Beyond the Reality Asylum
While the Sex Pistols encouraged a lot of bored kids to stick safety pins in their noses and be punks for a few years, Crass, who also debuted in 1977, were an articulate band of anarchists who provoked a vital political movement that still exists, espoused revolution, lived communally, covered London in stenciled graffiti and got lots of attention from the police. Their first single, "Reality Asylum," led to raids on shops throughout England and a visit from Scotland Yard's vice squad, while the single "How Does It Feel To Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead?," which came out after the Falklands War, got loads of press when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was asked in the House of Commons if she'd heard the record.
But Crass' most important legacy, which they achieved along with their less pacifistic pals Conflict, who were more concerned with animal rights, was turning thousands of punks on to anarchism, a philosophy that had been popular in Europe in the '60s and after World War II but had not made any impact on American politics since around the turn of the century. When punks realized that bands like the Clash were more interested in making money and being trendy than changing society, Crass was on the scene with thick booklets included in their albums that detailed ideas about resisting capitalism and living autonomously. The large anarchist organizations and squats that exist today across Europe are as inspired by the ideas of Crass and Conflict as they are by famous anarchist thinkers like Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin.
While Crass' message was filtered through some very raw punk rock, with lyrics shouted and screamed in the thickest cockney accents imaginable, some of their music was a little more complex, as on their finest album, Penis Envy, a record about gender roles on which most of the songs were written and sung by Eve Libertine. But most Crass songs are characterized by the sound of Steve Ignorant spitting out harsh condemnations of queen and country over primitive, jagged guitars. In "Bloody Revolutions," Crass attacked Marxists and Maoists: "You talk of overthrowing power with violence as your tool/You speak of liberation and when the people rule/Well ain't it people rule right now/what difference would there be?/ Just another set of bigots with their rifle sights on me."
Crass broke up in '84, and Ignorant joined Conflict for a couple years, appearing most memorably on Turning Rebellion Into Money, the double live-album account of the Gathering of the 5,000, a concert at the Brixton Academy in 1987 that ended with approximately 500 punks squaring off against an equal number of police. In '92, Ignorant hooked up with the members of Thatcher on Acid and formed Schwartzeneggar, who had a more developed, less outraged sound than Crass and lyrics that were as stunning as anything Ignorant had ever written. On "Sad Life" he sings, "There's real people on the street/they're flesh and blood but they'll never meet/because the shape of face and the color of eyes/are the codes laid down for your desires/The message behind the media smile/is if you're not perfect you're not worthwhile/Until we see each other as human beings/and not some TV wank machine - it's a sad life." Schwartzeneggar's EP, Take Your Elbows off the Table, is an exceptional piece of work, but the band fizzled out after three years and, like Crass, they never toured the U.S.
Ignorant's latest ensemble, the Stratford Mercenaries, has already successfully toured the U.S. twice without a record label or even an album. Once again Ignorant has assembled an awe-inspiring crew, this time including Phil Barker on drums (who also plays with the Buzzcocks), Ed da Fed on bass and Gagsy (from Dirt) on a roaring guitar. No spring chickens, the Mercenaries nevertheless rip shit up like an army of mutant zombies attacking a beach party. During their last tour they released a 7-inch, Live in the USA 1997, that showed off their furiously raging new sound. On "Knuckle Under," Ignorant shouts, "If you don't want no more problems/become one of the many led by the few/there's no point in trying to escape/ you'll have the bastards after you/you've got to knuckle under."
The band's first EP, No Sighing Strains of Violins, should be arriving on these shores soon. Live, Ignorant isn't known for giving passionate speeches about smashing the state. For that, you'll have to check the lyric sheets and booklets included in his long discography. Instead, the Mercenaries are one of the most thrilling, raw and unpretentious punk acts around.
Stratford Mercenaries appear at Bollocks on Thursday, July 16, and at the Troubadour on Sunday, July 19.
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