Crass: Love Songs cover

Crass, Love Songs (Hebden Bridge: Pomona, 2004). Pay no more than £9.99. http://www.pomonauk.com.

“In attempts to moderate us, they ask why we don’t write love songs.
What is it that we sing then?
Our love of life is total, everything we do is an expression of that.
Everything that we write is a love song.”

Crass, Yes Sir, I Will.

In 1982, as the rise of anarcho-punk continued apace, Crass — the band who served as the movement’s catalysts and collective figureheads — republished the collection of essays that had accompanied the their fourth studio LP Christ: The Album in book form, hoping to attract the attention of those “that might like the ideas but can’t stand the music.”

It was an acknowledgement of one of the many paradoxes which surrounded anarcho-punk: that the same music and counter-cultural practice which made anarcho-punk so compellingly attractive to many, also repelled many others who found the subculture’s output unlistenable and unfathomable. For those left puzzled or unmoved, its calls for “anarchy, peace and freedom” remained inaudible. And yet, if the collective behind Crass had chosen to rely on the written word alone, it’s probable that their message would have languished unread on the shelves of back-street radical bookshops.

Some of those determined to ‘congratulate’ Class War for supposedly reinvigorating and challenging the anarchist movement in the mid-1980s (with a politics no less romanticised or utopian – in its own way – than Crass’s own) remain reluctant to acknowledge anarcho-punk’s own vital contribution to British anarchism’s resurgence. For all its uncertainty over the dynamic connecting personal and collective ‘revolution’, and its contradictory class politics, anarcho-punk at least insisted that radical individual practice had to inform and underwrite social revolutionary ambition – a truism that many who went on to abandon ‘lifestyle-ism’ in pursuit of simpler picket-line politics had later to relearn.

However contested the legacy of Crass remains, there can be little doubt about the enormous significance of the movement that the band inspired — not least to a fractured and declining anarchist movement in danger of being eclipsed on all sides as the 1970s burnt themselves out. At a time when traditional anarchist events might attract only the battle-hardened few, and anarchist publications were struggling even to maintain their existing readerships, hundreds of thousands of fresh young militants were immersing themselves in the febrile political and musical culture of anarcho-punk. Certainly, a good few of those caught up in the excitement of the movement were more interested in the noise and the shocking imagery on display than the intricacies of the politics. And yet a significant proportion of those excited by the political possibilities which anarcho-punk demanded sought to make good on their new commitment to the anarchist cause. This belief encouraged the growth of a network of bands and fanzines committed to combatting the commercial corruption of punk, and to recapturing its true subversive potential.

The publication by Pomona of a comprehensive anthology of Crass lyrics, gives those who weren’t around at the time (as well as those who were but who couldn’t stand the racket) a chance to explore the contours of the band’s political and poetic vision. Those looking for strategic clarity or for bullet-point political platforms were always going to be disappointed by anarcho-punk’s manifestos, but for visceral and passionate denunciations of the alienation, exploitation and war-lust of world capitalism (and the fragility of the war-state in the event of our collective rejection of its authority), little anarchist writing of the time can come close.

In Love Songs, Crass’s usual corporate responsibility for the band’s output is suspended, and the authors of the individual song lyrics are revealed for the first time. This actually serves to prove that most members of the band did contribute to what was a genuinely inclusive writing process. For those who know the material, there are some interesting surprises: American poetess Annie Anxiety is revealed as the authoress of the stunning Shaved Women from 1979; while much of the most militant material from 1984, when the group’s residual pacifism was under acute strain, is shown to have been written by Pete Wright and Gee Sus.

In his introduction, drummer Penny Rimbaud combines a thoughtful and sometimes witty account of the band’s work, with an exploration of anarcho-punk’s reverberations in the present day, and a contemptuous dismissal of the anarchist pretensions of punk ‘celebrity’ Mr J Rotten. A preface by Pomona’s Mark Hodkinson also unsentimentally captures much of the sense of what it was like to be a young participant and observer caught up in the original anarcho-punk wave.

In 1983, Crass’s own frustration with the ‘inadequacy’ of their work saw the band record, and tour with, the first truly deconstructed punk concept album, Yes Sir, I Will. The political impact of this creative decision was decidedly uneven, and in retrospect it can be seen as heralding the start of the movement’s own endgame. For Crass, fervently “concerned with ideas, not rock and roll”, the music was only ever a delivery system — yet that medium sometimes obscured the message, and Crass came to feel trapped in a role that was alien to them. Crass’s hope – that punk rock might be moulded into a force strong enough to challenge the foundations of the state – might ultimately have been unrealisable, but the lyrics collated in Love Songs serve as a fitting testament to the vigour of anarcho-punk’s world-changing ambitions, their power undiminished by the passage of more than twenty years.

Rich Cross
Review in Freedom 26 June 2004