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30 Years On: Christ The Album By Crass Revisited
Harry Sword , 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

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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."
'Reality Whitewash'

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.

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Stavros P. Leibowitz
Apr 2, 2012 4:37pm

The problem that I have with CRASS is that the music is so irredeemably shit. Really, if the musical gruel on offer had just a fraction of the ideas offered by the lyrics then we might have something to talk about. This is the work of hippies and posh ones at that and a working class lad easily led astray. They kind of remind me of the music teachers who think that by banging pots and pans kids are making music. They're not; they're making a fucking racket and the same can be said of CRASS.

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Apr 2, 2012 5:56pm

Great article about a tremendous album. This was the first Crass one I bought on release and I still play it today. Shaped both my thought and my musical tastes as a teenager.

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Terry Tibbs
Apr 2, 2012 10:54pm

Yeah,alot of these anarcho punk crusty bands talked the talked but ultimately were style over actual content,risible third hand Clash socialist bullshit platitudes that lead fucking nowhere.As pointed out,the music was fucking atrocious,third rate,Nth wave of punk shite of the very worst kind,Crass havent aged well.A few bands from that era have fared better,Rudimentary Peni,Poison Girls,Disorder,Flux of Pink Indians,but Crass are cut from the same toss cloth as Chumbuwamba and the fucking Levellers.The Pop Group,Clock DVA offered up a more potent brew altogether with visceral anti-Thatcher comment soundtracked to an original edgy,angular,dubby film noirish score,something which fucking Crass singularly failed to do.Demoralised believers had to wait until 86/87 for the breakthrough of grindcore etc in the form of Napalm Death,Boltthrower,Extreme Noise Terror for music that matched the rhetoric

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The Schnack
Apr 3, 2012 7:42am

In reply to Terry Tibbs:

Oh yeah Napalm Death for a bunch of junkie crusties with a vile following of soap-dodgers.

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The Schnack
Apr 3, 2012 7:46am

In reply to Stavros P. Leibowitz:

I have to wonder if you've actually ever listened to a Crass record, Stavros, because your point is really off the mark. And by that, I mean you're talking a load of shit.

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Stavros P. Leibowitz
Apr 3, 2012 9:25am

In reply to The Schnack :

I'm very familiar with Crass' schtick. And like I say, from a musical standpoint it sounds like people who have picked up instruments for the first time and never bothered to learn how to play them.

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Apr 3, 2012 9:43am

In reply to Stavros P. Leibowitz:

Er, wasn't that the point of "punk rock" anyway?

Personally, I've always preferred The Adverts or ATV (for example) to The Clash, for that very reason...

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Apr 3, 2012 10:55am

I often wonder what it is that those who criticise Crass's music actually wanted. This article sums it up rather well for me "The music on Christ remains resolutely confrontational – you listen to it, or you turn it off. You can’t simply put it on."

As I understood it, Crass wanted to challenge the comfortable consumption of everything; including music. Punk had, in many ways, become ridiculous by 1984 - just jumping up and down to piss poor rock and roll. It seems to me that Crass wanted to make music that shook us out of our complacency, to make us sit up and take notice, not to simply whistle along to some more half-witted three minutes of predictability.

Sometimes, it failed badly, but more often than not it worked. It's difficult to put an album like Christ on and just wallow in nostalgia. It still shocks the senses, it still asks questions, it still has the power to provoke independent thought.

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Apr 3, 2012 11:50am

In reply to Nick :

Brilliant life changing band.End of.

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Harry Sword
Apr 3, 2012 1:26pm

In reply to Terry Tibbs:

The idea that Crass were 'style over substance' is incorrect. Dial House is still running after 40 years. The whole point is that they have lived it. Btw, they have nothing whatsoever to do with 'socialism'.

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Apr 3, 2012 8:14pm

Fair point about Crass being airbrushed out of the Punk-Heritage canon. The little I've heard of them though suggests they will never have any legacy in popular music, being far more concerned with a rabid kind of crazed idealism reminiscent of those other hate-filled well-heeled 'assumption-challengers', the Baader-Meinhof Gang, than anything as irredeemably bourgeois as enhancing anyone's life through music.

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Apr 3, 2012 8:25pm

In reply to Nick :

"It seems to me that Crass wanted to make music that shook us out of our complacency"

Well they pretty much failed - like writers & artists who get into a bidding war to abuse an audience with sheer ugliness & transgressive depravity, the abiding effect is revulsion at those who self-righteously dangle body parts in front of you like some band of secular uber-puritans.

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Apr 4, 2012 8:46am

In reply to Reimer:

Hi Reimer. I like the phrase "secular über-puritans"! I think it's fair to level a certain amount of criticism at 80's anarchist punk, we were all a little po-faced at times. However, I'm not sure that your analogy with other artists is particularly accurate. Ugly? Sometimes. Depraved? Never?
There is plenty of humour in Crass's work if you're open to it and it's important to remember that the music was only one part of Crass. A Crass gig was more of a happening than a rock concert. It was about meeting and talking, it was cross generational, it was educational, respectful and egalitarian. in many ways, the music opened up the ground in which we exchanged the ideas.
There were also experiments with other musical forms (for example, Acts of Love), writing, poetry, bread making, tea sharing and a glorious sense of do it yourself - playing scout halls rather than city halls....
Looking back, some of it does seem slightly adolecent in its self-righteous indignation but, listening to those involved, Crass was an organic creation that sometimes struggled to keep up with its own energy (and fatigue...). It did contain the provocation of Dada and the contradictions of Situationism. I don't, however, recognise the self indulgent sixth form Shock for Shock's Sake that you imply.

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Apr 8, 2012 10:15pm

In reply to Nick:

thanks nick. an honest calm 1st hand response.

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Lee Nelson
Sep 2, 2012 8:09pm

Yes that's right,punk is dead,just another cheap product for the consumers head,bubble-gum 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 the cash,punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be,and it ain't got a thing to do with you or me.

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Sep 6, 2012 12:05pm

In reply to Stavros P. Leibowitz:

Oh dear, a very poor opinion indeed. Crass in my view made an original and sophisticated racket. Of course the talents within the band ranged from excellence to execrable with the execrable (Andy P) providing that unmistakable Crass signature squalling guitar. Absolutely beautiful music. I always pity those that can't hear the superb musicianship in Crass. Ho hum

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Carl d
Oct 24, 2012 8:37pm

In reply to Stavros P. Leibowitz:

Sorry mate, but that's a load of shit you're talking. The music of Crass was a perfect match to the lyric. You just don't get it

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seepy aitch
Aug 19, 2013 8:39pm

beautiful stuff stirs the pot just as much as it did 30yrs ago shameful they've had zero credit doubt it bothers em BOLLOXU2

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seepy aitch
Aug 19, 2013 8:42pm

In reply to seepy aitch:

missed a 2 out sorry

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