There is renewed interest around Crass lately. Their record label, Southern, has reissued their albums as CDs; one of the original members, Steve Ignorant, just completed a (limited) world tour, The Last Supper; and New York has hosted two different exhibits about the graphics and design used by Crass and its influence on other underground publications.
To say that Crass is influential is an understatement. You won’t find them in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, but their influence on political movements, graphic design and visual art, music, and the DIY and eco movements is ongoing.
I first discovered Crass in the late 1980s, as a rebellious high schooler living in the Deep South of the United States. I’m sure I bought their albums as a way to prick at my mother, and it worked. I know that I also bought the albums because of the amazing cover art by Gee Vaucher. The paintings, made up to replicate a collage of news clippings, photo realism, and block letters stenciled into slogans, were immediately attractive to me, in their contrasting black and white complexity.
In their music, art, and movies Crass developed a symbolic language to communicate with their audience. Their goal was to use shock, humor, and a distinctive graphic style. Because their political views were most important, what mattered was the message. Crass became a force during the beginning of Thatcher’s reign in Britain at the end of the 1970s, and the British action in the Falklands gave them plenty to work with. Crass is vehemently anti-war - one of their most recognized slogans is “Fight War Not Wars” - and they promote peace through anarchy.
In the same way, Mick Duffield uses Christ the Movie as a statement. Meant to be played as background while Crass performed, the movie is a mix of short experimental films, mashed together with jarring transitions.
Duffield uses a visual language of images that are cropped and cut off, strobing one over another until the first falls away. Because the main idea of the movie is anti-war, the recurring pictures of fighter jets and guns occur throughout. To further drive the point home, these give way to hanging corpses in a slaughterhouse, cemeteries in front of highrises, and voiceovers of officials giving advice to stay home in the event of a nuclear attack.
The other two important themes of both Crass and the movie are individualism and anti-corporatism. There Is No Authority But Yourself. They are opposed to the material world – the modern world is “a postmodern nightmare that is colorful and pretty but has no depth” – and show this in a series of clips about a woman who decides to redecorate her kitchen just to impress the neighbors. This, mixed in with video of an assembly line, calls out the material desire that is encouraged by modern society and the way people follow along with the status quo.
Crass has been credited with being the grandfathers (and mothers) of the anti-globalisation movement, the same one that spawned the Seattle protests in 1999, and their influence can also be seen in the Wall Street protests of September 2011. Notoriously anti-corporate, it is rumored that Crass would perform using only the available 40 watt light -- no stage lights or sets -- with their banners unfurled behind them. The band turned down record deals, preferring instead to press and market their albums themselves. In addition, when they were still playing gigs, they would keep the profits they needed and then give away the rest to local organizations.
Crass, while pioneering the anarcho punk movement, have strived to offer real world solutions. Several members of Crass still live in the Dial House, outside London, and have created it to be an example of “permaculture”, which is a philosophy of completely eco friendly and sustainable living.
Now, twenty years after I first discovered Crass, I am listening to them again, and remembering why I loved them in the first place. The quick wit of the lyrics, the collage cover art, and the way the album art folds out into provocative posters were all things that I responded to. By the way, if you have any of their vinyl, make sure to look for the messages that are etched just outside the center label. I have considered ordering the newly remastered CDs, but somehow it seems sacrilege to listen to Crass on anything except scratchy vinyl.
Berger, George. The Story of Crass. Omnibus Press, 2008.
Capper, Andy. “Anarchy and Peace, Litigated.” Vice Magazine. www.vice.com.
There Is No Authority But Yourself . Documentary available on www.video.google.com
Music available from: www.southern.net