Forever Punk: Unlike the Sex Pistols, Crass Never Sold Out-And Their Influence Is Still Visible Today, Writes Iain Aitch
Aitch, Iain, New Statesman (1996)
On the face of it, Crass possessed all the right credentials to earn a place alongside The Clash and the Sex Pistols in the punk history books. The band had the requisite string of high-selling, profanity-ridden records and the amusingly named band members (Phil Free, Steve Ignorant, Joy de Vivre), and was even formed in 1977. Yet it seldom merits a mention on the ubiquitous talking-heads clips shows or makes more than a footnote in music-press retrospectives.
This is surprising when you consider the impact Crass had at the time: in their early-Eighties heyday, they could shift upwards of 20,000 records in the week of release, with no advertising and no airplay. Their anti-Falklands war records were discussed in the Commons and they were even approached by the KGB.
Few bands have done more to bring radical politics to youth culture. For the Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK" was just a song, but for Crass it was an aim. Their Stop the City protests were the forerunners of the anti-globalisation movement; their stance on animal rights inspired the formation of such groups as the Animal Liberation Front. Reclaim the Streets, the McLibel trial and even the success of the Body Shop could be said to have roots in their alternative appeal.
Penny Rimbaud, a founding member of Crass, has long been perplexed by the band's white-washing from history, though not surprised. He can reel off a list of reasons as long as his arm why this may be, but their stance on promoting "product" is one that recurs. "We weren't part of the normal outlet, by which we weren't feeding the corporate body," he says, referring to Crass's refusal to sell merchandise and habit of printing frighteningly low "pay no more than" prices on their records. "For example, we didn't do interviews with the mainstream press, believing that if we did them with the home-made fanzines then people would have to buy them."
Because of this attitude towards the press, scathing reviews of their records were the norm and sniping at their "hippie" politics was de rigueur. The likes of Tony Parsons and Garry Bushell took exception to their black "uniform" (worn on stage and off), lack of class politics and their pacifist leanings. On their records, Crass struck out against left-wing totems such as Rock Against Racism, as well as the rise of the far right. As a result, they were perhaps the only band to be more widely despised than the Nazi skinhead group Skrewdriver.
Their record sales, however, never suffered. …