The Strange World Of… Crass Records

Anarcho punk chronicler and compiler Chris Low talks to members of Chumbawamba and Flux Of Pink Indians, plus Annie Anxiety and many others to tell the story of one of Europe’s most intransigent and independent labels

Anarcho punk took the anti-establishment baton passed on from first wave punk. But in the hands of the latter this stance had only been rhetoric; the anarcho punks not only sang about it, they turned it into a worldwide movement for social change. During the pioneering days of the early 1980s this movement thrived in underground isolation, away from the mainstream music industry, existing as a fiercely DIY alternative to the bands, labels and venues of the increasingly commercial punk scene.

The name may have been a portmanteau of ‘anarchy’ and ‘punk’ but the origins of this scene developed years before it became a recognised subculture and genre of music. For example, The Wapping Anarchy Centre (and the squatted Centro Iberico that followed its closure) existed as a gig venue as well as social hub between 1981 and 1982. They were run by a diverse bunch of self-proclaimed enemies of the state, including defendants in the Persons Unknown bombing conspiracy trial; the street-fighting London Autonomists; and various Spanish anarchists who had fled the Francoist death squads and who worked together with activist punks and politicised squatters like the Pigs For Slaughter, Scum and Kill Your Pet Puppy fanzine collectives and bands such as The Apostles, The Assassins Of Hope and Hagar The Womb. Those punks associated with the Anarchy Centres were the first to be identified as ‘Anarcho punks’, the name alone suggesting that their message was every bit as important as the music.

The visionary inspiration and founders of the anarcho-punk movement were Crass, the Epping based art/music collective who formed in 1977 to put punk’s initial promises into practice. They combined a self-sufficient, DIY real-politic with subversion and situationist style stunts. Celebrated examples of their political pranks include duping a marriage magazine into promoting a beguiling, saccharine sweet romantic pop parody they had recorded; slipping copies of an anti-Falklands War flexi-disc inside chart topping records at the time of the conflict and, most infamously, the ‘Thatchergate’ tapes: audio collages purporting to be clandestine conversations between Thatcher and Reagan, resulting in the band receiving reprobation in parliament and a solicitation from the KGB.

The major differentiation between the ‘anarcho punk’ acts and the more traditional punk outfits was that, for the former, song structures were often dispersed with in favour of a relentless lyrical polemic accompanied by a similarly uncompromising and abrasive aural assault. Notable, however, was that from the very start there were significant exceptions to this: the eclectic musical palette Crass performed and promoted through their label propelled avid listeners towards everything far and beyond the parameters of punk. Acts such as Björk’s first band Kukl and Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound roster often shared stages with anarcho punk acts in their early days.

The label Crass Records was started in 1979 to remove control of Crass’ output from the hands of the music industry completely after the pressing plant that manufactured the original Small Wonder release of The Feeding Of The Five Thousand refused to include opening track ‘Reality Asylum’ on the grounds of blasphemy. It was replaced by two minutes of silence, titled ‘The Sound Of Free Speech’. This setback prompted Crass to approach long-time friend John Loder to look after the business side of the label and Crass Records was born; with creative decisions being taken at Dial House and recordings made at Loder’s Southern Studios. A re-recorded version of ‘Reality Asylum’ became the label’s inaugural release in 1979, initially in a hand-printed card cover, later replaced with the first of the ornate, monochrome fold-out sleeves the label would become renowned for subsequent pressings. The blasphemous sentiment of the single again caused the band trouble; they were investigated for ‘obscenity’ and Dial House received a visit from Scotland Yard’s Vice Squad. After the case was dropped, a re-issue of Feeding was the label’s next release, the offending track being duly reinstated and the cover art continuing the label’s lavish fold out presentation, which would invariably be designed by Gee Vaucher.

This wasn’t the last occasion when Crass Records were threatened with legal action. Shop owners stocking their feminist-themed album Penis Envy in Manchester were charged with “displaying obscene articles” and while Crass were found guilty of the charge, the lyrics to one song, ‘Bata Motel’ being bewilderingly deemed “"sexually provocative and obscene" in the ensuing court case, this was later overturned by The Court of Appeal. Crass’ strident criticism of the Falklands War and particularly Thatcher’s bellicose and jingoistic role in the conflict met with denunciation in Parliament, with a Conservative MP calling for them to be prosecuted for the single ‘How Does It Feel (To Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?’

Despite Crass Records releasing material by literally hundreds of bands including all those

featured on the three Bullshit Detector comps and Christ! The Album reaching number 26 in the charts, and due to the constant threat from the authorities plus the constant pressure of band members living and working together together – essentially being Crass 24 hours a day – they split up following a miners’ strike benefit in 1984: the apocalyptic Orwellian year the catalogue numbers of all their releases from ‘Reality Asylum’ onwards had counted down to, with many understanding that this would be the year they disbanded. The label slowed down rapidly after 1984, shutting up shop in 1992, only to be revived in 2010 and 2019 for a series of Crass reissues.

I got into punk at such an early age it has become more a matter of punk defining my life rather than changing it. However without Crass Records this would probably have meant little more than a lifetime of spiking my hair and listening to certain records. What I shall always thank Crass and associated acts for is hot-wiring my sense of social justice – which burns stronger than ever today – and imbuing me with a ‘question all’ attitude plus a distrust of all authority figures and institutions. Through my involvement with the anarcho punk scene I met so many great people playing in bands, writing fanzines or just doing their thing I hope this piece will in some way give something back to those to whom I owe so much.

Crass – The Feeding Of The Five Thousand (The Second Sitting) Reissue (1980)

This is the undisputed line in the sand of punk, and remains so, nearly four and a half decades after its release. The Feeding Of The Five Thousand was the record that introduced Crass to popular culture as much as the record-buying public and defined anarcho punk in terms of music, approach and lyrical themes. (Because of its impact these lyrical themes soon became mandatory for all of their peers: atheism, feminism, pacifism, anti-consumerism, anti-militarism, resisting the system, a general ‘them versus us’ entrenchment, which extended even to the ‘punk aristocracy’.) It is notable that it came out during a time which revealed punk rock was still still mired in rock & roll riffology and pub rock tradition. Feeding introduced elements of chant, drone, silence, spoken word and sound collage into anarcho punk’s sonic arsenal. Certainly, there are few actual ‘punk’ reference points other than the abrasive vocals and the frenetic tempo. It’s worth noting that, even though they were the progenitors of anarcho punk, no act ever really sounded anything like Crass musically, despite countless emulators clearly trying their hardest. This can largely be attributed to the unique approach to production of Crass founder, Penny Rimbaud, who eschewed the orthodox, guitar heavy rock sound and wasn’t averse to employing unusual methods to obtain results. The Shend, vocalist with Beefheartian Dada-punks The Cravats who released ‘Rub Me Out’ on Crass Records in 1982 explains: “Our original version of ‘Rub Me Out’ was quite different to what was released. Penny thought my vocals were too restrained at first so popped down the offie and ordered me to consume a load of cans of continental lager then have another go.” Feeding remains a significant release visually as well, as it is a development of the stark, confrontational monochromatic visual identity pioneered by artist Gee Vaucher that soon became inextricably associated with the anarcho genre. Many afternoons I should have been at school were spent with friends, pouring over the lyrics and scrutinising the graphics and photos on the fold-out inner sleeve. A pal once wondered aloud why they all looked so scrawny, pallid and were wearing dark clothes in the live pics: “It’s because they live in a commune” came the sage reply. “What’s a commune?” he countered. Someone eventually piped up, “It’s a big cave under the ground and everyone who lives there is really dirty.” Fucking hell! Just how much more awesome could Crass get?

Various Artists – Bullshit Detector (1980)

Without doubt this compilation is the greatest expression of the DIY punk aesthetic ever pressed on vinyl. The first volume in the Bullshit Detector series was a clarion call to many dispossessed youth to express themselves musically as well as being a conduit for disseminating ideas throughout a community which may otherwise have remained geographically and culturally isolated from like minds forming bands and starting zines. At a time when most of the established punk bands had polished their sound and were gracing the Top Of The Pops studio, this galvanised and gave ideological cohesion to the emerging, embryonic scene that became anarcho punk. It is a record which remains even today underestimated and maligned for its perceived lo-fi quality, even though, of course, fidelity wasn’t the point of the release. Stand-out tracks for me have always been the gratingly atonal ‘War Song’ by The Snipers; the discordant lo-fi dementia of The Sucks’ ‘‘3’’ and the primal pogo of Counter Attack’s ‘Don’t Wanna Fight For You’. Bullshit Detector stands as the first punk record that irrefutably proved the ethos that ‘anyone’ really could do it: to exist on vinyl and have their voice heard, even if that voice sounded like it was recorded down a phone and was accompanied by an out-of-tune guitar and a biscuit tin for drums. Rochdale poet Andy T who had hung out with COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle before becoming involved with Crass made his vinyl debut here with five separate contributions. This caused some confusion and disappointment: “After Crass decided on the tracks of mine they wanted to use I received a printed letter which said the artwork accompanying the tracks had to be 5” x 7” so I carefully crammed the artwork for all five tracks together then sent it off. When the finished album arrived I was mortified as they’d blown up my tightly scribbled art into individual panels so it looks like a madman with a marker pen was responsible! I could have done so much more for the cover if they had just have told me! It was a missed opportunity, not the first and definitely not the last.”

Andy later recorded the Weary Of The Flesh EP for the label, which was deemed “too extreme” for the John Peel show. One act who would go on to enjoy slightly more commercial success were Chumbawamba who were inspired to take their music more seriously following their appearance on Bullshit Detector Two in 1982. Vocalist Dunstan Bruce explains: “Being on the compilation enabled us to make contact with a lot of bands who were doing something similar to ourselves and were part of that anarcho punk world. As much as we loved the aesthetic of Crass Records we felt able to do our own thing and so we set up our own record label. We soon found out we were terrible business people but we loved the freedom having our own label gave us.”

Zounds – ‘Can’t Cheat Karma’ 7” (1980)

This single was the first Crass-associated release to articulate a more orthodox concept of anarchism, being accompanied by a poster which quoted the 19th century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: "Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.” The title track was backed by a great toe-tapper of a tune which stepped outside the punk template, and, if released only a few years later, might have been lauded as an indie-pop classic. Lyrically more direct was ‘Subvert’ on the B side which suggested a more agitational perspective with it’s pro-direct action exhortations to “throw a spanner in the works… hit them where it hurts… work for revolution… subvert”.

The Mob – ‘No Doves Fly Here’ 7” (1981)

The Mob were another band whose music set them apart from many of their anarcho punk peers, and this must rank as the anthem of the apocalyptic anarcho generation living in the shadow of The Cold War and, hence, the threat of nuclear annihilation. The Mob were also distinct in that, at variance to many of their peers’ lyrical themes, they espoused a positive ‘taking back our world’ credo which identified the band with the travelling community who, towards the mid 80s, were embracing a form of realpolitik that combined anarchist concepts with a belief that ‘the punks shall inherit the earth’. The Mob’s concerts radiated a strong sense of tribal gathering and a jubilance no other anarcho act could equal. ‘No Doves Fly Here’ remains as close to a magnum opus as the genre ever achieved.

Flux Of Pink Indians – Neu Smell (Crass Records, 1981)

‘Tube Disasters’ by Flux Of Pink Indians on the Neu Smell 7” EP might well be the ‘Pretty Vacant’ of anarcho punk but it’s the more angular, no wave-adjacent ‘Sick Butchers’ on the flip that is the more important cut. This is the first record in that scene that made its focus a strong advocacy of vegetarianism and the ecological concerns which became an enduring and central tenet of the movement. For such an influential record its origins owe as much to chance as design. Drummer Sid Truelove elaborates: “We were asked to record the single for Crass only a week after I joined the band and we only had one good new song! There was only a week to come up with another two tracks for the EP. They had nothing to work with so I decided to donate two songs I had written for Rubella Ballet. Once this was discovered I got into hot water with Zillah [Minx, Rubella Ballet’s vocalist/ Truelove’s partner]. ‘What do you mean you gave them to Flux?!’ I was lost for words when I realised I had given Flux possibly the best two songs we had!”

Rudimentary Peni – Farce (1982)

In addition to being one of the first UK records to embrace the high-octane ‘thrash’ sound emerging from across the Atlantic this was a record that projected the anarcho punk aesthetic into unworldly territories, abstracting the lyrical and visual aesthetics of the scene. It was also the most conspicuous example of another unsung element of anarcho punk – its occasional prog rock-ish tendencies. In addition to their latter albums being “concept works”, Peni’s releases were presented in gatefold sleeves featuring intricate, surreal and mind-bending artwork. Debut LP Death Church is also noteworthy for the transcendent ‘Rotten To The Core’ – an iconoclastic attack on John Lydon, Joe Strummer et al as “sell-outs”. My favourite example of this tendency included the original, Crass inspired, heretical diatribe by Napalm Death: ‘Punk Is A Rotting Corpse’ – a song which invariably saw the school age band gobbed and booed off stage whenever it was played.

Alternative – ‘In Nomine Patri’ (1982)

Often described as ‘The Scottish Crass’ , the Alternative from Dunfermline in Scotland also made their vinyl debut on the first Bullshit Detector compilation and developed a strong relationship with the Dial House band leading to this classic, though sadly solitary, single. ‘Anti Christ’ encompassed a multi-layered song structure far beyond standard punk parameters with guitars low in the mix and an almost dub-inflected drum and bass section providing the driving backing to lyrics which continued the theme of Crass’ ‘Reality Asylum’: personalising the blood-soaked legacy of organised religion and its oppressive authority as a force of social control. Their drummer for the single James Murphy speaks about their trip to London to record it: “Originally, the church organ opening the track was taken from a BBC sound effects album but Penny recruited Paul Ellis, keyboardist with Kid Creole & The Coconuts, to play it in the studio. After the recording, myself and others went back to Annie Anxiety’s flat in Hackney. They then went out to fly post for the upcoming Stop the City demonstration and got arrested.”

Lack of Knowledge – Grey 7” (1983)

Hailed as ‘the anarcho punk Joy Division’, Lack Of Knowledge were another important act within the scene who, alongside The S-Haters, Part One, Cold War and Blood & Roses, favoured a darker and more atmospheric post punk sound and a less overtly political lyrical approach. They provided a welcome foil to some of the more hardcore sounding and sloganeering bands they shared stages with. Hearing the strong melody of ‘We’re Looking For People’ it may not come as a great surprise that bassist Tony Barber went on to enjoy many years playing with that most tuneful of all punk bands: Buzzcocks, but his friendship with members of Crass remains to this day: “On a personal level, I carried on visiting Dial House regularly after the band split and eventually lived there for five years, building a studio and, over the years, recording and playing with Penny, Eve Libertine and Steve Ignorant. I met them before they had released any records and I’m still friends and occasionally work with them to this day. They have been a big part of my life from the day Pete Stennett said to me, ‘You have got to hear this!’ and played me the demo cassette of The Feeding Of The Five Thousand.”

Annie Anxiety – ‘Barbed Wire Halo’ 7” (1981)

It is almost as much a misnomer as it is a disservice to Crass Record’s canon to describe it as punk at all. From The Feeding Of The Five Thousand EP and ‘Reality Asylum’ 7” to the first Bullshit Detector compilation LP to the Annie Anxiety and Andy T singles, the label always engaged with avant garde and experimental music forms. Indeed, I’ve often thought a great aspect to the dynamic of the original anarcho punk scene is that it is evident in many instances that the musicians were picking up their instruments for the very first time… and ‘Barbed Wire Halo’ proved you didn’t even have to pick up an instrument at all! Annie Anxiety’s recordings were characterised by operatic vocal flourishes delivered against a backing of discordant sound collage and abrasive tape loops, not too dissimilar to the harsh electronic sound that acts such as Whitehouse and Nurse With Wound were developing in tandem. “Penny suggested he make backing tracks for me to perform with at their shows so recording for the label was the natural next step. Since being a child at my father’s little print shop, listening to the ‘beats’ made by the presses and then by subway trains, ‘sampling’ was something I always did in a primitive way with cassette tapes. What we were doing was very organic to us.” Indeed, a recording of a train in motion segues into the percussive backing to the Crass track ‘Shaved Women’ which Annie herself wrote. It might not have been the best received record the label released but it remains amongst those truest to the eclectic ethos of the label. Performing as Annie Bandez she is every bit as mesmerising a performer today as she was back then.

Chris Low’s <a href="

Underground" target="out">anarcho punk zine, flyer and poster anthology Best B4 1984 is out now; he is the co-compiler of Cease & Resist: Sonic Subversion & Anarcho Punk In The UK 1979-86 out now on Optimo Music. Bullshit Detector volumes one to three have just been reissued by Crass Records, via One Little Independent

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