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icons of perceived authority such as the Christian cross, the swastika, the Union Jack, and the ouroboros. The band was critical of the punk subculture and youth culture in general. Nevertheless, the anarchist ideas that they promoted have maintained a presence in punk.
The band was based around an anarchist commune in a 16th century cottage, Dial House, near Epping, Essex, and formed when commune founder Penny Rimbaud began jamming with Steve Ignorant (who was staying in the house at the time). Ignorant was inspired to form a band after seeing The Clash perform at Colston Hall in Bristol, whilst Rimbaud, a veteran of avant garde performance art groups such as EXIT and Ceres Confusion, was working on his book Reality Asylum. They produced "So What" and "Do They Owe Us A Living" as a drum-and-vocal duo. They briefly called themselves Stormtrooper before choosing Crass in reference to a line in the David Bowie song "Ziggy Stardust" ("The kids was just crass").
Other friends and household members joined (including Gee Vaucher, Pete Wright, N. A. Palmer and Steve Herman), and Crass played their first live gig at a squatted street festival in Huntley Street, North London. They planned to play five songs, but a neighbour "pulled the plug" after three. Guitarist Steve Herman left the band soon afterwards, and was replaced by Phil Clancey, aka Phil Free. Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine also joined around this time. Other early Crass performances included a four-date tour of New York City, a festival gig in Covent Garden and regular appearances with the U.K. Subs at The White Lion, Putney and Action Space in central London. The latter performances were often poorly attended: "The audience consisted mostly of us when the Subs played and the Subs when we played".
Crass played two gigs at the Roxy Club in Covent Garden, London. According to Rimbaud, the band arrived drunk at the second show and were ejected from the stage; this inspired their song, "Banned from the Roxy", and Rimbaud's essay for Crass' self-published magazine International Anthem, "Crass at the Roxy". After the incident the band took themselves more seriously, avoiding alcohol and cannabis before shows and wearing black, military surplus-style clothing on and offstage.
They introduced their stage backdrop, a logo designed by Rimbaud's friend Dave King. This gave the band a militaristic image, which led to accusations of fascism. Crass countered that their uniform appearance was intended to be a statement against the "cult of personality", so (in contrast to many rock bands) no member would be identified as the "leader".
Conceived and intended as cover artwork for a self-published pamphlet version of Rimbaud's Christ's Reality Asylum, the Crass logo was an amalgam of several "icons of authority" including the Christian cross, the swastika, the Union Jack and a two-headed Ouroboros (symbolising the idea that power will eventually destroy itself). Using such deliberately mixed messages was part of Crass' strategy of presenting themselves as a "barrage of contradictions", challenging audiences to (in Rimbaud's words) "make your own fucking minds up". This included using loud, aggressive music to promote a pacifist message, a reference to their Dadaist, performance-art backgrounds and situationist ideas.
The band eschewed elaborate stage lighting during live sets, preferring to play under 40-watt household light bulbs; the technical difficulties of filming under such lighting conditions partly explains why there is little live footage of Crass. They pioneered multimedia presentation, using video technology (back-projected films and video collages by Mick Duffield and Gee Vaucher) to enhance their performances, and also distributed leaflets and handouts explaining anarchist ideas to their audiences.
Crass' first release was The Feeding of the 5000 (an 18-track, 12" 45 rpm EP on the Small Wonder label) in 1978. Workers at an Irish record-pressing plant refused to handle it due to the allegedly blasphemous content of the song "Asylum", and the record was released without it. In its place were two minutes of silence, entitled "The Sound of Free Speech". This incident prompted Crass to set up their own independent record label, Crass Records, to prevent Small Wonder from being placed in a compromising position and to retain editorial control over their material.
A re-recorded, extended version of "Asylum", renamed "Reality Asylum", was shortly afterwards released on Crass Records as a 7" single and Crass were investigated by the police due to the song's lyrics. The band were interviewed at their Dial House home by Scotland Yard's vice squad, and threatened with prosecution; however, the case was dropped. "Reality Asylum" retailed at 45p (when most other singles cost about 90p), and was the first example of Crass' "pay no more than..." policy: issuing records as inexpensively as possible. The band failed to factor value added tax into their expenses, causing them to lose money on every copy sold. A year later Crass Records released new pressings of "The Feeding of the 5000" (subtitled "The Second Sitting"), restoring the original version of "Asylum".
From their early days of spraying stencilled anti-war, anarchist, feminist and anti-consumerist graffiti messages in the London Underground and on billboards, Crass was involved in politically motivated direct action and musical activities. On 18 December 1982, the band helped co-ordinate a 24-hour squat in the empty west London Zig Zag club to prove "that the underground punk scene could handle itself responsibly when it had to and that music really could be enjoyed free of the restraints imposed upon it by corporate industry".
In 1983 and 1984, Crass were part of the Stop the City actions co-ordinated by London Greenpeace which foreshadowed the anti-globalisation rallies of the early 21st century. Support for these activities was provided in the lyrics and sleeve notes of the band's last single, "You're Already Dead", expressing doubts about their commitment to non-violence. It was also a reflection of disagreements within the group, as explained by Rimbaud; "Half the band supported the pacifist line and half supported direct and if necessary violent action. It was a confusing time for us, and I think a lot of our records show that, inadvertently". This led to introspection within the band, with some members becoming embittered and losing sight of their essentially positive stance. Reflecting this debate, the next release under the Crass name was Acts of Love: classical-music settings of 50 poems by Penny Rimbaud, described as "songs to my other self" and intended to celebrate "the profound sense of unity, peace and love that exists within that other self".
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