Jack Yarwood celebrates the band and talks to lead singer Steve Ignorant about the band’s story and ethos.
Few bands have been quite so successful outside of the mainstream as the anarcho-punk group Crass. During their career, the group received virtually no radio airplay, yet they have attained a dedicated following that lives on even today.
Crass formed in 1977, after lead singer Steve Ignorant saw The Clash play live, and immediately decided to form a group. When he found most of his friends had either been married or had taken on other commitments, he decided to visit his old friend Penny Rimbaud.
Steve states: “Just in passing, he said ‘well, what are you up to now?’ I went ‘oh, I’m going to start a punk band.’ He went ‘I’ve got a drum kit. I’ll play drums for you.”
From there, the two recruited the talents of Gee Vaucher, N. A Palmer, and Pete Wright, as well as Phil Free, Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre. This was to become the most well known incarnation of the group.
Asked how the band promoted themselves despite radio play, Steve argues: “It was purely word of mouth, because in those days there was no Internet or mobile phones. Literally we’d do a gig and we’d print our own little flyers, and then we’d just say to people ‘look, is there anywhere where we can do a gig in your area?’ Most of it was done through landline telephone and through the post.”
After amassing a small, but loyal, following from their early live shows, the group decided to record their debut album, The Feeding of the 5000, in 1978. However, trouble wasn’t far away. The album’s release date would be delayed, because the Irish pressing plant responsible for printing the records believed the opening track Reality Asylum was “blasphemous”. In order to solve the problem, the band decided to replace the controversial track with two minutes of silence. They labeled this song The Sound of Free Speech.
This particular incident would inspire Crass to create their very own record label, Crass Records. The intention of starting the label was for the band to keep creative control over their music by producing and releasing their own albums, from then on.
Speaking about the reaction to Crass’s music at the time, Steve argues: “It was a mixture really. The mainline press hated us, and I think a lot of the first wave bands sort of looked down on us. I think that’s partly because we had older members, you know like Penny Rimbaud, and he was very well spoken so that was very “not on” in the punk thing.
“But on the other hand, the response from the people who actually came to the gigs was pretty overwhelming, because I think we never came across as being cool or fashionable, or anything. So the people we used to get at our gigs would be the real misfits who didn’t even fit in to the punk thing, if you know what I mean. They either couldn’t afford the clothes, or looked wrong in them. But because of the nature of what we were talking about…it was a real explosion.”
Even today fans still approach Steve and the other members of the group to thank them for the profound effect Crass had on them as individuals.
Referring to a series of shows he played back in 2010, he states: “We did this tour doing Crass songs, and I was really proud of the way that people would come up to me and put their arms around me, or cry, or laugh, or whatever, and just say ‘thank for the stuff that Crass did, it really changed my life’. Or they said Crass’s music and lyrics helped them through a really bad time, like a physically or sexually abused childhood, you know. I think that’s the proudest thing I feel, that people still think about it now. For some reason, Crass’s music and words, and probably the artwork as well, it really touched people somewhere really deep emotionally.”
It’s clear that Crass wasn’t just about the music for the fans. They preached a particular lifestyle and ideology to their audience as well. This attitude to living was complimented by their offstage antics, which would often poke fun at Margaret Thatcher’s government, who were in power at the time.
In the case of one such stunt, they even managed to fool members of the press that an audiotape they had leaked was a real conversation between Thatcher and then US President Ronald Reagan. The tape appears to show Thatcher and Reagan discussing the sinking of the HMS Sheffield, suggesting it was a deliberate move in order to escalate the Falklands conflict. At the time, the press speculated that the KGB had made the tape, whilst MI6 believed the Argentine intelligent services were responsible.
Commenting on this incident now, Steve says: “That was really weird. A lot of the stuff we used to do in Crass was like ‘wouldn’t be a laugh if we did this?’ It just generally came up around the kitchen table: ‘wouldn’t it be a laugh if we did a sort of tape pretending to be Thatcher and Reagan.’ So I think it was Pete Wright who disappeared for a couple of weeks and spent that two weeks literally with a razor blade and cassette tapes splicing bits of Reagan and Thatcher talking, which he’d recorded off the little portable TV we had. It was really rough, and we just didn’t expect anything to happen to it. Then a little bit appeared in, I think, the Washington Post; I can’t remember who sent it to me. It was just saying our tape was a possible KGB tape.
“I just remember laughing. I couldn’t take it seriously, but then it resurfaced earlier this year when Thatcher’s official papers became public. It’s in there that she personally knew about the tape and knew about Crass, and everything. MI5 were involved, but the CIA apparently didn’t want to get involved because it was too costly. The thought that it went that far, and that it was taken that seriously by MI6 was shocking, but in the end we were just having a laugh.”
Whilst the band may have ended more than 30 years ago, their music has taken on a newfound relevance. This is due to the themes of unemployment, pacifism, disenchantment, and environmentalism that can be found throughout their work.
Speaking to Steve about the state of modern politics, he argues: “I think the more I read the papers, the more I look around in the streets, nothing’s really changed. The fact that we still have people homeless, or this bloody bedroom tax thing, cuts to social services, job centres that people have to go to. It’s almost like we’re living in Charles Dickens’ time.
“I’ve seen those politicians talking on question time, and I don’t believe any of them. They’re so false; they won’t answer questions; they won’t talk straight. It’s just grinding everybody down. It’s a shameful, shameful time, and it definitely is what Thatcher always wanted, which was to break the poor, break the unions, privatize and sell everything off, everyone for themselves.”
All words by Jack Yarwood. This is Jack’s first piece for Louder Than War.