Amorphous Piece - Crass gig poster jigsaw

The May 1984 Nottingham Crass gig and the story of THAT poster…

I think I put more effort into the posters than anything else… Obviously some people… rather than flypost them or stick them where they promised they would, were sticking them up in their bedrooms… But even having things like bright colours on the poster was a bit of a radical step for some people.

IN THE SPRING of 1984, the anarchist punk band Crass set out on what was to be group’s last live tour. With the help of local organisers, Crass had put together six shows that would take their rented tour bus to venues across England, from Cleator Moor in the north to Penzance in the south-west. An additional London show would later be tacked on after the last of these gigs. Several weeks later Crass would perform live for the last time at The Coliseum Theatre in Aberdare, Wales on 11 July, in what was a raucous, boisterous benefit for striking coalminers and their families.

The experience of the band’s final tour has continued to pique interest in the decades that followed Crass’ demise, for understandable reasons, most of them intertwined with fascination about the nature of the group’s endgame.

Amongst the various artefacts and ephemera from that time, one potent image has continued to resurface as a visual shorthand for the whole tour: the three-colour, silk-screened A2 poster for the Crass gig at the Marcus Garvey Centre in Lenton, Nottingham on 2 May 1984. It’s an image continually referenced online, and shared and republished time and again.

At the end of 2019, the poster was reproduced as a 1000-piece jigsaw by Amorphous Pieces. Over the years, a few wily desktop designers have Photoshopped and shared ‘re-imagined’ versions of the poster to create fictional digital memorablia for other Crass shows. In recent weeks, the poster was repurposed and redesigned by promoters Both Eyes Open to advertise the warm-up show for Steve Ignorant’s (delayed and rescheduled) IGNORANT TOUR at the Old Cold Store in Nottingham on 24 September 2021 (“for the first time in Nottingham in 37 years – performing Crass songs”). Steve Ignorant commissioned a limited-edition series of hoodies and T-Shirts based on the updated design.

Given how powerfully striking the poster is, it’s no real surprise that it has secured the kind of longevity that few of its contemporaries have achieved. Yet despite the interest that the design continues to attract, there are some common misunderstandings about its provenance.

For some time, the Amorphous Pieces listing for the jigsaw reported that the poster artist was a “person unknown” and suggested that “the same design was used for all the gigs on what turned out to be the final Crass tour”. The fact that neither of these statements was true should not be seen as a criticism of the efforts of the fine folk at Amorphous Pieces – who’ve now updated the listing to credit the artist and remove reference to the image’s ‘all tour’ status – to get things right. But it is an interesting reflection of the fact that, even in the 2021, with so much punk history available digitally and online, it’s not always straightforward to uncover all of the traces of our shared anarcho-punk past.

TAKING LIBERTIES

Several years ago, I interviewed the individual who organised the May 1984 Nottingham Crass gig – and who designed and silk-screened this celebrated and much-copied poster by hand. To understand how the gig – and its celebrated poster – came about requires a bit of context. In the early eighties, the newly reconstituted Nottingham Anarchist Group had adopted the public moniker of the Society for Mutual Aid and Self-Help (SMASH, for short) in order to make it easier to book meeting rooms and venues. (The group were finally “outed” in an exposé in a local free paper, after an inquisitive journalist wondered who the eager young people appealing for donations for a fund-raising sale really were – ‘Jumble Tumble Rumbled’ ran the headline).

One building that the group used regularly was the one run by Nottingham Community Arts, on the junction of Noel Street and Gregory Boulevard in Forest Fields. This provided a meeting and exhibition space, along with extensive facilities for printing and photography, including a dark room, a range of black-and-white printers and a silk-screen press. It was the type of community arts presence that was common in larger towns and cities in the UK in the 1980s – with rent, staff budgets and equipment usually underwritten by council subsidy, and widely used by a wide array of art, charity and neighbourhood organisations as well as numerous national and local campaigns and protest groups which sprang up during the decade of Thatcherism. (The premises have long since morphed into the New Art Exchange.)

Although it was a stretch to its “artistic” remit, the centre played host to many activities organised by members of SMASH – in large part thanks to the sympathetic tolerance of the small group of staff who ran the premises. Nottingham Community Arts was also widely used by others in the anarchist, libertarian, bohemian and free-art scenes who were happier working autonomously, whilst still doing “good things.” One such independent organiser was Alan Schofield.

In the winter of 1983, he had begun to promote events at different venues in the city under the moniker ‘Taking Liberties’. From the outset, Taking Liberties was a one-person operation. “I’d been putting on gigs for the previous six months, which included people like Poison Girls,” he recalls, “and Crass were a group that I knew a lot of people that I knew, knew about. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it felt very much like… if I was doing the sorts of gigs I was doing, then Crass were a band on the list.” His own musical interests stretched across (and far beyond) the alternative, punk and post-punk scenes. And he organised gigs for Chumbawamba, Toxic Shock and several others in the anarcho-punk orbit as well as for Crass (an activity that’s attracted far less attention).

His first awareness of Crass came in 1981, but without hearing any of the band’s music. “I remember living in Oxford with a group of people who were involved… with anarchist politics, and I remember Crass albums being in the house. And I remember reading some things about them in magazines like The Leveller, and maybe Freedom and Peace News,” he says.

Large and lively

Mike Holderness, who was a member of the then-Nottingham-based Peace News collective and who had written the sleeve essay for the Nagasaki Nightmare single, put Alan and Crass in touch. After some discussion with Andy Palmer of Crass, an agreement was reached he would organise and promote a gig in Nottingham during the upcoming May 1984 tour. “When Crass rang, they were very specific about saying ‘we want a venue that holds 400, and a stage which is at least four-foot high.’… I’d said ‘I’ve organised gigs with Poison Girls, and there was no problem with a stage that was eighteen inches.’ And they said ‘ah, our audience is very different.'” That would be an undertaking on a larger scale than the Taking Liberties’ norm. “I’d been doing gigs at odd commercial venues… including nightclubs like The Palais de Dance, or the Bali Ha’i section of it – but there were very few venues in Nottingham that could handle anything that looked like it was going to be that large and that lively.”

“The Marcus Garvey, at that time, had only been open a little while,” he recalls. Formerly the main offices of Raleigh Cycles, the Howitt Building in Lenton had been closed as Raleigh’s operations in the city contracted and then bought by Nottingham City Council in the early 1980s. The premises included a ‘spacious attic concert hall’, and as parts of the building were redesignated as the new Marcus Garvey Centre the concert hall again began to host shows and events, with a particular focus on soul, funk and reggae performances. “I’d been to a Curtis Mayfield gig at the Marcus Garvey, that I think was arranged for the BBC,” he recalls. Mayfield’s appearance, which raised the profile of the venue considerably, was broadcast live on BBC 2 in the Sight and Sound in Concert slot on 18 February 1984, with a simultaneous broadcast on Radio 1. “So I knew the venue, and people knew that the present organisers had put on quite radical stuff at their previous base,” he continues. In terms of sizeable city buildings with the facilities for live performance and a current music licence, the Marcus Garvey seemed to be “the one venue that nobody had tried before that seemed to be of the right size.” In the view of young Nottingham punk Alistair Gordon: “A social cornerstone of the Nottingham West Indian community it was the perfect, noncorporate venue for Crass and co. to play.”1

When it came to the organisation of the May 1984 show “things were simple because there was a ‘package deal’,” Alan recalls. “Crass and Flux and Annie Anxiety and D&V – were all bundled together. So whereas, previously, I’d done gigs with four or five bands coming from different areas, this was an all-in package that included the PA.”

No discount

In order to minimize the risk of any confusion, a series of informal agreements replaced formal contracts between artist and organiser. “There were letters that outlined what was going to happen from Crass’ position… and there were letters where I spelled out who was going to be there in terms of these stalls and so forth,” he explains. “So all of that side of things was pretty clear.” There were still differences in expectation, including over the ability to offer discounted ticket prices. “All of the gigs that I’d done previously had had ‘concessions for claimants’, which partly related to my being involved in claimants’ groups,” he recalls. “And I wrote to Andy Palmer about that, and he was very clear that, ‘no, that was not what was going to happen’, that they didn’t believe in it and that the ticket price was low enough anyway.”

Buteyond that, Taking Liberties were given considerable freedom in how the gig was to be put together. “Crass didn’t ask me how much I was going to spend on posters, or how it was going to be organised, or anything like that. I think that they… had a sense that I knew how to organise gigs.” And it was in that context that Alan was able to design and print a poster for the gig with an aesthetic distinct from the familiar monochrome A4 photocopy that was the mainstay of all previous Crass tours.

“I think I put more effort into the posters than anything else,” he says. “And I guess I was interested in bright colours more than the typical Crass poster.” The design was compromised of three key visuals: the Crass logo; the planes; and the soldiers dressed in nuclear-biological protective headgear looking skyward. Those two additional symbols (the fighter planes and the troops) were repurposed from existing sources. “I remember that the planes were taken from the back cover of a Talking Heads album called The Main Light,” he says. There’s less certainty over the provenance of the repeated image of the solider. “I don’t know where the… can you recognise the guy in the mask?”

The back cover of the 1980 Talking Heads album Remain in Light

In the years since the interview, I’ve checked with colleagues and comrades familiar with anti-nuclear iconography from the early-1980s. And the consensus is that that the soldier image was most likely lifted from either the cover of the CND magazine Sanity, or – more likely – from the front page of the short-lived Youth CND publication 2nd Generation. The fact that it’s difficult to be sure is further confirmation of the contention with which we began: more of the cultural traces have been covered over than is often realised.

The finished poster was silked-screen on an A2 press at Nottingham Community Arts in three passes: first the colour wash background, including the Crass logo picked out in white; second, the green of the soliders and planes; third and last, the black lettering. “Not a huge amount of them were done,” he suggests – and, even in the spring of 1984, and ahead of the gig, the image became immediately ‘collectible’. As he distributed the posters to those volunteering to help promote the event, he soon realised that there were “some people who, rather than flypost them or stick them where they promised they would, were sticking them up in their bedrooms.” It had never been the plan, but “the ‘art’ became a feature in itself”, with the result that the gig “missed out on the publicity.” In that sense, the poster was too good for its intended purpose – to get word out as far and wide as possible about the event. The poster’s desirable status was confirmed on the night when he cold see “that people were selling them to each other.”

An A5 flyer, of a different design, was also produced to promote the gig.2 After Alan received some negative feedback for producing a ‘colourful Crass poster’, further criticism of the leaflet followed. As part of the layout, he had positioned the Crass symbol tipped to one side and off its normal axis. “I was told off severely by various Crass fans that one ‘should never have the symbol at an angle’.” He did not take kindly to what he saw as such censorious judgements. “I felt like I was stepping into a cult that I didn’t quite understand, when even having things like bright colours on the poster was a bit of a radical step for some people,” he says.

Untested venue

A more immediately pressing concern was the scale of the gig, and the amount of money involved. “It was a bit of a concern, yeah,” he admits, “in the sense that I’d lost money badly with some previous gigs and had to pay for them out of my own dole.” On top of the cash concerns, the Marcus Garvey was untested as a punk venue. “I was the first outsider, and particularly the first white promoter, someone from outside the local black music scene, who had approached the Garvey.” This meant that for those running the centre, “this was a new situation as well.”

On the night, and wholly unknown to the audience gathering outside, the gig teetered on the verge of last-minute cancellation – although not for any reasons that Crass might have anticipated. Crass and the other artists arrived on time, loaded in and set up with impressive efficiency. There was a bit of “lending a hand” from those who’d agreed to help out on the not – but not much. “They seemed to be a very self-contained and, as it were, well-oiled machine, really,” he says. “You felt like they were ‘a band on the tour’.” Neither did this package of artists ask the local organisers for much. “I didn’t, for example, provide them with food – which I’d done with other bands. Whereas with Poison Girls, it was very much ‘can we sleep at your house; can you make us a lentil stew?’… Crass didn’t seem to be interested in that at all.”

What put the gig in jeopardy was a change in the attitude of the venue’s managers. “Having got half the PA in, they decided… they said, that the gig was off, because we hadn’t paid them enough money. They said that they’d had phone calls to say that there’d be 2000 people – and that it wasn’t a ‘benefit’, it was a commercial gig.” Alan has his suspicious as to the source of the false rumours. “I’m pretty sure another guy who was promoting commerical gigs locally was trying to make trouble.” The site manager was implacable and it was touch-and-go for an uncomfortable couple of hours. “In the end, I left him and Andy Palmer in a room on their own, and I think we paid them a bit more money.” It was a situation that was as difficult as it was unexpected.

“For me, that was always the downside of the experience. It was the first gig that I’d nearly had pulled in such an extreme position, and where the guy who had the power really did seem to not want to shift.” Hopes that this could have been the start of a productive, collaborative working relationship immediately soured. “That was a bitter taste, because I would have liked to have had a better relationship with the Marcus Garvey Centre, as a person who thought there might be some common ground,” he reflects. With the cash question settled, everything else on the night unfolded to plan. “It was smooth and it was well organised. There were no delays, and I can’t remember any technical problems.”

One issue that did become loom large after the doors opened was that of turnout. “The Garvey team, because of their concern, were handing out cloakroom tickets as people arrived,” to provide a live door-count. “The official turnout on that tally was 666, exactly – rather strangely,” he recalls. “And I think that that was probably about right, in terms of actual paying customers. There was enough people in there to make it feel like it was a full gig. But I was a bit disappointed by that number, but then maybe that was because the hype had been so high within the people who were hyping it that it did seem like there was going to be a lot more people than that.”

Shellshock rock

In terms of the live experience itself, it was not one that Alan personally warmed to. “I don’t know how far it was typical with the rest of their gigs, but, compared to other gigs that I’d organised, the atmosphere was relentless and dark,” he says. “It was full-on and it was in-your-face, and there wasn’t a lot of communication between the people who were on stage and the people who were in the audience. It was a definite ‘show’. And, I think, some of the people who were there not as Crass fans were the ones who were lurking in the shadows at the back, looking a bit shell-shocked. But I think… if that was the atmosphere you expected and wanted from a Crass gig, then they kind of gave you what you wanted… It felt like they knew their audience and they were happy with their audience.” Alistair, for one, was entralled: “The most stark image that remains with me from this show was Steve Ignorant’s passion,” he reflected, many years later. “He barked every lyric with such ferocious integrity it was clear that the world was turning to shit: we had to act. The message was compelling to me as a young man. I took the message from this that the world as it was then could be changed if were prepared to struggle.”3

Alan was less gripped by proceedings. “What was interesting about the audience was just how narrow it was,” he continues. “It was the Crass fans, and it was a few mates of mine from Claimants Action. But the local ‘muso’ scene were not there, the women’s movement were not there… the peace movement people were not there.” Previous and future Taking Liberties’ gigs attracted a much more diverse audience, something that had always been the intention. “That was what I had been interested in – mixing audiences, mixing music and mixing politics.” The hope had been to bring together different scenes, different musical and cultural temperaments in a way that might act as a catalyst for new connections and alliances. For all of the passion and commitment emanting from the stage on that particular night in May 1984, “that sense was absent from that gig,” he insists. Despite the tensions with managers at the Marcus Garvey, the evening went off without further incident. “No, no – no trouble, as I remember it, no trouble at all,” he says, “and everybody filed out quietly in the end and went off into the night.”

While the Garvey’s managers were now aware that the warnings about a 2k crowd were nonsense, they had also to accept lower bar receipts than a regular audience of 600 might have generated. “I definitely got the feeling that people either didn’t drink, or hadn’t got the money or they’d brought bottles of cider in – which we weren’t searching for – so therefore the bar was not packed by any means, certainly a lot less than the other gigs that I’d done. It didn’t feel like it was that sort of scene.”

Money raised

With all costs covered, the benefit generated what was considered a decent amount of money at the time. “We raised £300 profit, which we split between Peace News and Claimants Action… and then we sat down and thought ‘oh, this is a lot of money’, so we ended up dividing it in thirds, so we could give £100 to Women’s Aid.” It was reassignment of funds that the organisers decided amongst themselves. “I don’t think Crass were ever aware of that – but then we never asked them,” he laughs.

With the hall cleared, and the tour bus reloaded, Crass set off on a late-night journey towards Cleator Moor and the following day’s show. “I think they were the only band that I had ever worked with who sent me a postcard afterwards to say ‘thank-you very much’ – which was appreciated, because it’s rare,” says Alan. “And it was nice that somebody had obviously said, ‘right, we’ve got back home now and we’re tidying up, and, yes, we send out our thank-you letters.’ So that was very well behaved!”

As the organiser of the Nottingham gig, Alan only had informal contact with at most a couple of the other local organisers on the tour (myself amongst them). In an analogue age, in which Crass dealt with local promoters on a direct, individual basis, that’s not especially surprising. The contention that the poster for the Marcus Garvey show was reused by other promoters on the tour is not only untrue but suggests a level of conscious co-ordination that simply did not exist.

Poster for Crass gig at St George's Hall, Exeter, 6 May 1984

To advertise the Exeter gig that took place four days after the Nottingham show (on Sunday 6 May 1984), the owner of this site hand-designed more typical monochrome A4 and A3 posters. These were far less imaginative and less colourful than Alan’s impressive efforts, but much cheaper to produce and to flypost in blocks and at volume. And there was zero interest in the trading of copies.

To return to the theme of the misplaced cultural artefacts, it’s fascinating to realise how difficult it still is to track down digital versions of the posters, flyers and tickets used for dates on Crass’ last tour – other than the A2 poster for Nottingham date (which is the main reason that the ‘recycle’ myth has gained traction). Even the live cassettes of other gigs that circulated back in the day were wrapped in generic artwork. To date I’ve not been able to find any local materials advertising the Liverpool, Penzance or any of the other shows. Even Exitstencil Press’ own Crass Words project has only been able to tick off the Marcus Garvey poster.4

For Taking Liberties, the Crass gig was not any kind of momentuous turning point. It did though set a precedent for other punk and alternative music promoters booking the Marcus Garvey as a venue. “Within a few weeks, Stella from the Fabulous Dirt Sisters put on a women’s band there,” Alan recalls. “Within a few months, there were miners’ benefits – marathon miners’ punk benefits – going on there. And that was kind of nice, to feel that, to some extent, we’d established a new ‘hub’ for the local music and gig scene.” He cautions against over-selling any suggestions of a breakthrough cultural crossover. “It certainly never felt like the organisation of the West Indian Cavaliers Sports & Social Club, to give the place its proper name, were particularly interested in what was happening. They weren’t hostile, but it wasn’t like there was some great kind of ‘unity’ going on.”

For the remaining months that its operations, Taking Liberties continued to prefer gigs that consciously mixed cultural and musical styles. “About six weeks later we’d had a much smaller gig, which was a claimants’ benefit, where he had Chumbawamba and Toxic Shock and Mark Miwurdz and a couple of local bands, including the Fabulous Dirt Sisters,” he says. “It was a smaller audience, but it was much more diverse, and to me, that was much more satisfying… to bring together an audience of different people.”

Despite that view, it’s his hand-crafted poster for the May 1984 Crass gig that continues to echo down the decades as a potent symbol of a specific countercultural ‘moment’: a combination of its evocative, atypical design and its success in illuminating Crass’ final tour with a potency that no other visual has come close to.

Rich Cross

Notes

  1. Alistair Gordon, ‘Burgers for Tea? Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, D&V, Annie Anxiety + Films. May 2nd 1984, Marcus Garvey Centre, Nottingham’, in: Bull, G. Penguin, M. (eds.), Not Just Bits of Paper. London: Perdam Babylonis Nomen Publications. 2015. Available at: https://dora.dmu.ac.uk/handle/2086/12059
  2. If anyone has access to a digital copy of the A5 flyer, I’d be very pleased to see a copy.
  3. Gordon, ‘Burgers for Tea?’
  4. I have submitted the May 1984 Exeter gig poster several times over the years to different Bullshit Crass email addresses, but it never seems to make it through the handover to the latest incoming group of editors.
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