Growing up, I knew one kid who was into Crass. He lived in a big beautiful house and slept on his cheek so as not to disturb his liberty spikes. He didn’t like me very much, but we collaborated on a couple of film projects via mutual friends. Once, I remember him conveniently waiting until one mutual friend (who loved the Clash) walked away to badmouth the Only Band that Mattered. Something about them being “corporate punk” or some other predictable critique. But, he made me curious about who Crass were, since AllMusic (the most available resource to demystify them in 2001) didn’t really help. I remember it called them “the most brittle and hard-line of the first wave of UK punk,” which of course made me want to get my hands on their music. Thankfully, Napster and KaZaa provided a window into a few songs to which Geoff casually dropped references – “Do they Owe Us a Living?” (OF COURSE THAY FOOKING DO!), “Banned from the Roxy,” and perhaps the most disorienting and downright frightening of their early tracks, “Shaved Women.”
Chumbawamba, another anarchist collective from the UK, had hit it big 4 years prior with “Tubthumbing.” Most of the people I knew at school were buying the eponymous CD and reselling it while absorbing NONE of the band’s anarchist message. I didn’t even go through with the trouble of owning it in the first place, as much as I may get curious someday when stumbling upon it for a quarter in some used-media warehouse. Chumbawamba’s importance didn’t make sense to me until well after I’d gotten into Crass, which happened in 2004 when I bought a bootleg best-of Crass CD in Madrid at the “1931 market” by Tirso de Molina. If there was one time and place the music collector in me wishes he could transport back to now, it would be then and there. A bunch of Spanish Anarchists, carrying (and selling) the flags of their ancestors that the Clash sang about set up every weekend with a sea of DIY shirts, tapes, and records that I would have bought ALL OF if I hadn’t been a confused American trying to sort out where he stood politically.
That Crass bootleg, which contained the entire screed from (I believe) “Yes Sir, I Will” translated into Spanish, contained a reasonable overview of their musical output during their pre-ordained 7 years of existence*. Also, to address an elephant in the room, I’ll admit that the first two Crass records aren’t very good. They absolutely fit neatly into the silo of “punk,” according to people with a fairly myopic understanding of that genre-world, but I’m not the only person who think those records are much more interesting than enjoyable.
The third Crass record, however, is unassailable and boils my blood (in a productive way) more with every listen. Eve Libertine, who assumed lead vocal duties (a political act itself in 1981 DIY punk), sings every song on here (save for one, sung by Joy de Vivre) like she’s actively castrating a rapist and knows history will vindicate her for doing so.
The production, if my lack of technical expertise could be forgiven, is NASTY. The late John Loder, who is roundly regarded as a genius, had a touch that simply elevated bands without compromising any of their edge nor idiosyncrasies. There is not one track on Penis Envy that sounds like a rock song should sound, but it still sounded cooler than almost any other punk album released in 1981. The needly guitars and sharp-as-hell bass on “Systematic Death” wrap you up and asphyxiate you while Libertine defiantly yells about how “they fuck our minds so they can fuck us silly!” The line that closes the song (“they’d almost paid their mortgage when the system dropped its bomb”) is particularly brutal to hear in 2021, when most of us are spending our entire lives in debt, servicing a system that keeps moving the end zone back every time they feel like cycling wealth upward. And, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, “people [are] just sort of fine with that.”
When I was building my curriculum for a course on Geography and Gender, a revisit to this album inspired me to create an assignment directing students to pick a song with some lyrical theme around gender to present and analyze critically. Penis Envy was hardly the first album within the realm of popular music to put feminism front and center, but there’s something otherworldly about how well, forty years ago, Crass anticipated our contemporary conversation about gender. Sexism, like racism, was baked into the greater capitalist system, not a variable defect, and to defy either, one has to ask and answer some very difficult questions.
Unlike their frenemies in Chumbawamba (who sold about 5 million more records), Crass’ message has never been anything but crystal clear. No matter where Crass (as a collective) fit into the greater pantheon of punk’s half-century of history, they solidified themselves as a great band with Penis Envy – my favorite record of 1981. Have a listen here and see below for the rest of my top ten of that year.
WHAT VISION IS LEFT, AND IS ANYONE ASKING?
My Top 10 Albums of 1981
- Crass – ‘Penis Envy’
- The Adolescents
- OMD – ‘Architecture & Morality’
- Gang of Four – ‘Solid Gold’
- The Judy’s – ‘Washarama’
- Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive
- Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – ‘I Love Rock n’ Roll’
- Penguin Cafe Orchestra
- The Replacements – ‘Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash’
- Soft Cell – ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’
*For the purposes of this entry, Steve Ignorant’s cash-grab reunion tour(s) don’t count toward the band’s legacy. You have to make certain compromises when forced to live within a system you didn’t create and don’t support, and I have no idea what motivated/pushed Steve into doing that. At any rate, he does not appear on Penis Envy.