Crass - The Crassical Collection (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick


The Crassical Collection (2020)

One Little Independent

To cut to the chase, The Crassical Collection reissues may very well be the best reissues ever done. The newest edition of the groundbreaking band’s catalogue maintains the original releases’ character and integrity while presenting them in their best iteration, all while highlighting additional material that is important to the band’s concept. (Perhaps the early 2000s Ramones re-issues are suitable contenders for this crown, as well).

“But, didn’t these already come out like ten years ago?” you may ask. Well, yes and no. In the 2010s, Southern Records re-released most of the Crass catalogue in two forms: The Crassical Collection on CD and the original versions of the albums on vinyl. Those re-issues were impeccably done, though critically, the singles compilation Best Before 1984 was never re-released due to Southern Records contemporaneous unraveling. (As of now, Southern records is basically kaput). The result of that was that, quite ironically, the Crassical Collection CDs became rare, out of print collectors items, fetching $40-$80 each on discogs. That’s not exactly what the stridently anti-capitalistic Crass intended.

So, to rectify this issue, One Little Indie Records has re-released the Crass catalogue in two forms- The Crassical Collection and As it Was in the Beginning…:

First, The Crassical Collection is once again available. The Crassical collections features the original albums with markedly improved, remastered sound, new art by Gee Vaucher, extended album discussions by Rimbaud, Vaucher, Steve Ignorant, and Eve Libertine, and loads of bonus tracks. However, unike the Southern records versions, now, the bonus tracks have been split on to a second CD for every segment, and wonderfully, Best Before 1984 is now part of the selection. Crass’ Penny Rimbaud also made a few minor adjustments to the slight mis-steps found in the Southern version of these releases- specifically, the live album is now once again part of Stations of the Crass, which was deleted from the Southern records version.

Second, there is now also the As it was in the beginning… re-releases. The “As it Was” versions are on vinyl and CD. The vinyl versions are identical sonic and visual reproductions of the original albums and the CD versions are as close to an identical reproduction of a vinyl record as a CD can get.

I mean, maybe having two versions of an album (a regular and deluxe reissue) as it were, could seem like a lot of pomp and circumstance. But, this is CRASS we’re talking about, and if they don’t deserve kudos, who does? Yet, fans and even some people inside the band (who are not happy with Rimbaud, Ignorant, and Vaucher) feel that to modify the original releases in any fashion it to distort the art or to commit some sort of ex-post-facto lie. So, the band is trying to please both camps at once- unusually, not a very Crass like move. But, it works here. Me? I love a good reissue. If you don’t, you can still get the O.G. Everybody wins. But, of course, this is basically all a bunch of academia. What matters here is the music itself and the art.

Crass' first LP, 1978's The Feeding of the 5000, was a revolutionary release. 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."

As striking is that Feeding was built of specific examples, instead of vague, broad, concepts. The lyrics directly attack the Prime Minster,, 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.” (Yeesh!)

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 middle class 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. As well as having the idea to create the band in the first place, Ignorant brings the much needed anchor that the band needed. 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'.

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 demos 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 - Crassical Collection Version: 5/5
The Feeding of the 5000 - As It Was in the beginning 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 smashers, 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 includes direct references to modern politics, basically attacking individual newspaper articles with a specificity not yet seen in punk rock. "Chairman 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 continues 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!"

Likewise, the Live album component really rips. Crass released a few live albums during their run and a few "authorized" bootlegs afterwards. Yet here, the live release features Crass in the frantic glory. Considering the number of cooks in the kitchen with Crass, and the stereotype often locked onto anarcho-bands, one might expect Crass to be sloppy. Au contraire, here, they are tight as hell and cut what is, frankly, one of the best live albums in punk... or anywhere else.

Out of all the Crassical Collection reissues, Stations benefits the most from a remastered sound. 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.

The bonus material 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!"

Stations of the Crass - Crassical Collection Version: 5 / 5
Stations of the Crass - As It Was in the Beginning 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 focus on this issue, the band decided to release an album with only female vocalists, having Eve Libertine, Joy De Vivre, and Gee Vaucher 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.

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 - Crassical Collection Version: 4/5
Penis Envy - As It Was in the Beginning Version: 4 / 5

Released in 1982 after the better part of a 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. It’s a daring choice- where they could have just blasted out another excellent live album, they chose to make something confrontational in that it wasn’t “easy listening” and required full concentration to understand.

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 As It Was version is particularly nice, here. Unlike previous CD re-releases, the newest version totally replicates the entire box set. Not only do the CDs come in a mini-replica of the original box, but they also include the entire book, and the poster.

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 - Crassical Collection Version: 4/5
Christ - The Album - As It Was in the Beginning Version: 4 / 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 it an easy listen.

The Crassical Collection appends Why Don't You Fuck Off? as a bonus disc. 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 companion 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 - Crassical Collection version: 3.5/5 … or 5/5 (depending on your perspective)
Yes Sir, I Will - As It Was In the Beginning - version: 3 / 5… or 5/5

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, 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 as it is post-punk noise experiment. 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 the album exemplifies the Crass ethos of experimentation while abandoning the “Sound” of punk altogether- which is doubtlessly am extremely Rimbaud-esque move. One wonders if Rimbaud saw Crass, and by extension 10 Notes as something new or separate from his previous imporvisonal (and hippie influenced) EXIT, or as this release would suggest, merely the same concept in a button up black shirt.

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.

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. If anything Ten Notes 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 - Crassical Collection version: 3.5/5
Ten Notes on A Summer's Day - As It Was in the Beginning version: 3.5/5

Perhaps the biggest boon of the new One Little Independent reissues is that finally, we remastered versions of the Crass singles/Greatest hits comp, Best Before 1984, which was not included in the previous reissue campaign.

Best Before rounds up all of the Crass singles and a few alternate versions and really is important as the albums proper. To follow just the album chronology, it would seem that with each release, the band grew further and further away from “punk,” or the “sound” of “punk,” and more towards Rimbaud’s avant-garde/improv leanings. Yet, the singles suggest that this isn’t quite true. While each Crass album got more and more sonically freaky, their singles mostly kept the bark and stabbing guitar aesthetic, with Ignorant and Libertine barking, and Rimbaud with his trademark pitta-pitta-pitta-bapbapbap! In the back.

What’s particularly thrilling about the Crass singles is that really, they’re more like “mini-albums” than “here’s our hot new song!” Each of the singles came with full, expandable art and for the most part, mirrored the flow of proper albums. You’re Already Dead epitomizes this- while the track list is only three songs, with all the twists and turns, it feels more like a full fledged release with a full fledged statement. Indeed, each Crass single was released with a conceptual purpose, and usually a very tangible purpose, and those hard punches still pop today.

The Crassical Collection version is exceptionally well done. Not only does it come with the Best Before booket, but it is also a mini box set that includes replicas of every single, single jacket. Rimbaud also has been the most liberal regarding the original source material. Not only does he add the few stray singles that were left off the original compilation, he adds quite a bit of outtakes and other sonic material. He focuses on “Roky Eyes,” a work that he has continued to revisit throughout his body of work. We also get the rare Christmas Single which presents, perhaps, the least appreciated aspect of Crass - they could be very, very, very funny! Even whimsical!

Best Before 1984 - Crassical Collection version: 5/5
Best Before 1984 - As It Was in the Beginning version: 4.5/5

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