Anarchy And Peace, Litigated
If you pick up some crap book about the history of punk rock, chances are there will be about 90 pages dedicated to Joe Strummer’s jackets but only two sentences about Crass.
ARCHIVAL PHOTOS COURTESY OF GEE VAUCHER AND PENNY RIMBAUD
CAPTIONS WITH ASSISTANCE FROM GEE VAUCHER
Pete Wright, Phil Free, and Joy De Vivre enjoy the sun at an outdoor antiwar protest, circa 1980.
If you pick up some crap book about the history of punk rock, chances are there will be about 90 pages dedicated to Joe Strummer’s jackets but only two sentences about Crass. This is despite them selling millions of records, singlehandedly creating the DIY punk blueprint, and maintaining their hard-line libertarian and anarchy principles even as they reach their mid-60s today.
A lot of you reading this will be aware of their logo and the fact that they were a punk band, but not a lot of people know their actual story. Because it’s so inspirational and so “anti-music” (in the sense that it was a total revolt against the established music industry of the time) we feel that everybody with even a passing interest in punk rock should hear it.
And so we interviewed founding members Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant for a brief history of the group and to procure their ideas surrounding this issue’s theme. During the talks between myself and Penny that preceded this interview I discovered that the unthinkable has happened and that Crass, the most anti-authoritarian, anarchy-endorsing free spirits in the history of punk music, are on the verge of going to Crown Court to ask lawyers and judges to intervene in a huge row over some remastered CDs.
Despite our efforts to include all sides of the story here, a couple of former members of Crass declined to participate.
We asked Pete Wright to comment on the issues surrounding the rereleases, but all he would say to us was: “It’s best if we kept it in the band at present.” Joy De Vivre told us, “While meetings are ongoing, I’m not interested in discussing the reissues with anyone but those involved. Thinking space needed.”
Our respect goes to all members of Crass. But for now, let’s get this story told.
First, some history…
Vice: Crass—and EXIT, your first group—weren’t traditional bands. It was kind of anti-rock-’n’-roll, and anti-music.
Penny Rimbaud: EXIT was profoundly so. That’s why I think it’s a good place to start. Gee [Vaucher, band member who was responsible for the aesthetics of Crass] and a friend called John Loder were involved and it was entirely anti-music, based around a lot of what was happening in America with free jazz and in Europe with the avant-garde, in the sense that it was anti-form. Up until that time you could say that music had a certain form, in the same way that up until cubism art had a certain sort of representational form. Obviously, there were people outside of that, but...
But not many.
EXIT set out as a guerrilla operation. We used to just turn up at places and play without an invitation. There was certainly no ambition and there was certainly no wish to engage in the commercial world of music. I mean, it’s a bit like that emotion I feel when I say: “What are you?” to someone, and they say: “I’m a professional writer.”
Now by saying that, they’ve just precluded the possibility that they’re a writer. It’s a self-contradiction. You can be a writer or you can be a professional. If you’re a professional all you’re up to is making money, it doesn’t matter how you do it. It’s not entirely negative, but in my view you might as well work at a bank, and you’d get better money than writing articles for The Guardian. That was our attitude to music. Obviously we weren’t paid because often we weren’t invited. That extended into happenings and art performances, so there was no line between us as a band and as a theater group, or as a circus, or as just a group of antisocial people sitting around doing nothing. And we did that quite actively for about three or four years and inevitably got involved with people who took it seriously in the sense that they were trying to make something of it; notably Harvey Matusow and the ICES Festival of ’72, which was at the Roundhouse. That brought to Britain the biggest collection of known avant-garde artists ever. I don’t think there’s ever been a festival like it. There were people like John Cage and Charlotte Moorman, and John and Yoko were meant to come but didn’t. Which again is a contradiction, because how can you have big names in the avant-garde? Anyway, after the Roundhouse gig we became thoroughly disillusioned, because it seemed like it was part of a ladder and we found the whole scene quite competitive. We were all, I thought, artists working together toward some common cause, or liberation of mind, liberation of spirit, liberation from the whole world of control through commerce. There’s nothing worse than control by commerce. People are so governed by it. In a way, political ideologies are something you can sort of sneak around. You can deal with that. But you can’t deal with commerce short of completely turning your back on it. So anyway, that’s how EXIT operated, and it must have been around 1973 when we disbanded, with the Roundhouse experience being one of the major reasons. I didn’t really talk to John Loder again until 1977.
What did you do in that period?
I was at Dial House [the Epping farmhouse where Penny and Gee have lived since the 60s and where Crass all lived together during their time as a band]. Gee had left to go to New York to work on art, and I worked on investigating a case where I believed a dear friend of mine, a person who was involved in the Stonehenge Festival, was essentially killed by the authorities. I was on my own, and I was fucking shit-scared. I started a big drinking spell, and I was writing angry, cathartic material. It was then that Steve Ignorant turned up on my doorstep. He’d been down in Bristol, he’d seen the Clash do some gig, and he wanted to make a band. He knew I’d got a drum kit. He was the brother of someone of the hippie era. He was very young. So we started a band that was just the two of us.
Steve Ignorant: I met Penny after my brother had bummed a bed for a night at Dial House and ended up staying two weeks. He took me over there to visit one day. That was in 1972 or ’73. So I had known Pen for a long, long time, but it wasn’t until ’77 when I came back from working in Bristol that I started living with Pen and we got the band going.
This is the blue Sherpa van Crass would tour in. The gigs were all fund-raisers, and anything they could scrounge went back to fixing the van, buying food for the audience, and fixing the van again.
What made you two friends?
I think what attracted me not only to Pen but to the actual place was that for the first time ever I was spoken to like an adult. My opinion, no matter how naive it was, was always taken on board. Penny and his older friends were always talking in words with 20 syllables, but they talked to me like an equal. I was always really into writing, since school, and when I got there I started writing properly—not poetry, but prose. And they always really encouraged that. Whatever I did, they said: “Go for it.” Penny wasn’t your typical hippie. There were no headbands or John Lennon glasses or afghans. He had long hair, but I wouldn’t have called them hippies. They were more like dropouts. Well, not even dropouts—just very clever, healthy, good-looking people.
How did you hear about Dial House?
I think it was probably a network from Pen and Gee’s art college days, by word of mouth. The thing that always amazed me about it was that there weren’t drugged or drunken people in the corners—that never happened. It was a very well-structured, well-run place. You didn’t feel that you were there to muck around, so you respected it.
How long was it until you started making music?
That would have been around 1973, about three or four years.
What influenced you?
Well, I had been to see the Clash at Bristol, and I decided then and there that I would pack in my job, which I did.
What was your job at the time?
I was putting plaster of Paris on broken arms and legs at Bristol Royal Infirmary. I jacked that in and went back to Dagenham, where I come from. I thought vaguely that I would get some of my West Ham football mates to pick up guitars, but in the time I had been away they had all got steady jobs, got married, and weren’t into punk. And I was at a loss, so I decided to visit the people at Dial House. Pen was living on his own there and was typing out Reality Asylum—not the song, but the booklet. I said I was thinking of starting a band, and he said that he’d play drums. I think at that time he was gigging with a band that sounded like tin cans falling downstairs. We just hit it off from there.
What was the first lineup? Was it just you and Steve?
Penny Rimbaud: No, we sort of got everyone in the band that’s known as the band, except it was a different lead guitarist: a guy called Steve Herman rather than Phil Free, who joined about six months in or something, because Herman went off to Nicaragua. He eventually died there in 1992 or something or other.
Steve Ignorant: Steve Herman looked nothing like a punk at all. He was a bald, middle-aged hippie, but it was punk so anything went. Then Andy Palmer turned up and he didn’t have a guitar and couldn’t play anything, but he nicked one and came over, so he was in. Then Pete Wright showed up and said that he was fed up of playing in the folky band he was in. I think it was called Friends of Wensleydale or something like that. I’m not sure what they were singing about, probably trolls and Tolkien, things like that.
And so the final lineup was you two, Pete Wright, Gee, Andy Palmer, Phil Free, Joy De Vivre, and Eve Libertine.
Penny Rimbaud: Correct. I got in touch with John Loder and said, “How about us doing a demo?” and he said, “Well, I’ll get an eight-track,” and he did, so that’s how we started. He was able to get the eight-track partly because when we were EXIT we’d bought quite a lot of really good gear. We used to use massive speakers, like when we did the Roundhouse gig. I think there was probably something in the region of a dozen or sixteen cube speakers. So we’d actually had quite a lot of gear for EXIT, which John inherited basically because no one cared a fuck where anything was. But I was actually a bit miffed, because he’d sold the fucking lot and bought two bloody great Tannoy speakers with the money. It’s something I never did anything about, but it pissed me off because we’d lost all our fucking equipment so that John could set up his studio. But I mean that was how it was in those days, we weren’t using it, so he did. So he got an eight-track, we did the demo, and I think we paid him by Gee giving him a picture, which was quite a common way of trading. Then a label called Small Wonder got interested, so we did our first recording with them and they paid John. So then that was the first proper recording he’d done on an eight-track. It was still just John in his garage, basically.
And that record was The Feeding of the 5,000, which was meant to include a song on it called “Reality Asylum.” That caused some trouble, right?
Yes. It was deemed blasphemous by the director of public prosecutions, so we were being investigated on that. We had Scotland Yard come round the house.
Gee Vaucher, Joy De Vivre, and Eve Libertine at a motorway service café circa 1982.
Yeah, the night that Scotland Yard came to Dial House. How was that?
It was all right, really. They were people who would normally be raiding nasty porn shops in Soho and coming up against some pretty grim characters, I would’ve thought. And so they turned up at the back door here and we offered them tea. Haha. I just don’t think they knew what the fucking hell they were doing here. They don’t know this, but we recorded their visit. We lost the tape, unfortunately, but it was really funny. We left them to it while we waited for our solicitor to turn up to act on our behalf. Anyway, it was great because they were out there and they were going, “Corrrr! ’Ave you seen this book? Look at this! Fackin’ Beethoven and Brahms?” Like, they just could not believe the record collection we had. God knows what they must’ve expected because this place is so beautiful, and they appreciated that, and at the end they did say, “Well, I really don’t understand why we’re here,” and they did actually drop the case with severe warnings that we’d better watch it in the future. It was a piece of criminal blasphemy, so-called, but it didn’t become criminal blasphemy by law.
And didn’t the label refuse to release it?
Yes! No one would fucking press it, and no one would print the cover. So we found a private guy who printed the first covers for us, with the lyrics. And we also found a pressing plant that specialized in classical music to do the vinyl. We also promised the people who bought Feeding on vinyl that we would supply them with tape recordings of the removed track if they sent us a cassette, and every day for a while we spent up in the fucking top room of the house doing copies to send to people. I don’t know how many we did, but it was an awful lot of work. And then we thought, “This is fucking stupid, let’s do it as a single ourselves and see what happens.”
And that was the birth of the DIY punk ethic that people still talk about all the time today. You created an iconic movement.
Yes, but I have to say, Steve and myself were just mucking about, really. We had no ambition or interest or desire to become a band. And certainly no ambitions to become a known band. We just wanted to have some fun, and that really was what we were doing. I mean, the fact that our lyrics might have been sort of political or aggressive was simply because both of us were a bit political and aggressive, and nothing more than that. And when people joined up with the group, they would have been fully aware that there was no ambition to make this into anything. There was no interest whatsoever in any kind of engagement with musical convention.
What didn’t you like about musical convention? I imagine the business side of it wouldn’t really appeal to an avowed anarchist.
Not really the business of it, more the sort of artistic control. That’s much more important. I mean, the business side of it can look after itself. What’s more the problem is the form of self-imposed censorship that commerce inevitably brings into any enterprise. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never ever accepted any kind of commission. People have asked me to write things, and I’ve said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but at the end of it you can give me the money if you like it, but I’m not fucking writing it with your bloody checkbook at the bottom of it.” So it was more that than a refusal to engage in conventional business, because there’s no such thing as unconventional business. All money requires banks, all banks require arms dealers, and all arms dealers require war. You can’t get out of that circle.
There was also the point that the music press, who are very much controlled by advertising, i.e., commerce, and by the whole music business’s interests, were very interested indeed in the band when we first started becoming public and very interested indeed in Feeding when it first came out. When they realized we weren’t actually prepared to compromise, we weren’t actually prepared to buy into their requirements—in other words, to fit their package—they very quickly dumped us. Well, not only dumped us but became quite vicious toward us, which is what our history of bad press was and remains. I mean, buy a book about punk and you’ll have a very hard job finding us in there.
Didn’t EMI try to sign you guys for loads of money?
Steve Ignorant: Yeah, a guy called Tony Gordon. He was the manager of Boy George. I think the Cockney Rejects got involved with him too, and they got a really bad deal out of it. It was a load of rubbish, really, some idiot sitting behind a big desk with a cigar. It was so naff you wouldn’t believe it, like something straight off the TV. I can admit my little Dagenham urchin ears pricked up for about 30 seconds, but then I thought, “No, I don’t want to do that.”
Steve Ignorant in a contemplative mood at Dial House.
And so you self-released Stations of the Crass on Crass Records.
Penny Rimbaud: We talked to John Loder and said, “This is all a gamble, we don’t know how or what might happen, but do you want to be the ninth member of the band?” Which he did. We also borrowed something like £12,000 off another band called the Poison Girls. I think they’d just sold their old house or something like that. Anyway, they loaned us that, and we actually made it back in a week, so we paid them back, and then we started making lots and lots and lots of money. We’d priced the album still at half the price of any other album, and it was a double album, to cover the costs of 5,000 copies, which we knew we would sell, or we felt we would sell because of the sales of Feeding. Anyway, it sold 20,000 in the first two weeks or something like that. Huge amount. So we suddenly had all this money.
How much did you sell the record for?
I think it was three quid, probably, which was for a double album. I think what we did was consistently half the price of every other band’s records. But that was easy because our lifestyle was half the cost of other bands’. I remember some of the other bands would say, “Well, it’s all right for you, you’re not paying big rent, you live together so your food bills aren’t very much,” and that’s sort of true. We were taking advantage of the fact that we were living for next to nothing and we hadn’t got expensive drug or alcohol problems. So we were passing that advantage onto the purchaser. It was at least a generous or honest act on our behalf. And so it grew. Crass Records became a sort of formal thing with John as our recording engineer and managing the whole financial side of things for us because none of us were capable of doing that or interested in doing that. He also remained the ninth member of the band until about 1989, or five years after the band folded. I think I’m right in saying that his first expansion out of Crass Records was when I realized he wasn’t really getting a fair deal for someone who was doing the amount of work he was doing. It’s a fucking big job, not the engineering side of it, that alone was a hard job, but actually trying to financially manage a bunch of people who were willing to throw fucking thousands of quid all over the place for a laugh was difficult.
Where did you throw it?
A lot of it went into things like the CND or Greenpeace, which now have become regarded as sort of respectable organizations but in those days were struggling to exist. So really there were thousands and thousands that went that way. And the other thing was the expansion of the label. Like: “OK, so we’ve made bins of money, what do we do with it? We tell the band from down the road they can come in and do a single,” which we did do with great grace and great honesty. But anyway, I realized that John really wasn’t getting a fair deal out of it, so I suggested to John, “How about we set up another label called Corpus Christi and I’ll help you manage it in the sense that I’ll go on doing the sort of A&R side of stuff, like if I hear of a band or if you hear of one you tell me?” I think that it was in 1984 or around that time that he formalized it into being Southern Records. In other words, he created an umbrella.
But it wasn’t until ’89 that he came to me and said, “How about us effectively collapsing Crass Records as a company and incorporating it into Southern, under the umbrella, so that you get all the benefits of Southern?” From that point on he started working from a percentage—an incredibly low one, it has to be said. If Southern were getting 12 or 15 percent, I think that was about all they were taking.
What was the motivation to set such low percentages?
I think it was mutual respect. He knew I didn’t make anything from it, and I think he would have felt that it was probably reasonable if... I mean, he was also making money on the studio side and on the distribution side and on the manufacturing side. John was controlling everything at that point.
Sound check at unknown venue, circa 1980. From left to right: Andy Palmer, Steve Ignorant, Pete Wright, sound engineer known only as “Dave,” Penny Rimbaud, and Vi Subversa.
What was the reason the band folded?
We always all had the idea that ’84 was the mythical, Orwellian thing. And I think it largely folded because I was becoming interested in something broader than punk. Our interests were going out, and really it was after we’d done that last gig in Aberdare which was so disillusioning and so sad, which was the fucking result of Thatcher’s vicious Britain. And I think all of us felt that jumping up and down on a stage saying “No more war!” was a joke in light of the poverty and desperation we saw that night.
It was a benefit gig for the sacked miners in Aberdare. We went down in the van as we usually did, loaded with bins of food because people were literally starving in those villages. It was inevitably raining, which it always does in those valleys, and it was just so sad, the sense of destruction and the sense of despair. There were lots of men who didn’t know what they were doing anymore. Lots of men who just didn’t know what had happened. It was horrible. And the gig was great and everyone enjoyed it, but it was still just so sad. It was the next morning that Andy came through and said, “I’m leaving the band, Pen,” and I didn’t react because I thought,“Fine, I completely understand.” So he sort of initiated what I think would’ve inevitably happened anyway. It was 1984 and we had said we were going to end then, which is what the countdown was all about in our catalog numbers. We’d said everything that was to be said in that context, fucking hell. The fact that it’s still just as pertinent today is indication that nothing’s changed. You can’t say more than what we’ve said, really, except possibly offering a few answers. But you know, I’m still looking for them. And they’re certainly not ones that will be found in the context of punk rock. I think within the context of punk rock we did everything we possibly could.
Steve Ignorant: We’d been doing it since 1977. It had been all those years, nonstop. We lived at Dial House, the doors were always open, and who we were onstage wasn’t any different from who we were in life. It wasn’t like we could come off tour and have a week’s holiday. We were doing it all ourselves and running the other label, Corpus Christi. Pen was always in the studio; I was doing vocals with Conflict or something like that and writing songs for other people. And it wasn’t like a nine-to-five job. It went on and on forever. When Margaret Thatcher came in, it all went up a notch. It was endless. Looking at horrible images, living in a horrible time, dealing with things like the Falklands War, the miners’ strikes, unemployment. It was a horrible time. There was violence at gigs; I was wearing black clothes all the time. I got fed up. If I went out for a drink there was an unspoken responsibility I always felt that if I went and got drunk I couldn’t show it. If I fell over in the gutter it wasn’t just me falling over in the gutter, it was Crass. So there was this responsibility to not fuck it up.
A lot of “punk” was being proud of falling in the gutter. People would pretend to do it even if they weren’t drunk. What made Crass different?
Well, we thought that the message was important enough to make people come and listen and buy the records. We couldn’t shit all over that by being idiots in the pub afterward.
So it was anti everything that rock ’n’ roll stood for.
Yeah. I never got all that. I have been around people who should know better. I mean, throwing a TV out the window, nothing new. I have seen people throw food around, and that really annoys me. I mean, someone has taken the time to cook the stuff. I have seen people onstage giving it all large about “nonviolence,” and the next minute they are in the street fighting with someone who comes from Manchester because they are from down south. Complete and utter bullshit. I have never been into that rock ’n’ roll image. Yeah, you get a bit of adulation; fair enough, I can deal with that. But the limousines and paparazzi and all that? You can stick it! Stick it as far as it can go. Bullshit! I have seen musicians who have so many people around them telling them they are great that in the end the idiots actually think they are and that they can tell people what to do.
Did that ever happen to anyone in Crass?
No. But it happened to a couple of close friends of mine. So, in that sense, for us it was never about being a part of a rock ’n’ roll band, though sometimes I did want some of the things associated with it. I wanted the blonde girls and the free drinks, which I never got. The only people I spoke to at gigs were spotty blokes in anoraks asking me about anarchy.
Haha. But that’s what you signed up for. Do you regret that?
I suppose sometimes it’s a little thing, I don’t know. It would have been fun for it to happen now and again. Regret it? Not really, we did what we did. As you said, that’s what I signed up for. It was a commitment; and my own fault, really.
Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant mid-set, 1980.
And now you’ve decided to perform Crass songs again live, right?
Well, some people asked me to think about playing at a punk weekender so I did, and I thought, “Well, Conflict are playing and the usual lot, you know, UK Subs and the like.” I thought, “I know what I can do; Feeding lasts for 30 minutes or so. I will get a band together and just do that. Not announce it, just do it from start to finish and then walk off and blow everyone else off the stage.” I explained the idea to the guy who wanted me to play the punk festival, and he said he would call me back. When he did, he said he’d scrapped the idea of the two-day punk festival and that I was now headlining Shepherd’s Bush Empire for two nights. And I was like, “All right then.” Once I had agreed, the fear crept in and I got slated and slagged and Christ knows what…
What did Penny say?
He had a pop at me. I told him I was going to do it and he said he didn’t want me to use any of the material, but by that time it was too late to pull out. I asked why not and he said it was because it was a commercial venue which, from Penny Rimbaud who has been performing at the Vortex Jazz Club in Stoke Newington that costs £10 to get into, £12 for a bottle of wine, £4 for a bottle of beer… I mean, which one is the commercial venue? The one I was doing was something like six bands a day for £15-odd for two days. What Penny said really did my confidence in. But I just thought: “Bollocks to it, I’m gonna do it anyway, and if it ends up in court he’ll look like a twat.” About two weeks before the gig Pen called me and said, “Actually, you have my blessing.” It was a huge relief. He didn’t come to the gig, but I understand that. It’s not his scene.
Penny Rimbaud: With Steve’s gigs I was quite cross at first. I thought, “Nah this is ridiculous. I’m not going to let him do my songs.”
What made you change your mind?
It was actually Eve Libertine who said, “You’d let anyone else do it, so why don’t you let Steve?” And that was true. Anyone else could play them but not Steve, and that seemed really unfair. So I rang him up and said, “Look, I’m really sorry, Steve. Do what you like, but I can’t support it, and if I am asked I’m going to be critical. Good luck with it. Have fun.” He was really gracious about that, and that’s how it always has been with Steve, in all fairness. He thinks I’m mad and thinks the stuff I do is completely off-the-wall, totally incomprehensible, and I think his stuff is a bit puerile and fun-loving, but great. I also blame myself. I was a 35-year-old man when a 17-year-old boy turned up and wanted to form a band, and the band that he and I formed together denied him everything he should’ve had. He should’ve been fucking the groupies, snorting coke, and having a laugh. He never had a laugh; he never had a fucking adolescence. It was denied him by our hard line. I realize that now, I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought we were having fun, but Jesus what fun it was. I mean, I suppose I could get more fun out of it because my fun has always been more cerebral and intellectual, so for me some of the conflict that we created with the state and that sort of stuff was fun. But Steve wanted to be having proper fun, and I can completely understand that now. And also I can’t actually believe that he is so underappreciated. I think the guy was brilliant, among the best of the punk voices.
Well, I’m glad you two are good now. Let’s go back to Crass ending and what happened then…
After Crass ended we left it to John, in 1984. We did spend quite a bit of time over the next few years putting stuff into new formats, remastering stuff in new formats. Initially cassettes were the first new format we moved into, and then into CDs.
What did you think of that demand to push it to CD?
I couldn’t bear digital sound, having worked in studios for so many years by then. Gee felt the same because obviously you’re bringing 12-inch formats down into four-inch formats. Gee wasn’t able to exercise or display her artistic integrity fully. At that time, what we thought we were doing was just moving one format into another, so there wasn’t a great deal of thought of how you could improve things by doing that in the process. I think both Gee and myself felt we were doing the best we could of a pretty bad job. I was actually fonder of cassettes because they sounded better. However crappy they were, they certainly sounded better than the first CDs did.
As Crass broke up and the records continued to sell, the logo became a commodity, didn’t it? People would bootleg it. How do you feel about that?
I feel that it proves the strength of the design in the first place. For all the pastiches and the other bands trying to do something a little bit the same, no one ever came up with a logo that powerful. Which is why I think Naomi Klein commented on it. We were the first example of logo-ing. We were, you know. It was a phenomenal piece of design. Dave King, who made it, is a fucking genius. It was all the way back when he was at art school with Gee and myself. I mean, he was fucking totally brilliant in that domain. People have lost any idea of what design is, really, particularly in the digital era. It took him months and months to design that. It wasn’t actually designed for Crass, it was designed for the Reality Asylum book. It was the front piece for that. And it represented the death or destruction of the state, the family, and the church. I have been to places all over the world and the logo has popped up somewhere. It’s sort of rather nice. Some people might even bother to inquire into what it means and get involved in what it did mean and what it might still mean. That’s fine. The commoditization I don’t like and never have liked is when those big New York fashion houses rip off a load of Gee’s artwork and make a collage with it and sell dresses off it. I didn’t actually mind when Wal-Mart bootlegged it. I’d rather people buy Crass t-shirts in Wal-Mart than Coca-Cola ones because I’d prefer for them to be going around with something that means something on them. I’m ambivalent about it. Wal-Mart I haven’t got any time for, but on the other hand, you know, great! Get it out there!
There were Crass shirts in Wal-Mart?
I think there were, yeah. It was the same as the Crass t-shirt on David Beckham’s chest. I don’t suppose he knew what it meant either but great, good. That doesn’t actually upset me at all. Like… it would upset me deeply if Mick Jagger was to decide to rip off a Crass song because I’ve got no respect for him or for the reasons he might want to do it.
Andy “NA” Palmer and Steve Ignorant on tour in 1981.
And now you’ve remastered all the albums and Gee’s done new artwork and Southern is going to release it, but that’s all caused a bit of a hullabaloo, right?
Yes, well, in the remastering I’ve been doing of the Crass material, I’ve incorporated stuff which is otherwise only available as bootleg. And why is this stuff only available otherwise in bootleg? It’s because we never bothered to do it ourselves. We’re to blame, not the bootleggers. So what we’ve done now is to sort of reclaim that, give really good sound to it, as good as we can, and then put it out so that if people want our version of it they can buy it. The bootlegs will probably still be there.
I discussed the plan to remaster everything with John in the year that he was ill. I was visiting him once a week or so. We talked a lot, obviously, about the future and that. We fantasized about going in to remaster the entire catalog, remaster a lot of my own works like Acts of Love, do new material, but I have to say that most of the time I knew it was a fantasy because it was quite obvious he wasn’t going to survive.
When he died, Southern had a lot of trouble coping with it all and during that time I spent a lot of time worrying about what the fuck was going to happen to our material because with John there’d never been any formalities, nothing had ever been signed, who owned what, what owned who. There was nothing to go by. What I was really worried about was the receivers being called in. I thought, “Well, if Southern goes down, they’re going to go in and all the fucking stuff’s going to get nicked. I want to know what’s ours so we can have it.” I sort of made halfhearted attempts, but really the place was such a fucking mess that I thought, “OK, I’ll back off and let them sort whatever they need to sort out, and then we’ll go from there.” That coincided with trying to stop the house being taken over by a lot of property investors, so I got very embroiled in a big legal battle.
Who has the house now?
You nearly didn’t?
Yeah, you know, several times over. During the era of the band, we could have sat down and said, “Look, we don’t own this house. Why don’t we buy it?” We could easily have done it, but it never even occurred to us. Every time we got any money we were like,“Oh, we’ve got a grand! Let’s go ask those people down the road if they want to put out a fanzine!”
It was the same when we did fucking gigs, actually, which I’m not so pleased about. Like we’d go and do a gig, pick out a place somewhere, hand all the money over to people in need or charities or whatever, and then realize we hadn’t left enough money to buy supper that evening. We were that stupid, seriously. We didn’t look after ourselves. If we had looked after ourselves, the house would’ve been ours and Gee and I wouldn’t be living in what’s close to poverty most of the time. We’d have looked after it, but we didn’t, and that’s because we weren’t interested and we’re still not interested, so I’m not complaining, it’s just that’s a fact.
How was the task of digging out all the old material and remastering it?
I didn’t actually come to sort out what was truly ours until a friend turned up, and then we spent fucking ages going through all of the tapes, documenting them and finding out what was there. It was a huge warehouse full of fucking tapes.
Our last album, which was never popular with anyone but myself, which was Ten Notes on a Summer’s Day, had been digitalized before but it sounded awful. So I took the opportunity to remaster it. That’s when I realized how brilliant the new remastering potential is. It sounded like I had always wanted it to sound. I was actually able to hear bits that I thought had gone forever.
You remastered off the original tapes?
We went back to the pre-mastered tapes and remastered them in digital format.
Gee Vaucher and bovine pal at Dial House farm.
You’ve done it all now, then. You’ve done new artwork and bonus tracks and put all the original artwork in there too.
We digitalized everything we’d ever recorded. The first one I did after Ten Notes was Feeding, and bloody hell, I got excited. I discussed with Southern about just remastering the whole fucking lot, which they were enthusiastic about because they’d heard the results. Then we talked about doing the same with the artwork. The digital packs were crappy, they were plastic, they looked old-fashioned, and they looked grubby. They hadn’t been done with an enormous amount of interest by Gee. She’d done as good a job as she could, but she wasn’t actually that involved because it was such an unprofitable—creatively, that is—thing to be doing. So when there’s a possibility of new digipaks in all cards and booklets, it became very exciting, and Gee started redesigning.
Did you remix any of it?
No, no, to remix the material would have been to completely change it. When you remaster it, you can’t change it. You can only make the sound better or worse, but it’s still exactly what you did. You’re not affecting the material.
What was the thinking of including new artwork and old photos of the band?
Our thinking was firstly that there were a lot of people getting into the band who didn’t know of our background, didn’t know of any history, and didn’t know what was going on socially at the time. So I decided to take on the job of writing an essay for each release. We thought for the first time it’d be good to include photos, because people don’t have a chance to go to our gigs so they don’t know what the fuck we look like, and we’d got some great pics of the band so we included them. Gee adapted some of the original Crass artwork and then added new images where she felt they were appropriate. I somewhat tastelessly wanted to release it as The Crassical Collection and I wanted it to have that feel of classical music because I thought: “We are classical now, we’re not actually just another fucking bunch of kids pissing around with a DIY mimeograph machine, we’re doing this plush, we’re doing this smart.” You have to have a particular arty sense of something or other to want to look at that old Crass stuff. It’s got its charm, but it’s charm only… it’s got no relevance. I want stuff to look slick, I want people to go: “Fucking hell, this is crazily good design.” Gee can do that, and she did, keeping the elements, but adding a thwacking great big new element in the same way. It feels like what she did with the artwork was exactly what I did with the sound. We were able to take something that looked like it was out of a fucking museum and make it sound modern. Something like Yes Sir, I Will sounds like it could’ve been recorded next year, it’s so fierce.
When you played it for me in your study/shed it sounded really brilliant. So, this is all fine and dandy, but the rerelease project has caused a huge shitstorm that could end up in Crown Court, right?
Well, yes. The bassist, Pete Wright, is vehemently opposed to the rereleases and I think he’s also convincing Joy De Vivre and Phil Free to be as well. It’s a nightmare.
Why do you think Pete is so opposed to the rereleases?
When the band broke up and we no longer had that common ground, it increasingly became obvious that there were distinct differences between the various members. That didn’t rest well, and so certain conflicts started developing in the house. Notably I would say between those who didn’t see the folding of the band as a collapse of security, the individuals who were secure in their own being and quite happily got on with whatever it was they might be doing or not doing, whereas another part of the band was worried, like: “Where’s the future now? Our security has suddenly been taken from beneath our feet.” I think that was the root of the conflict, but it became expressed in lifestyle arguments. I created this house as a center for anything anyone wanted to do with it, in a way. It wasn’t for me to define, it wasn’t for me to judge, it wasn’t... I’d found the house, I was quite happy to finance it, and everyone could do what they wanted within certain parameters.
I’ve since been accused of standing back when I should’ve helped a situation. So the objection that Peter’s making, by his own admittance, is that I would not give support to his criticisms, some of which were probably just, but in large number were bloody infantile or impractical.
Well, one infantile one was to not recognize a natural authority. A natural authority is one that produces 65 percent of the material that you’re making a living from. Not for their own ends, but for a genuine belief that there’s a shared purpose here, which is why I wrote all those Crass songs. I don’t take kindly to someone turning around and being critical of that authority when they’re not directly benefiting in the way they want to directly benefit, while at the same time benefiting in all sorts of ways in which they continue to benefit. I don’t think that’s graceful. I think it was infantile to feel that one could change a situation by stamping your foot and being rude. It’s not how to do it. I’m willing to sit and listen if someone is willing to sit and talk, but I’m not willing to be insulted by anyone. I don’t think it’s very graceful of people not to acknowledge that; to live somewhere for seven years, rent free, for fuck all, to use every little iota of space which could’ve been mine in a selfish way, and then to make a big cacophony about it all.
Crass pictured postshow in Glasgow, circa 1980. Note the police officer at the right-hand side of the stage. Many fans had broken chairs at the venue during the show, but when the police turned up there was nothing much to report.
Where does the opposition to the remastered material come from? Is it ideological or aesthetic?
It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the material. That’s been laced into it to give some sort of faux weight. By his own admittance, it’s to do with his feelings of what happened in the period after the band broke down, when we no longer had the Elastoplast adhesive tape of the band to keep us in one piece.
What’s your communication with him?
Initially, there was communication when he objected. I have to say there’s a history of objection with him. He objected to just about every sort of artistic move I’ve made over the last few years, from the big Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, which he attempted to undermine and actually partially did, quite successfully.
How did that happen?
He hired a professional actress to act as a... what are the people that shout at gigs, what do you call them?
He basically hired a heckler in the same way that in Vienna they used to hire hecklers to come and fuck up people’s gigs. And it actually turned into heckle night. He basically gave license for people to heckle throughout the night. It was a deliberate move to undermine the gig.
Did you confront him about it later that night?
I was actually so taken aback by it, I just confronted him by saying, “Great show, very funny.” With the rereleases, his main argument is that he hasn’t wanted anything changed, because if anything’s changed, I think in his words, “we,” i.e., those who are trying to change things up, are opening a Pandora’s box, and he will tell the “truth” of Crass. The truth of Crass that I’ve read of his is revisionist to say the least. There’s no question that during the period that we lived 15 people in the house with 25 cats there was unbelievable accord. Obviously there were occasional rows about something, but they were very, very rare and we managed somehow. We couldn’t have done what we’d done otherwise. However many albums, all of the stuff, it ran like a machine. We did it at the cost of our emotional lives, and we were very good at it.
But when it all ended the emotional baggage wasn’t properly dug out from all the dark holes around the house and dealt with by us. We should have deprogrammed, but we didn’t. We deprogrammed in our own slow way and within that a lot of bitterness formed.
Penny Rimbaud with his hand in the bush, Dial House, 1983.
What’s Pete been doing since he left the house?
He created a band called Judas Two and the name, in a way, says it all.
That you and Gee are Judases?
Well, some of his lyrics are direct, stupid attacks on me; “Fools on the Hill” or something like that. Really rather ineffectual and a little bit infantile.
So are you going ahead with the rereleases or not? You said there were lawyers involved and the court involved. It seems crazy that Crass could be going to the Crown Court, which is essentially asking the Queen to intervene in the band. And this is a band that was never really a huge fan of the Queen, to say the least.
Pete has tried to bring an injunction against us, but because his papers have not been in order, because really as far as I can see, I don’t know law that well, but certainly...
No contracts were ever signed.
There’s no contract, there’s no written anything in the history of Crass and Southern, and there never was between any of the bands that Crass recorded. It was done on trust or it was not done at all. And in fairness to John, I think that was a principle he kept on Corpus Christi.
If Pete wants to play the law, in the real sense of the word, it’s a very foolish line to take. If I were to play the law on a 65 percent ownership of the songs of Crass, I could be sitting with a swimming pool just close to us, rather than a cat bowl, and he would have to work a little bit harder at whatever part-time jobs he does now. That’s the truth of it.
So as of now the nine members get an even split?
Yeah. And nine members have ownership of all of the assets, i.e., all the hardware, like the tapes and all that shit, the ninth member being Southern, representing John Loder’s original stake.
I’d really like to hear Pete’s side of it.
It’d be great if you could, but I don’t suppose you’ll get very far.
And you’re meeting with a lawyer?
And Pete’s going to be there?
Yeah! Happy days!
Crass posters at the Roxy, Covent Garden, London. Crass played two shows here, the second of which resulted in them being banned from the venue, which resulted in the song “Banned From the Roxy,” which appears on The Feeding of the 5,000.
When was the last time you saw Pete?
I think it was the week John was dying. He knew he was going to die and I bumped into Pete at the studio, and I said, “Pete, we really need to talk,” so we went over to a café and sat down, and it was cordial enough. I said, “Look, John’s going to die, we need to sort out our material.” He said, “No we don’t, it’ll be all right.” He just wouldn’t even hear of it.
What do you think the outcome is going to be?
I hope the outcome is that people accept that legally he really hasn’t got a leg to stand on, and he just shuts the fuck up and he continues to accept the royalties, as he’s been happy to do throughout all his criticism.
Surely going to court and bringing in lawyers is going against everything that Crass was set up for?
Pete would argue that that’s what I’m doing, because in its day we had the principle that if one person didn’t like something, we wouldn’t do it. But I think after 30 years of a de facto situation, myself doing everything and no one else doing anything, not even bothering to ring up and see if Allison, who runs Southern Records, was all right after John died… I think things like that meant we’d been given de facto rights to do what the fuck we wanted after that length of time. And both of us, Gee and I, were very, very careful indeed. For example, in the essays I wrote for the remastered CDs I made very sure that I gave the picture of the band as the band was when the band existed. I didn’t bring into it any of the personal doubts and criticisms I’ve had since then. I tried to voice it in the voice of the person I was then, so that I was being honest and fair and I gave everyone a crack. And I know that Gee felt very, very committed to being honest to the band. What I think some of the detractors might say is, “Oh yeah, honest to what band? The band you fucking think it was?”
People seem to think now that Crass was always sort of this “up the front there and everyone pogo.” It’s just not true. More often than not, they’d be fucking walking out. They hated Yes Sir. No one wanted to stay in the bloody room when we played that, so it’s a complete myth that we were a successful rock ’n’ roll band, really. It was only in retrospect that that happened.
Steve Ignorant: The whole situation with Pete objecting to the rereleases after all these years of not being involved and not even listening to the remasters properly, I think it’s stupid. I wrote on the Crass Facebook how ironic it is that the intergalactic anarchists of all time, Crass, all dressed in black, can’t solve the debate without running to the apron strings of mummy system. It’s totally fucking ridiculous.
Penny Rimbaud: To my mind, the dispute has its root in ideological differences that existed between the individual members of the band. In my understanding, Pete was fundamentally a socialist, and socialists like wagging their fingers at anyone except themselves.
He claims to be an anarchist. Well, I claim to be an anarchist, but I’m fundamentally a libertarian and a fierce individualist. I think that does fit into an arena of anarchistic thought. I certainly draw a line at all this stupid anarchistic organization of industry and that sort of stuff, because I’m just not interested. If people want to do that, then I’m not going to criticize them. But frankly, it’s not my thing. My thing is rising with the angels and flying in the sky.