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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Getting bored with Crass?

I am getting a bit bored with Crass.

My memories and experience of the 'anarcho-goth-punk-etc' scene in London in the early eighties were of a diverse and dynamic cultural explosion. Cras were part of that, but in the background, not the foreground. There is an argument, put forward primarily by ex-members of Crass themselves, that Crass were central to the counterculture of that era. I am not so sure.

I suggest this claim needs to be backed up by detailed hisorical evidence and research rather than simple assertion.

It is all very well fro Crass to slag off the Sex Pistols and other first generation punks for 'selling out' , but without such first generation punk, would Crass ever have been forced to question their safe Epping Forest Home/ Dial House (not a hippy commune) existence? I suggest not.

England's Dreaming

Despite that fact that they were of a similar age and had dipped into a similar pop culture, McLaren and Westood had very little in common with the beautiful people of the Kings Road. In 1971, they both hated hippies with a vengeance: 'hippos', McLaren called them ... In their different ways, Westwood and McLaren w ere politicised: this gave them a moral purpose in their approach to clothes.
Both deeply mistrusted the apparent social progress of the free and easy hippie culture that was all around them. Mclaren like the guilt that flaked off the busty magazines, like Photoplay and Fiesta, which he sold at the back of the shop
[430 Kings Road- Let it Rock]...

England wasn't free and easy: it was repressed and horrible. Both felt that the claims of hippie culture to have changed the world were false: it was just window dressing, like the facades so quickly erected and demolished in consumer enclaves like Oxford Street. Consider the music of the time - then called 'Rock' in a bid for respectability. What a pompous middle-class facsimile of the anarchy that was fifties rock 'n' roll! England's Dreaming: Jon Savage: Faber and Faber: 1992: page 9

'I'd heard about the Situationists from the radical milieu of the time' says McLaren. 'You had to go up to Compendium Books. When you asked for the literature you had to pass an eyeball test. Then you got these beautiful magazines with reflecting covers in various colours: gold, green, mauve. The text was in French: you tried to read it, but it was so difficult. Just when you were getting bored, there were always these wonderful pictures and they broke the whole thing up. They were what I bought them for: not the theory.' England's Dreaming: page 30

Malcom was watching hard. King Mob [expelled from Situationist International] were as much involved with Anglo-American pop revolt as they were with French theory... Seeking utopian metaphors, King Mob fetishized both revolutionary violence and pop culture. ...Another King Mob tabloid reprinted a 1968 Motherfuckers' handbill with slogans such as "We are the forces of CHAOS and ANARCHY- we are everything they say we are and we are proud of it . We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous violent dirty and young' which found their way on to the hit album Volunteers by the Jefferson Airplane [see below]...

The libertarian currents of the late 1960s shaped the lives of many of those that they touched: for Malcolm McLaren and his associates like Fred Vermonal and Jamie Reid, life would never be the same. In those currents they could swim ,and select a language for their multiple angers, resentments and ideals. It was largely through the SI [Situationist International]'s influence they developed a taste for a new media practice - manifestos, broadsheets, montages, pranks, disinformation - which would give form to their gut feelings that things could be moved, if not irreversibly changed. England's Dreaming: pages 34/36

Enough of that. I guess I must be one of the few people reading this who went from listening to Jefferson Airplane [see above] to punk. Still got my copy of Volunteers, on the record player now. And it does have the 'we are the forces of chaos and anarchy' lines on it -twice, on first track and last track. But what is the point?
That unless someone can suggest otherwise, Jon Savage's England's Dreaming is the most authoritative text on punk. That Jon explicitly connects the creation of UK punk with the libertarian/ situationist strand of sixties radicalsim, with its'strong' freak counterculture strand rather than its 'weak' hippy counterculture one.
Furthermore - see 1972 article by Mick Farren quoted previously + Undercurrents scans- that McLaren/ Westwood/ Reid etc were not the only ones to resist / refuse the recuperation of the radical political elements of the sixties counterculture by hip capitalism.

Indeed, and this is the heart of my argument, punk was only one element of a full on cultural war of liberation which was fought in the seventies. Let me try and list the fronts across which this war of liberation was waged:

1. Environmental/ green movement.
2. Women's liberation movement.
3.Lesbian/ gay liberation movement.

and then, more local than global:

4. Punk
5. Free-festivals / DIY music movement.
6. Chaos magick movement. [maybe].

All of these had their roots in the sixties, and have 'his 'n' her stories' which can be traced back even further. But from a world historical perspective, even the biggest trees fade into the forest of eternity.

Historical perspective on Crass
The historical significance of Crass very much depends upon which context they are placed in. If the historical perspective is " UK anarcho-punk 1979 to 1984" then Crass are seriously important. They were the big tree in what was really only wee wood. Step a bit further back and look at UK anarcho- goth- punk (e.g. Richard Cabut's NME 'positive punk' feature from 1983) and the Crass tree gets a bit smaller.

A bit further back, (e.g. Jon Savage's England's Dreaming) and Crass are relegated to footnote on page 584 of a 600 page book status. Step any further back from punk and they (along with anarcho- goth- punk) vanish altogether.

Re-focus (e.g. George Mackay's 'Senseless Acts of Beauty') on post-sixties but pre- 2000 UK 'cultures of resistance' and Crass come back into focus as a significant step on the way to the road-protests of the early nineties. But look at more recent accounts of late nineties/ early noughties 'anti-globalisation' protests and they vanish again. Even where the focus is narrower and overlaps in time with the Crass era/ political themes (e.g. accounts of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp) they become invisible once more.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chaos Magic is kind pushing it a bit. In leeds maybe... but the links between neopaganism in general as a bridge between hippy, punk and later rave is a more viable conduit. Industrial culture generally is more specifically relevant than Chaos as a link (have you seen Phil Hine's record collection??!). Esotericism always bridges generation gaps and hence mixes up musical genres.

Also see: Robin's Greenwood Gang (ex-hippy anarcho pagan / traveller-related eco group that collapsed IIRC after getting beaten to a pulp by the brew crew for no good reason at all) and of course the Dragon Envirobnmental Network, which is still going strong and scoring the odd victory.


8:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crass barely made a dent in the USA, so we're way behind in comprehending
their significance. My sense from reading Brit scholars is that Crass and
other bands (led by the Clash and others) became more political in the
late 1970s, when the National Front began to appeal to some punks... Crass
and co. amplified the politics of punk. There was an urgency on the part of the Clash and Crass, to make their anti-Nazism loud and clear, and--for some--to develop not just a politics of negation ("we're not racist"), but a politics of creation, vision, struggle.

I would guess that they had a rather unique anarchist bent on politics in
the UK , rather than the more ordinary ("liberal" in the States) left-wing
politics. DIY, full refusal of power, etc. The left in the UK, including
even the socialists + commies basically had real access to power. It's so
unlike the US!

Anyhoo, I,m really not qualified to speak to the politics of Crass and the
UK, at least not to a British audience!

I will say this (authoritatively, harumph, harumph): scholars and historians nearly ALWAYS focus on the bands and celebrities of punk! Such a bias produces very slanted narratives, and largely dismiss the punk on the street. (It's the same phenomenon as historians who tell the history of the US according to its lineage of presidents and generals, without reference to workers, women, slaves, soldiers, etc.) So the disappearance of Crass results from the same problem. To see "punk" as Savage and others see it is to miss the whole and misunderstand it altogether. Hooray for McKay--he shows the depth of DIY.


5:42 pm  

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