Crass’ Penny Rimbaud on graffiti, jazz and John Lennon

The legendary anarchist punk charts a course through his long career.

“There is no authority but yourself” vs. “I don’t really know who I am anymore.” Somehow, the wild ride that has been Penny Rimbaud’s time with anarcho punk/avant-garde ringleaders Crass is best displayed through the tension between these two sentences. While the former are the last words from the band’s penultimate album Yes Sir, I Will, the latter summed up the individual mind state of the Crass members before the group’s disbanding in 1989.

For Penny Rimbaud, this struggle for self-empowerment, identity and peace through dissent has continued since the 1950s. Speaking to the communard, social activist, visual artist, writer and drummer these days is a very rare opportunity to grasp an overview of the full countercultural trajectory. Born Jeremy John Ratter, son to a reasonably well-to-do middle class family in the suburbs of London, Penny left his job teaching at art school to build up the UK’s longest lasting intentional community, Dial House Essex, in the late 1960s.

Twelve years later, when the hippies started to wear black, and the flower power movement gave way to the existential despair and raw energy of punk rock, Penny started Crass with the 20 years younger Steve Ignorant. Steady members like Eve Libertine, Joy de Vivre, N.A. Palmer, and Pete Free soon followed.

Just as Dial House was operated as a loose community without a lock on the door, Crass saw their musical activities as an extension of direct, political activism, and the band itself as a collective bigger than the sum of its parts. With slightly changing line-ups, the group recorded six albums, ranging from the undiluted, pissed-off early recordings Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass to the feminist punk manifesto Penis Envy, and the avant-garde and free-jazz leanings of their later works. Over the years, Crass and Crass Records became a synonym for actual, philosophically informed anarchy in the UK, creating an important counterpart to the nihilism and hollow slogans of some of their contemporaries. In this edited and condensed version of his recent interview for RBMA Radio, Rimbaud charts a course through his remarkable career.

Visual artist, poet, communard, anarchist, social activist, drummer and songwriter – over the years there have been so many tags thrown at you. How would you describe yourself?

Bread-maker. [laughs] I’m best known for my bread-making. When I make music or poetry or I perform or I paint, I’m not sure everyone likes it. Whereas my bread - every time a winner. It makes people happier.

What makes you stand-out among the bread-makers, though, is that you’ve shared your recipe. You even printed it on flyers and handed them out.

Indeed, we have. That’s absolutely true.

In a way, empowering yourself and supporting others to do the same seems crucial to various aspects of your life as an artist and activist. When did you develop a social conscience?

In my mid-teens I read about Karmic Yoga, and that really inspired me. A life of service. Just the idea that the nicest and kindest thing you can do in your life is to help. The idea that that should almost be a primary function was something which inspired me. And that’s what I’ve tried to do – sometimes I’ve failed miserably, sometimes I’ve succeeded wonderfully.

I think there was an urgency about our generation which almost hasn’t been paralleled.

I was privileged as a young man, in the sense that I came from a reasonably wealthy, very well-educated family. I was given and had anything I wanted within that framework. What I couldn’t understand was why everyone else didn’t have that. I was given what conventionally was regarded as a very good education. So I dedicated myself to assisting in eradicating that privilege, if you will.

Your father went to war shortly after you were born. To what extent do you feel was your artistic agenda shaped by the fact that your generation was the first that actively had to position themselves in some way to their fathers having fought in WWII?

Well, my parents had a book in their rather extensive library called Death in Auschwitz, or something like that. The pictures in it introduced me to a reality which explained where my father had been. I didn’t really see my father until about 3. I never knew what he’d been fighting – a war? And when I saw these pictures of the pits at Birkenau-Auschwitz, I was duly appalled and I was thinking, “Bloody hell, if that’s the world out there, I don’t want too much to do with it.” I sort of radicalized, as radicalized as a young kid can be. The real world, as my father called it, was full of horrors.

I think there was an urgency about our generation which almost hasn’t been paralleled. The punk thing came close to its urgency but didn’t have that background. I’m glad I was born at that time. I’m glad I reacted the way I did.

Bill Haley & His Comets - Rock Around The Clock

When did music take up a role in your life?

I was looking for anything that didn’t seem to be part of the general picture that was being fed me. I thought I had found something with Bill Haley, you know, the first rock’n’roll. Before that, jazz seemed to suggest that those people weren’t playing games somehow. Blues, too – in my early teens I had first heard Lead Belly and I thought, “That isn’t part of the scheme I’m trying to be sold.”

Up until I was 10 or 11, I can’t remember listening to any particular music, though I’m sure I did. My dad used to play piano quite well, his taste was very Brahmsian, which took me a while to understand. My brother was into mainstream jazz Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, that sort of thing. When I first heard Bill Haley, to me that was jazz! It had a saxophone and bass and was very weird, so it must be the same thing [laughs]. My first record was “Rock Around the Clock.” My brother thought it was crap, my father told me to get it out the house. I thought, “Hang on, there’s no fucking difference!”

When Elvis went GI and became soft touch... I couldn’t go along with that.

I had a brief flirtation with early rock’n’roll. First Bill Haley, then Presley and Gene Vincent. But I soon got pretty bored with that, certainly when Elvis went GI and became soft touch... I couldn’t go along with that. He’d lost his rebellion and so he was out of the picture. That’s when I turned, slightly introduced by my brother, to progressive jazz, Charlie Parker and bebop. I already had an interest in Benjamin Britten. I was introduced to the War Requiem as a chorister. I was selected for what I think was the first performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony in England. Tippett was another British composer who I liked very much at the time.

I also liked and still like Bob Dylan a lot and love some of his songs, but he was not an influence in the way that John Lennon was an influence. The Beatles really broke the back of class in this country. It didn’t eradicate the class system but actually made class inter-relationship easier. I sensed that right away with The Beatles, that they were radical, revolutionary, even if they were just singing, "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” I sort of owe a debt of gratitude to Lennon for that. Lennon wasn’t working class, he was coming from a middle class background. But somehow he managed to do with The Beatles, what we, in a very different way, managed to do with Crass: introducing the working class public to ideas that hitherto had been absolutely the domain of the middle class.

When Crass met the Beatles

How about literature? You already talked about your acquaintance with affiliates of the Beat Generation like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Gary Snyder. The Beat writers and The Angry Young Men in the UK surfaced roughly around the same time, did you grow up on that?

The Beats... I never really read too much Burroughs, he’s the only one from that circle I never bothered too much about. I like some of Kerouac’s writing, the ending poem of Big Sur is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. I wonder how he fell off so badly in his last years, after he wrote so beautifully about Buddhism and Tao. You usually don’t see that kind of light and then lose it again. Ginsberg, I genuinely love as a writer. Gary Snyder is one of the last around and one of the most profound Beat writers, I feel. Before I learned about the Angry Young Men, the first rebellious literature I read was Hemingway. In my very early teens I read For Whom the Bell Tolls, which gave me a life long interest in the Spanish Civil War. Towards the end of the 1950s there was Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. That radicalized me in a different way, in a sort of sexual liberation. Very powerful, especially for a girl of only 18, I think she was. She’s a massively underrated writer.

I invented the tale of having been to Oxford so that they couldn’t disclaim my role as an intellectual.

Now the story of your Oxford degree in philosophy that seems...

... Completely made up, yeah. I never went to Oxford. [laughs] Let me explain. I went to two public schools: at 14 I was sent to a school in Wales and I was asked not to come back. I got expelled when I was 15. My father did not allow me to do nothing so I worked in the textile industry until I went on emotional blackmail strike, so that my parents would let me go to art school. Not a fine arts school but a commercial art school which I then corrupted into being a painting school for myself.

The tale of Oxford I completely invented because the academic world is governed entirely by Oxbridge, which is Oxford and Cambridge. I realized that there was no way I was allowed to fit in their elite. Their particular way of talking, their deep rooted sense of academic, intellectual confidence. They’re brainwashed into believing that they are the rulers.

Anyway, I invented the tale of having been to Oxford so that they couldn’t disclaim my role as an intellectual.

We’ve already touched upon the importance of dichotomies regarding education, wealth, left and right wing political activism... If Crass stood for one thing, in retrospect, it’s questioning and overcoming these dichotomies. Would you agree that that’s the core of the anarchism Crass promoted?

Yes, absolutely. Increasingly I head more towards libertarianism than anarchism these days, because anarchism has too much of a tendency to align with the extreme left. But yes, that was certainly part of our programme within Crass to try to break down those divisive methods.

Tell me about how Crass came into being.

Initially, when Steve [Ignorant, lead singer of Crass] and myself formed the band we were going to call ourselves “Stormtrooper.” It was Eve [Libertine] who said, “you call yourself that and I’m not going anywhere near you.” And as she was our sole fan until she joined the band a year and a half later, we agreed. I know that’s a clichéd word to use but it did happen organically.

He was 20 years younger than me and utterly pissed off with everything in his way. I was utterly pissed off in my way and we just hit it off together.

I had been working on a book about the death of my vey close friend Wally Hope, with whom I had set up the Stonehenge Festivals. His real name was Phil Russell. He turned up at Dial House, the intentional community which I established in the late 1960s, just when we removed the locks from the door. One day he came up with the idea of squatting Stonehenge and organise an open, free festival there. We had the facilities at Dial House to help him, printing presses, screens, etc. He was arrested before the second festival. The first one was a minor success, the second one was massive and went on until Thatcher smashed it with riot police.

He’d been incarcerated and I think murdered by the state. I was pretty depressed and upset, obsessed about getting to the truth of the story. Meanwhile, bit by bit, the whole social structure of Dial House fell apart until I was on my own.

Steve turned up out of the blue. He was a kid who used to come over to the house occasionally. He was 20 years younger than me and utterly pissed off with everything in his way. I was utterly pissed off in my way and we just hit it off together. He wanted to make a band and I could play drums, sort of. For a few month we were just batting away. I was in a relationship with Eve at the time, so she would come over and criticize, telling us we were far too boyish, etc. But then other people turned up and hung out. That was the way Dial House was always operated. We had a music room, a place to make noises in. People had been in there making noises 12 years prior to the existence of Crass.

Crass - Reality Asylum

The original version of Crass’ debut album Feeding of the 5000 started off with a song/prose poem named “Reality Asylum,” which played a role in the creation of Crass Records. Can you explain what was happening there?

That’s right, we couldn’t get anyone to press Feeding of the 5000 because of the content of “Reality Asylum.” Initially we couldn’t get anyone to print a cover for it if the lyrics were on it. So we dropped it and replaced it with four minutes of silence. A four minute warning was the amount of time we would have gotten in the event of a nuclear attack. Oddly enough, Cage also had 4 minutes of silence, “4:33,” right? I wonder if that was for the same reason...

We put out Feeding of the 5000 without “Reality” through Small Wonder. Still we thought we had to do this record, so we did it ourselves – we found a classical press company and a printer who both said that they would only help us if we kept it strictly confidential. We managed to put out the Reality Asylum single, hand-printing the first edition of a 1000, silk screened. It was going to be the only Crass record. We weren’t interested in running a bloody record label. [laughs]

It was going to be the only Crass record. We weren’t interested in running a bloody record label.

Anyway, Pete from Small Wonder had not only a label but also a record shop and sold the Reality Asylum single. Well, the authorities caught wind of the track and sent the Vice Squad to raid the store. We thought this isn’t fair... it’s ridiculous! If anyone, we should be raided. They actually did come to us afterwards and we were under threat of prosecution for criminal blasphemy, which was a pretty serious offence in fact.

So that was how we became a label. There was a lot of resistance from most other members of the band. I wanted to create a label. They all agreed that Pete shouldn’t be put under pressure, but what they didn’t want to do was get involved in any form of capitalist engagement. I thought, “Fuck it, it just means we can control our own interests.”

I didn’t know the proper address so I just sent it to Andy Warhol, Factory, NYC, thinking that the postal service would know what the Factory was.

Iconography always played a big part in Crass. How did you get together with Gee Voucher [member of Exit & Crass / Crass’ designer]?

We’d been at art school together. It was a very convenient time at art school, because we were meant to learn graphics, and of course it was the early ’60s, the era of Pop Art. We knew how to do lettering, we worked with iconic imagery – it was a subversion of iconic things within our culture. Gee was in some respects more classical in her approach. I was doing massive pictures of Marilyn Monroe way before ever seeing a Warhol. And it was quite upsetting when I did see a Warhol. [laughs] In fact, I wrote to Warhol saying, “Can I come and join you because you’re ahead of me?” I didn’t know the proper address so I just sent it to Andy Warhol, Factory, NYC, thinking that the postal service would know what the Factory was. About nine months later I got the letter back and it was just fantastic – it was completely covered with “not known” stamps and it had been all over America. I’m afraid I’ve thrown it away, but it was such an iconic piece in itself. Mail Art! And I fucking threw away... Anyway Gee and myself were teaching at art school later on, I taught for five years as she did for three, before she left to live in New York for a while.

Crass - Stations of the Crass Crass Records

For Stations of the Crass, your second album, iconography became especially important. You got quite a bit into graffiti at the time, didn’t you?

Right, but that was only Eve and me, Gee was already in New York back then. Every Saturday, when everyone else was having fun, we’d be in the underground system in Central London doing spray paint slogans. Eventually the rest of the band would join. We were immaculately careful about the things we wanted to say. Initially it wasn’t attributed, we didn’t have a Crass symbol on it, just the statement. But then a Christian group started to do the same and we didn’t want to be confused with them. So we used the Crass logo.

You sprayed slogans and little messages. You once said that you didn’t really approve of what the graffiti artists at the same time in NYC were doing, simply spraying their names. Isn’t that a very existential and thus political act in itself?

I can see now how having a nice Banksy is... I mean, people sell the walls of their bloody houses and have them shipped to America. Taggers are defying all of that.

Yes, it is. That is something I’ve completely changed my mind about. Initially I didn’t understand that particular form of tagging. I just thought it was egocentric. By now I have learned to understand through meeting graffiti artists to really respect them. If you are a young and underprivileged kid from an underprivileged background, one of the greatest statements you can make is: “I am here.” I always loved the New York subway, I thought they were beautiful, but I wasn’t hip to tagging at all. But you’re absolutely right, I learned my ignorance in that sense.

I grew to totally respect them when I was invited to the premiere of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. There was a big show and he and some of his fellow street art pals had done all the walls outside. Well, as soon as they packed away their paint, the taggers moved in... there is some sort of battle between them, they don’t approve of street art in that sense. I somehow found myself siding with them. I can see now how having a nice Banksy is... I mean, people sell the walls of their bloody houses and have them shipped to America. Taggers are defying all of that. That’s far closer to what we imagined musically as Crass then becoming celebrities and becoming engaged and involved and consumed by commodity culture.

Various Artists - Bullshit Detector Vol. 1

I would like to discuss the concept of virtuosity with you. For example, bebop and free-form jazz was out-there, noisy stuff played by virtuoso musicians. The concept of punk rock didn’t really require that set of skills anymore, right?

That is true. Real punk rock as demonstrated in say our Bullshit Detector albums, which mainly featured a bunch of kids in their back rooms or garage recording whatever they wanted to say on whatever they could get hold of. That was real punk. Crass on the other hand were very considered, there was an aspect of experience and a lot references. Every fucking single note on a Crass record was very considered for a particular purpose to create a particular atmosphere. I think, punk became diluted to an extent through just being adopted as pointless noise, which I think the trash bands in America were more guilty of than bands from the UK.

If John Cage or John Coltrane had been making noise, it had some sort of soul to it. Even someone as reasonably experimental as Television or Patti Smith were still very strictly within the rock’n’roll domain. I think, we offered a much more fractured story by using really strange chord sequences, avant-garde and musique concrete references, sound blendings, that sort of stuff. It put us far more in the avant-garde than in the rock’n’roll section.

Crass - White Punks on Hope

Especially with the outspokenly feminist Penis Envy you cemented your status as a counter model to say The Sex Pistols and The Clash, who you already had addressed on “White Punks on Hope”...

I think I didn’t get the irony of Rotten’s idea of “No Future.” I took it at face value and thought: “Fuck you, there is a future and it’s up to us to make it.”

I knew that essential message we had was life confirming, empowering for individuals and essentially good.

I knew that essential message we had was life confirming, empowering for individuals and essentially good. There was always the conflict of interest there. How far can you go before you’re endangering people, which is why we withdrew on some of the shared direct action. We were very involved in Stop The City – those turned out very ugly. It’d become very clear by the third or fourth Stop The City that we would be endangering the physical well-being of anyone involved, so we called it off. We were then immediately accused of selling out to the revolutionary purpose...

One of the reasons revolutions tend not to make very much progress is because it doesn’t look at those important issues. It has to be at the right time and very calculated.

A slogan like “There is no authority but yourself” can also be understood as a hedonistic statement. That was never part of the agenda, though, was it?

No, I don’t think in any way we ever demonstrated it in that manner. Anyone who came to see us understood that it was us that put all the gear up, it was us who were putting up the food for the evening. We were engaged and responsible and we didn’t need bouncers. We honoured ourselves in each situation, and by “ourselves” I mean all people present were a part of what we were. Therefore we could fairly reasonably say there is no authority but yourself.

Crass - Bata Motel

Going back to Penis Envy, it seems absurd that a song like Bata Motel was the one that really got you into trouble with the censors.

Right, the one that got us was “Bata Motel.” Yet it gave Eve the opportunity to be thoroughly gleeful about the fact that it was her who had written the most obscene track, whereas I was always priming myself in that position. [laughs]

Penis Envy was interesting in that sense as it was an archetypal Crass move – the one thing that was predictable about Crass was our complete unpredictability. At the point we were being regarded as the top bugaboo street boy gang, we came out with Penis Envy and knocked the presumption flying. See, Christ, The Album was probably our most carefully produced album and it was followed with a complete piece of free form jazz, which was Yes, Sir, I Will.

Crass - Beg Your Pardon

There’s already quite a large amount of jazz on Christ, The Album...

Right. What happened increasingly was... Well, Feeding of the 5000 very much reflects the fusion between Steve and myself and the addition of other people. At that time I didn’t want to write any songs. By the time we worked on Christ, The Album no one was really writing but myself. Obviously I used that as a sort of freedom to push some of my interests harder. I, at the time, hoped and believed that this was in complete accord with everyone.

I was almost on my own in the band, if you understand what I mean. That’s not what I wanted to be, but that’s how it was.

Yes, Sir, I Will was entirely my work. The whole structure, the whole nature in which it was approached – obviously whatever people did on the record was their skills. It still has some of the best bass playing I know on any album. But I created the framework and asked people to play against their will sometimes. About ten years ago people started telling me that... “you were always like this, you were always that”... That honestly wasn’t how I believed it was at the time because everyone was going along with it.

I know that no one in the band liked Ten Notes On A Summer’s Day, which was our last album. It was a great joy to me – I’ve never been particularly into dope and neither has Eve. But one evening we were over at her place and she and a friend were having a smoke, which was very rare. I put on Ten Notes and Eve said, “This is fucking brilliant!” [laughs] I was really pleased because actually the general reaction of the rest of the band was almost like they were doing it to please me. I was almost on my own in the band, if you understand what I mean. That’s not what I wanted to be, but that’s how it was.

Crass - Notes On A Summer's Day

We already spoke about the concept behind “There’s no authority but yourself.” You once wrote how not just Gee but also Andy “N.A.” Palmer, Crass’ rhythm guitarist, left the band saying, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” That seems to be the inherent problem of the authority of self...

Yes, absolutely true. Certainly after the militaristic, monastic life style we lived together for seven years as Crass we were forced in our different ways to find ourselves again. We were out on our own asking, “Who the fuck are we?”

After the final disbanding of Crass in ‘89, there was something rather careful about how you conserved the Crass legacy with Crass Collective, Crass Agenda and Last Amendment. Although it took everyone involved a while to reach that point...

Until the early 2000s, actually. I was so disturbed by the way in which the band fell apart – we were all suddenly waking up, as we didn’t have that sort of umbrella anymore. Like I said, we were so involved with keeping it together that we were no longer keeping ourselves together as separate entities.

I decided three years ago that I was going to devote myself to my work – my work being the sharing of ideas.

I dealt with it by spending 20 years in my study, writing masses of stuff: four novels, an autobiography, plays, poems, essays... most of it unpublished, some published. Occasionally I was doing little forays out into music, like Death of Imagination, for example. It wasn’t until 2000 that I came back with Louise Elliott, a saxophonist and flutist. I was heavily back into jazz and got to know the musicians of [Stoke Newington’s] Vortex Club. Eventually I built up 30, 40 really fantastic jazzers, so the thing grew and we became the Crass Collective. We got together for a huge gig at the South Bank Center Festival. Then I got a residency at the Vortex.

See, I never again wanted to get in that situation which I realized had happened with Crass, where I was allowed to become a father figure. Everyone felt lost in the end. The same thing had happened at Dial House before.

I, at last, feel confident enough to be able to talk without fear of that. I was afraid of it before. I decided three years ago when I got my eyesight and my health back, that I was going to devote myself to my work – my work being the sharing of ideas.

I don’t feel nostalgic about anything.

I don’t feel nostalgic about anything. Maybe I feel slight nostalgia about being a motorcyclist which I gave up when we were told we had to wear crash helmets. [laughs] To me, being a motorcyclist was feeling the wind in your hair. So, no, I have no nostalgia whatsoever. What I have is a very deep sense of responsibility. I believe that I introduced thousands of people to certain ideas like, “There is no authority but yourself.” It’s my responsibility to, as much as I can, appear within the public domain and explain what the fuck I mean by that.

That’s my work. Just as making bread – I make my bread not for myself, you can tell by now that I like my own bread [laughs] – but primarily because we get endless visitors at Dial House who need feeding. It’s an act of devotion. That’s what holds the particles together.

By Julian Brimmers on April 3, 2014

On a different note