Sunday, January 28, 2007
THE STORY OF CRASS - George Berger (author); book - Omnibus Press, 295 pages, 2006
I am truly baffled as to how this book came to be. Not how or why it was written, mind you, but how this book in particular came to be known as a "finished product" published by a sizeable book company whom you'd imagine would at least have a spell check and semi-competent editor handy for a basic review of its contents. I am by means a Wordsworth when it comes to the ability to quip and pen sentences which dazzle minds: that I am aware of. However, I have never been properly "published", and I hope to god that if I ever do, I do a better job of it than Mr. Berger.
The story of Crass, the UK anarchist band from the UK ca. 1977-'84 is a fascinating one, whether you are a fan or their politics/music or not. They were no simple rock band, and certainly not your average punkers. For starters, half the band were in their 30s when they played their first gig, drummer and main-man Penny Rimbaud being 34(!). By 1977, this hardcore group of hippie-punks had been living at Dial House - a country farm property which dated back to the 1500s - for nearly a decade. Penny had been an art teacher; Phil Free had 3 children; Gee Vaucher had worked as a straight journalist in New York; several had been crucially involved in the formative stages of the infamous Stonehenge Free Festival in the early '70s, and has also organised an experimental music festival which had the likes of John Cage and Japan's Taj Mahal Travelers visit and play the UK. Much like Throbbing Gristle, a similarly-minded group of slightly older English miscreants who were allowed a rebirth w/ the advent of punk, members of Crass had spent a good deal of the early '70s mired in the post-hippie radical underground. TG had Coum, Crass had Exit, an improv outfit inspired by psychedelic rock, free jazz and Mahuvishnu Orchestra (first two albums, I presume!). Any tapes out there? I'd like to hear them.
Now that makes for an interesting story. If you have the vaguest interest in post WW2 "rad" culture related to rock 'n' roll and/or art-school buffoonery of the McLarenesque stripe, it is a story well worth hearing. Crass remain enormously influential, despite my cautious appraisal of them as a "fan". My beefs? My main problem w/ Crass is that, for a musical group, they appeared to be remarkably disinterested in music per se. Outside of the youngest member of the group, Steve Ignorant, they seemed to be so disinterested in the actual music of punk that it makes me wonder why they even bothered sounding as damn "punk" as they did. Although originally inspired by the outrage and excitement which accompanied the 'Pistols/Clash et al at the time, most of the band, from what I can gather here, were far more interested in avant-garde and classical music, although Rimbaud displays an enthusiasm for Patti Smith and Television (as well as Coltrane and Zappa). The point? I think this explains the complete awfulness of some of their music. Crass were not punk "rockers" by any stretch. That's why some people love them; that's why I think they probably shouldn't have bothered w/ rock music at all, since most of their attempts aren't that successful.
The Feeding of the 5,000 is an entirely generic and unlistenable slab of bovver-boy punk, with Penis Envy and Stations Of The Crass fairing a little better (especially the former). Yes Sir, I Will gets a walloping from Berger here, though I don't think it's as bad as he paints it to be. For "anarcho-punk", I'll take some Rudimentary Peni or early Discharge any day of the week, and The Pop Group managed to combine rad politics and truly engaging music like Crass could never hope to. David Tibet (of Current 93), a long-time friend/fan, makes a particularly accurate criticism of the band when he attacks their completely over-the-top use of expletives in song. I have no beef w/ the odd "shit" or "fuck", though anyone who's glanced over a Crass lyric sheet must admit that the swearing adds nothing to the message, and ultimately does the band a great disservice in making them to appear much dopier than they in fact were.
I have friends who claim that Crass spoke to them like practically no other band did. Good people, smart people, people I hang with. Back in high school there was a cool guy in the year above me who was heavily into Crass (since there was about 5 people in a school of 1,500 people who were into hip music, this is noteworthy); he used to lend me their LPs and tell me how much they opened his eyes to the world and the way it worked. I listened to the records, studied the lyrics and promptly returned them, thanked him and wondered what on earth he was talking about. Crass' lyrics meant nothing to me, and still don't. Lyrically they were completely trite, overwhelmingly negative, accusatory, condescending, devoid of any humour (or at least any funny humour, since the band themselves still claim there was humour in what they wrote... really?) and, occassionally, guilty of outrageous stupidity. Nail me to a cross if you will, but I'll take Never Mind The Bollocks any day of the week.
But still, they're a band I admire simply for what they did: they walked it like they talked it. There's a few good-to-great records in there (esp. Penis Envy), they admirably refused to curry favour from the Right and Left in the music scene, and, well, they did have some pretty cool artwork. All of the above is my opinion, but I haven't just written a book on Crass, George Berger has. Where does he go wrong? I'll put it in point form...
1) This book is littered with spelling mistakes. Really, really dumb spelling mistakes.
2) It is full of grammatical errors and the kind of waffling run-on sentences which last full 10-line paragraphs.
3) This is the opening line to the last chapter: "In 2007 it will be 25 years since Crass got together for a bit of a laugh and something to do". Spot the error? Did anyone at Omnibus actually proof-read this book at all??
4) Berger makes some rather silly and flippant judgement calls regarding other bands, deriding Discharge as a one-note group who, "it became obvious", wrote the same song over and over. But what a song!
5) There's way too many quotes taken from Rimbaud's tract, The Last Of The Hippies. Whole pages, especially in the last 3rd of the book, where it appears Berger is attempting to take up space w/ someone else's quote because he hasn't done the proper research or interviews himself.
I read The Story Of Crass in a couple of nights. I was given it as a birthday present from a friend who works for Omnibus' distributor here. The story itself carries the book, not the writing and certainly not the narrative. It does succeed in shedding light on certain characters within the band: Steve Ignorant, probably the most likeable of the lot, comes across as a Sid-with-brains larrikin who preferred a shag 'n' a beer to reading Bakunin and sipping tea, and came to resent the rigidity of the Crass lifestyle (the band was so under the microspcope from the authorities they had to live like monks to avoid busts or negative publicity of any kind), whilst Penny Rimbaud is brought to life as an intelligent and motivated individual embittered over the years by Crass' sorry lack of credit from the mainstream media for their "achievements". Brought up in wealth and well educated, he still lives in Dial House to this day, sharing it w/ any like-minded drifter who cares to stop by for a day, week or a year or two.
I reviewed a couple of Crass records in this blog a few years back (they're in the archives somewhere) and my original opinion still stands: the story surrounding the band is far more interesting than the actual music or, indeed, their lyrics. The band deserves to have a book written about them. A really good book, a well written, thoroughly researched book w/ an author the stature of, say, Jon Savage. This is most certainly not it.