After punk came along and ripped up the rule book, it’s amazing how quickly certain factions of the genre set to work writing new ones, as scenes and sub-scenes staked their claims to what the term really meant and enforced it accordingly. This was particularly prevalent in the UK, a land with a long tradition of drawing strict social borders between classes, clans and political affiliations, and, ironically, the radical leftist anarcho-punks became one of the most conventional and inflexible of England’s insular tribes in the early 1980s. There was plenty of reason to be politically engaged under Margaret Thatcher’s bleak conservatism, but the anarchist bands of the era sometimes seemed as rigid as their opposition, dressing in quasi-military fashions, shouting slogans and never cracking a smile. Think of Rick from the riotous BBC comedy The Young Ones, well-intentioned and passionate, but prone to obnoxious sermonizing, contrarianism, and an ever present air of self-importance. Fortunately though, England also has a history of colorful non-conformists, and London group Rubella Ballet were about as colorful as they come, asking the same questions as their peers but covering them in a coat of Day-Glo paint and fostering an attitude of inclusion instead of confrontation.
Appropriate for a bunch of anarchists, Rubella Ballet’s story is sort of chaotic. The core of the group literally (or so the story goes) met onstage in 1979, when their ideological forebears Crass finished a show and invited audience member to come up and play their instruments. There was guitarist Pete Fender and bassist Gem Stone, the adolescent children of Poison Girls singer Vi Subversa, drummer Sid Ation, who stood six-foot-nine without the spiky hair and was an accomplished chef, and vocalist Zillah Minx, and while Ation, who shared a flat with Subversa, had previously jammed casually with the young brother and sister, 12 and 14 respectively, Minx proved the catalyst that sparked a more serious collaboration. Though by far the youngest, Fender and Stone were probably the most accomplished, having formed the core of Fatal Microbes, who’s single “Violence Grows” became a favorite of massively influential Radio 1 DJ John Peel, but even given that prior brush with national success, Rubella Ballet (changed early on from the more literally provocative Rubella Babies) took off quickly, thanks in large part to their handy familial and political ties to Poison Girls and Crass, whom they opened up for on numerous occasions.
From the get go the band seemed to subscribe to the philosophy that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and approached anarchist and anti-capitalist themes with a thought-provoking open-endedness and a feel for rhythm that’s aimed as much at moving the body as the heart or mind, resembling what Bow Wow Wow could have been if Malcolm McLaren had let his pseudo revolutionary playthings think for themselves. Visually, the distinction from Crass’ brand of stark propaganda was made even more abundantly clear by the vivid neon colors splashed across their clothes, album covers and videos, but eventually they sought to distance themselves from their onetime mentors even further, sometimes making disparaging statements about them in the press. “If Crass weren't anarchists they wouldn't have a following because, let’s face it, their music is pretty bad,” Fender told writer Mick Sinclair in 1982, who during the same interview observed their “almost-paranoiac wariness” of being affiliated with the band. In keeping with the loose, collective circumstances of their formation, there were frequent lineup changes, which found the band collaborating with a slew of musicians on a string of fondly-remembered album throughout the decade before calling it quits in 1990.
Part of the reason for the split was the changing tastes of UK, which changed the revolutionary music of the masses from punk to acid house and rave, but instead of fighting against the times, the members of Rubella Ballet embraced the new era, even working with radical sound system Spiral Tribe on a techno act called Xenophobia. Like so many of their post-punk peers, they’ve since been coaxed out of retirement by the movement’s new millennium revival, playing shows at festivals and reissuing hard to find old material, notably with the rarities compilation Anarchy in the U.V. There’ve been continued promises of new recordings to come, but so far none has materialized, which isn’t to say the members haven’t been busy, particularly Minx, who completed a feature length documentary on the experiences of female punk pioneers and routinely performs at benefits for a variety of worthy causes. They’ve remained staunchly independent outsiders though, which may be why, in addition to not fitting in with their anarcho-punk comrades, they never achieved the commercial success of a Bow Wow Wow and were never canonized like the Slits or Gang of Four. Alas, loyally following your own muse sometimes means going underappreciated.