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.