Retromania, the Canon, the Refusal to Work and the Present: The Crassical Connection

If the events of history, as Karl Marx once famously argued, happen first as tragedy and recur as re-enacted farce, the reoccurrence of any number of harbingers of doom typical of the last great global recession of the 1970s should indicate that we are in for hilarious times. While the comparison is by no means exact, certain elements of the present moment in the United States (such as high unemployment, an unstable currency, a moderate-liberal government that finds it difficult to govern due to legislative stalemate, a nascent rightist populist movement fueled by an occasionally racist nativism and hostility to “big government”) certainly resonate with the history of Britain in the 1970s. This is something of a desperate realization, as that temporal moment led to the eradication of post-war British socialism, the disempowerment of the working-class, the media’s stigmatization of women, gays and lesbians, and ethnic minorities who had achieved some measure of social progress in the prior decade, and the general brutality of Thatcherism; one shudders at the possible forms a farcical reiteration of such developments might take in the United States of the near future. Yet 1970s Britain also produced punk rock, a dissident subculture that registered the fragmentation of society and ultimately proved to be a viable means of protest when transplanted elsewhere. Might some contemporary equivalent, no matter how farcical, emerge from the contemporary moment of our Great Recession?


In the recent book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, the music critic Simon Reynolds suggests a qualified no — or at least, that within an exhausted culture consistently revitalized by a technological acceleration which increasingly makes everything about the past more accessible, the recurrence of older styles, positions, and movements now severed from an original historical context replaces the possibility of innovation.[i]  By “retro,” Reynolds means two distinct trends in popular music that he doesn’t completely distinguish between.  For the most part, Reynolds focuses on a wide variety of young artists committed to the revival of a diverse range of older aesthetics that they are too young to have experienced the first time around. However, in the extensive documentation of “retromania” enumerated in the book’s footnotes, Reynolds primarily cites the reappearance of much older performers who reform to tour, issue new material, or reissue original recordings for a much larger audience than existed initially. While Reynolds concedes his own complicity with and enjoyment of either instance of retromania, both are at the very least somewhat farcical and at the worst contribute to a stultifying sense of the end of history. In a clear echo of Fredric Jameson’s theorization of post-modernism, to Reynolds the easily consumed emptiness of pastiche has replaced formal or political experimentation in popular culture. Yet Reynolds misses the presence — even if it is residual — of the utopian, something which never disappears in Jameson’s understanding of any mode of cultural production.


Punk, even in the British context Reynolds focuses on, had a much longer shelf-life than he gives it credit for. The so-called anarcho-punk movement of the late seventies and early eighties presents a case in point. Identified especially with the band Crass, anarcho-punk went beyond the stylistic and thematic characteristics of early punk bands by becoming a whole way of life that encompassed collective living (often in connection to the squatter subculture that preexisted punk), the creation of systems of production, distribution, and performance for music that evaded the institutions of the culture industry as far as possible, radical political activism on behalf of such causes as pacifism, nuclear disarmament, animal rights and other radical left causes (which occasionally — but not always — led to violent direct action), and, most importantly for our purposes here, a commitment to the refusal to work so absolute that it entailed not only a rejection of employment, but a rejection of the dole (a crucial material precondition for the initial emergence of punk) as well.[ii] Anarcho-punk has never held much critical cache, neither then or now, but it too has enjoyed a mini-revival over the last few years (perhaps not coincidentally, contemporaneously with the emergence of the Occupy movement in the United States and occasionally violent anti-capitalist protest in Europe). Along the lines suggested by the primary meaning of Reynolds’ term retromania, this revival has meant the appearance of bands like Flats who are sonically and stylistically influenced by Crass but importantly lack a commitment to radical politics; it has also meant releases like the alternative folksinger Jeffrey Lewis’ album 12 Crass Songs, which in its recreation of original Crass material as acoustic songs appropriate (at least musically) for children plainly aims at the farcical.


But the other meaning of Reynolds’ term is also relevant, as anarcho-punk bands like the Subhumans, Amebix, Antisect, Discharge, Conflict, and others have all reformed recently to tour or in some cases release new material. Books and documentary films either about or written by key participants of the anarcho-punk movement have been published, re-published, or gained wider distribution in recent years as well. Crass, always the most significant and polemical of all of the anarcho-punk bands, have refused to reform or produce new material, but even they have been touched by what Reynolds would call retromania. While Penny Rimbaud, Crass’ drummer and key ideologue, published his memoir Shibboleth: My Revolting Life some time ago, in the last five years Crass vocalist Steve Ignorant has also published his memoir The Rest is Propaganda and performed special concerts dedicated to the performance of Crass songs (though as of November 2011, Ignorant has vowed that he will never publically perform any Crass material ever again).[iii]  Perhaps most significantly, in the last two years Crass have re-issued all of their original material in expanded, re-mastered digital form.  These reissues, which also include expanded art work by Crass’ designer-in-residence Gee Vaucher and lengthy booklets which contain lyrics and autobiographical essays by Rimbaud and Ignorant, in their attention to detail most closely resemble canonical jazz albums or classical compositions.[iv]  “The Crassical Collection,” Rimbaud’s (in his own words) “somewhat tasteless” term for the reissue series, makes the inevitably comic contradictions of a consideration of Crass in canonical terms clear. In addition, the Crassical Collection not only provides a radical refutation and redirection of concepts like Reynolds’ retromania, but also indicates a connection to an understanding of the relation between art and the refusal to work which can be traced all the way back to Oscar Wilde.


Working-class teenager Steve Ignorant (aka Williams) and 35 year old Penny Rimbaud (aka Jeremy Rotter), an upper middle-class radical with a background in avant-garde music, experimental art, and the British hippy scene, formed Crass in 1977.[v] Rimbaud (and eventually Ignorant) lived in a self-sustaining communal house named Dial House in rural Essex, and as various other musicians (and significantly, non-musicians who focused on graphic design and film) joined the band they also moved in. After becoming serious about their commitment to Crass after a few disastrous early shows, the band sought to abolish the distinction between their music and every other aspect of their lives as far as possible. Most famously, this also involved a strict commitment to anarchism, personal responsibility, and absolute egalitarianism; the collective/band had to have complete agreement on every decision they made. Crass refused alignment with both the far left and the extreme right, causing militants of both movements within the punk scene to violently attack the band and its audience on occasion. Between 1978 and 1984, Crass released six albums and ten singles, all of them sold at significantly lower prices than music by other punk bands. Crass sold an impressive amount of records, but all profits were either donated to radical political causes they were in favor of (which ranged from organizations like the CND and Greenpeace to small community associations) or funded their own record label (which in addition to releasing their own music primarily existed as a means for documenting and disseminating the work of politically — but not necessarily musically — sympathetic bands).


Crass rarely found critical approval during its functional existence; since the band, who regarded most music writers as middle-class in taste and thoroughly conventional in politics, refused to cooperate with the voluminous music press of the day, this is not surprising. The standard critical account of the band — that their music was raw, untutored, by-the-numbers punk at its most basic, and that their positions were didactic and humorless — over time has become a stereotypical truism, leaving Crass often unaccounted for in histories of British punk music.  When they are discussed, as in Reynolds’ history of British music in the early 1980s Rip It Up and Start Again, it tends to be along lines which establish Crass as a dull, didactic, monolithic caricature of everything that the more artful post-punk groups overcame after punk, primarily the “plain-speaking demagoguery” which was “far too literal and non-aesthetic… soapbox sermonizing… either condescending to the listener or a pointless exercise in preaching to the converted.”[vi]  While such positions have become orthodoxy, the recent reissues of Crass’ work demonstrate the degree to which they are incorrect.  On the one hand, Crass’ music can be as raw and basic as early punk got; but much of their work took in the formal qualities of avant-garde jazz and classical music and had a satirical thrust not too far removed from a more politicized, more scatological version of Monty Python.  On the other hand, more than preaching to the converted (if Crass preached anything, it was more along the lines of their famous background banner: “There is No Authority But Yourself”), Crass created a certain mythology — entirely based on actual events in the group’s history — which registered an extreme refusal of the conventions of Thatcher’s Britain while also demonstrating the possibilities of dissent during a rather authoritarian moment in British history.


Such mythic events of the band’s history are not limited to but include: upon learning that the song “Reality Asylum” was too blasphemous to be included on their first record, Crass’ decision to issue the song at the lowest price possible on their own label, thus becoming one of the earliest examples of the DIY music scene while also attracting the attention of Scotland Yard’s obscenity division; setting out upon a stylized graffiti attack upon the London tube, providing a precedent for public political art; benefits and activism on behalf of jailed anarchists and radicals; a hoax perpetrated upon a magazine targeted at young women, in which the band recorded a soppy, obviously ironic and cynical flexi-disc called “Our Wedding” in order to attack a publication “specializing in the exploitation of teenage loneliness”; the release of a radical feminist album entitled Penis Envy composed and performed by the female members of the band that ultimately led to a successful prosecution for obscenity; upon the onset of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas War, the release of the polemical singles “Sheep Farming in the Falklands” and “How Does It Feel (to be the Mother of a 1000 Dead)?,” the latter of which attracted the possibility of governmental prosecution for treason; the creation and dissemination of a false, doctored, supposed recording of a telephone conversation between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which discussed controversial matters involving the conflict in the Falklands and the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Britain; the subsequent attempts by organizations like the KGB, the IRA, and what was left of the Baader-Meinhof gang to become affiliated with Crass; and the band’s early support for the Miner’s Strike. The ongoing, state-sanctioned social brutality targeted towards the miners and the rest of the working-class, however, as well as the lingering jingoism aroused by war in the Falklands ultimately led to the band’s dissolution (though it should be added that the band had predicted their own demise in the Orwellian year of 1984 as far back as their first release).


Given such mythic resonances, a critical assessment of the importance of Crass necessitates more discussion than is possible here, but the band’s position regarding the expectations of capitalist compulsory employment is important to recognize. Crass’s opposition to the supposed inevitability of work signaled a radical departure from the traditional position of the Labour Party as well as more radical forms of British socialism.[vii]</a "Do They Owe Us a Living?" the band's first composition as well as their most famous song, originates in Ignorant's overwhelming dissatisfaction with the lack of opportunities for the working-class to do anything else but work at menial occupations. "Reject of Society" begins with the line "Not for me, the factory floor!," while "End Result" presents a very personal account of what it means to live through the process of reification in which the condition of being "bored" arises out of one's inevitable destiny of a life spent at "Ford," the automobile factory in Ignorant's native Dagenham.  "Big A Little A," perhaps the most complete statement of Crass' political and aesthetic philosophies, presents an account of revolution that depends upon neither the bureaucracy of movement-building nor the violence of direct action, but upon a thoroughgoing principle of refusal and abstention that extends to every aspect of life.


Though the connection is not often made in critical discussions of the band's music, the cultural politics of this refusal provide a means to understand the sonic experimentation of Crass' music.  Crass songs can be as anthemic as any populist punk sing-a-long, but more often they are formally difficult, whether in the abrasiveness of early songs like "Reality Asylum" and "Shaved Women" or in the improvised tunelessness of later works like Yes Sir I Will (a 43 minute song divided into multiple parts which explores the alienation of the left in the wake of Thatcher’s ascendancy set to layered blocks of ugly noise) or Ten Notes on a Summer Day (a semi-acoustic, semi-jazz melancholic examination of the band’s legacy upon breaking up).On occasion, Crass could even be quite beautiful, as in the latter album or in Acts of Love, a recitation of fifty love poems written by Rimbaud set to classical music. m Crass’ latter material has often been neglected in favor of their earlier, more obviously punk releases, and the reissues demonstrate a discernible thread throughout all of the band’s recordings. The importance of Crass’ music lies not in its supposed monotonous and didactic tone, but rather in its diversity, both in a formal sense and in regard to the range of emotions and positions that are interrogated as instantiations of personal and public politics. At the core of that diversity are two closely connected principals: a refusal of all conventions, whether those of the state, society, subculture, or musical form, and a resolute utopian desire for a freer life that thus far in capitalist modernity has never been given a chance to fully exist. By situating these positions in relation to the classical connotations of the “crassical,” the reissues suggest the basis for an alternative canon dependent upon different values. Considering Crass albums as classical works of music undeniably entails the farcical; at the same time, it also suggests the persistent potential of political and social acts of refusal which serve as the basis of an aesthetic, no matter how much darker the events of history may have become since their initial appearance, that continues to resonate in the present day.


This being Crass, the reissues have not appeared without controversy. Some members of the band have objected to the existence of the reissues (though it is not clear if the reason is political, aesthetic, petty, or some combination of all three) and unsuccessfully attempted to block their release in court.[viii]  More recently, Southern Records, the label responsible for the reissues, has demanded that free file servers Mediafire delete Crass albums uploaded by the website Anarcho-Punk.Net, who in turn self-righteously have argued that since Crass are anarchists they shouldn’t benefit from the protection of copyright law.[ix]  Such controversies evade a larger question concerning the relation between politicized aesthetic texts and the archive.  While the connection might not immediately be apparent — even if Steve Ignorant has more than once stated that a chance reading of The Picture of Dorian Grey when he was young set him on a path that led to Crass — the aesthetic theories of Oscar Wilde provide a crucial lens through which to read Crass’ importance and the significance of the reissues. In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde writes that the aesthetic tradition serves as a basis for the possibility of the realization of alternative conceptions of identity that could result in positions completely contrary to the conventions of social propriety.  If there is a value to the canon, according to Wilde, it is to be found precisely in the potentiality lying there for the critic (or in the case of Crass, the listener) to discover a logic which is at odds with the very conceptions of value which structure a traditional sense of the canon in the first place.  The Crassical Collection, whatever its inevitable and intentional farcical connotations, provides an archive devoted to the unworking of standard positions regarding art, politics, even the accepted achievement of punk rock itself. When coupled with Wilde’s positions in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” a text which straddles the line between socialism and a form of anarchism more readily identified with Crass, such an understanding of the archive suggests that the Crassical Collection does not merely serve as a source of entertainment for those either nostalgic for what Crass or anarcho-punk have once meant or as yet another stop upon the journey into the celebration into the past implied by a term like “retromania.” At the very end of Crass’ record Christ: the Album, the band sample a speech given by the radical historian E.P. Thompson at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest in the early 1980s. “Now, looking at you, I know one thing, we can win, we can win. I want you to, I want you to, sense your own strength” states Thompson, without farce or irony. What the Crassical Connection makes clear is that such sentiments— especially considered in a now counter-canonical insistence upon the refusal to work according to conventional understandings of value — continue to have a place in the present, no matter how detached such iterations might be from their original context.

gregory dobbins