Tag Archives: anarcho-punk

New research article: ‘They’ve got a bomb’, Crass, CND, sounds

Who can say how much [the Bomb] changed all of us … our music … our art … ? Crass, ‘Nagasaki nightmare’ sleeve notes (1980)

This article explores the links and tensions in Britain between a musical subculture at its height of creative energy – anarcho-punk – and the anti-nuclear movement, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It identifies and interrogates the anti-nuclear elements of anarcho-punk, looking at its leading band, Crass. At the centre is an exploration of the sounds of Crass’ music and singing voices – termed Crassonics – in the context of anti-nuclearism: if the bomb changed music and art, what did the new music sound like?…

The nuclear fascination of punk rock is first and most publicly articulated in the Sex Pistols’ 1977 chart-topping single ‘God Save the Queen’, in which singer Johnny Rotten points to the ideological constraining of the British establishment: ‘They made you a moron/A potential H-bomb.’ While it is not entirely clear what the function of Rotten’s H-bomb is – national defense or inarticulate self-destruction of society, possibly both – it is clear that the bomb is viewed as ‘moronic’ in ideation, and that, while the H-bomb is qualified by the word ‘potential,’ there will be, as the song lyric repeatedly states as well as fades out on, ‘no future’. Punk’s eschatology is established more or less at its beginnings. As Jon Savage has written in England’s Dreaming, of these two lines from this one song, ‘In these phrases you can hear the struggle of post-war youth culture, reacting against those whose world view was shaped before the event which broke the history of the twentieth century in half: the Hiroshima atom bomb’….

How have the recorded sounds of anarcho-punk – what I now tentatively term ‘Crassonics’ – captured and articulated its self-styled ‘aesthetic of anger’?…. Crass claimed that music was ‘changed by the bomb,’ and they sought to confirm this observation not only in lyric and text but also with the very music they were making. Their music incorporated and created sounds of destruction, alienation, and accusation, in a righteous and relentless assault on the new nuclear norm. But in the binary culture of the (anti-)nuclear sublime, listenability and expressibility seemed polar opposites: for Crass, to express nuclear horror in music and capture the outrage around it, one had to interrogate the limits of what one would be willing to listen to…. 

This article appears in the academic journal Rock Music Studies 2019. You can download a FREE copy of the entire piece here.

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4WORD: AN.OK4U2@32+1984


UEA Barn, Norwich, 1979

A new collection of essays about anarcho-punk has just been published by Minor Compositions, a series from Autonomedia: Mike Dines and Matt Worley, eds. The Aesthetic of Our Anger: Anarcho-Punk, Politics and Music (2016). The entire book is open access (i.e. freely available) here, but you can also read my short preface to the book by clicking the link below. This extract is taken from the preface (the original poster for the Norwich concert described is right. Yes, I still have it. I found it a year ago, folded neatly in the box set of Crass’s Christ: The Album, as we were packing up our house in preparation for moving south, to, well, back to Norwich after 30  years away. Note that Crass weren’t even advertised to be playing that night).

‘That first time in Norwich, Crass and Poison Girls were astonishing, not just to me, but to all the punks who knew about the gig and had turned up, the more so because the bands were so casual about it, wandering around the half-empty hall before and after playing, wanting us, waiting for us, to talk to them. They were out front drinking tea – I’d never ever seen bands doing that at the end of a gig before. Music was material to them, and they showed that; the performance was an object, clearly delineated, which they involved themselves in and then exited. Music happened for a while and then it didn’t happen. The bands extended the performance entirely and indefinitely, to include the pre- and post-show, the setting up of the PA, the draping of flags and banners and subsequent transformation of the hall, Crass in their problematically paramilitary black garb and red armbands, the sexy sexless women. Either way I was totally intimidated, and deeply attracted. Here were people doing exactly what I thought punk should do, be a force.’

This was me, an eighteen-year-old punk in 1979, having his anxieties that maybe punk wasn’t going to change the world (for the better) after all put on hold for a couple of more years. I’m uncertain how powerfully the sensation lasted. (Occasionally, yes, I can still express that sentence today as: I’m uncertain how powerfully the sensation has lasted.) It was the laying out and laying bare of ideals, culture and event presented in a total package that I fell for in that old barn that night. Nine or ten months later, the same bands played a small hall in Suffolk, a benefit gig for local peace groups. There were clashes in the sleepy market town between outsider punks and local bikers, and the bikers circulated around the hall brandishing chains waiting for lone punks to attack.

aesthetic-of-anger-front-cover‘Plenty of people in the crowd – me included – aren’t interested in this at all; we want to see the bands, experience the whole Crass & Poison Girls trip, that sensurround gig of music, TVs, banners, flags, uniforms, wrapped in an unpretentious delivery of the mundane. Disapproving comments are shared as we try to reassure one another, there are sneers at this new mods-and-rockers-style moment, this isn’t punk, we’re here for a pacifist benefit. The transformed church hall is made a site of extreme rhetoric and cultural production for two hours. But outside…’.

The open space of an anarcho-punk gig, where subcultural contestation and negotiation could sometimes take place, where self-determination and self-policing could take a while to work through, operated very poorly for me that night. Six bikers trapped me alone near the train station in the dark after the gig and taught me an unforgettable lesson about the limits of tolerance and freedom among British youth in the countryside. Welcome to anarcho-punk. Rival tribal rebel revels, indeed.

Click this link for the full preface, as well as the book cover and table of contents: mckay-4word-the-aesthetic-of-our-anger.

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