Sunday, 12 November 2017

Crass - Sheep Farming In The Falklands


As might well have been expected, Crass too were intent on striking out at Thatcher during the run up to the 1983 general election and did so in one of the ways they knew best. At the start of the Falklands war they had produced 40,000 one-sided flexi discs of Sheep Farming In The Falklands that were given away for free through the network of independent record shops. Due to the political climate at the time and to avoid any reprisals the discs had been manufactured completely anonymously without a song title, group name or matrix number. By the Spring of 1983 all such concerns had been put aside and Crass were now happy to re-issue the song as a conventional single under their own name complete with printed lyrics, a poster depicting Thatcher holding a gigantic turd, and for the first time packaged in a glossy, coloured record sleeve emblazoned with a revamped version of the Crass logo.

The Falklands war victory was the wave that Thatcher was riding to take her to an election victory; the issue that held her aloft above the calamity of her economic policies. In re-issuing Sheep Farming In The Falklands, Crass seemed to be trying to pick a fight or at least spark some kind of a debate about the war freed from the blinkers of patriotism. Apart, however, from the better quality of the sound the only real difference between the two versions of the song was in some of the lyrics, the newer version suggesting that perhaps it was no coincidence that the only ship that wasn't struck was the one on which Prince Andrew had served.
As on the original, Eve Libertine once again did her impression of Thatcher though with another change of words: "The Falklands war was really a cover-up job, it obscured the mistakes I've made, and you know I think the gamble I took could certainly be said to have paid. With unemployment at an all-time high and the country falling apart, I, Winston Thatcher, reign supreme in this great nation's heart."
Turning her attention to Ronald Reagan, she suggests that he might also try the same tactics: "Oh raunchy Ron, we've fought our war, now it's your turn to prove yourself in El Salvador. I've employed Michael Heseltine to deal with PR, he's an absolute prick but a media star. He'll advocate the wisdom of our Cruise missile plan then at last I'll have a penis just like every other man. They can call it penis envy but they'll pay the price for it." As Steve Ignorant interjects with a cry of "But the peasants are hungry, Mags!" 'Thatcher' responds with a paraphrase of Marie Antoinette: "Let them eat shit."

Perhaps because it wasn't purely an outpouring of abuse like the original version but the re-issue for some reason seemed somehow less ferocious and the flipside - entitled Gotcha - which was basically a litany of insults seemed somewhat tame compared to the usual colourful language of which Crass were the masters: "Gotcha, you Argie bastards, you Commie scum, you bloody scoundrel, you Paki bum. You thieving Arab, you slit-eyed gook, you dirty browner, you pacifist poof..."
The point being made was that the prevalent attitude during the Falklands war as exemplified by The Sun's 'Gotcha' headline was a prejudiced, sexist, nationalistic, racist one but for all that, however much anger Steve Ignorant could muster in his voice, lines like "you bloody scoundrel" and "you pacifist poof" still sounded a bit limp, a bit lame, and in the end it meant that Gotcha was one of Crass's most weakest of songs.

It's fair to say that Sheep Farming In The Falklands had no effect upon the outcome of the general election whatsoever because the Conservatives romped home and won what was judged to be a landslide victory. A few days after the polls had closed, Michael Foot stood down as leader of the Labour Party to be later replaced by a ginger-haired Welshman by the name of Neil Kinnock. Meet the new boss same as the old boss.


In response to the Thatcher victory, Crass rushed out another 7" single release entitled Who Dunnit? Packaged once again in a glossy sleeve, the picture on the cover was of some soiled 'government property' toilet paper whilst the picture on the back was of a turd with a Union Jack flag stuck into it.
The actual song was another example of Crass's peculiar sense of humour, it being basically a pub sing-along with absolutely no guitars or drums just raucous, drunken voices - with a bit of whistling: "Birds put the turd in custard, but who put the shit in Number Ten? Well what a fucking joke, it's enough to make you choke cos the shit's back in Number Ten again..." And so on over two sides. It was utter rubbish yet utterly brilliant, released as all novelty records should on coloured vinyl - faecal brown, of course.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Truth to power


What Thatcher was mostly interested in during the summer of 1983 was the Conservative vote and the winning of an election so as to enable her to remain in power for a second term. It may well have been a jolly old nuisance to have to partake in such a thing but that was the nature of the game she was engaged and the time to test the waters of her political popularity was fast approaching.
At the time of the 1979 general election, to assist them in their campaign the Conservative Party had utilised the services of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi who devised the iconic and brilliantly effective billboard poster depicting a long line of people beneath the slogan 'Labour isn't working'. Unemployment at that point stood at just over 1 million. Four years later the figure was 3 million. On entering 10 Downing Street for the first time, Thatcher had addressed the television cameras with a quote supposedly from St Francis of Assisi, positing a new era of harmony, truth and hope. Four years later the absolute polar opposite was well on the way to being achieved.
In any other circumstances this would all have been suitable grounds on which to pass a vote of no confidence and to kick the Conservatives out of office. The Falklands factor, however, though a year after the event was still in effect and on the back of it Thatcher's stock was still high; to such an extent that her own personal profile had eclipsed her Party's which meant that the 1983 general election was all about personalities rather than politics.

The Labour Party seemed totally out of step with the times, their election program even being dubbed 'the longest suicide note in history' by one of their own leading members. The Labour leader, Michael Foot, looking like some old professor with his straggly hair and donkey jacket just didn't stand a chance. Not that Thatcher was absolutely confident of an electoral victory - far from it, in fact - although she was fully aware of the significance of the election as revealed in a speech delivered at a Conservative rally: "This is a historic election," she told her supporters "For the choice facing the nation is between two different ways of life. And what a prize we have to fight for. No less than the chance to banish from our land the dark, divisive clouds of Marxist socialism!"
Fine. Except that Thatcher's political agenda as revealed in a leaked policy paper was almost cruel in its cold heartedness, citing future plans to end State funding of all higher education, the slashing of all welfare benefits and the replacement of the National Health Service with private health insurance.

Thatcher was on a roll, staring down and intimidating anyone who might dare question her 'rightness' in the same manner she had faced down the IRA hunger strikers and the Argentine junta. It took a certain kind of formidable confidence to successfully challenge her, something that very few of her opponents possessed but when people did appear with those qualities they came from very unexpected quarters, one such person being an ordinary middle-aged schoolteacher called Diana Gould.

During the course of the election campaign, Thatcher had deigned to sit in on a BBC television current affairs programme where she faced some questions from the general public. Mrs Gould came on and put a very simple question to Thatcher: "Why, when the Belgrano was outside the exclusion zone and actually sailing away from the Falklands, why did you give orders to sink it?"
Whilst not denying it was she who gave the order, Thatcher was disingenuous with the more important detail: "But it wasn't sailing away from the Falklands," she replied "It was in an area which was a danger to our ships."
Mrs Gould, however, was having none of it and after quoting sea bearings to Thatcher, asked her how could she possibly say it was not sailing away and could she correct her statement? Thatcher was visibly livid at being put on the spot and tried to talk her way around the subject.
"No, Mrs Thatcher," Mrs Gould persisted "That is not good enough."

For almost the first time ever, Thatcher had met her match. Mrs Gould struck directly at Thatcher’s Achilles heel and though it wasn't enough to cause lasting damage, it was a confrontation that Thatcher would never forget.
"Poofs and bloody pinkos!" fumed Thatcher's husband, Dennis, about the BBC, who they both blamed as being responsible for setting up the incident though in all likelihood actually had very little to do with it apart from providing the platform. The fact of the matter was that Mrs Gould was an absolute star that evening and a paragon of truth being spoken to power, whilst Thatcher was just a fucking liar.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Crass - Yes Sir I Will


The whole question regarding content over form was one that had hung over Punk from the year dot - or rather the Year Zero. The Sex Pistols, for example, had originally been criticised for being unable to play their instruments and whilst this may have been true (but irrelevant) in the case of Sid Vicious, it was very soon apparent that this particular criticism was absolutely wrong. Though it did them no harm, being good musicians wasn't actually the point of the Sex Pistols and nor was it what Punk was about. And as Johnny Rotten added: "And it's most certainly not about the clothes either. Get that one!"
The Clash had once been criticised by respected music writer Charles Shaar Murray for being 'a garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, preferably with the motor running,' revealing a complete failure at the time to recognise or understand that The Clash were representing something much more than just traditional rock and roll.
Garry Bushell had always insisted upon the importance of a good tune when delivering a message in a song, dismissing the likes of Discharge as performing nothing but pneumatic drill solos in which the words were unintelligible. The dichotomy being, however, that the more tuneful Punk bands of the kind that Bushell promoted seemed to have less to say for themselves than a band like Discharge who for all their lack of melody were conveying their anti-war message loudly and clearly. Many of Bushell's Oi! bands on the other hand - for all their good tunes - were unable to even shake off false allegations of racism - particularly post-Southall riot - suggesting that a good tune was not actually the most important factor when it came to communication.

According to Bushell, The Feeding Of The 5,000 was 'tuneless drone' but of course, he was wrong. Crass had never claimed to be expert musicians but most certainly they were musically imaginative as evidenced by the quite brilliant way they utilised Punk Rock to project absolute anger. With every new record release, however, Crass were becoming more musically adept and adventurous, culminating in their piece de resistance Christ - The Album. The Falklands war, however, had thrown a spanner in the works causing them to completely reconsider what they were doing and where they were going. Not least, it caused them to reconsider their whole musical approach.

Crass (along with everyone else) were coming to fully understand just how utterly uncompromising Thatcherism was and any belief that there could be some kind of dialogue with State power was appearing to be quite a naive notion. These were now perpetually scary times and any hope of social or political change being achieved through peaceful means seemed rapidly to be fading. Despite world-wide protests and demonstrations there appeared to be no sign of any western government wavering over the plan to site Cruise missiles throughout Europe. As the numbers of anti-nuclear protesters grew so too did the government's determination to forge ahead with the Cruise missile plan become ever more entrenched.

In the UK, the mettle of Thatcher had been tested and proved by her response to the H-Block IRA hunger strikers then confirmed by the Falklands war. Without any question, Thatcher was a formidable political opponent and the least likely person to be swayed by any such thing as a demonstration let alone a good argument. Intransigence was her forte.
As a subscriber to the 'trickle down' theory whereby increased prosperity through tax cuts for the already wealthy at the top of society is meant to eventually benefit those at the bottom of society, Thatcher again would not be budged even when faced with blatant contradictions. Under her government, the rich were indeed getting richer but the poor on the other hand were getting decidedly poorer and in fact, through rising unemployment were rapidly increasing in numbers.

Out on the council estates, Thatcher's 'Right to Buy' policy - where council house residents were being allowed to buy their homes - was wreaking almost instant social havoc. For many, being allowed to buy and own their homes was a dream come true that gained Thatcher many new supporters. The flip-side to it, however, was the division of whole communities between home-owners and home-renters or in more Thatcherite terms, between the deserving and undeserving poor.
It went without saying that in Thatcher's eyes, the deserving poor were socialist by nature as was anyone who didn't fit into her vision of mainstream society. Included among these would be the low-paid, the old unemployed, the young unemployed, the homeless, lone parents, teachers, trade unionists, public sector workers, homosexuals, peace campaigners, even vegetarians. Anyone, in fact, who declined to subscribe to Thatcher's 'traditional' and Victorian values.
The fact that half of these people would also decline to subscribe to socialist values revealed a lot about Thatcher's personal obsessions as did her labelling of self-professed socialists and genuine Labour supporters as being extremists and 'Loony Left'. The reality was that the Labour Party as led by Michael Foot was weak, muddled, uninspiring and decidedly unsexy; particularly when compared to the go-getting, thrusting gay blades of the Conservatives.

Still high on victory in the Falklands and still surfing the tabloid-led wave of jingoism, the orders of the day were privatization, trade union reform, and Cruise missiles. In short: inequality, repression, and war. This then, was the backdrop against which Crass's fourth LP, Yes Sir I Will, was released.

Following the double album box set of Christ - The Album, this latest LP was a return to basics, indicated immediately by the almost austere design of the record's wraparound sleeve. Graced by nothing but a small, black-and-white picture of a crucified man, the front cover was very simple but strangely unsettling, whilst the whole of the back cover was taken up by nothing but a short though slightly complex statement: 'Be warned! The nature of your oppression is the aesthetic of our anger.' The words 'of our anger' written large, serving to accentuate the sentiment.

Following the consideration and care applied to the making of Christ - The Album, there was a sense of urgency about Yes Sir I Will, as though time was of the essence and that what needed to be imparted was of utmost importance. Rather than being an album in its own right, it seemed also to be more of a continuation of the vitriol as expressed on How Does It Feel?, triggered by the Falklands war and the ensuing political fallout.
Audio-wise, Yes Sir I Will was an almighty, drawn out scream of anguish and despair aimed at the individual listener, the Crass audience and the whole stinking, fucked-up world of Thatcher and her modern day Britain. It was a return to first impressions of Crass when originally encountering them, as in a genuine sense of total anger and a spitting in the face of everything. It was a return to Feeding Of The 5,000 only without the tunes and containing just two actual songs; the rest being a vast, sprawling tract pinned to what in effect was a cacophonous, free-form jazz-Punk-Metal workout. Yes Sir I Will was Crass's Year Zero.

After starting with the same descriptive words that How Does It Feel began, as in "When you woke this morning you looked so rocky-eyed" etc, an assessment of the current position of Crass within the scheme of things is delivered. Though still kicking and screaming, it was apparent that a fundamental change had occurred within Crass. A fundamental shift. Where before they had always shone with anger and defiance, that same anger was now tempered with equal measures of extreme desperation and frustration: "Words sometimes don't seem to mean much, of anyone we've used more than most, feelings from the heart that have been distorted and mocked... We didn't expect to find ourselves playing this part, we were concerned with ideas, not rock and roll... In attempts to moderate, they ask why we don't write love songs? What is it that we sing then? Our love of life is total, everything we do is an expression of that. Everything that we write is a love song."

The extraordinary popularity of Crass had been achieved entirely on their own terms with very, very little support or backing from the mainstream music press. The reason for their popularity was subsequently a subject for much debate not only for the music industry but for Crass themselves. Shortly after the release of Stations Of The Crass, journalist Dave McCullough had written an article for Sounds (the same music paper that Garry Bushell wrote for) accusing Crass of being 'tatty, witless, doggedly dated and unbelievably conservative,' who (along with the Adam And The Ants and Poison Girls) didn't have 'the guts or the energy to do something that's original or startling or new or real.' Musically, according to McCullough, Crass took 'the blackest and the bleakest of The Clash and the Pistols and gave the collective elements some kind of special Epping Forest/Japanese torture until they squealed with pain.'
This was, essentially, a typical example of the kind of criticism that was regularly being thrown at Crass that always revealed far more about the critic and their personal prejudices than it did about anything else. In the same article, however, McCullough did manage to touch upon something of some significance. After writing that he was left scratching his head at the 'wall to wall bilge' and the 'depressing horrors' of Stations he then asked 'why something as specious as Crass finds itself able to reach a position approaching prominence. It's worth thinking about.'

According to all their critics, the music that Crass produced was absolutely atrocious so this could in no way be the reason for their popularity, surely? It must then have been for other reasons, one of the most logical being that people liked Crass not for how they were expressing themselves as in their chosen musical style but for what they were expressing. This was what posed the biggest problem for most critics that very few of them could ever get their heads round.
When criticising Crass for their politics all it did was to expose the critic's own political leanings, these usually being soft Leftist or sly conservative. Most critics, however, particularly of the music variety, seemed simply incapable of engaging with the kind of subjects that Crass were dealing with and had no real comeback to what Crass were saying. They were basically out of their depth.
Those who were 'political' (with a small 'p') were usually left blithering and blathering hysterically, rather like tory MP Tim Eggar when confronted by Crass members during the live radio debate over How Does It Feel?. The inept fury and outright hostility that Crass engendered in their critics was probably also a testimony to the power of Crass's arguments though this didn't mean that the constant barrage of such criticism wasn't wearisome due to if nothing other than the fact that the criticism was being delivered from positions of power and influence. And like it or not, both the NME and Sounds (plus the other third major music newspaper at that time, Melody Maker) were powerfully influential organs, both commanding the attention of over half a million readers every week.

Crass were the equivalent of a mirror being held up to rock'n'roll and reflecting a horrible truth: that so-called rock'n'roll rebellion was just a pantomime and a sham. Very ineffectual and very, very safe. Holding that mirror up to music journalists, it reflected nothing but hawkers of illusion, delusion and deceit who themselves were distracted by a rebellious pose, vainly trying to convince themselves and their readers that it all meant something when in reality it meant very little. When confronted with this, all that these journalists could do - like X-Ray Spex's Poly Styrene sang in Identity - was to smash the mirror quick. Crass were that mirror.

"Lennon said 'They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool," continued Crass, once again quoting from John Lennon; this time (again, rather ironically for a band that always denied the significance of class) from Lennon's Working Class Hero. "He was right! Social intelligence merely requires agreement and compromise."
Interestingly, this was a point where both the Crass and Oi! camps had overlapped, a point not ever really taken into account nor ever really explored by advocates of either scene. Crass were obviously disliked intensely by most critics not only for their music but for what they were saying and for what they represented. That same dislike was also held for the bands lumped together beneath the Oi! banner though for very different reasons.
Crass were deemed offensive, extreme and humourless whilst any typical Oi! band was deemed moronic, violent and racist. Accusing Crass of being offensive, however, was a question of sensibilities and of whose were being offended. To accuse them of being extreme was a question of semantics. To accuse them of being humourless was just plain wrong, as anyone witnessing Phil Free's unique way of dancing on stage might testify.
To accuse Cockney Rejects (who, though by 1983 having taken a wrong turn into Heavy Metal were once the epitome of an Oi! band) of being moronic was sheer cultural snobbery as dictated by usually middle class, University-educated critics. To accuse them of being violent was too easy and too simplistic, particularly when considering their ex-boxing/London East End/football backgrounds. To accuse them of being racist was simply outrageous, as a number of genuine racists could confirm after having the Rejects express solidarity with them by basically punching their lights out.

In the near blanket criticism of both Oi! and Anarcho Punk a weird conservatism was at work, doing its best to disguise itself by hiding behind a mask of liberalism. The energy of the original '77 Punk shock had charged through the cultural zeitgeist kicking over all restrictions upon freedom of expression, or as Sid Vicious put it: "We opened all the doors - and the windows."
By 1979, however, Sid was dead and the Punk explosion had been accommodated, contained and diluted leaving only sparks and streamers descending from the skies and seeds drifting through the breeze. The freedoms as offered by Punk had been grabbed at, used and enjoyed though in the morning after, like late night revellers nursing hangovers, there were certain people left holding their heads and groaning "Never again". Having used Punk as a stepping stone toward attaining something for themselves, these people seemed now to want to draw up the bridge and curtail Punk's freedoms and place conditions upon them, especially when it came to expressing so-say 'extreme' views and to giving a voice to the so-say 'uncultured' elements who simply failed to understand the 'artisticness' of Punk.
For them, Punk had been a party but an exclusive one with no gatecrashers allowed. In general, they mocked and derided Oi! for being small-minded and unsophisticated, and Crass for being godawful and wrong. Oi! and Anarcho Punk, then, shared common detractors and common enemies though rather sadly the two Punk factions were always too busy arguing and fighting between themselves all the time to really recognise this and to potentially exploit these common interests. These were the politics of divide and rule, both wilfully and unwittingly practised.
"Critics say that it's just Punk Rock or that we're just naive anarchists. They hope to discredit us with their labels and definitions," as Crass put it. The advantage that Crass had over any Oi! band, however, was the ability to translate their experience of the music business into a much wider world view where power and control manifested itself in much more potent forms: "How is it that the small and mealy-minded have gained so much power? What perversion has taken place that we are governed by fools? We've had problems from self-appointed gods, from bishops to MPs. They've tried to ban our records saying that we're a threat to decent society. Fuck them. I hope we are."

Still crazy after all these years. Still mad as hell and not willing to take it any more, Crass were still ringing the sentiments of Banned From The Roxy as in "Fuck 'em, I've chosen to make my stand". Four years after the release of that record, however, where Steve Ignorant had declared "I ain't quite ready with my gun but I've got my fucking song," he was now asking "But how long do we shout for?"
The faith that Crass held in the power of the word and the potential influence of the art of song had brought incredible achievements, impacting mightily upon a generation willing to lend an ear. The usefulness of song though had also brought Crass to an impasse of sorts and seemed now to be wearing thin. Post-Falklands war/pre-thermonuclear war, a song now seemed no longer enough, hence their abandoning of the form on Yes Sir I Will to be replaced by discordant noise and floods of unrhymed, screaming streams of consciousness: "What space is there for self-expression and personal development when over half the world's population is starving? There are so many things that might have been done, but rooted on this spot in the desire to find solution, there's little to see and feel but the sighing and dying of our world. But for suffering we might have been a part of it rather than apart from it."

For all that, paradoxically and very unexpectedly from amidst the noise and the haste a sudden patch of clear calm is revealed in the shape of the most gentle and most tuneful song Crass would ever perform. Not screamed or shouted but actually sung very tenderly by Penny Rimbaud - for the first time taking on lead vocal - accompanied by nothing but piano. From the swirl of anger and desperation, here was a song as though born in the depths of night exposing a man alone with his thoughts, stirring embers of doubt and despair: "Making the compromises. Brave fronts, deceitful disguises. Turning a blind eye to the lies just to keep it all together, but sometimes when I'm alone like this I wonder whether it's worth it? What did you know? What did you care? Surface agreements, statements of fact, trying to prove we can do it... Holding the vision but losing our sight, endlessly searching solution. But sometimes when I'm alone like this..."
From day one, the whole Crass canon of songs had been a litany of anger and outrage but here suddenly was a song wrought from and conveying sadness and depression. As a collective, Crass could easily have vetoed the release of it into the public domain on the grounds of it being too negative but the fact that they chose to let such feelings be known spoke volumes as to their present state. It was a valid decision that revealed them as being all too human and not the supercharged anarchist leaders they had been elevated into being. At the same time, it underlined also their seriousness regarding their whole raison d'etre.

Almost single-handedly, Crass had turned Punk from being "just another cheap product for the consumer's head" into a genuinely anarchist-fuelled movement for potential social change. Thatcher's war in the Falklands, however, had not only laid bare the cracks and the flaws in the movement but had magnified them ten-fold to the extent of practically eclipsing the positives: "Anarchy's become another word for 'got 10p to spare?'. Another way of saying 'I'm OK, sod you out there'." And indeed there was a lot of truth to this.
For some, Punk and Anarcho Punk in particular had become if only temporarily a refuge from the world. A retreat, a shelter from the storm. At a time of increasing disparity between rich and poor, poverty was being adopted by some as a lifestyle choice and dressing like a tramp was becoming a kind of anti-fashion statement. Subsequently, dressing like a tramp quickly led to acting like one. At every gig, at every place that Punks might gather there came an incessant chorus of the new tramp Punk mantra: "Oi, mate! Have you got 10p?" Begging had become as synonymous with Punk as spitting once was.
The year previously, Dagenham-based Punk band The Ejected had released their début EP on the Riot City label, entitled Have You Got 10p?, striking a chord with anyone attending Punk gigs at that time. Though delivered with tongues firmly in cheeks, they had nailed a subject that actually wasn't very amusing: Punks scrounging from fellow Punks, not out of necessity but because it was deemed the thing to do. Like a fashion. Like Pavlovian dogs.

So successfully had Crass woven the idea of anarchy into Punk and vice versa that the state of one could now be measured against the state of the other. So, if Punk (and specifically Anarcho Punk) was becoming problematic then so too was anarchy: "Anarchy's become... another token tantrum to cover up the fear. Another institution, another cross to bear."
Were things really that bad as viewed from The House Of Crass? It appeared so. Clouds were gathering and hanging over it. Black ones, naturally. Where once Punk had been "an answer to years of crap, a way of saying 'No' where we'd always said 'Yep'," it was now being viewed by Crass as being pretty much ineffectual. It was the course that Britain and subsequently the course that the world was taking that was important and at stake, not allegiance to a sub-cult. According to Crass, Punk was now an irrelevance. It had served its purpose but now was a formulae, an institution: "Anything and everything can be so easily institutionalised, a poor parody of itself, itself contained by itself. Punk has spawned another rock and roll elite, cheap Rotten Vicious imitations thinking they'll change their world with dyed hair and predictable gestures. Nouveau wankers."
And in as much as Steve Ignorant could be bitterly scathing regarding the matters of war, politics and the system, so too could he turn his bile upon the current devotees of that which had once changed his life: "Go on, go and pogo out the fucking window you spiky-haired little ponce. Fucking pervert. Go and suck a safety pin. Shove it up your arse."

But were Crass right to be so bitter toward Punk? After all, was it not they who from the very start had declared Punk to be dead? So where now was the problem? Punk had always been flawed and riven with contradictions but the fact remained that the Sex Pistols et al was precisely what Britain in 1977 had needed, no matter that it was all too quickly appropriated. When Crass came along and essentially divided Punk up between those in it for the right reasons and those in it for the wrong, they performed what was at the time an absolutely necessary task. Anarcho Punk was the result.
Like any band, the success of Crass and their brand of Punk could be measured against record sales and gig attendance which in light of the totally independent way they were operating was genuinely phenomenal. Crass themselves, however, were measuring their success more against their effective impact upon culture and politics, or as they put it: "We're tired of living up to other people's expectations when our own are so much higher." It must have been gratifying therefore, for them to see their audience swell to such huge numbers and to see this reflected in the subsequent creative activity going on as in zine production and band formation, as well as the rising participation of Punks in demonstrations and protests.
The real litmus test of their actual impact and subsequently Punk's effectiveness, however, had come with the advent of the Falklands war which had found Anarcho Punk somewhat lacking in its response. Yes Sir I Will was the signifier that Crass had learnt a very hard lesson from this and from now on were only going to focus on that which was important. Any hint of a nice tune, for example, would now be jettisoned, and no longer were they going to be a Punk band be it Anarcho or otherwise. From now on Crass were going to be an anarchist band only: "How many times must we hear rehashed versions of Feeding Of The 5,000 by jerks whose only fuck off to the system has been one off the wrist?... Actionless sloganeering is just another Punch and Judy show."

Having turned their guns upon themselves and that which had once inspired them to form a band in the first place, Crass were now free to focus purely on what in their eyes were meaningful matters such as the state of the world and the roles that people were playing in maintaining that state. And generally, from Crass's vantage point, things weren't looking too good: "Are we so dumb, so cowered into submission that not only are we prepared to eat shit, we're also prepared to say thanks for the privilege?"

Identifying one of the major problems as being passive acceptance brought about by various forms of conditioning, the influence and power of television is rightly pinpointed: "Television has so dampened people's anger... and the streets, where the politics of reality were once created, are deserted at night and the rulers sleep secure."
Even though there were only four terrestrial British television channels at this time, their capacity to enthral the nation was unsettling. In the scheme of things, television was still a relatively new technological phenomenon but having become the foremost form of home entertainment, its sociological impact was massive. Television held an audience captured within their own homes.
The government was fully aware of the importance of television as a conduit of news, hence the constant tussles with the BBC and even the famous 'make-over' of Thatcher where her appearance and voice were altered so as to make her more televisually appealing. Even though the BBC was very much part of the Establishment, it was viewed rather inexplicably by Thatcher and her Conservatives as being overly liberal and even somewhat socialist.
These sentiments were brought to a head during the 1981 inner-city riots when Thatcher accused the BBC of influencing copycat rioting through its coverage of the events of that summer. When the Falklands war happened, for reasons of 'national security' Thatcher severely restricted access to and and the reporting of it but even this was not enough for her. The BBC, she believed, should at times of crisis by default align itself with the government but in trying to maintain impartiality by describing Argentine forces as 'Argentine forces' instead of Thatcher's preferred term of 'the enemy', the BBC succeeded only in further stoking Thatcher's ire.

Having awarded knighthoods to the editors of The Sun, the Sunday Express, and the Daily Mail, Thatcher knew that most of the national press was in her pocket but she knew also - like Crass - that television was something altogether different; potentially much more powerful than a newspaper and potentially far more influential. According to Crass: "Television is today's Nuremberg." Would Thatcher have agreed with this? And if so, would she have also agreed that "We are allowed to see endless theatrical deaths but when the real deaths started on the Falklands, government censors prevented us from seeing them"?
How could this be denied? Is that not what had happened? And how could Crass's next assertion be also denied: "At home, we were fed fabrications of Britain's 'glorious war'. The truth that is now filtering out paints a very different picture"?

With the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and the loss of 321 lives, the Falklands crisis became the Falklands war. The circumstances of the sinking whilst coming as a shock to all but the most belligerent of armchair warriors seemed at the time to be pretty straightforward: the Belgrano was within the exclusion zone that had been thrown around the island and was deemed to be a threat to British forces. From a decision taken on the spot by the captain of the British submarine HMS Conqueror, the Belgrano was therefore torpedoed.
Apparently, however, this wasn't quite the truth of the matter. Slowly but surely, suggestions were being made that differed drastically from the official version of events. Apparently, the decision to sink the Belgrano had come not from the captain of the Conqueror but from Thatcher herself. Apparently, the Conqueror had been tracking the Belgrano for some days and the decision to attack her was made suddenly and coincidentally on the very same day that a peace plan tabled by the President of Peru had been delivered to London. And last but not least, apparently the Belgrano was in actual fact outside of the exclusion zone and heading away from the Falklands when it was struck.
According to Labour MP and major thorn in Thatcher's side, Tam Dalyell, the Falklands war was only ever about military victory and to this end the Belgrano was sunk. Military victory meant government victory meant Conservative victory meant Thatcher's victory. Anything that might take the shine off the military victory would take the shine also off Thatcher. The circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano was the Achilles heel not only of the official British version of the war but also of Thatcher. No wonder then, that she wished to gloss over the whole issue.
"The Falklands war... was not a glorious victory for the British spirit, nor an heroic defeat of a fascist dictator," continued Crass "It was a callous and savage piece of electioneering designed to cover up horrific domestic problems." Apparently, an accusation that Thatcher was not entirely in agreement with.

Throughout Yes Sir I Will, what was by now the usual suspects along with some new additions are all lined up and as per usual demolished one by one: "Puppet figurehead Queen Elizabeth the Second, Regina Virgina... the inheritor of her ancestors greed and theft."
"Still we lay prostrate before a stylised figure on a crucifix, as if the stone fool might be resurrected. Fuck his loaded deity."
"Governments pay no heed to the cries of suffering... because to ensure control the superpowers need to maintain the imbalance."
"Politicians... how can anyone be so distorted?"
"Who is this Heseltine with his corrupt lies? Who is this Thatcher with her arrogant deceit? These hideous mutants cast their shadows across all that is worthwhile and good."
What was more noticeable within the album's tract was the increased attention given to the fact that "the rows of grey robots who control our lives" are all rich, no better summed up as by the description "The wealthy obscene with their obscene wealth."
An early Crass slogan stencilled on billboards on the London Underground had declared that 'Wealth is a ghetto', and whilst this might be the truth, it was still a privileged ghetto to be in none the less. Under Thatcher, the rich and the subsequently privileged were getting ever more richer but according to Crass the poor were now not only getting poorer but they were also getting killed, or at the very least their lives being made a complete misery: "In a world where there are people who can't afford a crust of bread, these arrogant scabs drive around in Bentleys and Rolls Royces. Perhaps it amuses them to rub shit into the faces of the poor? But there'll come a time when such overt displays of wealth will not be tolerated by the people in the street. In a sane society wealth and possession would not be an asset."
This was Crass edging very close to the same direct-action advocating point that The Apostles were making in their song Pigs For Slaughter, as in: "Spray a message of hate across a Bentley or smash it up... Put sugar in the petrol tank, deflate the tyres with six-inch nails. That's the way to wreck a Rolls, so get stuck in, it never fails."

When it came to an issue such as Cruise missiles, though being as Crass put it "an existing reality", it was a reality that only physically manifested itself at the bases such as Greenham Common and Molesworth where the silos could actually be seen being prepared. In the main, then, apart from those campaigners putting themselves on the front line at these bases, for most people that particular battle was an ideological one. The disparity between the rich and the poor, however, was something much easier to see on a day-to-day basis whether it be on television, in advertising, or even by a simple trip into any city. It was something that there was no need to seek out as it was always there in full view, the wealth side of it being flaunted as if it was some kind of virtue. Poverty, on the other hand, whilst also being clearly visible was something to almost be ashamed of.
Here then was "an existing reality" that was in your face. Here then lay a future battlefield not so much for an ideological war but for a more physical one. A class war, perhaps? From wrecking a Rolls Royce it was only a hop, skip and a jump away to a full-blown riot, something that those in power seemed to be quite conscious of although as Crass were pointing out: "Rather than analysing the seriousness of the problem, they simply strengthen the army and police to combat it."
The St Paul's riot in Bristol in 1980 and likewise the country-wide riots the following year may have taken everyone by surprise but now civil unrest was not only being anticipated but was being prepared for. Those in any position of power be it economically or politically knew that something was now 'out there' waiting. Something brooding, seething, discontented and dangerous: "It happened in Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side. It happens daily in Northern Ireland."
Whilst on the one hand dismissed as being pure criminality or even as the politics of envy, on the other hand it was apparent that it was also being taken seriously enough to warrant a war being waged against it: "Under Thatcher's regime there have been massive increases in police brutality," and in a reference to the shooting of Steven Waldorf: "In London, police shot down a man only to find it was the wrong person." The question being, however, who exactly was on the attack and who was on the defensive? The rich or the poor? Was it the ruling elite who were running scared or was it the dispossessed?

Yes Sir I Will was Crass weighing up the odds, despairing, taking stock, taking a deep breath and then urging themselves and their listeners onwards: "Why should we accept servility as a bargain for dignity? Why should we passively accept death as a bargain for living? Why accept this robbery of life? Why accept this pillage... Take up your eyes and see. Take up your ears and hear. Take up your mind and think. Take up your life and act."
Above everything else, however, it was the problem of the passive observer and passive acceptance that was drawing the most fire: "Passive observers do nothing but passively observe... Passive observers offer nothing but decay... In your refusal to act you are guilty of being the gutless, passive observer... War can only exist through passive acceptance... In your passive acceptance you have already allowed the (nuclear) holocaust to happen. The future is ended."

In presenting all these various problems as one major problem conveyed in one single block of words rather than separate problems conveyed in separate songs, there now came the danger of being snowed under by it all. To avoid, therefore, being immobilised by the combined weight of all the problems being made into one, the tract that was Yes Sir I Will demanded a suitable ending. Some kind of summing up needed to be reached.
Though having declared at the start of the album that their love of life was total, come the end Crass had once again made it clear that life was also a horrible mess. So what to do? In their final reckoning, Crass were teetering on the edge of making a declaration of outright war: "It is up to us all as responsible citizens of Earth to work towards the downfall of the powerful elite. Their rule has created dreadful suffering. Their insanity precludes all reason and compassion. They lie, trick and manipulate... They must be stopped. Why should people die for their insanity? Why should people starve for their insanity? Why should people suffer the spitefulness of their greed? We must not be intimidated by the authority that they appear to have. We must be prepared to oppose them on every level, to fight back in the knowledge that if we don't we will have failed in our responsibility to life itself."

Given that an acute sense of desperation had been conveyed throughout the album, it seemed however as though Crass were still holding back or rather they were being held back - paradoxically - by some of the very ideas they were espousing. If it was a war that was being waged, as pacifists could they allow themselves to actually partake in that war? As pacifists could they actually declare a war? Such was the frighteningly violent dangerousness of the "existing reality" that Crass had depicted, it was now a matter of the utmost urgency to deal with it. That much they had made abundantly clear. Nothing now could be afforded to get in the way and any unnecessary obstacles needed to be avoided or overturned be it the cloak of Punk Rock, the sugar coating of a nice tune, the shackle of fear, the prison cell of passivity, or the hand-brake of pacifism.
Having always been firm exponents of both Punk Rock and pacifism there was now the distinct impression that Crass were throwing off those particular yokes (or crosses, as Penny Rimbaud would put it) so as to allow themselves more freedom and be more relaxed in the way that others might choose to express themselves artistically, socially, and politically: "Ours is a just cause; it is up to each one of us, alone, to do our best. We must learn to overcome our fears. We must realise that the strength that they have is the strength that we give them. It is you, the passive observer, who has given them this power. You are being used and abused and will be discarded as soon as they've bled what they want from you."

Essentially, the message was now 'each to one's own', this being basically the same message that EP Thompson had given when he implored the CND masses to sense their own strength. The same message, fundamentally, that Crass had always given, from "It's up to you to change your life and my life's up to me," as delivered in Big A Little A, right down to 'The dawn is in us' as scratched into the run-off groove of Christ - The Album. A message that was actually very simple but so huge that Crass were only now starting to fully heed it themselves.
Having criticised and to all intent and purpose jettisoned Punk, they now seemed to be teetering on the edge of denouncing pacifism. Almost. What was being accentuated instead was that there was no one single path to take and that it was now almost a case of by any means necessary. Almost. No longer were they going to condone or condemn any others' choice or way of doing things. Now was not the time for arguments over tactics. Now was not the time for self-imposed divisions. Now, rather, was the time for action. Now was the time to get out on the streets.

"You must learn to live with your own conscience,
your own morality,
your own decision,
your own self.
You alone can do it.
There is no authority but yourself"

Spoken by Eve Libertine over the sound of feedback fading to silence, those last words brought Yes Sir I Will to a conclusion but even more than that they brought to a conclusion all that Crass had ever spoken, written, shouted, screamed or indeed, sung. Those last six words - "There is no authority but yourself" - was perhaps the ultimate Crass statement, directed squarely not at the Crass audience as a whole but at every single solitary individual within that audience.
The only authority that mattered, the only authority to recognise was that which was to be found within every single one of those individuals. Any other authority - be it political or institutional - was false and fit only for challenging. 'There is no authority but yourself' was nothing less than an ultimate truth. Plainly simple, blatantly obvious and ultimately undeniable. Limitless in its connotations, profound in its implications. This one statement was what Crass were all about. It was their meaning, their beginning and their end.
"There is no authority but yourself." Could anything more possibly be said?

As with all Crass albums, the sleeve of Yes Sir I Will folded out into a huge poster, this time containing an enlargement of a photograph taken from The Sun newspaper showing Prince Charles standing face-to-face with a Falklands war veteran who has been horrifically burnt and mutilated. The soldier was Welsh Guardsman Simon Weston, one of the survivors from the sinking of landing ship the Sir Galahad. The caption beneath the picture read: '"Get well soon," the Prince said. And the heroic soldier replied: "Yes, sir, I will."' This then was where the title of the album had come from. An almost innocuous photograph plucked from a tabloid newspaper encapsulated and underlined all that Crass were saying.

Going by his relationship with Lady Di - his own wife - Prince Charles was a peculiarly emotionally stunted individual, whilst Simon Weston was simply a soldier being dutiful. On coming together, the inadequacy of the exchange between the two was glaring. In all likelihood, Charles meant well when wishing that Weston "get well soon" although to say this to someone horrifically mutilated for life was particularly woeful just as Weston's reply was equally pitiful. Both were figures trapped in roles that were helping to maintain the whole, sorry state of the world. Charles, the modern day master, inheritor of his ancestors greed and theft; Weston, the modern day servant, not only prepared to eat shit but prepared also to say thanks for the privilege. One a representative of obscene wealth and privilege, the other a representative of supreme sacrifice to Queen and country - and Thatcher.

Ultimately, Yes Sir I Will was an experiment that both failed and succeeded in its aims. If the whole point of the album was to communicate a message then it succeeded although the message wasn't quite as straightforward as Crass might have intended.
The main point of 'There is no authority but yourself' came over loud and clear but this was arrived at right at the end of the record after an exhausting and at times gruelling slog through a mass of tangled words. The fact that those words had been nailed to a sprawling, tuneless, free-form noise workout resulted in a lot of the actual content being eclipsed by the form rather than Crass's desire of it being the other way round. The words subsequently ending up as a kind of subtext to what was really being communicated; that being a near-hysterical, absolute sense of desperation and frustration. There was a distinction between the intellectual and the emotional and between the head and the heart, so more so than conveying what Crass were thinking, Yes Sir I Will had actually ended up conveying what Crass were feeling.

Just over a year previously it seemed that Crass were riding the crest of a wave and that change on all kinds of levels was absolutely possible. The Falklands war had put paid to that particular notion with a vengeance and had shown that both the peace movement and the Punk movement just weren't good enough. CND might well have been capable of getting thousands of people out on the street, marching from A to B and congregating in Trafalgar Square or where ever but they had done nothing to prevent the conventional war in the Falklands. Given the fact that Cruise missiles were still very much on the way to England and the rest of Europe, there was good reason to believe that continuing to pursue these same methods of protest there was even less chance of CND preventing a nuclear war.
Crass may well have spawned a legion of Anarcho Punk bands all screaming blue murder about The Bomb but when it came to an actual war, albeit a conventional one, Thatcher had left them all standing in muted impotency. The question that needed to be asked was that if Crass had recognised this then why hadn't others? Furthermore, if Crass had reached a near state of emergency regarding the need for action, again, why hadn't others?

By this time, of course, Crass had their own hardcore audience, the demographic of which closely reflected the composition of Crass themselves; that being a mixture of working, middle and upper-middle classes; white, mainly male but with a respectable female representation. What percentage of that audience were actually active in some way and how many were just passively consuming Crass as a form of Punk product was difficult to gauge but it was fair to say that if any were still failing to hear what was being said then it was through no fault of Crass.

On a political level, one of the problems was that inactivity and silence from anyone - not from just the Crass audience - was translated as giving consent to the status quo. The great, violent, silent majority as Penny Rimbaud had once wrote. It was all well and good saying that all government is the same so therefore why bother voting but if nothing constructive was being done in place of voting then everybody might just as well get themselves down to the polling station every few years and just go with the flow.
It didn't bother Thatcher none if people chose not to vote at all because essentially it meant just one less potential vote for the opposition. It didn't even really bother her if people went on a demonstration against Cruise missiles or whatever, especially if all they did at the end of it was to go quietly back to their homes and subsequently back to being silent again.
What did bother her, however - apart from the odd inner city riot - was sustained and constant demonstrating because this showed a spirit and determination that she herself saw as being essential to creating change. Or as Noam Chomsky would put it: "If you go to one demonstration and then go home, that's something, but the people in power can live with that. What they can't live with is sustained pressure that keeps building, organisations that keep doing things, people that keep learning lessons from the last time and doing better the next time."
Crass were clearly learning lessons as were a significant number of Anarcho Punks and fellow travellers of different stripes but would they be doing it better the next time? And if so, what might it involve? What next after Yes Sir I Will? What next after the latest protest march? These were revolutionary times and revolutionary ideas and tactics were being demanded.
As Joe Strummer had once asked: Were we taking over or were we taking orders? Were we going backwards - or were we going forwards?

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Apostles - Blow It Up, Burn It Down, Kick It Till It Breaks


Ensconced within the same east London squatter community that The Mob inhabited were The Apostles who, whilst being one of the most annoyingly untalented of bands were also one of the most interesting. Since the summer of 1981, The Apostles had released a number of demo tapes of varying degrees of musical ineptitude, all distributed through the DIY network thrown up in the wake of Crass. The creative force behind the band was one Andy Martin, responsible also for a provocatively entertaining fanzine called Scum. Andy Martin and his fellow band members had been key players behind aspects not only of the Crass/Poison Girls-sponsored Anarchy Centre but also the Centro Iberico, before moving musical operations to the LMC venue in north London. They had also been instrumental in the success of the Zig Zag squat gig at which they had also performed.
From the very start of and throughout their activities and participation in the Anarcho Punk scene, however, they had never once declared themselves to be anarchists; whilst the very idea of pacifism was an anathema to them. In fact, going totally against the grain of Anarcho Punk, The Apostles openly advocated violent direct action and armed insurrection, proffering solidarity and support for Britain's very own home-grown urban guerrilla gang of the 1970s, the Angry Brigade. Underlining this respect they had for them, one of the Angry Brigade's most well-known slogans was adopted by The Apostles for the title of their début EP, released in the Spring of 1983.

Blow It Up, Burn It Down, Kick It Till It Breaks contained five tracks of ramshackle, muddy, lo-fi Punk that left little doubt that for The Apostles it was the sentiment rather than the medium that was the message. Wrapped in a Crass-influenced fold-out cover, the sleeve comprised a variety of essays under such titles as 'Why Punk is a total failure', criticisms of 'hypocritical hippy tramps', and instructions on how to break into a house for the purpose of squatting it and even how to construct an incendiary device.
Amongst songs entitled Proletarian Autonomy, and Fucking Queer, the stand-out track by far was Pigs For Slaughter, named after a militant, agitational, London-based Punk zine of the same name. This particular song was to prove highly significant, acting as a prophetic sign that things were soon to change.

Under the cloud of imminent nuclear armageddon it seemed that for some, wealth and the accumulation of it was all that mattered, giving rise to the young urban professional - otherwise known as the 'yuppies'. Brash, arrogant, self-centred high-flyers with no regard for anything apart from making money and flaunting it, these were the true Thatcherites. Prostrating themselves before the altar of laissez-faire capitalism and basking in the perversity of conservative politics, they were representatives of an almighty insult to all those living in poverty.
Dressed in their designer suits and armed with Filofaxes, their shallowness was reflected in their dubious taste in music: Phil Collins, Dire Straits, Level 42, even Lady Di's favourites Duran Duran. If ever they were to have heard a band like The Apostles, particularly a song of theirs such as Pigs For Slaughter, they would certainly have been perplexed, dumbfounded and mightily confused:
"Glue the locks of all the banks and butchers or kick them in. Spray a message of hate across a Bentley or smash it up. Go to Kensington and mug a rich bastard against a wall. Sabotage the meat in supermarkets, poison them all. We're taking no more, we're smashing down the door for this is class war."
If yuppies were the apostles of Thatcher, embodying Conservative policies on the rampage then The Apostles were the harbingers of a fresh attitude to combat that. Rather than being always on the defensive and simply reacting to Thatcher all the time, The Apostles were advocating that people be proactive and actually go on the attack:
"Put sugar in the petrol tank, deflate the tyres with six-inch nails. That's the way to wreck a Rolls, so get stuck in, it never fails. Blow it up! Burn it down! Kick it till it breaks!"

The Apostles had obviously been inspired by Punk and in particular by the whole DIY ethic of it. Their criticism of Punk therefore was not so much toward the idea but toward the way it was being interpreted and executed. The Apostles lived with, associated and collaborated with Punks but instead of allowing themselves to be boxed-in and restricted in their behaviour by so-called codes of Punk conduct regarding dress sense, musical style and politics, they were more interested in pushing the envelope and using Punk as a stepping stone towards an even greater freedom of expression. Punk dogma was not for them.
In the same light, this was how they viewed the so-called radical politics of Anarcho Punk and subsequently explained somewhat their respect for the Angry Brigade.

Emerging from the hippy/liberation/student protest movements of the late 1960s (the same milieu, of course, that members of Crass had come from), the Angry Brigade had embarked on a technically brilliant bombing campaign that called into question the effectiveness of 'acceptable' and more peaceful methods of protest as defined by the State and practised by the organized Left.
As well as exposing the inhibitions and limited desires of other radicals operating within the framework of legality, the Angry Brigade's bombing campaign exposed the vulnerability of the State, sending a shudder of fear and confusion through the upper echelons of the Establishment. If they had so wished, the Angry Brigade could so very easily have killed the people to whom they had delivered their bombs but the fact that they didn't kill anyone spoke volumes.
Compared to the Red Brigade in Italy, the Baader Meinhoff Group in Germany and certainly to any government, the Angry Brigade displayed a morality that was almost humbling. This didn't save them, however, from the intense criticism and condemnation they received from many of their supposed comrades - even from within the anarchist movement - who accused them of being provocateurs, vanguardists, adventurists and even 'a threat to the growth of the mass movement'.

Criticism, accusations and slander would also forever dog The Apostles so little wonder that apart from empathising with the Angry Brigade's tactics they might also feel a certain kinship with them on other levels. When Joe Strummer sported a home-made Red Brigade t-shirt at the Rock Against Racism carnival of 1978, he too was criticised and in his case accused of 'romanticising terrorist violence'. It was a pity Joe didn't choose instead to wear the symbol of the Angry Brigade (who he would surely have known about) for he could then at least have countered any criticism by stating that the Angry Brigade never killed anyone - unlike any British government. If only Joe had penned a song about the Angry Brigade, even? But alas he never did, leaving it instead for The Apostles to step up to the mark.

But for lack of musical prowess, the track Pigs For Slaughter could easily have been a classic song in the vein of Holiday In Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys or Babylon's Burning by The Ruts though it must be said that being poorly performed did nothing to diminish its significance. Rather than being a powerful declaration of intent, however, Pigs For Slaughter was instead a nod, a hint, a suggestion that there were other Anarcho Punk visions to be had besides the pacifist one.