“Crass set such a high standard for how you can interact with the music business, with your fans, with the world — as a band and as a person,” says Jeffrey Lewis on the eve of a cross-country American tour. “People walk around with those What Would Jesus Do? bracelets, and I think if any band walks around with a What Would Crass Do? idea in your head, it's a pretty good start.”
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Is this man the future of gutter folk?
Lewis himself has just released 12 Crass Songs, a reimagining of punk screeds by the U.K. crusty-punk band, Crass, in the form of clearly articulated folk songs dotted with electronics, beatnik-style bongos and other flourishes. As it happens, the reimagining of hardcore punk seems to be a trend. Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors last year has gained increased popularity for its deconstructed take on Black Flag's Damaged.
Why is the hardcore meme re-emerging now, and why with revisitations of these “oldies but goodies”?
Crass existed from roughly 1976 to exactly 1984 — a date they chose in deference to George Orwell's dystopian novel of that name. (Lighthearted, Crass was not.) Though they rarely played outside the U.K., the collective made great use of those eight years. They were responsible for birthing several punk-rock subgenres; originated extremist punk's anarcho-pacifistic ethic; became enemies of the state in Britain; and, in visual terms, created on their stark black-and-white album covers some of the most enduring iconography outside of the Rolling Stones' hot lips and the Grateful Dead's dancing bears.
Lewis first gained notice in the early '00s as part of New York's antifolk scene. He contributed artwork to early releases by the Moldy Peaches, a band whose co-founder, Kimya Dawson, has come into vogue for her contributions to the Juno soundtrack.
For his part, Lewis says Crass entered his field of vision in 1993, while he was still in college, when he was assigned to room with a self-avowed skinhead punk. Lewis, a self-identified hippie, made a point of trading his knowledge of obscure psychedelic nuggets for insight into his roommate's favorite Oi and hardcore bands, like the 4-Skins and Oxblood. But his appreciation for Crass bloomed in earnest when he began touring almost a decade later. He explains: “I started to realize how much [Crass] formed a certain part of culture worldwide … every place that I traveled — across America, to squats in Europe, to the Czech Republic, and I'm sure even farther afield.” He came to a striking realization: “Anywhere in the world where there's some awareness of punk and DIY aesthetics or a squat scene of any kind, Crass forms part of the inspiration for those people.”
One irony about Crass is that their music has probably had less influence than their brand identity. Even more than their peers, the Sex Pistols, Crass's visual aesthetic — alternatively known as gutter, crusty or black-and-white punk — is instantly familiar. If you've ever seen a visibly down-and-out kid dressed in torn, Mad Max-style clothing, begging for change on Melrose, there's probably a Crass logo patch helping to hold that outfit together.
All irony aside, part of Crass's success is attributable to such elasticity. Despite their overwhelming associations with punk, the band's earliest roots can be traced back to the hippyish activities of founding member Penny Rimbaud (real name Jeremy Ratter). In 1974, Rimbaud helped to stage the first Stonehenge Free Festival, wherein thousands gathered near the prehistoric monument to mark the summer solstice. Best thought of as a British equivalent to Burning Man, the festival became a lightning rod for controversy and government harassment. After the Free Festival drew a record crowd of 70,000 in 1984 (the same year Crass split), measures were taken to end it forever, resulting in a famous standoff with police the following year known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Some credit the gatherings with sewing the seeds for the country's rave culture.
Thus aspects of the U.K.'s hippie, rave and hardcore scenes all have common roots in one punk-rock band. To look back at Crass's expansive influence is to realize that punk has evolved into a simultaneously rigid and flabby beast. “Rigid” in that its borders have become so tightly defined. (Today, Crass themselves wouldn't find a natural constituency in either the mainstream or the underground.) “Flabby” in that punk music and culture has been commodified to within an inch of its life. Its greatest hits are sold at the Hot Topic chain.
Crass anticipated this state of affairs early on with “Punk Is Dead,” a song that Lewis covers on his new album. It dissects the genre's commercialization using lyrics that are both visceral …
Well I'm tired of staring through shit stained glass/Tired of staring up a superstars arse/I've got an arse and crap and a name/I'm just waiting for my fifteen minutes fame
… and analytical:
Movements are systems and systems kill/Movements are expressions of the public will/Punk became a movement cos we all felt lost/But the Leaders sold out and now we all pay the cost.
On 12 Crass Songs, Lewis covers it as a piano lament accompanied by gently picked acoustic guitar. By contrast, the original sounds like a smear of noise, staccato rants and stuttering percussion.
As with most of his covers, Lewis strips away Crass's sonic fury. “A lot of the original Crass songs were more like rants,” he says. “They go from part A to part B to part C to part D to part E then end. I made a lot of them go A-B-A-B and so on, just to make more standard song structures.” But he says the lyrics held up just fine: “It's amazing how much of Crass's original lyrics still make sense. You just have to do a bit of updating. Sarah Jessica Parker was Farrah Fawcett in the original of 'I Ain't Thick, It's Just a Trick.' Fawcett just doesn't have a lot of cultural relevance today. And where they would mention Ireland or the Falkland Islands, you just plug in Iraq and it makes sense. They were not so much a topical band as a band against a system, and though some of the particulars may have changed, the rest of the parts are still valid.”
Jeffrey Lewis and the Jitters open for the Mountain Goats March 4-5 at the Troubadour.