Crass chose iconography and dissed photography
In this week's print edition of LA Weekly, I contributed a piece about Jeffrey Lewis's new album 12 Crass Songs, and the phenomenon of young(ish) indie rockers covering 80s era hardcore punk songs. We're using the blog to post some related materials.
Remember that all the way back in 2006 when the Beastie Boys released Awesome: I F***in' Shot That? It seemed like such a novelty. Video cameras were handed to audience members and the resulting footage was later edited into a full-length concert documentary. Today, cell phone cameras are so ubiquitous it's a good bet one could put such a video together from footage shot at half the indie rock concerts that happen every night in major, blog-obsessed cities like San Francisco and New York.
Today, by contrast, we're going to look at some of the scattered and spotty primary documents which survived Crass's actual tenure on this planet earth.
Here is a recently posted, heavily edited video that attempts to present what it was actually like to see Crass in their prime:
Why is the footage so crappy, in this, the era of YouTube's documentary bounty? Well, Crass usually refused all stage lighting but for common household lightbulbs. Ergo, the minimal video that has survived to this day.
Was this merely bad planning? The band were vocal anarchists and, one would guess, not the best group of people to plan for posterity. (And I imagine that it was really difficult to get kitchen chores done at Dial House, their collective home.) But comments from the group's extended family indicates there was some thought to avoiding the demystifying power of videotape. This quote from, Mick Duffield -- responsible for the band's multimedia presentations -- appeared in The Story of Crass by George Berger, the best available biography on the group:
They were very difficult to film, because with Super-8 you needed far more light than was available at a Crass gig -- all you'd get was shadows and light -- that would be about it. So it was a bit pointless filming the gigs. I did try asking for maybe 60 watt bulbs instead of 40 but there was no deal
After the jump flyers, stencils, banners, more video, et. al.
No, there would be no 60 watt bulbs. Rather Crass preferred resting their image on stencils, flyers, collages, newspaper articles, forged documents, banners, patches. Whenever they had an opportunity, they chose iconography over photography. They wanted to represent themselves as a mystery, a historical force.
It's a tradition forwarded today by bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor -- or, rather, the splinter groups which have emerged from Godspeed's extended hiatus -- but I often hope it's one that will be embraced en masse as a refutation of our overexposed digital age.
Here is a small sampling of Crass's visuals sensibility. It's a treasure trove for bands of the future.
And here's another video of them playing -- from what seems to be a longer documentary on anarchist punk in late 70s London: