“There has to be an alternative to the dole, do something creative.” –Steve Ignorant, interviewed in 1997.
From the ashes and fallout surrounding Russell’s death, something new was born. The Stonehenge Festival continued on as a regular event around the Summer Solstice, attracting more and more people to the standing stones. Wally would have been proud to have seen the success of his vision. Then in 1985 it was squashed down “as part of a general offensive against working class self-organisation police roadblocks were set up to prevent the festival happening anywhere near Stonehenge,” writes Ayers. The general ban on gatherings taking place anywhere near the ancient site around the Summer Solstice continues to this day. Police roadblocks are set up in the area of Wiltshire every June to keep the rabble out.
During the next few years after Wally’s death, as the Festival was taking off, Dial House became increasingly politicized. The house now existed as a functioning community on the fringe of society. The people who made it home lived outside the system, and somewhat off the grid. For Penny Rimbaud the death of Wally precipitated a period of personal crisis as he sought to uncover a possible conspiracy surrounding the hippies death, which he concluded was murder by the state even if he hadn’t been murdered outright by being stabbed or shot. He and the others who lived there began to wonder if their idyllic rural existence was a cop out to avoid further personal and social responsibility.
During the winters Penny had taken up working on a farm, potato picking, to earn some money. One day on the job Steve Williams, later to become Steve Ignorant, turned up. He was a very angry working class youth, full of vehemence in the knowledge that there was nothing really for him out in the world of 1970s Britain. He came round to Dial House with Rimbaud and came to see that the place was a haven. At around the same time Steve was getting into the new punk music scene. The energies were a heady brew and the style of punk made it possible for anyone to start a band even those with little to no musical experience. Steve told Penny, who had been playing music with Exit and the other groups about his intention to start a band. He signed on as the drummer, and soon the other members of the band clustered around them and came into the fold, including the radical feminist Eve Libertine who contributed additional vocals and creating the back and forth, male, female vocal trade off that became a standard part of later punk music.
Just as Dial House had been Wally’s HQ for the Stonehenge Free Festival, it became the center of operations for Crass. Living together in a low rent space they were able to pool their resources. Having their own place to practice in allowed them to spend the money that bands living in London would have had to have spent on renting a practice space. Using cheap equipment and whatever they could scrounge up allowed them to start their own record label after their first EP put out by the Small Wonder label fell prey to censorship.
The song in question was called “Asylum”. Workers at the Irish pressing plant contracted to manufacture the disc refused to handle it due to the allegedly blasphemous content of the song, "Asylum". Later it was released with the track removed and replaced by two minutes of silence, wryly retitled "The Sound Of Free Speech". After this incident they seized the reigns of production for themselves and Crass Records was launched as in house label. They wouldn’t be silenced and to ensure their voices were heard they wanted to be in control of all aspects of their future productions. Using money from a small inheritance that had been left to one of the band, the piece was shortly afterwards re-recorded and released as a 7" single using its full title, "Reality Asylum". When The Feeding of the 5000 was re-pressed on Crass Records the missing track was restored. Gee Vaucher managed the visual aspect of the band, designing the covers and sleaves and providing artistic backdrops and videos for their performances. Their lifestyle may have been bohemian and Spartan, but by living that way they were able to produce more than they consumed.
In the section on craft I’ll get more into the operations of their record label, press and their achievements as a band. Yet all that did could not have been achieved if they hadn’t made the effort to develop a communal living space. The goals of a green wizard and deindustrial oriented down home punk house need not be the same as Crass. As individuals and as a band, and as anarchists, they never told others what to do. Yet what they did was so powerful it still resonates today.
Even as they never told anyone else how to love, through venting their frustrations with the Thatcher government and by expressing the ideals and practical philosophies they lived by, they came to have a huge influence in the areas of anarchism, pacifism, feminism, and vegetarianism.
Part of what is so admirable about Crass is that they walked their talk, and inspired countless others elsewhere to do so as well. Their influence can easily traced within the broader punk movement itself, and formed much of my own inspiration for getting on with things and doing them myself as a teenager. This is partly why I think they are a relevant model for green wizardry. The point isn’t to let their example dictate any particular aesthetic style or even political ideology, which I think the members of the band would be disappointed by, but rather to look at them and see what worked for them, how they did it, and how those actions might be creatively replicated or copied and applied to the circumstances of our times. They wanted to show by their example that other paths were possible: paths outside the dominance of an indifferent government, paths apart from a record industry that was more interested in money than communicating with listeners, living in a way that reflected their conscience, rather than numbing their conscience by succumbing to a life of inactivity and passive entertainment.
“Nothing has ever been done here by design. Something happens because someone’s here and it might be making bread or it might be painting a wall or it might be making a band. It’s about residence here,” Penny said in an interview.
Crass never told anyone what to do, or what to think, they just thought for themselves and took appropriate action based on the ramifications of those deep considerations. It shows in all they do. Action was a key word for them. As philosophers, poets, and punks it wasn’t ever just enough to live in an abstract world of ideals. They took measured and principled actions based on their ideas. Without these actions they wouldn’t have achieved such a cultural impact with such a long reach.
Yet Crass never wanted to become ideologues, or be anyone’s leader or guru. They had been so effective in getting their anarchist-pacifist message across the underground however that they so found themselves in a position as such.*
All their releases had a strong political voice, but by 1982 at the time of the Falklands War the voice got louder with the release of their hit single How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand dead? that attacked Margaret Thatcher’s role in the escalation of violence.
“ You never wanted peace or solution, / From the start you lusted after war and destruction. / Your blood-soaked reason ruled out other choices, /Your mockery gagged more moderate voices. / So keen to play your bloody part, so impatient that your war be fought. Iron Lady with your stone heart so eager that the lesson be taught / That you inflicted, you determines, you created, you ordered - It was your decision to have those young boys slaughtered.”
This little number sold enough copies to make the top ten chart in its week of release, but for some strange reason it didn't even appear in the top 100. It was a song that made the band enemies of both the political left and right. It even got discussed in the House of Commons. Alongside their benefit concert in support of striking miners and CND, Crass came under increasing scrutiny from powers of the state including MI5.
They didn’t play gigs to make money or to gain fame but as a way to raise money or awareness for various causes. In the last month of 1982, to prove "that the underground punk scene could handle itself responsibly when it had to and that music really could be enjoyed free of the restraints imposed upon it by corporate industry" they helped co-ordinate a 24-hour squat in the empty west London Zig Zag club. The following two years Crass were part of the Stop the City actions co-ordinated by London Greenpeace foreshadowing the anti-globalisation rallies of the early 21st century. At this point members of the band were starting to have doubts about their commitment to pacifism and non-violence. The lyrics found in the bands last single expressed their support for the actions and the questioning of their own values.
“Pacified. Classified / Keep in line. You're doing fine / Lost your voice? There ain't no choice Play the game. Silent and tame / Be the passive observer, sit back and look / At the world they destroyed and the peace that they took / Ask no questions, hear no lies / And you'll be living in the comfort of a fool's paradise / You're already dead, you're already dead.”
The song showcased the growing political disagreements within the group, as explained by Rimbaud; "Half the band supported the pacifist line and half supported direct and if necessary violent action. It was a confusing time for us, and I think a lot of our records show that, inadvertently". The band had become darkly introspective and was starting to lose sight of the positive stance they had started out with.
Add to this the continuing pressures from their activities. Conservative Party MP Timothy Eggar was attempting to prosecute them under the UK's Obscene Publications Act for their single, "How Does It Feel..." The band already had a hefty backload of legal expenses incurred for the obscenity prosecutions against their feminist album Penis Envy, that critiqued, among many other things, the sexual theories of Freud.
“We found ourselves in a strange and frightening arena. We had wanted to make our views public, had wanted to share them with like minded people, but now those views were being analysed by those dark shadows who inhabited the corridors of power…We had gained a form of political power, found a voice, were being treated with a slightly awed respect, but was that really what we wanted? Was that what we had set out to achieve all those years ago?”
Combined with exhaustion and the pressures of living and operating together, it all took its toll. On 7 July 1984, the band played a benefit gig at Aberdare, Wales, for striking miners, and on the return trip guitarist N. A. Palmer announced that he intended to leave the group. This confirmed Crass's previous intention to quit in the symbolically charged year of 1984. So they retired the band.
Yet, in spite of all that Dial House remains to this day and members of Crass have worked together on and off in various configurations over the intervening years.
*In writing this I struggled with the idea of using them as a model for a style of green wizardry. If there is no authority but yourself, as they have so often said, than that means they are not authorities, except for themselves and their own business. I try to look at them as peers who have done some things I find to be noble and worthy of considered emulation, not blind following.
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Read the other entries in the Down Home Punk series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.