Interview by Allan Clifford for Mucilage fanzine.
Love them or hate them, not many people can deny the enormous influence of CRASS over the last 7-8 years. The leading exponents of the 'Anarcho-Punk' genre, the band that launched a thousand clones and lit a candle of hope in thousands of hearts.
An interview of some sort was definitely in order, as much as to satisfy my own curiousity as to inform you the eager reader. The Crass-persons live in a small farmhouse somewhere in the North Weald, and very nice it is too. It was in this picturesque setting that we chatted with Peter Wright, Joy de Verve, Penny Rimbaud and G over a cup of funny tasting tea.
MUCILAGE: You've all been very quiet recently, what's happening? A re-evaluation of aims, and methods?
Pete Wright: Yes, I think it's two things, one side allowed ourselves space to try and discover and develop certain areas, we are still in the process of doing so, like launching ourselves into the dark with this new LP. On the other hand we do tend to withdraw occasionally from the arena to allow other people to get on with things. We don't want to end up monopolising everything by continuously instituting moves, You have to stand back and clear the floor for people.
Some people in the band have done an album set of fifty poems, it's sort of classical and hasn't gone out as Crass. We felt we'd been jumping and shouting about things for quite a few years, we tried to see what positive contributions had been a demonstration of our own positive side we wanted to produce something of beauty, quality and vision. Although all that has been underneath Crass from the start it hasn't always been clear that Crass itself is trying to push things onto a different stage.
Penny Rimbaud: The new LP that we've done, I imagine most grannies would prefer it to most so called punks. I should think a lot of punks will be thoroughly pissed off, 'cause it doesn't say fuck in every song. It will be interesting to see what happens, to see how many people reject it in the same way their parents reject punk.
Do you think that it's bad that you became so popular just as a musical group?
P.W: No, because any situation we're faced with in life is an opportunity for us to use. So we don't assume popularity. If we are faced with a possibility we'll use it to the best of our abilities. So our ability to be a popular punk band has introduced people to a whole series of things that they might not have found. The bands we've played with people might not have gone to see, or a film or other performance. So we've capitalised on our ability and to some extent it's the very need for us to drive as a punk band that has slowed us down.
So are you moving away from the more aggressive (angry) music you've produced in the past?
P.R: I think that our anger is our passion and on a superficial level people may not be able to recognise the anger, a lot of people who have parodied us have effectively come across with an aggressive stance and have really, in my view, been exposing their emptiness. I don't think we've ever been aggressive, we have been extremely angry and extremely passionate and we still are.
The reason we're spending a long time over what we do next, it's sufficiently important to us, because we are sufficiently passionate and angry about what we feel to spend a lot of time studying and not become a parody of ourselves. It's really important not to be drawn into a situation of doing something simply because that's what people expect you to be doing.
Wouldn't you agree that a lot of people see this parody of what you are more than you yourselves do? Like Crass T-shirts and badges, it's bad that people are ripping you off making them, but they wouldn't make them unless there was people willing to buy them?
P.R: Well it's a start isn't it? When you're young all you've ever had is what your mum and dad have told you you've got to look like, or how you've got to behave, and the first, easiest and most obvious way of revolting against that is to get a different haircut, wear different clothes and wear a badge
That's the first stage in telling your parents and those people immediately around you to, basically, piss off - you want a bit of your own space and that is really the start of free thought. Up until that age people are never given the chance to think for themselves, and I think if they pick up one of our records and think "Oh I want to identify with this!" and buy a T-shirt or a badge then I don't think that's bad. If they went out and bought an ABBA record then all that would happen is that the values that are generally offered to them at school and by most parents would be reinforced.
It's not a criticism, but most people grow out of the obvious elements and the more important things then take over. It ceases to matter what your hair is like, it's more what's beneath your hair.
But it cannot be denied that a lot of people never get beyond the first stage of t-shirts and badges.
P.R: They don't, but then again, so what! It is better that at least they are put into a position where maybe they will go beyond that first stage. And equally well, you can say that a lot of people do go beyond. The commercial market is fully aware of the fact that people between the ages of 14 and 23 are the most easily exploited group. They come under more attack than any other age bracket, because they have got the cash and the vulnerability. Beyond 23 a person is beginning to stabilise. Generally speaking if a person is on the outside at 23 then they will remain on the outside. If they are on the outside at 14 then chances are that given the amount of pressure that is put on them they will have a hard time of it.
So if people have fun in between well so what! If people enjoy just jumping up and down and pogoing and getting pissed to our music then that's great... we've never ripped anyone off at the door and we've never ripped anyone off with our records. So they've gone out and ripped up a T-shirt and put chains on - well that's a cheap way of having fun. If you go for the casual market you'll be broke within a week. The fun we promote is cheap fun, and all fun should be. And if people only have fun, well so fucking what! It's better than not having fun.
Do you think that you have succeeded in changing people?
P.R: Yeah, I think that we've succeeded l think that we've been largely responsible for re-promoting (it would be ridiculous to pretend we created anything!) a set of ideas which have roots way back through history... these are quite simply 'sod all authority, I as an individual have something worthwhile about me.' That sort of thinking seems to go in cycles - there are people all over the world that have been liberated because of the sort of things that we have been saying for the last 7 years, but if we hadn't existed then someone else would have done it. What we've done isn't so important, what is important is that across the world there are people that are closer to some sense of their own lives.
G: It's not even a qualitative thing. It can be a sense of one's own life in a totally different direction to which you would live your own life, in the end that doesn't really matter - it's the quality of person, and the quality of life that comes from that. It doesn't have to follow the same route.
P. R: Yeah, we've never promoted our own lifestyle, which happens to be very quiet. This house is very restful - we work very hard but very quietly, be it gardening, writing or rehearsing. We don't say "This is the way people ought to live" - it's the way we as individuals enjoy living.
G: And we function like that.
P.W: I think we appeal to people who are misfits and who are prepared to open up to certain ideas. We also appeal to people who are young enough, or smart enough, not to have a huge investment in the ways things are going in the rest of society. I think young people are flexible in that they haven't got the investment that others have... They aren't threatened by ideas so they can think more creatively.
Wouldn't it be better to aim to get through to 'middle-aged' people?
P.R: Yes, well that comes in time. I mean we've done what we were able to do, we've never been lazy, we've always worked very hard at doing what we were able to do. In 10 years time maybe because of the experiences and realisations that we have had we'll think of putting £4,000 into a centre for psycho-geriatrics rather than into an Anarchy centre. I think what we did 7 years ago was very important to us, it manifested and we became popular hand in hand with a huge number of important social developments. It is not impossible that in our future projects we will find some way of being active in other areas.
You sound very optimistic, but don't you think that after an upsurge in radical activity everything has fallen off rather dramatically?
P.R: No, I don't actually, because what's far more important is what's going on in people's minds. If you look at the last 7 years there has been a fast and dramatic rebirth of awareness. That awareness had been around in a different form on a very strong front for about 10 years previously, and 7 years ago it suddenly blossomed again.
A lot of people like ourselves walked up a lot of dark alleys and came walking back again, looking for other bits of light. When it's quiet you can be pretty certain that are having a good think about what's going on. I mean, yes, my first feeling was 'shit, it's all over, after all that effort nothing's been achieved.'
Joy: I think you're just talking about ideas.
P.R: Yes, there's superficial manifestations of things like Stop The City. People say that the last S.T.C. was the worst, but for me it was the best. I turned up, wandered around and realised that the police had got it completely sussed. So then I just wandered around talking to people, and I had some great conversations and I got to know one or two people, and I didn't know who they were and they didn't know who I was. I saw and felt a lot of things.
The S.T.C. before that I'd spent the entire time shoving the police around, and apparently this is a far out active thing to do. I'm not putting down the shoving, if that is what we have to do, if we have to lob bricks then fair enough. I'm not making any qualitative judgement, but it's pretty bloody stupid when we start thinking that shoving and being shoved by the police is better in some way than creatively sharing an experience with people.
P.W: There's a lot of people who are prepared to do things now. It's not actually doing them, the most important contribution that we can make as a group of people is to expand the vocabulary of people who want to do things. There has always been people chucking bricks at the police, and there has always been people going on strike and all sorts of actions.
The most important thing is the understanding that develops. Like the miners, there was people learning what life is about, that there is more to life than they thought before, they've got to know the people they live with, seeing their workmates in different situations. They found the power of communal action and communal co-operation, those sort of things are what we get out of it. That's the positive side whether we win or lose a particular battle doesn't matter that much because it's just a battle.
P.R: I think it's really important to know when to back off. That needn't be a defeat, it can be a very positive thing which allows the opponent to move into some of the space you've created. But if we're trying to create change then we've got to sometimes (although our pride might suffer) back off and say "Okay look this is what I think, this is the view that I have created, now you see if you can move in that space."
Now the chances are that you will be shat upon, but unless we're prepared to back off then you're in a state permanent argument and there is no point in that, it's bad tactics. Then the whole situation is maintained, it is to the government's advantage to promote a situation of animosity.
Joy: We are constantly spending energy on argument rather than something more subtle.
P.R: It's rather like that situation at S.T.C. where the police had sort of got everyone enclosed. Well, it was to everyone's advantage 'cause what the hell would everyone have done? They'd probably have got fucking bored and gone off home!
I can see what you are saying, but, putting it simply, are you really so optimistic about the future? You say it's good that we're not in a state of argument, but is everybody sitting back and thinking or are they saying "Oh hell, the whole thing is falling apart"?
PC: It's all according to what your objective is. If you want Cruise missiles out of this country, then forget it -you're not going to do it. But if your objective is to enlighten people and to grow, then there is every possibility because you must see that the pillar of all that is yourself. I think that the lull at the moment is incredibly strong, I sense that there is a lot going on in peoples' heads.
I mean that sense of morality, of humanity, is in all people albeit carved up half dozen kids, a mortgage and the rest of it. It is still in there, it's innate, it is there, and it's coming alive in the most unlikely people. That is very important.
P.R: We have fluidity which is one thing they don't have, as the state becomes more and more rigid in its attitude and the manner by which that attitude is enforced, parallel to that our intelligence grows, our fluidity grows, and our compassion and love for each other grows. The right wing state throughout history has made that mistake.
Surely all of this is very long term? What about immediate problems like people that are starving... now?
G: Yes they are immediate, yes there are millions of people starving every day, but I cannot do anything about that, I can only hope to build for the future... a society that would never put up with that sort of shit... the individual cannot stop it.
P.R: One also has to understand that the very fact that we are aware of starvation is a piece of political propaganda. There are people starving in the world in just the same situation as the people of Ethiopia. It's interesting that because Ethiopia is backed by Russia as opposed to the West there is this hysterical outcry. The way we hear about things is carefully engineered.
What's happening in Ethiopia is not unusual in the Third World. Ethiopia is a useful propaganda stunt, America wants to get its hands on Ethiopia... blah blah blah! The reason starvation exists is political. Food is not shared for political reasons.
You have to look at it in the long term, if you look at the short term you will soon be burnt out. Driven to the frustration and anger that so many radicals have. One has to have the strength to stand back and say 'look, I know I'm right, I know what I feel is good, I know I act out of the purest reason.' And then spend the rest of the day knitting.
Yes, I have thought all of that before, that faced with the 'politics of depression' you must see it as their weapon and stand off. But ultimately you cannot live outside the system - everything you do is connected with the system.
G: But you try and live with it and not at the cost of it. Of course no-one can live outside the system, everything in this room is in some way a product of it. You cannot totally detach. But you must look at the properties that are of use to you, like this light bulb, but see that there is little it can offer your soul.
P.W: The big illusion is that you change systems by opposition, and they don't, they might be destroyed by opposition but the power you would need would probably make you a similar system.
Systems change by facing in the same direction as other people who YOU change. So the theatre of opposition like, S.T.C. or Greenham is one of apparent opposition. People see us as being up against the system, but we're not - we are trying to affect the people that we stand beside - the people who come to gigs and buy records, people who are facing in the same direction. And whether the person who buys the record is a 12 year old punk or a middle-aged civil servant (it does happen!) the change occurs by being beside and facing in the same direction.
But in saying these things you are very lucky people, you are in a relatively comfortable position where you can look to the future without the loneliness, hardship or depression that faces many others.
P.R: I think that we are lucky in that we don't need some of the things that create bondage and hunger, in the sense that we don't have a standard of life to maintain. Where we live is where we work, we've put years of work into maintaining it as such. But if we were told to leave tomorrow, then we would do so actively and creatively as individuals.
Not so much luck - it's down to hard work. Ultimately I would be happy in a shed in a field or in one room of a squat. It doesn't really matter, it's what I carry in my head that's important to me - the actual physical furniture I can find later.
Invariably one does have to go out and do some shitty job. If one sees it as a shitty job then one does it resentfully and badly, but if you can see it as a method towards something then it becomes an exciting and creative thing to do. If in three months' work you can get a printing press, then that's a fucking bargain.
It's an awful thing to think that whatever you doing is the fate for the rest of your life - I only ever thought this once. When I first left school I worked for a year and a half in a fucking awful job. I got into a real screwball 'cause I thought I'd be doing it forever THAT is the big trap and in a lot of cases it is what people do for the rest of their lives.
G: There is no reason why anyone can't turn their hand or their whole living situation.
P.R: That's the whole bullshit of people like the Band Aid record. There are all these fucking near millionaires taking peanuts of their pockets. I mean if they actually meant it and really did mean to help the situation, it wouldn't happen. If it wasn't for people like Boy George and all the rest of the hip capitalists in the world it would not exist. Boy George is just a drag stockbroker, that's what it boils down to. Yet apparently these people care .
The big social pantomime is that
these people really mime 'care'. Boy George cares about Ethiopians, he cares
about war 'cause it's 'stupid'!! That's what we are working against, well
not competition, it's what you've got floating about all the time.
G: No, it's not competition. It is like another knock in the teeth, like a coconut shy. Every time you put something up for discussion it gets knocked down by some co-opting idiot who makes it into a facile statement. 'War is stupid' I couldn't believe it!
You know that you have to make another greater effort to get war out of being co-opted by some stupid arsehole in the pop world. Get it back up for discussion again.
So how have you managed to keep at it, it must take a great deal of determination and all that?
P.R: Just graft really, being prepared to graft, that's all, nothing else.
You can only do so much by graft, surely you have to turn to someone to say... distribute your records?
P.R: We do all our own distribution and everything we possibly can ourselves. If we do it we know it will get done properly.
G: I think the advantage we have is that all the people concerned with the band, or helping with the paperwork etc. have known each other a long long time, we have been through a lot and have an understanding and a respect for each other. I think one of the downfalls of a lot of other bands is that they don't really know each other, you can't just start with a guitarist and hope that somebody like-minded is going to come along. It takes years - it's never ending trying to get to know people..........
Well it is here that the written interview ends, though we chatted and argued long after the tape had run its course. So how do you sum up a group of people like CRASS? Perhaps a look at their influence from the ultimate symbol of materialistic exploitation of the young - the music charts:
"It's sinister that we can sell 20,000 records and not appear in the charts, a very effective way of shutting you up. We would expect if we put out an LP for it to sell 20,000 in the first few weeks..."
"...Stations has now sold over 90,000, and when it goes to 100,000 we'll press one in chocolate and present it to each other and then take some photos and send them to the press, because the music press tries to pretend that we don't sell thousands of records. If the charts had been honest then we'd have been in the actual top ten on a number of occasions i.e.; Nagasaki Nightmare, Penis Envy, and Christ The Album..."
Finally a word of humility and hope:
"Some of the statements we have made as CRASS make me shudder at the degree of naivete expressed, but I wouldn't put them down, ever, or say that any of them were wrong."
From the St. Albans-based Mucilage zine - issue 2, 1984.