Authentic, inspiring, principled: the importance of being Crass

On the eve of a New York exhibition devoted to the band’s graphic output, artist, designer and punk aficionado Toby Mott explains the visceral appeal of Crass

I was 15, it was 1978 at the London Filmmakers Co-Op and it was fucking loud and dark with white strobing light. Despite there being no more than a dozen of us, the band’s singer, Steve Ignorant, shouted in the microphone like he meant it: “Securicor cares, Securicor cares, Securicor scares the shit out of you.” This was Crass.

Unlike my earlier punk thrill, a mix of  outrage and sexual energy, here there was no drunken hedonism, no chaos, no sex, no fun. This was raw sound screaming into the approaching apocalypse, with short shattering bursts. “Do they owe us a living? Of course they do, of course they do. Owe us a living? Of course they fucking do.” In London in the late 1970s I had identified with Crass as the militant voice of my disquiet. This was harsh, austere and confrontational punk with an uncompromising philosophy. Punk as a political force. Now I was serious.

So Crass was the soundtrack of my political awakening. My formative political identity was anarchism, non-conformism, rebellion. Them and us. I was a troubled delinquent, a founding member of The Anarchist Street Army [ASA], a punk collective formed at my inner London school, Pimlico Comprehensive. Our activities involved talking ideas into the night, marching on leftist demonstrations, spray-painting our logo and slogan ‘ASA Running Riot’ on our clothing and around the city.

Crass were often supported by the screaming punk feminists, the Poison Girls. Gigs were held at spaces such as the Ethical Society, Conway Hall, not the pubs and clubs familiar with other punk bands. These concerts, often in the form of benefit fundraisers, had a gravitas as we awoke to the realities of Thatcher’s Britain and our place in the system. Crass performed in front of projected films and sloganned banners scrawled with ‘There Is No Authority But Yourself’. Dressed in black, loud noise with words on top of more loud noise, they spewed blasphemous poetry and anti-war polemics. This was ideology identity, punk art. We didn’t pogo or drink so much as watch and listen, as if at a deafening political rally or meeting.

Crass’s own newspaper, the International Anthem, and their flyers were printed on recycled paper with messages of action and freedom. The records came inside raw cardboard sleeves, all printed with the bold, distinctive CRASS mark – a contradiction of fascist and religious icons that, along with the Anarchy symbol, was spreading among Great Britain’s disillusioned youth.

I had carefully made my own CRASS logo stencil and bought their records from Rough Trade. Following Crass was being a part of Crass, that was the punk continuum. Punk’s initial outburst of anarchic individualism enticed and momentarily held me in its exciting thrall – this, in turn, gave way to totalitarian-styled identikit artists and factions.

In their militaristic black outfits and with their harsh audio-visual punk utopian propaganda, Crass espoused a total living art philosophy. Earlier precedents of this suppression of the individual had been set by the industrial Throbbing Gristle; the man-as-machine Kraftwerk; the automotive Devo; the seeming conformity of Gilbert & George.

But in the England of the 1980s, there were others creating their own vision and reacting to the prevailing free market consumerist culture, like Psychic Youth, Test Department and Laibach. My own involvement was with the art and filmmaking group the Grey Organisation. We parodied yuppie and Soviet corporate monoculture with our uniformed anonymity, shaved heads, white shirts, English suits; making and exhibiting art as product without individual authorship, something inspired by the rigorous orthodoxy of Crass.

Crass ended its own story in 1984, a suitably Orwellian year for its demise. But while active, the band was nothing but authentic, inspiring and principled in a cynical age, answering to no one but themselves.

Toby Mott is an artist and designer. His Mott Collection features over 1,000 punk posters, flyers and fanzines. CRASS: selections from the Mott collection is at the Andrew Roth Gallery, 160A East 70th Street, New York until March 18. Details at andrewroth.com

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