Feeding of the 5000, Stations of the Crass, Best Before 1984 (Crass Records via One Little Indian)
Vinyl out now, CD out 17th May
The first 3 instalments of a series of Crass album re-issues are due out in May on Crass Records through One little Indian with pre-orders available from mid April. Nathan Brown, who grew up listening to Crass, gives them a spin and offers his verdict in this bumper review.
“Remastered by Alex Gordon at Abbey Road studios” the sticker proudly proclaims on the plastic sleeves of these new re-issues. But just in case the thought of Abbey Road being involved triggers alarm bells – surely a bastion of the music “business” that was anathema to Crass – the sticker goes on to state “as close as possible to the sound of the original release”.
Controversy and disquiet among the former band members about the Crassical Collection re-mastered and re-released in about 2010 had got quite ugly and spilled out across the internet. Some of the controversy crops up in a new video by Penny Rimbaud released to explain these re-issues. In the video, he asserts his right be recognised as writer of many of the songs. From what I read (before I lost the will to live) this move away from attributing all songs and words to Crass as a collective was a bone of contention. A move like this does beg the question “Did they really mean it?”, but regardless of how Crass is viewed now, you can’t take away what Crass was and the profound influence it had on the world of DIY punk rock. And just cos you’ve changed your mind now about certain egalitarian viewpoints doesn’t mean you weren’t genuine back then. We all grow older, the world around us has changed, we change our attitudes. Why should we be surprised that members of Crass did. They are human beings remember!
So, down to the vinyl. The remastering has not radically changed the overall soundscape from the originals, as happened with the aforementioned Crassical Collection. The vocals are upfront, the drums are still primarily tinny snare, the guitars jar in the upper ranges and the bass alternately booms and rasps. I’ve played the new versions alongside originals and cannot discern much difference. The claim that these albums are “as it was in the beginning” is true enough, and I suspect intended to satisfy those who were disappointed with the change of the sound on the Crassical Collection reissues (including former band members).
Feeding of the 5000, Second Sitting.
The original pressing of the Crass debut Feeding of the 5000, on Small Wonder, had featured a silent track (The Sound of Free Speech) due to workers at the pressing plant being decidedly unhappy with the blasphemy of the opener “Asylum”. When Crass had their own label well established, they re-issued Feeding complete with Asylum. It is this “Second Sitting” (i.e. all the songs they intended to release when they recorded it) that is being re-issued. Aside from including Asylum, there was a difference in presentation, with the Second Sitting coming in the what is now seen as a standard Crass wrap-around poster cover. As well as offering an opportunity for more content/artwork from Gee Vaucher, the fold out poster featured a partially severed hand on barbed wire (presumably from the Western Front) above General Kitchener’s famous declaration Your Country Needs You. Still shocking to this day, I know mine weren’t the only parents unhappy at its display on bedroom walls up and down the country. The new versions of Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass come packaged in faithfully reproduced versions of the original poster sleeves. The only noticeable difference is the absence of the original famous “Pay No More Than” tag- replaced by “as it was in the beginning” in handwritten script.
Imagery wasn’t the only shock. Aurally, Crass assaulted your senses. Whether by accident or design (the posthumous myth), the sound Crass produced was different from most punk bands in 1978. They pushed an extreme art form even further. Their vocal attack was a constant stream of angry rant, with far more swearing than earned notoriety for the Sex Pistols. Backed with militaristic drumming patterns, the bass thundered and harsh guitars buzzed and chopped. Some songs sounded like daleks. Tunes almost seemed like an afterthought – hammering the message home with the subtlety of a tank. Playing it back today, it still does the job. Hard hitting, energetic and full of bile and anger.
Feeding opens with the seriously scary sounding Asylum. The buzz in the background increasing in volume and intensity throughout the song makes it more akin to a psychological experiment than a song. Expletive and blasphemy riddled, Eve Libertine lays out the bondage of religion for all to see. They see Patti Smith and raise her: “Jesus died for his own sins not mine”. Clever post modernism! Then we are treated to Crass’ signature song, Do They Owe Us A Living? The first song they created when the band was just singer Steve Ignorant and drummer Penny Rimbaud in a practice room. “Fuck the politically minded, there’s something I want to to say about the state of the nation and the way it treats us today….”. The album closes with another version of Do They Owe Us a Living.
The importance of this track to the Crass identity is plain to see from the fact that a First and Last flexi disk of 2 versions of Do They Owe Us A Living was given away free during Record Store Day. Perhaps as a stunt to promote these new reissues, it was also reminiscent of the distribution of the free Fuck Off to the Falklands flexi, at the outbreak of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. However, before the day was out, record dealers had this freebie up for £35 plus on eBay. A nice gesture immediately co-opted by greedy grubby capitalists. The irony…
On Feeding, and with follow up singles such as Bloody Revolutions and Big A Little A, Crass introduced thousands of eager young listeners to anarchist ideas that went beyond the “anaaaarrchy” posturing of the Pistols. Significant numbers of 1980s and 1990s non-violent direct action activists were schooled in politics from Crass record sleeves. The Crass “information service” introduced the previously obscure circled A symbol to thousands, and even if the likes of Albert Meltzer hated this influx of punks, it re-energised the anarchist movement. Good ideas spread like wildfire. And as far as Crass were concerned Marx, Jesus, Thatcher and Buddha – they all sucked!
There isn’t space here to dissect the whole album, and I probably wouldn’t do it justice, with so many of the songs being well loved classics. Banned from the Roxy, Sucks, Punk is Dead, Securicor, They’ve got a Bomb…earworms every one. Trying my hardest to listen to Feeding of the 5000 as if it were new, it hasn’t become that dated, despite the some cultural references placing it in its time. E.g. Angels references the popular TV nursing drama of the title and 70s baldie cop show Kojack may need to be explained to a younger generation but the general idea that TV is “grey puke celluloid shit” designed to make sure you “keep in line” is still valid.
Stations of the Crass
The second LP by Crass kicks off with the chilling screams of “Mother” on Mother-Earth, Steve Ignorant’s vitriol sounding as fresh as if this was released today. Sadly, the issues that Crass were concerned with have regressed to somewhere close to where they were when these songs were written – with sexism, racism and the far right on the rise. That our world has regressed 40 years to make these songs all too relevant is pretty depressing. Despite the odd “rebellion”, things are arguably worse with a pacified,more subdued populus.
Having got into their stride on Feeding, Stations of the Crass saw the band really go for the jugular. Thatcher was now in power, but left or right didn’t matter it was the whole political system that was wrong. But it wasn’t just mainstream politics they attacked. No holds barred, they attacked music journalists and big name punk bands in songs like White Punks on Hope (“They said that we were trash, but the name is Crass not Clash. They can stuff their punk credentials cause it’s them that takes the cash”) and Hurry Up Garry (The Parsons Farted).
They introduced the idea of vegetarianism on Time Out. Feminism was to the fore on songs like Darling and Big Man Big M.A.N. (“Big man, what a fucking joke”). Demoncrats took the baton from Asylum. And whereas Feeding was dominated by male voices, Stations redressed the balance with Eve Libertine and Joy de Vivre involved in more of the songs. And for those people who cite the old trope that “Crass had shit music, but great ideas” I present to you Contaminational Power. A beautifully executed bass line intro that kicks off into a rabble rousing high octane punk anthem of the finest quality.
The 4th side of this double album set is a rough and ready recording of a Crass gig in August 1979, featuring songs from both Feeding and Stations and their first single Reality Asylum/Shaved Women.
Best Before 1984
Although out of sync with the chronological order of their original release dates, the choice to include Best Before 1984 makes perfect sense. A collection of Crass singles and demo tracks, this came out in 1986 after the band had split, complete with an insert that “put to bed” what the band had achieved, attempting to dispel a few myths – or perhaps re-write history? Whilst at the age of 15 I might have believed every word, with the advance of time the more cynical me recognises that it isn’t just mass murdering dictators who indulge in historical revisionism. With hindsight, we’d probably all like to present ourselves in a more positive light than the bare facts, perhaps put a different spin on our motivations. Penny Rimbaud is a great one for the living in the moment and when he was writing in 1986 after the band collapse and with the benefit of hindsight of course he would have felt different than in 1977! Best Before 1984, as a posthumous release, had a different identity from earlier output – it came in a gatefold sleeve that was full colour, rather than 6 panel fold out black and white.
The double album covers the bands early demos and all their singles right through to a live track from their last gig in Aberdare as the Miner’s strike raged. As an overview of some genius output, it is recommended for anyone who wants to really get to grips with the broad range of what Crass were capable of. It’s worth getting alone for the killer combination of Big A Little A – pretty much a manifesto for every disaffected young anarchist – and Nagasaki Nightmare – which scared the shit out of me, living as I did within a couple of miles of a nuclear power station and a naval base which would both be obvious targets for a nuclear attack. Rival Tribal Rebel Revel and Bloody Revolutions are other stand out songs that took to task political bully boys and revolutionaries from both sides. The collection starts and ends with Do They Owe Us A Living? Of course it fucking does.
Crass at their most incendiary attracted serious attention from the security services, questions in the Houses of Parliament and a failed prosecution over How Does It Feel? Sheep Farming in the Falklands and its precursor free flexi (which was largely impounded, although some copies managed to make it to independent record shops). Best Before 1984 dishes the dirt, complete with some amusing samples from police interviews. Shit had got real. They were only a band and now they were actually taking the government on. So this album is pretty much essential listening for anyone with more than a passing interest in the power of music to change the world or in DIY punk.
Before the first track a sample of Thatcher opines “If it’s done as entertainment it’s entertainment please don’t take it any other way”, then a composite message plays in the run out of side 4, eventually building up to “We only did it for a laugh”. So, the message I take is that we shouldn’t take Crass seriously, it all got a bit out of control. But these are the people who helped organise Stop The City and inspired a generation of direct action activists. To deny the serious side of what they achieved is a prank in itself.
So, what’s the difference between remastered Crass albums from 40 years ago and reissues of other “classic” albums. I’m happy to have the argument that without Crass the world of independent DIY music (not just of the anarcho-punk variety) would look very different. Sleaford Mods, Idles and a host of others championed by Louder than War writers owe a huge amount to the scorched earth trail blazed by Crass.
A fair few people on the internet seem pissed off at a betrayal of the “Pay No More Than” value for money Crass represented, and lines like these from Punk Is Dead “Do I need a business man to promote my angle? Can I resist the carrots that fame and fortune dangle?”. I’m no apologist, but if you check out discogs you’ll be hard pressed to find a half decent copy of these albums for sale for this cheap, many dealers asking for £35-40. And these record dealers didn’t create a thing, whereas at least it was Crass’ music! So is it wrong that people can access the music cheaper than record dealer prices, while rewarding those who created the music rather than traders in the commodity? I’m more agnostic on this issue than I used to be, but I still often walk of out of record shops issuing a cloud of expletives at the prices! Certainly these re-issues are more expensive than many new punk LPs, and definitely those from DIY labels such as Grow Your Own, who Crass inspired all those years ago. But then it’s not like this re-release is on a major label. One Little Indian is an independent, established by folk who were in Flux of Pink Indians. I guess the final rhetorical question might be “Do We Owe Crass A Living?”
The target market may not even be those who already have a battered copy of these LPs in their collection seeking a cleaner version, but younger listeners new to the band, and those recreating their record collection following a life on the road, or rediscovering their youth following a mid-life crisis. There are worse things they spend their money on….the world has enough middle aged men driving red open top sports cars. At the end of the day, if you have the records already, you don’t need to buy them. If you don’t have them then you may be glad they are available again, regardless of the price – make your own mind up, there is no authority but yourself.
All come with a download code, so Crass are not afraid of moving with the times. Whilst these are essentially historical documents, and arguably extremely important, many of the ideas contained within still hold water – and perhaps are even gaining currency as the “mainstream” way of living is being increasingly understood as unsustainable – even if Extinction Rebellion don’t quite get that capitalism is a big part of the problem.
Pre-orders available through One Little Indian, with vinyl shipping now: Feeding of the 5000, Stations of the Crass, Best Before 1984 and the whole Crass Catalogue can be found here https://crass.lnk.to/CrassCatalogue
All words by Nathan Brown. More from Nathan can be found over at his Louder Than War Author Archive.