By Rob Ray
January 29th, 2016
Two complementary books revisiting the experience of anarcho-punk provide fascinating insights into the evolution and development of the movement.
The Story of Crass
by George Berger
2006, 2008 Omnibus Press (UK)
2009 PM Press (US)
Since the anarchist punk band Crass brought to an end the group’s cultural-political assault on the Thatcherite state in the summer of 1984, the complex history of the first-wave of British anarcho-punk has languished in a state of almost uninterrupted neglect. For seven intensive years before that cut-off date the rebellious flames of anarcho-punk burned bright, lighting-up a sub-culture that took the revolutionary protestations of punk rock and the idea of ‘doing-it-yourself’ (DIY) profoundly seriously.
In recent years, cash-savvy publishers have pumped out innumerable coffee-table books rehashing the history of commercial Pistols-authored punk (of alarmingly variable degrees of quality). Very few amongst them have made any effort to accurately represent the history of anarcho-punk: the one manifestation of the sub-culture genuinely convinced that punk should (and could) give life to the movement’s irresistibly subversive logic. The burying of the specifically anarchist strand of punk within the historiography of punk rock is not simply the outcome of a nefarious conspiracy amongst retired rock journalists – although that conspiracy does exist, as much fuelled by ignorance and arrogance as by malice. Mainstream eulogisers of punk always face great difficulty in trying to incorporate anarcho-punk’s searing critique of punk orthodoxy into their own reassuringly-familiar Bromley Contingent narratives.
But the ease with which such historical sleight of hand can be carried out is also a reflection of the fiercely independent (some would say separatist) sensibilities of the anarcho-punk movement itself, which viewed its continually disappointing commercial counterpart with bitter disdain. Anarcho-punk opted instead for an autonomous existence and a life apart – making it easier for both malevolent and for myopic historians to try to write it out of the record. Works such as Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud’s evocative (if esoteric) autobiography Shibboleth (published in 1998) have pushed hard to challenge the movement’s exclusion, but the balance of new publishing has continually reinforced its omission.
The fact that anarcho-punk is at last beginning to receive some long overdue recognition and re-examination is not the reflection of a change of heart amongst the writers of traditional punk history, but principally because the movement’s own alumni have begun to take up the challenge themselves. As different elements of this parallel account reach the shelves, the result is an increasingly rich anarchist-infused alter-history of punk.
This new wave of anarcho-punk publishing is part of a mini cultural retrospective on the movement’s work and worth. While there is absolutely no possibility of Crass following suit, a number of long-disbanded anarcho bands have recently reformed to play reunion gigs. Overground Records have released a four-part compilation CD collection, beginning with the spirited 23-track Anti-War collection in 2006. Further books are in the pipeline from AK Press; more releases from the audio archives are imminent; and the first of a number of new anarcho-punk documentaries have recently secured festival cinema screenings or direct-to-DVD release.
There is much to recommend in the insights of both works, even if neither can be expected to escape the constraint of having to satisfy the interests of the publishers of the pop music histories who contracted their authors.
George Berger’s The Story of Crass adopts the same straightforward chronological approach of his earlier biography of folk-punksters The Levellers, to document the history of anarcho-punk’s most conspicuous catalyst. Berger begins with a focus on the pre-punk creative activities of the founding members of the band and of Dial House, revealing some interesting and little known stories of the counter-cultural experiments that preceded the engagement with punk. Although Berger does not make the point explicitly, what this shows is how far outside the confines of the official anarchist movement Crass came from – something that is hugely significant in understanding anarcho-punk’s often fraught relationship with its more traditional anarchist allies in the years which followed. Berger writes entertainingly enough, although many readers are likely to find his frequent nod-and-wink asides to the reader quickly become irritating rather than endearing.
Securing interviews with all members of the Crass collective (save the reluctant guitarist Andy Palmer), Berger’s work is at its most successful in making space for the oral testimony of the group. Although not all voices get equal space, Berger allows former band members to describe in detail recollections many of which have never been articulated in the public domain before. Through these words, the sometimes strikingly different individual perspectives which existed behind the uniform, collective persona of Crass to find expression. These voices illuminate the key moments in the evolution, peak and subsequent fragmentation and decline of the original anarcho-punk explosion, as seen from the band’s unique perspective.
For context, Berger relies rather too heavily on the published Crass canon – the 1982 collection of essays A Series of Shock Slogans and Mindless Token Tantrums and the 1984 farewell statement In Which Crass Voluntarily Blown Their Own. Berger does try to identify some of the more important political controversies with which anarcho-punk became identified. Such debates included: the validity of an anarchist politics based on individual self-will; the utility of militant pacifism; and the means by which the alienated politics and practice of the Leninist far-left could best be challenged. The author deserves credit for getting such political questions aired in a music biography, even if the complex issues that these raise are left largely hanging as Berger’s attention turns instead to the next release in the Crass catalogue.
In Dancing The Storm, Berger’s love for the music of The Levellers comes clearly across on almost every page. In The Story of Crass it is less consistently clear that Berger likes what he hears. In fact, there’s more of a sense that he considers the noise the band made is the stuff that you had to put up with to get access to the more valuable elements of the subculture itself. He dismisses the uncompromising late-period Yes Sir I Will LP and You’re Already Dead single pretty much out of hand and wishes that the earlier (and ultimately less ‘difficult’) Christ The Album had been the band’s final release.
As this suggests, Berger is not a deferential author and this is in no sense a Crass hagiography. He does have several axes to grind – and is particularly keen to rubbish what he sees as Crass’s ‘self-defeating’ hostility to the music press. For him, the decision to refuse to co-operate with the likes of Sounds and the NME in favour of an ‘over-romanticised’ fanzine network was sheer folly. In this, he suggests, Crass mistook self-imposed isolation for autonomy, and in the process made an ideology out of the DIY impulse. At moments like this, the conceptual and political gap between the author and his subject appears at its widest.
At the core of Berger’s narrative lies an unarticulated assumption that the ambitions of the anarcho-punk were so unattainable (and the punk vehicle for their realisation so completely inadequate), that Crass should have been willing to negotiate compromises the better to secure goals that were within the movement’s grasp. If, in the end, anarcho-punk has to be accepted as little more than an interesting musical distemper, such a view would appear as less than heretical. Those who rate anarcho-punk’s revolutionary merits higher than this will be disappointed that this first biography of Crass is so keen to suggest that, in refusing to compromise its autonomy, anarcho-punk was its own worst enemy. Despite these and other tendentious conclusions, Berger’s book remains an essential read for anyone interested in the headline history of anarchist punk.
The Day The Country Died: A History of Anarcho-Punk 1980-1984
by Ian Glasper
2006 Cherry Red
2014 PM Press
An invaluable companion to the biography of Crass, is Ian Glasper’s The Day the Country Died, the second in a trilogy of works documenting the history of British punk rock post-1979. Like its predecessor, Burning Britain, this volume offers a fanzine-inspired collection of interviews with the members of dozens of (in this case anarcho-) punk bands, grouped by regional scene. The inexplicable absence of Poison Girls notwithstanding, the oral testimony assembled here provides an often-lucid participant’s view of the work of the wider anarcho-punk milieu, which demonstrates just as tellingly the diversity as well as the commonality by which it was defined.
Although light on context and analysis, what the collection hints at throughout is the extent to which – within a militant anti-war, anti-work, ‘anti-system’ framework – the perception and priorities of the movement’s activists differed: something the movement’s critics (who were always keen to deride the uniformity of the ‘Crass punks’) rarely understood. Above all, even though Glasper’s attention is fixed firmly on the subculture’s musical output, The Day the Country Died cumulatively illustrates how simplistic the myth is which insists that Crass simply ‘led’ an anarcho-punk movement that dutifully ‘followed’ its directives.
The Day the Country Died: A History of Anarcho Punk 1980–1984
The Story of Crass