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Music / Crass

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"Be exactly who you want to be, do what you want to do
I am me, and she is she, but you're the only you!"
"Big A, Little A"

Formed in 1977 out of Dial House (an open-house community near Epping, Essex), Crass were an English Punk Rock band that promoted anarchy as a political ideology, a resistance movement, and a way of life, and attracted controversy multiple times through the duration of their career - even to the point of causing an international scandal. The band formed when Dial House founder Jeremy Ratter started jamming with then-resident Steven Williams (who took the names of Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant, respectively) after the former saw a gig by The Clash and was inspired by Joe Strummer telling his audience to start their own bands if they thought they could do better. Penny and Steve produced "Do They Owe Us a Living?" and "So What" as a drum and vocal duo, and chose the name Crass as a reference to a line note  in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie.

Members of Dial House would fill in the remaining gaps for Crass when needed in the earliest gigs, however these usually ended badly (their first gig saw the band getting the plug pulled three songs into a five song set) or were under-attended. After a disastrous gig at the Roxy Club in London where the band showed up intoxicated and were promptly ejected from the stage, Crass started to take themselves more seriously as a band by refusing to indulge in alcohol or cannabis before shows and displaying their symbolic black military surplus uniforms and logo (a blending of the Christian cross, the Union Jack, the swastika, and the Ouroboros, suggesting the idea that power will eventually destroy itself).

In 1978, Crass released their first album, The Feeding of the 5,000 on the Small Wonder label. The album immediately attracted controversy due to the first track on the album ("Asylum") when the workers at the record pressing plant refused to handle the album due to the blasphemous themes in the track. As a result, Crass released the record with two minutes of silence in its place, titled "The Sound of Free Speech", and formed Crass Records in order to maintain creative control on their albums, as well as preventing Small Wonder from coming under fire. Within the next two years, Crass would release Stations of the Crass and Bloody Revolutions, an album and an EP financed by and in collaboration with Poison Girls, a band which Crass played with regularly, respectively.

Crass would also go on to release several singles and give away a series of flexi discs until 1982, when they released "Penis Envy", an album with more complicated musical arrangements and female vocals addressing feminist issues, attacking marriage and sexual repression; Steve Ignorant was credited as "not on this recording". The album again attracted controversy among the general public thanks to Crass tricking the staff and readers of Loving (a teen romance magazine) into offering a flexi disc of the last track on "Penis Envy" ("Our Wedding") — a parody of an MOR love song, credited under "Creative Recording And Sound Services" with the ad telling readers that the free Crass flexi would make "your wedding day just that bit extra special". Naturally, this didn't go over well once the hoax was discovered. The album was banned by the retailer HMV, and in 1984 copies of the album were seized from the Eastern Bloc record shop by Greater Manchester Police; the shop owners were charged with displaying "obscene articles for publication for gain". The judge ruled against Crass in the ensuing court case, although the decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

In 1982, Crass released Christ - The Album, which took a year to record, produce, and mix. Normally, this wouldn't be too huge of an issue, however in the duration of that 365 day period, The Falklands War broke out and ended, causing the political Crass to question their speed and efficiency at making an album, since a good chunk of the songs on the album were about imminent war. As a result, Crass went back to the basics, subverting whatever they could (including slipping copies of their singles into other albums at the pressing plant they were working with), including causing a political scandal in the United States and the United Kingdom.

...wait, what?

In 1983, a poor-quality tape emerged, supposedly of a phone call overheard (due to crossed lines) with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, suggesting that HMS Sheffield was deliberately destroyed in a false flag attack to escalate the Falklands War, and that the United States would launch nuclear bombs over Europe to show the Soviets the United States' resolve in a potential nuclear conflict. Press in the U.S. and Europe attacked it, thinking that the poor quality audio was a KGB forgery, however a year or so later, the tape was traced back to Crass...somehow, despite the band going out of their way to make sure that they would be anonymous. By this time, tensions in the band were growing, as some advocated a more violent way of spreading their message, while others wished to continue their pacifist methods they'd been using since the group's inception.

In 1984, the pressures of the band working and coexisting, in addition to legal pressures from the Penis Envy controversy and other attempts to prosecute Crass took their toll. The band performed its final gig on 7 July, 1984 for a miner's strike benefit in Aberdare, Wales. On the return trip, their guitarist decided to call it quits; the rest of the band decided to throw in the towel as well, coinciding with their agreement to cease performing in 1984 anyway. Since the breakup of Crass, Steve Ignorant has performed every now and then, which he stated he would cease to do after 2011's "The Last Supper" tour, while Penny Rimbaud has released a few bits of poetry and contributed to other albums since Crass' breakup. Several ex-members of Crass have performed as The Crass Collective and Crass Agenda; as of 2005, the group is now called Last Amendment, and it is unknown when or if they'll perform live again. Despite all of this, Crass is still highly respected to this day, despite breaking up thirty years ago — multiple artists, political activists, and punk bands continue to cite them as a major influence.

Their (major) albums include:

  • The Feeding of the 5,000, 1978
  • Stations of the Crass, 1979
  • Penis Envy, 1981
  • Christ - The Album, 1982
  • Yes Sir, I Will, 1983 note 
  • Ten Notes on a Summer's Day, 1985
  • Best Before 1984, 1986 note 
  • Christ: The Bootleg, 1989
  • You'll Ruin It for Everyone, 1993 note 

"Do they owe us a trope page? Of course they fucking do!":

  • Actual Pacifist: A rather large part of the band's core philosophy, both out of pragmatism (violence would discredit their cause) and out of idealism (violence is fundamentally antithetical to their vision of anarchism). Some conflicts would later occur when some band members began to take issue with this.
  • Anarchy Is Chaos: Averted entirely. Crass knew that violence would only harm their message, and instead went about spreading their political ideology through non-violent methods, such as passing out leaflets, organizing political action, forming squats, spray-painting graffiti, and so on.
  • Anti-Love Song: Several in Penis Envy, most focusing on the idea of love as a cover for possessive ownership of women.
    • The band themselves might dispute this. Yes Sir, I Will, despite its fiery protest elements, argues that everything the band has ever written is a love song (though they can be considered to have a different meaning of "love" in mind than is popularly understood by this trope).
    In attempts to moderate they ask why we don't write love songs.
    What is it that we sing then?
    Our love of life is total, everything we do is an expression of that,
    Everything that we write is a love song.
  • Anti-Police Song: Some of their work critiques police brutality, such as this passage from Yes Sir, I Will:
    Under Thatcher's regime there have been massive increases in police brutality.
    In London police shot down a man
    Only to find it was the wrong person.
    We regret to inform you. Regret to inform you.
    Regret to inform you. We regret to inform you
    That today another Christ was shot in the back of the head.
    We regret to inform you. Regret to inform you,
    That another Christ, not yet ten years old, was shot today,
    By agents of Her Majesty's Government, with a plastic bullet.
    They say that plastic bullets were designed not to kill,
    They do.
    I say that human beings were not designed to kill, not us, not me;
    We do.
    We regret to inform you.
  • A Day in the Limelight: The whole of Penis Envy is one for female vocalist Eva Libertine (with Joy de Vivre providing vocals on the track "Health Surface").
  • A House Divided: Had Crass not decided to break up in 1984 anyway, they probably wouldn't have been that far off thanks to the inner conflict in the group.
  • Blasphemous Boast: "Asylum" is one long series of blasphemous boasts, and blasphemous insults directed towards Jesus, denouncing the idea that he could forgive anyone with all the terrible things done in his name.
    ''Jesus died for his own sins, not mine"
    • "Where Next Columbus?"
    They realized that their god was dead so they reclaimed power through the bomb instead
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Defied entirely, and this defiance was lampshaded in "Big A, Little A":
    "But no one ever changed the church by pulling down a steeple
    And you'll never change the system by bombing No. 10
    Systems just aren't made of bricks, they're mostly made of people
    You may send them into hiding, but they'll be back again!"
    • In the song "Bloody Revolutions" Crass take great pains to attack revolutionary Marxist positions that violence could be a means to a good end, which got them much scorn from Marxist punk bands, one of which said that Crass's politics, "like Kropotkin's, [were] up shit creek."
      Nothing changed for all the death, that their ideas created.
      It's just the same fascistic games, but the rules aren't clearly stated.
      Nothing's really different, 'cause all government's the same,
      They can call it freedom, but slavery is the game
      There's nothing that you offer but a dream of last year's hero
      The truth of revolution, brother... is Year Zero.
  • Book Ends: "Banned From the Roxy" begins and ends with the lines "Banned from the Roxy, okay / I never much liked playing there anyway".
    • The album that song is on (The Feeding of the 5,000) begins and ends (if you don't count "Asylum", that is) with "Do They Owe Us a Living?" and "Well?...Do They?" - which are different recordings of the exact same song.
  • Call-and-Response Song: Common at at Crass's shows. A particularly notable mention has to go to "So What", which features a call-and-response in the studio recording.
    I'm just a person, a human being!
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Like most Anarcho-Punk bands they identify capitalism as a system of destruction and exploitation that most people aren't even aware of, and take the belief that it must be destroyed.
  • Concept Album: In addition to being envisioned as a single song, Yes Sir, I Will was envisioned as a holistic critique of everything the band saw as wrong with British society at the time, reflecting the band's thesis that all political struggles were interrelated. This is explained further under Epic Rocking below.
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: Contrary to many other protest musicians the band really lived up to its name. They actively tried to cause revolution by not joining a major label and making their audience think about life as it is. They also live in a commune to this day where they make their own bread and supplies and effectively live outside society. When it became clear in 1984 that they wouldn't reach their goals by that date they disbanded themselves.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Part of the reason their music is so great is how much passion they put into it. That passion is a large part of the reason the band wound up dissolving.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: Their album cover for Best Before 1984 (and some of the band's art) were both cool displays of photo collages, cut out from newspaper clippings.
    • The Feeding of the 5,000 shows a drawing of a bombed out city in the north of Ireland during The Troubles.
  • Epic Rocking: "Yes Sir, I Will" by Crass, clocking in at over 40 minutes to become the longest punk song ever (!). Although it is technically supposed to be all one song, the song is split into multiple tracks (seven, to be precise) and doesn't play like a single, flowing 40-minute opus. The longest individual track, however, is just over twenty minutes long. This is actually a Justified Trope, believe it or not. The album was composed and released as a continuous piece of music because of the band's conception that all political struggles were interrelated (a concept often called intersectionality in academia), as Penny Rimbaud explained:
    The boundaries increasingly ceased to have any relevance - prior to The Falklands War, one naively believed that there were separations between 'this' and 'that' and that if you dealt with 'this' then you could do 'that'... like songs - each song had its own little separate thing to deal with and Yes Sir, I Will is a statement about the fact that there isn't any separation - that it's all one and the same thing, that there is no single cause or single idea - there's no-one else to blame but yourself. That you can't say, "Well let's now concentrate on the Northern Ireland problem", "let's now concentrate on the problem of sexual relationships"... you can't do that - everything now is one major problem and that problem stems from yourself.
    • The band have other examples as well, such as "Ten Notes on a Summer's Day" (there are two versions, both over ten minutes), "Nagasaki Nightmare" (8:23), "Reality Asylum" (6:38), "Bloody Revolutions" (6:18), "Big A, Little A" (6:13), and "What the Fuck?" (6:46).
  • Fading into the Next Song/Siamese Twin Songs: Crass loved this trope. Some songs would have an obvious break between them, however many others would simply fade out into feedback until a drum beat or guitar riff started the next song up. This reached its logical conclusion in the album Yes Sir, I Will, in which all tracks are connected apart from a side break between vinyl sides (which is even crossfaded on CD releases of the album) and are often considered different parts of a single song to boot.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The infamous "Creative Recording And Sound Services" prank, where the band convinced a teen romance magazine to give away a song about a rather possessive bride looking forward to her wedding.
  • Heroic BSoD: When Crass was recording Christ - The Album, the Falklands war had begun and ended, causing the band to question their relevance as a political band. Fortunately, they pulled everything together and managed to come back with a vengeance...until their breakup in 1984. However, they were planning on breaking up that year anyway, so...
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: The eco-Protest Song "What the Fuck".
  • Internal Retcon: Addressed in Yes Sir, I Will:
    Any information that we receive concerning the real world is carefully controlled
    Why else would fiction have such licence?
    We are allowed to see endless theatrical deaths,
    But when the real deaths started on the Falklands
    Government censors prevented us from seeing them
    We were given the excuse of 'National Security'
    By the lying shits who were interested only in saving their political skins.
    It didn't matter a fuck to them how many died
    As long as their popularity ratings didn't suffer
    For that reason alone we were shielded from the truth
    While the real violence is kept from us
    We are exposed to constant pantomimes of death and destruction.
    Those in power are rightly aware that if we had access to the real facts
    We would cease to be simply passive observers
    Media coverage of Viet Nam created massive dissent in the U.S.A.
    Thatcher's government was aware of that when, embarking on the Falkland charade,
    They refused press cards to anyone who they knew would not support their line
    Those who did travel to the Falklands found their reports dramatically cut down
    Meanwhile, at home, we were fed fabrications of Britain's 'glorious war'
    The truth that is now filtering out paints a very different picture
  • Ironic Echo: Yes Sir, I Will. The title originated from a short bit of conversation note  between Charles, Prince of Wales and Simon Weston, a British soldier who had been badly burned in the Falklands War, effectively turning a well wishing statement on its head and implying that the soldier's obedience to the state even after his injuries was still undying enough to respect the people who sent him to the Falklands in the first place.
  • Letting the Air out of the Band: The wedding bells at the end of "Our Wedding" slowly distort and slow down until the track itself stops.
  • Loudness War: The remasters aren't the worst examples out there, but they are still pretty loud. However, they are often considered to have better sound quality than the original issues of the albums despite this, and they have a lot of bonus content that isn't on other issues of the albums (however, there is also some content on the original issue of Stations of the Crass that isn't available on the remasters, though all but one of the excluded tracks is available for download). Which versions you prefer will often be a matter of personal taste.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Between the violence of the band's music and the Actual Pacifist of their message. Vocalist Gee Vaucher discussed this in an interview about Yes Sir, I Will:
    If you're going to rant and rave or be angry about anything, one does it because you have a vision of the opposite. We've worked the way we have done for the last seven years because it seemed that people weren't informed about what was happening in the world on a simple basis, especially a lot of young people. The feeling I got from a lot of young people was that there was something drastically wrong with the world - technically they didn't know how that was operating and obviously we've offered them information which hopefully gave them the possibility of deciding for themselves, and a broader outlook on their own lives.
  • Miniscule Rocking: While Crass does have songs stretching past the three minute mark ("Big A, Little A" is roughly six minutes long), songs like "Fight War, Not Wars", "Banned From the Roxy", and "Do They Owe Us a Living?" would count.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: They criticized British politics and economy during the Margaret Thatcher era.
    • "Demoncrats" is basically a poem about the futility of dying for god, patriotism, or democracy.
    They believed in democracy, freedom of speech,
    Yet dead on the flesh piles
    I hear no breath, I hear no hope, no whisper of faith
    From those who have died for some others' privilege.
  • New Sound Album: Penis Envy.
    • Most of their albums, really. Penis Envy lightens up their sound and includes exclusively female vocals; Christ: The Album engages in heavy Genre Roulette; Yes Sir, I Will is mostly a noise freakout; Ten Notes on a Summer's Day is Avant-Garde Music with no connection to punk.
  • Obligatory Bondage Song: "Bata Motel", much like "Oh Bondage, Up Yours" (an X-Ray Spex song) is both an Obligatory Bondage Song and a harsh rebuke of sexism in modern media and the fashion industry.
    • That, and a rather enthusiastic promotion of an abusive relationship (though almost certainly meant sarcastically):
    "Well today I look so good, just like I know I should
    My breasts to tempt inside my bra, my face is painted like a movie star
    I've studied my flaws in your reflection and put them to rights with savage correction
    I've turned my statuesque perfection and shone it over in your direction
    So come on darling, make me yours, trip me over, show me the floor!
    Tease me, tease me, make me stay, in my red high-heels I can't get away!"
  • Pun:
    • The remasters are given the title "The Crassical Collection".
    • Stations of the Crass is a pun on the Catholic rite of the Stations of the Cross. It's also a reference to the graffiti campaign Crass had been conducting around London's underground railway system... including underground stations. The original cover artwork depicts an example of the band's graffiti.
  • Precision F-Strike: Crass' use of profanity wasn't placed without thought; rather, it was quite deliberately placed in order to prove a point.
  • Protest Song: It's absolutely no exaggeration to say that their entire discography falls under this category in some way or another. Subjects included war ("Fight War, Not Wars", "Nagasaki Nightmare", "Major General Despair"), religion (see Religion Rant Song below), the government (or the idea of government) ("Big A, Little A", "Do They Owe Us a Living?"), Americanization ("Smash the Mac"), feminism ("Women", the entire Penis Envy album), and so on.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Attacked politics, religion, Americanization, war, capitalism,...
  • Religion Rant Song: "So What", "Asylum", "Sucks"
  • Shout-Out: Yes Sir, I Will directly refers to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It is quite likely that their decision to break up in 1984 was a nod to Orwell's novel as well.
  • Take That!: Again, pretty much their entire discography contains one in some form or another.
    • The aforementioned two minutes of silence as a result of Executive Meddling on The Feeding of the 5,000 was titled "The Sound of Free Speech" as a jab towards the label and pressing plant that gave Crass grief over the track.
    • Crass has also taken potshots at The Sex Pistols and The Clash, whom they see as people who didn't live up to the punk spirit. The re-issues of all their albums in the 2010s have a quote by Johnny Rotten on each back cover: "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!", referencing the fact that Rotten went on an episode of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!.
    • "Asylum" is notable for being such a vicious insult to Jesus Christ that workers refused to press The Feeding of the 5000 due to its blasphemous content.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: While they were always rather avant-garde by punk standards, early material tends to play this relatively straight. By the time of Penis Envy, Christ: The Album, and Yes Sir, I Will, however, they were definitely averting it or at most zig-zagging it. Overall, they stand alongside The Clash as one of the most experimental punk bands.
  • Ur-Example: Of the "anarcho-punk" movement, and of the "crust punk" movement (an honor it shares with Discharge!). For that matter, they are also considered a co-Ur-Example for Hardcore Punk as a whole. Despite breaking up in 1984, the band's influence can still be felt today in other influential bands like Nausea and Aus-Rotten.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Crass take great pains to attack this idea from Marxists in "Bloody Revolutions", mentioned above under Bomb-Throwing Anarchists.
  • Yandere: The narrator of "Our Wedding" comes across as one.
    "I am yours to have and hold, I'm giving you my love...
    Never look at anyone, anyone but me
    Never look at anyone, I must be all you see
    Listen to those wedding bells, say goodbye to other girls
    I'll never be untrue my love, don't be untrue to me
    Don't be untrue to me, don't be untrue to me..."
  • You Are Already Dead: "You're Already Dead", a song that has the message that when you accept politics and society as they are you might as well be dead.
    • "Systematic Death" comes from a similar perspective. From birth on the husband and wife the song focuses have been slaves to capitalism and to tradition. And when they're about to get their promised reward of being a pair of homeowners, the system drops its bomb and they don't even get that.