Crass – The Crassical Collection
Nathan Brown reviews a new collection of CD boxes charting the fortunes of Crass, who took anarchy from pose to practice and pretty much launched the DIY punk movement at the same time.
Another day, another box set. There’s box sets being released aplenty these days. Ex-members of Crass, always following their own path, instead opted to release a set of boxes. The Crassical Collection comprises 7 double CD boxes to be precise, representing an expanded and touched up version of each of their albums. Last year saw the Crass albums reissued on vinyl with the full sized original artwork but for those without a record deck, or wanting to access extra material this set may be of more interest.
There is no arguing Crass were a big deal. Are they still relevant? The worldwide DIY punk scene they helped to energise still throbs strong. Young punks still discover them and find direction for their youthful anger. Older punks, ex-punks and community activists still live out lives highly influenced by them. Bob Vylan was wearing a Crass T-shirt in the “We Live Here” video – one of the highlights of this year. And, love or hate them, the likes of Idles owe a debt to Crass too. Specifics may have changed, but the fundamental questions about why and how we are treated by people in positions of power has never stopped being relevant. If anything they have come more into focus since the advent of austerity, disaster capitalism and especially during the current administration.
The first 6 CD sets chart the rise and fall of Crass as a band and phenomenon through their albums. Feeding of the 5000 was all wide eyed youthful exuberance and cockiness. Two fingers in the air. It established them, and provided their signature tune.Stations of the Crass saw their confidence in their popularity and identity growing. With Penis Envy they used their growing influence to show the world through feminist eyes.
Christ The Album saw them reach maturity. Their musical output was arguably at its finest. Meanwhile shit had got real, these freedom loving pranksters were wearing furrowed brows, feeling the pressure. Even the government treating them as a serious threat. Yes Sir I Will was an outpouring of visceral frustration and anger at the Falklands War, thrashing about in a whirling freeform explosion as the band started to crash. Ten Notes On A Summers Day was mourning what had passed – even given the label on this collection of The Swan Song.
The final installment in the Crassical Collection – Best Before 1984 – stands to one side, charting their rise and fall far more quickly through their 7″ output. Right from their first 7 inch, the first Crass Records release, to their last gig in Aberdare in 1984.
The box covers, with their coffee splatter, look like Jackson Pollock’s (the artist or the rhyming slang, you choose) until you place the first 6 together. Then all becomes clear. Nothing about this collection is accidental.
4 of the CD boxes contain a reproduction of the original album poster cover, shrunk from 12 inch square LP size to 12.5 cm square CD size (Christ came in a box so just has a shrunk copy of the poster). These miniaturised covers themselves make amazing artefacts. Along with the chunky lyric booklets which tell the tale of the band they are intensely interesting. Painstaking effort by Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher on design matters has paid off.
In the booklets, lyrics are laid out in a more easy to follow style than the original cover, accompanied by imagery: some familiar, some less so. It’s clear a lot of time went into presentation. It is noticeable that the lyrical author of each individual song is credited. This is a departure, and I believe a source of some of the internal struggle among ex-Crass members over the original release of the Crassical Collection. Originally the declaration “all songs written and produced by crass” reinforced the collective nature of what they did, how they lived and what they thought. Until this day I had never realised that Shaved Women was written by Annie Anxiety.
A potted history of Crass
The liner notes in each booklet stand in their own right meaning there is inevitably some overlap, much like an American drama series (“Previously, on the Crassical Collection….”) Taken together in chronological order they provide a potted history of Crass peppered with the sort of tales you’d expect to hear down the pub, including laugh out loud moments. Penny Rimbaud adopts the role of “official” historian, bringing in other voices to balance his view, aware like all historians that facts can be viewed and interpreted through different prisms. I think he has tried to bring in all the actors, but it is very much his voice and his view.
Across the booklets we hear from Steve Ignorant about his experience of recording with Penny Rimbaud in the producers chair: “bloody hard work”, especially as music got more intricate and alcohol intake was restricted. He clearly enjoyed it though, with tales of lager induced burps on the recording and generally misbehaving like a cheeky young punk should.
The pressure of being rushed and recording ’till four in the morning dissipated by the time they got to Christ. It was recorded over a longer period to produce “our self-indulgent rock masterpiece, just like proper musicians did”. He also reminds us that every one of those poster covers was hand folded by the band! And we are talking tens of thousands.
Steve explains that he always thought the original mix of Feeding was missing something. He has always come across as frank and honest, and it shines through here. He for one is pleased that it was given a bit of touch up and a shine. “Love it or hate it , here it is, to me, stronger and with that missing bit of ‘oomph’.”
Eve Libertine writes how gender stereotyping that she railed against still stands strong. The 5,4,3,2,1 pair of high heels women have got on are now higher and somehow rebranded as “female power”. Her sarcasm is palpable. She came to the conclusion that some of the ideas Crass promoted may be of use to deal with personal problems but encourages you to discard them once used. And reminds us to laugh!
As well as talking about the recording process, Penny Rimbaud handles the history of the band. He also effectively paints grim pictures of the context – what was going on in the world around them. England in 1977 was “cowering classs submission deep within every social interaction, written in flesh and blood, scored in the lined faces of resignation which best define the British way of life.”. As the years progressed we were living under an increasingly oppressive Thatcher government. War in Northern Ireland. But there was a revitalised Peace Movement, animal rights, feminism and anarchism all on the rise – thanks in part to the efforts of Crass.
He covers the roots of the collective in hippydom. The first iteration of Crass as a duo called Stormtrooper. The source of the band name (a line in Ziggy Stardust courtesy of Bowie fan Ignorant). Clearing rooms with early gigs. How they hooked up with Pete Stennett at Small Wonder to release Feeding of the 5000 and the problems Asylum created (first at the pressing plant and then with the Vice Squad). The stencil graffiti campaign on the Underground, the location of the wall pictured on Stations and the bizarre outcome on the only occasion they were caught in the act. The sources and double meanings of some of the album titles.
Penny reveals the mainstream music biz offered to make Crass rich “marketing revolution” (plenty have cashed in since!). Certainly in the earlier album booklets these are accounts full of humour. And in the pictures of the band that follow, they are all smiling. Behind that serious image they were having fun, at least in the beginning. Crass were hated by the music press (a mutual loathing I am certain) but the kids thought differently as record sales and gig attendances proved.
The album Penis Envy was a response to the damage Thatcher was causing to feminism, an album with only women’s voices. How they hoodwinked a teenage girls magazine into promoting the song Our Wedding to its readers – more headlines! The impact of this album in particular seemed measurable. Anarcho-feminism was now occupying a central position in the punk movement and the peace movement.
By the time they released Christ The Album the threatened prosecutions and increased state surveillance were taking their toll on the band. “We had slowly drifted from a position of love and humour (albeit generally expressed through anger and passion) into the emotional and intellectual cul de sac of oppositional politics.” To get back to their fun roots they threw the famous squat gig at the Zig Zag club. They were involved in helping organise Stop The City which was as much carnival as protest.
The Falklands looms large, of course. Penny tells how the free flexi “Sheep Farming in the Falklands” was rushed out as an emergency response. How Does It Feel To Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead? attracted the ire of Tory MP Tim Eggar seeking an obscenity prosecution. Not forgetting the Thatchergate hoax tape that they created and circulated to the press.
Then came George Orwell’s predicted year of Big Brother, and with it, the state sending its forces against the miner’s strike. The final gig for Crass was at Aberdare 1984 – a benefit for striking miners of course. Andy Palmer left the band. It was over.
Some of the music on this collection was remastered in in 2008, some in 2018. Yes, it does sound somewhat fresher. There are bits of guitar that I didn’t notice through years of playing the originals. There is some improved clarity. The complex aural landscape on some tracks like Demoncrats feels less muddy, and all the more sinister for it. There seems to be a greater sweep of depth to the bass. A bit more definition to the guitars. More separation. The drums seem to have more spring to them. Steve’s right, there does seem to be a bit more oomph.
The weird thing is, when I first heard Crass, I never noticed any deficiency in the music. They hit me square between the eyes just like the Pistols had before. The anger and the impact of those staccato drums and piercing guitars, but mostly the singing. Pure fucking anger. Venom. Spleen being vented.
Feeding of the 5000
Alongside the “Second Sitting” of Feeding of the 5000 (the Small Wonder release lacked Asylum due to pressing plant workers refusing to do the work…up the workers!), you get the demo recordings which came before. A rough recording of Stromtrooper at the band’s commune Dial House performing Do They Owe Us A Living (also on the first Bullshit Detector album). 4 tracks of an amusingly drab, poor sounding, echo laden, first demo in a Soho studio in 1977. They had to retake songs interrupted by the toilet flushing from the upstairs cafe. The second Crass demo was their first venture to Southern Studios, 8 months before they would return to record Feeding. This sounds like the band as we know them. It’s a gloriously noisy affair, less clipped than Feeding, dare I say a bit more punky sounding, but these 8 songs were in essence ready for release.
Stations of the Crass
On this pair of CDs, you get the original album. The extras are snippets of Radio 1 DJ Tommy Vance (if I’m not mistaken) listing Crass’s achievements as the “only true underground band” selling over 60,000 copies of Stations and 5 songs from the Crass Peel session. This isn’t completely new to the world as a bootleg appeared around 2004 but bootlegs being what they are, it wasn’t widely available. It’s interesting to hear Crass through different production values. The songs are played the same but there is a marked difference. The guitars have more bite to them. The drums in particular have less of the trademark Crass signature – more cymbals and a different snare sound. You also hear Peely getting caught out by abrupt stops and false starts which never fails to raise a smile.
Always a strident album, Eve Libertine’s vocal lead on Penis Envy is unrelenting, sarcastic and angry. Joy de Vivre provides a softer delivery but the words are no softer. It’s a record that seems to divide people. I love it.
The extra CD with Penis Envy contains Yes, Folks – a hilarious collage of Our Wedding complete with sinister voice over. The rest is post-Crass and mainly jazz…I don’t get it. Sorry. Eerie sound effects, satanic reversed vocals and saxaphone sounding like a goose in pain. The inclusion of Savage Utopia – a jazz/dance music cross over collaboration under the name Crass Agenda makes sense if you are a completist but I found it painful. I was left wondering if they’d managed to get Les Dawson back from the dead to play the piano. It’s just as well that Penis Envy itself is so good.
Christ The Album
The original Christ The Album was another double album. The studio album that formed one half of it had the highest production values of any of their LPs so the remastering process is less noticeable. It is arguably the pinnacle of Crass’s musical prowess and Penny admits that had they got out “while the going was good, Christ…might well have been our last album”. Crass were not just battling the growing state power crushing ordinary people, the doomsday clock had ticked further forward, militarism was on the rise and they seemed to be battling for the soul of punk itself. The closing sample of radical historian E.P Thompson at a CND rally provided a little hope. which was kind of the point.
With Christ, Crass set out to promote positive alternatives in the book that came with the vinyl album (not recreated in this set but available with last year’s vinyl reissue) . Direct action. “From graffiti and lock gluing to bread making and food coops, from paint bombing and fence cutting to love making and housing coops”.
CD 2 kicks off with 7 alternative takes and snatches of sound from the Christ studio session. Reality Whitewash with its wailing guitars and a slightly slower version of The Greatest Working Class Rip-off stand out as worthy of note. The remainder of this CD is the Well Forked – But Not Dead live album that accompanied the studio album in the original release. The energy of a Crass gig well captured, interspersed with a couple of tracks from that first ever demo in Soho. Among the odd extra snippets, Steve Ignorant’s storytelling voice on The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a favourite of mine.
Yes Sir, I Will
Crass were never supposed to be easy listening but this record was particularly hard work. Less song structure in evidence. Anti-sermons delivered over a noisy, disconcerting backdrop. Much like the war which inspired its content. Penny reveals in the booklet they “took the improvisational approach of free jazz: no rehearsal…recorded in just one forty-five minute take, the emotional and physical strain placed on us becoming increasingly evident as the track wore on”. That explains an awful lot.
Hidden amongst the noise they dropped in Anarchy’s Just Another Word, a piano number sounding so cheerful that it could be from the stable of Captain Sensible. Steve Ignorant’s answer to what-iffery critics of anarchism: “And what if I told you to Fuck Off?” is more traditional Crass fare. Of all the albums this probably benefits the most from being remixed. The cover has arguably some of their best imagery, dropping all pretence of subtlety and “art”. It is pure agitprop.
Lyrically they took a serious hard look at themselves and the anarcho-punk movement as well as the specifics of how British society had turned so nasty. It’s a shame some of their best lyrics were buried within something so unapproachable. The lumpen drumming and rhythmic structure on the epic 20 minute Taking Sides now seems like a precursor of industrial music. The machine ripping us all apart. CD 2 is pretty much more of the same remixed.
Ten Notes On A Summer’s Day
There are odd moments when this recording works, and I can hear that this must have influenced Chumbawamba in their early years. However, for the most part, you could be forgiven for thinking that Crass had pushed providing Value For Money to the extreme by playing 3 different songs all at once. It’s very avant garde. I fall into the same camp as Steve Ignorant who, according to Penny “thought classical modernism and jazz freeform was bullshit”.
Some question is Ten Notes counts as Crass. Penny Rimbaud, always the guiding guru, admitted himself “[Yes Sir I Will] was the last time we would record an album together”. So it is clearly open to interpretation. I can understand why it deserves inclusion but equally question it. The second CD is a weird mish mash, heavy on the keyboards, choral voices, 80s pop drums, Spanish guitar. It sounds to these ears like the sort of thing arty types get excited about and tell you “you must listen to” but won’t accept that it doesn’t work for you.
Best Before 1984
In the liner notes Penny decries the “crude pastiches” of Gee Vaucher’s art (stop copying us!). He also reveals that there were problems gaining access to the digital files for Best Before from Southern. The liner notes to the original album are recreated in the booklet which provided much of the background…trouble with pressing plants, the law etc. Every 7 inch release still gets its own write up along with the art. What makes this set from the collection a particular gem is the inclusion of (most of) the original single covers in miniature. For those who cannot afford the high prices collectors charge, for once the CD may be preferable to the vinyl album.
The threads of samples between songs provide context to the singles Crass released between 1979 and 1984. They add to the enigma of the band and maybe send messages. E.g. Thatcher intoning “Take It as Entertainment”. They add to the sense of theatre and that this is something special you are listening to. One of the most striking threads between tracks is cackling laughter and Penny revealing how things had changed “Fun?! I don’t think anything about it was fun. To be honest fun went out the window very early on.” Before asking Zen-like “Anyway, what is fun?”.
Perhaps more so on their singles than albums, Crass excelled at distilling so much message into so little time. Amazingly they managed to keep it catchy….or just downright angry.
The first CD provides the singles, a slight deviation from the vinyl version. Demo tracks Angela Ripon and Major General Despair have been removed, featuring as they do on other CDs in this collection. It is very hard to pick out highlights from what is such an astounding collection of songs, but I think I will always come back to Big A Little A and Bloody Revolutions. Both had complex evolving song structures and both provided substance to the idea of “anarchy” that thousands of teens were shouting about. Interestingly Penny describes Big A Little A as “second only to Do They Owe Us a Living? as our greatest anthem”.
The second CD starts with Do They Owe Us a Living? from the last Crass gig in Aberdare in 1984 – also the last track on the original Best Before. The hilarious Whodunnit? follows. There are various radio snippets and interviews such as questions about Crass in Parliament; Tim Eggar MP being made to look a complete idiot by Pete Wright and Andy Palmer; The Thatchergate Tapes; Penny Rimbaud on Radio 6. An unreleased version of Sheep Farming in the Falklands to which no-one really knows the words and then finally Merry Crassmass, cheesy keyboard renditions of Crass songs with a sweary message about not eating turkeys at Xmas. I had the cheek to play it at a family Xmas gathering and never saw it again…
What was Crass?
Some of the later post-Crass works in this collection appear to be included on the basis that they are the continuation of Penny Rimbauds work that underpinned much of what Crass did. Was Crass really all just ideas from the confusion of Rimbuad’s brain? Was he a Svengali with the rest of the band along for the ride? I don’t believe this, but the selection of the oddities that count as a continuation of Crass in this collection seems to promote that view. Steve Ignorant was prolific in his continuation of the Crass legacy so you might have expected a token track from Conflict, Schwarzeneggar, Stratford Mercenaries, Paranoid Visions, his Last Supper and Feeding of the 5000 tours, Slice of Life etc.
There may be a few folks who will balk at the price of these CDs, cocooned by the DIY punk scene from the price of CDs in the shops. Crass only have themselves to blame. They set something in motion when they started putting Pay No More Than prices on their records (even losing a penny on every copy of Reality Asylum!) Is there something wrong with the people who were Crass grabbing some of the gains from their efforts? Worldwide, other people have been making plenty out of Crass’ imagery and art.
What does seem incongruous is that a Press Release touted pre-orders for this new collection via Amazon. The behemoth beacon of hyper capitalism with a poor record on workers’ rights destroying independent traders. Crass proved we can build solutions to mass consumption of art without buying into exploitative channels. I’m not going to shout hypocrisy but as Phil Free asked at the founding of the Crass label “Doesn’t that just make us capitalists?” Well, does it?
All words by Nathan Brown. More from Nathan can be found in his Louder Than War Author Archive.