Dead at Manchester Poly around this time.
“There was this big guy with spiky hair, with Fight War Not Wars painted onto his leather jacket, and he was just kicking the shit out of this guy’s head who was on the floor,” he says. “I remember thinking, it has no meaning for you, does it? It’s just a thing you’ve written on the back of your jacket.”
“It just became a thing. If you’re a punk you have to look like this, you have to have spiky hair, you have to wear a leather jacket. It happened with the original punk rock. It just becomes ghettoised.”
“That whole thing was becoming very oppressive in the UK,” says Annie Bandez. “We’re all individuals but we’re all going to listen to the same music and look alike, and we’re going to be the same colour and the same orientation.”
“It became so that we were expected to buy the whole fucking wardrobe with the anarcho thing. You had to be this and that, and you had to think this way.
“For one, there’s a lot of grey areas and people don’t like grey areas because it involves critical thinking. And that’s not something you could necessarily be righteous about. With critical thought you have to debate with the idea that you might be wrong, and that you can learn. It became oppressive. This isn’t anarchy, this is just another system.
“In a sense, I never really fitted into that scene anyway, so it wasn’t like I was disappointed.
“For me, freedom is about finding out what you are. That’s what I hated about the whole punk thing. Be yourself – as long as you’re just like me and you agree with every fucking idea I’ve got.
“Get the fuck outta here!”
Although he’d been bitten by the Crass bug, Choci still had plenty of time for other kinds of music in the early 80s. He got really into Theatre of Hate for a time, and used to follow them around on tour. Ditto the Meteors. But it was hip hop that really grabbed him.
After he was left a bit of money, Choci and his mate Harvey took themselves off to New York to experience this exciting new music emerging from the city at first hand.
“It just took over my life,” he says simply. “It felt like punk.”
The pair managed to meet up with some of the finest breakdancers and graffiti artists in the city, basically “a load of disenfranchised kids from the Bronx.”
The Bronx itself, says Choci, “was just devastation, the poverty – it was mindblowing for a white kid brought up in Cambridge.”
“These kids are coming out painting trains with these huge murals, running around New York City, breakdancing on the streets, making money, getting beat down by the cops, there’s drugs everywhere – but it felt like this is the new punk, this is a big fucking middle finger up to society.
“But it wasn’t even like a working class thing, it was like the underclass that was coming through. Whereas a lot of punk was middle-class college kids.”
“It grabbed my attention,” remembers Choci. “I didn’t stop listening to punk – I always will listen to punk – but it caught my attention to the extent where I put punk on the back boiler.”
Topping up their collections with a load of records they’d brought back from the States, Choci, Harvey and a few of their mates – “the misfits of Cambridge and Norfolk and Norwich”- began to DJ in pubs and at parties as the Tone Def Krew in 1986.
“We really embraced hip hop, but we were also playing avant-garde stuff, British hip hop, and we were big into reggae,” says Choci.
“There was a pub called the Midland Tavern, where it seemed all the misfits ended up, and it was run by this chap called Winston, who had this dark, black room at the back of the pub, and you’d get dub reggae getting played in there, and disco, and all the punks would be hanging out in there, doing blues or whatever their drug of choice was.
“We were throwing illegal parties, breaking into empty buildings, cycle shops, banana warehouses, you name it, and then it just got really popular. We were playing quite a broad spectrum of music – anything from Frank Zappa to the Damned to hip hop to house music, just as it was coming in. It got really popular but the police were getting very concerned ..”
Brendan Hodges had moved from London to Liverpool to go to university in the mid 80s, and ended up setting up the first Anti-Fascist Action group in the city. Already a fan of reggae (as well as bands like Killing Joke, Cabaret Voltaire and Laibach), he met a local girl and got into the Toxteth blues dance scene.
Punk rock, and anarcho punk in particular, just didn’t seem as interesting anymore.
“The anarcho scene got stale and boring,” Brendan decides. “The politics didn’t really do much for anybody outside of the scene, and so I got involved in more general socialist campaigning politics. And that all coincided with getting more and more into dance music.”
For Brendan, what remained of the anarcho punk scene simply could not compete with the increasingly ascendant sound of hip hop that was emerging from the US.
“Afrika Bambaataa and the early Run DMC stuff coming out of New York, it just seemed like a brilliant, thriving, interesting scene,” he says. “Working class music of a different kind emerging from a different community. And that was interesting.”
Having moved to London after university, Brendan became heavily involved in AFA in the capital. He became a regular at Dub Syndicate and On-U Soundsystem gigs. And he also threw himself into the London’s ever bustling club scene.
“The main club I used to go to in London was Philip Salon’s Mud Club,” he remembers. “Philip Salon was one of the original Bromley Contingent. He was a big face on the London club scene. And it was a very snobby club. It was elitist. You had to be dressed in the right way to get in. And, I feel a bit shit about it now, but I found that quite exciting. I thought I was getting into this exclusive dance club.”
“I used to wear a lot of my punk gear. Black flight jacket, shaved head but instead of Crass patches, it was Beastie Boys and Run DMC.
“I kinda saw that as a continuation of punk, in a way.”
IT’S NOT MY REVOLUTION IF I CAN’T POGO TO IT
AROUND this time, some of the most interesting music coming out of what remained of the anarcho punk scene came from Flux’s Uncarved Block album, which married a kind of On-U Sound-style dubby funk with lyrical musings that were heavily influenced by Taoism, as well as the band’s experiences over five or six years at the forefront of the anarcho scene. They seem to sound very jaded about it all.
Musically at least, Uncarved Block seemed to point the way towards a brighter future. Part produced by On-U supremo Adrian Sherwood, and featuring percussion and drums from Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah of African Headcharge and Style Scott of Dub Syndicate, Roots Radics etc, Uncarved Block was a revelation.
Lyrically, it was perhaps more complex.
Beginning with the words, “thinkers and performers can never stop war or start peace”, the common thread throughout the album seems to be a weary resignation that, despite anarcho punk’s best efforts, the world remained the same as it ever was.
Boffo has written about his exasperation with an album that, he reckons, hinges on the phrase ‘I don’t feel angry anymore’, and wonders how anyone who was alive in Britain in 1986 couldn’t be outraged by what was going on around them.
Alice says that she still considers some of the former members of Flux as friends, “so I could never fully turn against them, but that thing of disillusionment from a band because of their audience, I just don’t get it.”
“Working with Adrian Sherwood, I loved all that stuff. I just don’t think it’s that interesting to tell your audience off for not quite getting it.”
“But they’re really nice people.”
Inevitably, Annie Bandez was way ahead of the curve with all this.
The On-U thing, that is. Not telling off her audience. Although she probably did that too.
Annie’s debut album, Soul Possession, recorded in 1983 and released a year later, featured contributions from an all-star cast that included Gee Vaucher, Penny Rimbaud, Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, Derek Birkett, Pete Wright and Eve Libertine.
The album also had, among other things, OBX Prophet and Linn drums by Kishi Yamamoto, the then partner of producer Sherwood. It is a spine-tingling treat of a record.
“When I did that first album with Adrian, that I could more understand,” says Annie. “It was much more wide open than anything else was because it was so eclectic. But with that sound it was like, okay. I knew the groove, you know what I mean? Cos the groove was everything.”
Annie remembers people like Mark Stewart, Shara Nelson, Lanah Pellay and Jesse Rae (“in his suit of armour”) being around when she recorded the album at Southern.
“Everybody was hanging out and listening to and working on everyone else’s records. It was kinda like my musical education. With Adrian and Kishi, the thing was, you get the job done, you get it done quick and you get it done well. And now we’re working on this. When you’re doing something, you don’t know what it is until it’s finished.”
But you don’t hook up with Adrian Sherwood and the On-U Sound posse unless you’re wanting to go in a dancefloor direction, do you?
“No, that would take thinking,” says Annie. “That would mean I have to analyse things. I learned that early on, y’know. Plans, you can’t do ‘em. If something feels contrived, nobody hears it. I’ll get to a point where I’m like, you know what? It’s hard to put into words. You know in your gut when something feels forced, and you know when it just flows. That doesn’t mean it goes easy but it flows.”
“The thing I liked about Adrian Sherwood and On-U was the collage thing, sampling, big beats but with a kind of mechanistic feel, a techno feel,” says Mark Goodall.
“And when I saw Tackhead play live, they were shit, because what they did – the New York funk elements were always there but Sherwood kind of fucked around with it and detuned it and cut stuff, whereas live, where he didn’t have that level of control, they just resorted back to guitar solos, with that singer they had from the Peech Boys.
“It was tedious, both times I saw them. I went to see Mark Stewart In Manchester and I’m sure they were on too. They were doing like rock funk workouts.
“The Mark Stewart stuff interested me more because that was more punk, if you like. Like the Pop Group, a collage of dub and shouting, with slogans on the cover.
“The cover artwork just blew your mind, that whole thing about black and white pictures of starving kids and stuff. That just seemed a million miles away from these New Yorkers prancing around and showing off.
“It’s the experimental thing, isn’t it? The best On-U Sound stuff is the experimental stuff, where he’s trying stuff out. As soon as you slip back into the old habits, it becomes tedious.”
“Tackhead are really the reason I got into dance music,” says Brendan Hodges. “I got totally into hip hop and didn’t listen to a punk record again until something like 2003.”
“The stuff I liked was things like What’s My Mission Now and the stuff they did with DJ Cheese, the scratchier stuff. For me, that was much more hard-edged than the funk stuff.“
Flux’s Col Latter and Simon Middlehurst (known as Psycho when he was in the Insane) began a new band, the decidedly industrial Hotalacio, and their debut tape release included a cover of Cameo’s Talkin’ out the Side of Your Neck. A couple of years later, they released it as a single produced by Keith le Blanc, of Tackhead and the Sugarhill Gang fame.
Sid and Zillah, having signed to indie label Jungle, had a bit more money to spend on studios than previously.
“I heard Grandmaster Flash, and heard them go bah-bah-bah-bah-baam and I couldn’t work out how they were doing it,” remembers Sid. “How the fuck did they do that? And I found out when we went to this reasonably decent studio, and this bloke was showing off all the gear in the studio – usually we had four tracks and a bit of reverb.”
“It was a Bell sampler, and they were about eight grand at the time. There were like all sparkles around it. I was like, oh my god! And he’s like, oh yeah, it’s the one that Grandmaster Flash uses. So we did the B-side of Money Talks and I’m just going mah-mah-mah-mah-mah. It’s me on that’s sampler.”
It wasn’t quite as simple for Chumbawamba.
“When we first started listening to stuff that had beats on it in the mid to late 80s, getting caught up in it and getting enthralled by it, getting enthused and excited by it, it was really difficult because we’d carved out this thing where we were a punk band,” says Boffo.
“We were like a post-Crass, anarchist, ranty thing, and then we went into the folk thing and did the English Rebel Songs album, and then we were suddenly confronted by the fact that we loved this other stuff as well. What shall we do with it?”
“We eventually realised that that was just the kind of band we were. We were able to change every couple of years anyway. But at the time, it was a bit of a dilemma. You couldn’t go digital then, because we didn’t have access to computers.
“We went to Neil’s studio in like 1987 or 1988 and asked if he was able to sample stuff. And he had this huge sampler and it could only sample three seconds of music. You had to punch samples in by hand, you had to press a button, so it was all really rudimentary but we were really excited by it and really wanted to do it.”
Stephen Spencer-Street has been taking amplifiers apart since the early 80s, hardwiring microphones into them and using them as echo units. He’d released a few solo tapes while he was in Disturbance From Fear.
“You could do it in your bedroom,” he explains. “It was quite lo-fi. So I’d add echo to bass and then loop it, put some guitar over the top, and then some vocals. It would basically be an auxiliary line into a tape deck.”
“I used to find being in bands quite hard work. I was usually the guitarist, I was the one with the vehicle. In those days you had to rent out the village hall, didn’t you? So you had to drive round to pick everyone up, carry all the amps in, play for three hours and then do the same thing in reverse. I was exhausted.
“But I could do my own stuff at home during the week.
“After DFF split, I was in another band called the Winged Demons. Very, very long songs, a bit Hawkwindy, I was used flangers and phasers, we had a keyboard player, we played parties, little mini-festivals. We had different vocalists that would come along. Sometimes we didn’t have any formed words, it would just be vocal effects.
“I guess I just discovered the joy of playing, that elongated, hypnotic groove.”
HOUSE MUSIC ALL NIGHT LONG
“I LOST interest in punk after that metal and US hardcore influence came into everything around 1984,” says Chris Low, ever the early adopter. “That was the cut-off point, for me, anyway. I then just got into more electronic stuff, 23 Skiddoo, Shack – there was a lot of great stuff out there. And then in 1986, house music comes along.”
“I remember seeing Farley Jackmaster Funk doing Love Can’t Turn Around on TV and was just as blown away by seeing that as I was seeing Pretty Vacant on Top of the Pops or whatever. And then I really just got into house stuff and Detroit techno.”
Things were definitely changing. After Getting the Fear split up, Aki Nawaz had landed a deal with 4th&Broadway and, working with Kath Cannonville, an old friend from Bradford, he’d started the Nation label to release “world-dance-fusion, through the cross fertilisation of traditional, multicultural sound tracks.”
Aki has said that Nation was “based on an idea from the punk era – be radical musically and politically, never work by the book, re-invent the rules and then re-invent them again when those rules become the norm.”
A big fan of Tackhead’s big boss sound, when it came to Nation’s first 12-inch single – Pulse 8’s deeply groovy Radio Morocco featuring Jah Wobble and Justin Adams – Aki secured the services of Adrian Sherwood and Youth to remix David Harrow’s original track, and ended up spending a lot of time at Southern Studios.
“I got on well with John Loder and I remember sitting down with him one time and asked him about Crass and he had a really troubled face and I thought he was going to say, I can’t stand the band or something. And he said, Crass is a really big dilemma, because they’re so successful – he was talking about the amount of money they were making. They were making so much money they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Aki had seen Ofra Haza, Ice T and Radical Dance Faction share a bill at the New Music Seminar in New York one year, and was inspired:
“The landscape of what I like has no borders,” he says. He loved the “audacity” of people like Public Enemy and Boo Yah Tribe in standing up to racism. Aki was introduced to the work on Malcolm X on the same trip, and began to look at the world in a different way again.
“I started to read all that stuff and it gave me the confidence to speak out about things. I realised that my mum and dad had been born under British colonialism in India. They were both about 10 years old when the British left. And what they expected us to do and what they wanted us to be was also inspired by the British empire, from the education they had in their upbringing, before we even got to these shores. They’d been indoctrinated.”
Although he’d been an active member of the Anti-Nazi League since it began, Aki found himself increasingly frustrated by the organisation’s limitations.
“It’s too easy to say ‘black and white unite to fight’ when all the people running it are white,” he says simply. “I knew a lot of guys who were into the Asian Youth Movement, who went out fighting skinheads. They’d built up the spine to fight these people and they said, we don’t need the help of the natives. We will form our own defence. We’re equal in terms of fighting back.”
“There were a lot of different thoughts going round at that time.”
Unlikely though it may seem, Paul Hartnoll found his way to house via a circuitous route that included Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire:
“Although I’d always listened to Kraftwerk, electronic music, and reggae as well, I went from listening to anarcho punk to hearing Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes and I thought, hang on. What’s this all about then? This is the right kind of message, and the right kind of music – let’s go”
“And then I got into all that industrial funk kind of world, the Sheffield scene, Cabaret Voltaire, Hula and Chakk. That was my thing really, after anarcho punk. After the demise of Crass, I kind of drifted over towards that.
“When I first house music, I thought, brilliant, this is like Hi-NRG disco and electro mixed together, two things I love. And tracks like House Nation blew me away. Todd Terry, Black Riot. Brilliant!”
Paul remembers going to a Mutoid Waste party in Kings Cross in 1988:
“They’d just been on the telly,” he says. “Everyone was talking about these crazy artists who are influenced by 2000AD, which I was a big fan of. It was like a fiver to get in and they had like six different soundsystems and it was a mixture of everything.”
“It had a live punky, sort of industrial stage, where they had World Domination Enterprises playing live, a big hip hop stage, a reggae stage and then like three different stages of house music.
“They had like a scout hut that was just full of smoke and strobes and acid house. It was insane. And they had like a Balearic thing on as well.
“It was incredible. They were literally driving dustbin truck nuclear launch vehicles through the crowd, that kind of thing. They had like a massive skeleton hanging from the ceiling, it was absolutely huge, made out of motorbike frames and if you touched one of the wires the whole thing would wobble and dance.”
Aki Nawaz says the Mutoid Waste Company parties he went to were “mad and brilliant, but there was still an alternative vibe to it, not commercial.”
In his capacity and MD and trouble-causer-in-chief at Nation, Aki went wherever the underground scene was at, keeping his ear to the ground for new trends and ideas, and even putting on a few club nights himself in “our own little movement of global chaos and Asian underground” music.
He was too busy with the label, and the ‘hectic creativity’ of his own genre-busting band, Fun-da-Mental to pay too much attention to specific records and artists but he’s always been “a bit of an anorak” when it comes to checking out new stuff and “to be honest, I just liked what sounded great – of any form.”
Chris Liberator, having arrived at an impasse with his post Hagar the Womb band We Are Going To Eat You, was definitely ready to hear some new sounds.
“We went to a party in about 1988 in Kentish Town. Mutoid Waste had got involved in it, and they had some kudos within the squatting scene, but it wasn’t for me,” says Chris. “I didn’t appreciate the music.”
“I tried to listen to house music but the first problem that I had with house music was that I didn’t really like it. It was too soft and too sentient. I’d been listening to more underground, abrasive music all my life, that’s what I liked, house music just didn’t tick the boxes for me.
“I never bothered checking out more raves and I wasn’t interested in drugs at that point. I just didn’t follow it and it was literally down to that. It’s like now, with something like EDM. You think, it’s not really for me, and you don’t follow it.
“But there was harder stuff that was linked to the rave scene, Belgian new beat stuff and other things, that when you look at the history of rave, you can see had a part in making it happen. So musically, I think it was because the music wasn’t hard enough.”
Some of that early acid stuff is pretty hardcore isn’t it?
“Oh yeah, I really like all that now,” says Chris. “But I didn’t get to hear it at the time. I remember listening to a lot of house, and really trying to get in to it, but just not getting it really.”
“I just wasn’t tapped into that scene. If you listen to the stuff that Danny Rampling was playing at Shoom at the time, that Balearic stuff, it’s very soft. It’s not music I would listen to now. Early house I have more time for, and of course, I love acid house.
“But that Balearic stuff didn’t really interest me at the time and doesn’t really float my boat now. It didn’t hit the right buttons at the right time, I guess. I was more into harder stuff, and reggae and On-U Sound.”
Chris was in good company. Lots of people didn’t, initially, get this strange new music.
“About 1988 or 1989, one of my friends put on a rave in Gillingham, in this big fucking tent on a farm,” says David Oliver. “I can remember walking into the tent and not liking the music. I’d just come out of the pub, I think. And I was like, where’s the guitars? Fuck knows what they were playing.”
As Mark Moore of S-Express told the Guardian:
“It definitely took ecstasy to change things. People would take their first ecstasy and it was almost as if they were born again. They suddenly got it: ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ You could watch these people walk into the club as one person and walk out as a different person at the end of the night.”
“We did think: ‘Wow, this is going to change the entire universe. We are going to stop wars; we are going to stop people being repressed in other countries. We are going to elevate to a whole new level of consciousness.’ There was this very spiritual side to it originally.”
The music, originally mainly from the US, and then Italy, began to change as more British producers and DJs got involved:
“I remember seeing Orbital at the Pied Bull, this really scuzzy venue, and really enjoying what they were doing. We were going to things like Club Dog in North London,” says Chris Liberator.
“Club Dog was the precursor to Megadog. They’d be running through since the early 80s, doing bands and festival sort of stuff. We used to go there all the time. Various bands had played there and they were just crossing over into dance music.”
Brendan Hodges can relate to the idea of year zero for guitars. He and his mate Christy had a soundsystem called Lost in the Sound (“We didn’t have our own gear, apart from decks. We didn’t have a PA or anything”) playing hip hop and reggae in pubs, when some mates from AFA asked him to join their band.
“Basically, the Blaggers were all just people who were active in AFA in London,” says Brendan. “It was just like, I can play guitar, I’ve got a bass, oh, I can play drums. It was literally like that. The band was kind of set up in direct opposition to Skrewdriver, so it started as an oi band – and then someone found out that I could play the trumpet. And they said, why don’t you come along to one of our gigs and bring your trumpet?”
“My first gig was at a squat party, a paint factory in Hackney. I got so fucked, I collapsed. I didn’t play the gig. I was found about four hours later, vomiting, on a pile of pallets somewhere. And then I was playing all these punk gigs and I fucking hated the music.”
“Christy was a rapper and I knew that he would change the sound, so he’d be MCing to like oi tracks, I’d be doing a bit of trumpet and percussion, and it just evolved. Christy would be doing mad dancing. And over the course of a couple of months, the sound just totally changed from an oi band to a punk band with a rapper, with drum patterns that were based in dance music and so on.”
“I went to a big warehouse party in Bristol just off the Feeder Road,” says Stephen Spencer-Fleet. “There were loads of warehouses there and a few of them were vacant. There was one enormous one and there was a party in there called the Eye. This must have been mid to late 1988.”
“There were a couple of bands but they also had decks, and the DJs were playing sort of ambient house. I asked them what was going on, and they were saying they were recording stuff, looping it and speeding it up – and I thought that was pretty interesting. There were about a thousand people there. And it went on pretty much all night.”
Sid Truelove reckons he first heard house music via pirate radio.
“I used to love going through the FM/AM radio, searching just to find something to fucking listen to,” he says. “And I started hearing this fucking amazing music, which turned out to be acid house. It felt like I was just off my nut. I used to say to Zillah, have a listen to this – it’s kicking off.”
It turned out the radio station was called Centreforce FM, the first pirate radio station in London to play acid house 24-hours a day.
“When we lived at Balfron Towers, Centreforce were in the same block,” says Sid. “I used to say to Zillah, I ain’t half getting a strong signal from Centreforce tonight. They were only like six doors down!”
“They went in there and built this four-foot concrete slab in front of the door. At Balfron Tower, you could go up the top and get onto the roof really easily, and they were going up and abseiling onto the balcony from the roof. That’s how the DJs had to get in.”
“And all the DJs were like, I ain’t fucking doing that. And they were like, you are fucking doing that or we’ll throw you over the fucking side, you cunt. There were loads of stories about DJs getting stuck in there, cos they didn’t have the bottle to get out again.”
The station lasted a couple of years until the DTI decided to step in.
“The Old Bill are outside,” he laughs, “trying to kick the door in, using pneumatic drills, the lot, and they’re all in there going chk-chk-chk-chk, fucking Old Bill! Shout out to the Old Bill! Two weeks they were trying to get through that door. So funny.”
Alice Nutter went to a few outdoor parties – her first experience of alfresco raving was somewhere in Wakefield in 1989 – but it wasn’t really for her. The lack of facilities was a big negative.
“I went to a thing in a garage just off Burley Road in Leeds, really early on, and it was terrible,” says Alice. “I thought it was going to be the most exciting night of my life, I thought I AM HERE! And bear in mind, I’d had a lot of drugs in my youth, a lot of speed. I’d done that dancing all night thing for quite a few years, so I knew what it should feel like.”
“We got to this freezing garage and we’re trying to buy a pill, which was almost impossible at that point. Nobody had any. And they were like 25 quid. And everyone was really unfriendly. I remember thinking, this is not like I thought it would be. I thought it was going to change my life again.”
Once Alice ‘got on one’ as we used to say back in the day, everything changed:
“It felt like northern soul felt to me. But even then, I used to say to people, if I ask you to on holiday, ignore me because I don’t mean it.”
Some unlikely knights in shining armour were ready to make it a lot easier for people all over the country to talk shit, hug each other and dance all night long.
A couple of Dev Jonlin’s mates, Mark & Farrah, got a DJing gig at Kaos, a night run by another mate from Beeston, and Dev quickly became a regular on Wednesday and Saturday nights.
Dev says that he remembers being 14 and actively looking for something, both musically and in terms of finding an identity – a gang he wanted to be with: “And punk rock was it.”
”With acid house, it was there already,” he says. “At the end of the 80s, I wasn’t really looking for anything else. I was perfectly happy with the music I was listening to.”
“And then this stuff just enveloped me, as massively as punk did. And you just realise, oh, there’s a scene going on here that I’m sort of involved in. I kinda fell into it, but wasn’t really reaching out for it, if you see what I mean.”
Throughout the 80s, European Cup runs for teams like Liverpool and Spurs had encouraged groups of lads from places where nothing ever happened (apart from shit stuff) to embark on heroic, epic alcohol and drug-fuelled adventures of fraud, shoplifting and touting. They may also have been involved in some casual hooliganism from time to time.
“Liverpool mainly. Leeds were banned. Man U were shit. Man City were in Division 2. Etc,” says one of a group of Dev’s mates with some knowledge of all this.
“Liverpool fans in particular used to go to Europe watching their teams and spent all the trip robbing stuff and getting up to dodgy dealings.”
“It’s where people learned about a lot of top clothes brands. First time they saw them were on these European trips watching football.”
Many of these lads also discovered ecstasy on these European jaunts. When acid house came along, English lads enjoying ‘extended holidays’ in places like Rotterdam and Amsterdam provided a link with the European criminal underworld.
Britain’s football hooligan networks – which had previously been preoccupied with pre-arranging away-day mass brawls – soon turned their considerable organisational talents to moving large amounts of imported Dutch ecstasy around the country.
Centreforce FM, for example, was supposedly run by West Ham FC’s resident hooligans, the Inter City Firm. It heavily promoted the burgeoning pay party scene, where punters would probably want to buy ecstasy.
With hooligans high on their own supply, for a time, football violence went away like it had never happened.
“The football crowd at Ricky’s, they’d go to the match on Saturday and they’d all be down at Ricky’s that night, all the Young Service Crew basically who were floating around then,” says Dev. There was never any bother.
Dev remembers hitching through Italy on his way to Yugoslavia during the World cup in 1990:
“There was an alcohol ban for all England fans and so they turned to other recreational pleasures.”
Es were readily available – and there was “very little if any bother with the fans.”
E for Eng-er-land indeed.
“Football hooliganism totally stopped for years,” adds one of his mates.
“We went to other cities to rave. Wouldn’t have done that before.”
“Holidays too. You met people from other cities that were into the same thing. You didn’t really before that scene. So that rivalry was forgotten. A bit.”
“Who the fuck would fight on E? It’s impossible.”
One of Dev’s mates assesses the career trajectory of one well-known Leeds lad:
“[Name redacted] is a prime example. Football hooligan, shoplifter, wrong un. Had Es and turned his life around. Now listens to jazz and drinks port.”
Boffo says he first heard house music when Dunstan started buying it, and, not really understanding it, he just thought: “What the fuck is that?”
“And then the music suddenly seemed to have all these piano breaks. I’m terrible, I’m an absolute sucker for a bit of a chord change and a melody, so I heard this piano house and thought, now, that’s it! That’s what I love!”
“And so I was just sold on it, so I started going to the same places that Dunst and Alice and Mave were going to, thinking, yeah, okay, I get it now.”
“And obviously, the drugs followed very quickly after.”
Despite retaining their ties with Burnley – family, football, fell running etc – the Chumbas didn’t experience the Blackburn rave scene, which was just beginning to take off in the area where Alice, Boff, Lou and Dan had grown up.
The Blackburn parties were every bit as rooted in the DIY ethos of punk and anti-authoritarianism as anything happening in the big cities.
“I know this lovely bloke called Jamie who’s got all these social projects going on and he was involved in the rise of the whole acid house thing in Burnley, Accrington, Blackburn and Nelson,” says Boffo. “They took over the old factories that were empty, and did warehouse parties.”
“He said it was an amazing thing, all these people in this room, their parents and their grandparents had worked in these places and all their jobs had been taken away, but now they were reclaiming the spaces to have a good time in, and dance and celebrate the area. And I just think that’s a lovely, lovely idea.”
The Chumbas may have missed the Blackburn parties but there was plenty for them to get involved with in Leeds.
The Microdot collective were a loose collection of former punks and travellers, many of whom were squatting in Woodhouse, specialising in the harder, faster, weirder techno released by labels like R&S and Music Man.
After throwing a party in an old supermarket in Hyde Park, they used the West Indian Centre in Chapeltown and then the Warehouse in the city centre for monthly parties that included CJ Bolland’s debut UK appearance.
With a show on super-organised local pirate Dream FM and a weekly gig in ‘the chill-out room’ (all things are relative) at the famed Orbit club in Morley, Microdot was responsible for nurturing such wayward talents as Jon Nuccle, Brandon Spivey and Mark EG.
For a few years, with Manchester’s clubs embroiled in yet more pointless gang violence, and London clubs, y’know, being in London, Leeds became the centre of club culture in the UK, with clubs like Back to Basics, Soak, Vague, the Orbit, Hard Times, Dig and Ark all running at full-steam – with very up-for-it crowds dancing to world-class visiting and local DJing talent in great venues – at pretty much the same time.
“And after we all got into all that,” says Boff, “we understood how you could listen to a fairly repetitive groove for eight minutes – because when you’re in a room full of people on E, it’s like the best feeling in the world.”
EXCUSE ME WHILE I KISS THE SKY
PEOPLE have been chasing ‘the best feeling in the world’ in Britain for thousands of years, most likely.
In the same way that we have no real idea whether druids wore white robes or cut mistletoe, we don’t really have a clue about the original purpose of monumental constructions like Stonehenge and Avebury – and it seems their use changed over the years anyway.
What we do know is that the rubbish that people left behind over the years indicates that, at some point, it involved some type of ritual celebration.
Indigenous people the world over use ritual, music and whatever psychedelics they have to hand – mushrooms, toads, reindeer piss – to step out of the everyday and reach a state of transcendence.
And while there’s no actual evidence from a culture that had no written language, it’s no great leap to suppose that the indigenous Neolithic people who lived in Britain did the same.
We may not have reindeer or psychedelic tree frogs in the British Isles, but we do have plenty of mushrooms. And wolfsbane and deadly nightshade. Once again, we don’t know for sure that the Ancient Britons tripped the light fantastic but then again, they were well known for getting naked and painting themselves blue.
It wouldn’t be out of the question.
What we do know is that, by the time the Windsor Free Festival began in 1972, getting out into the open, doing psychedelics, banging drums and getting naked, if not painting yourself blue, was an established part of the British summer.
“Windsor Park is one of Her Majesty’s many back gardens,” said Crass in the booklet that accompanied Christ: The Album, A Series of Shock Slogans & Mindless Token Tantrums, “and when the hippies decided that it was an ideal site for a free festival, she was ‘not amused’.”
“The first Windsor Free had been a reasonably quiet affair and the authorities had kept a low profile. Next year things were different and the Queen’s unwanted guests were forcibly removed by the police and the royal corgis were, no doubt, suitably relieved, free once more to wander undisturbed.”
Shortly after, the inhabitants of Dial House met Phil Russell, “a smiling, bronzed hippy warrior” who told them of his “ludicrous plan .. to claim back Stonehenge (a place that he regarded as sacred to the people and stolen by the government) and make it a space for free festivals, free music, free space, free mind; at least that, like ‘happily ever after’, is how the fairy story goes.”
They helped Phil organise the very first Stonehenge festival in 1974. After Phil and the other hippies on the site had to vacate after an injunction by the Department of the Environment, they simply proceeded to Windsor Great Park for an even bigger free festival than the year before, and the cops properly kicked off. Phil was beginning to make a nuisance of himself.
Shortly before the date of the second free festival at Stonehenge, Phil was arrested by cops looking for a seemingly fictitious army deserter at the house where he was staying overnight. They found some acid in his pocket, he was remanded in custody, pronounced a schizophrenic by a prison doctor, sectioned – involuntarily hospitalised – and given large doses of largactil.
By the time he was released, in no way coincidentally, on the day the festival finished, Phil was “frail, nervous and almost incapable of speech”. He overdosed on sleeping pills and choked to death shortly afterwards.
A loose community of travelling free-thinkers, malcontents and hippies began spending each summer moving from festival to festival, usually held on common land (ie land that anyone could access), such as Stonehenge, and Glastonbury. Although most people paid, the latter was a free festival as far as travellers were concerned.
One of the largest groups of these travellers became known as the Convoy. After they spent time at one of the many peace camps that had sprung up around the American bases hosting a variety of nuclear weapons throughout the UK in the early 80s, they eventually renamed themselves the Peace Convoy.
It wasn’t all peace and love at Stonehenge. Crass, Poison Girls and Flux played in 1980 and the large number of punks they brought to the festival attracted the ire of the scene’s self-appointed policemen, Hell’s Angels, who proceeded to batter anyone who looked like a punk.
Yes, these were the actions of pointless, reactionary, know-nothing pigs who weren’t actually that much different to the real cops, and let’s not forget Crass had actually helped to organise the fucking thing in the first place, but who was going to argue with bikers?
It seems 1980 was an aberration, and Matt Grimes says he really enjoyed Stonehenge and ended up going to a few free festivals in the 80s.
“I quite liked hanging around with hippies,“ he explains.
Festivals brought him into contact with a slightly different kind of counterculture to that he experienced in the anarcho scene, but one that was every bit as anti-authoritarian and subversive.
“Everyone had the opportunity to police themselves and there was no-one there to say you can’t do X, Y and Z.”
“Despite what John Lydon said about never trusting hippies, it’s hard to deny that people like Penny Rimbaud carried those ideas from the 70s counterculture into anarcho punk. It was almost like that counterculture reinvented itself to go along with more contemporary music.”
Matt says that Mark Wilson of the Mob was one of the first people on the scene to take to life on the road.
“He was living in a squatted street in west London called Brougham Road and he was one of the first punks that I knew that got himself a vehicle and made himself a tepee, he literally hand stitched it himself, and took it off to Stonehenge festival about 1984, I think.”
“A lot of punks would go to Stonehenge, because of that sense of freedom, and that sense of anarchy there, but Mark was one of the first people I knew who did that and then didn’t come back to London. A lot of punks saw the potential of that and followed suit.”
By 1984, the Stonehenge festival had evolved into a month-long bacchanal of sex and drugs and rock n roll – and freedom, and community, and maybe even some actual spirituality – with an audience estimated at 100,000 people.
It’s unlikely that many of them paid much attention when the management of the stones and the surrounding area went from the Department of the Environment to English Heritage as part of a general move to farm out the functions (and costs) of government to whatever charities and quangos would take on the job.
According to a blog post on English Heritage’s website, “it both cared for a range of historic properties and ran the national system of heritage protection. One of its aims was to manage the historic sites better, with new facilities, interpretation, displays and signage.”
“This did not sit well with the by now regular summer festival encampment at Stonehenge.”
Another regular at the Stonehenge in the early part of the 80s was Stephen Spencer-Fleet.
“You’d see bands like the Rainbow Warriors, pretty funky bands really,” he remembers. “Hawkwind would always play. I remember seeing them in 1984 after the Poison Girls. I think Omega Tribe played that one too. It was a mish mash really, and it was easy to jump from one to the other.”
“And I suppose, culturally, a lot of people were quite cool with listening to anything from Arthur Brown and Gong to the Mob and Antisect. It felt like there was a fit there.”
“Around 1984, Ozric Tentacles came along. They were playing everywhere in the southwest. They were quite a big influence. And they seemed to change the scene a little bit more.”
“Anyone and everyone would turn up and play at free festivals,” says Matt Grimes. “Even established bands like Hawkwind, Ozric Tentacles – or Cosmic Testicles, as I used to call them – those kind of bands. It was a good mixture.
“On the free festival circuit, anyone could play. Wango Riley’s had a travelling stage and they would provide a platform for people to play on. You could blag your way onto a stage and, if you couldn’t, you’d just set up and play an impromptu set outside your tent.
“The Mutoid Waste Company started to come into the free festival scene more. Joe Rush was very much connected with the 70s counterculture in Frestonia, a couple of squatted streets around Ladbrooke Grove.
“He started doing parties around 1984, 85 and then they came out on the free festival circuit, with all their fantastic sculptures. In fact, they pretty much became mobile and lived nomadic lifestyles themselves.
“There’s that link to the 70s counterculture, and that mutated into a punk vibe and that punk vibe mutated into a cabaret performance vibe. There was a very weird, very anarchic bunch of people called the Crow Posse, also known as 2000 DS. They used to have this circus, and they used to put on various musical performances.”
English Heritage and the National Trust got a high court injunction to prevent the festival taking place in 1985. On June 1, a convoy of five or six hundred travelers who had gathered at Savernake Forest in Wiltshire – including lots of families with kids – set off towards Stonehenge.
Seven or eight miles away from the site, and some distance from the four-mile exclusion zone set up by the cops, the convoy was forced into a field by the side of the A338 by 1,300 police officers from six different forces, including, the story goes, squaddies in police uniforms with no identifying numbers.
This is widely believed to have happened in Northern Ireland and during the miners’ strike, so it wouldn’t be out of the question. There were bases all over the area. And the SAS were just down the road in Hereford.
The events of that day have become known as the Battle of the Beanfield but the word ‘battle’ implies two more or less comparable opposing forces. This was in fact the story of a community of families, who were so ready for battle that they called themselves the Peace Convoy, who were ambushed by hyped-up, paramilitary bully boys eager to earn their hefty pay rises.
The pretext for all this brutality was the idea that the nation’s pagan heritage was somehow more at risk from a few hippies than the pollution from the busy A303 trunk road next to the stones – when really, as became clear, the state just didn’t like the lifestyle that the people on the convoy had adopted.
The cops smashed up vehicles, battered anyone who didn’t manage to get out of the way and made 537 arrests, the largest number of people ever arrested at one time – until West Yorkshire Police busted the Love Decade party and arrested 836 people in Leeds six years later.
Despite all this, when Matt Grimes got sick of the squat he was sharing in Brighton (“it became a bit of a shooting gallery junkie nightmare, and I just didn’t want to be around it”), he got some money together and bought a truck.
“I just thought, fuck it, I’m going to join the hippies on the road,” he remembers. “I’d met a few of them at various festivals and I saw what happened at the Beanfield and thought, you know actually, I’m going to join these people. Despite what went on at the Beanfield, it seemed like a far better culture to be around.”
According to Matt, in the aftermath of the Beanfield, more people than you’d imagine were thinking along the same lines.
“In my experience, people were attracted to it,” says Matt. “The convoy was essentially quite a small group of people and it would increase over the summer. There were a lot of people who would winter on farms on in cities, and then would get a transit van and join the convoy for a month or two to go round different festivals.”
“It got a lot harder for people to squat. Thatcher’s quite draconian laws made it difficult for people to exist in cities in a way that suited them, so a lot of people I knew just got vehicles and went out on the road.”
Harry Harrison was 15 or 16 and still living at home when he had his first festival experience at Pick Up Bank festival near Darwen.
“I couldn’t drive and had to get a lift with my mate Whitey,” says Harry. “It just blew my mind.”
“There were signs saying ‘Acid a quid, mushrooms 50p, speed a quid’. I just stood there looking at it. I stuck my head in this bender with all these hippies inside and said, that sign – is it accurate? And they were like, yeah. So I’m like, what do I get for a tenner then? I’ll just have one of everything please.”
Harry first went to Glastonbury in 1985:
“It was fantastic. I took a lot of acid and just wandered round. No money, We didn’t eat for about three days. We got arrested on the bus down for not paying on the train blah blah blah.”
Richard Walker left the village he grew up in in north Lincolnshire at the age of 13, when he got a scholarship at Hull Trinity House School.
As well as learning the basics of seamanship – semaphore, knots, sea shantys, rum, sodomy and the lash etc – Richard took the opportunity to dive headfirst into the nightlife of Hull and saw bands like Crass, Discharge, the Exploited and Theatre of Hate at the Tower, the Wellington club and the Adelphi.
Having left school in 1983, Richard was serving in the Royal Navy when he became aware of the travelling scene in the mid 80s. He’d visit his mum on leave and somehow always end up visiting friends at a local travelers site in nearby Brigg.
“When I left, I think a week later I’d got my money from the navy and I’d bought a bus and I was living on the road,” says Richard. “That’s how it was for me. I thought, fuck this. I don’t want this, I want something different.”
Matt Frost says that things had gone “haywire” for him by the middle of the 80s. He had “a shitty job in a factory” and had pretty much lost touch with the anarcho scene when he happened to go to a Chumbawamba gig in Leeds. He saw someone was living in a bus on the side of the road and that was it – another overnight conversion.
“I went home and started planning a bus out, and my girlfriend said, if you buy a bus, I’m going to fuck off and leave you,” says Matt. “A month later I had a bus – and Paula’s still with me, 35 years later.”
“And then we just set off. I didn’t know there were other travelers out there. Someone said to me, there’s a party on Inglestone Common, so we went over and pulled on and there were like hundreds of buses and trucks. I thought, Jesus Christ! There’s loads of them! And that was it. I’d found my home.
“And we got involved in the travelling scene and I just sort of unplugged from the punk scene. I got lost in a haze of alcohol and chemicals for a few years.”
Matt says he and Paula initially found the scene a bit odd. Or perhaps, more accurately, the scene found him and Paula a bit odd.
“My vehicle was taxed. And it was tidy,” he explains. “It was sort of frowned upon. Me and Paula were Crass-looking punks, we still dressed like that, we had the tattoos, and these were very dreadlocky, very hippie, very untogether people. I mean, they didn’t have toolboxes.”
“That blew my mind. You live on a truck and you haven’t got a toolbox?
“I was like this weird guy that had all his shit together. So, in that sense, we weren’t well accepted straight away. We were judged on being together and having our shit down, basically. But we met some really cool people who saw through all that.
“But my head at that point was like, no, we’re doing this ourselves and if we’re doing it, we’re doing it properly. If we break down, we need all our shit together. We’re on the road in a truck that’s our home. That was my mentality.
“We just went from one festival to another,” says Matt. “We started running a bar. And it was just band after band. It became very familiar. It was just like the same bands, pretty much, at each festival.”
Matt might have a point. A Travellers’ Aid Trust compilation album released in 1988, the year that acid house properly went off, was entirely made up of tracks by the likes of Hawkwind, the Ozrics, Nik Turner, 2000 DS, Hippy Slags, Screech Rock and Radio Mongolia.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these acts – but nobody but the most ardent Hippy Slags fan would dispute that there were definitely more interesting music happening in this country in 1988.
Matt Grimes says that Back to the Planet were a ray of hope at this point. Having formed in a shared squat in Peckham, playing very upbeat dance music that combined the energy of punk, the bottom end of reggae and the trippy wooziness of electronic music, they were the very definition of the free festival band, but they were also doing some new and interesting.
Unfortunately, according to Harry Harrison, who had moved to Nottingham to study for a law degree, by the end of the 80s, much of the festival scene was just plain “messy. There was the brew crew. And heroin.”
Harry went to the Treworgey Tree festival in 1988, and found it “dismal. Treworgey was always one of the first festivals in the calendar, at the end of May, near Wick, wherever that is. It was an old quarry or something. I don’t know what it was. It looked like someone had covered over a rubbish tip.”
“I watched Culture Shock and Ozric Tentacles. Hawkwind didn’t play, although they were always rumoured to be playing.”
“We spent like three days there in a bender made out of ripped plastic sheeting, with a bit of wiz and half an ounce of hash. Sat in a bender in the rain. I remember thinking, it’s okay but I’m sure this could be better.
“So yeah, I think free festivals were past their sell-by, really.”
Harry, Pete Birch and a couple of other people from Bolton all hung around with a group of former Nottingham punks and students who were squatting or renting poor-quality housing in the city’s studentland. One place, for example, had “a big hole in the floor and the rent was about 10 quid a month.”
“We all became vegans,” says Harry. “Most of my mates worked in wholefood shops in town. They all removed themselves from mainstream society. Maybe not the anarcho punk route so much. But definitely anarchist.”
Like anyone else with a pulse at the time, this group of friends were all in thrall to the emerging sounds of house music, thanks in part to the influence of early adopter Graeme Park, who was buying in import house music for Selectadisc and playing it out at the Garage from the mid 80s, when the music itself was still taking shape.
A few of them scraped up enough money to go down to one of the big M25 orbital raves – admission and pills £25 a pop, atmosphere: zero – and were unimpressed. Having already DJed at a few squat and house parties in Nottingham, they decided to do it themselves.
The first DiY gig was Harry’s 23rd birthday party at the Garage in Nottingham towards the end of 1990. Continuing the tradition of collective action that emerged with people such as the Surrealists and the Situationists, before continuing with the Merry Pranksters, Crass, Factory Records and even Chumbawamba, DiY was all about creativity and collaboration.
“I suppose I’ve always been part of a gang since I was at school,” muses Harry. “Not an actual gang, obviously. But I suppose it was kind of the first time that we applied sort of anarchist principles. There was a gang of us, boys and girls, all dressed in black and we all treated each other alike.”
“You used to go into Bolton on a Saturday night and there was the lads, there was the girls, and the lads get pissed and start to fight, and it was ever thus. I used to hate all that. We all just used to treat each other with respect, I suppose. And that’s the essence of Crass and anarcho punk.
“Me and Pete were very into the idea of anarchy as a thing. When you’re young, you think that you’re going to change the world, don’t you? Until reality kicks in. We went to Barcelona to visit the CNT office, we really studied it, you know. Obviously, this was before the days of Google so you actually had to buy books and read them.
“If you look back at the history of anarchism and trade unionism and socialism, and read about Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin – I think the only way the world has changed has been through collective action. I think the collective thing is very important. It’s hard to change the world on your own, isn’t it?”
Many of the soundystems that first brought the sound of acid house to the free party scene – such as Club Dog, Circus Warp, Bedlam – were run by former punks, often working together as collectives.
“These were very often very driven, very motivated people” says Matt Grimes. “Rather than waiting for something to happen, they would go out and make something happen.”
The former Tone Def Krew had now been re-christened Tonka (‘big tough noise for big tough boys’), in honour of their enormous bright yellow soundsystem, a system that was, according to Faith magazine, “the mother of all soundsystems” with turbos supposedly conceptualised and designed by someone on acid at Glastonbury.
Tonka threw a massive party in a local chalk pit that lasted for an entire weekend and “everyone turned up”.
“So the council came to speak to us and asked us what was going on and we said, it’s obvious. We’re looking for somewhere to dance all night,” remembers Choci. “And they said, what about we build a club for you to dance all night? And so they built the Junction.”
“It’s still there to this day. It was slightly sanitised, you know, because it’s a legal nightclub and you’re not supposed to take drugs in these places, but we got what we wanted.”
Tonka did plenty of stuff in the countryside and played at a few free festivals but it seems like they were more of an urban, squat party phenomenon. Either way, they didn’t charge an entry fee.
“We were taking a lot acid, we thought of ourselves as like hippy punks, and doing it for free felt right,” explains Choci.
“We were doing it for the love. We loved music, we loved throwing parties. And we weren’t businessmen. At all. None of us went to university. We definitely didn’t go into it thinking it was something we could make a pound note out of this. It literally was because we enjoyed it, we threw a good party and people came along.
“None of us had any money at that point. Some of us were squatting, some of us were living on other people’s couches. It was that whole ethos of make love not war. Let’s have a party. Fuck the system. It was simply that. It was a natural progression for ex-punks that had found ecstasy and acid house.
“Acid house was punk rock,” decides Choci.
“It was just mates having a laugh and that laugh just got bigger because more people got involved. It was like we were a magnet and people were just drawn to this energy. It was like, these guys are fucking mad, they’re throwing these parties, the parties are great and they don’t want any money. It just grew and grew and grew.”
Chris Liberator says that one of the first proper soundsystem he saw on the north London squat party scene were called Shrape, “but they also did parties called Urge. I never really got to the bottom of that. They were old punk friends of mine that had been through the Anarchy Centre days and they were doing a party.”
“My mate Dan from the Apostles wasn’t actually part of the group but lived in the same squat. That’s how I met them. They did parties in squats, so they could get away with it. That hadn’t really happened in the city before that, all the stuff around the M25 had happened on the outskirts. The big illegal stuff in London started in about 1990 really, from that sort of perspective.”
Precisely when acid house (played on decks, as God intended) met free festival culture in the countryside is a matter for conjecture.
The advertised line-up of the 1989 Treworgey Tree Festival (“a dustbowl of death, drugs, dysentery, dirt and depravity” according to CornwallLive) included Misty in Roots, the Levellers, Chaos UK, Loop, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Thee Hypnotics, the Blue Aeroplanes, the Climax Blues Band, and Gaye Bikers On Acid.
And, perhaps inevitably, Hawkwind, Ozric Tentacles, Here & Now and 2000 DS.
The posters for the festival, which took place from the end of July to the start of August, also mentioned, almost as an afterthought, a ‘Club marquee & Busker’s Corner.’
Harry says that he heard house music at Treworgey in 1989, “but I didn’t see decks, I suspect they were playing tapes.”
Matt Grimes remembers it slightly differently:
“There was a soundsystem in the travellers field that was on constantly for about three days. There were DJs playing vinyl. I think it was some people from London – Mutant Disco? I think they’d hired a soundsystem and brought it down. They were connected to an organisation called the Run Tings Crew based out in east London that were putting on parties in warehouses and stuff.”
“There were people in London on the acid house scene that had connections with the free party scene and 70s counterculture and punk as well. It was a real smorgasbord of people that were milling around at that point. The people who had soundsystems in London saw an opportunity to bring them out into festivals. And with free festivals, there’s no one saying, you can’t do that.”
Harry says that his mate Chilly Phil (who he describes as “the high priest of the hippie rave crossover”) reckons that the first soundsystem to take decks to a festival was when Sweat from London set up at Inglestone Common in 1989.
The first time Harry himself saw decks at a festival was Glastonbury in 1990:
“And they were ours.”
“Our mate Jack, who became one of our main DJs,” explains Harry, “he’d been in the free festival field at Glastonbury. He saw us and said, oh, have you got any decks? Yeah, funnily enough, we’ve got decks and records in the van.”
“We didn’t go anywhere without decks. We just took them everywhere. We took decks and we took records and we took ecstasy and a lot of booze and cigarettes. We didn’t have flight cases, so you’d have a grand’s worth of decks with these plastic lids on.
“We just thought, well, someone’s going to let us play. I do believe we had someone smiling on us because there was a lot of synchronicity involved. I guess if your intentions are good then maybe fate is kind sometimes in return.”
Jack introduced his friends to Chilly Phil, who had a tent shaped like a pyramid, apparently on long-term loan from Hawkwind.
“Sugar Lump and Tonka were about a hundred yards up the drag,” remembers Harry. “We played on the Friday and then got shoved aside on the Saturday by the people who owned the soundsystem, and they just had bands on. And then we did all Sunday night.”
Matt Frost was at Glastonbury that year and remembers wandering into this white pyramid tent next to Wango Riley’s “and it was like bleep bleep bleep bleeeep.”
“And I’m just stood there with my hands in my pockets, looking around, and I was like, well, that’s a load of shit,” laughs Matt. “What the hell? That’ll never take off.”
“And then that weekend, it didn’t get massively busy but it got quite busy, and I kept wandering past and thinking, nah, I really don’t know about all that.”
Other people on the scene were more vocal about their displeasure at the arrival of rave culture to the festival scene.
“We met a lot of resistance,” says Harry, “but Glastonbury 1990 seemed to be the turning for loads of different people who were there, the idea of the rave/festival crossover.”
“We didn’t have our own soundsystem. When you have your own soundsystem, you can do what you fucking want. But we had to wait around on the Friday night so that we could DJ, and then we had to get off because a band called 2000 DS wanted to play.”
“It was hilarious,” says Harry. “When we were setting up the decks, there were loads of hippies, just looking at us, going what the fuck do you think you’re doing? Why are you bringing disco turntables into a festival? Why are you trying to plug them into our soundsystem?”
“And then it was like, Why don’t you take your fucking disco shit and stick it up your arse, mate? But in a Somerset accent.
“And I was like, uh, okay.”
Resistance was futile.
Stephen Spencer-Fleet sees a direct link between the squatted punk gigs he organised and attended and the free party scene that emerged at the start of the 1990s.
“There were impromptu field parties that used to happen in this neck of the woods quite a lot,” he says. “The acid house thing, a few years later, seemed to build up on that. A few people that we knew had coaches and generators and PAs and one thing dovetailed into the other quite neatly.”
DiY began organising their own free parties, subsidised by the popular midweek club nights they ran in mainstream club venues in Nottingham, as well as collaborating with friends and contacts – co-conspirators as the law would describe them – all around the country. They played a kind of very deep, very soulful house music, often from the US and majoring on vocals and melodies.
“Me and Pete grew up with the Hacienda and Factory and Pick Up Bank and anarcho punk and somehow fused them all together,” says Harry.
“It was the attitude of lawlessness, but with the music as well. No one else was doing it really. It was just a mad thing to do – take a site, set up a soundsystem and play music really loud in the middle of the countryside, risk arrest, get wankered and then somehow manage to drag yourself home on Monday morning from a wet travellers’ site.
“We just accepted anyone, so we had this remarkable group of people. Some of those parties in 1991 and 1992, the mix of people was just astounding. We did a party somewhere and this really posh woman came up and said, oh, my parents are going away, do you want to do a party? And we get there and it’s a 13th century abbey.
“This guy had won the Le Mans 24-hour rally. He was a financier. There was a photo of him shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher. He had a helicopter. He had a whole row of E-type Jags. There was this massive lake.
“And we ended up doing two parties there. The local police turned up and she asked them to go away and they did. They didn’t dare mess with this guy’s daughter. That’s power, isn’t it?
“So we had those people, and we had the dodgiest estate smackheads and crackheads, we had punks, we had dreadlocks, we had students, ravers, we were all quite connected to the fashion scene in Nottingham – it’s funny because all the fashion people thought we were just crusties, while all the crusties thought we were trendies. We refused to be pigeonholed.
“Some of our crew were very, very trendy, you know, wearing three hundred quid trainers and all that. But then they’d go to free parties in them. That was the beauty of it. No one gave a shit.”
“I went to some of the early DIY parties and they were all open air and it was just fantastic to have that opportunity to dance underneath the stars, you know?” says Matt Grimes. “There’s nothing quite like it. As romanticised as it sounds. It was an amazing thing.”
“I think the first time I ever met DiY was the Rutland free festival,” says Richard Walker, who has a very vivid memory of DiY’s spotless van and equally spotless white trainers. “Digs, Woosh, Pete, Emma, all that lot. It was a turning point for me. I had an E. And I was like, yeah, I’m coming to your parties from now on.”
“It seemed like one day I was in the bus listening to the Ozric Tentacles, Chumbawamba, and Crass, and Black Sabbath and Hawkwind, Butthole Surfers, all that kind of stuff, and literally the day after I’m like, fucking hell, have a listen to this mixtape, it’s amazing.
“And everyone’s looking at me like I’ve gone mental.
“And I were like, yeah, I have gone mental, I’m fucking mental for this. But good mental.
“DiY were cool fuckers, they really were,” says Richard. “They were a big collective and there was a really nice vibe. That’s why I kind of jumped ship and went to their parties.”
The DiY approach was, says Richard, very different to other anarcho-influenced soundsystems, such as Spiral Tribe, who emerged from London at more or less the same time. At the end of 1991, Spiral Tribe made their name when they squatted the Roundhouse with Mutoid Waste Company for new year’s eve party that lasted a week.
“I mean Spiral Tribe were well anarchic,” says Richard. “It was all like 135bpm plus. I never really got into it. I used to go to a lot of them parties but I could never dance to it properly, it was too fast for me. I like grooving.”
“The thing is though, those Spiral Tribe records, stuff like You Might Stop the Party But You Won’t Stop the Future, sampling telephone calls they got from the police and all that, that was very punk and anarcho, I thought.
“Whereas DiY didn’t seem to give a shit about all that. They were a bit more peace and love. It was more about, let’s just fucking have a party, let’s not get into the politics of this. Y’know, the politics is the party.”
The emergence of heavier, faster and harder electronic music, however, found favour with many former punks looking for a similar musical dynamic. Chris Liberator for one.
“If you look at the way the music developed, it was around the time that Underground Resistance started making harder tracks, R&S started pumping out those harder, more monotonous kinda techno records,” says Chris “For me, that was when the music really started to ignite.”
“All the UK labels like Rising High were really instrumental to that change. Stuff like Eon on Vinyl Solution, to me, that was like punk. It was like, it’s independent music, it’s got things to say, it’s kinda weird and wonderful. It captured my imagination a lot more than the generic house music from the States, which didn’t have that vibe about it.
“Techno just came along, I took an E and was like, yes! This is it.
“When I met Julian, on that squat scene, we decided to do parties together. And of course, by that time, there was other people doing that too. Dan from the Apostles, him and some other old punks were doing squat parties and they started booking DJs.
“And the first Liberator party was the same. We had punk bands playing in the basement, techno on the first floor. It was just a typical north London punk squat party, but with techno. So the DIY aspect of punk was really important to the Liberator parties, it was what inspired us, for sure. Without punk, I don’t think we’d have done it, to be honest with you.
“Not all the punks liked it, some of them did, but they respected us because we came from the same scene, so we kind of got away with it. Some of those people were like a new breed of people who sort of had a foot in the travelling thing without coming from punk.
“We probably wouldn’t have done the raves if it was just about house music. There were other crews doing stuff with disco, but we would never have really have got along with them. Even DiY, people like that, they were part of the scene, and we respected them, and I loved DiY in the morning, when I was coming down from drugs, but I didn’t like the house music they were playing. I was much more into techno and the harder, faster stuff.
“And I think it had to have that edge to go with the gnarly environment of the squat parties. Hard acid and hard techno and early rave had that euphoric, ecstasy kind of vibe but it also had that nuts-and-bolts grittiness that goes with underground music.
“I remember buying those early Vinyl Solution records and even early hardcore records, all made in tiny little studios, and really bad quality, but really exciting too. I think that’s how music had always been for me. You discovered it and if it had that edginess, you got into it.”
“I remember the Ribblehead viaduct festivals, which used to be all proper anarcho punky-type bands and Hawkwindy traveller-type stuff,” says Richard Walker. “I remember getting pushed off there to just south of Durham, and it was all just fucking ravers and punks, dancing together.”
“The police turning up and just looking at us. They were like, just crack on, lads, we’re all on treble time, we’re going to put a van there and a van there, and we’re not going to let anyone else in. But we’re on treble time, we’ll look after you.”
Barely a year after that lone pyramid tent at Glastonbury had hosted the first free DiY party, says Matt Frost, pretty much every festival you went to had two or three tents blasting out any number of different styles of dance music. But Matt also noticed some negativity towards this strange new music.
“It was really mixed. A lot of people were negative,” he says. “Most of them, probably, didn’t like it. It was change and people don’t like change. They thought it was ruining the scene, whereas I thought it was actually reviving it.”
“It was fresh blood and a new direction, which it needed. It was stagnant and very heroin-driven. There was a lot of inverted snobbery.
“I wasn’t really into all that. It was like the Clash and Crass thing – I liked them both. It wasn’t ravers and travelers, no, no, no. This is everything. This is us. We’re people, we’re on the planet together. So I always came at it from that angle.
“On a lot of sites, the general consensus wasn’t very welcoming towards the rave scene at all really. As I say, some people didn’t like it if your vehicle was taxed and tidy. There was a lot of that weird snobbery and elitism.”
Matt dropped an E and the scales lifted from his eyes:
“It just made sense, all of sudden, to me. I was stood there, watching one of these go off, and it just clicked. Again. It was like reading the Crass lyrics, it was no different. It was the same feeling, like, ah, okay, now I understand. Now I know what’s going on.”
“It was like being blindsided.”
With what seems like his characteristic enthusiasm and energy, once he got the point, Matt very quickly wanted to get involved further.
“I built my own soundsystem with the old band speakers we had, and old value amps,” he says. “I didn’t think about it, that’s what I was doing. I did my first free party in a shed in Horncastle and put on free parties for over a decade.”
Matt initially playing the then-de rigeur early Euro trance and progressive house tracks such Passion by Gat Dacor, “and then it just got harder. But Passion – to this day I hear that and it just sends shivers down my spine.”
“When soundsystems first started turning up at free festivals, there was a lot of resistance from quite a large proportion of the traveller scene,” says Matt Grimes. “It wasn’t their type of music. And the soundsystems turning up brought out a lot of people from the cities who weren’t well versed in things like digging a hole and burying your shit, and not leaving rubbish lying around.”
“And then with the whole soundsystem culture came the drugs, and with the drugs came a lot of shady people.
“Soundsystems would turn up at travellers sites, suddenly set up and be banging out music for two or three days. And attracting people from all over the country to it. And I could understand a lot of travellers getting extremely pissed off with that. Bearing in mind that a lot of travellers on the road had families.
“Being subjected to three days of non-stop music wasn’t always a brilliant thing.
“I found it quite invigorating,“ adds Matt. “I was living on the road at that point but I was vaguely aware of acid house. I knew it was kicking off in London because people were talking about it. I’d heard some of the music.”
“I was a little bit reticent at first because I thought this is just like repetitive beats, it isn’t what I’ve been used to, but I really started to enjoy it.”
“We’d met Spiral Tribe at Solstice 1991 at Longstock,” says Harry Harrison.
“There was a festival at Moreton Lighthouse in Birkenhead, which was mad. Circus Normal was there. Suddenly there were soundsystems appearing from everywhere. The winter of 1991, you could just feel it. There were these huge parties in Oxford, we were doing small parties in Derbyshire in quarries and other places. You could just feel it in the atmosphere.
“It was going to be a busy time when the warm weather arrived.”
PUNKS ON THE DANCEFLOOR
ALL OF A SUDDEN, old punks were all over dance music.
Bjork, Boy George, former Killing Joke bassist Youth, and former KJ roadie Alex Paterson all did marvellous things that were aimed directly at the dancefloor. Mark Moore of S-Express, Andrew Weatherall, Dave Clarke and David Holmes started to make names for themselves as DJs, particularly after the scene moved into high street club venues.
Weatherall ended up doing some fabulous work with Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart and Natacha Atlas (at that time in Transglobal Underground on Aki Nawaz’s Nation label), on Bomba, shortly before he inadvertently invented indie dance and completely revitalised Primal Scream’s career in the process.
He also worked with former Internal Autonomy singer Anna Haigh, later to star in Flowered Up’s superlative Weekender, on his own Bocca Juniors project, producing such Balearic love bombs as Raise.
Charlie Hall, who’d moved up from Kent and ended up being in a pre-Damned band with Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies, was DJing with Noel Watson at the Wag when acid house happened. He was half of the Drum Club and went onto be heavily involved in Spiral Tribe.
Conflict, of all people, had found themselves with spare studio time in 1989 and ended up recording their take on acid house in the shape of A State of Mind, complete with someone saying the word ‘ecstasy’ but with their voice slowed down and those then-ubiquitous bird-call samples.
Colin Jerwood, it seems, ended up promoting his own raves around this time, although Chris Low remembers the flyers including the classic line: ‘Smart dress only – no scruffy clothes’, which is an odd vibe for someone who came up through anarcho-punk, to say the least.
M/A/R/R/S were basically AR Kane plus Colourbox remixed by Dave Dorrell, and Pump Up the Volume was one of the first house tracks from the UK, while Marco Peroni’s old band Rema Rema transformed themselves into Renegade Soundwave and sampled the Clash on their breakout hit The Phantom.
In fact, everyone from Beats International, MIA and Man Parrish to Danny Tenaglia, Sensory Productions and Dee-Lite ended up sampling the Clash. A different kind of garageland perhaps, but luckily no bullshit detectors were engaged.
Having danced to WestBam’s banging rave anthem, Hold Me Back, on a number of occasions since 1989, in various states of sobriety and otherwise, it is only when ‘researching’ this piece that I learned that it samples PiL’s Four Enclosed Walls.
Talking of John Lydon, pretty much a spent force artistically by 1993 (don’t @ me), he eventually got in on the act and, due in large part to the contribution of old punks Leftfield (see above), produced one of the finest moments of his career.
What was really great about the Kaliphz’ appropriation of the Stranglers’ Golden Brown (as well as the fact that the track is a tune) is the way they flip the bullshit hippy romance of the original to present a more rounded view of the effects of smack on the people who do it. Let’s face it, coming from Rochdale, the Kaliphz would probably know about this shit.
Former Destructors and English Dogs guitarist Gizz Butt toured the world with mental Essex rave punks the Prodigy, while Future Sound of London called their third album, Dead Cities (but didn’t actually sample the Exploited, thankfully).
Grant Showbiz applied the lessons he’d learned doing the live sound for bands like Here & Now and the Fall to form Moodswings, who brought an old Donna Summer record up to date with the help of Martin Luther King and Chrissie Hynde on Spiritual High – and had an actual chart hit for their trouble.
Graham Massey, who’d once been in 80s tape scene heroes Danny & the Dressmakers, quickly went from industrial jazz bashment with Biting Tongues to full-on electronic funk with 808 State. Both the Shamen and Moby started to have hits. Like the Shamen, Moby came up through punk – although you wouldn’t know as he so rarely mentions it.
Former Bollock Brother Paul Shurey was one of the brains behind the Universe rave, while former Pink Military singer Jayne Casey and former Pop Will Eat Itself roadie Dave Beer were integral to the success of two of the UK’s earliest so-called ‘superclub’ brands, Cream and Back to Basics respectively. The renowned Birmingham techno institution, House of God, began life as a promotion by Birmingham University’s Punk and New Wave Society.
Derrick Carter tells a great story about Gen and Paula P Orridge turning up at Importes, Etc, the record store where he worked, and asking him about this strange new Chicago ‘house’ music. The pair had chanced upon someone who would become known as one of the finest DJs on the planet, although you probably wouldn’t get that from the mostly uninspiring rave music they produced afterwards (admittedly, there is a lot to love in IC Water).
The world’s most punk rock former non-punks, the KLF, ended up working with veteran Ipswich crusties Extreme Noise Terror.
According to ENT shouter Dean Jones, it very nearly didn’t happen: “The message said it’s Bill from The KLF, but I thought they said ‘the ALF’ so I didn’t take much notice”.
After working with his Insane/Flux colleagues Si Middlehurst and Colin Latter in Hotalacio, Dave ‘Bambi’ Ellesmere went on to have a career as a techno/tech house producer. Similarly, Tommy Stupid went onto success in the drum and bass scene, working as Klute, as did Al from Internal Autonomy, working as Al.X.
Even Chaos UK got in on the act on their 1989 album, The Chipping Sodbury Bonfire Tapes. Anyone for cider house? I shit you not.
Fucking with the programme and doing dance music in a punk rock style, a collection of ne’er-do-wells from Thatcher on Acid, Snuff and Wat Tyler, for reasons known only to themselves, released the Bizarresque EP, featuring two thrashy punk covers of Angie Brown and Bizarre Inc’s handbag house classic I’m Gonna Get You in 1992. They called themselves Urin8, and the sleeve featured a very Altern8 cover design.
More of this kind of thing, although I think World Domination Enterprises (featuring Kif Kif of Here & Now) did it much better with their cover of LL Cool J’s I Can’t Live Without My Radio (and Meat Beat Manifesto later did a great cover of WDE’s Asbestos Lead Asbestos). The Klaxons should have left The Bouncer well alone.
One of Urin8, former Snuff singer Simon Wells, went onto work with 4Hero and released drum and bass on Reinforced and Pogoda, as well as more industrial stuff on Future Sound of London’s EBV label.
Of course, the Fall were making something very much like house music as early as 1988, and Mark E Smith went into collaborate with Coldcut, DOSE and, as Von Sudenfed, the mighty Mouse on Mars.
Meanwhile, we should note, some old punks – mainly in the north of England it has to be said – had been making music for the dancefloor from the outset. People like Cabaret Voltaire, New Order, A Certain Ratio and Barry Adamson just carried on doing what they’d always done. Where are their commemorative blue plaques?
Everyone was at it.
It stands to reason that producers would get around to sampling punk rock once the obvious funk, disco and soul breaks had been thoroughly rinsed by all and sundry.
But anarcho punk? Not so much.
Paul Hartnoll was enjoying some success with his brother Phil as Orbital on the back of their euphoric debut single Chime. But Orbital, who were among the first people to play live house music in the UK, had a different vibe to the relentless positivity that characterised the scene at this time.
Never a big fan of disco, the soul-influenced, vocal and piano-led anthems coming out of Italy and the US at the time did not float the Hartnoll boat.
“It was all very tame,” he says.
“And I just thought, why doesn’t anybody saying anything like they did in the music that I used to listen to. Why isn’t there any social commentary? Why isn’t that happening? I thought, there’s a hole here, so I’m going to do that. It’s not happening so I’m going to do that myself.”
Satan saw them appropriating the vocal introduction to the Butthole Surfers’ Sweat Loaf, and Choice the vocal intro from Annihilation by Crucifix (with additional lyrics by Hildegard Von Bingen), while Tootled identifies them as one of the select group of producers with the bottle to actually sample Crass.
“There wasn’t much darkness to dance music and I wanted some darkness. I wanted some theatre,” explains Paul. “It was all quite safe and pleasant. I mean, I get that now. It’s about dancing and disco again, it’s that old chestnut. People don’t want to think about politics and they just want to let their hair down and go and join a mating ritual.”
“Which is fine, but we’re not all like that. Some of us do like to have a bit of drama on the dancefloor. When I heard Detroit techno, they used to sing about quite moody things. It was moody, electronic music and it wasn’t always pleasant. It was pretty melodic but it was also a bit grubby. It was like, yeah, this is brilliant. I love this.”
“I like to pose questions,” he decides. “I don’t want to tell people what to think or how to be, but I do want to open a debate. I do want to ask questions that make people think. So that’s kind of what I do with music.”
“A track of ours called Are We Here, it just repeatedly saying, what does God say? It’s not about me answering that question, it’s like, well, what do you think? Does God say anything? What does God say?”
“I just like that kind of thing. If someone is mashed on ecstasy, hearing this voice going What does God say? They’re like fuck! But what do you think about this though?”
“I like doing things like that.”
Roni Size sampled the forbidding intro from Christ The Album’s Birth Control on New Forms, on his Mercury prize-winning album of the same name, although blink and you’d miss it. Ditto the sample of Mother Earth on Action Radar by the Prodigy. More noticeable is the sample on Brandon Spivey and Ritchie Anderson’s wall of acid techno noise, Reality Asylum.
The very first time I heard anarcho punk being sampled, however, was when late 80s Leeds avant-garde noiseniks Nerve Rack sampled Rudimentary Peni’s early output (as well as The Phantom by Renegade Soundwave) on their as-yet unreleased punk funk opus, Penis from Heaven.
“It was an experiment,” remembers Mark Goodall. “I think it was just an amusing idea. Everyone was sampling cool early 70s funk things.”
“The guy we did it with at Beaumont Street Studios in Huddersfield, he was like a rap guy, but he was the only one in the studio who knew how to work the sampler. He was like, what’s this? And we were saying, can you sample that scream there? Yeah, yeah, sure. But they didn’t know why we were doing it, because it wasn’t an obvious thing to do.”
“I distinctly remember doing the Peni thing in a day, sitting with the guy, doing all the samples, piecing it together in that painful way that you had to do then. It was probably an Akai, something like that. I remember watching how he did it, like he would record something into it and then trim it, he must have been using Cakewalk.”
“That was the funny thing, he was using it to make, I dunno, Derek B-type stuff, and we were just making this ridiculous track. You’re talking to people who took it seriously and thought, this is the future of music. We weren’t thinking like that.”
Enthused and energised by the culture around them at the end of the 80s, Chumbawamba simply wanted to get more involved in what was essentially the music of the future – and who can blame them? Particularly when a significant part of their then-audience were clinging onto the music of the past for dear life.
Boffo remembers going to clubs in Leeds and being amazed that people weren’t fighting.
“This is really lovely. This is beautiful,” he thought. “But then we would play our own gigs and have to deal with people who were really off their heads and aggressive. It was a strange time.”
“We were trying to get into that scene that we loved, at the same time as trying to avoid having a hundred brew crew turning up, demanding to get in free, every time we played south of Birmingham. And they would inevitably start fights. We were kind of all over the place for a while.”
“We toured America really late in the 1980s and we basically did a full-on ‘trying to play dance music set,’” remembers Boffo. “In retrospect it was brilliant, because half the audience absolutely loved it and half of them slagged us off and said, they’ve gone dance. Y’know, it’s pop. They’ve gone Michael Jackson and Bee Gees. Just by using repetitive beats rather than rock beats.”
“Harry was a brilliant drummer, so once he got his teeth into the idea that you could play live and make the kind of music that Dunstan and Mave were bringing into the house on 12-inch singles, it really worked. We were just like, great, play that groove for like 10 minutes and we’ll just shout political stuff over the top of it.”
“Which was great and we loved it but it was at this point that Maximum Rock n Roll said, we’re not going to review your records anymore because it’s not punk, it’s dance. If it didn’t have loud guitars, they couldn’t understand how it could still be relevant.”
“it didn’t really work because they didn’t have that there. They had no experience of it and they were just like, what on earth are you about?”
“What generally happened with everything we did was that we’d become enthused about something, a style of music or an idea or whatever, and we’d go, let’s have a go at that. Let’s try that,” says Boff of the Chumbawamba musical modus operandi.
“I remember going to Castleford studio and saying Neil, have you got a sampler, and he said that we were the only people that cared whether he had one or not, so when we had to do a single six months later, we said, what have you done with your sampler, and he said, I’ve got a better one – this one does like 18 seconds of sampling and you can see it on a screen.”
“It was just about us being enthusiastic and wanting to try something out. And, I have to say, not doing it very well at all. Doing it really badly. I don’t want to say cack-handed but it’s like, oh we don’t really know what we’re doing but we want to have a go at it.”
Undeterred, the Chumbas began using DJs as support acts rather than bands, and even played one memorable gig with Mark & Farrar at the West Indian Centre in Chapeltown, Leeds in early 1990.
“That was just us thinking, who do we know who’s involved in this? Who does it better than we can? And looking round and thinking, oh we know them. You do this thing and you’re really good at it – could we be part of it? And do you want to get involved in this thing we’re doing as well?
“We knew Mark and Farrah through Dev, there was that Beeston connection. Dev was really up on that stuff, he was very quick on everything, basically. He introduced me to hip hop.”
“To be honest, it was never going to work, from our perspective, with our audience. Essentially, we were kind of a rock n roll band that sings bits of acapella and chucked other things in.”
“I remember going to see Primal Scream when they were in that phase where they were saying, yeah, we’re a rock band but we’re going to do half the gig as a dance night, and it’s just DJs and we’ll add a bit of guitar every so often. And they were really, really good at it.”
“And they had incredible production as well. We realised we wouldn’t be able to do that. But in our almost provincial Leeds way, that’s what we were trying to do.”
By 1992, the Chumbas had got the sampling bug to such an extent that they recorded an entire album, Jesus H Christ, built around uncleared beats and pieces from the polar opposite of anarcho punk – tracks like Money Money Money, Big Mouth Strikes Again and Little Lies – to test the bullshit and hypocrisy around copyright law with their customary humour and finesse.
You can almost hear the corporate lawyers say: Well done, now sod off.
They quickly reworked it, removed most of the samples and released it as Shhh the same year.
Within a couple of years, most of the Chumbas could be found on a Saturday night tripping the light fantastic at the gender-bending weekly club, Vague, at the Warehouse in Leeds.
Danbert Nobacon in particular took to cross-dressing with enthusiasm and not a little style. My appreciation for a white leather cowgirl outfit I once saw him wearing down there was only increased by the knowledge that he would probably have walked down Armley Town Street before catching the bus into town. That’s what you call bottle.
“I remember talking to people and saying, I just can’t listen to guitar music anymore,” says Chris Liberator. “I’d got into ecstasy and electronic music and it was so egoless, you know.”
“I couldn’t listen to guitar music for about 10 years. It just grated on me, because of the ego thing. It was almost too humanistic. This is one of the reasons I never really liked psychedelic trance, that’s a very kind of fiddly, human tinkering with sounds and arrangements – and it just sounds too much like people are involved in it.
“With acid house and techno and acid techno, it sounds like machines making the music. When we started to make those records, it was a big step for us to just hold back and let them electronic repetition do its thing without fucking about with too much.
“When you’re in a band, you’re always messing around and doing little twiddly bits and it was a learning curve to make electronic music because you can’t really do that. My band had collapsed and I was just really fed up with guitar music across the board. Electronic music saved me. It inspired me so much.”
“It was a massive relief to step away from guitar music, and have something different to listen to,” decides Chris. “It’s like it affects a different part of your brain.”
Sid and Zillah were still working as Rubella Ballet at this time, but the arse had well and truly dropped out of what remained of the anarcho scene and it doesn’t sound too much fun.
“It was a very strange transition period,” says Sid. “Zillah always tells me off for giving up punk but, in a way, punk gave up me. It started to get really hard to do gigs. Dragging that fucking drum kit around. And would anyone help me with it? No, they wouldn’t. It was hell.”
“Sleeping on concrete floors – I was saying this to Steve [Ignorant] the other day. People would say, come and stay in my flat, and this, that and the other, and you’d get there and they’d go, there’s the kitchen, four of you can get in there. What? Have you got special cupboards or something?
“It was just a really weird time.”
Simultaneously, many venues around the country – such as Hull Tower, Sheffield Leadmill, Conway Hall, Digbeth Civic Hall, St George’s Hall in Exeter – that had once hosted Crass and other anarcho bands were now fully immersed in dance culture (although not always exclusively).
DiY’s first big promotion, featuring the debut live appearance of LFO in 1990, was at the Marcus Garvey Centre in Nottingham, one of the last venues that Crass played before they stopped working together five or six years earlier.
“Acid house or rave or whatever, when it first started, it started to take over all those places we were playing,” remembers Zillah. “It was much cheaper for them to put a DJ on rather than pay bands. So we were losing venues quite quickly, and not getting so many gigs.”
By this point, Sid was spending much of his week working with kids from the local neighbourhood in east London, says Zillah.
“Across the road from where we used to live, there was a swimming baths with a studio upstairs and it was supposed to be for the community. So we went there but they wouldn’t let us in, so I complained and we finally got in.”
“This bloke, Ray Shell, was always recording people from the community, and when he realised that Sid was really good at the stuff he was doing in our flat, he often sent some of the locals round to see Sid to do some recording.
“Well, a couple of them were people that you’d know, like Damage, do you remember them? They all came round when they were kids.
“They were all sat in our flat and I remember they’d all just got mobile phones,” says Sid. “And I’m like, let’s work on vocals today, and they’re all sat there ringing each other. Can you hear me? Yeah? I can hear you! And they ended up getting this big massive deal.”
“Sid was always getting asked by people in the community to do things to help them. He was always doing that,” adds Zillah.
“And then one day, someone from the local council estate that we didn’t know, they came round with Scallywag. And Sid started doing some stuff with him and it turned out he was part of Spiral Tribe. So we ended up doing Xenophobia with him.”
“It was a bit like Rubella Ballet,” says Sid. “It wasn’t planned. Scallywag just came round the house. We’d have a drink, get stoned, chill out and make music. We had a Tascam four-track studio and a microphone, and then we started doing vocals.”
“Scallywag didn’t have anywhere else to record. And neither did anyone else out of Spiral Tribe. They hadn’t recorded anywhere at that point.”
Their track, DOET, ended up on the first Spiral Tribe EP.
Sid was friendly with DJs such as Randall, who had opened a record shop in Poplar, and Nicky Blackmarket, who worked behind the counter at Blackmarket in Soho – both of whom were very big on the hardcore scene and would become even bigger when one bit of it eventually morphed into jungle a couple of years later.
“By the time we started releasing records, we were personally punting them out to people out the back of the car,” says Sid. “It was a weird transition between doing a bit of punk and a bit of dance music. I was doing stuff on an XZ77, and it sounded fucking shit to be honest. I think that music was held back a little by the equipment.”
Perhaps, but breakbeat hardcore tracks like those made by Xenophobia sounded genuinely exciting and innovative at the time, if a bit rough and ready. But that was part of their charm.
These records sounded like a uniquely British combination of dub and hip hop and techno, and completely unlike almost anything any of us had heard previously. But hardcore often gets forgotten or ignored when people write about this stuff – in much the same way that anarcho punk often gets forgotten.
“Definitely,” agrees Zillah. “I think it’s probably the people that did it. We were all working class, we didn’t have any money. The music that we did just gets ignored.”
“Like, you were saying that disco came up at the same time as punk, but disco used to get on the TV. Punk didn’t. So we had no punk stuff to see or hear really, it was only John Peel. And I think that’s the same with that kind of rave music.”
Either way, there’s no denying the impact this music had at the time.
There’s footage of a rammed and absolutely bananas Xenophobia gig in Woolwich in 1990 and, hilariously, Sid pops up in the comments talking about double-dropping Rhubarb & Custards. It is off the hook. People are going crackers.
“That thing that anarcho punk had, when we were all going to Crass gigs, it was a thing,” reckons Sid. “We all looked at each other and we knew that we were that. Whatever that was. Anarchy, yeah, fuck that! You saw someone across the road and you knew that they were part of the same thing.”
“It was the same with rave. Maybe it was the ecstasy – but not everyone was on ecstasy. Zilla wasn’t. I was. But there was just a buzz.”
“It was free,” adds Zillah. “And it was kids doing it all.”
And how did you feel about being the responsible adult while all this was going on Zillah? I mean, that gig looks fucking crackers.
“I was alright with that. It’s fine,” she says. “It was always me that was driving the van, so I couldn’t really drink even through the punk thing.”
Taking their cue from the way that Crass used to operate, Zillah and Sid have never done dressings rooms, with Rubella Ballet or Xenophobia.
“We’re out in the crowd because we’re part of the crowd,” says Sid. “We’re nothing special. Spiral Tribe were brilliant because we were exactly the same as everyone else – except we pulled out a keyboard and a DAT player and we’d plug in and pipe our crap through these speakers and everyone would go fucking mental.”
“Scallywag would just freestyle over my stuff and it was brilliant, it was just like being at Conway Hall, when Crass said, do your own band, so we climbed up and we fucking did. It was all just bashed out.”
Thanks to a connection with a DJ known only as Nut Nut, the pair ended up presenting their own Xenophobia radio show on another east London pirate, Touchdown FM.
“I was spending all my money every week, going to all the shops, seeing Nicky Blackmarket, getting all the top tunes. We’d drop Rush in the House and The Wobbler, and Scallywag would MC over everything. It was proper nuts and full on,” says Sid.
“We were effing and blinding – you’re not really supposed to say that stuff. We nearly got busted – I think if one of our shows had gone on another half an hour we have got done.”
“They used to tell everyone, you hear this sound, throw the link box out of the window and do a runner with your records. We used to do a two-hour show and Scallywag would be shouting ‘rush your fucking bollocks off!’ like every four seconds.”
Other people from anarcho punk, and the wider punk scene from the first half of the 1980s, were also beginning to get involved.
Chris Low had been buying house music since 1987 and began DJing a couple of years later when he began a techno club in Edinburgh called Sex Beat, followed by Soma a year later – but the scene was very different to what was going England and Wales at the time.
From the middle ages onwards, Scottish landowners, it seems, were much more efficient than their English counterparts in separating people from their rights and they were able to successfully plunder most of the common land in Scotland. And, unlike England and Wales, where it was made a criminal offence to squat residential property in 2012, squatting any land or property, residential or commercial, has always been a criminal offence in Scotland.
When acid house came along, there was simply nowhere to throw a party that wasn’t owned by someone with lawyers and cops on tap.
“That illegal rave, free party scene didn’t exist in Scotland,” says Chris. “You had to use established club venues. These were large, commercial club venues. When we first started doing Soma at Wilkie House, the rental was something like £180 a week. And by the time we’d finished, it had gone up to over £1000. Everything was dictated by market forces.”
Chris sees few parallels between the two scenes – anarcho punk and acid house – that bookended the 80s for him and many others.
“There was actually quite a demarcation between folk who were into guitar music, and even punk, and folk who were into acid house and techno, when that came along. Maybe because we were a bit older, and our social circles, a lot of old punks used to come along, taking acid and ecstasy.”
Chris says that one of the things he most liked about DJing was that “DJs weren’t centre stage in the way that punk bands weren’t centre stage – which I enjoyed immensely.”
“When I first went out clubbing, there were never any names on flyers. I remember someone asking me if we were going to put people’s names on the flyers and that had never really occurred to me. Not for the residents anyway. That kind of promotion was looked upon as quite cheesey. But that changed very, very quickly.
“When the club gets established, it’s like when you’re in a band and playing gigs. All your mates come along and you get to make a whole lot of new friends.
“We had a club with like 400 capacity in every week but our guestlist was about 80 people because you meet all these people and they become your friends and then it feels really shite to be asking them for money every week.
“So I suppose that’s still the DIY ethos. It’s engrained in you.”
Chris retained other elements of what we might call the punk ethos:
“Anyone who tried to lord it up and give it the big one, ego-wise, was regarded as a wanker,” he says. “Whereas people who have just come up through club culture almost expect that. When you’ve got some name DJ acting like a prick, I think a lot of people would give that a pass, but I was like, mate, you’re fucking nothing, don’t be a prick.”
Despite the casual ultraviolence that often colours memories of early 80s anarcho punk gigs, by the standards of the time, these gigs were in fact about as safe spaces as you could get. It’s probably a stretch to say we policed ourselves but people would definitely step in to help out if you were in trouble.
Similarly, when acid house began to take off, besides the music and the drugs, one of the culture’s principal attractions for many women was an absence of that beery, gropey misogynist vibe that had previously punctuated a night out dancing to music in this country.
Acid house attracted a diverse audience in terms of ethnicity, sexuality and class – and one that was significantly more diverse than most punk gigs, anarcho or otherwise. And, as we have learned, with ecstasy in the equation, violence was pretty much off the agenda.
“We’d have hundreds of people, every Saturday night, a lot of whom would have been, or still were, football hooligans,” remembers Chris. “The football hooligan thing was massive in Edinburgh at the time, it was just inescapable, and a load of my mates were involved in that scene at the time. And some still are.”
“I used to work at the City Café – like the most cool bar in Edinburgh – and we’d get all these club kids and amazing transvestites in the club as well, because they were my mates as well. There was no friction between these two like enormously diverse social groups. There was never any violence.
“During the time we were doing the club, I was sharing a place with Deek from Oi Polloi for four years. And he came along a few times,” says Chris. “I remember talking to Deek about this, because I was at an Oi Polloi gig and some woman got hit. And it was just like nothing happened.
“One time at our club, one guy had an argument with his girlfriend and ended up grabbing her by the hair. The guy was immediately bundled outside and had the shit kicked out of him. And Deek was really surprised that that had happened at what he regarded as a normal club.”
Chris Low went on to record the Chilli Fingers EP for south London label Southwest 20, featuring samples of Keith le Blanc beats rather than “that typical 808/909 sound, like all Chicago and Detroit records had.”
He still refuses to get onboard with my (admittedly shit) theory that anarcho punk directly influenced everything that has happened since 1984.
“I suppose being a drummer helps with drum programming,” he says, unhelpfully.
Dance music went mainstream in the first half of the 90s, and it encompassed everything from brutal, uncompromising techno in mainstream high-street venues to soulful deep house under the stars in the middle of nowhere – and Top of the Pops and Inspector Morse and Now That’s What I Call Dance Music too.
Tonka’s sweaty, intense and musically diverse events, and the crowds they attracted, started to get them noticed. Their weekly club night at the Zap on Brighton seafront were accompanied by legendarily wild free parties on the beach afterwards. Choci started a label, Choci’s Choons, specialising in acid techno, and released his own stuff on Hooj and Stay Up Forever, while Harvey got himself a residency at the Ministry of Sound. The underground was now overground – and we were all wombling free.
Annie Bandez somehow found herself signed to ATCO Stax Records, a division of Atlantic.
“They spent a ridiculous amount of money on me,” she says. “They wanted dancefloor. Well, they had no idea what I was. My lyrics were never ‘hit the fucking dancefloor’ lyrics. I was like, who do these people think they’ve signed?”
“They didn’t want me to do gigs for year. Oh, you’re going to be like Madonna. Well, no, I don’t wanna be.”
Although Annie remembers being given “a list of like 100 fucking remixers – there was some great people there, including people like Frankie Knuckles and Teddy Riley”, the only single that emerged from this time – Sugarbowl, produced by Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant, remixed by Sherwood – although great, wasn’t really much of a progression from what she’d done with On-U.
It was your standard On-U electro, basically, and if it had been released in 1980 we’d probably still be dancing to it now, but it was released in 1990 and we‘re not. Either way, it certainly wasn’t house music. I thought that the guy who played piano on the b-side, Diamonds Made of Glass, was Richard Norris of the Grid but it turns out it was actually a different guy, Richard R Norris, who had previously worked with Bryan Ferry.
Either way, it was just about the only time in Annie’s career when she didn’t sound like the future.
Happily, after she had singlehandedly destroyed ATCO, Annie returned to On-U, ditched the Little Annie moniker, and produced something that was more on point.
On-U ignored house music for years and Sherwood doesn’t ever really seem to have got it, even after the label hooked up with Paul Oakenfold’s Perfecto imprint. But Annie’s fantastic Short and Sweet album, produced by Sherwood, with Doug Wimbish And Skip McDonald from Tackhead, is about as close as On-U Sound ever got to proper house music.
Tracks like the distinctly trippy Prisoner of Paradise and the previously unidentified balearic yacht-rock anarcho-funk bomb, Going for Gold, as well as slower, dubbier excursions such as Bless Those and I Think of You, find Annie at her most accessible.
Some of the lyrics on the album seem to be critiquing the club scene, I tell Annie, and lay some elaborate hokey theory on her involving Catholicism and dancing for hours on end, and I don’t really know what the fuck I was on about. And, of course, I get it all totally wrong. Very graciously, Annie shoots me down in flames.
It took me ages to think of that, I tell her.
“Life be like that baby, trust.”
Even so, how far did you get into it all?
“I got taken to places,” she says. “For a while, I was on a label with people like AR Kane that became M/A/R/R/S and all – but honestly, ecstasy always made me vomit. Plus I was working all the time and the last thing I want to do on a day off is hear any kind of music. I’ve been doing it my whole life and your ears get destroyed.”
Some aspects of the rave scene in the early days really reminded me of anarcho punk, I tell her. They were both built around temporary autonomous zones where people have licence to do what they want. And there was the multi-media thing, a conscious effort to disorientate people with lights and images …
Annie doesn’t sound convinced. I plough on.
But the main thing they had in common was that sense of collective euphoria.
The big difference was that there was rarely any political thought behind rave – and that seemed quite refreshing after anarcho punk.
“Absolutely,” says Annie. “I agree with your 100%. But euphoria is political. That freedom is political. And it’s freeing.”
“And being free, I think, isn’t that what it’s all about?”
“There were a number of things happening around the early 90s,” says Matt Grimes. “The Conservative party was still in and Thatcher was clamping down on the whole travelling scene. People felt really squeezed and really pushed. I think there was a degree of common purpose between travellers and ravers – or as the police would call it, criminal conspiracy – in that the laws were being changed to stamp down on these kind of subcultural events.”
“I think the poll tax riot is a really good example of different kinds of people and organisations, all with different ideas, coming together to challenge authority. And there were soundsystems in Trafalgar Square, you’d find them at a lot of road protests – all of those things, the soundtrack for those few summers was house music.”
“It was brilliant. It was a point where you thought, oh, this is all morphing,” remembers Alice Nutter.
“People have been stopped from doing things that they want to do and they’ve joined the dots together and now they’re on top of a van at the poll tax riot. It felt different. It felt like a bonding experience between people who should have bonded a long time before.”
“There was a sense that there’s safety in numbers,” says Matt Grimes. “I think that they were being clamped down by the same government for wanting to do the same things – just going out and being free, and living our own lives.”
“Most of the people I knew in the travelling community were political. Because your way of live was political. And you were faced with politics on a daily basis, with local authorities trying to move you on, the police coming onto your site trying to move you on, local residents trying to move you on. All these sorts of things.
“The media played a huge part in demonising the travelling culture. They did the same thing with traditional travellers and gypsies as well.
“These people are going to come into your area, leave rubbish everywhere, turn your kids onto drugs – because they’re selling drugs from these travellers sites – and they’re going to turn up with these soundsystems and play music for four days non-stop in your back yard.”
People living without rules and regulations. It can freak other people out.
“Absolutely. Things like the travellers, and the road protest movement, punks, ravers, I think there was a real sense of collectivity. Is that a word? They were all, pretty much, fighting for the same kind of things and the same kind of rights. It was becoming a critical mass and if there’s one thing that governments hate, it’s a critical mass. Because that then becomes a challenge to their authority.”
IN THE SPACE of a couple of years, Harry Harrison had seen a rapid thaw in the icy hostility shown to this new musical / drug phenomenon on the traveling circuit.
“It was fascinating,” he remembers. “It was the tail end of the brew crew, so they were all there with their dreadlocks and big boots, Special Brew T-shirts, and covered in shit. And within two years, one by one, the attitude changed and they’re all wearing trainers, they’ve had their dreads cut off, and they’re all dressing in really bright colours and taking ecstasy. They went from complete hostility and rejection to total enthusiasm.”
“And then obviously you had the ones who wouldn’t involve themselves in any of that,” says Matt Frost, “and they’d just sink into the background. There was just no stopping it. It was just like this insane wave.”
“They were outnumbered by smiley, happy dancing people, in their thousands. It was like, you can walk around like a grumpy old man moaning about how things are changing if you want – but look! Look around you!”
DiY had started to make connections with other soundsystems, including Spiral Tribe. Harry remembers a “mad” festival at Marton Lighthouse in Birkenhead with Circus Normal. “Suddenly there were soundsystems appearing from everywhere.”
“May is the only month with two bank holidays, usually the first and last weekend. First one was at a place called Lechlade and then the Avon free festival took place at the end. We didn’t go to Lechlade – we were doing a free party at some traveler site somewhere – and it was massive. There were supposed to be 15 to 20 thousand people there.”
Other forces were at work, however. Midway through May, the House of Lords debated new age travelers, with home office minister Earl Travers telling the chamber:
“Some of these groups find it convenient to park their caravans permanently. Some travel seasonally to seek employment. Some seem simply to appear, rather like bluebottles in the spring, when the sun comes out.”
Let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that this is a truly shameful way to refer to anyone.
“Whoever they are and whatever their philosophies of life may be – if they have any – there can be no excuse whatever for causing the distress which some do ..”
“The noble Viscount Lord Tenby asked whether we could send out a message of hope to those who are affected by this problem. He asked Her Majesty’s Government not to rest upon the niceties of the present law .. I believe we can give a message of hope. The Government intend to look at this matter afresh. There is a real problem here.”
Harry says that “Avon free festival had always been very big”, but when Avon & Somerset Constabulary decided it would not allow the festival to take place at the end of the month, it simply forced people heading towards Bristol over the border into Gloucestershire.
“I drove down to Avon to go to it, only to get turned round and sent back up to Herefordshire, where I was living on a farm on my truck. I could’ve saved myself a lot of money,” says Matt Grimes.
“Avon Constabulary were pushing people out of the county because the festival had just grown and grown over the last couple of years, a lot of soundsystems were turning up – Bedlam, Circus Warp, Circus Normal – because a lot of them were based in the west of England anyway.
“Avon Free festival was quite a staple for a lot of the travellers, it was early in the season, and it was the first big festival of the summer, where people would come out of hibernation and start making money by selling stuff.”
Eventually, West Mercia Police decided to confine the growing collection of trucks and buses that had somehow been landed on them to Castlemorton Common near Malvern in Worcestershire.
“I think they just saw a big common on the map and just said, let’s put them there,” says Harry.
“Next thing you know,” says Matt Grimes, “word had got out and DiY and Smokescreen turned up, Wango Riley’s stage was there, massive marquees appeared out of nowhere.”
The resulting festival – also featuring the Spiral Tribe, Circus Warp, Circus Normal, Techno Travellers, LSDiezel, Adreneline, Armageddon and Bedlam soundsystems – lasted the best part of a week.
“We had five days of beautiful sunshine,” says Harry. “And it got on the national news. You can see it on YouTube. It’s 6pm on the Friday and the guy is saying ‘an enormous rave is taking place at Castlemorton Common in Gloucestershire’.”
“And I’m sure that every kid within a hundred miles who’d got a car and some mates just got in the car and went. I wandered round on the Saturday night and I think there were more than 50,000 people there.
“I’ve seen 75,000 people at Old Trafford and 150,000 at Glastonbury and it seemed like it was somewhere in between. The crowds around the soundsystems were so vast it was effectively one crowd.
“We also, in that awful phrase of Tony Blair, felt the hand of history on us. We were like, this is just out of control, isn’t it? What are they going to do?
“This wasn’t licensed like Glastonbury, this was the biggest free festival since Stonehenge. And we all know what happened at Stonehenge. The state just squashed it. And we had police helicopters flying over all day, we had the news media down there.”
Was it a good party?
“It was a fantastic festival. It was like a village fete. It was really nice. I don’t think I saw any aggression or anything.”
Matt Grimes remembers Back to the Planet playing at Castlemorton.
“I’m not sure whether Guy and Henry were involved in making electronic music at that time but certainly there were a lot of bands who were involved in that countercultural movement, and were at Castlemorton and thought, well, hang on. This is where it’s all going. This is the future.”
“I don’t remember seeing any bands at Castlemorton,” says Harry, the very definition of an unreliable narrator. “I think there were probably eight soundsystems playing for five days. Fifty thousand people. I didn’t see a single band. They got wiped out of existence, basically.”
“They just couldn’t compete. You had to set up your stage, the microphones, the drum kit. With our sound, we’d be ready to go in an hour. And we were just so much louder. And we could play forever because we had a whole stream of DJs.”
Perhaps inevitably, “Spiral Tribe wouldn’t stop,” remembers Harry. “We sneaked our soundsystem out in a horsebox at 2am on Tuesday morning. We had a 7.5t Dodge truck. We had this massive DiY banner which, cunningly, we’d stuck onto the side of the truck, so the whole world could see we were DiY.”
“And we thought, they’re probably watching this truck, so our mate let us put the soundsystem in the back of her horsebox. So the police stopped our van and there was just a few people in the back and they were like, oh, okay.
“Spiral Tribe didn’t do that. They were more confrontational. We liked to slip away in the night. We’d had kickings, loads of times. I think Spiral Tribe were there until Thursday or Friday.”
This is perhaps as good an illustration as any of the difference in approach of the two most well-known soundsystems on the scene – although the story goes that Spiral Tribe actually stayed behind to tidy up.
Either way, DiY emerged from Castlemorton with fuzzy heads and thousand-yard stares but, crucially, with their soundsystem intact, albeit smelling of horses. When Spiral Tribe finally left the site, 13 of them got nicked and charged with public order offences, and their system and vehicles were impounded.
“I ended up staying there for a week,” says Matt Grimes. “Mainly because it was still going on. Secondly, because I didn’t have enough money to put fuel into my truck to get away from there.”
“And because I’d been involved in that free festival scene, you felt a sense of responsibility for clearing up after you. A lot of the city kids wouldn’t. They would just come, party and go. Not all of them but a number of them did. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just what they did.
“It was quite a thing clearing up the site. You had people literally just shitting behind a bush. And I remember being there, witnessing that and shouting to them, I’ve got a fucking spade here. You can borrow it, you only have to ask. Would you please dig yourself a hole and shit in it, for fucks sake?”
“It was an amazing week,” says Matt Frost. “But, like Stonehenge, it just freaked the authorities out. It was too big a gathering. How the hell could a few hippies get that many people together in a field in so short a time – with no mobile phones? It was the beginning of the end really.”
“It was the end of the glory days of rave free festivals and it all just completely wobbled into becoming so huge, the authorities were never going to allow that to happen again,” says Harry. “It’s a slightly lazy comparison but it was like the Woodstock of all that. It was the end of an era that started in Golden Gate Park in 1966.”
“You know, Stonehenge was huge wasn’t it? It was bigger than Castlemorton and it went on for years and then it got stopped. The police got more militarised in the 80s. At the Brixton riots they were using bin lids, weren’t they? And within five years, they were fully tooled up in the full ninja kit. They developed the ability to stop that type of thing.”
Although the 13 Spiral Tribers were eventually acquitted, it seems it was a long and stressful process, and by the time it was done, many of them had simply had enough of the UK and headed over to France and Italy.
According to Harry, after Castlemorton, DiY retired to Derbyshire and began doing deliberately low-key small parties around the Peak District with the similarly minded Smokescreen soundsystem.
“We didn’t stop going to parties,” he says, “we just stopped going to festivals.”
“We put a lot of our efforts into the record label. We built a studio in Nottingham. But we were just exhausted,” he adds.
ALL SYSTEMS GO
BUSY with the band, and never a massive fan of outdoor partying, Alice Nutter didn’t really notice the crackdown on the hippie rave scene until she heard that an old boyfriend was one of the people put on trial in the aftermath of Castlemorton.
“I remember looking into Castlemorton afterwards and trying to work out what the fuck had happened,” says Alice. “What’s behind this? Why have they done this?”
In the aftermath of such a public challenge to its authority at Castlemorton, the Conservative government didn’t have much choice but to make good on its commitment to strengthen the laws that would help them deal with the ‘problem’ of so-called new age travelers and the unlicensed, unregulated gatherings they hosted.
The Criminal Justice & Public Order Bill was a wide-ranging piece of proposed legislation affecting anything from young offenders and bail conditions to police powers to take intimate body samples and evidence procedures in court.
The public order section of the bill, focused on collective nuisance or trespass on land, included specific powers in relation to raves and a very specific definition of the music that would be prohibited:
“Sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
There’s a theory that much of the impetus behind this was due to the dwindling profits of the big brewery conglomerates. At the time, in a dramatic turnaround for many young people in the traditionally boozy UK, increasingly casual drug use meant drinking was something for the morning after rather than the night itself.
Better for all concerned to get this new and mystifying emerging culture into a safely regulated environment. Donating large amounts of money to Conservative party coffers did bring some advantages, it seems.
For promoters, the carrot was longer opening hours for licensed, regulated club venues, as roadtested during Glasgow’s tenure as European City of Culture in 1990, with the Ministry of Sound getting a 24-hour license later that year. The stick was the Criminal Justice & Public Order Bill.
“It wasn’t a coincidence,” admitted Inspector Ken Tappenden of Kent Constabulary’s Pay Party Unit. “It was a coordinated plan.”
“I got really interested in the fact that the breweries were pushing the government towards outlawing it because they were losing money on beer, realising what was happening and what the clampdown on youth was about,” says Alice.
“A lot of it was financial. All that repetitive beats stuff was just about clamping down on things that didn’t make money for the right people.”
“I remember hearing about the Criminal Justice Bill, and it was the same with the poll tax before it,” says Boffo, “and realising all that’s happening now with the law enforcement and the way the government is handling law making, all they’re doing is politicising a generation of young people. And don’t they realise how ridiculous it is? They made dance music cool and connected with rebelliousness. They’re just not going to win.
“People just wanted to have a good time and get off their faces and dance all night and that’s brilliant. And then suddenly the law went, oh, you’re not allowed to do that. Those people are obviously going to become politicised.”
DiY became part of a loose collection of soundsystems opposed to the CJB, working under the name All Systems Go (Harry saw the Poison Girls a couple of times, but says he didn’t even realise they had a single of the same name).
“We did a load of gigs and raised a lot of money actually, like forty or fifty grand,” he says. “We got the guy who did that Lifeline comic Peanut Pete to draw a rotting union jack .. because the anti-rave stuff wasn’t even the worst thing in that bill.”
“It abolished the right to silence, it allowed them to use prison ships, there were loads of different bits that were actually worse than the rave thing – that was just a farce – but it was actually quite a draconian bill.”
Thanks to a link with Peace News, which was based in Nottingham, the Chumbas, having realised “how many connections there were between what we were doing”, hooked up with DiY to record an anti-CJB single, the Criminal Injustice EP.
“We were often in Leeds because we were on these twin tracks,” says Harry. “It’s bizarre. We were on the sort of glamour, fashion scene. We used to go and play at Back to Basics, which was very chi-chi and trendy, and then we’d go and see Chumbawamba afterwards, who were not.”
“We somehow managed to do that all the way through. So we played at Castlemorton and then a week later we’re playing at the Café del Mar in Ibiza.
“You wouldn’t catch Spiral Tribe playing at the Café del Mar.”
The Chumbas had not had particularly good experiences with people remixing their music previously.
“We used to pay for people to remix stuff on a regular basis and when it turned up we were like, well, that’s a bit underwhelming,” says Alice.
“There was this thing like, oh right, you’ve taken all the vocals off it, so there’s no politics left on it,” says Boff.
“If they’d taken the vocal off but the rest of it’d been so fucking interesting and avant garde, I would have thought, I don’t know if I like it but at least it’s interesting,” adds Alice, taking care to point out she’s not talking about DiY here.
“We just had to get used to that and think, yep, that’s how it is,” says Boff.
Plenty of people have made serious, issues-based music with a groove but it’s harder to do it than it sounds.
“But if you get it right, it really works,” says Alice. “When I got into punk I got into stuff like Last Poets, a bit later on, and you realise how well it can be done. That’s really what we were looking for.”
Boffo says the DiY project was more of a collaboration than straightforward remixes.
“We said, we’ve got this idea for some kind of single, but instead of us doing it and then giving you stuff and you remixing it, let’s work on it together and we’ll give you the basic template, and then you do what you want with it.”
And then the track came back from DiY with the vocal removed.
The Chumbas ended up putting their mate Simon Commonknowledge’s voice on the resulting single, talking about the Criminal Justice Bill, “and that was definitely us saying, right, there isn’t enough politics on this. We needed something on it that said something really definite about what was going on.”
Harry says there was no conflict between the requirements of the groove and the requirements of the message.
“If anything we should have pushed it more. It had a Noam Chomsky sample on it, didn’t it? Given that it was on One Little Indian, it probably should have been a bit better known but there you go. I don’t think Noam Chomsky ever knew about it. But he’s an anarchist, so I guess he couldn’t say much really.”
Despite the opposition of All Systems Go and many others, the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act received royal assent in November 1994, with different sections of the law coming into effect at different times.
“We just had our thing,” says Matt of the parties he put on as the Jibblefish collective. “We had a really nice following. We were Lincolnshire based. We were living on travelers’ sites, people ran generators, other people did the backdrops, we had that community thing. Everyone was chipping in. They weren’t massive, we’d get two to three hundred people at most of our parties. And Lincolnshire was ours, really.”
Matt was on a site near Horncastle for a Jibblefish party when he and five friends were arrested and charged with damaging the land, a clause in the bill which had been passed by parliament but wasn’t on the statute book as yet. The trial went to crown court, with the police regularly raiding the site throughout what seems like a long- drawn-out process.
“I got in a fight with three of them,” says Matt. “I ended up in prison, only briefly, and I was like, fuck this. I’m off abroad, England’s over. It’s done. The year leading up to that was just a nightmare. It wasn’t much fun. Living and travelling in a vehicle was not fun anymore. Very stressful, very violent. Laid there in my prison bed, I was like, right, we’re off.”
“The judge was amazing and very supportive as she and the local papers actually came out in support, writing about the decline of our rights and freedom to live how we desired. She sentenced me to one month – no fine – for ABH on three police officers, with various damages. And one was hospitalised.
“I came out of prison and fucked off to Portugal in a 1945 Leyland Hippo. I took my sound system and things went insanely amazing for some years.”
Having not really got the music that he heard on the early rave scene, David Oliver didn’t really pay much attention to dance music until Fatboy Slim began to ply his increasingly deranged top 40 trade in the mid 90s.
“Now I’d seen the Housemartins, so I knew of him, and knew stuff like Dub Be Good to Me, stuff like that,” says David. “I really got into his DJing as well. But then I sort of got into acid techno. I found out that I like my beats really hard.”
“I actually got into German techno first, in about 1996, 1997, after listening to a lot of it on John Peel, again. That really opened everything up. And the faster, the noisier the beats the better. Cos it was more punk – and not many people liked it. And I liked that.
“There is quite a punk tinge to acid techno, German techno. It was only a while later that I learned that a lot of old punks in London had turned into producers and were knocking out acid techno and putting on raves. It became obvious that acid techno and techno were very much hand-in-hand with punk, but not all punks liked that. I know a lot of old punks that will have nothing to do with techno or acid techno. They just don’t get it.”
“About 1996 or 1997, I started going to this place called the Country Club, which is just outside of Yeovil, and you could only fit maybe 500 people. And they were strictly hard dance.”
David began to DJ under the name Judda.
“That’s when I really got into mixing, but first I had to learn to dance. That was quite funny.”
“I remember the first night I went, I was looking at all these guys and girls dancing really well, doing robotics and everything, underneath lasers and strobe lights, with this massive, massive soundsystem in this tiny cattle shed.
“They were just having it. Everyone was smiling, they were giving each other water, shaking hands, hugging – there seemed to be quite a family feel to it. So I was lucky enough to fall into the techno scene around here as a result of going to this small, independent club – which was the best club around here. I think it got quite a big name because certain DJs just loved the place – it was in the middle of nowhere, on top of this ancient hill.
“I went there from the first night. I just loved it.”
Matt Frost landed in Portugal, hooked up with Maf and the Total Resistance soundsytem and held what seem like some very memorable parties.
“We had a big removals truck and the sides would open up and we’d have the decks in the back,” remembers Matt. “These free parties, they just went on for months, some of them, but they’d go up and down.”
“Like, I don’t know, Wednesday morning for example, there would be nobody about really, there’d be a few dogs wandering past. Most people were back at work, the people on site were in bed, but me and Paula would get all my records – boxes and boxes and boxes of them – cart them down to the truck, we’d get a crate of beer, start the generator up and I’d just play for two days.
“I’d just play punk and techno and stuff. Then people would get out of bed, go YEEEEAH and being you a crate of Special Brew. It was great.”Matt says that the Portuguese police once surrounded a site they were on, toting heavy “machine guns on tripods” and then let everyone out to go shopping.
By this time, back in the UK, Chris Liberator was starting to find some success with the label he began with Julian and Aaron Liberator to release his own music and that of other people, Stay Up Forever, popularising the kind of uncompromising, 303-driven, +135bpm hard-edged electronica known as acid techno that has become largely synonymous with the free party scene (as well as clubs such as Manchester’s Havok).
Most of the people releasing music on SUF, it seems (okay, some), were former members of Back to the Planet, as neatly summarised by Matt Grimes:
“Guy McAffer who was the keyboard player and guitarist of Back to the Planet, went onto become Geezer, techno DJ and producer. Carl Hendrix who was the bass player went onto become DJ Trashman, and formed a partnership with Guy under the name Audio Pancake. Henry Cullen was the drummer for Back to the Planet and went onto become a techno DJ and producer called DAVE the Drummer.”
“With rave music, it was all about DIY,” continues Matt. “You got a system, you went into an empty building, you put something on. There was no money, it was a very DIY approach and I think a lot of that came from that punk ethos. It’s not so surprising that a lot of people who were involved in anarcho punk went onto to build, develop, create their own soundsystems.”
“Scenewise, I can look back at the timeline, and it all makes sense to me, from the squat parties we did onwards, why we did them and the way we did them,” says Chris Liberator. “It’s all DIY culture, in essence. And making it available for people at a cheap price, or free, is also DIY culture.
“That was never the case of the rave scene. Those M25 raves were always costly to get in, and the kind of drugs that went with them were always really costly. So it was a bit of a different approach to all that with our scene.”
Meanwhile, DiY were busier than ever.
“We were doing a club night every Friday, we were DJing all over the country on Saturdays, so what do we do? We start a Tuesday night and get the soundsystem in there, and then take it out again,” says Harry. “Going out flyering on a Thursday, then driving to Stoke on Friday, driving to Derbyshire on Saturday and doing a free party. And then it’s Monday. And we’re running a record label as well.”
What would you say is the key to success for a punk hippie rave collective?
“Fuck knows,” replies Harry. “Stay away from drugs.”
“It depends how you define success. We were quite successful in our way, I guess. Us and Spiral Tribe became pretty internationally known. I think the secret is you’ve just got to be driven. You have to be dedicated. And there’s quite a lot of luck involved in it.
“I don’t know. Be in the right place at the right time. What the anarcho punk thing meant for us was that we met people who did not give a shit about breaking the law. If you’re going to drive a 7.5-tonne truck through a police roadblock, you’ve got to have a certain mentality.
“At Castlemorton, there were eight soundsystems and I think seven of them were playing serious nose bleed techno, nothing else, and we played deep house and garage. On the Saturday and Sunday afternoons, there were thousands of people bobbing along to jazz funk, soul and reggae. I think people just loved the music, to be honest.
“We just accepted anyone, so we had this remarkable group of people. And we were doing it every weekend for years and years and years.”
JOY, FUN, SEASONS IN THE SUN ETC
“FREE festivals had gone from bands with stages being set up to just a marquee with fucking DJs,” says Richard Walker. “It was just simpler. Simpler to organise, easier to carry the equipment to do it.
“I think that’s why they brought in the Criminal Justice Bill. Thatcher thought there was going to be a revolution but absolutely no way was there going to be a revolution because we were all too fucked. We were all off our tits.”
“The only revolution we was having was a revolution in our minds. While we were dancing. It was proper fucking peace and love. Let’s just fucking dance, you know.”
One last time, I try out my theory that Crass gigs and illegal raves have a lot in common. I tell Harry Harrison about that idea of the temporary autonomous zone, multimedia performances, a lack of stars and bouncers, collective euphoria, a belief in a brighter tomorrow.
And they were both a mass of contradictions and weird juxtapositions, weren’t they? People talking about peace and love and then playing really aggressive music. People wanting to get back to nature and then going into the countryside and playing music that sounds like it was made by machines.
Or is this all just revisionist bullshit?
Harry turns round and pulls out a well-thumbed copy of Hakim Bey’s TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism from a shelf behind him.
“I think there’s an innate desire to want to belong to something,” he tells me. “Not everyone at Woodstock and festivals and Crass gigs was young but I’d say the vast majority were under 25. A lot of people who went to Crass gigs probably didn’t know anything about the music, but they just wanted to be a part of something, they wanted to be punks.”
“It’s that idea that life isn’t a search for happiness, it’s a search for meaning. Whatever it is, it goes back thousands of years.
“Within any scene, there are people who take it more seriously than others. We were called DiY and obviously a lot of people did do it themselves. Which is the essence of punk. And then there are people who are involved because they just want to have a laugh.
“And all of it is welcome, really.
“There’s a thread running from the jazz festivals of the 50s onwards,” decides Harry. “People really want to be outdoors, under the stars, and they like to be intoxicated and inebriated, and they like to listen to music. It’s fascinating stuff. I think there’s just a basic human need to celebrate. It becomes like a quasi-religious mass communion.”
Why did that collision between DIY punk, traveler culture and acid house strike such a chord with people?
“When I was a kid, it was all about smashing things up,” says Matt Frost. “And then the Crass thing, peace punk, whatever you want to call it, that was more about building it up, and community, and let’s work together. And the free party scene just felt like a natural evolution from that.”
“I’m not a religious person, and I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. I’ve read a lot of Huxley and Alan Watts and various other philosophers. Aldous Huxley dreamt of a religious renaissance to save humanity from the path it was going on, to put it crudely. And Alan Watts said that the biggest threat to organised religion and the state was an instant interest in mysticism.
“It’s like people searching for this thing but religion doesn’t fit the bill. Everyone talks about community or whatever – there’s something that binds us together – but there seemed to be something that was missing.
“And for me, when I watched that rave thing happening, it was like, ah! That peg fits that hole.
“But I still see the evolution of that with things happening now. The ayahuasca retreats are booming at the minute. All these things are becoming mainstream. I just see it as another step of all that.
“It’s a natural progression. Getting people together and – religion is the wrong word – I just saw it as another way of getting together and celebrating life. Yeah. I dunno. It just seemed to strip away so much bullshit.”
For Chris Liberator, the free party/festival scene is just another bit of alternative culture that has been absorbed and neutered by ‘the system’.
“Virgin were selling credit cards with Never Mind the Bollocks on them and stuff,” he says. “Punk has become appropriated by the system, it was almost like a tourist thing. Come to London and see the punks on Kings Road.”
“It’s happened on the rave scene and the traveller scene, with people like Joe Rush from Mutoid Waste Company doing the Olympics. What was once the outlaw area of Glastonbury is now celebrated and revered.
“And you can watch it on TV.
“Festivals are just part of British culture now. They’ve lost the edge that they had, they’re commercial, but it’s kinda celebrated as a coming of age thing now. If you’re middle class and you’re in your 50s, there’ll be a festival for you, with all the elements that were outlawed – but now they’ve been commercialised.
“I find it all fascinating, how ideas come from subcultures into the mainstream and get accepted, and then diluted,” says Chris. “The fact that you can buy a vegieburger at McDonalds, things have changed and people care more about animal rights but the industries that drive these things just appropriate ideas and make them work for them and everyone is placated. So nothing changes, essentially.”
“Festivals have just exploded into this commercial nightmare,” says Choci. “There’s a festival every weekend, if you want one. The festivals we were brought up on, you could just walk in, nobody cared, they were just full of hippies and punks on acid. And now it’s middle class kids in their Hunter wellies, buying a tent for the weekend and leaving it there.”
“We didn’t have tents. We just walked in wearing whatever clothes we had on. We had our blue microdots and that was that.”
“I went to live in America for seven years and when I came back, festivals had become this sort of leisure option,” says Harry. “My sister was off with her friends to do a luxury yurt at Glastonbury for the weekend. I was like, you’re going to Glastonbury?”
“In 1985, there were only about two or three festivals. These days, there’s hundreds and hundreds of them. The BBC are there doing a live link up, there’s police on site, and you can buy artisan bread. There’s toilets.
“I remember this girl came up to me at Castlemorton and said, excuse me, where’s the toilets? I said, yeah, sorry, there aren’t any toilets.
“She was about 17, bless her, obviously needed a dump, and she just looked at me.”
Matt Grimes says he’s not one for nostalgia but he treasures his memories of “summers being out in fields, listening to music, dancing underneath the stars” on the free party scene.
“Having a life where I really did feel that I was free – albeit in my own little bubble of freedom. And there was a sense that you were going against the system, you were taking the next logical step towards anarchy, no ones in charge, there are no rules, all those sort of things, and being responsible for yourself.”
Richard Walker says that the values he had as a traveller raving around the countryside in the 90s were – and still are – exactly the same as the values he had as a little Crass punk pogoing around Hull Tower.
“Definitely. Believe it or not, I’ve always tried to stay out of trouble,” says Richard.
“Trouble always seems to find me but yeah, looking after each other and being responsible for yourself, stuff like that, taking care of your environment, that’s always been important to me.”
“You see photos after raves and festivals these days and they’re just fucking disgusting. We used to take time to tidy up after ourselves. The only reason you knew we’d been there was because the grass had been flattened.
“We had that respect for the earth. You could call that a hippy thing, I think it’s quite punky. I think Crass had a respect for the earth.
“It was like an alien spaceship had landed, a bit like a crop circle. Something’s happened here but it’s been left tidy and in order. Oh yeah, we were very responsible, even though we were off our tits. We’d all do it. It was a collective thing.
“Getting around was a collective thing. We’d all have to chip in for the diesel, we’d chip in to buy records to DJ with, we’d chip in for everything.”
DON’T MENTION THE C-WORD
TWENTY-FIVE years after Crass split up, it seemed like they never really existed. They appeared to have been completely erased from history.
That’s the standard line. We’ve all said it. But really, all that meant was that they were never mentioned by the talking heads on mediocre music-clip punk rock tragibutes and did not feature in similarly unambitious retrospectives in heritage-orientated glossy music magazines.
Good. I’m glad.
People who didn’t know the anarcho scene in the first place and couldn’t be bothered to research it weren’t really in a position to talk about Crass. John Lydon wasn’t going to bring them up. Plus, there was no new (or repackaged) product to promote. And there is very little footage of Crass playing live anyway. The revolution was not televised.
Either way, that invisibility did not last long. Many people who knew of Crass the first time around began to reach an age where they had the time, inclination and perspective to look back at their earlier lives and try to work out what went on. It seems like everyone really does have a book in them.
And it turned out that the influence of Crass had been hiding in plain sight all along.
Crass came out of the same post-hippie milieu that birthed feminism and various kinds of sexual liberation, the animal rights movement, and the peace movement. And the internet. Not to mention Oz, Release, Spare Rib, Neal’s Yard, the Leeds Other Paper, the Band on the Wall, Supernatural, Beano, On the Eighth Day, the Leadmill, Peace News, Ecotricity and hundreds more community-focussed businesses and co-ops around the country.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this motley collection of heads, hipsters, freaks, misfits, outsiders and troublemakers, many of whom were often off their heads. Who says winners don’t take drugs?
The awkward thing is though, Crass only really began to get it together when they got serious and swore off drugs after the amyl nitrate fiasco that led Penny to write Banned from the Roxy.
Their big achievement was to somehow put together different elements of the counterculture in a coherent package, underpinned by what seemed like an all-encompassing worldview that made sense in a world that made less and less sense each day.
Crass equipped an entire generation of kids with the tools to start changing their own little bit of the world, whether that be ideas, information, strategies, confidence, networks, a sense of community, or even something as basic as stencils. Or a few quid.
Crass didn’t invent the concept of detournment but they showed that such pranks had a place in modern political discourse, whether that was the Thatchergate tapes or the flexi they created for Loving magazine. They didn’t invent non-violent direct action but their support of the London Greenpeace Stop the City protests showed that, with a little imagination, even individual actions can have a big impact.
Crass didn’t invent CND, Greenpeace, the Animal Liberation Front or the Vegetarian Society either. But they did help to create an environment where these kinds of organisations could flourish, and they gifted them a ready-made audience that was informed, passionate and refreshingly committed to getting stuck in. We were absolutely primed for activism. Crass just pointed us in the right direction.
Crass were dropping reality on teenagers decades before influencers began to plaster their heavily-filtered bangin’ beach bods all over Instagram and Tik Tok in the promotion of bullshit for likes and cash.
They helped to introduce the idea of thinking globally and acting locally to a generation of highly impressionable youngsters, many of whom would have been unlikely to encounter these kind of ideas otherwise.
They enabled us to join the dots between patriarchy and misogyny, the war machine, the 9 to 5, conspicuous consumption and that massive hole in the ozone layer. They were all part of the same problem.
The contradiction at the heart of all this – hippy anarchists inadvertently become the leaders of a worldwide youth movement – should not be understated. But Crass were all about contradictions.
Then as now, we should embrace the contradictions.
We live in an imperfect world. Buy a helmet.
No doublethink required.
As the would-be messiah followers ask in Life of Brian: How shall we fuck off, oh Lord?
Sorry kids, you’ll just have to work that out for yourselves.
Crass were part of a long and venerable tradition of dissent and anti-authoritarianism – and that tradition did not end because Crass stopped releasing records.
Governments still have all the guns, bombs and tanks but you could argue that the people power that finally breached the Berlin wall was a manifestation of the kind of non-violent direct action that Crass promoted at its most effective. We could have so easily seen the same thing in Tiananmen Square.
While the extent of Crass’s influence on the fall of the Berlin wall has yet to be established (I’ll get back to you in a couple of hundred years), aspects of these anarcho-superspreaders’ worldview and approach could certainly be seen in the campaigns and protests against Clause 28, the Poll Tax, the Criminal Justice Act and Thatcher’s Roads for Prosperity programme – much of the impetus for which came from ordinary people organising in the places where they lived.
Earth First!, Reclaim the Streets, Critical Mass, J18/the Carnival Against Capital, Occupy, the anti-globalisation movement, the Stop the War Coalition, the Seattle WTO protests, the Gilets Jaunes, Black Lives Matter, AFA/Antifa, Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and now Animal Rebellion were/are all a part of that lineage of protest and resistance, non-violent or otherwise.
The tactics may change – following the lead of democracy protesters in Hong Kong, rather than merely dressing in dark colours, the black bloc now paint their faces to disrupt surveillance technology – but the system is a constant.
Tracks liked Banned from the Roxy and Hurry Up Garry aside, Crass are horribly, heartbreakingly relevant today, underlined by the Daily Mirror’s use of Gee Vaucher’s artwork (originally for Tackhead’s 1990 Demolition House single) for its front page the day after Trump was elected president in 2016.
How the fuck did we get here? How can this be? I am dismayed, angered and appalled that we haven’t moved on in the best part of four decades since Crass ended. What they had to say back then should not be relevant in 2021. But it is.
It is utterly tragic.
Compared to all that, the fact that Crass haven’t left much of a musical impression around the world pales into insignificance. So what?
After all, music was merely their principal means to deliver the message.
And while it’s true that the medium was the message, with Crass it really was all about the message.
You sometimes get the impression from Penny that the sole reason Crass were selflessly and bravely playing this awful racket was because that was the only way they could get through to the kids on the street and he’d actually rather be playing equally confrontational jazz to modern-day beatniks in Stoke Newington.
And although Penny agrees when I suggest that the music Crass made was a means to an end, he thinks for a second and adds:
“We didn’t particularly define the end. We were saying there is no authority but yourself – in other words, wake up, get up and get on with it.”
Gee did not mince her words to the Last Bohemians podcast:
“Punk? Obviously it’s a sound, which I don’t particularly like. I don’t listen to it. I suppose it’s like cricket. If you’re playing it, it can be quite fun but if you’re watching it, it can be really boring.”
Most of the former members of Crass (Penny, Gee, Eve, Steve, Andy Palmer and Pete Wright) began working together as the Crass Collective, Crass Agenda and finally the Last Amendment when, in November 2002, they organised an event at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in opposition to the imminent invasion of Iraq (justified by ‘sexed up’ intelligence about weapons of mass destruction).
This was no reformation gig. The former members of Crass did not play a greatest hits set. The event was significantly more important than that.
Aki Nawaz and Fun-da-Mental also appeared at the event, alongside Ian MacKaye, Goldblade, the English Chamber Choir and Graeae theatre company founder Nabil Shaban.
“I loved it. I thought, we belong here,” remembers Aki. “A lot of people thought that Fun-da-Mental were an Islamic band, that we were pushing Islam. We weren’t. We just knew that the target was on us at that particular time. Things were building up and we knew that was going to come. We were trying to say that Muslims and black people, our struggles will always be the same.”
“We only did two or three songs. I had to read out a poem that I’d written specially. And it was some weird way of looking at things, something about traffic lights, like the traffic lights weren’t working, because of Muslims. It was that idea of blaming everything on Muslims.
“I thought it was cool. I don’t think people really got us. We were just sticking up for a community that was just becoming some kind of ism.”
As far as Aki is concerned, Fun-da-Mental were absolutely continuing what Crass had begun.
“I was Muslim but I’d never really thought about my Muslim-ness until it started to become a thing in the media. All my life I’ve always been a target of the right wing or fascists or whatever. So I understood that. I’ll always be in that place.”
“With Fun-da-Mental, it was all about fighting that. We had to create our own platform, like with hip hop and Public Enemy. They started to do it, blatantly. We started to do the same thing but our music was more chaotic. To me, it was punk.
“We were willing to sacrifice anything for what we believed in. We were all about absolute equality and justice. We couldn’t tolerate racism. We didn’t want it anymore.
“Fun-da-Mental had a purpose, like Crass had a purpose,” says Aki. “But not everyone wants that. And that’s fine as well.”
By the end of the 90s, the trend for people to wear T-shirts featuring bands they had little or no knowledge of had moved beyond the standard Ramones and Rolling Stones logo Ts to include Crass, of all people.
Paparazzi photos of Angelina Jolie and David Beckham in the pages of Heat and Hello, wearing what were clearly very expensive Crass T-shirts, were particularly annoying given Crass never sold a single T-shirt or licensed their logo to anyone. They simply included stencils on their records sleeves that allowed fans to make their own.
The fact that Penny and Gee were in a lot of debt at the time after having to borrow money to buy the leasehold on Dial House or face eviction just added insult to injury.
“To see one of the wealthiest people in Britain wearing a bloody Crass T-shirt actually quite upset me,” Penny Rimbaud told the Big Issue in the North in 2001. “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.”
It was around this time that enigmatic Bristol street artist Banksy began to make a name for himself with his ‘trademark’ subversive and anti-authoritarian stencilled graffiti. Banksy’s methodology was supposedly inspired by the artist hiding from the police “under a rubbish lorry” and noticing a stenciled serial number on the chassis.
Ah, Banksy thought to himself, apparently, using stencils would reduce my exposure to police state fascist bully boys when I’m creating my highly incisive, politically motivated street artworks, while simultaneously bestowing upon them an edgy, utilitarian aesthetic that adds another layer of meaning to an already deeply symbolic act.
Banksy’s use of stencils was in no way influenced by the work of Gee Vaucher or Blek le Rat. Definitely not.
Even so, Stephen Spencer-Fleet tells me that his partner Leigh used have a little shop in “funky part of Bristol” in the mid 90s. Amusingly, Stephen used to pop in on Saturdays to “disrupt the music” they were playing with stuff like Renegade Soundwave’s In Dub album and Feeding of the 5000.
Banksy, who was already doing graffiti by this time, was seeing a woman who made bodices in the unit downstairs and he would often gravitate towards the music Stephen was playing while he waited for his girlfriend to shut up shop at 5pm.
”One day, I remember it quite well, I had a long conversation with him about Crass and about Gee and about Psychic TV,” says Stephen. “And stencilling and spraying, masking up, going out after dark. He was really interested in it. At that time, there was just a little bit of his graffiti up around Bristol – you know, like the elephant with the torpedo on its back, and a couple of the chimps that he would put in different places.”
“If you want people to stop, look, consider and think, I think it’s important to approach it with thought, make it part of what you want to say, so there is a chance of getting past the knee jerk reaction,” said Gee, talking to Edwin Pouncey (aka Savage Pencil) in The Wire about her attitude towards graffiti.
“Obviously, the prime example of that has been Banksy – trouble is, it’s gone beyond what he is trying to say and has now become someone’s ‘millionaire’ dream, a photo opportunity. He can’t stop that, it’s now a commodity.”
One of most well-known and even loved of Banksy’s artworks began as graffiti and has evolved in something else entirely. Known variously as Love is in the Air, Rage, the Flower Thrower and the Flower Chucker, this work features a masked young man getting ready to throw a Molotov cocktail – only it’s not a petrol bomb he’s throwing but a bunch of flowers.
It’s an arresting image that has gone onto sell well – both in the form of official prints and a whole range of unofficial bootleg posters, coasters, T-shirts and mugs. Banksy decided to trademark the image, allowing him to protect it without disclosing his identity, as he would have had to have to when applying to copyright the image. Or something.
As you might have guessed, I understand very little of this shit, and trying to understand it is actually making me lose the will to live. The upshot is that no less a body than the European Union trademark office threw out Banksy’s claim, amongst other things quoting the artist’s past pronouncement that “copyright is for losers”.
The truth is, the image that Banksy based his stencil on was never ‘his’ in the first place and was in fact created by a group of anarchist squatters in Woodhouse, Leeds for a parody BP advert in the radical newspaper Attack Attack Attack in 1987 – and, even though it was a staged photo shoot, they were definitely not throwing bunches of flowers.
Shot by Andrew Bannerman-Bayles, the photo featured two of Andrew’s colleagues in the Flame in Hand gig collective, Becky Worton and Nick Evans, masked up and looking to create havoc – although, of course, nobody’s name appeared in Attack Attack Attack when it came out.
According to his official biography, the precocious Banksy would have been just 12 years old at the time.
Earlier this year, an oil and spraypaint on canvas version of Love is in the Air sold for $12.9 million at Sotheby’s, which could be paid in cash or bitcoin. It was the first piece of physical art to be bought with cryptocurrency at a major auction house.
Love is in the Air is generally thought to serve as a motif for peaceful resistance, non-violent protest and the power of love over hate, which is, you know, fair enough – but the fact is that peace and love were the furthest things from the minds of these Leeds anarchists when they created the original image.
Brilliantly (I think, I’m not entirely sure), earlier this month, Andrew, working with Unikz, a digital artist from Bristol, created Attack Attack Attack, a non-fungible token that “reveals a little more about the identity of the street artist Banksy” and which is for sale on OpenSea.
To be honest, I’m not sure what is going on here or what it signifies. NFTs are supposedly democratising the artworld by allowing artists to bypass galleries and deal with buyers directly, but at the same time the currency used to buy and sell them has an enormous carbon footprint and does precisely nothing to un-fuck the world. But I’m no authority.
Either way I’m hopeful that, somewhere along the line, the Leeds anarchists will see some benefit from their labours.
And while we’re on the subject, you have to wonder if Cold War Steve has ever seen any of Gee Vaucher’s work for Crass.
One of the more notable (but still totally under the radar) survivors from the anarcho scene is Chris Taylor, who played fretless bass for the Poison Girls for a couple of years in the mid 80s, including their Where’s the Pleasure album. Twenty years later, he began working with former Spice Girls drummer Andy Gangadeen, Simon Palmskin and Jimpster as the Bays.
The Bays improvise each gig, never rehearse and never release any product.
They are insanely great and still gigging now. Do yourself a favour.
In 2007, Steve Ignorant played the Feeding of the 5000 in its entirety at two gigs at the Shepherds Bush Empire (with a band that included Gizz Butt), supported by a reformed Flux of Pink Indians.
A year later, Steve’s Last Supper tour saw him performing a whole range of Crass songs. Yes, nostalgia is the death of hope, blah blah blah, but even the most miserable cynic could not fail to appreciate the sheer joy of these gigs. They were just big celebrations. And everyone still knew all the words.
There were even some people there under the age of 50. Truthful fact.
Optimo co-founder JD Twitch – who regularly played a dancefloor-orientated rework of Nagasaki Nightmare at his famously uninhibited club night – re-edited tracks by the Mob, Zounds, Flux of Pink Indians and Honey Bane for his visionary 10 inches of Fear project in 2008.
Twitch’s reinterpretation of Witch Hunt as a droney, delirious, throbbing kraut rock anthem is particularly fresh.
A year later, Professor Green and his producer FreQ Nasty sampled the bassline and drums from Tube Disasters for his banging Hard Night Out track.
The reformed Flux did not know what to make of it all. But they didn’t get paid, or even credited.
Even so, more than a decade later, people are still running with this idea.
Maybe Crass and the bands who recorded for their label weren’t as quite musically irrelevant as it had once seemed.
NORMAL ON THE NEVER NEVER
SURE enough, One Little Indian (as was) began re-releasing the Crass back catalogue on CD in 2010.
“Painstakingly remastered and redesigned over recent years by Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, the Crassical Collections are a radical reappraisal of the Crass catalogue,” says the OLI website. “The message remains the same, but with new visuals, improved sound and the added clarity of hindsight.”
“Crass as it was in the beginning, but with all the power of now.”
Whatever the merits of these new reworks, other former members of Crass felt less comfortable about returning to their “shared property”. The shit hit the fan.
It was fucking horrible.
The daft geek man-child in me loved Gee’s lovingly reworked artwork for the re-releases, with all the CD covers fitting together to form an image of one of Penny’s old bass drum covers with the Dave King logo.
They were beautiful objects and the remastered albums certainly sounded bigger and better than before but I distinctly remember thinking at the time, if it was going to cause so much ill feeling and aggravation, I’d rather they didn’t bother.
Then again, fuck it, why not?
The UK is going backwards in time with everything else – nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, the environment, the climate emergency, a new cold war and the same old class war, inflation, poverty, mass unemployment – so why not go back to the music of the 70s and 80s too? It makes a weird kind of sense.
Penny says that the remix project came about after he and OLI got access to the original master tapes for much of the Crass back catalogue – the Crass relationship with Southern seems to have deteriorated considerably in the years since John Loder’s death – and he started to think about how they could be most usefully deployed, beyond simply remastering them and re-releasing them “where necessary”.
“I just thought it would be a lovely idea to give people the stems for the whole of Feeding. It was our first album and it’s always been one which seems to be important to most people who listen to or enjoy Crass’s material.”
“I just thought it would be lovely if people could just do it themselves,” says Penny. “They could download the stems, for nothing, and they could do what the hell they want with them. It didn’t go beyond that, initially.”
“It was just sort, here you are. We’ve got it, you can have it.”
“It was very unconditional. We didn’t ask people to send back what they did. We didn’t mind if anyone wanted to do a remix and put it out – although we did say, if you are going to put it out, it would be nice for us to know. Outside of that, it was very much an unconditional thing, which was very much in the spirit of how Crass used to operate.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Penny soon found himself receiving a lot of unsolicited remixes from people who had downloaded the stems for Feeding.
When the project was launched last year, it was announced that any money made from the remixes would go to Refuge, a charity that gives women and children practical help and support to leave abusive and often violent environments.
Vital at any time, the charity provided a particularly important lifeline during the pandemic lockdown. It seemed like wonderful serendipity that Crass had just happened to be supporting Refuge when the charity needed it most.
But the link with Refuge was no coincidence. It was only when the Covid pandemic hit Britain at the start of 2020 that Penny and Gee, with what seems like their characteristic pragmatism, focus and generosity, decided to use these reinterpretations of Crass tracks from 40-odd years ago to make a difference in the here and now.
The days of Crass being overtaken by events in a fast-paced world seem to be long gone. These two septuagenarian free-thinkers do not fuck about.
“We’ve got a platform,” says Penny, “so how do we use that platform to benefit others? We looked around for a charity that really seemed to need the money. Refuge came up, because of the rise in domestic violence during lockdown – it was the inevitable outcome. They seemed like good people to be supporting.”
“There were probably more obvious charities that we could have given to but this one just seemed so real. And actually very important. It’s that human level, our level, how we inter-relate.”
The idea evolved. A series of limited edition 12-inch singles would pair selected unsolicited remixes sent in by ‘unknown’ producers with reworks by friends of Crass with more profile, such as Richard Russell, Steve Aoki and the Bloody Beetroots.
And NYC freak flag-flying stalwart, Johnny Dynell.
Johnny was one of the resident DJs at the Mudd Club when he met Gee Vaucher in 1977. Operating from 77 West Street in TriBeCa in lower Manhattan, the Mudd Club featured DJs combined with live performance from no wave bands like DNA, the Contortions, Tuxedomoon and Gray (featuring Jean-Paul Basquiat, Michael Holman and Vincent Gallo), as well as more seasoned scene veterans like William Boroughs and Alan Ginsberg.
It had gender-neutral toilets and an in-house art space curated by Keith Haring – and it sounds utterly fantastic.
The Mudd Club attracted an audience of ultra-hip creatives and malcontents, who were very much on the way up, or very much on the way down, from Johnny Thunders, Lydia Lunch and the Cramps to Nico, Kathy Acker and Klaus Nomi, dancing to a mixture of disco, soul, funk, hip hop, electro and whatever the latest European post-punk sensation was that week.
Did you ever play Walls at the Mudd Club, Johnny?
“No. I played disco.”
Another idea shot to shit.
“New York in the 70s, it was really great,” continues Johnny, unconcerned. “I don’t think people really understand what it was like. They’ll be fans of the Ramones or Blondie but they don’t really understand that the Ramones and Blondie were going to discos in the 70s.”
“There were great after-hours clubs and the whole world was there. It was more interesting. You’d see bands like Talking Heads at after-hours clubs, and at the after-hours clubs they were playing disco.”
It’s not like punks in the UK weren’t into black music. Everyone was really into reggae, and that sometimes made itself known in the music – but funk and soul, and the combination of the two (along with gospel) that brought us disco, not so much.
“It was more fluid in New York. And it went both ways,” says Johnny.
“People think it was just one way, where the white people downtown are getting into the black music uptown but it worked the other way too. Just look at the graphics of hip hop, it’s punk. That’s where all their visuals come from. It went back and forth.
“Yeah, downtown got into uptown, musically and stuff, but the uptown people really got into the punk feel, especially with the graphics on earlier album covers.”
Johnny had studied at the School of Visual Arts at the same time as Keith Haring. They both took the six to get to school and Johnny remembers occasionally acting as lookout while Keith chalked his joyous, subversive modern primitive figures onto blacked-out advertising hoardings on the subway network.
There was an extraordinary amount of people doing similarly groundbreaking creative endeavours – in film, art, fashion, even cookery – all over the city. But music was the biggest creative force in New York, and the city was just about to explode.
As well as no wave and punk, hip hop was beginning to do nothing less than fundamentally deconstruct and redefine what music actually was, as well as how it was created and performed.
It was into this creative hothouse that Gee stepped when she moved to New York.
“I know she would never say this or anything, she’s so modest, but Gee came to New York to make money, really, to send back,” says Johnny.
“As a graphic artist. She became so successful, right away. She became the hottest thing. She couldn’t do all the jobs she was offered. All of a sudden, she’s earning all this money as a successful illustrator, and I think it took her by surprise.”
Johnny introduced Gee to friends like James Chance and Lydia Lunch, and Crass ended up flying to New York to play a few gigs in 1978.
“I had no idea what things were like in London. How political it was. And how dire,” says Johnny. “And what no future meant in 1977, in England. Because New York had come out of the 60s with Andy Warhol and Max’s Kansas City and punk, it wasn’t as political. We didn’t have that political situation that England did.”
“A lot of the bands in New York, they were trying to get record contracts. That’s where they were at. They were in that whole tradition of rock n roll, they wanted to get on tour, and release albums and sign record deals.
“The whole punk thing in England was much more political, and when I met Crass, they sort of showed me what was up. I think it was a real eye opener for them too, because when they came here, I think they thought it was going to be like England.”
Eager to show Steve Ignorant that there was more to New York than CBGB, Johnny volunteered to take him out for the night.
“The first night that he came to New York, he was right off the plane and I took him to this crazy, after-hours transsexual drug den called the 220 Club,” he says. “And he was young, I don’t know how old he was, maybe 17 or 18, something like that. He’d never been out of England or anywhere.”
“I took him to this crazy club. There was disco, there were transsexuals. They had like cocktail waitresses who would come around holding trays with like every kind of drug imaginable on them. And that was not what punk was in England. So, it was a real clash of cultures.”
“The next morning, Gee was like, I can’t believe you took him there. He’s never seen anything like that! And later she says to me, it’s okay, he loved it.”
A couple of years later, Johnny was resident at Danceteria, alongside Mark Kamins, and the pair teamed up with producer Kenton Nix (later to produce Taana Gardner on West End) to record Johnny’s first single, Jam Hot (Rhumba Rock), a quirky little electrofunk number about graffiti kids and break dancers.
The song’s refrain “Tank, Fly Boss, Walk, Jam, Nitty Gritty / Talkin’ ’bout the boys from the big bad city / this is Jam Hot” was later appropriated by Norman Cook for Beats International’s Dub Be Good To Me.
“Jam Hot came out in 1983 but I wrote it and was performing it in 1980,” remembers Johnny. “We went to London and toured around with it a little bit. It was just such a crazy record. It still gets sampled. I’m confused. It’s so out of tune, everything that could be wrong with it is wrong with it.”
But it has a real naïve charm.
“I guess that’s what it is. I just played that little keyboard line on a Casio.”
Johnny returned to London a couple of years later to work with Steve and Penny on Steve’s long-lost solo hip hop record, Take Your Elbows Off the Table, at Southern.
“That was really Steve and Penny’s project. I didn’t do a lot,” says Johnny. He was impressed by the state-of-the-art equipment in Southern Studios though.
“In those days, things were changing. I was very lucky to see the pre-digital recording world, early disco, where you went into a recording studio as a band. It wasn’t electronic, it wasn’t digital, it wasn’t synthesisers and rhythm machine. Jam Hot was right on edge of that. I’d started to see emulators and things in New York, so I was kind of used to it. Things like Linn drums, like we used on Jam Hot. But Penny was right up on it.”
Johnny stayed at Dial House on his trip. The experience has remained with him.
“It was great. But I mean, a 500-year-old farmhouse, in the winter,” he explains. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that cold.”
“Which is funny, because when they came to New York, they couldn’t believe the heat. They were dying because of the steam heat. Granted, the steam heating in some of these old buildings is too much. In the winter, you just have to open all the windows because it’s too much. And you can’t turn it down.
“It was great though. The house was amazing and the whole Crass family, they’re incredible they really are.”
Did Steve return the favour and take you out in London?
“No, he didn’t. I think I should have taken him out in London because I probably knew more of the clubs in London than him. We were friends with Boy George and Leigh Bowery, and we were going to Taboo, and after-hours clubs, which I’m sure Steve didn’t know about.”
“I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a regular at Taboo.”
Johnny went onto collaborate with Arthur Baker, Malcolm McLaren, Larry Levan, Eric Kupper and David Morales – including one of the first records to come out of the ballroom scene, Elements Of Vogue – before he and his wife Chi Chi Valenti opened their own nightclub, Jackie 60 in 1990.
Johnny’s remix of G’s Song was one of the first of the commissioned remixes to be released. It seems he didn’t keep much from the original apart from Steve’s vocal. But he did add a saxophone.
The way the countdown from the original goes into that big sax break is just genius, I tell Johnny.
“The song just mixed itself,” says Johnny.
“Once I got in there, playing around with the bassline and stuff. All I really used was Steve’s vocal. I wanted to start it with a little bit of that guitar, so the roots of it had that punk feel. I wanted to make a modern, dancey version of the song but still keep that punk feel, the punk energy I’d be lying if I said it was hard. Because once I got in there and started playing around, it was just like, of yeah!”
I really like the remix, I tell him. It’s really upbeat and, I dunno, joyous – it’s not a side of Crass you see very often.
“People don’t see it, but it’s there,” says Johnny. “That joy is there.”
How does your remix fit into today’s culture? What’s it’s for? Where will it get played?
“I have no idea. I was just catching up on my Facebook and Instagram stuff yesterday and the DJs that are asking me for it are kind of surprising. They’re saying stuff like, oh my gawd, Steve Ignorant! I love Steve Ignorant!
“And I’m like, how do you know Steve Ignorant? And these are like real club dancefloor DJs. I had no idea they would even know who Crass was. These are like Ibiza club DJs asking me for it. So, I mean, go figure.”
It’s crazy how far these songs have travelled, I tell Johnny. They were created in an old farmhouse in Essex in the 70s, most of us probably heard them for the first time at some community centre in the north of England – and now you can hear them poolside in Miami.
“Right. Well, I don’t know if I ever see a poolside in Miami,” says Johnny. “The way things are going with the unrest in this country, Portland and the Black Lives Matter protests [Johnny was talking in 2020], the comments I’m getting from people are like, oh, this is perfect for now.”
“Especially with the video. It just looks like now. It really does.”
Greg Fenton grew up in East Belfast, in thrall to unashamed pop music and the glam rock of people like Sweet, David Bowie and T-Rex, although “the blue sky thinking of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s Man in the Jar, along with Kraftwerk’s Autobahn equally caught my attention,” says Greg.
Though he says that music has always meant “everything” to him, when Greg discovered the raw energy and defiance of punk at the age of 14 in 1978, “it felt like a personal communication.”
Greg co-founded the Defects, and played bass for the band when they first began practising Clash covers at his parents’ house. By the time he quit the band, the release of debut albums by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, and Joy Division, as well as stuff like Wire’s Chairs Missing made it apparent that music was rapidly evolving in ever more exciting ways, “while retaining the essential essence of what punk meant.”
By the time Crass appeared on Greg’s radar around 1979 or 1980, he says, punk as a whole had begun to lose some of its original edge.
“Punk had become leather jackets and lots of studs and seemed to be just repeating itself,” he tells me. “For me, punk was about what was happening next, which was primarily communicated via listening to John Peel then searching record shops such as Good Vibrations records in Belfast – the second hand section was always a god send.”
“The DIY ethos of Crass, and their pricing and record sleeves, was, of course, inspiring – though that whole scene just felt tired to me by the time the so-called second wave of punk arrived. It’s not fair to lump Crass in with that because they were saying a lot more than almost all of them combined. Do They Owe Us A Living should be the national anthem – or at least one of them.”
Greg reckons that Crass chime with him more now than they did at the time, “as if pulling apart the history of their music from the others surrounding at the time makes them seems all the more important.”
He found the Crass view on “the so-called Northern Ireland Troubles” to be totally at odds with their ability to see the bigger picture.
“It seemed contradictory given the bands anti-war/ slaughter of innocence stance – even bizarrely one-sided that somehow wanted to drag its heels into the darkness of past thinking,” he remembers. “You can see and hear images cast across their songs that simply imply one story, one version of events, which surprised me.”
By the time Crass played at the Anarchy Centre on Long Lane in Belfast city centre one Saturday afternoon in September 1982 (the afternoon gigs lasted for six months before regular police and army raids put a stop to them), Greg says “it all felt almost uniform, neatly packaged ideas of how you were supposed to act and what you should be listening to.”
“Nonetheless, they were a vital band who’s musical and artistic ideas did push the envelope forward in more thoughtful ways.”
Greg began DJing in 1985, soon playing across Belfast’s city centre via its underground network of clubs, ending up with residencies at the Orpheus (which became Northern Ireland’s only licensed gay venue) and at the notorious after-hours joint the Plaza, where you had to take your own drink because they didn’t have a bar, which ran until 3am. Playing a mixture of hip hop, House and Hi-Nrg, he was one of the first DJs to champion the new sounds of Chicago house and acid in the city.
Moving to Manchester to go to university in 1989, Greg became friendly with the likes of Mike Pickering, Jon Da Silva and Justin Robertson, and began playing in clubs and bars around the city before beginning the much-loved and now semi-legendary Spice and Most Excellent club nights – both of which were built around an ‘anything goes as long as it’s got a groove’ musical policy.
Last year, Greg downloaded the stems from Feeding of the 5000 and decided to remix Asylum.
“It was the intensity of the vocal and its message that appealed,” he says. “I wanted to incorporate that into an electronic setting which was very different from the original, taking something historic and revitalising it.”
“I think remixing, re-imaging the past is a good thing if it creates something new. If it simply regurgitates, it smells funny. But, to me, Crass were about invigoration and motivation, not about cheap disco edits under the guise of making money and calling it progress.
“I get that feeling of being under the radar in terms of the experience of contemporary music – which was exactly the same then as now.”
Other non-commissioned remixes that are worthy of your attention – there are currently more than 200 on the Normal Never Was Bandcamp page – include Dave Clarke’s unexpectedly non-techno take on Securicor (it turns out it’s not *the* Dave Clarke, but it’s still a jam), Uwdar’s Bubblegum Rock On Plastic Transistors edit of Punk is Dead and a Fatty Acid remix that takes bits and pieces from a few different songs.
Today’s favourite, however, is Tony Bluetile’s marvellous mash up, Does Mother Sky Owe Us a Living.
Paul Hartnoll planned to do a remix from the Feeding stems but had other stuff on and ran out of time. He’s a busy man. And besides, The Feeding of the 5000 was never his favourite Crass album:
“I like it, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer Stations of the Crass,” he says. “What I’m waiting for is Penis Envy – that, I really want to remix. I really want to have a go at Penis Envy. There’s a few tracks on there that I’d love to play with.”
“We all like a bit of nostalgia,” decides Brendan Hodges. “Most of us enjoy hearing stuff sampled that we’ve loved in the past. I’ve always been into that stuff, you know, rap songs with samples from the Doors or Professor Green using bits of Tube Disasters. It’s like an easter egg on DVD isn’t it, for people who know where the sample has come from? You get a special buzz from it.”
He has a point. But how relevant is, say, Banned From the Roxy, a song from 40 years ago about a defunct band being banned from a venue that doesn’t exist anymore? What’s that got to do with kids who were born in 2008? It’s irrelevant. They may as well be talking about the Corn Laws.
”Crass have got to be the most self-referential band ever,” says Brendan. “Reputations in jeopardy and all that crap on the sleeves, the reviews. Most bands just let it pass, Crass have to document it. It seems to have been a real obsession for them. Songs like Banned from the Roxy are not relevant to anyone apart from Crass.”
“Having said that, I fucking love that song. It’s a brilliant song and I love singing along to it too.”
For anyone who wasn’t there at the time, it might seem odd to compare going to gigs by such confirmed deity-deniers as Crass to going to church – but the community singsongs, the shared affirmation, the belief in a better tomorrow, even band members handing out the ‘tea n fags’ sacrament to the faithful tell their own story.
There seems to be an unending on and offline fascination with collecting historic Crass ephemera – flyers, handouts, badges, letters – not to mention all manner of test pressings and white labels, and live and rehearsal bootlegs of seemingly ever-diminishing quality.
On the one hand, yes, (some of) these are absolutely authentic, pure and unmediated pieces of social history that were written and designed and produced with love and passion and not a little style. Of course they are desirable.
On the other hand, they’re just bits of paper, or vinyl, or whatever. It’s the ideas they contain that have value – and if you miss that, you miss the whole fucking point of Crass in the first place.
Heated arguments about provenance among acolytes often stray into surreal parody, like clueless medieval pilgrims bickering over the provenance of fragments of beatified femur and the true cross.
It’s funny but it’s also shit because everything, it seems, has a price. Even Crass.
Boffo ended up having a crack at G’s Song with the Commoners’ Choir. It makes a strange kind of sense given Crass gigs were basically big community singalongs.
“It’s the least obvious choice on Feeding – no chorus, ridiculously short, just a fantastic visceral yell. So to use it with a choral arrangement felt weird and apt,” he says.
Boff says that the idea was to take the remix as far away as possible from Crass while retaining the spirit of the original. The original Normal Never Was mission statement had asked people to experiment – and that’s exactly what they’ve done.
“If we do another one it’ll be a waltz-time symphonic thing. Or something.”
“It’s easy to forget Crass. It’s not easy for Mojo to do a big feature on them, or to play them on the radio,” says Mark Goodall.
“They’ve always been that awkward thing, and yet for a certain generation, they were so important, because of the politics, because of the DIY thing – and scruffy lads from Doncaster could form a band. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. You thought, right, we can do this.”
“What any project to revitalise Crass, ideally, needs to do is avoid nostalgia. Classic Rock, Mojo and all those magazines just deal in nostalgia. This project sounds like it’s more about bringing it to life again for a new generation. It sounds like they’re trying to make it relevant for the modern age.
“Part of me likes to look back at music that I thought was important but part of me feels really bad about consuming it in that way, and worse, trying to convince younger people that they should listen to this – because this is the good stuff, and what they’re listening to now is shit. You’ve got to really try hard to avoid falling into that trap even though it’s a natural thing to do.
“If it’s taking the best bits of that whole movement and doing something new with them, that’s good. If it’s just about nostalgia, I don’t know if it helps. Because then, kids just think it’s boring. It’s just like their parents talking about the past. It’s never interesting.”
“It’s just comforting, isn’t it? You reach middle age and you’re in some kind of crisis with your life, for whatever reason, and you realise that the amount of time in front of you is less that what you’ve had, it’s easy to resort to nostalgia. It’s harder to keep engaged. It’s easier to get your old albums out and put up a picture on Twitter saying ‘what a great album’ or whatever.
“That’s when I get uncomfortable, when I see that in action,” adds Mark. “It reminds me of when we used to laugh at hippies for going on about Woodstock. It’s the same thing.”
“The only thing I’d have a slight qualm about is, why Crass?” says Stephen Spencer-Fleet. “I’ve been up to see Penny quite a few times. And I’ve always tried to make sense of his message, that people should really be encouraged to do things themselves, in their own way, and you can’t help but think, why do people need Crass so much?”
“I guess there’s rose-tinted spectacles. You look back and you think, okay, I remember hitching around, day after day after day, trying to follow the whole tour. And it made sense to me, it was an important part of my life.”
“I look back on it in a different way to people who never saw the band and look at the early handouts like they’re the dead sea scrolls. That Crass page on Facebook has got like 10,000 followers, hasn’t it? They’re clearly hugely important, and I’m nor detracting from that at all, but it’s hard to get back to that original message.
“Crass would only give interviews to zines, and would support people to get their own projects off the ground with fundraisers, their involvement with Stop the City .. yeah, it’s become something else, hasn’t it?
“I’ve just put some money down to get this new Nick Blinco art book. I love his stuff. It’s a similar thing. He’s important, I know that, but with bands, it’s more about how other people feel about them, isn’t it? And that then becomes the image, that becomes the persona, and then that changes to anticipation about what they’re going to do next.
“So, I did think about having a go with the stem tracks for Feeding. I’m not. But I’m really interested to see what people have done. It might be the signing off note after all this time. I guess we’ve all had to reappraise it because of what’s been going on with the band itself, the Crassical Collection debacle, Steve Ignorant’s Feeding of the 5000 shows.”
“I went to them all but there were people shouting out ‘Crass karaoke’. And you can buy Crass mugs, can’t you? There are branded polo shirts. It’s different, isn’t it? It’s become something else. I know Steve has always thought, why shouldn’t I? All this stuff has been bootlegged over the years. And a lot of people have made a lot of money.
“But I wouldn’t have expected polo shirts in 1981.”
Alice Nutter regards the time when she was involved in anarcho punk as “probably the most formative period of my life. I’m not a teddy boy, reliving that point in my life forever. But I just met a different type of person and my life went a different way.”
Could you not say the same about Vague?
“Yeah, but it didn’t have the same creative effect on me,” says Alice. “The Vague thing was more about drugs and fashion. And I liked fashion, you know, I still like fashion. I did like drugs. But it didn’t make me want to get up in a morning and start making things and doing stuff.”
“We were a really industrious bunch – and I’m not just talking about Chumbawamba. Everyone on that anarcho scene was churning fanzines out, doing stuff. People would go out to their first gig and by their second gig they’d be doing a fanzine and interviewing the bands.”
Alice thinks the remix project is “a really good idea. In a way, Crass have been written out of history. You see all these programmes about the late 70s and early 80s and they never feature. They were huge. They changed so many young people’s lives. They turned people towards politics that wouldn’t have gone that way otherwise.”
“I think if someone can find something in Crass – and I won’t even say relevant to now – that sounds fantastic or is pushing the boundaries, then go for it. As long as it’s not just more of the same. If it’s a creative project, whether it’s good or bad, and people have got the chance to use their stuff, I think it’s a good idea.
“My thing with Crass is, they never took any money for it. And they nearly lost the house. And I was just thinking, I wish they’d just took some money from the records. Seriously. There’s no shame in it. It’s hard enough to have a creative life and if you can make a living from doing creative stuff, you should.
“Obviously, it’s a good thing that they’re doing this for Refuge but in a way I don’t care that they’re doing it for Refuge. I’m not saying that because I don’t give money to charities, because I do. What I’m saying is, if they wanted to use that old stuff to create something new with some new people and make allies – because that’s a really important thing in life – then great.”
Choci hasn’t heard any of the remixes but is broadly supportive of the idea of Crass being remixed for today:
“Yeah, why not?” he says. “The message they were sending then is as relevant today. Everyone’s getting remixed. Take That have got remixed – I’m joking. But is the political climate that different? The Thatcherite 80s and the Boris 20s? Crass are still relevant, definitely.”
Matt Grimes downloaded the stems and then sat on them for the best part of a year before he found the time to actually do anything with them.
His Banned from Berghain remix is, he says, about “trying to maintain some of that anarcho-punk spirit by having a dig at how commercialised tekno has become with clubs such as Bergain in Berlin having ridiculous door policies, over-priced entry fees and ego-ridden DJs – that points towards tekno becoming something for the trendy middle classes.”
I like his style very much. While Matt doesn’t have a problem with the remix project per se, he’s not hugely impressed with what he’s heard of the results so far (which at that time didn’t include Bloody Beetroots, Commoners Choir or Youth’s remixes).
“One of the things that I loved about Crass was that they didn’t follow any particular musical dogma,” says Matt. “They were very experimental in terms of how they presented their work. Whereas bands like Conflict, there was a recipe.”
Given Penny’s interest in free form jazz and experimental music, Matt reckons the stuff coming back from the people who remixed Feeding, commissioned and otherwise, isn’t particularly experimental. But, ultimately, he is into the general idea of Crass being remixed.
“I’ve looked on a few of the Crass Facebook pages and there are some real puritans out there who are throwing up their hands in horror about someone doing this to ‘their’ music,” he adds. “What they have to remember is, it’s not their music. It’s anyone’s music. But there’s this idea you’re somehow turning it into a horror show, it’s spoiling the legacy.”
“Fuck that! The fact that they’re out there to be used is an absolute testament to their legacy.”
Penny says that the sixth Normal Never Was remix will likely be the last 12-inch release from the project, citing the same manufacturing issues that seem to be affecting all artists who lack the major-label clout to get to the front of the queue at pressing plants.
And, from an environmental point of view, he also finds it increasingly hard to justify contributing to the ”huge volumes of plastic drifting around the universe, just to put out a piece of music. It seems mad, when you can download. So that’s probably the end of that.”
I somehow resist the urge to tell Penny that you can’t skin up on an mp3.
By spring of this year, Penny and Gee were sitting on a couple of hundred remixes sent in by people who downloaded the stems for Feeding.
The remixes are, says Penny, “very moving. It’s exciting stuff. I find it extraordinary what people have come up with. So then we decided to do a CD, a double CD with each CD replicating the running order of the tracks on Feeding.”
Penny says this element of the project is currently in the design stage and will be out early in 2022.
“There’s two and a half hours of it. It’s 44 tracks. It just blows me away,” he says. “The first time I listened to it, I was in tears, I was just so inspired by it. The sense of youth. I was really interested in what they’d picked out.”
“Some of the tracks used maybe three or four bits of vocal, it really excited me, because they were talking about stuff that meant something to them. And if it means something to them, it will be pretty certain that it will mean something to a good few hundred more people.”
A few hundred people? And the rest.
“The whole idea of it was, we’ve got something, how can we use it? How can we be of benefit? Quite apart from giving the artists themselves the opportunity to probably get a slightly bigger platform than they would otherwise. Some of the DJs and the producers on the reverse side have benefitted hugely because they’ve come into the public domain.”
Although I’ve really enjoyed the remixes, I tell Penny, I wasn’t sure if they were the kind of thing that would get played out in contemporary clubs for contemporary young people. And if not, what’s the point? It seems like he’s thought about this already.
Aoki has reported back from the dancefloor, he says, and the verdict is “every time he plays it, the place goes bloody wild.”
“That’s the reason I worked with the Bloody Beetroots for about a year. I wanted to get the same basic message out there, of finding your own way, making your own life, but I wanted to do it in a different context,” says Penny.
“I could have done what Steve did, recreate or create a band, playing sort of punk music, but that’s not breaking any mould. And I’ve got no criticism of that. It’s great what Steve does. He’s got a really good spirit and I think he’s remained very genuine.”
“I have some questions about certain other people that are still out there doing the same stuff but that’s another matter.”
From a dancefloor perspective, the Bloody Beetroots remix of Banned from the Roxy is probably the most successful of the 12-inch remix series, in that it sounds like a piece of contemporary club music (albeit one that, fantastically, harks back to the golden age of Italo disco). But I think that part of the reason that it’s so successful is that it removes most of the vocal.
There’s that conflict between the requirements of the groove – which by very definition is about time and space – and getting a point across.
“You can hammer away until kingdom come, making a point,” says Penny, and he should know, “but if you can get it through with two or three words and a dance beat, that’s fine. It’s not the extent of it , it’s the ‘it’ of it. It’s the inspiration.”
He says that Youth did an instrumental version of his excellent dubwise remix, Living Asylum (you should also check out the fantastic Rox Off, on the other side, by Marc Collin and Beki Mari of Nouvelle Vague fame) but in the end, they were unable to fit it onto the 12 and maintain the sound range.
“That’s been the glory of it,” says Penny. “On a 12-inch, you can get a really big sound when you’ve only got five or six minutes of track.”
One long-term project is just about to come to fruition with the re-release of all the seven-inch singles on the Crass Records on 12-inch (I’m not sure how this fits in with the moratorium on vinyl releases), via a complicated arrangement where the label’s first single will be paired with its last, the second with the penultimate release and so on.
So the first releases will be Honey Bane’s You Can Be You and Jane Gregory’s Do Not Go.
Or something. I’m still not sure.
“Each single will be an exact replica on the original seven-inch, except with a note as to what it is and whatever. We’ve been working on that for quite a while, the main job being getting in touch with all the bands and trying to get their agreement.
“It’s just a fabulous opportunity to release them sounding something like they sounded in the studio. We always used to over squeeze everything. The net result was bad sound. A lot of the louder punk bands sound fabulous remastered on 12-inch, because you can hear the whole range.”
So, I guess from what you were saying earlier, it’s unlikely you’ll be doing this kind of project for any other Crass albums?
“Well,” says Penny.
It’s a really long-term thing, he cautions, “and I don’t know whether I’ll get round to it. Or if I’ll even live long enough to get round to it but Eve and myself have been talking about re-working Penis Envy. Cos there’s some cracking good songs on there.”
He’s not wrong. Penis Envy could have been written yesterday. It is horribly relevant to the times we live in. It’s tragic, but there is still a need for it. In that context, it seems a bit weird to be eagerly looking forward to a new take on Penis Envy – but I really am.
I have to ask Penny about Walls. Disappointingly, although he’s described the track as “a very avant-garde piece of dance music” in the past, he tells me that Walls was not, as I had hoped, some elaborate musical prank to subvert the dancefloor that didn’t quite come off.
It seems Walls was a very Exit-style experiment that was more about expanding the Crass musical palate than devastating the dancefloor. The distinctive rhythmic static hiss crackling all the way through the track was created by Penny moving the dial of a little transistor radio.
“By pinching it, and then letting it go, I could make it go dicky-dicky-dicky just by moving my finger,” he says. “And that became the rhythm track.”
Crass never performed Walls outside the studio. No one ever got to bust a move to this certified disco-not-disco balearic banger at a Crass gig and for some reason that makes me sad.
“We weren’t really considering dancing or pogoing,” says Penny, patiently. “What we were always looking for with Crass was just radicalisation really. And how that came out in the immediate expression of a gig was fairly irrelevant.”
“What was important was that people were getting the message to get up and do something.”
Some things, it seems, never change.