Asked to write an article for a (maybe) forthcoming book about Crass, entitled 'Bullshit Crass' (charmingly named after a single of the time by another band), I sat in front of the PC to lay down my thoughts. A million memories came flooding back, and it startled me that most were actually bad ones. Whilst a lot of my youthful actions could be relatively termed heroic, I got to wishing I'd had a lot more fun, a lot more sex, and a lot less stress. Started figuring, over a few pints with a fellow old punk mate, that Crass actually kind of spoiled things. Punk was fun before they came along. Lots of other things too, of course, but always fun.
Then the following article started pouring out, much to my surprise. I wrote it pissed, re-read it sober, re-read it again halfway between the two, and still couldn't take any of it back. I sent it to Gee & Penny (ex-Crass), wondering if they'd ever speak to me again, but still not regretting it. A while later, Penny rang, and whilst calling it 'revisionist', didn't seem too put out. We ended up discussing the merits of various Madonna songs. I'm still put out by it myself though, so as the start of a regular column for 3A.M. Magazine, what better way to clear the slate than the finally wipe the past, in order that we may address the present?
BULLSHIT? WELL, MAYBE YES, AS IT GOES
'Anarchy, frankly -- if you take it quite literally -- is mind games for the middle class.' - John Lydon, New York Times, March 12 2000
1979 in the UK was a funny time to be 16: Thatcher had just taken charge and was about to decimate the country as revenge for the culture of the 60s. Which meant anyone different. Which especially included the youth.
Youth response was cool: 'no-one likes us, we don't care', as my local football team used to sing. And no one did like us -- any of us. Particularly the police, who had convinced every non-rural kid that stop-and-search was as usual as getting your train ticket checked. The punks amongst us knew no-one liked us even more, and our nobly decent response was that we didn't care even less. The straights either got on grudgingly with it or took Thatcher's side: it seemed at the time that only us punks were staying off our knees.
Which made it strange when the good punk bands we loved started getting on theirs in return for the temporary buy-off of a fat cheque and a pat on the back from the establishment. All this rainbow-orgasm, spiked with stylish black-and-white ideas; an atmosphere where everythings allowed . . . the time was ripe for someone to come along and quote Rotten -- 'we mean it maaan', but to actually mean it. Man.
There were only two contenders at the time: Adam & The Ants and Crass. Somewhat inexplicably (and if explicably, then ridiculously juvenile), they couldn't stand each other.
'Hates: . . . hippies, Crass," said Adam in a fanzine questionnaire. Crass responded with equally juvenile posturings, with singer Steve strolling onto the 100 club stage with a white stripe across his face. So much for solidarity.
As both would hopefully admit today, neither player was bigger than the club. Punk offered the individual SO much more than either of these bands could offer on their own. Not least the variety. But both seemed to consider themselves bigger than punk: Adam 'proved it' by becoming a massive popstar. Crass 'proved it' by co-opting punk for their own ends and only endorsing carbon-copies of themselves.
They took all the colours and turned them to grey. Remember that line? Crass wrote it.
But they also did it as surely as the evil minds they were opposing. Penny Rimbaud points out in his book that during the Falklands War he was more worried about the boil on the end of his nose. Fair enough, so would I have been, but by that time the black cat was out of the bag. During the war, Adam was a star and his next single would automatically go to number one -- a chance for the biggest stink since the Pistols did "God Save The Queen" during the Silver Jubilee. But instead he released a single more befitting a cheap pantomime. Shortly afterwards, Crass released Yes Sir I Will -- which would have been better titled 'The Shite Album' and decorated with an all-brown cover. Well forked -- and creatively dead. The 'third way' only involved idiots who'd dumbed down punk to the point where punks were less intelligent and less creative than your average john. No fun.
There weren't people on the pitch, but it was all over. We all soldiered on for a few more years, and in many ways more healthily in a puritan no-leaders sort of way, but too often down the blind alleys of cringing right-on holier than thou behaviour and miserable-ism. If this sounds reactionary in as much as there's no mention of out the activism Crass inspired, it's because I too was an activist and this is how I feel about it in hindsight. The activism, like punk without the Pistols, would have happened anyway, though perhaps in a slightly different form. Rotten wisely points out in his autobiography that change can take generations, but the fact doesn't diminish the generational effort. In many ways, it makes it more noble.
But when you're a teenager you don't want to wait. So I wrote to Crass and asked how to go about getting a house like theirs for my very own punk rock commune. The reply came -- they always replied -- and asked me if I'd considered squatting in an area like Brixton perhaps?
Well, not in the same train of thoughts actually, no. . . . I was actually (though perhaps not literally) asking them how to escape the city and gaze out on sheep and bring all my friends with me and perhaps have sex with one or more of them occasionally. Like I figured they did. I do believe their reply arrived just before the Brixton Riots of '81.
Not enough said or done, 'we' in many ways still continue to soldier on, but the main feeling I'm left with when looking back on it is cynicism. Which isn't easy to admit -- it'll make me look awful in print -- but it's true . . .
BOMB? WHAT BOMB?
I was sixteen for fuck's sake, I should have been out chasing girls, not secrets and nightmares. I won't be sixteen again. I can't get that back. There's a thin line here -- the youth should care and in certain situations be prepared to care to the point of confrontation. But if the bomb was that point, it still is. Particularly at the moment.
So what's happening and who's shouting?
No doubt peace doesn't sell as much these days, and we clearly live in an age where sales are the gauge of value. Brighton Peace Centre has changed its name to include the environment, Glastonbury has stopped flying the CND banner. The sixties are over, and the values with it. The eighties won. Whilst the affluent sixties icons trade in with nostalgia shows on TV, the smug eighties bastards sit back smiling, knowing that theirs are the values that have, in the vast majority, prevailed.
But have the issues really changed that much? Or are they as inter-changeable as flared and straight trousers? Have we learned to love the bomb in the same way a woman loves a rich husband by looking the other way and turning a part of the mind off? Or what? See why I should have been out chasing girls?
GOD? WHAT GOD?
Don't know -- they freed me from the last mangles of Catholicism. But whilst their absolutism was a neat dada-esque tactic, there was no spirituality forwarded to fill the void and I've seen Crass fans turn to both evangelical-Christianity and Naziism to fill that unexpected void. It's no good knocking something unless you've got something better to put in its place. And we can't all live in Dial House.
SYSTEM? WHAT SYSTEM?
And herein lies the rub. I loved Crass because I hated the system. Trouble is, I still do. Whilst most 30somethings around me own houses and entertain good establishment jobs (Crass fans one and all), so maybe it's a question of the old cliche about having a problem with those who are too like you. Only I'm still skint -- burnt bridges that supposed comrades only pretended to burn . . . You left me standing like a naughty schoolboy.
Crass didn't sell out.
I gather what we used to call 'anarcho-punk' is now called 'peace-punk'. But we used to call it 'anarcho punk' with a sigh and a sense of the wider 'movement' being narrowed and split off into tangents. We punks never celebrated that split -- we just got split by it, and the punks-to-be (who never really seemed like punks, in hindsight) saw the splits and wondrously did they follow their various pied pipers to different barren lands. Like the Tower Of Babel -- we all learnt to speak different languages instead of the same one, and verily was there suddenly a language called Crass and verily did people learn to speak without ever inheriting the humor that Crass themselves possess. Forget the Junior Anti-Sex League, some of these people had the market cornered -- scary visions of thought-crime were never so real as back in the right-on circles of the early 80s. Thou shalt not say cunt. Beautiful visions morphed into fascistic social restrictions, where the main loser was always you. The right to be yourself.
Seems to me Crass felt free to walk a tightrope with their own mental 'health' and those who bought the trip fell into two categories:
- people who fucked with their own mental barriers and often failed, and
- hippies who never gave a shit in the first place and went on to make nice careers out of it, thank you boss, yes the extension is coming on nicely and won't you come round for a dinner party sometime.
And it seems to me that if you did a class-based survey on which categories one and two fell into, I'd wager some fair money on the results.
George Berger is a freelance writer, with punk rock dna. He has written for Sounds, Melody Maker and Amnesty International among others. He has also written 3 books, with one published thus far: Dance Before the Storm: the Official Story of The Levellers (Virgin Books 1999). George edits abisti. He lives where the mood takes him and funds allow.