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What follows is a dissertation “An Analysis Of How Crass Were Influenced By The Cultural Climate Of 1977-81 When Writing The Song ‘Big A, Little A’ And How They Subsequently Influenced Others” that is written By Paula Frost of Vive Le Rock magazine and Way Out Radio. The body of the dissertation is contained below, however, punk scholars out there can download the full document with Appendix and interviews with Crass, Slaves, The Skints and 999 here
The following is an exploration of the influence and legacy of the anarcho punk band Crass. The study includes insights into their cultural context and a stylistic analysis of their music as well as research into their later influence on other artists and social activist movements.
Firstly, the study looks into the band’s cultural background, including the surrounding political and social climate, giving an insight into their motivation and the effect this had on their songwriting. Secondly, there is an analysis of the Crass song ‘Big A, Little A’ (1981) which divulges some of the musical and political influences found within their music. Lastly, is a discussion of the influence Crass has had on a number of other bands and movements, focused predominantly on the anarcho punk movement of 1979-1984.
These objectives have been met through the analysis of prepared research which includes the study of a variety of relevant books, lyrical content, documentaries and interviews related to the band Crass, the punk movement, the post-punk movement and the social and political climate of Britain between 1975 and 1984.
Original interviews have also been conducted for the purpose of this study including interviews with members of Crass such as Steve Ignorant (Singer) and Penny Rimbaud (Drummer) as well as interviews with Crass fans and members of other relevant punk bands such as 999, Slaves and The Skints (See Appendix 1). Musical transcriptions, diagrams and a lyrical analysis of the Crass song ‘Big A, Little A’ have also been independently comprised for this study.
Introduction: Anarchy & Peace
In 1978, just as the Sex Pistols and The Clash were winding down and many people deemed punk as dead, a radical band by the name of Crass emerged and released the EP Feeding of the 5000. The band hoped to sell one hundred copies initially but the pressing plant used would only print a minimum of five thousand, hence the title. Crass were astounded to sell all five thousand independently and go to a second pressing. Quickly the band gained a following so vast, that they became leaders of their own splinter genre of punk, labelled anarcho punk. Since, Feeding of the 5000 has hit gold status and Crass’ legacy has gone on to influence numerous other bands as well as a profusion of protest movements.
Despite Crass’ success and significance in music history, their work and the anarcho punk movement as a whole, is often overlooked. Music historian Berger wrote; “Crass have been airbrushed out of punk histories”. Subsequently, the aim of this study is to shed light on Crass’ impact on the UK punk scene of 1977-1984.
The study also specifically discusses the influence Crass had firstly, on two anarcho punks who have been interviewed, Paul Scott and Mick Howes, and secondly on the band Slaves. Slaves are a modern band who have expressed their heavy Crass influence despite forming almost three decades after Crass’ split. This sits alongside a discussion of Crass’ influence on anarcho punk bands who formed around 1981 as a direct influence of Crass’ music. Between the anarcho punk bands and Slaves, these bands cover forty years of music inspired by Crass, from 1981 to the present. This gives us some indication of the scope of Crass’ musical legacy.
In order to put Crass in context and discuss their impact as a band, the study first explores the musical and social influences that directly affected their music. As with many punk bands, Crass have indicated that their inspiration came from their disparity with and condemnation of worldly injustice, rather than from other bands or music. However, elements of avant-garde, jazz and rock music can be heard in their songs. Most obviously though, there is a strong punk influence.
To contextualise their influences, the study later analyses one of their most complex songs, ‘Big A, Little A’. This song is a particularly expressive example of their contempt towards political, religious and monarchic figureheads. It is also however, a later example of their punk, avant-garde and jazz musical influences.
Research has been collected from the few scholars who have written about Crass, as well as the many scholars who have written about punk as a whole. George Berger, writer of ‘The Story of Crass’ and Ian Glasper author of ‘The Day the Country Died’ are two important anarcho punk scholars that have influenced this study. This study also includes a series of first hand interviews from Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud (Crass), Nick Cash (999), Joshua Waters Rudge (The Skints) and Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent (Slaves). Also available in the appendix are interviews with two anarcho-punk fans, Paul Scott and Mick Howes, who despite never meeting have both been vegetarian for over forty years, due to Crass’ influence.
This study discusses what influenced Crass and how they went on to influence others. The purpose behind this study is to make the reader conscious of the musical, political and social boundaries pushed by Crass whilst examining why Crass have been continually underreported in the history of punk. Overall, this study aims to fill a gap in scholarly writing and illuminate the importance of the band Crass and the anarcho punk movement in the context of popular music history.
Definition of Anarcho Punk
Anarcho punk is punk rock music that promotes Anarchism. The term ‘anarcho punk’ is often applied exclusively to the British bands that formed the original anarcho punk movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Chapter One: No Authority But Yourself
In late 1977, Crass emerged in London’s underground scene. The band had nine members in total and hailed from Dial House in Epping, a home and collective art central where over the next eight years they’d live and breathe the band, keeping everything they did ‘in house’.
The group are considered to be “the most notorious and confrontational protest artists to emerge from the punk scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s” (Southern). Some of their most notable endeavours include Rimbaud’s co-founding of the iconic Stonehenge Festival, the band’s involvement in the ‘Stop the City’ marches and having questions raised in Thatcher’s parliament numerous times, besides countless other activities.
Crass promoted anarchism and sought to make people question their leaders decisions, their main saying being ‘There is no authority but yourself’. Glasper wrote: “they didn’t wanna talk to the media, they talked about ‘The System’ like it was something real and tangible, this mixture of religion, authority, the police, the government, the media… no one had really said, ‘Fuck the system’ before”.
Their fully confrontational stance towards the authority of modern society and their hyper aggressive playing style soon attracted other bands to follow in their footsteps, escalating Crass to becoming the leading protagonists of a splinter genre of punk called anarcho punk. Bands to follow included; Conflict, Flux of Pink Indians, Zounds, Poison Girls and many others. Even The Damned’s Captain Sensible released a single on Crass Records and turned vegetarian after spending time with the band at Dial House. Additionally, more recent artists from outside of the anarcho punk genre have also openly expressed the direct influence of Crass’ music on their work, such as Jeffrey Lewis, Bad Breeding, Surgery Without Research, Bob Vylan and Slaves.
Though Crass’ music was written off by mainstream press, as an “unlistenable cacophony” and their lyrics as “shock slogans and mindless token tantrums”, their large sales figures and high ranking chart positions during the ‘80s alongside their widespread influence on a series of other successful bands, show them to be revolutionary, not just in a political sense, but also in a musical and economic sense.
Crass’ artwork and logo design have recently resurfaced in contemporary culture having been commercialised by London Fashion House and Urban Outfitters on t-shirts and leather jackets without Crass’ authorisation. David Beckham, Chris Brown and Angelina Jolie have all worn the Crass logo on their t-shirts, naive to its meaning. Artist Banksy admits his politically motivating artwork is heavily Crass influenced. Banksy has even collaborated with Gee Vaucher.
Despite their logo’s visibility in mainstreme culture, their sizeable album sales and their political impact, Crass remain a very underground band. It would seem that there is a gap in the scholarship of this band whilst the detailed documentation of the Sex Pistols and The Clash’s leading roles in punk music are reiterated relentlessly. The clandestine of their legacy is partly intentional on the bands behalf, due to their unwillingness to ‘sell out’ and avoidance of mainstream attention, refusing most press interviews. However, another factor contributing to their under appreciation in punk history is the expurgation of their presence by the government due to trepidation. This is because Crass sought to expose much of the dishonourable political action being practiced at the time. Interestingly, we will discover later in this dissertation how much of Crass’ work has been hushed surreptitiously by government censorship since 1977.
Firstly, it is important that we look at the social context of the band as this heavily influenced their anarchist direction. Crass combined well-informed opinions, with a strikingly personal anger in forming the basis of their songs. Consequently, their music united an unemployed underclass of people who felt cheated by the government at the time. Glasper wrote; “an underclass was growing… and in many ways, the system encouraged it.”
After the colourful burst of hope, self-expression and freedom that dominated ‘60s culture socially, the ‘70s drew in with a bleakness that saw the masses facing a recession, mass unemployment and growing class divisions in England. Historians often portray the 1970’s as the most turbulent of the post war decades in the United Kingdom due to the many economic disasters, alongside continuous social developments during the period. Sandbrooke wrote, “These were desperately difficult years for Britain, both politically and economically.”
This was a decade of strikes for postal workers, miners and dustmen among others. Economic problems such as mass unemployment saw the introduction of a three-day working week in February 1972 and in the summer of 1976 water rationing was introduced when water supplies reached critically low levels due to high temperatures.
Meanwhile, the popularity of large scale art rock and rock theatre bands meant that spectacle began replacing the intimacy of popular music, whilst stadium performances signalled a detachment between super bands and their fans. Rocks rebellious attitude had once been the voice of its generation. Johnny Ramone explains; “Rock and roll is supposed to be about doing it yourself, people got away from that.They started overindulging”. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd agrees; “we had been overcome by commerce”.
Like London, New York was also suffering an economic depression and an overwhelming boredom with corporate rock in the early ‘70s. By 1976, bands like The Stooges, New York Dolls and the Ramones were emerging in New Yorks CBGB’s club, forming a trashier underground rock scene. They played fast paced two minute, three chord songs with lyrics about sniffing glue, partying and fighting. Their minimalist sound and street lyrics sought to hand rock music back to its fans and give people a chance to reconnect with the true spirit, rawness and simplicity of rock. Importantly, bands like the Ramones simplified music, which paved the way for people to start their own bands without much musical knowledge.
In Britain, London had forged its own alternative rock scene by 1976 lead by the formation of first the Sex Pistols and secondly The Clash. Partly inspired by the bands from New York, these group’s anarchist attitudes laid the foundation for what came to be known as ‘punk rock’. Covach explains; ‘Unlike the situation in the United States, the rise of punk in the UK can be linked to specific socioeconomic circumstances such as the ‘crushing economic recession.’ Punk had a passion and energy partly inspired by the minimalist sound of the Ramones, but with a uniquely British, explicitly D.I.Y. attitude.
By 1977, much of the nation begrudged celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, which cost millions in taxpayer’s money, whilst much of the country suffered in poverty and unemployment (Savage 2005). At this time the Sex Pistols released a song, which questioned and ridiculed the Queen and monarchy, ‘God Save the Queen’. The song captured the shock factor and rebellion that punk rock stood for and embodied the generation’s mounting opposition towards higher classes. Reynolds wrote; “The Sex Pistols swearing on television, ‘God Save The Queen’ verses the Silver Jubilee, an entire culture convulsed and quaked.”
‘God Save The Queen’ was a hit in Britain reaching no.1 on the NME chart and no.2 in the official UK chart, despite the record being officially banned by the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Society due to its treasonable lyrics. Lyrics such as; ‘God save the queen, The fascist regime, They made you a moron’ and ‘There is no future, In England’s dreaming’ were extremely controversial at the time and explicitly signalled a call for change in the conventional running of Britain. For thousands of people who bought the record, the lyrics captured the essence of the time; disrespect towards the state and the sense of a lost generation. It was a set of lyrics that rallied the new generation together through their fight against a common enemy, the establishment. D.I.Y. rock music and the notion of ‘anarchy against the state’ were willingly embraced by the youth of Britain and quickly punk music, fashion and attitude swept the country.
The youth who felt abandoned by the over complicated progressive rock that had gone before it, now had a new hope in punk rock. The Sex Pistols and The Clash kick started a wave of British bands that sang in their cockney London accents about things they experienced on the street. The punk D.I.Y. attitude gave everyone an opportunity to start their own punk band, whether they were talented or not. Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols recalls; “Anything went, if you had an idea, get on and do it”. People began putting on cheap gigs with groups of local punk bands in small clubs and supporting each other, creating a sense of community within the youth. Paul Scott, a punk fan from the time recalls: “There was a shock aspect to everything and the bringing together of small bands, small venues and groups.”
In previous years there was a huge gap between the artists and their fans. Now fans were creating and performing their own music. Crass were part of the wave of self-starters. Steve Ignorant of Crass recalls “I saw The Clash play and Joe Strummer shouted: “If you think you can do better start your own band!’ So I did!”
Many non-musicians took the opportunity to have a go at playing in a band and subsequently the harmonic language of the emerging music was far more basic. Standard and formal writing ideas were discarded or simplified and more time was spent playing live and in smaller, more intimate venues, unlike during the previous decade. The Sex Pistols confrontational and angry songs demonstrated a new anti-establishment mentality, which threatened authority and was liberating for fans. Reynolds wrote; “The sheer monstrous evil of punk was a huge part of its appeal”.
Within the amassing punk culture, vocalist Steve Ignorant had approached drummer Penny Rimbaud to form a 2-piece punk band in 1976. Steve immediately moved in to Dial House, where Penny lived and they began writing and rehearsing. Ignorant recalls that initially: “We never thought it would go further then the garden gate.” Gradually more members joined and over the next year, Crass began writing, rehearsing and playing small gigs, festivals and squat parties.
By the end of 1977, the Sex Pistols had “auto destructed” (Berger) and split up, whilst The Clash had left for America on tour to pursue worldwide fame “and never returned” (Berger). As 1978 drew in, Ronnie Biggs guest recorded a soundtrack with the remaining members of the Sex Pistols for the movie The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, marking the ultimate contradiction of values. It appeared that the pioneers of punk had sold out to the mainstream. Punk music as a whole was being watered down and cashed in on by major labels. Berger wrote; “bands like The Jam and The Undertones were embracing the mainstream”. The Jam decided to remove the swearing from their album This is the Modern World whilst Adam and The Ants (who once shared a close punk fan base with Crass) sold out to the new romantic pop scene (Berger). Fans who had once considered punk a way of life, now likened it to as over commercialised as the progressive rock that had gone before it.
The inevitable demise of punk rock by 1978 had left a generation of punk fans orphaned in is wake and to make matters worse, the continuing social and economic depression grew. The combination of widespread anger and mass unemployment led to the persistence of punk culture socially as D.I.Y. rock bands and squat parties provided ‘no money fun’. At this time the “enormous free speech crater that the punk bomb benignly left in an explosive wake” (Berger 2006) allowed for post punk to emerge, Reynolds describes this period as ‘a counter-culture that was fragmented yet shared a common belief that music could and should change the world”. The aftermath of punk up to 1984 (Reynolds 2005: xv) saw a second wave of punk bands surface, this time with a conviction not to sell out.
In October 1978, Crass released their debut EP, Feeding of the 5000 and for them, everything changed. Crass fan Paul Scott recalls: “The Sex Pistols signed to Virgin before splitting, The Clash signed to CBS and The Damned went their way, and it seemed like everyone was getting signed. Crass brought it back to what it should have been and that kicked off with Feeding of the 5000.” Although released as an EP, it was actually an eighteen track double album, complete with artwork and posters and was sold at little above cost price, £1.99 when albums generally cost £3.99. Crass vocalist Eve Libertine said in an interview: “We wanted fans to get the best value for their money”. The value for money ethic was greatly appreciated by punk fans. Crass quickly sold all of the five thousand copies they had pressed. Ignorant recalls; “We never had a massive crowd, then one gig all these punks turn up with Crass stencils sprayed on their jackets and t-shirts. That was the turning point where we really took off.”
Although Crass advocated a D.I.Y. Punk ethic and heavy punk sound, the band members were extremely diverse in terms of backgrounds and musical influences. Whilst lead singer Ignorant was a self-confessed punk from a working class background he was also a huge David Bowie fan. He even took the band’s name from the Ziggy Stardust lyric “The kids were just crass”. Whereas Rimbaud had come from a privileged background as a public schoolboy and was heavily influenced by jazz and avant- garde music. Rimbaud revealed in an interview: “I took their upper class education and used it against them!” Interestingly Crass have said they were barely influenced by rock music at all. Despite Ignorant’s stern punk vocal, partly inspired by Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, the rest of the band were influenced by classical music and Benjamin Britten. Some of Crass’ riffs are even based on Britten’s work. Free jazz, European atonality, and avant-garde composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen were also big influences. The influence of avant-garde features heavily in songs like ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’ and ‘Mother Love’ but also frames the song ‘Big A, Little A’ through the use of sound collages and atmospheric a-tonal playing. Certainly a jazz influence can be heard in Rimbaud’s playing in ‘Big A, Little A’ which we will look at in more depth later in an analysis.
Though the band’s musical influences were diverse, Crass were gelled, not by the music of the time but instead by the social and political context. Rimbaud recalls: “We basically said ‘we’re not accepting the given rules of punk, which is three chords and smash smash smash. We actually brought in all sorts of strange elements; poetry, jazz drums or collages of radio clips etc., anything to broaden the front really.” Many of the members were from a hippie or art school background. However, their dissimilar musical tastes alongside the differences in age and class where two major factors in the shaping of Crass’ “unique chemistry that set up the claustrophobic tension so inherent in their sound” (Glasper).
Each member shared a similar dissatisfaction with society, state education and the government. In rejection of the social divides, mass unemployment and lack of responsiveness from the monarchy and government, the members of Crass decided to move into Dial House together to further the band and live as simply and self sufficiently as possible.
Dial House is a cottage in Essex that Penny Rimbaud discovered during the 1960’s. The house was derelict and Rimbaud took it on as a restoration project and home after acquiring permission from the farmer who’s land it sat on. This gave the band a free creative space, which they could maintain cheaply as the rent stayed at £7 a week until the ‘90s. For a punk band’s headquarters, the location was unusual, as at that time it was common for punks to live in squats based in the city where all the action was happening. Rimbaud conveys: “I wanted Dial House to be an open art central where people were welcome to come and visit or live, as long as they contributed in some way”.
In accordance with the art driven community atmosphere surrounding Dial House, Crass as a band were considered as an open project and over time they had many freelance members. They grew from a 2-piece to an all male 5-piece band and eventually became an 11-piece mixed gender collective. This was an intentional move as they sought not to be explicitly defined or recognised by any particular member. The band made up fake last names such as ‘Steve Ignorant’ and ‘Eve Libertine’ in an effort to remain anonymous to the police when protesting or performing. They all stood equally in a line at the front of the stage when performing and they regularly swapped around singers in an effort to remain faceless and nameless. Eve Libertine remembers: “It was a conscious decision not to put anybody forward”. Musically there were eight main songwriters in Crass. There were a small number of people in Crass who where filmmakers, artists and writers. They were considered as members of the band despite never actually performing or recording music.
Crass were an intensely focused group, and aside from being heavily influenced by a range of music genres they also took inspiration from writers and philosophers and were extremely politically driven. Crass were committed to pushing social boundaries. As artists, their motivation was a passion for humanity rather then fame. Crass’ political conviction and relevance to Generation X is most explicit in the impressive lyricism and passion conveyed through many of their songs such as ‘Do They Owe Us a Living?’ (1978), ‘How Does it Feel?’ (1982) and ‘Big A, Little A’. The best way to uncover some of their influences both musically and politically would be by analysing one of their songs. By looking into Crass’ most anthemic song ‘Big A, Little A’ in Chapter two, we will explore the direct influences that drove the band’s music and how their expression of their beliefs and emotions directly influenced so many people.
Chapter Two: Analysing ‘Big A Little A’
This chapter is a lyrical and stylistic analysis of the song ‘Big A, Little A’. The intension is to bring to light how a punk song can put forth the political astuteness that inspired so many. Also, we will look at some of the musical factors, which helped enforce the lyrical message.
Crass were extremely passionate in their political expressions. They could have made documentaries or written books but instead they chose music as their main medium of expression, and pointed out some of the inadequacies of its contextual infrastructure in the process. Over the course of their five albums, Crass told people about governmental hypocrisy, corporate malpractice, societal sexism and racism, and put forth personal viewpoints on sexual abuse and injustice.
However, many of Crass’ lyrics were extremely offensive to the general public due not only to the use of obscene language, but also the extreme accusations they put to political leaders. For example, in reference to the Falklands war, Crass asked Margaret Thatcher in a song: “How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand dead?” and in 1979 their song ‘Reality Asylum’ was deemed “criminally blasphemous, for which they were arrested” (Taylor 2004).
In 1981, the song ‘Big A, Little A’ symbolised the challenge that the band were putting to authority, the status quo and the music industry by ridiculing and questioning the authority of the Prime Minister, the Queen and even God. ‘Big A Little A’ is one of Crass’ most popular songs despite never appearing on an album. The song was released as a B-side to the single ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’ which reached no.1 in the indie chart and no.16 in the UK official chart, selling over 20,000 singles independently in the first week of release. Controversially, the following week the single was censored out of the charts, therefore it is unknown how many were sold in total (Rimbaud). This is due to the stigma attached to the band’s explicitly anarchist nature, which they had maintained since forming in 1976. By 1981, Crass were seen as a threat to society by the government due to their anti-establishment lyrics, which were even raised in parliament. Today it still remains extremely popular, racking up over 1.2 million YouTube views.
The B-side was a step up for Crass in terms of its lyrical depth, stylistic intricacy and recording techniques. Unlike their previous noisy anti-songs, this record was dangerously close to rock and roll whilst at times touching on funk and even includes a fast-paced rap section, which was ground breaking for its time. Though the lyrical content ensures that all this musical development is done without the slightest dilution of the band’s punk ideas.
Two years into Thatcher’s time in office, the song involved a deleterious depiction of Thatcher, which is the likely cause of it being banned from the charts (Rimbaud). Ignorant recalls: “We were in Thatcher’s Britain. The miners strike was coming up, the Falklands war was about to kick off and as a band, we’d gone down the line of confrontation and having a meaning and being against the system.” Aside from the personal anger Crass expressed in forming the basis for the song, the writing process of ‘Big A, Little A’ was principally influenced by social, political and other contemporary factors of the time. Ignorant explained “inspiration was all around you at that time, it was everywhere”.
‘Big A Little A’ comprises three distinct sections written collectively by Penny Rimbaud (lyrics, drums, vocals), Steve Ignorant (vocals), N. A. Palmer (guitar), Phil Free (guitar) and Pete Wright (bass, vocals). Although Steve Ignorant delivers the song with passion and energy, the lyrics were written entirely by drummer Penny Rimbaud who wrote much of the Crass material. The song’s contextual relevance is encompassed by Penny’s lyrical inspiration, taken from the conditions of working class society in London between 1977 and 1981. Penny recalls “Steve brought the wisdom of the street into my life so we could talk in a very balanced way. I could talk about another part of society and use a privileged education against privileged education.”
Punk music is often characterised as musically simple and lyrically aggressive. ‘Big A, Little A’ portrays those genre characteristics. However, there are a number of other farther-reaching influences involved in the song such as the use of a funk bass line, a nursery rhyme, a rap section and some jazz and avant- garde ideas.
Firstly by looking into the musical characteristics of the song, we can notice the similarity between this and other songs from the punk genre:
Table to show common characteristics in songs from the punk genre
As you can see from the table, ‘Big A, Little A’ reflects the qualities of the punk genre through its political subject matter, aggressive vocal delivery and simple chord structure. These qualities are synonymous with other songs from the genre such as ‘Hate & War’ by The Clash and ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols. The stripped down instrumentation of drum kit, electric bass guitar, distorted electric guitar and vocals also embody the music of the vast majority of successful punk bands.
Table to show ‘Big A, Little A’ chords
Although the vast majority of the song features a three chord riff, there are actually six chords in ‘Big A, Little A’, due to the tension building section toward the end in which Ignorant performs an anarchistic rant.
‘Big A, Little A’ uses a simple transitional structure to shape the politically motivated intentions behind the song. After exploring the harmony further we can see that the simplicity of the structure is related to a blues/rock and roll ‘I, IV, V’ progression. In relation to the blues, the band also use harmony to mark song changes. The harmonic similarity between ‘Big A, Little A’ and other punk songs compared with the rock and roll and blues genres, reflect the simple chord progressions of self-taught or new guitarists.
Harmonic comparisons between ‘Big A, Little A’ and other Crass songs
As with most punk songs, Crass use mostly power chords and their harmonies rely on primary triads. As you can see from the table, Crass often use the Root–Perf4th interval and in ‘Big A, Little A’ they use the Root – Perfect 5th, heading straight from the Tonic to the Dominant. This shows a repeated pattern in the band’s use of harmony throughout their writing. This simple harmonic writing method further enforces their belonging to the punk genre.
Despite Crass’ performance practice being overtly similar throughout their predated songwriting, the recording of ‘Big A, Little A’ is far more professional, from a sound production point of view, than many of the bands previous recordings. Feeding of the 5000 had a tinny sound with many of the lyrics muffled. Fans reported that they could not understand Ignorant’s vocals, which is why Crass began printing their lyrics on their record sleeves. However, ‘Big A, Little A’ makes use of advanced production and is well-recorded with a larger sonic landscape. Despite this progress, the fact that Rimbaud uses pots and pans as part of his percussion set up acts as a contradiction to the application of professional production. This relates to the D.I.Y. production found in skiffle music and brings the listener back to the band’s first principle; to remain grounded in their conviction not to take themselves completely seriously, only to take their political message seriously.
The songs structural arrangement is particularly well crafted, partly due to Crass’ use of a lyrical build in intensity alongside sound collages and sneering guitar tones. Interestingly, the song is framed by the use of live recordings of children singing the nursery rhyme ‘Big A, Little A, Bouncing Bee’ which Penny recalls was a street game like ‘catch’ played by children. Alongside the rhyme, a distorted Eb chord, struck three times on the electric guitar, begins the song. Then a slow and simple distorted guitar riff is played in time with lyrics sung by children at 150 BPM. Ignorant then sings the rhyme with the lyrics twisted from ‘the cats in the cupboard and he can’t catch me’ to ‘the system might get you but it won’t get me’. The intension here is to portray a corruption of innocence; a children’s song being taken on to fit a political agenda (Rimbaud).
Roaring guitars announce Ignorant’s lead vocal delivering the Crass interpretation of the nursery rhyme: “Big A, little A bouncing B, the system might have got you but it won’t get me”. The band stop and Ignorant counts them back in ‘1-2-3-4’ introducing a new tempo at 300 BPM, double the speed of the introduction. At this point the whole band come in playing the chorus section. This consists of drum kit, bass guitar, electric guitar and lead vocals. This section is repeated three times throughout the song. However, the lyrics never repeat the song title ‘Big A, Little A’, instead, the ‘Big A, Little A’ nursery rhyme melody is played on the bass guitar and rhythm guitar. This frees up the lead vocalist to ask the audience some politically loaded questions:
External control are you gonna let them get you?
Do you wanna be a prisoner in the boundaries they set you?
As with many of Crass’ songs, this chorus is implied through a repeated guitar riff rather then a distinct repeated section lead by the lead vocals. The catchy repeated melody is found in the instrumentation whilst the vocal continues on, delivering a lot of information to the listener. By including five lines of separate lyrics, Rimbaud has utilised the space in this section urgently asking the listener if they will be taken in by the ‘external control’ of the system, which is a personally burdening question. This shows an intention to inspire a serious act of re-evaluation in the listener’s beliefs.
The ‘Big A, Little A’ repeated chorus melody is sung, chanted, played on bass and on guitar in various stages of the song as a reminder of the innocence of the original nursery rhyme. This melody is extremely simple using only three notes in the key of E major, E, B and A. This reflects the childish and playful rhymes reminiscent of a playground. The simplicity and repetition make it easy to mimic vocally and on instruments, meaning crowds could remember it and chant it. This makes it memorable, and is partly why it’s so effective live.
Aside from establishing the songs qualities that reflect the punk genre, there are also hints at other musical influences. Halfway though the song the power chords stop suddenly and a ‘free jam’ section begins, allowing the bassist to improvise, something Crass had never done on record before. The bass melody gives the section a funk sound and the introduction of this new structural idea shows the band gaining an awareness of their instruments as previously Phil Free confessed they; “couldn’t jam”.
Rimbaud stated that John Cage was a big influence on Crass at the time. Cage’s compositions sought to provoke a sense of atmosphere as well as musicality. This influence can be felt in ‘Big A, Little A’ through the opening sections lack of timing and clear direction as the droning distorted guitar tone acts to create a feeling of horror and discomfort rather then harmony. At the end of the song there is a brief acting scene where a police officer chases a punk. The use of external noises, such as dialogue and running footsteps, shows advancement in Crass’ recording abilities as well as an avant-garde influence.
Despite these influences and small progressions in the musicality of the band, Crass’ punk rock attitude and motive to get the listener to think for themselves comes through the lyrics of the verses. Exploring more of the lyrical content from the verses will also help indicate how Crass became so influential and how they rallied so many fans to take protest action alongside them.
The songs opening use of dramatic dialogue, sound effects and children’s singing contribute to the theatrical tone which follows. Within the verses of the song, Ignorant depicts the detached vantage point of a leader over the masses, featuring heavily articulated role-play. He uses disposition in his lyrical voice to portray God, The Queen and Margaret Thatcher. Rather than speaking in his own gruff voice, he uses different accents to personify his characters, (for God, Ignorant uses a very deep droning accents and for the Queen he mimics a high pitched aristocratic English accent).
Despite the role-play, the figureheads are literal icons of power (e.g. Prime Minister, God) who in reality, govern the boundaries by which people live their lives. The performance context of these characters acts as a metaphor, which represents these figures as false, powerless puppets and Rimbaud portrays them lyrically as nonsensical and unjust. This invites the listener to question their legitimacy as rulers.
For example when verse one depicts the role of God and religion, the line: “We’ll blind you with morality, you’d best abandon any hope” strongly indicates a sense of hopelessness in following a religion. This is due to the awareness that religion condemns everyone as sinful, and sinners cannot be worthy of God, making ‘righteousness’ impossible by a religious standard.
The lyrics: “We’re telling you you’d better pray ‘cos you were born in sin/ Right from the start we’ll build a cell and then we’ll lock you in” powerfully encapsulate the absurdity of the church’s rule which many disagreed with at the time. This is backed up by: “we offer our forgiveness, but first we’ll make you pay.” further highlighting not only the bleakness of a religiously bound existence but also the futility of one.
Secondly, verse two depicts the role of the Queen and Monarchy. The Queen is attacked sarcastically: “My prisons and my mental homes have ever open doors” and “so I’ll see the peasants grovel if they refuse to bow”. This depicts the monarchy as having no empathy with (or understanding of) the general public’s problems.
Verse three turns to politics, and this time exclusively points the ‘fraud’ finger at Margaret Thatcher. The verse sarcastically opens: “Introducing the Prime Sinister, she’s a mother to us all”. Cleverly the line; “If Moses did it with his faith, she’ll do it with an army” commits a double blow to religion, by highlighting one of the more implausible stories from the Bible, therefore questioning its trustworthiness. Secondly, by mentioning the army, the line links religion with politics and war, most likely referring to the Falklands War, which was ongoing at the time. This would have brought the reality of war home and provoked pathos with the audience, who knew that British soldiers were dying in the ongoing war.
Though Ignorant acts out the different characters during the verses, the songs overall context can be described as parenthetical, outside of the performance context. This is because of the sarcastic reality within Rimbaud’s message that people are controlled by state and religion despite the fact these leaders do not always have the public’s best interests in mind. The song is therefore represented as a puppet show, although Crass seek to relate a message that’s more profound than a stage act can achieve. Rimbaud’s lyrical basis for the song represents the hierarchal system of religion and state as a cabaret of control over the masses.
The final verse concludes with a speech delivered by Ignorant speaking in his own gruff voice, readily representing the angry working class youth of Britain. Ignorant needs not announce that he is about to put forth the band’s anarchist opinion, but simply switches back to his own voice. The listener is familiar with this due to the ‘external control’ section signalling a sobering return from the theatrical piece. Ignorant gives the listener an alternative option to being under the control of state authority: “if you don’t want to be beaten down, refuse to join their race” and encourages them to “be exactly who you want to be, do what you want to do”, a simple option of refusal which empowers the listener by handing them a choice as to whether or not to accept authority.
The music intensifies throughout the progression of the verse as the guitar texture, dynamics and tempo increase whilst Ignorant’s vocal gains pace. Ignorant tries to fit so much information into the verse that the poetry quickly becomes a rap. This was three years before rap would be introduced to the British mainstream by New York’s hip hop scene. The four lines of intense rap (the closest comparison at the time being Gil Scott Herring) alongside building harmonic tension indicate that the song is heading to some sort of climatic epiphany where Crass will lead the way to a new utopian politics. However, whereas in 1977 Johnny Rotten had proclaimed “I am the anti-Christ, I am an anarchist” at the dawning of punk, and failed to fulfil his promise to lead people to an alternative lifestyle of true anarchism, Rimbaud turns this phrase into; “If you don’t like religion you can be the antichrist, If you’re tired of politics you can be an anarchist”. This essentially gives the audience a choice to make punk their own and make their reality whatever lifestyle they chose. As the songs tension reaches a climax, the tension simply dissolves and returns straight back to the ‘Big A, Little A’ melodic bass line. This brings us right back to the innocence of the playground and the move ingeniously tells the audience that Crass are not going to be the leaders, it’s down to each individual.
‘Big A Little A’ was an influential song, firstly because of its intricate use of lyricism, which is superbly executed throughout. Although the overall sound of the piece is quite a leap from earlier Crass songs, many of the constructive techniques used, act to exploit an atmosphere rather then a specific harmonic motif which traces back to earlier songs like their first single ‘Reality Asylum” / “Shaved Women’ (1979). For example, the use of contrast between sections is thought provoking and diverse.
Crass’ songwriting capabilities displayed in ‘Big A, Little A’ indicate why they had such a lasting underground influence through bands ranging from Conflict to Slaves. This raw piece of work strikingly displays the ethos, pathos and logos of a well-constructed political speech, which rallies the listener into concurrence and, in many cases, action. Amazingly though, Rimbaud and Ignorant have made their powerful point in three minutes, speaking vernacularly with their audience. Within these four short verses, Rimbaud has seamlessly pulled apart the three empires, which rule over people’s minds and keep them in line. By delegitimizing religion, politics and the monarchy, Crass have essentially freed their audience of all moral and lawful obligations to any kind of authority. Most interestingly, Crass have done this without promoting their own hidden motive to capture people as their followers or offer them a new leader. Instead they have asked people to think for themselves in full sincerity and to strive to live a fulfilling life. ‘Big A, Little A’ seamlessly epitomised the amassing anarcho punk culture of its time, through its musically mischievous and lyrically direct approach.
Crass were a band who held strong stylistic values such as creating D.I.Y. independent art and music and went on to form independent record label Crass Records. The label invested the Crass’ earnings into new bands and music. We will contextualise Crass’ influence through the anarcho punk movement and beyond, in chapter three.
Chapter 3: Anarcho-Punk & Further Influence
Crass are one of the few punk bands who managed, not only to carry over from the first wave of punk without loosing their validity, but to surpass their previous popularity. The persistence of Crass’ gritty, angry D.I.Y. music filled the void that the first wave had left behind. They gave hope that punk could be genuine without selling out, which made many fans question whether punk had ever been genuine before Crass. Penny recalls: “we saw something real that was starting in punk and we wanted to be a part of it. When we realised it was fake, we made it real”.
Part of what contributed to their popularity was their unique concerts. They were events encompassing music, poetry, film and performance with art and literature (aka homemade banners and fanzines). On their tours Crass booked out halls and decorate them with their own posters and backdrops. Gee Vaucher, who designed the bands striking and thought-provoking collage-style artwork, also designed these wall coverings. Vaucher, in collaboration with film maker Mick Duffield, created films made up of clips of movies, historical footage, news extracts and home recordings, which would feature as a projected backdrop to Crass performances. The band also used snippets recorded from radio and television to create thought-provoking sound art pieces as part of their music. “The band was only very much a part of the whole show, it wasn’t like pop and rock music, where the band is the show” noted Rimbaud.
Often there were stalls from different political organisations and members of Crass would personally interact with the audience by talking to individuals before and after the show, handing out fanzines and lyrics sheets. Ignorant recalls: “the gigs were like a meeting place. People would just stand around talking, exchanging ideas and it was like Crass getting on stage was almost secondary to that”. The band personally wrote their own leaflets on subjects ranging from bomb making to bread baking, with the hope of enlightening people. Crass fan Mick Howes recalls: “as a movement it was far different to anything I’d seen before. I was bored with bog standard punk rock for punk rock’s sake; this (Crass concerts) became everything from eco warriors to paving the way of vegetarianism to serious far left and anarchist politics. Before long I was reading things and getting into things I’d never have dreamed of doing, as were so many other people”. Crass fan Paul Scott recalls: “You’d read a record sleeve from Crass, then you’d go get a book out and find out about something. That’s why I became a vegetarian because it made me investigate what happened to animals in laboratories and slaughterhouses”.
The fact Crass fulfilled a truly anarchist lifestyle with their music and in their personal lives, was a huge part of their appeal with fans. Berger said they were an “example to others that it was possible”, “Anarchy in action”. Aside from keeping their concert tickets and album prices at a low cost, Crass would set aside one day a week solely for responding to their fan mail with handwritten letters. To separate their stance from punk bands who had signed major record deals and forgotten about the hardships faced by working class Britain, they endeavoured to put everything they earned back into the band and later, into furthering other bands. At Crass’ peak, Dial House had two thousand visitors in one year and the band received two hundred letters a week. Rimbaud recalls: “We realised it wasn’t just us we were speaking to, it was hundreds of thousands of kids hanging on every word you’re saying” and “That’s a responsibility we took seriously.” Ignorant adds that even now: “People will come up and say “Crass changed my life”.”
From the beginning Crass had expressed the sincerity of the values they held, including being environmentalists, being against animal cruelty and against war. The influence on their fans led to many of them forming their own bands, becoming protesters, feminists, vegetarians and vegans. Ignorant recalls that by 1981 Dial House was “a headquarters, not a home”. “By now the leaflets we turned out were political, trying to organise people, to create a movement.” Crass’ instigation of an anarchist movement rallied thousands of like-minded people. At this time their hardcore fanbase developed into the Anarcho Punk Movement.
The music side of the anarcho punk movement was a result of Crass’ influence on a huge wave in new bands. Reynolds recalls: “From 1980 onwards, there had been a ‘punks not dead resurgence”. Bands such as Vice Squad, Discharge, Anti Pasti, Flux of Pink Indians, GBH, Zounds, Poison Girl (who both toured with Crass) and countless others overran the independent chart (Reynolds 2005:424). These bands shared a trashy sound, owed to their limited or non-existent musical skill as well as a politically motivated anger. Many of these bands initially formed because of the influence of Crass. Conflict, Poison Girls, Zounds and Flux of Pink Indians each signed to Crass Records.
Crass Records promoted their bands through creating a sense of community. The bands played together often in anarchist centres which were abandoned buildings that anarcho punks would move in to and squat, using the building temporarily as a meeting place, information centre and concert venue where anyone was welcome. Mick Howes recalls: “It was just a meet up of likeminded people”. The bands all used variations of the Crass branding as part of their artwork and record sleeves, clearly stating their association. The bands were all serious protesters, promoting similar causes and many of the concerts were benefits of some kind, raising money for miners during the strikes of the ‘80s among other causes. By having all of their artists support each other by playing gigs and touring the UK and Europe together, anarcho punk spiralled into a bigger scene, which spread across the continent.
Colin Jerwood of Conflict was a passionate animal rights campaigner. Jerwood said that rather than educating people he wanted to: “open people’s eyes to what was going on, through images and putting out records”. Through the anarcho punk movement many people became involved with the Animal Liberation Front and would conduct acts of sabotage towards companies who harmed or experimented on animals. This involved graffitiing or throwing paint over the houses of those who experimented on animals, or sneaking into laboratories to document the experiments through taking pictures or filming. Mick Howes recalls: “I applied for a job in an animal testing laboratory so I could go there and report back what was going on” and “It felt like an individual could do something to affect social change. But it did take direct action to do it.”
For many anarcho punks, protests and rallies were as important as the music. The accumulation of this movement led to the coming together of thousands of anarcho punks in one huge protest in London, the ‘Stop The City’ marches. Green Peace instigated ‘Stop The City’, however Crass and other bands on the scene had a huge involvement in the protests which saw thousands of anarcho punks involved in the blockading of London’s city central in 1983. ‘Stop The City’ was a protest against the military- finance complex. Many protesters named it ‘Carnival Against War, Oppression and Destruction’. The protest involved a daylong blockade of the financial district in the city of London. One blockade involved three thousand people and caused £100 million in shortfall. Police made one thousand arrests on protesters within the following eighteen months.
Crass’ involvement in the ‘Stop The City’ marches gave the anarcho punk movement an opportunity to show how united and coordinate they were, a far cry from the mainstream portrayal of punks as chaotic and incompetent. Berger wrote; “It was no longer a bunch of kids who bought the same records – it was a peoples state” and “a tradition had been born”.
By 1984, Crass had split. The pressures of living together, touring endlessly on the D.I.Y. scene with little money or comfort and having to constantly justify their anarchist position had worn thin. Ignorant admits: “In the end it just burned me out” and “we all got to that point”. In their eight years of activity, Crass had changed music, rallied a movement and captured the attention of the government, having questions raised in parliament and on ‘Question Time’. They had influenced a number of social movements including Animal Rights, Nuclear Disarmament Movement and the Feminist Movement. They had also captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of fans globally and inspired other bands to join forces with them and create like-minded music through the anarcho punk scene. As a band and record label Crass have had a viral effect, infiltrating many aspects of society.
Their infamous black and white logo design and record sleeves created by Gee Vaucher have since influenced artists as famous as Banksy and been copied by major fashion design companies for clothing ranges. In 2011 artist Toby Mott exhibited part of the Crass ephemera collection at the Roth Gallery in New York. This featured artwork, albums, singles and copies of Crass’ self-published fanzine, Inter- National Anthem.
Musically, their influence is wide ranging, from anti-folk artist Jeffrey Lewis who in 2007 released an acoustic covers album of Crass material entitled ‘12 Crass Songs’, to the NME acclaimed lo-fi garage punk duo Slaves. Bad Breeding, Bob Vylan and countless other new artists cite a Crass influences and hundreds more artists have recently used stems from ‘Feeding Of The 5000’ to remix and re-release Crass songs.
Slaves become increasingly influential since 2014, after signing to Virgin/EMI and playing Reading and Leeds Festival. Despite their embrace of mainstream attention, Slaves claim to be musically inspired by Crass despite forming three decades later, in 2012. NME wrote that the duo had potential to become the “full blown re-embodiment of Crass for the new generation” (NME 2013). Slaves front man Isaac said: “I just like that when (Crass) started they said you don’t have to play an instrument to be in our band. You can just do what you want so one of their guitarists just made noise” and “they were the first sort of band that I listened to that did it for the message of the music, they didn’t do it for anything else.” Laurie, Slaves’ guitarist added: “Their sound is just unrivalled as well. I mean, no one sounds like Crass. And they’ve got hooks that stick in your head but its anarcho, and I see pop sensibilities there, just – there’s no one else like Crass.”
However, Crass’ influence goes further than the music industry. Through Dial House, there have been countless other triumphs brought about by Crass members, outside of the band’s heading. Through the many people who have been involved in Dial House over the years, countless projects have reached fruition, meeting Rimbaud’s hope of the place being an art central and creative hub.
Some of the projects to come out of Dial House include ICES 72’ Festival, the first Stonehenge Festival, the avant-garde band ‘EXIT’, countless paintings, performance art pieces, exhibitions, and many published literary writings. “Crass the punk band was one of our many project, it just happened to be the most successful in terms of popularity.” (Rimbaud 2012)
Conclusion: You’re The Only You
“It’s still there with me and I’m a changed person because of it.” – Mick Howes, Crass Fan
From looking into a range of factors that influenced Crass, namely their social and economic context combined with a plethora of musical inspiration, we can now clearly see how they appealed to such a vast audience. Crass’ legacy is apparent today through the prevalence of their musical and political ideologies through their fans and those they inspired.
Crass spoke to people on a personal level and have encouraged many to think for themselves. The motivational attitude they encouraged, has seen many of their listeners develop the confidence to learn instruments, start their own bands, start record labels, become fanzine editors, film makers or protesters among countless other ventures.
Ignorant said: “Crass stood up and said there’s another way of doing things. That people were more important then power” and “a whole nation of kids clicked into that.” The growth of anarcho punk spurred interest in anarchist ideas whilst the anarchist punk movement pioneered by Crass has grown continually in the UK, USA, Europe and elsewhere.
Ideologically, Crass inspired many people to fight for change in any way they could. Whether it is personal, social or political. Through their music and words, the exposure Crass gave to injustices such as sexism and animal cruelty led many of their fans to change their lives in some way. Vaucher told Radio Free France: “The feeling I got off a lot of young people was that they thought there was a lot wrong with the world.” And added, “we’ve offered them information which hopefully gave them the possibility of deciding for themselves, and a broader outlook on their own lives”
In many ways, it can be argued that Crass were more active politically, socially and musically then many other punk bands that had gone before. Despite being self taught musicians and many of the band coming from poor backgrounds, they used poetry and lyrics to embolden their passionately fuelled convictions to Environmentalism, Anti-War and Feminism (Two of their popular slogans were ‘Fight War, Not Wars’ and ‘There Is No Authority But Yourself’). Berger wrote: “it is with us today all over the world in the anti-globalisation movement, the animal rights movement, in various anti-war movements and underneath the red and black flags you’ll see at demonstrations from Sydney to Lodz”.
When asked, Rimbaud said he believed that; “The legacy is that you can do it if you’re willing to try. Each of us has talent, beauty – all those things are very human attributes and they’re so masked over and suppressed by the culture we live in. If you’re going to be a victim to the world, which is how we’re taught to be, then you can’t change it.” Rimbaud conveyed: “the spark of joy, spark of love, they’re all within us. The first way of changing the world is changing your attitude to it.”