Recuperating Crass/ Guardian article
Recuperation : "To survive, the spectacle must have social control. It can recuperate a potentially threatening situation by shifting ground, creating dazzling alternatives- or by embracing the threat, making it safe and then selling it back to us" -- Larry Law, from The Spectacle- The Skeleton Keys, a 'Spectacular Times pocket book.
It's just another cheap product for the consumers head
Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors
Schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters
CBS promote the Clash
Ain't for revolution, it's just for cash
Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
Ain't got a thing to do with your or me
Movements are systems and systems kill
Movements are expressions of the public will
Punk became a movement cos we all felt lost
Leaders sold out and now we all pay the cost
Punk narcissism was a social napalm
Steve Jones started doing real harm
Preaching revolution, anarchy and change
Sucked from the system that had given him his name
Well I'm tired of staring through shit stained glass
Tired of staring up a superstars arse
I've got an arse and crap and a name
I'm just waiting for my fifteen minutes fame
And me, yes, I, do I want to burn?
Is there something I can learn?
Do I need a business man to promote my angle
Can I resist the carrots that fame and fortune dangle
I see the velvet zippies in their bondage gear
The social elite with safetypins in their ear
I watch and understand that it don't mean a thing
The scorpions might attack, but the systems stole the sting
PUNK IS DEAD. PUNK IS DEAD. PUNK IS DEAD
Some product 4 u 2.... or buy, buy the damnation of your soul...
But will the gig get onto BBC 2/ The Culture Show?
'Why should we accept any less than a better way of doing things?'
They were the most extreme band of punk's first wave, influencing everyone from the DIY movement to, er, David Beckham. Ahead of a controversial retrospective gig, Iain Aitch looks at the cult of Crass Iain Aitch Friday October 19, 2007 GuardianOn stage at the Musician club in Leicester, something joyous is happening; yet the joy seems somewhat incongruous. This unsettling feeling is not down to the venue's odd setting on the edge of an industrial estate, but due to the words that are coming from Jeffery Lewis's mouth as he strums his battered acoustic guitar .
"Banned from the Roxy, OK," sings Lewis, a touch of his New York accent audible in his soft poetry-cum-nursery rhyme delivery. "I never much liked playing there, anyway."
The audience beam right back, bobbing their heads along to the jolly, bouncing pace that the rhythm section dictates. But for a few, mostly older, members of the audience, these words make the hairs on the back of the neck stand to attention.
Usually shouted with extreme venom, to a musical backing that was almost painful, Banned From the Roxy was written and first recorded by Crass, who were the most extreme band, musically, artistically and politically, to emerge from the initial wave of punk. The track comes from their 1978 debut 12-inch EP, The Feeding of the 5,000. The 18-track, 30-minute EP, on the Small Wonder label, retailed for just £1.99 (when albums of not much longer were selling for £3.99) and was quite unlike anything that had come before.
Lewis continues his set, throwing in most of the dozen Crass songs that make up his latest album, 12 Crass Songs. Lewis's cracked-voice folk style rids of them of their old snarling anger, but what does shine through is how amazing these songs are. With Crass, the typed lyric sheet that came inside their stencilled record sleeves was essential if you were to understand what was being said above the dissonant racket of open-tuned guitars. But in Lewis's hands, they become protest songs of the Phil Ochs school, offering solutions alongside the put-downs about those in power.
"They are just fantastic songs," says Lewis before the gig. "These are some of the best songs in the pantheon of songs, certainly as far as topical or political songs go. They are mind-blowing line after line; passionate and intelligent."
Crass were also famed for their ability to cram a vast number of expletives into their material, something Lewis has ironed out for his more gentle delivery. On The Feeding of the 5,000, this led to the album's opening track being a John Cage-esque silence, as pressing plant workers objected to what they saw as blasphemous lyrics.
The missing track was finally released in 1979 as the Reality Asylum single on the band's own Crass label. What was essentially sound-collaged poetry flew off the shelves. But because the price was pegged to "no more than 45p", the band lost money on every copy. In the long term, though, Reality Asylum, with the distinctive Crass logo on the front, forged an aesthetic that was a profound force in independent music in the early 80s (a few years back, David Beckham was pictured in the papers wearing a T-shirt featuring the Crass logo in diamante studs. Did he understand what he was wearing, or the irony of a luxury Crass T-shirt even existing?) Their records topped the indie charts for weeks on end - helped by the pricing policy - in the days when that meant tens of thousands of sales, and their label put out music by, among others, Chumbawamba and Björk, when she was the singer of Icelandic punk band Kukl. They also inspired hundreds more aspiring bands.
"Even though they may be considered extremists, as the music is extreme, a lot of it is perfectly rational," says Lewis. "They offer such an uncompromising vision, which is: 'Why should we accept anything less than a better way of doing things?' They ran everything as a band themselves and were not involved in the regular industry machine. They were the spearhead of DIY and creative networking."
Lewis works in a similar way to Crass. Sleeping on fans' floors rather than in hotels and booking his own tours, often with the assistance of audience members who ask if he would consider playing their town next time around. Another characteristic Lewis shares with Crass is the desire to educate. Crass would send fans leaflets (usually self-produced) on topics ranging from vegetarianism to environmentalism to nuclear disarmament, introducing a slew of working- class punks to traditionally middle-class ideals. The records came elaborately packaged with dense screeds of polemic. So effective was their propaganda, in fact, that they were courted by the KGB and the IRA, and monitored at their Epping commune by MI5.
Lewis's educative efforts are compelling to witness. He doubles as a comic-book artist, bringing this skill to the stage in Leicester to give what can only be referred to as a multimedia presentation. As he sings, he flips through an oversized pad containing images about the history of the written word.
Lewis's album comes at the pinnacle of a resurgence of interest in Crass, with two recent books, a film, several compilations of related sounds and at least one more book on the way. This renewed enthusiasm has also dragged Crass vocalist Steve Ignorant out of retirement for a one-off weekend of gigs in London. This is being heralded as the closest thing to a Crass gig since the band split in 1984, retreating to organic gardens and artists' studios. The band had always threatened to call it a day at the preset Orwellian sell-by-date, but their eventual demise was the result of years of being held up as leaders of a movement they had inadvertently created.
"This guy asked me if I wanted to do 30 minutes for something, and I said the only way I will do it is if I had a half-hour slot to do The Feeding of the 5,000," says Ignorant. "I think he was shocked. He was certainly silent for a long time on the end of the phone. It has snowballed from there and now all these other bands, like Flux of Pink Indians, are involved, too."
The choice of venue, the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London, has caused controversy among fans of the band. Crass usually played church halls and scout huts, with almost every gig being a benefit for CND, Rape Crisis or some other worthy cause. Internet message boards are abuzz with accusations of a sell-out.
"Some of the criticism from old fans has been spiteful and personal," says Ignorant. "But I don't have to justify what I do. A lot of interviews on Crass in recent years have just not touched on how bloody good we were and what an amazing noise we made. Plus, most of the lyrics are still relevant today. And remember that three-letter word, 'fun'?"
Fun is not something most would associate with Crass, but it is often forgotten that they had a wonderfully subversive sense of humour, once releasing a Christmas single of their hits played on a cheap keyboard, much to the bemusement of hardcore fans, as well as hoaxing the teen magazine Loving into giving away an anti-marriage flexi-disc they had recorded.
They even signed off their best-of compilation Best Before with the run-out groove of the vinyl repeating the words "We only did it for a laugh," hinting that those who followed the band's every word may themselves have simply been the victims of a complex situationist prank.
But Ignorant finds nothing to laugh about in the reaction to favouring a non-revolutionary beneficiary for some of the door money from the weekend. "Some of the money is going to a benefit, which is something this promoter always does," he says. "I said I would like it to go to the local lifeboat [in Norfolk] and someone has heard about this and had a pop at me. Lifeboats save lives, they don't get any funding. The bloody cheek of people."
The biggest critic of Ignorant's London shows, though, has been another founder- member of Crass, Penny Rimbaud, whose hippie idealism gave Crass a good deal of its political grounding. Rimbaud initially refused Ignorant the right to perform Crass songs he had written. He has since granted permission, but without endorsing the gigs.
"I acknowledge and respect Steve's right to do this, but I do regard it as a betrayal of the Crass ethos," he says, citing a Crass lyric from 24 years ago that could have been written with such an occasion in mind. The lyric in question speaks of bands performing "rehashed versions of The Feeding of the 5,000", describing them as "the Feeding of the Five Knuckle Shuffle". And the more he speaks the angrier he gets.
"I believe there are people coming in from Japan, who probably bought the whole deal like you would have for Queen in Paris or something," Rimbaud almost spits. "What has that got to do with the covert underground political movement that Crass was a part of?"
More sanguine about the event is writer Ian Glasper, whose book, The Day the Country Died, explores the history of the bands inspired by Crass. He is also playing bass for support act Flux of Pink Indians, who released their first single on the Crass label in 1981.
"I think if you take Crass's songs, then the sentiments are still relevant, especially as a force for awareness," he says. "They make people question what they read and what they see on TV. It certainly is something that encouraged me to think like that and to pass that way of thinking on to my children."
Whether the revival of interest in Crass inspires new free-thinking or is just an exercise in punk nostalgia, like the latest Sex Pistols reunion, remains to be seen. But the legacy of the band is undoubtedly all around, be it in the existence of a vegetarian food selection at your local supermarket, the stencilled artwork of Banksy or in the music of Jeffrey Lewis. Their name may mean little to most, and they may be absent from TV list shows and punk compilation albums, but theirs is a story that still has meaning.
12 Crass Songs by Jeffrey Lewis is out now on Rough Trade. Steve Ignorant performs The Feeding of the 5,000 at Shepherd's Bush Empire on November 24 and 25. The Feeding of the 5,000 is still available on Crass records