Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Crass - The Feeding of the 5000 (1978)

What with all that's happened since - all those periodic reassessments and David Beckham snapped wearing the t-shirt - it's easy to lose sight of just how extreme Crass seemed at the time. I was at school, and had acclimatised to, even embraced the punk rock maxim that all forms of authority were essentially bollocks and not to be trusted. It was quite unsettling to have this band come along and point out that all that spikey topped outrage in which we were now so heavily invested was just more of the same and that the Clash were about as revolutionary as The Black and White Minstrel Show. Youthful rebellion being what it was, the appeal of going harder, further, and more committed than anyone else was obvious, and so one version of the story has Crass seemingly ushering in a new age of frowning revolutionary puritanism wherein anyone not living on a self-sustained vegan commune was a fucking sell-out and essentially the same as Thatcher. This seemed to be the line taken by the band's most vocal critics. Special Duties clocked up about three seconds of fame with their novelty single Bullshit Crass, the central hypothesis of which was that:

Crass were first to say punk is dead,
Now they're rightly labelled as being red.
Commune hippies - that's what they are.
They've got no money Ha! Ha! Ha!

Similarly, Garry Bushell writing in Sounds thoughtfully opined that Crass were toffs and not kids from the street and that their posh music was therefore toff music for toffs rather than for the kids on the street, kids like Special Duties and the Cockney Rejects and that Nazi skinhead on the front of the Oi! album, although no-one knew he was a Nazi at the time, obviously. Bushell's thesis unfortunately seemed to be based on the premise that if it knows a lot of long words then it's posh and not proper working class like the kids on the street, which itself derives from a middle-class view of the working class as stereotypically thick Sun-reading cunts, which is about what you'd expect from a self-flagellating grammar school posho.

Personally I think the thing was that Crass just made everybody feel a bit uncomfortable, like we'd all been discovered with a Queen album naughtily concealed between Never Mind the Bollocks and Fulham Fallout, thus somehow conceding that our revolution really was just a couple of years of posing in preparation for settling down with a Ford Cortina and a pension plan; which of course misses the point that Crass had only ever been about getting us to ask questions. The idea that Penny Rimbaud might eventually come around to our houses and make us sit an exam was mostly imagination and misplaced guilt, and it all came from the severity of the aesthetic. This lot weren't playing around, and they weren't in it to hang out with Peter Cook, and if you didn't like that, your choices were either to make a bit more effort or piss off. Thus did Crass unwittingly launch a thousand seemingly humourless bands and fanzines of similarly austere tone - although to be fair, there were plenty of reasons to not be cheerful, and it was still more fun than the sludge of polite indie toss which eventually washed in to fill the void - and it is probably their singularity of vision which has posthumously endeared Crass to the right-wing noise community in recent years, which again is hardly their fault.

That's how you miss out when you assume it's all about you.

Crass were never humourless. It's just that the jokes were unusually pointed and on a scale over and above the odd telly chucked out of a hotel window - Our Wedding and the Thatchergate tapes to name but two of their more amusingly devious zingers; and the whole humourless thing begins to look a bit comical after Alexander Oey's excellent and informative documentary on the band, There is No Authority but Yourself.

Let's also not forget that the music was wonderful in its way, providing you accept that punk was about expanding ideas and breaking out as a principle, rather than reducing everything to three grunting chords and a dog barking in a half empty pub, with all of the fancy words taken out so as to avoid alienating the school bully seeing as he's our mate these days. It's a weird noise, an amphetamine hybrid of jazz drums and military percussion with a guitar like a jar of angry bees, and you can hear everything as clear as on any smoky old Blue Note recording; and no - it doesn't sound like the Sex Pistols because it was never supposed to. The Feeding of the 5000 didn't really sound like anything I'd heard back in 1980 - or whenever it was I borrowed it from my friend Crispin at school - and it was harsh but absolutely clear in what it was trying to say, and ten minutes of television viewed at random was enough to inspire the realisation that Crass were at least on my side, even if they seemed a bit scary; and God, right now I wish there were a few more with equivalent vision and an ability to express it so well.