A record of letters, articles, postings and e-mails,
February 2009 – September 2010
concerning Penny, Gee and Allison’s ‘Crassical Collection’.
To Mark Hodkinson.................................................................Pete Wright
POMONA.......................................................................22nd March, 2004
I was sent a copy of your book, ‘Crass - Love Songs’ by Gee recently. Having read your introduction, and the preface by Penny, I felt moved to write to you. Crass was a group functioning on consensus with the occasional veto thrown in for good measure, so I thought you might be interested in a slightly different view of the proceedings. From the nature of your introduction, I’d say that you have a pretty thorough grounding in certain aspects of the band. I’d like to broaden the context.
Things were fine when we started gigging, before we had any status or influence. The main discomfort I felt and still feel about what the band promoted, started when I realised that Thatcher’s sordid right-wing laissez-faire was little different from what we were pushing. It was an unpleasant shock. Neither Thatcher nor we considered the damage done. We concentrated on the ‘plus’ side always. To say that everyone can ‘do it’, and counting it a justification when the talented, the motivated, or the plain privileged responded, while ignoring the majority who couldn’t ‘do it’, and those who got damaged trying, is a poor measure of success.
Just as Putin has become the new Tzar of Russia, Crass used the well worn paths to success and influence. We had friends, people with whom we worked and cooperated. We were educated, socially connected. We networked, lied, cheated, intimidated, tricked, bought, bribed, mocked, flattered, self-deluded, and accommodated all manner of contradictions to maintain our ‘rightness’. And we worked hard.
The early ad hoc nature of the band led to some weird rationales. The Anarchy banner at gigs was there purely to stop us being co-opted by the far left or right who were circling at the time. That’s all it was, an inspired move, suggested by Penny, I think, because who the hell knew about the academic aspect? It was what we said it was. This was England. Anarchy is as bollocks in this country, as it is bourgeois on the continent.
The barrage of querulous questions that ensued crammed us into defining a cod ideology, a chimera of individualistic libertarianism. Blue-black.
The parallels between Crass and the opposition penetrated everywhere. The ‘apocalyptic’ nature of our outlook, our ‘all or nothing’ message, reflected the State pacifying its population through fear of total destruction. It’s not easy to put forward a reasoned analysis of the use of bogeymen to justify State oppression, if the supposed radicals are plying the same trade to bolster an identical ‘us and them’, ‘all or nothing’ mentality.
I think it was about 1982 when I came across an article by an Australian scientist/scientific journalist who suggested that if all the nuclear weapons in the world were launched, arrived and exploded at the same time – an unlikely worst case, but go with it – then the net result, excluding the highly improbable occurrence of a catastrophic crust split or some such, would be that most of northern Europe and parts of north America would be a wasteland. Since most people in the world live south of the equator, and the weather systems north and south hardly mix, the result for this majority would probably be a move to the right in their governments and a marginally increased radiation count. Our big bombs just weren’t that big. The Apocalypse which we projected on the rest of the world was our local apocalypse, limited to ourselves. “We are the world.” Oh yeah? It’s the same today. Me is everything.
The writer’s coda to the Crass world view was that it made fighting for substantial reforms virtually impossible. The view we promoted was the view the State promoted. The grooves run deep. The early quality of Crass was a much more hopeful, anarchic, irresponsible ‘fuck off to the system’, inchoate, intelligent and insidious.
The central premise of your book: Crass lyrics as love songs troubles me. What can I say. It seems almost churlish to carp, although I get a mischievous image, as Crass members wax lyrical about love, of maudlin alkies crying into their Special Brew. The Crass people were personable, affectionate, hospitable, but the Crass engine was something altogether darker.
Those poignant claims – yes I’m as guilty – of a bedrock of love and sensitivity driving all that bilious doggerel and poetry was the lure of mystification that flooded through the last thirty years, like the uncritical taste for alternative medicine and self-centred views of the beast, ‘human spirit’. Hand in hand: State, media, and us proles alike. We were all at it. Still are.
I wonder when we’ll be able to face up to the essential nature of evangelism, of proselytising. Forceful persuasion requires a platform plus charisma plus bigotry (plus the promotion of the same message in a different package if possible). That works well.
Crass was bigoted. A singleness of message, a polar view shorn of checks and balances and considerations. The nature of the people who are good at this is by nature skewed. Balanced people don’t cut it. Bigotry is widespread. Rarer, is that extremist edge to society which allows the centre to adjust as it sees the need. The raw material for this edge is always the fuckup people, and they usually get more fucked up in the process. That’s the cost. I feel we failed. We were the raw material, but somehow we fluffed it.
The pacifism that ran through the Crass output is something else that has pretty much escaped examination. If you can get what you want by your class, education, charm, money, contacts, location – where is the need to fight? In the far off places where the shit that this country generates is manifest, the difference between the pacifist and non-pacifist, is that the first chooses to suffer to change things, while the second chooses to inflict suffering on the opposition. In this country pacifism is a convenience, a safe, assured parking bay.
And part of the Crass pacifist ‘message’ was the recognition of the exposed and public nature of our lives, and the danger of kids screwing up theirs with serious but naive, ‘on message’ bravura. It was also a sharp cut-off point to what we were prepared to do. We could shout as loud and as violently as we wanted, while holding tight the lid.
When Penny kindly offered me ten minutes of stage time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall Anti-the-coming-war gig last year, and I got an unsettling glimpse of the retro programme, my concern was how, despite all this, was it possible to communicate my reservations. An audience can’t really hear what a band is saying, so I hired an actress to fake a stage invasion half way through our allotment, and challenge me with all the things that I wanted to challenge both the other performers and the audience with. Lord knows, I’d been years challenging myself. The central aim for me that night was for us to ask ourselves, “Is this enough? If it’s not going to be enough to do what’s needed, if it’s not going to do the trick, why do it? Why not spend the time and energy thinking up something that will work?” Shift the dialogue up an uncomfortable notch.
I suspect that art follows and interprets sea changes within societies. Artists traditionally claim the credit for initiation, but it’s perhaps more an essential ‘camp following’ and inspired packaging of the glorious, shocking, organic us. The most successful artists are often the most eclectic. No less for that. But it’s too easy to be uncritical as we bow before innovation.
We watched the unions in the seventies trading the power of collective action for a pay rise, rather than for time and space, and they subsequently watched their gains vanish into the mist of inflation.
Crass grabbed hold of something undefined in ’77, and transformed it by diligent effort and talent, eventually, into more of the same old same old. That is our legacy, bless us. The music was good; the gigs were good; good art; good prose; good records; it was great to believe; comforting to have our egos looked after; terrific to work with people we respected. And we’re still fucked up. Still becoming what we most despise. Still looking.
For me, more of the psycho, please. Less of the phant.
(I’ve enclosed a book I did for an Italian publisher years ago. There are some annoying typos, especially early on, but it’s just for your amusement.)
Mark, not anarchy nor peace. Have a pleasant spring.
To read more/download this material, click on the link below.