Penny Rimbaud interview
by Richie Unterberger
Q: Crass had to fight legal prosecution on a few occasions. What were the circumstances behind them?
P: Really, there was two major situations. One was very early on. We were still with Small Wonder Records in those days, who were the people who had put out our first 12-inch record. We had difficulty getting the first track pressed, the first track being called "Reality Asylum." It was being pressed in Ireland. The actual people on the shop floor objected to the content of the first track. So we left a three-minute silence, or the length of the track silence, at the beginning of the album. So that the management of Small Wonder weren't under any threat from it, we decided to press it ourselves as a single. We found someone who'd do it in England. Shortly after we released it, Small Wonder was raided by Scotland Yard's vice squad, whose normal job is to sort of raid porn shops in Central London. They couldn't really understand quite why they'd been sent out to a cottage in the Essex countryside to investigate the record. They were completely out of their depth, basically.
There had been a similar case several years earlier with the Gay News [which] was prosecuted under exactly the same thing they were writing up, which was criminal blasphemy. Which I don't think exists in any other western country. So they were investigating us on a case of criminal blasphemy. Having interviewed us, they then said they were going to put it before the director of public prosecutions. About six months later, we actually heard that they had decided to drop the case. But we were given a very stern warning not to release any similar material, which naturally encouraged us to release more.
We then moved our material away from Small Wonder. When we released Feeding the 5000, we put the track back onto it. We did a new version for the single release, we did an extended version. Following that, obviously what the authorities had decided was that rather than prosecuting us and risking another sort of Pistols pantomime, we heard very soon after the case had been dropped that they were hassling shops, they were raiding shops throughout Britain, with no grounds whatsoever, they had no legal grounds to do so. But they were just harassing... mostly small shops, telling them that they were liable to prosecution if they sold our material. Which of course had no legal backup whatsoever, but it was sufficient to scare off a lot of the small shops from stocking our stuff.
The authorities, rather than making a big newspaper case out of it, just decided to harass people individually throughout the country. It clearly was a form of policy, which would have the same effect, or a better effect, than making us public names. That followed us right through, from that point on we were in constant, sort of having problems, always at third hand, from the authorities. We were never raided, we were never directly harassed. But anyone who was arranging gigs, selling our material, etc., was very liable to harassment.
Then basically we didn't get threatened with any sort of prosecution until after the Falklands War. We released "How Does It Feel To Be Mother of a Thousand Dead," which referred to Thatcher obviously. She was actually asked, in the prime minister's question time, whether she'd listened to the record by a sympathetic left-wing member of Parliament, sympathetic to us, that is. [Someone] was sort of given the job of opening prosecution against us this time for obscenity. That completely failed. The newspapers picked up on that very quickly. Because we were quite hot news at the time, because we'd actually divulged quite a bit of official secrets about the Falklands War. We had a contact who was actually serving in the Falklands, so we actually got a lot of classified information sent to us by him, which we were able, one way or another, to sort of get out.
We ended up on the radio being confronted by [conservative] Tim Eggar. Basically, he was completely flattened by our arguments. At that point, the Tories withdrew proceedings, which hadn't gotten any further than the director of public prosecutions looking at the case. That was the second near-skirmish.
The third one was a prosecution, where a shop in Manchester was raided. A large amount of material, including Dead Kennedys material, was taken by the police. They put together, again, an obscenity case against us. We lost the first round, and then we took it to appeal. We decided to fight it in Manchester. Having fought it in London, then it would have set a precedent. Which would have meant had we lost, that we wouldn't have been allowed to sell our material anywhere in Britain. As it goes, we're still not able to officially sell our material in the Chester area of Manchester.
We took it to appeal. We won the appeal, except on one count. They managed to [classify one] track obscene, which actually was a sort of feminist statement about Chinese foot binding, mostly. But obviously the magistrate sitting in the court probably reflected on his own sort of predilections. So he found us guilty of obscenity on that. We were fined peanuts for it. But the case actually had cost us a phenomenal amount of money in terms of, if ever there was a time at which we were very nearly buried by what we put money into, that probably was it.
We'd been promised money and support from quite a few of the underground distributors and the alternative music biz. But when it actually came to it, we got very little support, and certainly very very little finance. So it cost us a phenomenal amount. It was probably the first time that we were actually encountered financial difficulties, really. So maybe that story about the VAT thing stemmed from that. We certainly had a problem at that point with money, which we hadn't had up until then. Mounting the case had cost us a phenomenal amount, and taking it to appeal had cost us a phenomenal amount. All the way through, there was sort of mild harassment. Those were the three sort of major situations, where the harassment was overt.
Q: What were the most important ways Crass' music evolved over their career?
P: I don't really think one can talk in those terms. I think after our first two albums, I think we responded. I don't think we were involved in sort of any evolutionary process, in the sense that we weren't a band for musical or lyrical reasons. We were a band for political reasons, and therefore increasingly, as the years wore on, we were producing stuff out of response social situations. Therefore, artistic or aesthetic considerations didn't really come into it. I think we became increasingly angry, increasingly aware of our impotence, which makes our work increasingly more desperate. But it was desperate in response to what was happening in the country, or globally, at the time.
It's almost an irrelevant question, 'cause I don't think we were in the least bit involved in developing as a band. I don't think that entered into the equation. I think we simply... our political analysis broadened, then narrowed, and broadened, or whatever it did. And what we produced as a band was a reflection of where we stood politically. Our response to things wasn't a musical or a lyrical response, it was a political response. I think that we brought to our music a wide range of influences. But then they weren't employed as musical influences, if you understand.
We weren't a band. We never were a band. I don't think we even saw ourselves as a band. I certainly never saw ourselves as a band. We certainly didn't belong in the sort of pantomime of rock'n'roll, and probably even less in the pantomime of what became known as punk. It wasn't our interest. I mean, we weren't interested in making records. We were interested in making statements, and records happened to be a way of making statements.
It would have been nice to have had that time to think, it would nice to use a C sharp there. But it wasn't like that. Maybe it was right at the beginning, where we were sort of consciously doing something. But as the sort of machinery sort of grew, it demanded this, or it demanded that. The machine demanded whatever response was necessary, particularly during and after the Falklands, where probably we lost our rag as a band. I think we'd probably blown it by then. We were no longer being particularly rational. I don't think we ever were, particularly. But certain situations were just so appalling, it starts to become sort of absurd to try and deal with it through that medium. It's sort of absurd to compare the Falklands with Vietnam, for example. But protest songs, protest rock'n'roll, can just be a joke against the real situation. I think, certainly from the Falklands, I felt that. And I think probably other members of the band did too. It's too serious to be dealing with in this possibly superficial way. That was a big question for us over the last few years. Obviously, no musical consideration comes in. The considerations were, should we be doing this at all?
Q: Can you see Crass' influence on contemporary music and culture?
P: We're inseparable from the entire youth movement of the moment. What we contributed was so broad, and so powerful, so invasive, that I think it's in everything. And I don't think I'm being pompous in that. In everything alternative--from the road protest to class war to feminist cells, whatever, to the American hardcore movement to the Polish, whatever. It's everywhere. I don't think there's any single, individual influence. I think that would be irrelevant.
Like the hippie movement. People say, oh, it was just people wandering around with sort of long hair. It wasn't. If you look at any health food shop or book shop or la la la, you'll find the sort of effects of that movement. Likewise with Crass and the sort of movement that it spawned. I certainly think without Crass, none of what has now looked back as the effects of punk... it would have had no effect at all. I mean, the Pistols and that group, those commercial people, lasted for about two years. They were just an extension of the usual music business tactics. They had no sort of political overview whatsoever.
It was us that introduced a meaningful overview into what was then called punk. And bands similar to us. It's an untold... I don't think you could even quantify it. It's sort of like saying, well, what influence did Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have? They wrote a few books that you might like or you might not like, but their influence is global. I think it's likewise with us. I don't think that's pompous to compare ourselves with the sort of French existentialists. They were similarly sort of authentic movement who had this profound global effect in all sorts of untold ways, I think. I can see a bit of us in everything.
In a funny way, those things almost didn't enter into the equation. As far as I was concerned, I was happiest about the fact that the young 'uns came up well that year, or the cat wasn't sick, or I was making love nicely. As far as Crass was concerned, we sacrificed those sorts of pleasures and pains for the common good. I would almost go as far as saying, we didn't know what we felt on that sort of personal level. That wasn't part of the equation, that wasn't part of the agreement. It was a machine, an incredibly efficient machine, in which we could and did act as human beings. But I don't think... I can't recall any day thinking, that was a wonderful day, any more than I can recall thinking, that was a terrible day. We made mistakes and we had successes, and they all seemed to be one and the same thing in a way. 'Cause we were what we were.
I'm sure other members of the band would say, well, I remember such and such. But I can't do that, 'cause I wasn't me, I was Crass. I think really we all were by degrees. We had an incredible sense of omnipotence, in the sense that because we were Crass and we weren't individuals, there was this extraordinary sense we could take on anything. And we did. We were sort of relatively fearless in our attacks and our attempts to confront the authorities.
I suppose an awful lot of what we did was to test the boundaries all the time. We were constantly testing the boundaries-how fast can we go? It seemed we could go as far as we wanted. It seemed that we could do anything that we wanted to do, we were able to. The only limitation was our imagination, lack of political analysis, or whatever. But ultimately, we could do just what we wanted to do. And no one seemed to get in the way. And if they did get in the way, it didn't matter, because they were getting in the way of a name, Crass. They weren't getting in the way of me at all. I was still looking after the young 'uns and stroking the cats.
Things only make you frustrated if you've got expectations. I don't think we had any expectations. We didn't start with any expectations, and we didn't finish with any expectations. So you can't really be frustrated if you haven't got any expectations. I couldn't now, and I didn't then, care whether or not a record was at #10 in the charts or nowhere at all in the charts. It didn't really interest me very much. I don't think it interested anyone particularly. It didn't mean anything. What meant something was that people were expanding their own consciousness. And if we were a part of that, that was all well and good. But again, we didn't know that we were. We couldn't know that. We saw that people were happy to be at our gigs. You can't qualify all that, or quantify it. I think I was just happy to do it, 'cause it needed doing, I suppose, or I felt it needed doing.
I don't think that we were a band in the conventional sense of the word. I don't think we saw ourselves as individuals within a band. We stripped ourselves of that. We were the band-we were Crass. I think that's why we were so strong, and why we were so impenetrable. That becomes an irrelevancy, because if you haven't got individuals, then you can't ask certain questions, they became meaningless. We've become individuals now, but we weren't then. I think our greatest achievement was to manage for however many long years it was, seven years, to sort of put aside our own individual passions and needs and desires, for what we believed was the common good. And which some of us might no longer believe was the common good, but we certainly did at the time.
ALSO SEE G SUS INTERVIEW CRASS
See this fine interview with Penny from Abisti Magazine
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