I Can See Clearly Now... Penny Rimbaud Of Crass Interviewed
, July 17th, 2012 11:04
Penny Rimbaud's album Acts Of Love featured in our recent reissue chart, so we decided to talk to him about his work past and present. Story by Harry Sword
‘Love is greater than yourself.
It is in every moment before and after your conceits’ Penny Rimbaud, 2008
Penny Rimbaud is one of England’s great rebel poets. Prolific author, founding member of Crass and fearless explorer of possibilities in life and art, Rimbaud has never been one to wallow in nostalgia. Over the three decades since Crass disbanded he has been involved with myriad arts projects, published over 14 books, and released music ranging from the free form jazz/spoken word agitations of The Last Amendment to last years ‘symphonic punk’ collaboration with The New Banalists.
A well-known counter cultural instigator long before Crass, he set up Dial House - a total free zone - in 1967, and it was from there that the first Windsor and Stonehenge festivals were planned, unwittingly giving birth to the nascent festival culture that was to thrive in the UK until the Criminal Justice Act. He was also a member of EXIT, a wildly experimental performance art collective, in the early 70s.
Tempting as it is though, I’m not about to use the word ‘icon’: artistically, his is a life lived vehemently, joyfully, in the present moment. Dial House still operates; Exitstencil Press has been rebirthed; a plethora of new projects – books, albums, collaborations and more - are still to come.
However, the past year has seen Penny taking a look back at the Crass era. All six LP’s have been both remastered and beautifully repackaged, with new artwork from Gee Voucher. And now, for the first time, the recordings can be heard how they were originally intended - a caustic aural assault, motoring through the musical and political status quo with more burning gleeful intent than ever.
Funny, honest and candid, Penny is one of those rare characters who transfer a great life affirming energy in conversation. The Quietus spoke to him on the phone about the reissues, and more.
How did you get started in the remastering process? What provided the impetus?
Penny Rimbaud: I got into it through Swansong (Ten Notes on a Summer’s Day) funnily enough - which was the last of the six albums - so it started backwards. It was because the mastering on the original LP was so fucking awful: it had this appallingly muddy sound quality. Southern Records wanted to reissue it, but I went back to them and said, ‘Look, we have to remaster it, because the original tapes sound so bad.'
So, we went into the studio and I was staggered by what you can do. Pull stuff out, really emphasise the individual parts: the technological possibilities are boundless now, whereas back then we were very much limited, although I did used to enjoy the production process. The original records were always billed ‘produced by Crass’ but often it was just me sitting there at the desk, with people wondering in and out.
After we’d done Ten Notes I thought, ‘No, come on, we have to do the whole lot", because at the time of release most of our albums were so long that they had to be heavily compressed. They always seemed to be five or ten minutes over the allotted time for a piece of vinyl – so they had to be compressed, otherwise the needle would physically leap out of the groove! But that meant that lots of detail was either lost, or else completely submerged.
One of the most important differences now is that you can actually hear the guitars. You never could in the originals; the guitars were buried for the most part. It was a very layered sound with Crass, which was how it was intended to be. But it was an emotional process as well.
In what way?
PR: I felt I was suddenly in the room with friends, 30 odd years ago. Hearing between takes, people chatting away, having a laugh. It was very odd to be back in the chair listening to that after all these years. Being back in the band, essentially.
How about the new packaging? The visual element was always very important in Crass – when did Gee get involved?
PR: Gee got involved as soon as she heard the new versions. It all sounded so fresh, she was completely adamant that it needed new artwork – and I knew where she was coming from with that. I’d got sick of wondering into record shops and seeing the old CDs looking like a cliché - some worn out punk nothing, you know?
And that isn’t to take away from what it was at the time. The visuals were very powerful, but anything gets watered down with over familiarity. I mean, we were pretty much the first band who even used a logo - it’s something that Naomi Klein touched on in No Logo. But Gee’s done some really amazing new work for these – stark and modern and very different. We wanted something that matched how fresh the music sounded, and that didn’t immediately reference the old stuff.
The music often gets overlooked in media discussion of Crass. It must be satisfying to get it out there how it was intended. The density is really striking - walls of sound, layered sampling…
We had the second sampler in the country I think! Don’t ask me what it was called because I can’t remember, but we were ahead of the curve in that respect. I can remember being really excited by these startling new bits of technology. We released a single by Little Annie on the label at one point, and started arranging ghetto blasters all over the place and using contact mics to record bits of them – proto sampling, I guess. It’s something not many people have picked up on actually; we never really got credit for that.
It’s something I can really hear on Christ, in particular.
PR: For Christ we were in the studio for a long time, by our standards. ‘Feeding’ was done with no reverb, no effects, so we wanted to get more involved with the production possibilities. Christ was definitely experimental in terms of the layering and effects.
But the important thing was that everything went hand in hand with capturing the specific emotional atmosphere of the moment. I firmly believe that music should be an emotional reflection of the buzz, the energy - whatever is in that room at the time, you get it down as best you can.
What has the reaction to the reissues been like?
PR: Staggering. It’s really great to see it all being rediscovered – the response has been amazing, people’s enthusiasms have been staggering. And not just from people who were there at the time, it’s equally people coming to it fresh. It’s been a deeply rewarding process.
Ten Notes on a Summers Day (Swansong) and Acts Of Love have also just been reissued. I can only imagine what the response to Swansong must have been at the time - a 15-year-old punk who has discovered Crass through Feeding, suddenly confronted with 10 minutes of free form jazz and spoken word…
PR: [laughs] I know! And it was a big shock for a lot of people, that one. I’ve always loved it though, always had a particular affection for it. It came from a dark time, we’d been touring solidly for about six years, and the last couple had been bloody hard work.
Andy had left the band by that point, and we didn’t want to go out without a bark as it were – we wanted to show some of the source material, what brought us to arrive at Crass. But nobody seemed to be coming up with any ideas. I had written a lot of Yes Sir, I Will and musically things had been getting increasingly complex, but by Swansong we’d gone into a bit of a stupor, creatively.
They were immensely depressing times, politically. We’d been through the whole protest movement - first the Falklands, then the miners’ strike. So we wanted to go out with some real noise, although we were never a rock & roll band. I disliked rock & roll, for the most part. Well, perhaps early Elvis before he became a GI. But anyway, Swansong moved us out of that world completely.
People were shocked, but in a way it brought it full circle because the punk scene - for all the talk of musical acceptance and whatever - was every bit as conservative as any other kind of ‘scene’. When we started out we were clearing halls, and after ‘Swansong’ we were clearing halls again. I quite liked that (laughs)
How about Acts Of Love?
PR: I was working in Summerhill School as the pool attendant, which is where I wrote the poems in the mid 70s. It’s an interesting place, an anarchist school. Acts Of Love was shamefacedly an expression of my own musical influences, it was something of a case of, 'Who could believe the chimps could brew their own tea’, you know?
I didn’t want to just stop after Crass. It had all got too much, it felt as if the respect had gone with regards to the wider protest movement, it had all become a bit ridiculous. Fights between vegans and vegetarians; people accusing all policeman of being ‘pigs’. Well, sorry, but they’re just human beings who happen to be in the wrong uniform. I’ve always thought all of that as absurd. See the person first, meet them as a person, and arrive at a form of respect. A lot of the basic humanity had gone.
So, Acts of Love was a reaction to that, and to how heavy and dark Crass had become; it was a simple celebration of beauty, done in the great romantic tradition.
There is an increasingly avant garde thread running through the later Crass LPs, Acts of Love, certainly your subsequent work with Last Amendment. How did you arrive at that?
PR: I’ve always loved freestyle, free form jazz. Crass was a very specific group of people working in an organised way and we captured something politically that I believe truly hit a nerve, in a very different way from anything before or since. But I came to free jazz before Crass really. It’s exciting, the idea of the anti-form – music utterly unrestrained.
When you gig with The Last Amendment are people aware of your background? Do the hardcore jazzers know Crass?
PR: Some of them do. Did you hear ‘Oh America’?
The long spoken word piece on America and 9/11 etc? Yes I did.
PR: Well, the reception for that has generally been very good - but I did it at a big jazz festival last year and there were people booing, a really violent reaction against it. I carried on through it, but there was one particular table that was going on. I asked them what the problem was: ‘We don’t want jazz politicised.’ Well, fucking hell! Jazz has always been fucking political. I don’t think I’d want to listen to jazz that wasn’t political, if there is such a thing. There was a time in the 50’s when Coltrane was doing gigs for the Black Panthers, you know, not to mention the very early history. Jazz, at its essence - by its nature6 – is a political music.
There is always that thing of being accused of somehow being a sell out, for playing jazz, doing different things in Crass, which is crazy. I’ll never be a rich man playing jazz, I can assure you of that (laughs). I’ve disappointed both punk audiences and jazz audiences alike. That narrowness that occurred in the punk movement can apply to jazz, or anything at all.
And how about other projects at the moment? There seems to be a load of activity on the Exitstencil site?
PR: There’s a huge amount of stuff I’m working on right now. I’ll shortly be starting up the Last Amendment residency again at The Vortex in Stoke Newington. I’ve also been working on an opera using bits from O Magic Kingdom (last year's collaboration with Japanther), although I’m not sure that will come to fruition... I’m halfway through a load of journals I kept in New York recently; there’s probably about six LPs worth of unreleased material in various forms. I’ve been working on some recitals of Wilfred Owen - without musical backing - I wouldn’t want to create any sort of faux emotion with that… all sorts of stuff.
The past couple of years have been hard. I recovered from cancer; was treated for cataracts; a relationship ended. I was essentially blind for six months. But coming out of that - being able to see again - feels like an incredible rebirth. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the world really is. I could see beauty everywhere – small, simple things - the colours were so intense, I felt I’d been given the gift of life, colour, and it was incredibly profound, an incredible gift.
If there was one message we had in Crass, it was that ‘there is no authority but yourself’. You don’t need to accept that you’re nobody, you can trust in yourself. Increasingly I believe that is the real struggle – how do you bring yourself to a position of standing alone and proud in freedom, and not to feel guilty about that?
But it also made me realise that perhaps I’ve never spoken my absolute truth, maybe avoided certain aspects of my own belief systems. And I don’t know how much time I’ve got.
I’m going to be absolutely, unashamedly who I am. The rest of my life will be dedicated to my work, completely though: I know that now.
Penny Rimbaud's Acts Of Love and the CRASS reissues are available now on Southern