There's an old joke about Crass that goes "their lyrics read better than they sound." While that could be fairly levied against the original CD pressings, which were mucked up with '80s compression and digitizing techniques, the remastered Crassical Collection presents Crass' six LPs with their full range of sound. The new mastering jobs retain the original mixes of the LPs, but have a tighter, more specific sound which gives birth to several revelations. First, although Crass was and still is quite "noisy," there is an orchestration to the cacophony that was not previously audible on earlier CD pressings. Second, Crass rocked. Crass rocked really, really hard.
Of course over the centuries, two schools have developed regarding art. The first school argues that art is in a constant state of flux, so to argue against changing or revising art is a flawed argument, because art, in being recorded, transferred, or even observed is changing all the time. The second school argues that art should be left as it is, for the ages to appreciate it in its original form, without post-construction editing destroying the original intention. In a sort of nod to both of these camps, The Crassical Collection features remastered CD versions of the original Crass albums with bonus tracks, multitudes of liner notes and new art, while the LP versions are identical to the original pressings except that the sound is remastered, but there are no bonus tracks and the art is left as it was.
Crass' first LP, 1978's The Feeding of the 5000, was a revolutionary release in many ways. Namely, it was one of the first, if not the first, punk record to comment on punk records. Johnny Rotten sang "I wanna be anarchy", but on "Sucks" Crass cheekily announced "I believe in anarchy in the UK." By "anarchy," Crass had a specific concept in mind, whereas it could be argued that the Pistols' and Clash's definition of revolution were more ambiguous. Furthermore, perhaps, as Crass suggested on "Punk is Dead," "CBS promote the Clash / but it ain't for revolution, it's just for cash."
More strikingly is that Feeding was perhaps the very first political punk record that strove on specific examples. The lyrics directly attack Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, lament the bombing of Hiroshima by describing mutilated bodies, and name private security contractor Securicor with the biting, but straight up kicking, refrain "I'm a private in a private army!"
However, perhaps the most important aspect of 5000 is that it was so shocking to the public that it triggered a police investigation that was only closed after the police gave a surprise visit to Crass at their collective home, Dial House, and warned them to watch themselves. Opening track "Asylum," which was adapted from drummer and co-founding member Penny Rimbaud's previous poem "Christ's Reality Asylum," featured co-vocalist Eve Libertine screaming "I am no feeble Christ, not me / He hangs in glib delight upon his cross" and "I vomit for you, Jesu." (Sheesh!) Punk bands attacking religion and Jesus is commonplace nowadays, but this recording is literally ground zero where this trend began. But, just as "Asylum" was shocking lyrically, it was equally as shocking sonically. In lieu of being chanted over a four/four drum beat and guitar, Libertine shrieks over extended guitar feedback that has no drums or other instruments, that suggests equal chaos and descent. This too might be ground zero for where punk rock first decided to get really weird and experiment with the avant-garde.
In the CD version booklet, vocalist and co-founding member Steve Ignorant calls avant garde "French for bullshit." While Crass certainly wouldn't have been Crass without Rimbaud's unique production and artistic tendencies, it's Steve Ignorant who makes the record really snap. Most of Crass came from fairly well-to-do backgrounds, but it's Steve Ignorant's working class bark and delivery that takes the album from being an interesting experiment to a solidified unit of outrage. Too often is Ignorant given too little credit for his contributions to the band. As well as having the idea to create the band in the first place, Ignorant brings the much needed anchor that the band need. Ignorant's "Do They Owe us a Living" might be the most traditional song on the release, a standard punk rock ripper that demands social equality, but it's also the focal point from where the wide berth of Crass springs. Also, it is totally rockin'.
Wisely, the masters don't change the sound too much except clean them up. The sharper sound and removal of the ubiquitous tape hiss on the original versions give the drum cracks some real kick. Where the guitars used to be a noisy blur, the added clarity now makes their purpose clearer: they're large canopies of changing color that rev up the recordings instead of weigh them down.
The bonus tracks on 5000 are as essential to the story of Crass as the albums proper. The first set is the very first recording of Crass, when they were still called Stormtrooper, which features only Ignorant screaming the lyrics while Rimbaud chops away on his drums. However, the demos Crass in Soho feature an almost alternate reality Crass. Where 5000 was loud and packed full of different sounds, the Crass in Soho demos feature the band sounding more like a typical rock band, with just one voice, one guitar, one bass, and one set of drums. The demo give the implication that if the band was so clean in demo recordings, on the full fledged studio recordings, they wanted to sound as wild and nasty as possible. They mostly succeeded. Fascinatingly, on the Crass in Soho demo of "Do They Owe us a Living" the band break into what could be called a summer of love '60s mid-section. Wow! The final set of demos on the disc, Crass in Demo, feature the band cutting through a set of their songs which are closest to their studio counter parts, thus completing the trail of how the band went from two guys yelling in a cottage to one of the most powerful punk collectives of the time.
The Feeding of the 5000 CD Version: 5/5
The Feeding of the 5000 LP Version: 5/5
5000 sold out immediately, over time went gold, and maybe even platinum. Crass followed the momental success with the more daring, though more orchestrated Stations of the Crass. in 1979. Still in the format of standard rock record, more or less, Stations was anchored by three chord smashes, but featured more avant-garde, impressionist pieces than its predecessors.
On "You've Got Big Hands" and "I Ain't Thick, It's Just a Trick," Steve Ignorant calls out the refrain which is answered by the band, very much paralleling the burgeoning Oi! movement. Likewise, the band continuing their Clash skewering. "System" opens by parodying a classic Clash riff before Ignorant rants "Keeping their fingers on the breaks / down the ladder, up the snake s/ Buy the band and call the tune." The band always increased their direct references to modern politics, basically attacking individual newspaper articles with a specificity not yet seen in punk rock. "Chairmen of the Bored" finds Rimbaud writing about the distortion in mainstream press and naming names. Interestingly, Stations might also have the first instance of a punk band naming a song which parodies another song title. "White punks on Hope" name checks the Tubes and again assaults the Clash with "They said that we were trash / well the name is Crass, not Clash."
But, while Stations featured harder, and more direct rock tunes, the weirder tunes got even more weirder. "Darling" features little more than a stop/start guitar riff and vocalist Eve Libertine shouting out "Hello Hero!" in different tones and almost nothing else. "Fun Going On" features an abstracted riff spaced out so that it sounds like machinery while Pete Wright offers a husky baritone rant in Seuss-like fashion. The band also continue their first abstract experiment. "Demo(n)crats" is something of a sequel to 5000's "Asylum." The band ratchet up their spooky sounds and use instrumentation to create ominous hanging clanks and clonks that don't sound so much like instruments as horrible, unholy machinations. Not to be outdone by the new, fiercer, darker instrumentation, Eve Libertine, reading Rimbaud lyrics, draws the feeling of Asylum from one of religion to national power "I am not He Nor Master, Nor Lord / No crown to wear, no cross to bear in stations" and follows up with "Out from your palaces, princes and queens! / out from your clergy, you clergy, you Christ! / I'll never live nor die for your dreams / I'll make no subscription to your paradise!"
Out of all the Crassical Collection reissues, Stations benefits the most and also makes the series' only major misstep. The original CD masters of Stations often sounded like the band was making cacophony for the purpose of cacophony. However, the clearer sound makes the band's intentions more apparent. Where track opener "Mother Earth" used to sound like just a bunch of people screaming, the added clarity now makes it apparent that it's actually a call and response between three speakers. The improvement makes the art stronger and simply better sounding. Likewise, the rock numbers on the disc have a stronger guitar tone making them rock with the best of them. "I Ain't Thick" has riffs and refrains that can contend with any other punk classic, whereas the older version just seemed to be a rant.
However, Stations has a baffling adjustment from its original issue. The original release of Stations was a double disc set that had the studio recordings on disc one, which ended with an unlisted bonus track, and a live performance on disc two. Instead of including all this material, The Crassical Collection cuts the bonus track from the CD version, and omits the live show in its entirety. To be fair, Southern Records makes the live album available for download for free, but it is in its non-remastered form.
In place of the live album, though, is a remarkable recording of Crass at the BBC. Quite simply, Crass are on fire on the show. On "They've Got a Bomb" Ignorant barks with even more ferocity than the studio version. The real breathtaking moment is when Eve Libertine screams out on the wildest and best version of "Shaved Women" ever released. "Screaming babies! / Screaming babies! / Shaved women, instigators / Shaved women, shooting dope / Shaved Women, disco dancing!"
No doubt, the BBC show is incendiary, but the choice to add that in place of the original material is confusing. The Crassical Collection appears to be an attempt to gather together all of Crass' worthwhile recorded output and maintain the integrity of the original releases. Whereas later albums in the series include two discs, some with material not recorded until the 2000s, the choice to omit the only quality sounding live album by the band recorded during their first year or so, which was included in the original release, is a misstep. Just make the edition a two disc set and include all of the recordings. To have almost all of Crass' discography remastered, but not quite all of it, is frustrating at best.
Stations of the Crass CD Version: 4/5
Stations of the Crass LP Version: 5/5
After Stations, Crass began to make every release have a conceptual focal point. 1981's Penis Envy addressed the accusation that they were too macho and in their energized performance were creating a non-female friendly environment. To address this issue, the band decided to release an album with only female vocalists, having Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre sing all the vocals. Meaning that founding member Steve Ignorant did not appear on the recording.
On Penis Envy, Crass are perhaps at their most vitriolic. On "Bata Motel," Eve Libertine howls "I've studied my flaws in your reflection / and put them to rights with savage correction." On "Bertex Bride," she compares women being married to men purchasing blow-up sex dolls.
At just ten tracks on the original release, Penis Envy feels the slightest in terms of material of Crass releases. Still, like the band chose to make a very specific concept album, it would seem ten tracks that get right to the point would be more effective than a larger release.
Most notably, the album ends with "Our Wedding." Originally, "Our Wedding" was a flexi-disc credited to "Creative Recording And Sound Services" that the band slipped into a teenage girl's romance magazine. An easy listening, AM radio-lite song, the tune appears to be a normal cheesy love song until the haunting final refrain "I'll never be untrue, my love / don't be untrue to me." In fact, once the truth came out that Crass had invaded the minds of young girls all over the UK, there was a minor outrage in the tabloids and newspapers.
Unlike Stations, Penis Envy had a more direct, non-ornate sound. This is amplified on the remaster. As the band cut through the tracks, each instrument is clearly audible, giving real energy to the sound and delivery, and showing a side of Crass' skilled musicianship not heard since the original 5000 demos. The Crassical Collection tacks on several interesting bonus tracks. In contrast to the straightforward sound of Penis Envy, bonus tracks "Yorkie Talk" and "Yes Folks" feature sonic experiments and poetry from Penny Rimbaud and Eve Libertine recorded in 2009 that is the abstract, avant-garde sound the band were thought to be pursuing in the early '80s. Fittingly, the reissue closes out with a rewrite of the Crass-ic "Major General Despair" re-recorded in 2003 with Eve Libertine on vocals as "The unelected president" where Rimbaud and Libertine attack President Bush much in the same way they attacked Thatcher 20 years earlier. It's surprising that although the members of Crass have gone on to record very non-Crass sounding projects, if they want to, they still can record Crass tunes that are as fierce as ones from the original run.
Penis Envy CD Version: 4/5
Penis Envy LP Version: 3.5/5
Released in 1982 after a solid year of recording, Christ - The Album was intended to be Crass' definitive opus. As close to a concept record as punk can get, Christ - The Album originally came housed in a box, consisting of two discs and a huge booklet featuring information, essays and contact information.
To the band's credit, their handiwork really shows. Where the first three albums were rippers, with the band tearing from song to song, Christ - The Album featured more tactical lyrics and song placement. While the songs were still based in rock, song experimentation had begun to take precedence over the rock beat. Steve Ignorant still yells along to an approximate four/four beat, but the instrumentation had become more chaotic. Instead of riffs used to propel the songs, feedback and discordant waves of sound were placed behind Ignorant's vocals to give the songs a louder, more berserk feel. While the songs do sound wilder, they often frequently cross into difficult listening. The point may have been to make the songs feel unpleasant because the topics at hand were unpleasant.
On Christ - The Album, Crass also continued to react to themselves, similarly to how they reacted to punk itself with 5000. On "Working Class Rip Off" Ignorant, over Rimbaud's lyrics, challengers the rising boot boy image punk rock had begun to fester, "You tell me you're a working class loser, well what the fuck does that mean? / Is the weekly fight at the boozer gonna be the only action you've seen?" On the closing moments of "Major General Disrepair," the band make it a point to reemphasize their central message "Fight war, not wars!" and close out with a speech by E.P. Thomson addressing the peace movement with a reassuring "We can win!"
To emphasize the album's wholeness, Christ - The Album is stitched together by a series of sound recordings taken from the radio, television, and other sources of newscasters and interviews that pop up between each song. The effect does give an underlying emphasis to the lyrics, often showcasing speakers oblivious to their ridiculous statements. But, while the clips are interesting upon first and second listen, after multiple spins, they act more to slog the record down then to enhance its lyrical impact.
The second disc of the album was probably the most puzzling release the band had issued to date. Something of a collaged live recording, Christ - The Album's Well Forked - But Not Dead stitched together a medium quality early live recording with interviews, other live recordings, and various oddities to make a whole statement. While the technique was interesting, it really felt more like a collection of its parts than a singular argument, expression or cohesive idea.
However, while Crass had closed out their grand statement with E.P. Thomson's encouragement, after the album's release, they found themselves defeated. Just as Christ - The Album was released, the UK engaged in the Falkland Wars. While Christ - The Album had song tales of victory, the world was becoming more dangerous and in the album's liner notes, Rimbaud states that from then on, Crass would be more immediate.
Like Stations, Christ - The Album benefits from the added clarity. Because there is so much going on throughout the release, with many levels of sound, the added sonic precision makes the sounds work with each other, instead of fight against one another. Likewise, while Well Forked is still a thick collage of different recordings, the added clarity makes the individual live cuts as enjoyable as they can be, before the band chop them up. The Crassical reissue of Christ - The Album concludes with seven outtakes from the recording of the album. Although a few of the tracks are alternate versions, they flow naturally with the album proper and make it even more of a massive undertaking, that despite it being outdated upon release, elevates its historical importance.
Christ - The Album CD Version: 4/5
Christ - The Album LP Version: 3.5/5
In order to more quickly react to the political currents of the time and in reaction to the nearly yearlong recording of Christ - The Album, Crass followed the release up with 1983's Yes Sir, I Will which was recorded in 45 minutes. Yes, that's right, 45 minutes.
By 1983, Rimbaud had become the de-facto creative head of the band. Yes Sir began as a Rimbaud poem which he suggested the band record. A noted aficionado of jazz, Rimbaud also suggested that in the spirit of jazz improv, the band record the entire album in one, live take.
The result is a 45 minute monolith of an album. Although it technically has seven songs, the result is really one long stream of aggression. Ignorant, Libertine, De Vivre, and Rimbaud take turns railing against Thatcher, shredding their vocals as the instruments make a spiraling, rusty noise resembling more of a car wreck than rock music, which is obviously exactly what the band intended.
There are diversions into other avenues, such as an interesting piano interlude on "Speed or Greed," but more or less, this record is a pummeling. Often difficult records are created in order to challenge the listener and force him or her to develop a new understanding of the artist's intention. Yes Sir challenges the listener, but with each step that the listener forces forward, the album hits back harder, challenging the ear with harder and more berserk music than before. It's daring, but it's also exhausting. (Though, to be fair, "A Rock n' Roll Swindler" does function as a sonic buoy and brief respite in its classic Crass three chord form).
Yes Sir is an experiment in how far punk can reach sonically. It definitively answers that punk can be built around the precepts of jazz and improv music as much as rock. But that still doesn't make in an easy listen.
The Crassical Collection appends Why Don't You Fuck Off? as a bonus disc to Yes Sir. Fuck Off is a 2002 remix of Yes Sir where Rimbaud invited noted jazz saxophonists and violinists to lay down instrumentation over the original mix, intended to accompany Gee Vaucher's art show. While the remix is interesting, it doesn't really outdo the original and acts more as a curiosity than as a necessary piece of work. Still, it does go to show that Crass' songs, like so many jazz standards, can be re-worked, morphed, shaped and bent and still retain their identifiable skeleton.
Yes Sir, I Will CD version: 3.5/5
Yes Sir, I Will LP version: 3/5
Although Crass broke up in 1984, they continued to work together in a different form and the Rimbaud-helmed Ten Notes on a Summer Day - The Swan Song was the final Crass album. Released in 1986, the album showcased Rimbaud's avant garde leanings. Unlike most albums, Ten Notes had the vocals recorded first, the synths and guitars next, and the drums recorded last. The result is one of the most interesting works in the Crass catalogue and certainly one of the most unique.
While Crass had hinted at it ever since the Asylum single, the complete abandonment of the rock format was achieved on Ten Notes. A single song that is a mass of free floating instruments, Ten Notes is as much a jazz freakout as it is a psychedelic jam out as it is a poetry slam. With all that considered, it's remarkable how well the album fits together and achieves a cohesion. There's far more order than disorder here. Remarkably, with rock entirely abandoned, the music on Ten Notes, with its cold synthesizer and whispered vocals, sounds almost like the soundtrack to a long lost space horror.
In compliment to the abstract nature of the music, the lyrics too have grown more abstract. While there are references to political upheaval and loss of innocence, the lines are delivered with distanced ambiguity, making the music more timeless than timely, in contrast to earlier releases.
So proud of his strange, ethereal sonic mass was Rimbaud that for the album's b-side he simply included an instrumental take of the a-side. This allows focus on the strange accordant and discordant experiments in the music itself and gives it a sort of tripped out fear.
Still, for a band as huge and important as Crass, Ten Notes is a little slight for an epitaph. Crass literally changed punk rock and incited numerous governmental investigations. For it to bow out on a single ten minute song that is mostly the work of one member seems somewhat of a let down. It could be said that Crass ended with more of a whimper than a bang, and the members might agree with such an assessment.
The Crassical Collection bonus tracks improve the release somewhat. A collection of Rimbaud's solo work and production work with Hit Parade, Ten Notes ends with four tracks that are fairly short, but feature additional perspectives of the concept introduced by "Ten Notes." "Piils & Ills," mind glowingly, could have even been a '80s pop song, though the similarities between it and pop music are coincidental. The sinister air generated by the creepy synthesizers are played up even more, giving the music a distanced horror. Ten Notes is a confusing final bow for the group, particularly because they were always so direct in their music. But if anything, it shows that the band truly was not the work of one person, but a collection of forces that sometimes aligned, sometimes did not, but were always interesting and progressive.
Ten Notes on A Summer's Day CD version: 3.5/5
Ten Notes on A Summer's Day LP version: 3/5
What really ties the collection together is the art and the essays. Gee Vaucher's new design and interior booklet art gives the albums the clarity and gravitas they deserve. More importantly, they separate Crass' work from its legion of latter-day imitators. Likewise, the essays and history stories provided by Rimbaud, Vaucher and Ignorant do a wonderful job of painting Crass' trail, as well as provide some humor in their conflicting account of events.
There are many things written about the history of Crass, but to experience and understand it, you need to get it from the source itself. No book or review can convey the impact, cleverness, concept, uniqueness and challenge of these discs. There is no substitute for the real thing, and if anything, Crass was real.
This is some of the greatest music ever recorded. Essential listening.
Discography as a whole: 5/5