In the fall of 1999 I was a senior in a rural high school outside of Albany New York. My friend from high school, who had previously graduated the year before, was coming home. He was the other punk in town. I picked him up from the greyhound bus station. His large glue encrusted mohawk barely fit into the car. He put the tape in and that's when I first heard Crass. The discordant muck was jarring enough for me to classify it as punk and the righteously indignant lyrics fit my understanding of what it meant to be political.
Ten plus years later I don't listen to Crass much. I prefer the more melodic songs of Morrissey, Bronski Beat, She Wants Revenge, and a slew of others who attained more than a modicum of skill with their instruments. While my musical preferences have changed my interest in who and what Crass were has not. When I saw a copy of “The Story of Crass,” by George Berger at a recent Gilman show I picked up the book.
The book is composed of interviews with the members (sans one) of the band and include the voices of Gee Vaucher, Joy De Vivre, and Eve Libertine. The predominant voice of the previous media about the band mainly centers on member Penny Rimbaud, no doubt due to his proclivity for writing (Shibboleth, The Last of the Hippies and The Diamond Signature). Hearing from the others of the band fills out the picture of Crass, although Rimbaud's voice is still prominent with the author often referring to Rimbaud's “The Last of the Hippies.”
The beginnings of Crass start with, gasp, art school. Gee Vaucher, a working class girl, met the middle class Penny Rimbaud at a local art school they both attended. Later Rimbaud would move into the Dial House located in the rural landscape of England. Rimbaud points to the importance of the Dial House when he says:
“The place was, and is key and central to Crass. I don't think Crass would have had the physical environment in which to be created, it wouldn't have had the background on which it based its creation.But not only that, the very fact that it was a very secure environment which had minimal upkeep and costs, which had sufficient room for a large number of people to live for bugger-all made it central. It was, and remains, a central facility. (p. 165)”
Rimbaud and Vaucher would go on to join the Fluxus inspired artistic theatre group Exit. In recalling Exit Gee Vaucher said “We were part of the Fluxus movement. And before that we were affectedby the Situationists. We were affected by street theatre – by the idea of taking something out of the four walls and off the canvas. (p.33)”
The backbone of a art gave the band a helping hand in the design department. Their infamous logo was made and soon became stenciled everywhere. Along with their iconic logo was the artistic collages of Vaucher. Each album was put together not only with a pre-fixed price record but a long booklet which included the ranting of Rimabaud and the poster art of Vaucher. As if that was not enough the band also began to dress in all black, defining an aesthetic that would separate them from the rest of the punks. This separation was taken further when they were deemed by the punks, and the critics, as living up to the ideals to which they spoke. The Dial House was communal, their diet vegetarian and their shows were often put on as benefits for various far left causes. The members of the band subsumed their individual desires for a collective existence as Crass, for better or for worse.
The band's coherent aesthetic still contained problems. Talking later of “Yes Sir I will...” Steve Ignorant says “I hate that fucking record – that and Ten Notes on a Summer's Day are just two piles of garbage. The fun had gone, but I didn't know how to say it. Because we were Crass, and because Crass lived together, it didn't ever stop. So your personal life was part of Crass, and Crass was part of your personal life – it's all intertwined. So the way that you were was Crass and the way lived was..., you could never switch off. Even if I went to the pub or a gig, I was always careful not to get drunk in front of people cos it might backfire, I might get seen. So, yeah, it was quite a restriction and it stopped being fun. (p 244)”
While it was the style of Crass that made them popular it was the very same style (that pervaded their everyday life) that led them to breaking up, and becoming stagnant as a group and amongst themselves. Penny Rimbaud states how Crass' opposition to the status quo, to their static position as an alternative authority caused , can become inadvertently crystallized.
“When creativity is in opposition to destruction, inevitably destruction prevails. To a very small degree, that was one things we initially didn't realise. The moment creativity falls into the trap of being in opposition, it's becoming defined – the whole purpose of creativity is that it's channeling and describing undefined areas – its bringing form from formlessness. The moment the form is defined (by auhtorities, by the state, by the schools, by parents, by the church) then we're no longer in a creative situation.”
The above quote smacks strongly of the idea of ressentiment, a Nietzschean term that depicts a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration. In Crass' case their ressentiment was directed at the State and Capital, against society as a whole. With ressentiment there is a sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the "cause" which generates a rejecting/justifying value system or morality. Here we can see Crass' embrace of vegetarianism, pacificism, and anarchism. This set of morality attacks which or denies the perceived source of one's frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability, it allows one to have a righteous anger against the enemy, a forever feeling of victim-hood.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the way it highlighted the art background and hippy values of Crass was ultimately very disappointing for me personally. I hate hippies, and its sad that one of the greatest punk bands were hippies. Working class member Steve Ignorant saves the day, (a little bit, even if he wasn't a hippy he sure did hang out with a bunch) when he said in reply to being called hippies; “That used to drive me up the right up the fucking wall! I hated that. … the hippy thing used to drive me mad because I never was a hippy and never will be. (p. 163)”
Phew at least one of them wasn't a fucking hippy.
The book is available from PM Press