2nd October 2006
Unlike the Sex Pistols, Crass never sold out - and their influence is still visible today, writes Iain Aitch
On the face of it, Crass possessed all the right credentials to earn a place alongside The Clash and the Sex Pistols in the punk history books. The band had the requisite string of high-selling, profanity-ridden records and the amusingly named band members (Phil Free, Steve Ignorant, Joy de Vivre), and was even formed in 1977. Yet it seldom merits a mention on the ubiquitous talking-heads clips shows or makes more than a footnote in music-press retrospectives.
This is surprising when you consider the impact Crass had at the time: in their early-Eighties heyday, they could shift upwards of 20,000 records in the week of release, with no advertising and no airplay. Their anti-Falklands war records were discussed in the Commons and they were even approached by the KGB.
Few bands have done more to bring radical politics to youth culture. For the Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK" was just a song, but for Crass it was an aim. Their Stop the City protests were the forerunners of the anti-globalisation movement; their stance on animal rights inspired the formation of such groups as the Animal Liberation Front. Reclaim the Streets, the McLibel trial and even the success of the Body Shop could be said to have roots in their alternative appeal.
Penny Rimbaud, a founding member of Crass, has long been perplexed by the band's whitewashing from history, though not surprised. He can reel off a list of reasons as long as his arm why this may be, but their stance on promoting "product" is one that recurs. "We weren't part of the normal outlet, by which we weren't feeding the corporate body," he says, referring to Crass's refusal to sell merchandise and habit of printing frighteningly low "pay no more than" prices on their records. "For example, we didn't do interviews with the mainstream press, believing that if we did them with the home-made fanzines then people would have to buy them."
Because of this attitude towards the press, scathing reviews of their records were the norm and sniping at their "hippie" politics was de rigueur. The likes of Tony Parsons and Garry Bushell took exception to their black "uniform" (worn on stage and off), lack of class politics and their pacifist leanings. On their records, Crass struck out against left-wing totems such as Rock Against Racism, as well as the rise of the far right. As a result, they were perhaps the only band to be more widely despised than the Nazi skinhead group Skrewdriver.
Their record sales, however, never suffered. The Crass Records label could put out awful recordings of poetry or compilations of rough demos sent to the band by hopeful fans, and still have black-clad punks flocking to the record shops on the day of release. The label's biggest commercial claim to fame was launching Björk in the UK - it released two albums by her pre-Sugarcubes band Kukl.
The slavish loyalty of Crass fans provoked suspicion, with comparisons being drawn with religious cults and even the Khmer Rouge. And, indeed, various shady organisations were drawn to the band. "Everyone tried to recruit us as a promotional unit, from the IRA to what was left of Baader-Meinhof," says Rimbaud. "We used to pick up unbelievable amounts of information about anything and everything you can imagine." So much so, that the British security services started to take an interest.
On one occasion during the Falklands conflict, the band heard a rumour that a battleship, HMS Sheffield, had been willingly sacrificed by the British government in order to protect HMS Invincible, on which Prince Andrew was then serving. In response, Crass created a fake taped telephone conversation between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher discussing the matter. This recording was sent out anonymously to newspapers, and before long it surfaced in the US state department, which denounced it as the work of the Kremlin. The KGB was so impressed by the stunt that it, too, tried to recruit the band members. But they simply drank the free vodka and played dumb.
Crass imploded in 1984 mainly because this Orwellian sell-by date had been counted down by their record catalogue numbers (621984, 521984, and so on). Now, in a long-overdue attempt to give the band the recognition it deserves, erstwhile teenage fans of the band have written two books - The Story of Crass by George Berger and The Day the Country Died by Ian Glasper. "They walked it like they talked it," says Glasper. "And they split at just the right time, before they could begin that inevitable descent into self-parody that befalls any extreme band. I think that's why their memory has endured ever since. They changed many lives, and it's safe to say they remain the most profoundly important of all punk bands."
"The Story of Crass" by George Berger is published by Omnibus (£14.95). "The Day the Country Died" by Ian Glasper (£14.99) will be published by Cherry Red on 16 October