Thursday, June 17, 2010

Progressive Music Classics. Crass: "Nagasaki Nightmare"



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

I consider the 1977 to 1984 era to be the Golden Age of Protest Music in the rock era.

Yes, the 1960s was also obviously a tremendous era for protest music. But the fact is, many of the later punk bands were revolutionary in ways far beyond anything contemplated by the likes of Dylan and other 1960s musicians.

Take Crass, for example. These British hard-core anarchists not only talked the talk, they walked the walk. For the most part, they lived up to their own very lofty ideals, during their 1977-1984 existence.

While the 1960s generation of musicians later grew complacent, bloated and fat and retired to their gated palatial estates and their cocaine, Crass never, ever sold out. They always stated that they would break up in 1984 and they lived up to their word.

Crass despised (and exposed) the hypocrisy and lies behind the corporate capitalist systems of the U.S. and Britain. And unlike other punk bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Crass never signed to a major music label.

Crass refused to play ball with the very corporations that were obviously at the root of the problem. So the band formed their own small, idealistic record label and released their own records (as well as those of other independent, like-minded bands).

While this helped ensure that the band never sold out, it also meant that Crass records were very difficult to come by, particularly in America (at least, if you lived in an area that was lacking in well-stocked import record stores).

As a result, at the time, I could only read about this intriguing band in the occasional import publication that wrote about them. What's worse is that, for whatever reason, it was always difficult to get ahold of non-album import singles, due to some inexplicable quirks in the record distribution of the time.

Given that many of the era's best music was released only on singles, this meant it was often hard to get copies of vital songs, ranging from Joy Division's "Atmosphere" to The Jam's "Going Underground" to "Complete Control" by the Clash to "Ghost Town" by the Specials. I could only read about the music and wonder what these music behind these intriguing titles sounded like.

Crass were one of those bands that released their best stuff on non-album singles. Not that the albums were mediocre, by any means. In fact, their albums like "Yes Sir, I Will" and "Christ the Album" were powerful and memorable, and bursting at the seams with innovation and rage.

At the time, I had a taste for straight-ahead three-chord, angry punk. But Crass quickly tired of this format and branched out into experimental, risk-taking music that often owed little to punk (or rock'n'roll) tradition. In fact, the band admitted that their biggest influences weren't rock'n'roll at all, but included the likes of English composer, Benjamin Britten, creator of the 1945 opera, "Peter Grimes."

I must admit that Crass's tendency to experiment musically often left me baffled at the time. But as the years have gone by, I find that the band's most interesting music was created when the band took creative risks. (By contrast, Crass's early three-chord punk, which I adored at the time, I now find the least interesting music in the band's catalog).

Crass were a band that was constantly challenging the system. They questioned anything and everything, from society to traditional female roles, to religion to capitalism and imperialism. They had more ideas per bar that most bands have in their entire careers. They expressed themselves not only through music, but through a never-ending blitz of spoken word works, graphic art, poetry, and more.

Eventually (and perhaps inevitably) they brought the wrath of British officialdom down upon their heads. The beginning of the end started when the band attacked Margaret Thatcher with songs like "How Does It Feel To Be the Mother Of A Thousand Dead?" released in the aftermath of the 1982 Falklands War.

The band was condemned in Parliament and faced prosecution under Britain's Obscene Publications Act. While this persecution took its toll on the band, it also vindicated the band's stance that concepts like "Freedom of Speech" and "Democracy" in countries like Britain and America are nothing more than an illusion.

Crass music is not easy listening. It's not the sort of music that one can use for background music. It demands the listener's full attention. And it can often be an unsettling experience. Usually, it's enjoyed best in small doses. (I have yet to make it all the way through a ferociously angry record like "Yes Sir, I Will" in one sitting----the rage, the intensity and the boiling anger is just too great to absorb all at once).

Like much great art down through the ages, Crass's music is often dangerous and revolutionary. It can often jolt you with its power. And it constantly raises the question: "Is our society today really the best that we as a species are capable of?"

One of the best, and most unsettling, Crass songs is "Nagasaki Nightmare." In it, the band do one of the things they do best: tackle and confront, head-on the evils of our modern world.

One might ask: do we really need to be reminded, in vivid detail, the horrors of what happened at Nagaski? To which I answer: you're goddamn right, we do. We need to be reminded every fucking day. Only then can we be jolted out of our complacency: the same complacency that led to other horrors like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the presidencies of Reagan and Bush/Cheney.

Listening to a track like "Nagasaki Nightmare," I can't help but think: "Where in the fuck are today's radical bands that have something to say?" It's not like there's nothing to protest any more. In fact, I'd say that we have more to protest now than we did back in the early 1980s.

But today's music artists don't really have much to say about anything. Yes, there are "punk" bands today, like Green Day. But Green Day are about as dangerous and radical as a cup of Starbucks Coffee. They're nothing more than corporate whores---and their music is safe and sanitized.

While truly radical and risk-taking music may be pretty much dead in the U.S. and Britain these days, at least we have the recorded legacy of bands like Crass to remember.


Anonymous said...

The Manic Street Preachers are still carrying the flame for progressive, idealistic music in Britain. While not in the league of Crass, the Manics still have an impressive body of work.

Jim Burns said...

Not only is Green Day "safe and sanitized" as you mention, but their derivative, by-the-numbers punk was done a thousand times better by bands like the Buzzcocks thirty years ago.
I guess it's OK to try to do punk music these days (or any musical genre well past its "sell-by" date). But it really only works if the artist adds something new to the genre. Green Day doesn't add anything new.
Well, actually, they do have state-of-the-art, big-budget production that goes well beyond what the Buzzcocks could ever achieve.
But state-of-the-art production defeats the whole point of punk. The best punk was always recorded on a shoestring budget (and was all the better for it).

alexander said...

Manic Street Preachers the best)

Anonymous said...

Born in England, left there at 13 with aFather who thought there was gold in Cali, my oldest brother came out 2 years later, he left a squat in Clacton to come to sunny california. he brought something that changed my life forever, stations by Crass. Now I could figure out why this world is so fucked up. Now i'm 43 own a business, have a family, and can say that the greatist insight and guidance I was given was from an album my crasstafarian brother gave me. Thank you Penny, thanmk you Crass. My business is Green. My employees are co owners, of my dream, there children will carry this flame forward. And we have pleasure in telling our corporate monster customers to go fuck em selves. It is so funny they have to come back for it every month, month after month, I have something they cant get anywhere else. peace of mind and happiness. I guess what you dont have always brings curiosity.

Anonymous said...

The lack of "Radical" punks you speak of are still around, calling attention to the injustices of today's governments. It's called the underground scene... If you don't know then please do stay out...

Marc McDonald said...

>>The lack of "Radical" punks you speak
>>of are still around, calling
>>attention to the injustices of
>>today's governments

Really? There are bands around today that are as radical and challenging (both politically and musically) as the likes of The Clash, Crass, the Dead Kennedys, etc.?
Can you please name some of these artists?