In the beginning of the 1980’s I really got into punk. It wasn’t before long that I encountered Crass, the anarchist pacifist punk collective from England. Both musically and lyrically uncompromising, loud, confrontational and real. Crass influenced me greatly in the way I view the world and the individual role a person plays in it. A look back on their debut.
Crass started when Penny Rimbaud met the young Steve Ignorant. The latter had seen The Clash and wanted to form a band himself. Ignorant had written his first song: Do They Owe Us A Living?. Initially the band consisted of just Rimbaud and Ignorant. They called themselves Stormtrooper and performed in the streets. Drums and vocals only.
Rimbaud lived in Dial House in Epping, Essex, England. He was a free spirit who had implemented an open door policy at his residence. Everyone was welcome. Many people came and went, some of them stayed. This included people who could (or wanted to) play something. The band quickly expanded. Within a year the final line-up of the band was complete, the name was changed to Crass (named after the line The kid was just crass from the David Bowie song Ziggy Stardust) and the Crass journey commenced in earnest.
Conceptually, Crass became ever more serious. After two shows at the London Roxy, where the band arrived unprepared and drunk, Crass was banned from the venue. It would inspire the song Banned From The Roxy, but it also focused the band. They started wearing the same clothing (black), on stage as well as in real life. Thus making clear the band wasn’t made up of individuals per se, but that the collective was what made Crass and ensuring that no person could be identified as the ‘leader’. Use of alcohol and drugs (weed) was prohibited when performing. All that was left now, was to make Crass easily identifiable visually.
The famous Crass logo was designed by a friend of Rimbaud, Dave King. It was initially designed to be part of the cover of Rimbaud’s pamphlet Christ’s Reality Asylum. The logo was a composition of several icons of power, like the Christian cross, the swastika, the Union Jack (the United Kingdom flag) and a two-headed Ouroboros (literally: tail eater). The latter symbolized the idea (or hope) that power eventually destroys itself.
As stated before, the band presented itself in black. They formed a row in front of the stage and utilized 40 Watt lighting, thus darkening the stage. The stage was made up of all kinds of banners. Besides the Crass logo, it had banners of support acts and (several) political messages and organizations, like the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). Movies and/or pieces of film were projected onto the stage as well
On February 27th, 1978, the band made their first recordings in a recording studio. Eight songs were put to tape. The recordings found their way to Pete Stennett, who owned Small Wonder Records. He was impressed and offered the band to make more professional recordings and releasing them on his label.
The Feeding Of The 5000
On October 29th, 1978, the band convened at the Southern Studios in London. Led by studio-owner John Loder (in the role of engineer oftentimes referred to as the ninth Crass-member) the band recorded all of their material over the course of one day: 18 songs, 31 minutes and 51 seconds.
The album (or rather: the 12-inch) was released in February of 1979 (some sources state the year of release as 1978). It was a revolutionary album: musically extreme, loud, angry, course, profane and filled with anarchist ideals.
The release experienced some difficulties. Workers at the Irish pressing plant, where the album was manufactured, refused to work on the album, because of the content of Asylum (see further down this article), which was considered to be blasphemous. The song was ultimately removed from the album and replaced by the song The Sound Of Free Speech, two minutes of silence.
The album contains many of the things (if not all) Crass had to offer musically speaking: guitars producing ‘noise’, military drumming and remarkably well developed bass-lines. All songs flow from the one into the other. Lyric sheets were a must for Crass, because the message was essential. To the casual listener it was indispensable as well. Singer Ignorant had a very heavy Cockney accent, which made understanding the lyrics by ear virtually impossible (especially for me in The Netherlands), but the sheer amount of words crammed into lines was so high that even English(wo)men couldn’t fully follow or understand them. Ignorant was no schooled singer, but his exciting and sincere performance commanded a lot of sympathy. When Pete Wright started to sing, I instantly missed Ignorant.
The album’s title refers to the Biblical story (or miracle) wherein Jesus, using only five leaves of bread and two fish, was able to feed five thousand people.
So, what is it that makes Asylum so insulting to so many? The song is a recitation of (a part of) the text Rimbaud had written in his pamphlet Christ’s Reality Asylum, using guitar feedback noise as background music. The lyrics are a ferocious attack on Christianity, its institutions and the character of Jesus Christ, who is held personally responsible for the atrocities in Auschwitz and Treblinka.
At the time, I too was pretty overwhelmed by the lyrics. The disbelief that someone dared to write, speak and release such a lyric was big. But, it truly was a courageous release. Problems were inevitable (the authorities have tried to persecute Crass, but to no avail). The release made Crass enter the radar of the English authorities, secret services and (eventually) foreign secret services, like the CIA and the KGB, as well (see also Crass – How Does It Feel).
JESUS DIED FOR HIS OWN SINS. NOT MINE.
The album provided the chance to write the band in order to receive a cassette copy of Asylum.
After the problems with the release of Asylum, the band decided to release Reality Asylum (Asylum‘s full title) as a single. In France a pressing plant was found that was willing to manufacture the single. The single contained a re-recorded version of Reality Asylum and the new song Shaved Women as a B-side. It was very successful, and extremely successful within the alternative markets. The second pressing contained a poster designed by Gee Vaucher. It was the first Crass release to contain the Crass logo and the typical ‘stencil’ capital font. It was also the first release to abide to the ‘pay no more than…’ band strategy, ensuring that customers wouldn’t pay too much and that Crass didn’t get rich off it.
To minimize future problems for Small Wonder Records the band decided to release the single under the banner of the Crass label Crass Records. At the time of the single’s release the band hadn’t developed full formed plans regarding a professional label yet. It was just geared towards releasing the single. It was assigned catalogue number CRASS1.
Pretty soonCrass Records did get a full start. All future releases would be released on the label. Catalogue numbers would be allocated according to the following rules: X21984/Y, marking X as the number of years between the year of release and 1984 (the 21984 bit in the catalogue number) and /Y as the sequence number within the same year of release. 1984 Was the year Crass intended to disband.
The Second Sitting
The Feeding Of The 5000 was re-released on Crass Records, re-instating the original version of Asylum. The album was complemented with a fold-out poster, Your Country Needs You, which hung in my room for years. It was assigned catalogue number 621984. A sequence number was not applicable.
All songs written and performed by Crass.
- Do They Owe Us A Living
- End Result
- They’ve Got A Bomb
- Punk Is Dead
- Reject Of Society
- General Bacardi
- Banned From The Roxy
- G’s Song
- Fight War Not Wars
- You Pay
- What A Shame
- So What
- Well…Do They?
- Steve Ignorant – vocals
- Joy De Vivre – voice
- Eve Libertine – voice
- Phil Free – guitar, background vocals
- N.A.Palmer – guitar, background vocals
- Pete Wright – bass, (background) vocals
- Penny Rimbaud – drums
- G (Gee Vaucher) – artwork
The Crass message was important and new and, particularly from a musical point of view, innovative. The Feeding Of The 5000 is the first album that has such a distinct anarchistic origin. The pacifism is just as obvious. The music is loud and relentless. The contradiction between lyrics, idea, ideal and music was different and new. all the big issues are addressed.
THEY CAN’T WAIT TO USE IT / THEY CAN’T WAIT TO USE IT / THEY CAN’T WAIT TO TRY IT OUT / THEY CAN’T WAIT TO USE IT / THEY’VE GOT A BOMB / THEY’VE GOT A BOMB AND THEY CAN’T WAIT TO USE IT ON ME
DEFENCE? / SHIT / IT’S NOTHING LESS THAN WAR / AND NO ONE BUT THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS WHAT THE FUCK IT’S FOR
FIGHT WAR / NOT WARS
YES THAT’S RIGHT / PUNK IS DEAD / 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 / BUT IT AIN’T FOR REVOLUTION / IT’S JUST FOR CASH
BANNED FROM THE ROXY OK / I NEVER MUCH LIKED PLAYIMG THERE ANYWAY / THEY SAID THEY ONLY WANTED WELL BEHAVED BOYS / DO THEY THINK GUITARS AND MICROPHONES ARE JUST FUCKING TOYS? / FUCK ‘EM / I’VE CHOSEN TO MAKE MY STAND / AGAINST WHAT I FEEL IS WRONG WITH THIS LAND
To me, the only song that was out of place content wise was Do They Owe Us A Living?. The question was answered by Of Course They Fucking do!. I never really understood it, because of the Crass message. Crass virtually invented DIY (Do It Yourself). The question and answer imply that there is a higher organization that is obliged to take care of you. I don’t see how that message can be incorporated in the Crass way of thinking (or living for that matter). Years later I read Rimbaud had some reservations as well…
The album contains a lot of Crass classics and lyrical beauty, that left a deep impression at the time. The whole DIY ideal was made tangible by Crass. It was: practice what you preach. The whole background story, the philosophy and ideals were romantic (for lack of a better word) to me. Me and (some of) my friends have seriously contemplated visiting Dial House. Of course it was not all it was cracked up to be (more on that at a later time), but Crass was magical and still hasn’t lost much of that magic, even though my life is at a completely different place as it was when I was 14/15/16 years old.
Musically speaking it is minimalistic. Talent is secondary to the message, but I nonetheless like the overall mood of the music, very much. And, Crass can be funky! Banned From The Roxy has an infectious groove that has an undeniable swing.
The Feeding Of The 5000 – sequel
In 2007 Steve Ignorant wanted to perform The Feeding Of The 5000 in its entirety twice in London. Rimbaud refused cooperation and didn’t want to give permission, but did cave in eventually. Ignorant did the two shows.
On August 16th, 2010, The Feeding Of The 5000 was re-released as the first part of the six-piece The Crassical Collection. Remastered, with supplementary artwork by Gee Vaucher an 64 page booklet, containing liner-notes by Ignorant and Rimbaud.
Unfortunately, the re-release started a row between the band members. The release stirred up some controversy within the punk community as well, which didn’t present its prettiest face (not by a long shot). Complaints about the price (still considerably less when compared to current standards) and a feeling of entitlement to free music, because ‘wasn’t that what Crass was all about’? Do They Owe Us A Living? indeed…
But, all in all, the re-releases were great, even though I didn’t particularly liked it sound wise, but the packaging was awesome and the liner-notes were informative and a very nice read!
That same year Steve Ignorant went on a tour that was called The Last Supper, Crass songs 1977-1984, the very last time he would play the Crass songs. In October of 2010 he came to Amsterdam and gave a very entertaining show. During the last show of the tour Rimbaud came on stage to play Do They Owe us A Living? with Ignorant.
This is the second story on Crass. The first story was published on October 16, 2017, and had de single How Does It Feel as its subject. Much to my surprise Penny Rimbaud himself commented on that story in a very nice way.
Many more stories on Crass will appear on my blog. This year (November 4th to be exact) the story on the fantastic sequel to The Feeding Of The 5000, Stations Of The Crass, will be published. In that article I will provide more info on the way Crass influenced me.
What is your opinion on Crass and about this debut The Feeding Of The 5000? Let me know!
Crass – Header image: crass-southern.bandcamp.com
Crass – Dial House Epping Essex image: flickr.com
Crass logo image: punk-t-shirts.co.uk
CND logo image: wikipedia.org
Crass – The Feeding Of The 5000 & Crass – The Feeding Of The 5000 – backcover images: punkygibbon.co.uk
Crass – Reality Asylum – poster & Crass – Asylum cassette images: crassahistory.wordpress.com
Crass – Reality Asylum – single image: youtube.com
Crass – The Feeding Of The 5000 – The Second Sitting image: shop.southern.com
Crass – Soundcheck image: todestrieb.co.uk
Crass – Your Country Needs You image: exitstencilpress.com
Crass – The Feeding Of The 5000 – The Crassical Collection image: eyeplug.net