George Berger’s “The Story of Crass”

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I have just finished the book about Crass called “The Story of Crass” by George Berger. I saw Crass twice in the 80s. The first time when they played Carlisle’s Market Hall in 1981 and later on in 1984 at Cleator Moor, West Cumbria; one of the last gigs they played before they split up.

Crass gigs were unlike any other in those days. It took the gig format to a different level, it was not only about the music, and it was a type of theater, performance art… I was not really sure what it was at the time? I remember walking into the Market Hall and thinking “this is different”. There was a big back-drop on the stage; there were speakers as well as big TVs, and stalls around the hall giving you information about anti-vivisection, CND etc. It was not only about music but about education also.

I think the impact of the gig was so great because I did not know much about Crass at the time, I had heard some of their music and I liked some of it, but not all of it. They were a band whom you either loved or hated. I got given the first 2 LPs of Crass from Rosso, who gave them away to me, as he became interested in the Oi scene, punk and peace was clashing with punk and violence.

I guess I liked Crass because of their politics, their music, their way of doing things…but I also disliked them because of those same things; their music and message were familiar and yet not so. Even today I find “Asylum” hard to listen too. I was anti-religion in those days, so it was not that their message was alien to me, but I did not agree with everything they said, or the style in which they said it, one of the best forms of rebellions against the state, is and was, religion!

So Crass had a new approach to punk, in a way it came from the same “new wave/2nd wave” of punk in the 80s, but doing it a little bit differently. It seemed new at the time, but that was because of my age…I did not know what was going on in the rest of the country…and that is partly what the scene in Carlisle was all about…we were isolated from it. Crass was one of the punk bands who visited us and gave us their time, whereas a lot of other bands would just drive past. I think Crass played Cumbria 4 times, and not many bands did that.

What I remember from the Carlisle gig was how their performance was orchestrated; the blackouts coinciding with the TVs showing images of nuclear explosions and Nazis’, dead animals and dead people. It was quite a shock to the system for a young lad just out of school. It was new remember, it had not been done before. I remember Crass staying absolutely still on stage, black clothes, faces to the front, frozen in time, when the black-out was on, no lights on-stage except for the TV screens and when the TVs had finished, in came the band full force. One of the guitarists played his guitar with his hand opening and closing over the strings…like a fist. He was not playing any chords, just strumming. Not music as I knew it, no “guitar hero” stances, but with so much fuzz on the guitar it did not really matter anyway.

Andy (PH) and I went to the last gig in Cumbria in 1984. It was in a small Cambrian village called Cleator Moor; its only reason for hosting Crass was that it was the closest village to Sellafield, the nuclear power station and refinery. The gig was good, not that many people there and I remember even less of what happened. I do remember dancing to the final part of “Big A Little A”, a great song with that great bass line towards the end; the end lyrics taught me more about life than the whole of my years at school, it still is a brilliant lyric.

Again, there was the same layout on stage and I felt I could watch what was happening more, as I knew what to expect. I also remember a punk who got too drunk, climbing onto the small stage and collapsing onto one of the guitarist’s equipment (lead, fuzz box?) the guitarist gave him a kick in the back to get him off. I thought that was a bit odd, but attitudes were tired by then I guess?

The thing about Berger’s book is that it filled in a lot of background information, about the band and the times, with a good discography and bibliography for me to follow up in the future. It is an interesting read and the thought of so much happening in the early 80s connected with Crass: the events, the gigs, the NF fights, the politics…it was just beyond me at the time to realize all that was going on. To me it was the records giving us information, not the people (as no one ever came to Carlisle to play). I remember seeing the stalls from CND and various anti-political groups in the Market Hall, but how much did I take in and connect with it was hard to say. I was suspicious of organizations peddling their wares; I was suspicious of people saying peace or war…

I feel after reading the book that the total chaos of those times, it is a wonder how we survived at all. The factions and divisions between the so called punks and underground movements seemed so divisive and contradictory. No wonder thatcher and the state had the upper hand as the anti-state organizations were in-fighting all the time, and even Crass spent a lot of their time discussing/arguing amongst themselves; and although it is only suggested, I think that knowledge left me with a feeling of sadness after finishing the book.

I am listening again to the Crass albums, the re-mastered ones as well as my old LPs, with scratches and beer stains, and I do not think I like all what I hear still, but I appreciate it more now than what I did then. It is no longer new, so like the gig in Cleator Moor, I can stand back and take the good out of it. I am also more aware of things now and perhaps Crass was a head of their time in that respect too, I was just too young to understand them and to get what they were leading too. In a way their lasting legacy for me was a group/music that led me to my belief in pacifism and to an anarchy which is against violence, something which I am still totally in favor of.

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