ONCE upon a time, Crass had been all but erased from history.
They were at the epicentre of a genuine nationwide cultural phenomenon that changed thousands of lives profoundly and yet, a few years after they had ceased working as a band, where anyone took any notice of them at all, they were reduced to a mere footnote in the tawdry tale of corporate rock n roll.
That wasn’t good enough. Erase Crass and you also erase the experience of thousands of people like me, as if what we experienced had no value or validity.
It offended my sense of decency. I wasn’t having it. There are plenty of things in the world to get upset about, but righting this particular wrong was part of the reason why I started writing this blog in the first place.
And now? Everyone seems to be going on about Crass these days. Coincidence?
TWENTY years ago, Britain was beset by riots, right-wing extremism, simmering racial tension, mass redundancies and a crumbling social infrastructure. Its Tory government, buttressed by a seemingly unassailable parliamentary majority, appeared to be hell bent on cementing the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, no matter what the cost.
Meanwhile, a largely indifferent population shrugged its collective shoulders and got on with checking its bingo numbers.
Britain then was, of course, a very different place to the land of milk and honey we live in today. Times have changed. We’ve all moved on. Haven’t we?
CRASS used to play in Manchester a lot back in their heyday and 30 years later singer Steve Ignorant is back in the city with his Last Supper tour, singing the songs that inspired a disgruntled generation for one last time.
On one occasion in early 1979, Crass played the Russell club in Hulme – five minutes walk from tonight’s gig at the Academy – where Tony Wilson put on bands in the pre-Hacienda days. They were supported by Linda Sterling aka Ludus, who was a big pal of Morrissey – and it’s not unreasonable to assume that he would have been at the gig.
Did Crass exert any influence on Morrissey? It’s an intriguing idea. Either way, he ended up distributing gladioli to his audience, not pamphlets.
Inside tonight’s venue, I’m disappointed that no one is distributing poorly-photocopied fanzines, but there are more Crass T-shirts in one place than I’ve seen in years. Being a student venue soon after the start of term, there are also quite a few young people at the gig, which I for one am extremely happy about – there’d be nothing more depressing than being in a roomful of the converted being ‘preached’ to 30 years down the line. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, but I didn’t sign up for that alone.
THE big news of the month for nostalgia-nerds such as myself has got to be the long-awaited reissue of The Feeding Of The Five Thousand, the spiky, spunky, awkward and bolshie debut release by Crass from 1979. It had seemed like the project, which has been talked about for years, wouldn’t ever see the light of day after objections to the release were aired by former members of the band.
Now digitally remastered by Penny Rimbaud and Harvey Birrell and lavishly repackaged by Crass visual artist-in-residence Gee Vaucher, The Feeding Of The Five Thousand: The Crassical Collection is a wonderful and joyous thing. For example, besides illuminating contributions from Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant, the booklet also reveals who wrote which songs – it’s the little things that show you how much has really changed. You even get a dinky little facsimile of the original fold-out poster.
Having loved and lost my copy of Feeding back in the day, I bought it again a couple of years ago – though I ended up getting the original Small Wonder version, with the space where the censored Reality Asylum should be occupied by the silence of The Sound Of Free Speech instead.
Listening to tracks like Securicor, Reject of Society and They’ve Got A Bomb, you’re struck by the fact that although they came to be defined to some extent by their opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory junta, The Feeding Of The Five Thousand was actually written and recorded under a Labour government.
Coming across as resolutely undated and contemporary, there’s now a bigger, fuller sound, with a heavier bottom end and much more robust guitars. As before, there is barely any space between the tracks. No sooner does one song finish than another comes slamming in. They’re in a hurry, clearly. They haven’t got time to waste. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about.
MY FIRST Crass gig was in Sheffield, where a group of people with too much time on their hands had cadged resources from the city council – then led by David Blunkett – to create a community-focussed arts and music venue, complete with vegetarian café, in an old factory near the train station.
The Leadmill opened in 1982, in the wake of rioting in St Pauls, Brixton and Toxteth (followed by a series of copycat mini-insurrections around the rest of the country) and – the way I remember it, at least – keen to head off any youth rebellion in the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, the council had sponsored an opening programme of cheap gigs.
In the same situation now, Blunkett would probably just send in the army, but back then he sent Boy George instead.
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Crass released an album called Penis Envy, but you wouldn’t know it.
There will be no ill-informed tributes in the New Musical Express, no fawning retrospective on The South Bank Show and no self-satisfied, smug eulogy in The Observer Music Magazine.
Too young, stupid or docile to get Crass the first time around, our media friends prefer to stick to the easy stuff: Sgt Pepper, Smile, London Calling, anything by Nick fucking Drake.
There’ll be no remix albums, and you will search in vain for deluxe box sets, live DVDs, or tickets for a 25th anniversary tour. And while we should be thankful that this particular revolution will still not be televised – even 25 years after the event – it would be a shame if Penis Envy’s silver jubilee were to pass by completely unnoticed.