Hugs and Kisses: Jeffrey Lewis's 12 Crass Songs
Hugs and Kisses
The Outbursts of Everett True
This week: anarcho-punks Crass and Will-Oldham-horrorfied Jeffrey Lewis
I liked Crass when I was a teenager.
I got a scholarship to a posh school. Well, kinda posh. It had boarders, anyway. Me and my three brothers, we had council places, I used to get called 'tramp' because I wore hand-me-downs, and everyone laughed at my appearance, least until the Sixth Form when it was 1977, punk was in and suddenly everyone was claiming to be really, really poor. Like, I didn't know they lived in a fucking mansion down the road, whereas I shared a room with my three brothers. Whatever. I got a reputation for liking music--or perhaps the fact I lived 10 minutes walk from a council estate gave me a certain credibility that my school 'chums' couldn't help but aspire to; but all of a sudden I was getting invited to parties, to DJ. Took along Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band album, and the first Crass 12-inch The Feeding Of The Five Thousand in revenge, played them back-to-back, and never got invited there again. Whatever.
Primitive anarchist punk band (they later became far more sophisticated) Crass tapped into a primal rage within me; a burgeoning distrust of society, my peers, the accepted way of thinking, what with all their overtly far left lyrics concerned with (and I'm quoting direct from Wikipedia here) anti-consumerism, direct action, animal rights, feminism, anti-war, anti-corporatism, environmentalism, LGBT rights, anti-globalisation, reproductive rights, anti-racism, squatting, and the separation of church and state. Their songs were short, brutal, focused and brilliant: diatribes against. . . well, all of the above, and also (to start with) cheap pot-shots at their own peers, the vilified 'establishment' of punk that was swamping the media: The Clash, et al.
"Do they owe use a living/'Course they do/'Course they do/Do they owe us a living/'COURSE THEY FUCKING DO!" singer Steve Ignorant sneered over a ramshackle two-chord thrash and tinny drums; the sheer bile and passion of his anger more than making up for whatever production deficiencies you care to name. A 45 followed - "Reality Asylum" b/w "Shaved Woman" (PAY NO MORE THAN 45p) - which was fine and everything, and 1979's debut full-length Stations Of The Crass was pretty fucking good, albeit somewhat pushing their generic Ramones-thrash formula to its limits; but it wasn't until 1980 when they released the incredible split single with Poison Girls, "Bloody Revolutions" b/w "Persons Unknown," that they really started to affect my life.
Here was a punk band going way beyond the call of duty: attempting to inform me on how to structure and realign my life, so that I didn't live by convention, so that I was aware of alternatives and ways of being. When I moved up to London, scraping into college, I attempted to start an anarchist group, posting on the rec room message board (a couple of folk replied, but they were more interested in smoking dope). When I found myself drained of money through my vinyl habit, I did the logical thing: moved into a squat. I'd sit around, discussing with friends the likelihood of joining Stop The City marches (the seeds of dissent from which today's anti-globilisation movement has sprung).
Whatever. So I liked Crass, both for their music and ideals. I never moved into a commune, or became a vegetarian...oh wait, I did for a couple of years, I forgot. . . but I sure liked them. I never figured them out to be particularly hot on the melodic stakes, though: never figured them to a band ready for the cover version treatment. Not at all: Ramones, yes (all those glorious Sixties melodies, and Joey's Ronnie Spector-esque dream of a voice) but Crass? Uh-huh.
Turns out I was wrong. Turns out I'm not the only slouchy-shouldered, literate, socially-bereft person to enjoy Crass, either. A few weeks back in the Plan B offices, our albums editor announced he was being sent the new album from our very favourite New York anti-folker, the funny-but-sad, 500-words-into-a-sentence-where-usually-only-50-will-fit, smart-sweet troubadour, Jeffrey Lewis. Turns out that somewhere along the line, he had the genius idea to do an entire album made up of Crass cover versions (12 Crass Songs), focusing in on the (often incredibly smart) lyrics and surprisingly plaintive melodies (or perhaps that's just Jeffrey's plaintive voice), the communal aspect with everyone singing along, sweetened by violins sometimes and with other singers' voices, personalising their songs and making them way less aggressive but none the less moving or affecting. He's taken hold of any number of my old stormy favourites ("Punk Is Dead", "Big A, Little A", "Banned From The Roxy," the truly disturbing "The Gasman Cometh") and breathed fresh life and fire into them, contextualising them for a new generation, and man, oh man. . .
Man, I'm in awe of Jeffrey right now. Who'd have thought he could have done that?
HUGS AND KISS TOP 5 Five inspirational Crass moments 1. "Fight War Not War" (from the 1978 Small Wonder 12-inch The Feeding Of The Five Thousand). Title says it all, really: although I always did love the "Securicor cares/ Securicor cares/ Securicor scares the shit out of you" line from (same album's) "Securicor." 2. "How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead?" (1983 Crass seven-inch). Immortal response to Margaret Thatcher's decision to "invade" the Falklands: caused questions to be raised in the House Of Commons. 3. "Bloody Revolutions" (1980 Crass seven-inch). As great as this single is, it's trumped by its even more awesome flipside, Poison Girls' "Persons Unknown." 4. "Our Wedding" (from the 1981 album Penis Envy). Crass turn their attention to feminism and sexual repression: the album featured exclusively female vocals: this track (a parody of MOR love songs) was originally given away as a flexi with a teen girl magazine, creating further furore. 5. "Nagasaki Nightmare" (1981 Crass seven-inch). Absolutely chilling.
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