Crass was formed in 1978 by Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud, who lived a commune-type life in a farmhouse called Dial House at North Weald near Epping, in rural Essex, which was home to a group of artists and dropouts.
The house was founded as an open community in 1967 by Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, radicalised by their tenure at art school in Barking.
By 1977 Rimbaud was living alone at the house, drinking heavily and writing radical poetry, when he was paid a visit by Steve Williams, an 18-year-old suedehead from Dagenham who had been visiting Dial House with his brother for several years.
Inspired by a Clash gig in Bristol, Williams mentioned to Rimbaud that he wanted to form a punk band.
Rimbaud volunteered to play drums, Williams became Steve Ignorant and – inspired by punk’s first wave – they set out to up the ante.
Beginning with the raw street punk of The Feeding of The 5000 (1978) Crass churned out a string of records crammed with white-hot polemic and ratcheting intensity.
Unquestionably Britain’s best-known anarchist band, Crass, sold 100,000 copies of each of their self-released albums, and their stencilled logo was seen on municipal property and leather jackets in every suburban town in the UK in the early 80s.
Crass also brought new topics to a large, young, mostly working-class audience: feminism, veganism, pacifism, nuclear proliferation. And the group always made a point of sitting down and talking with people for an hour at their gigs.
The Crass army grew rapidly: Stations of The Crass (1980) sold 20,000 copies in the first month. But the music press did not warm to them, perceiving them as preachy.
In July 1981, as urban unrest simmered in Brixton, Handsworth and Toxteth, Crass played a gig at the Lesser City Hall, Perth. The show was infiltrated by National Front supporters and an incendiary live album (You’ll Ruin It For Everyone) recorded the events as the band battled to quell the crowd violence.
In truth, the brusque, staccato punk polemic of thrash-rants such as Punk Is Dead and Nagasaki Nightmare sound dated today and verge on the unlistenable. But it was compelling to hear Steve Ignorant and Eve Libertine hectoring the Neanderthal intruders and attempting to explain “anarchy” to a heckler, then giving up and yelling, “Oh balls, you twat!”.
To Crass, ‘Anarchy In The UK’ meant self-determination and the pursuit of a bloodless revolution, not another fashion statement and collaborations with major labels, as practised by The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
But while they ran their own label and commune, only played benefits, popularised the circled “A” anarchist symbol, helped re-invent CND as a grassroots movement and spearheaded a substantial alternative underground punk movement, history won’t remember them for musical endeavour.
With a ragged, raw style of delivery somewhere between UK Subs and Stiff Little Fingers, with similar “terrace” anthem choruses to Sham 69, Crass weren’t songwriters any more than musos, as they attempted to squeeze too many words into convoluted stanzas.
Their anti-Falklands War singles How Does It Feel? (To Be the Mother of A Thousand Dead) (1982) and Sheep Farming In the Falklands (1983) – containing classified material leaked to the band by a soldier – drew the ire of Thatcher‘s government. Rimbaud maintains the phone at Dial House was tapped at the time.
Such pressure resulted in increasingly fractured, avant-garde music, like Yes Sir I Will (1983) and, following a show for striking miners in Aberdare, Crass called it a day in 1984.
Steve Ignorant (Williams)
Joy De Vivre