G Sus interview by Richie Unterberger
Q: You're still living in a commune-type situation, as you were when Crass was active?
G: The commune is always a word I've kept away from, because I never liked how other communes I saw were run, with written rules and regulations. People take responsibility by what they feel and what they see, usually. So we don't have any agendas for "it's your day to cook" or "your day to clean". When you see a job needs to be done, you do it. So it's really worked on taking on responsibilities. The longest living members are Pen and myself. The rest came later. Pete came before Steve, on and off. And then people just joined in gradually, because we did have a another band before Crass which went on touring, and people would join in that, because it was a band that could incorporate any number of people, being a sort of avant-garde band.
Q: Was Crass' stance informed by what had happened to your friend Wally [a friend whose life disintegrated after incarceration in state mental institutions, as documented in the extensive liner notes accompanying Crass' Christ-The Album]?
G: Informed to a certain degree, but through meeting Wally and what happened to him, we became much more politicized as far as this particular social system was concerned. It led on from there, really. I suppose on the periphery, we all had things to do with CND in the '60s. But on a personal level, my first political awakening was through a very enormous catastrophe here, which was [in] a small village in Wales, a mining village, which the mining company had dumped slag behind the village year after year after year. People were fighting to have it moved before it moved itself, which of course it did, and killed all the children in the school and half the village. For me, that was my first sort of big angry protest. That was in the '60's. From there on, one informed oneself as best you could. 'Cause there wasn't a lot of information around then. Not alternative information, not the other side of the story. You had to very much dig it up yourself. But meeting like-minded people, you sort of got a handle on it.
Q: How long have you and Penny been living in your group home?
G: We got here in '68, something like that. As usual, Pen and I both took the whole sort of '60s hippie do it yourself thing for real (laughs). Especially Pen, because he found the house first. We wanted to have a house that was very open, a safe house for people, that was somewhere people could rest and think and share ideas. So most of the rooms in the house still are studios. We have dark rooms, we have a music room and all sorts of things. And we hope people will come and create here. Which they have done over the years. There's been some big things, good things, bad things, and actually learning to live with each other. And we were a fluctuating community of people. We're very tolerant, I would say (laughs). It's not a commune, basically, it's an open house. And people come here very respectfully, because it's very comfortable, it's very welcoming...well, we think it is. There are certain unwritten laws, but most people come, and they give how they can.
It's on a farm, about 15 miles from London. We're out in the fields. It's a very good side of London, if you know London. On one side, it's got this enormous forest, really big forest, which stretches from London out to the country. So it's a very good barrier to stop building. On the edge of that side of London, you hit the forest very quickly. From then on it's countryside, really. Slightly northeast. If you follow the River Thames out to the mouth of the sea and then go straight up halfway along that river, you'll come to where we are. Slightly northeast, Essex. But it's a county that's fighting for its life, really, because it's surrounded by the major routeway coming in now from the Chunnel. It's sort of like a Bermuda triangle we're living in, fighting off all comers. But we're winning at the moment.
Pen and I had been to art school together, so we've known each other since we were about 15, 16. We've always worked together in some way or another, from different music bands, from happenings and theatrical pieces. Musically, we were affected by the Beatles a hell of a lot from the start, especially towards the end and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's stuff. They were a big driving force for us because of the sentiments, I suppose, were very similar to our own-"Give Peace a Chance." We were outright hippies, but hard-edged I suppose. I suppose that's why Crass happened.
Q: What were Crass' musical influences?
G: When the Pistols started, we thought they were fantastic. We took them seriously, and again did it ourselves. I suppose influences come from all areas. Musically, we both loved Benjamin Britten and jazz and classical stuff. But there's never been a condemnation of much really, except for the Top 20 in the sense of anything but the Beatles. For obvious reasons, they were all the things that top bands are now, just a conceived group, and pushed for money. So we weren't much into anything else, really. A lot coming out of Ginsberg and Kerouac and all the obvious things. Being visually orientated, a lot of my influence came from other things, really.
We did do it for love. Something was always going on in the house, whether it was all the things I've mentioned, performance pieces or avant-garde. So it was a very obvious energy for us to be towed along with. We thought it was a great statement, the Pistols' statement. Because what was happening in England at the time was just diabolical. And being older made a lot of difference. We've always been that much older than most people who make (music)--we're all in our fifties now, more or less, some of us, not Steve of course.
I suppose the only goal for me was to converse. And obviously, it was conversing with a younger generation. I was much older, but that was where the music was going to. I think we all felt that it wasn't enough to stand up and write a poem or write a book. I mean, it had to be up there on stage. That was the way of conversing at that point in time. For me, that's the way my work was going anyway. So I extended upon that by starting the newspapers and other work that I was working on. That went together with the words. Pen's writing was very different. And we all started writing, along with that, new songs.
I think the whole thing was that we felt very, I suppose, concerned. I personally felt very strongly about what was happening to this country, and that youth needed a voice again. Obviously, if you wanted to share what you'd understood up to then, you had to find the right language. And the right language at the time was how we did it with Crass, really. That's changed again. I think image now is slightly defunct at the moment. I'm not quite sure how it's being made over. But we're sort of building up for new things somewhere along the line.
Q: Was it always the intention to put out your records yourselves?
G: I think that set in pretty quickly. None of us ever believed that you could sign with a big company and think you could play it your way. I think the Pistols did very well with that. I think the disillusionment set in quite quickly, although not with the energy that seemed to be building on the streets. We picked up from there, really. We always felt that we'd never, ever allow anyone else to dictate how we were going to do it, when we were going to do it, and for how long. Most of us came from an artistic background. Andy paints. I think the only musician amongst us was Pete, and he actually knew how to play. We had to learn as we went along, really. Again, it had to be done the way we felt we could do it.
That became a driving force, really. For us, it was to share with people, to say, well, just don't hang around waiting for someone else to hand it to you. Just go out and do it. Also with art, with producing your own magazines, which I think really took off in this country. There's so many fanzines, from sublime to ridiculous. But wonderful energy. I think the one thing that really tells about our energy is the bullshit detectors. I think they're a great documentation of what was going own behind locked doors, with young people. And a lot of writing went on--a lot of good writing, a lot of bad writing, the usual thing. A lot of good bands, and a lot of cliches, and a lot of people who jumped on the bandwagon. But I mean, that'll happen whatever you do, really. I don't think that was a problem. I think there's people now that are still continuing. They're quietly beavering away underneath, which is the way it has to be done in this country at the moment, which is very good.
The first Feeding of the 5000 was put out by Small Wonder. He was like the punk shop in London, and he was putting a lot of stuff, like Patrick Fitzgerald and a lot of people that were around at that time. He just wanted to put out our single, and it sort of grew. We were still sort of mucking about, really. Didn't think there'd be much comeback. That was just done live-it was done in a couple of days, and that was it. No overlapping, no re-recording, it's just straight and as it is, really. It hit us as much as it hit anybody else, I think. It actually sold a lot, and he couldn't afford to do it again, so we really had to start doing it ourselves.
Q: What do you think were the most important ways the group's music changed as they kept recording?
G: Every time we went into the studio, I suppose there was an idea of how we were going to do it in the sense that we weren't prepared to give them another one of the same. People got comfortable with Feeding the 5000, and I think the second one was Penis Envy, I can't remember. And it was totally opposite to what people expected. I think it's too easy to record comfortably and know it's going to sell. We sort of tried to push it and take chances each time. And keep to what we wanted to do. It was no skin off our backs if it didn't make it. It's just something we thought was very important to stick to, the way we wanted to do it.
I think the most significant change you can hear, really, is the total desperation about the Tory government. I think you can really hear it in Yes Sir I Will, the black one. I mean, that's pretty heavy, that one. I think it's not disillusioned as such. But you can see what's really going on. I for one, when she [Thatcher] got in the third time, I thought that's it. I'm not prepared keep making videos, keep doing illustrations, that are really concerned with her shit. I just thought, enough, there's another life outside of this. You can only take so much. Unless you really live here and you've known the English sort of spirit and seen it really crushed through what happened with the miners, what happened with the newspapers here, what happened with the women at Greenham, it just took its toll on all of us. We just thought, well, we're not giving up. We're gonna have to change tactics. I suppose that's what's happened.
Q: Why did the group stop releasing material in the mid-1980's?
G: We'd always said that we'd stop in 1984, which is really what we did. People have just gone on to do other things, and keep working at it really. I think as far as visually hearing the difference, that's where it lies for me, is that there's this enormous weight. The fun has gone out of it really. The jokes are there, but they're very black, unlike Feeding of the 5000, which is full of sort of...I think it's very funny, I think it's very lively, I think it's all there, but I mean you play it next to Yes Sir, I think it's (an) enormous difference. And I don't suppose any of us wanted to share that blackness, really, and that way anymore. Pen's gone on to write novels, which are pretty heavy as well. He's gone on to do different music, Steve went on to get another band together. I personally, I didn't want to paint another corpse, I didn't want to paint another effigy anymore. I wanted to start working on my own work. So that's what's happened.
Q: Was there ever a feeling that because your music and presentation was so uncompromising, that you were only preaching to the converted?
G: It did come up time and time again, really. But unless you go with big companies at that point in time, then you're not going to cover enormous amount of people that are not punks, or are not in that ilk. It's never really bothered me particularly. Just the fact that we had so much mail from irate parents was great. Because they'd find them in their kids' bedrooms, or they'd find the poster of the hand. It would be the parents that were totally freaked. In fact, one of the prosecutions came from that, a kid bringing home a record of Crass, and there was so much swearing on it and what they saw as obscene images that the police had to prosecute.
But I mean, I think that's great. I love to think of those things lying in people's natty little living rooms with the TV on (laughs). I mean, that interests me more. I'm not interested to be the big wonder stars, where you're plastered up everywhere. I much, much prefer to be a little worm burrowing underground somewhere and coming up in unexpected places. I think we've all felt the same, and I still do. I'm not interested in being a big media personality. I don't think you can get half the stuff done that way. I think Crass is still niggling away down there, and that's great. I know we are, simply because of the mail and stuff that comes over the Net is concerned.
Yes, we are, have been preaching to the converted who are already, I suppose, informed. But I still think we took it a step further. I think it is information. And then there's the way you put it. I mean, information is easy. But it's the way you present that, and all the outlying bits to it. I like to think what came of it most of all was that we actually genuinely cared, and still do care. I never did an illustration that there wasn't hope in. Any picture you look at, for myself, I always some sort of image of hope. Whether people recognize that is another matter. But I think the overall feeling from all the illustrations is not one of pessimism or of no hope, that there is possibility. And I hope it's shifted a lot of people's brains, even unknowingly, into different ways of looking at things. Because most of the illustrations I did were just a combination of everyday images, but put into a context where they usually weren't seen. You can't force people into anything. The intention was to put how we felt about things, the information we'd gathered, out there, and for people to make their own minds up. There was never an intention to make people change their mind.
It's the same at gigs. We did a performance, and people respected that the area on the stage was ours. We said what we said, it was pretty heavy. But then somebody always puts the kettle on after the gig. I mean, they were great. Just tea started flowing everywhere, and everybody sat down and chatted. Because I think if you confront people with heavy stuff and strip them maybe of some of their armory, you've got to be there, you have to be there, especially with young people, it's too much. So they were very big social events, and they were great, really great fun. People just really got to know each other. People would bring food to share, and it was good all around. And hopefully that got taken out in their everyday life, who knows.
Q: Did it bother Crass that the band were so little-known in the US? The records were always hard to find here.
G: Not at all. It didn't concern us at all. We were more interested in producing the goods, really, just getting on with new work each time. It's never been a big problem for us to think, well, we're not selling here or selling there. It still isn't, really.
We really didn't care what happened. We did what we had to do, for our own personal wanting to share. What course that took was beyond our control, really. Not always, we controlled it. Especially the "Thatchergate tapes," that took a long time to surface. They were sent out, what, a year before that. That was good fun. [Note: This finely edited tape collage purported to be a telephone conversation with Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; at one point, the sound bites were manipulated to produce a threat by Reagan to "nuke" Europe in defense of American interests.]
That was Pete's main instigation, to do that. Feedback from that was more than we thought it would be. We just really didn't think people would be taken in by it (laughs). It just goes to show what you can do. Anything goes, really. And if it didn't, we'd have to be very meticulous about the way we did something, to make it guide up a certain route. But we were never that conniving, really. We had dreams, and we'd joke and say, bring the government down here... we were very close to getting compromising photos of Dennis Thatcher, extremely close. The person who had them backed out at the last minute. That would have been such a wonderful thing as far as I'm concerned. Had we computers then, we could have knitted two photos together. I mean, you could have great fun now, couldn't you, my God! But during those days, there wasn't that technology, so we were relying on the real thing. But I would have been extremely pleased with that. But the person got very frightened, sort of backed off.
Q: I read once that Crass folded because of a debt that arose from a large debt of accrued value-added-tax, which struck me as strange.
G: It would take more than VAT to make us stop. That's totally wrong. The reason the band stopped was several reasons. One, we always said we'd stop in 1984. That's why we had the countdown on the numbering [of the LPs]. Secondly, when we got to 1984, Andy wanted to go back to art school, he went to the Royal College. And none of us could see any point in continuing without Andy. The band kind of operated like that. We certainly couldn't get a stand-in, because that wasn't what the band was about. We were all very committed to each other, and that was the band. And if somebody left, then the band stopped.
We decided on a more positive note, in the sense, a lot of young punks here were immersed in death and disaster. And they were forgetting why they were angry. I thought that was very negative. So we did Acts of Love [a 1985 release credited to Penny Rimbaud & Eve Libertine], really, apart from Best Before, but that's just a compilation. So Acts of Love really was the last word. I thought it was very important to do that. But the VAT thing is intriguing. Maybe we should leave that one up. Maybe we should make that into a really big story! (laughs)
Q: How do you see the influence of Crass on today's music and culture?
G: From a personal level, it's great to still have loads and loads of friends from that era that were just kids at the time, and just sort of putting their feet in the water and testing the air. They've gone on to become very solid, kind, concerned people, still battling away out there, whether they're up trees, trying to save roads, or writing books privately, or whatever, they've gone on to remain very solid people, and I think that's great. I love the fact that they're all out there badgering away in some way.
I think people should be proud of how Crass conducted themselves, as far as being independent. But it doesn't mean a lot to me in the sense that I personally could never have it any other way, nor could Pen, because we're so meticulous about images and words and the construction of a packet and the design of this. I could never have let it out of my hands anyway. To me, it was no great big deal. If I'm gonna kick, I'm gonna kick from where I'm standing, and I'm not going to go through anybody else.
I never really think of it in those terms, to be honest. Because the band have never stopped in the sense of how I feel about the same issues. I feel about the issues as strongly. I have shifted in the way I fight it, or the way I understand it. But I'm still on the edge, I hope, or I keep pushing myself to the edge and keep fighting. But it's not in such an obvious way now. To look back on Crass, it seems quite funny to me. I am glad that we got as far as we did with Crass. I'm glad all the people have met through that and continue to be friends.
Anything else I'd have liked to see different was internal stuff, really. There were times when it became a great strain for us. It never stopped for what, eight, nine years. That did put a strain on relationships. Nothing we couldn't handle, but it's taken a long while to sort them out since we've stopped. But then that's the nature of close relationships. You couldn't change that, because that's the way it goes. I'm not even sure I would have wished that computers were around at the time. Because I think, the thing with Crass, it was hands-on. Everything-every event we did, or confrontation in the streets, was by word of mouth. That's great. People would gather in the hundreds just by something being whispered in someone's ear. I think that was great. I think the one thing about computer age now, I think it would be something different. I think we'd have to deal with it very differently. I think they're great fun on one level, but I would find that sort of domestic angle of Crass a sad loss, really.
I've seen a lot of imagery that has been taken from what I've done. But I think that's great, I don't mind that. 'Cause that's what art's about anyway. Art's about robbery, and using it your own way. I've sort of lost contact with the punk music that's going on. What I have heard is like 1970's, 1980's, it doesn't seem to have moved much. But then again, any great music movement, that's what you get, isn't it? I mean, you've got loads of heavy metal bands coming out all the time, and loads of rock and roll. Now you get loads of punk bands, and there's been a set rhythm and a set way. I don't mean that unfairly, but I'm sure there's great stuff out there. But I've sort of lost contact with that, having had to shut myself in the studio and be private and work alone.
I think there are a lot of things going on I come across that seem to emanate from Crass. I suppose the most notable one is walking into a gig, the rare times that I do walk into a punk gig, there are lots of banners on the stages. There's people talking to each other, there's people smiling and laughing and that's nice. I think there's a community that's gone on. I think very much, in this country, the new age travelers and the sort of road protest people have come out of Crass.
I can only judge, really, from the letters and things that we get. We had an email this week from somebody, and it was quite long. It said, "I've always liked Dead Kennedys, now I've suddenly found Crass." He was going into great detail of all his influences, and "by the way, I'm only 12 years old." And it isn't all positive. A lot of it's very negative. A lot of the young, punk-orientated people have sort of got themselves locked something. If it isn't cider or dope, it's the clothes thing. But to every positive side, there has to be a negative following. In this country, you can very much see that. I suppose the people that really came to the gigs and traveled with us, obviously, are all in their thirties and forties now. They've moved on to something.
ALSO SEE PENNY RIMBAUD INTERVIEW CRASS
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