30 Years On: Christ The Album By Crass Revisited
, April 2nd, 2012 06:32
Christ The Album is too good for the TV punk documentaries, that's why it's still relevant and dangerous now, argues Harry Sword
O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that my care could not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
O, thou wilt be a wilderness again,
People with wolves, thy old inhabitants!
Shakespeare, King Henry IV
"Anarchy, violence, chaos? You mindless fucking jerks, can’t you see you're talking about the way the system works? Throughout our bloody history, force has been the game, the message that you offer is just the fucking same."
The Greatest Working Class Rip Off
Penny Rimbaud once produced fliers that explained how to make a paint bomb on one side and how to bake your own bread on the other. A logical meeting point between 1960s counter cultural idealism and the seething politicised rage of the late 70s, Crass were - more than any of their contemporaries - the ones who really did walk it. Christ The Album was the most caustic realisation of their vision: a seething howl that remains both intensely relevant in terms of politics and vibrantly forward thinking in terms of music.
Emerging from Dial House - the bohemian commune set up on the outskirts of Epping Forest by Rimbaud and Gee Voucher in the late 60s – there was never any clear division between the band and the house. In essence, they were its musical wing. The constantly rotating cast of artists, filmmakers, writers and drifters that inhabited it ensured people of all backgrounds lived and worked together, Crass being the end result of a wilful subversion of class expectations.
Rimbaud was the middle class Oxford graduate, vocalist Steve Ignorant the working class Dagenham youth – both were equally determined to escape pre-destined outcomes and make some noise. The rest of their musical ‘career’ was spent going hammer and tongs at the hydra's heads: political and social control, war, consumer subordination and - perhaps most importantly - self-enslavement.
But since their heyday a chemical memory of slickly edited social discord - cleanly juxtaposed imagery - has been drip-fed continuously into the popular subconscious. Countless books have chronicled the history of punk in all possible variables, while an endless stream of documentaries have montaged their way to cranial familiarity along established lines.
Tower Blocks. Maze prison. A bloodied Sid. Siouxsie in Nazi gear. Notting Hill Riots. Clash doing ‘White Riot’ at Rock against Racism. Talking Head - Don Letts. Westway. Winter of discontent. Bill Grundy. Talking Head – Tony Parsons. Red top headlines. Margaret Thatcher. Mohicans on Kings Road.
As such, it’s all too easy to dismiss Crass as dinosaurs to be relegated to the dank archives - hoary old firebrands whose stock in trade was a particularly simplistic and lumpen brand of sloganeering. That would be disingenuous, though. Listening to Christ The Album – even 30 years on - swiftly puts paid to any notion of irrelevance.
Funny, acerbic and brutally intelligent, it contains some of Rimbaud’s most astute word play while sonically it displays a thrillingly skewed and fractured aesthetic that was absent from much of their previous work. Purportedly the cause of considerable friction at the arrangement stages - Rimbaud liked free jazz, Ignorant didn’t - the resulting album displayed a plethora of musical ideas. While there is no shortage of caustic buzz saw aggression (‘The Greatest Working Class Rip Off’, ‘Bumhooler’), it’s the slower tracks (‘Deadhead’) that carry the most weight, submerged in thick layers of soupy static and hiss. A forbidding and creepy doom pervades the LP like you’ve tuned in to a surreal long wave resistance broadcast, transmitted from deep behind industrial enemy lines.
‘Birth Control Rock N Roll’ is a case in point. The taped speech of an American soldier talking about childhood indoctrination into the glamour of war is followed by a few seconds of pointed silence. Layered feedback squalls give way to a tribal cacophony, jittering around Joy De Vivre’s hushed vocal. It remains one of the very best things they ever did – as thrilling and inventive as Fugazi at their most obtuse.
Indeed with it’s chaotic consolidation of white noise, inventive use of taped speech between tracks and scabrous lyrical state of the world addresses, Christ sits far closer to Public Enemy than it does to the early 80s second wave punk of The Exploited et al. Born out of serious social upheaval (Brixton and Toxteth riots, Greenham Common, mass unemployment), it was by far the most ambitious musical project the band were involved with, and covered a huge array of issues - endemic narcissism and apathy in the punk scene; television news; hypocrisy in family life; terrorism; war; sex; advertising; prostitution; the grave landscape of unfettered consumerism – none were spared the poison pen. And, although multiple members contributed lyrics, it was Rimbaud’s that were often the most devastating.
"And meanwhile he’s out hunting, this master of the hunt, cruising down the high street in his endless search for cunt, and the posters on the hoardings encourage his pursuit, glossy ad’s where men are men, and women simply cute."
Highlights abound elsewhere. ‘Ninteen Eighty Bore’ again used a staggered rhythmic approach while commenting on the numbing effect of TV. ‘The Greatest Working Class Rip Off’ was a withering riposte to a punk scene that had rapidly descended into mindless self-parody.
There was however one – major - issue for the band with regards to Christ. In the two months it took for the record to surface after mixing had finished, the Falklands War broke. There was no chance to make any mention of it on the record. For Crass it was completely devastating.
"Christ had been intended as a celebration of our collective strength, a tangible demonstration of possibilities. However, against the backdrop of Thatcher’s vicious, pointless war, it all seemed depressingly empty. We were too late, too late by far."
Penny Rimbaud, 2009
But although this was a bitter disappointment, Christ still remains one of the most compelling documentations of political resistance ever put to vinyl. Yes, it’s sometimes simplistic to the point of self parody (‘You Can Be Who’ in particular is very Young Ones) but almost every track occupies the historical space of protest song in its purest and most effective form. This is music which confronts you directly, makes you think exactly where you stand and forces you out of a state of inertia. In the current climate of social upheaval and financial meltdown, the overwhelming relevance of this album is self-evident.
It’s curious then, that Crass have never been accepted as part of the established punk ‘canon’ - no more than Extreme Noise Terror have in metal. Perhaps it’s because of what was absent. There was no cod reggae; no easy hooks; no guitar hero posturing; no major deals; no drug induced meltdown; no march into bloated self-parody. The music on Christ remains resolutely confrontational – you listen to it, or you turn it off. You can’t simply put it on.
But it also brings into sharp focus the uncomfortable possibility that an LP released 30 years ago bears more political relevance in 2012 than the majority of records released in the last five. And while a social network enabled DIY musical revolution marches perpetually onwards, it often leads towards an unedifying gravy train of inglorious self-promotion rather than any real comment on, or mechanism for, social change.
Perhaps then it’s for the best that Crass have never been inducted into any cosy archival headspace. That way Christ remains a vibrant – living - document of bloodied free spirit, rather than a footnote on the punk family tree.