War All the Time: A Conversation with Crass’ Penny Rimbaud
The legendary punk poet, activist, and author discusses politics, the duality of the internet, and his new collection of Wilfred Owen's war poetry.
Photo by Grant Armour
If you weren't around to endure the Cold War paranoia of the 1970s and 80s, then the likes of “Nagasaki Nightmare” and “How Does It Feel (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)” by Crass may seem as improbably abstract as the First World War poetry you were probably forced to read in school. But as the war drums thump and sabres rattle around the world, and the threat of nuclear war looms over us once again, you'd be hard pressed not to appreciate the poignancy and hellish symmetry of Crass founder Penny Rimbaud's decision to tackle Wilfred Owen's poetry—spoken-word style—to mark the centenary of the First World War for an album, What Passing Bells, and a series of live performances. The results, backed by the free-improvisation of pianist Liam Noble and cellist Kate Short, are haunting and elegiac, angry yet humorous, as Rimbaud channels the man he calls the most honest and powerful of all the Great War poets.
Noisey spoke to Rimbaud about his decision to tackle Owen's poetry as a sop to what he feared would be a excuse for the establishment to turn the war's centenary into a celebration of British jingoism, as well as his decision to allow Noisey access into Dial House, home to so many of Rimbaud's countercultural activities, whether it be the Free Festival Movement, or Crass itself. But, as is so often the case with this polymath of anarcho-punk, the conversation strayed to topics as diverse as Trump being the obvious organic antithesis to the Obama presidency, Japanther's links to the resurgent Black Panther movement, how diet has dulled our urge to protest, and that time he met John Lennon on Ready Steady Go!
Noisey: What was your thinking behind making the record?
Penny Rimbaud: It's something that's been in my mind forever, really. I mean, I love Owen's poems. I always had an idea of doing some sort of arrangement and trying to make them into a form of performance. Really, it was the World War I centenary that finally activated me. But I so love Owen's poems. I so loved Britten's War Requiem [which uses Owen's work], and in a way, I wanted to throw my bit in, into that particular ocean to see what happened. With the advent of the centenary of World War I, it just seemed a very appropriate time to do it. I was very worried that Britain was going to become very jingoistic and nationalistic during those four years, but it actually hasn't been as unpleasant as I thought. There's been some very considered media coverage and radio coverage about what actually happened during that war. In a way, it wasn't so necessary to have a counter voice, because what I wanted to do is create a counter-voice to any sort of jingoistic nonsense that might occur. That was the thinking behind it, really.
Well, we did have [British MP and all-round bumptious arsehole] Michael Gove saying that that the poets, academics, etc. made it out to be worse than it was. Somehow he knew this, I don't know, through some kind of transcendental viewing?
Yeah. Well, I think it's a pretty absurd claim to say that the poets maybe made it [out to be] worse than it was. I mean, how worse can you get than millions being killed in one day, or thousands and thousands being killed in huge flesh piles and rats eating the bodies? I mean, for God's sake, that's just such a stupid, revisionist, ignorant remark to make. Was he there?
Him apart, who are you hoping to reach with the record?
Anyone who wants to listen. I don't do stuff with a view to who might like it or not like it. I do it because I like it and I believe in it. My interest was to do honor to Owen's words and honor his death, and honor the death of all of those millions, on both sides. That was my job, you know? And what comes of that is a bonus, I guess.
I'd like everyone to like it. I'd like people of all classes, backgrounds, race, gender, whatever you want to say, you know, anyone. Anyone who might possibly learn something from Owen's words in the same way as I learned things when I was just a kid. It was Owen that turned me on to ideas of pacificism and different ways of looking at things.
Do you think Owen's poetry has that ability to transcend, I guess, time, class, race?
I think it has. Yes, I think it has. Unlike many of the particularly First World War poets who were very educated, sort of Oxbridge, and probably came from pretty privileged backgrounds, Owen didn't. It rather shows, I think. His compassion and his basic love of humanity is so rich. I mean, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," [from Strange Meeting] has to be one of the most extraordinary war statements ever made, and very beautiful and incredibly accepting and forgiving. I don't see much of that in many of the other war poets. I think that Owen's obvious love of humankind is... In a way, it creates a sort of hope and a positivity within all that horror that there's a deep sense of love.
I mean, I wouldn't have done it if it was just a horror story. Because certainly, equally, his poetry is more powerful than any I know of describing the horror and the misery in the trenches, but at the same time there's this sort of strange, deep love of the people who he was there with, which is the very love that he went back. I mean, he was hospitalized and actually could very easily not have gone back, but he did go back. He went back not because he believed in the war, but that he did believe in his men and loved his men.
Casting it into modern terms, I feel like we've managed to distance ourselves from the wars that we're still mired in.
Yes, totally. Yeah.
It's almost like this is a necessary reminder that we're still knee-deep in conflict, but somehow we're anesthetized from them.
Yeah, anesthetized, and also the methods, of course. If you can drone someone out of existence, then drone them. No one touches anything, except a button. The whole process and method, in a way, it's even more horrific now, because it's more clinical, more controllable, and etcetera, etcetera. But yeah, nothing's changed. The fundamentals are still there. The rich and the privileged and the Bohemian Grove dwellers who continue to use us, the people, in whatever way they possibly can until they're prevented from doing so. The First World War is no different to Iraq or Syria or any of the other horrors that are going on at the moment.
Was that another reason to record this, to provide that topical reflection?
Probably not particularly a reason. I mean, in the sense that everything I do, in some way, is related to exactly those sorts of subjects. My concern for world peace has been a lifelong commitment, and so anything I do in some way is going to be related to that sole mission. The double issue of peace and love, you know? I mean, that's what I'm interested in promoting, and in my own way that's what I've been doing since I was a kid, and that's what I'll do till my deathbed, because it gives... To me, there's one meaning in life, and that is to help each other. This is my way of trying to help.
Do you see a paucity or otherwise of artistic reactions to current events?
Difficult one. If I tune into radical rap, for example, I can see that there are some fierce voices around. Sometimes I don't like quite what they're saying, but I certainly understand why they're saying it. Yeah, I mean, I don't go on the "Ooh, what's happening now?" sort of music business thing. I think what's happening on the internet is a far greater indication of what's actually happening than looking at the music charts, the hit charts and stuff. That doesn't mean anything anymore. That's finished. Yeah, and I mean, I think if one surfs the net a bit, you soon find out there's, hell, there's lots going on. Some of it you might not like and some of it you might like, but it's all happening. It's just happening in a new way that the old school haven't quite got used to yet. They're going to have to get used to it, because that's the one that's going to ride. What we need to look at is what we're offering each other through whatever means possible, and the means possible are enormous through the internet.
In terms of things available on the internet, it was really interesting to see Dial House [in Noisey's Get Out of Your Own Way: Anarchy & Peace with Penny Rimbaud of Crass ], because I'd only ever read about it. I think it's interesting to, I guess, de-mystify it. But it does make me think, what is it about punk, which is supposed to be so anti-authority, yet has idolatry in its own way, that—
That's the essence of anything and all things, isn't it? For as long as people aren't able to find themselves, to find inner being and to learn to love and respect that and then move on from that, then they're going to look for others to represent the things that they're afraid of asking within themselves. When I do talks, which I do a lot of, I generally say, "Well, why am I sitting here? Why aren't you sitting here? You know, I'm no different to you, and I'm no different." But as long as people are afraid of saying... I think most of the things I talk about is what everyone actually really would like to hear. You know, we can coexist. We can love each other. But people are afraid of actually putting that interaction.
My job in Crass or my job in the things I did before and everything I've done after, has been to say to people, "Well, get a life. There's no authority but yourself. Act now. Look to yourself. Don't ask anyone else to do it, because no one else is going to do it. No one else is you. You're the only person. Get on with it." As long as we continue to look for others, and as long as other people want to be looked for... That's the thing. I mean, that need is so exploited by faux-gurus in the spiritual world or rock stars or film stars who actually exploit the fact that people are alienated from themselves and therefore need others.
And of course, that's what's branded into us from our first days on earth. You know, "This is Daddy, this is Mummy, this is the church, this is the state, this is the bah-bah-bah-bah." Well, you know, it's only a continuation of that infantilizing of us. We need to grow up. We're so severely infantilized by our childhood, and we never grow beyond that.
Did you have any reservations about appearing in a film that would document your life and your experiences?
No. No, none whatsoever. For example, just recently I did a film of me performing one of my poems, which is sort of about androgyny and gender, and I did it naked, and it was filmed and it will be on YouTube soon, because I thought, you know, I've had an open door and an open heart and I've had a naked mind, but I haven't had a naked body. Everything I do is a "take it all off." Take off all the masks, take off all the pretense. Get down to the real rawness of your own being, and you'll find everyone is capable of love and everyone is subject to your own love.
But there's nothing between us, and that goes right across the board. Within that, all those stupid things, fat, thin, black, white, whatever, all these things we do to separate each other, just disappear. They disappear in one's own nakedness. You can't ask anyone else to do it. I rather guess that's a bit what John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono] were doing when they did the Two Virgins cover. It was basically just, how much do we have to give? You know, and they don't mind giving it.
That's one of the things I always really liked about John, was he was never afraid of actually appearing a complete idiot just to attempt to say, "Well, actually, this is possible." I don't know whether he inspired me in that or whether or not I felt it just naturally myself, but that's certainly been one of my drives in life. Just strip it all off. Remove all the pretenses, all the adopted ideas, the second-hand self, and actually we can coexist very comfortably, thank you very much indeed.
I saw a clip on YouTube of... well, it purports to be you being on, I think, Ready Steady Go! winning a couple of records, and John Lennon handing them to you.
That's actually real?
Yes, it is actually real.
Wow. That's quite, I guess, an interesting cultural moment. I would've never have thought you'd shared the same airspace, but there you go. Was it—
Yeah, it was sort of significant. John at that time hadn't really come out on his whole peace program at all, really. He was still pop star, you know? They were still a bunch of Liverpool lads having a joke, that sort of thing. I always liked the Beatles because there seemed to be something slightly different about them. They weren't rock and roll, they were sort of like really good English folk. I liked that. I liked the intimacy of what they did. But anyway, yeah, I often have felt that meeting was a sort of... You know, I don't like to think of it in terms... Well, I do. I have sort of thought of it almost as taking a baton in a relay race. It confirmed something I knew.
And as John then, after that time, started increasingly becoming political and increasingly promoting social change and social justice and all the rest of it, so I felt, "Wow," you know? We are probably on that same trajectory when we first met anyway, but it was lovely simply to have touched base for a moment, even if there was a degree of misunderstanding. I mean, he certainly didn't altogether appreciate my choice of records at the time, although ten years later, he'd have loved it.
Just one last thing. I hate to throw a quote from yourself back at you, but this is from an interview you did with Vice, I guess back in 2010...
All right, yeah.
…when you were talking about Crass coming to its natural end. You said jumping up and down on a stage saying "No more war" was a joke in light of the poverty and desperation you saw. I guess that was in relation to the miner's strike benefit in Aberdare.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
There's no shortage of poverty and desperation these days either. I guess it's better hidden than it was in the early 80s, but—
Well, better and worse, isn't it? I mean, yes, go on. Anyway.
But I mean, is that "No more war" sentiment something you've returned to?
I don't think I ever left it, But no, the pitiful poverty here is, in a strange way, more obvious. Because poverty of the body comes out as poverty of the mind, you know, and of alienation. Obesity is a subject of poverty, you know, because of bad food. Slowness of mind is something that bad foods create. That's more evident now than, probably, it was back in the late 70s, when there was still a slight sharpness of mind. There was also still an active political left wing, so at least there was some representation for the underprivileged and the poor and the working people.
That's gone. We're in much more callous times, and I think the poverty now is out-and-out cruel and cynical. Somehow or other, back in the 70s... I mean, it was heartbreaking doing our last gig at Aberdare. We saw such horrible, pitiful desperation, but we still saw pride. Now the pride seems to have gone. And you know, no wonder. No one's spoken to these people. In a funny way, that's how Trump happened in America. It wasn't the right person, but it is why it happened. You can't not represent the people. The people might be ignorant, the people might be... I don't mean ignorant in a cynical way, I mean ignorant because they haven't been given decent education. They haven't been helped.
I'm not for a minute pretending that Trump's going to help, but what I'm saying is that we can't ignore the people, you know? In the sense that Trump's election put an end to the Yale-Harvard elite ruling America. Well, to my mind, that was a huge step forward, because those guys... like here, Oxbridge determines the entire culture. Oxbridge is the devil within the belly of the beast, because that's where the policies are determined. Well, Yale-Harvard is pretty much the same in America. Anything to see those institutions smashed. I mean, I've spent my entire life in opposition to Oxbridge attitudes. Part of the reason that I've been sort of successful, if you like, in my own way—you know, I've certainly not been incorporated into the mainstream— is because I don't belong in the mainstream, because the mainstream is determined by Oxbridge.
Do you see anything to be optimistic about Jeremy Corbyn's rise in popularity?
Yes, I do. I think it was just, if nothing else, nice to feel that it was possible for someone within the political world to have some sort of integrity. One had gotten so used to just ruling it out entirely. I mean, I can't pretend to be interested in party politics, but I have to say that it did interest me that there appeared to be someone who appears to have integrity, you know, suddenly appeared from nowhere. I'm not entirely sure whether I'm happy if that then persuades youth, as we're told has happened, towards becoming Labour Party members. I think those days are over. I'm not interested in party politics because I'm not interested in government. I think there are other, better systems which we could abide in happier times with.
There's that sort of silly old argument that if the politicians make it better, in other words act circumspectly to calm down the revolt, then that's OK. Well, it isn't. It's a bit like, I know from working with Japanther over [in the US]... you know, pre-Obama, we did a small tour around the Eastern Coast of the States. We did one gig up in the Bronx, a free gig in some park there, and it was a very, very... I was amazed that the percentage [of the audience] was far more black than it was white in the audience. I thought, "Wow, something's happening here. This is exciting." The band themselves have some good contacts in the black underground, and they knew that the Panthers were really sort of re-establishing themselves. It was obvious that Obama would basically prevent that development. I know that since Obama's gone, the Panthers are redeveloping again, re-establishing themselves again. And all praise to them.
That is a case in point. The concessions that come from government, which might make life a little bit better for everyone for a little bit of time, actually dilute the opposition, or dilute any really serious dialogue about opposition. Therefore, I've never been quite sure whether I want good guys to get into government.
And they're just as easily removed as well.
Yes, of course. Absolutely. Because even, as we've seen, that generally... I mean, I think that Obama becoming president was a piece of circumspection of the elite. I mean, America had got such an awful world record at that time that they had to do something. If I was a Hollywood script writer, what I'd have done is, "Oh, let's have a black president. That will put things..." And he was that obvious to my mind. It was that transparent. It couldn't have happened if the elite, if the Bohemian Grovers, hadn't thought, "Oh, yeah, that's OK. Let's go with that one." Because things don't happen without their support.