Crass - The Crassical Collection (One Little Independent Records)

Crass – The Crassical Collection (One Little Independent Records)

Fucking hell. That’s a lot of Crass. I’m not sure even I could cope with that much Crass, and I’m a fan!

Thus spoke a friend of mine after I sent him an image of the not inconsiderable mountain of work that had adorned my doorstep earlier that day. The thing is, I get what he means. Crass were the real deal, perhaps even the only band who could, without any hesitation, call themselves ‘true punks’, rallying against all corners of society, embracing the required DIY ethic and trashing anyone who stands in their way. A consistent stream of unadulterated venom, most, if not all of it absolutely justified, but quite frankly, you just couldn’t play this lot all in one sitting – it’s physically exhausting. God knows how much energy was exerted by the band during recording, let alone their audience.

And speaking of God…

Crass released their debut album, The Feeding Of The 5000, in 1978. It was a scathing and not unreasonable attack on those ‘holier than thou’ types who think themselves better than others because they attend church on Sundays, whilst harbouring mightily un-Christian grudges against minority groups. The sort that probably clap their hands in glee when a refugee’s young child drowns in an effort to flee their war ravaged country. So instead of the two minutes of silence that initially introduced the band to the world, instead we’re hit straight away with ‘Asylum‘, a spoken word piece with grisly musical undertones that ends with the words “Jesus died for his own sins, not mine” in a deliberately provocative attempt to capture the listener’s attention before blasting into the somewhat more commercial (if you could ever apply the word to Crass) ‘Do They Owe Us A Living?‘.

But it’s not all about religion bashing – it’s far more about what the band saw as the blatant hypocrisy displayed by those Sunday school Christians, or bands who talk the good talk (The Clash were a constant source of the scourge of Crass) but ultimately were all about profiteering (“ain’t the revolution, it’s just for cash“). Crass were a full-on endorsement for the ideals of anarchy, but without the comedy safety pins. Sure, some of their songs were more accessible musically – ‘So What?‘ and ‘Punk Is Dead‘ are probably the best examples of this, but the furious, expletive-ridden nature of the lyrics was always going to put paid to their chances of any time in the ultra-bright spotlight. I suspect that was absolutely on purpose.

A fascinating curiosity of disc two is Ignorant & Rimbaud In Duo. Oddly, stripped down like this, ‘Do They Owe Us A Living?‘ comes across like a bastardised version of Chas and Dave. Somehow that’s kind of endearing though, and then we have the old school rock and roll of ‘Heartbeat Of The Mortuary‘ that kicks off the Crass In Soho segment of this set. These recordings having been made a year or more preceding the band’s first official release means the songs don’t quite have the same punky fervour that you get on Feeding, save for maybe ‘I Don’t Like It‘, the pronunciation on which perhaps relies a little too heavily on John Lydon style inflections where “it” becomes “it-ah!” but it’s undoubtedly an intriguing artefact of the time.
Crass In Demo, recorded just six months later, is a more accurate depiction of what the band would become by the time of their debut album being unleashed, with some terrifically ballsy takes on their work, most notably ‘Securicor‘.

Anyone who had Crass pinned as a one trick pony, however, was about to be forced into some serious word eating, as Stations Of The Crass would see them dabbling outside their comfort zone musically. The most blatant example here is obviously ‘Walls‘, which is, in effect, punk’s answer to Donna Summer‘s disco smash ‘I Feel Love‘, which was a brave move at the time. But of course, the political stuff remained too, coupled with sociological observations that often read like poetry. Which is what a lot of Crass’s lyrics actually were. You can see how The Clash’s alleged banner as “the only band that matters” would have riled, because, if anything, it’s Crass’s lyrics that should be held up and scrutinized in political studies classes today. And I say this as a fan of The Clash myself (sorry!). Political parties of all persuasions get a full on bashing, ‘White Punks On Hope‘, for example, spits “Thousands of white men, standing in a park / objecting to racism, is like a candle in the dark / Black man’s got his problems and his way to deal with it / so don’t fool yourself you’re helping with your white liberal shit.” If that sounds like it comes from a right wing perspective, think again, for the band had already trashed Thatcher a year before she even became PM, on ‘Sucks‘, which was very prescient, looking back now. The insane ‘Darling‘ with its jerky, unpredictable rhythms and obtuse female vocals from Eve Libertine was further evidence that there was more to the craft of Crass than had hitherto met the eye. Plus, they came arguably as close as they ever did to writing the perfect four minute punk tune with the album closer ‘I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just A Trick‘.

The bonus disc on Stations consists of a triumphant John Peel Session at Maida Vale earlier that year, with the opener ‘Shaved Women‘ being a particular standout, then an absolutely incendiary set from the Pied Bull in Islington that proves the band were truly at the top of their game at this point. You can literally taste the sweat dripping from the walls here.

It was a couple of years before Crass would release another album, and by then, there was a marked difference in the band’s make-up, with Libertine and Joy De Vivre both stepping up to the ‘lead singer’ role in a fury of feminism and theatrical intrigue. As admirable as that is, it’s difficult not to miss the shouty, punchy singalong ‘choruses’ of the first two records, at least a little bit. That said, there were some excellent tracks on Penis Envy, ‘Where Next Columbus‘ being a particularly strong candidate for its best song. ‘Berkertex Bride‘, which follows it, is almost minimalist folk-punk for the first two thirds of its being, before exploding into an outpouring of disgust after a verse that runs “Your painted mask of ugly perfection / the ring on your finger, the sign of protection / is the rape on page three, is the soldier’s obsession / How well you’ve been caught to support your oppression.” Then ‘Health Surface‘ gives more than a passing nod to Nico. Once again, Crass had surprised everyone. Nobody expected this band to be so diverse, I’m sure. And while Penis Envy suffers at times from trying too hard to be different, the message comes through loud and clear, which is all too relevant almost forty years later.

Disc two of Penis Envy contains the choral poetry of ‘Yorkie Talk‘ and a hysterically funny collage of the ‘Our Wedding‘ hoax (Google it, if you don’t know) before the punk-meets-prog-in-movements ‘Savage Utopia‘ baffles the hoardes once again and confirms that “expect the unexpected” could easily have been the band’s epitaph. Continuing the ‘mellow’ theme to close out the album, at least for two minutes, we have ‘Skating On The Side Of Violence‘, somewhere between Dark Side Of The Moon, Gary Moore and Lene Lovich!

Never ones to shirk controversy, Crass returned a year later with the inflammatory titled Christ – The Album. It was, in some ways, their Trout Mask Replica – a group of songs, intricately performed, that didn’t make a great deal of sense musically unless you persevered with it. By now the band had mostly reverted to the Rimbaud/Ignorant vocals of yore, but it’s not until track five, ‘Beg Your Pardon‘ that ‘jukebox Crass’ make any kind of appearance.
While the group themselves were disappointed that, by the time the record was released, many of the political forewarnings on it, which implied imminently darker days, had been overtaken by events in Thatcher’s reign of terror, not least the needless, self-manipulated, vote-driven, Falklands War, the truth is that Christ – The Album sounds utterly huge and might even be the pinnacle of their diverse and storied career. You suspect that Pantera were probably paying attention, especially on ‘The Greatest Working Class Rip-off‘. Anyway, Christ… was released as a double album and remains the case here, disc two’s main body being a stupendous 4-track recording of a blistering gig at London’s 100 Club.

Still seething from the evil one’s exploitation of the brutal conflict with Argentina, Crass released Yes Sir, I Will in 1983. Starting with the short poem ‘Step Outside & Rocky Eyes‘, it soon feels like we’re in a war zone ourselves, the remarkable ‘Anarchy’s Just Another Word‘ conveying mental images of machine gun fire and falling grenades before ‘Speed Or Greed‘ evokes similar sentiments to Robert Wyatt‘s version of Costello‘s ‘Shipbuilding‘. Mostly though, Yes… is a flurry of frantic freeform fury. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting, yet somehow, knowingly necessary. Disc two contains the 2002 reworking of the original album but with various jazz musicians called in to embellish the sound, which, while a worthwhile project, and a curious listen, is probably only really of interest to real Crass enthusiasts.

David Lynch and Charlie Brooker, amongst others, are known for their nightmarish dystopian visions in their films and tv shows respectively, and Crass’s final hurrah, 1986’s 10 Notes On A Summer Day is like a musical realisation of that. A tough listen it is, too – an arbitrary noise piece, effectively, and not one, I imagine, that many folk would rush to put back on again, should they have seen the needle all the way through to the run out groove. Yet I’m glad it exists, for it’s one more prime example of Crass doing things on their own terms and nobody else’s. The second disc of 10 Notes…, is infinitely more accessible, while still retaining that sense of avant-garde. Hell, ‘Acts Of Love No. 19‘ is almost like a karaoke number compared to the the complete mindfuckery imposed upon the listener elsewhere.

It was certainly an odd album to release as your parting shot to the world, leaving just the 1986 compilation album Best Before 1984 to complete the set, although this has been remastered by Penny Rimbaud through a whole lot of apparent blood, sweat and tears, due to stubborn opposition from former bandmates, and non-co-operation from Southern Records, all documented here in the booklet’s sleevenotes. Those notes – for each of the albums here respectively – are one of the things that makes The Crassical Collection feel like the definitive version of a set that was well worth Rimbault’s perseverance, many of its songs being given that extra ‘oomph’ that was more reflective of the band’s live energy. The previously unreleased version of ‘Sheep Farming In The Falklands‘ is a thing of wonder, and ‘Big A Little A‘ sounds particularly sublime. ‘Thatchergate‘ (again, Google is your friend here) also makes an appearance on disc two.

So this most substantial set is as in-depth as any Crass fan could ever crave it to be. Do I love everything on it? Hell no. There are a small number of moments that are nigh on unlistenable to me, and it would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise, but the message here is paramount, and just as relevant – perhaps even more so – in these dark days of 2020. And for that reason, I would have to say it is as essential a boxset as any other you may have in your collection.

The Crassical Collection is out now on One Little Independent.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.