Close-up of the $375 "punk" jacket.
A few weeks ago, Urban Outfitters, your cool little sister’s favourite clothing store, started selling a “vintage men’s punk leather jacket” for $375. The jacket had a bunch of crappy hand-painted logos of some of the most notable punk bands of the 70s: the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Crass. That the company already peddles Joy Division and Sex Pistols shirts to angsty teens of all ages is a given, and the commodification of punk rock has been going on basically since the invention of the phrase punk rock. But selling a jacket featuring the name of the most famous anarcho-punk band of all time at a price no upstanding anticapitalist could afford seemed, at least, a little problematic. (The jacket was the only one of its kind, and someone bought it.)
Hoping for an angry tirade, I called up Penny Rimbaud, one of the founding members of Crass, at his home in England. Instead he took the opportunity to tell me how much he dislikes the current crop of DIY punks.
VICE: Did you already know about this jacket before I told you about it?
Penny Rimbaud: I hadn’t actually seen the jacket in question, but yeah, I’d heard about it. I personally don’t have any troubles with it. I mean it amused me that Crass is sort of the main feature on it and the Sex Pistols and the Clash dropped down to the bottom. But they haven’t actually used the symbol so it’s not really an unacceptable use; it’s more of a naff artwork than an attempt to sell a Crass jacket.
As far as I’m concerned, if the wealthy want to spend $400 on a rather naff leather jacket and go to book launches and gallery shows and all the things that those literati and glitterati do, then that’s great because it means that we’re getting the name floated around in areas where it’s very difficult for us to penetrate. I actually quite like it when people like Angelina Jolie and David Beckham wear Crass T-shirts.
Do you think Crass fans might be pissed off, at least?
I know that a lot of the DIY punks and the anarcho punks are going, “Oh, bloody rip-off!” Well, they’re not being ripped off. The anarcho punks have been ripping us off since the beginning of time, doing rather pale reproductions of both our music and our art. So as far as I’m concerned they’re just in for what they can get, and that’s laissez-faire [economics] at its most extreme.
I’m quite sure some people who follow us will be pissed off. But they’re not looking at the bigger picture. The sort of people who will be pissed off are the sort of people that are very happy to be working on a very small, almost ghetto existence within a particular genre of thought, a particular genre of action, a particular genre of behaviour and particularly a predictable set of political ideas. Well, the world’s changed a lot in 30 years and I think we’ve got to get hip to that. I want to get out into a bigger outreach because that’s what I’m here for. My business is information and getting it out there. My job is to look for the best outlets, the best opportunities to promote ideas.
Which, I gather, the DIY anarcho-punk scene no longer is?
Part of the DIY ethic has gone right up its own ass because it can’t look beyond doing it yourself. And very often doing it yourself means not doing it as well as other people can do it. My increasing experience is that the so-called commercial outlets will get the job done quicker, better, very often in a much more friendly way. An awful lot of the DIY outlets are endlessly bantering about all sorts of ethical nonsense, which, in any case, they’re stuck with because they don’t have the alternative; they don’t have the opportunity. And I’d put my bottom dollar on the fact they’d take the opportunity if given it to expand.
Obviously I’m not about to say, yeah, why doesn’t some top fashion house do a complete Crass outfit. Bollocks, if that happens I’ll deal with that one in my own way. What people do with their money is of no concern to me; what I’m interested in is what people do with their ideas. They won’t continue in the sort of grubby backstreets of anarcho-punk ghettos. They’ll be perpetuated, but the sort of grayness of that will be perpetuated with it. We were regarded as very colourful in the day, not some sort of grubby, black-and-white backstreet operation. We were going for it, and we’re still going for it in whatever way we possibly can. In a funny way, that’s more akin to some fashion house putting out a Crass leather jacket than it is to someone doing yet another sort of rather bad imitation of Crass’s music, which was relevant 30 years ago and is pretty irrelevant now.
This is not the angry tirade I was expecting from you. Especially because of the financial and political associations that Urban Outfitters has.
Right, well, what do I care? Money’s filth anyway. If I’m really going to go down the line, there’s no such thing as clean money. But I’m certainly not saying that I’m happy that whoever runs that company might be financing right-wing activities.
I’m interested in promoting ideas, and so anything that helps or encourages people to [find those ideas] – especially now in the days of the internet where people can just google Crass and get bucketloads of stuff – has a value because that’s what we were in it for. We were a band and an information network; well, the information network still exists, the band doesn’t, it’s had its day. I certainly think that the information we were able to put out, both political and personal, is very valuable and anything that encourages people to take a look gets my vote, basically.
What do you think is the modern day equivalent to the anarcho-punk movement that you and Crass were a part of in the late 1970s and early 80s?
Well I think the modern-day equivalent is probably black rap. Somehow the gold teeth and the “fuck you honky” are closer to punk than anything else in the music world. I find that stuff terrifying, but then people found punk terrifying. Those dudes are certainly saying it how it is.
Can I ask what you listen to these days?
Well the same stuff I’ve listened to all my life, really. A mix of modern jazz and modern classical. I have a preference for 20th century classical, and mostly choral music. I really love Benjamin Britten. Since I was a kid, one of my great influences was the “War Requiem,” which I think is probably the greatest cry against war ever written and that ever will be written. I also happen to really love Beethoven’s quartets. There’s something very life-affirming in that sort of music. It just makes one realize that actually there’s not too much to bother about and life is really worth living. It’s all pretty superficial when it boils down to it.
More punk stuff: