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Rock Music Studies
ISSN: 1940-1159 (Print) 1940-1167 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rrms20
‘They’ve got a bomb’: sounding anti-nuclearism in
the anarcho-punk movement in Britain, 1978–84
To cite this article: George McKay (2019): ‘They’ve got a bomb’: sounding anti-
nuclearism in the anarcho-punk movement in Britain, 1978–84, Rock Music Studies, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19401159.2019.1673076
Published online: 03 Oct 2019.
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‘They’ve got a bomb’: sounding anti-nuclearism in the
anarcho-punk movement in Britain, 1978–84
Film, Television & Media Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
This article explores the links and tensions in Britain between
a musical subculture at its height of creative energy –anarcho-
punk –and the anti-nuclear movement, including the Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament. It identiﬁes and interrogates the anti-
nuclear elements of anarcho-punk, looking at its leading band,
Crass. At the center is an exploration of the sounds of Crass’
music and singing voices –termed Crassonics –in the context of
anti-nuclearism: if the bomb changed music and art, what did the
new music sound like?
punk rock; protest; sound;
Who can say how much [the Bomb] changed all of us . . . our music . . . our art . . . ?
Crass (“Nagasaki Nightmare,”sleeve notes)
The nuclear fascination of punk rock is ﬁrst and most publicly articulated in the Sex
Pistols’1977 chart-topping single “God save the Queen,”in which singer Johnny Rotten
points to the ideological constraining of the British establishment: “They made you
a moron/A potential H-bomb.”While it is not entirely clear what the function of
Rotten’s H-bomb is –national defense or inarticulate self-destruction of society, possibly
both –it is clear that the bomb is viewed as “moronic”in ideation, and that, while the
H-bomb is qualiﬁed by the word “potential,”there will be, as the song lyric repeatedly
states as well as fades out on, “no future”(Sex Pistols,“God Save the Queen”). Punk’s
eschatology is established more or less at its beginnings. As Jon Savage has written, of
these two lines from this one song, “In these phrases you can hear the struggle of post-war
youth culture, reacting against those whose world view was shaped before the event
which broke the history of the twentieth century in half: the Hiroshima atom bomb”
(354). (See Ogg for a survey of instances in which punk more broadly drew on cultures of
war, despite its apparent “avowed suspicion and rejection of war and the military”.)
The nuclear-tinged eschatology of punk opened up a great deal of new space. In the
late 1970s and early 1980s Britain, punk’s politics were complex and contradictory,
managing to embrace both far left (see Worley,“Shot”) and, if to a much smaller extent,
far right (see Shaﬀer). And then there came anarcho-punk, which said that it sought to
position itself outside such a, in its view, restricting binary (as Crass:“Left wing, right
wing, you can stuﬀthe lot”[“White Punks”]). This last fact is signiﬁcant in the context of
CONTACT George McKay firstname.lastname@example.org University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
anti-nuclearism especially, for “[t]he anti-nuclear movement . . . was [itself] one instance
of ‘popular politics’. . . outside formal (parliamentary) channels, often with a complicated
relationship to the political ‘left’and ‘right’” (Tompkins, 4). Anarcho-punk was an
aggressive, earnest, even puritanical “dissident movement within punk: one which
aimed to reassert the primacy of punk as an agency of political subversion [via which]
punk rock itself might yet be refashioned into a revolutionary weapon”(Cross,“There Is
No Authority”2). So, while the Sex Pistols, in punk’s most incandescent year, 1977, had
proclaimed “no future,”in fact a post-punk movement very quickly developed that saw
one of its roles as articulating a future, or a soundtrack to one, at least. That articulation
became, eﬀectively, also the defense of the very idea of a future. A sustained and radical
paciﬁst proﬁle within anarcho-punk was established with the release of a record called
The Feeding of the Five Thousand by the inﬂuential English band and collective Crass in
1978. According to Savage in England’s Dreaming, Crass “sowed the ground for the
return of serious anarchism and the popularity of CND in the early 1980s”(584). Matt
Worley extends the radical inﬂuence and legacy of Crass (see Figure 1), which
served as a nexus for a range of political movements that included anarchism, feminism,
anti-militarism, animal rights activism and the early 1980s Stop the City campaigns that fed
into the anti-capitalism and anti-globalisation movements of the late twentieth and early
twenty-ﬁrst century. (“Shot”334–35; see also Cross,“Stop the City”)
The popular history ﬁlm, The Day the Country Died, argues that anarcho-punk was
“fuelled by the very real evils of Thatcherism, economic depression, and the nuclear
threat that hung over the UK like a funeral pall”(Wallace). Whether one agrees with the
interpretation of these features as “very real evils”or not –others might view them as
some of the complex necessities of contemporary existence –one can acknowledge that,
after thirty years of broad parliamentary consensus since the end of the Second World
War, in 1979 a newly-elected right-wing government pursued a radical agenda at home,
while internationally there was a nuclear-driven Cold War as well as in 1982 a sea and
land war between Britain and Argentina, over the Falklands Islands. In Worley’s view,
“By 1982–1983, as plans to deploy Cruise, Pershing and SS20 nuclear missiles across
Europe combined with a war fever stirred up by the Falklands conﬂict, so impending
nuclear devastation moved to the top of many a punk band’s agenda”(“One Nation”72).
From an anarcho-punk perspective, the social and political shift was dizzying, as Crass
guitarist Phil Free remembered:
After [Feeding] was out, Thatcher came in. We played a gig in Stoke and two policemen came
in to make sure the kids were alright. There was a kitchen we were using and we made them tea
and started chatting with them. One of them said, “If Thatcher gets in, I’mleavingbecause
there’ll be a police state in a few years.”It was extraordinary. Then two years later, we were
actually at war, and nuclear missiles were being sited in England. (qtd. in Berger,251)
Even in the midst of punk’s vibrant, noisy and contumacious experimentation, The
Feeding of the Five Thousand managed high levels of sonic and visual shock, innovation,
and appeal. In musical terms alone, it “sounded like no other punk record before it had –
the signature military drum-beat; the skittery power-buzz of the two guitars; the relent-
less lyric-chewing vocal; the shift without pause from one song to another; the lack of
rock pretensions”(Cross,“Hippies”2). Anarcho-punk, as eﬀectively invented by Crass
with this record, developed a rich multimedia and cross-cultural scene, with music at its
heart: music recording, production, and distribution, live performance and promotion,
recorded sound, ﬁlm and video experimentation, clothing and style, visual art and design,
graﬃti and street art, logo design and branding but also subvertising, typography,
alternative organization networks, and grassroots touring circuit, lifestyle and domestic
arrangements from eating to collective living, fundraising for campaigns, détournements
and pranksterism –all of these featured in an ambitious and encompassing extension of
DIY practice. Much of this happened from a small group of people living together in
a farm on the edge of Epping Forest, Essex, 15 miles from central London. It was
a remarkable cottage industry.
While Crass and the anarcho-punk movement have begun to receive signiﬁcant
attention from academic and independent researchers and curators in recent years
(sustained studies include Berger; Cross’s range of work; Glasper;Dines and Worley;
Shukaitis) as well as to tell their own stories (Rimbaud,Shibboleth;Ignorant;Lake), it is
still not always easy accurately to substantiate and evaluate the achievement and inﬂu-
ence of the movement. Though the amount of documentation has increased, there
remains something of a tendency to celebrate rather than critique; authors are often
(ex-) fans and advocates, and band members may have their own justiﬁcatory agendas.
Any and all of these could contribute to what Worley politely calls the movement’s
“distorted sense of its own importance”(“One Nation”78), then as now. It is not even
that easy to see Crass in action: surprisingly, for a multi-media ensemble with a resident
artist and a resident ﬁlm-maker, the visual impact of Crass live shows, in particular, is
almost impossible to experience: there are relatively few concert photographs (Figure 2),
while only one short video clip of the band proper playing live from 1979 seems to exist
Figure 1. G20 protestors, London 2009: the legacy of the Crass brand in later anti-capitalism.
Photograph by Chris Beckett.
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 3
(“Crass-Video-Live”), and this lacks live audio. More broadly, anarchist bands and
autonomous record labels did not always use legal contracts with each other; concert
venues were unconventional and noncommercial; gigs were predominantly informal
beneﬁts for local campaign groups, and record sales including through independent
distribution networks rarely featured in the oﬃcial chart ﬁgures. Yet from their ﬁrst
gig at Huntley Street squat in London in 1977 to their ﬁnal one, a beneﬁt for South Wales
miners in Aberdare in 1984, Crass alone played around 300 concerts up and down the
country, and some internationally (Rimbaud,Shibboleth 277) –the vast majority of them
fundraisers for local and grassroots activist and campaign groups. They recorded and
released eight albums and 11 singles of their own work –most for below market price and
some for free –as well as over 30 records in various formats by other bands on their own
label, Crass Records (see Berger, 287–90). They conﬁrm John Street’s observation that
“[m]usic was not just a bearer of political values; it was also a form of organization”(94).
Anarcho-punk quickly became remarkably popular for an underground music scene,
achieved with relatively little coverage in the mainstream music press, no advertising, no
television appearances or music videos, and little radio coverage or interest. It is esti-
mated that Crass alone sold two million records during the band’s productive existence
(Rimbaud,Shibboleth 277). “Theoretically,”wrote one English music magazine retro-
spectively of their “phenomenal record sales,”“their walls should be covered in gold
disks”(qtd. in Thompson,Punk Productions 99; see also Worley,“One Nation”79 n.4).
In his autobiography, Shibboleth, drummer and leading light Penny Rimbaud
explained the band’s activist and autonomous strategy of performance and touring,
and championed their political legacy:
Hundreds of people would travel to join us in scout-huts, church halls and sports centres to
celebrate our mutual sense of freedom. We shared our music, ﬁlms, literature, conversation,
food and tea. . . . [O]ur eﬀorts on the road slowly brought CND back to life. We were
Figure 2. Crass, live 1984. L-R Pete Wright, Steve Ignorant, N.A. Palmer. Photograph by Trunt, via
Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0. Black and white, cropped.
responsible for introducing it to thousands of people who would later become the backbone
of its revival. (126, 109)
While “celebrating a mutual sense of freedom”and sharing tea at a musical culture event in
a church hall sounds possibly rather lovely, even quaintly English, it sometimes –perhaps
increasingly often as the scene developed –translated into audience violence, as subcultural
rivals heard in the music’s considered dehumanizing aggression an invitation rather than
an alienation eﬀect. Arguably this was in punk’s tradition of “a largely consensual violence
[whereby] Sex Pistols’concerts brought the state of exception of Altamont into
a permanent condition”(Hegarty, 96), but the Crass concert was supposed to be about
peace. The sound and stance of Crass encouraged extreme reactions and a not-always-
healthy radical dialogic: PEACE on the stage banner, ﬁghting on the venue ﬂoor and
outside (see Lohman and Worley). Local anti-nuclear and grassroots groups who thought
they would be beneﬁting from a fund- and consciousness-raising event by a well-known
band on their own patch could be bewildered and intimidated by the temporary socio-
cultural experiment, presentation and exploration of contradiction, and interrogation of
consensual assumptions of what peace, or music, might be, that was a Crass gig.
At the national level, it appears that there also developed signiﬁcant discomfort from
within the established and newly strengthened organization of CND itself to Crass’s
uncompromising anarchist culture of peace, but then CND did have a track record of
uncertainty about the youth and cultural protest within its ranks (McKay,“Subcultural
Innovations”). CND’s own ambivalence with the cultural space it was capable of opening
up to youth, or of introducing to wider youth, had been evident even at the original
Aldermaston Easter marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In his book about that
period, Bomb Culture,Nuttall describes the eﬀort by the campaign’s leadership to rein in
the new subcultural energy of the carnivalesque. He writes of the “desolate puritanism”of
the “oﬃcial leaders”of CND that meant they “banned funny hats on the [Aldermaston]
march and hired oﬃcial bands to play instead of the old anarchic assemblies of banjos
and punctured euphoniums”(49). Though Crass’s somewhat puritanical sartorial uni-
formity (black clothing for all, mostly) would never have permitted the wearing of “funny
hats,”they too would claim to experience CND’s limiting of the carnivalesque at “the
great rallies of the early eighties, rallies that CND were at pains to point out we were not
welcome to play at. . .. CND felt that our presence at a rally would merely create trouble.
They had a point, but nonetheless, it was one that we found galling”(Rimbaud,
Shibboleth 109–10). Galling or not, part of the Crass identity was shaped around being
marginalized or excluded, for this could illustrate the eﬀectiveness of their interrogation
of limits, especially the limits of freedom (thus an early song like “Banned from the Roxy”
opens with the too-punk-for-punk irony of not being permitted to play again at a famous
London punk club). According to Rimbaud, members of Crass paid “irregular visits to
CND’s national oﬃce”to oﬀer their services, and “were turned down [for a Trafalgar
Square rally] and told not to bother again”(Rimbaud,Personal correspondence). This is
likely the October 1980 national rally, where quite avant-garde post-punk bands like
Killing Joke and the Pop Group did, in fact, perform before a large (50–80,000 strong)
crowd of protestors, with no trouble (see Fisher). Working with punk for peace would
not always be so smooth for CND, though. At the 1983 Youth CND Festival for Peace in
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 5
London’s Brockwell Park, the presence of punk band the Damned on the bill brought
challenges, as co-organizer Chris Dalton remembers:
It was pretty scary, and a problem we misjudged. . . . What we didn’t plan for [on the day]
was the march moving oﬀlate from the Embankment, [which meant] the crowd that had
come to see the Damned were a problem because most of them missed most of their set!
(Dalton,Personal correspondence, 2019)
The subsequent crowd trouble involved a mini-riot from some of the punks who wanted
the Damned back on, dismantling safety barriers at the front of stage, throwing bottles
and mud on to the stage, and temporary police intervention. “For about 15 minutes, we
were not sure that we could continue [the music at the festival], but the security team
asked the police to move back, and this took the tension down,”recalls Dalton. The
complexity of punk’s relationship with peace culture and protest, then, is evident quite
broadly across the range of CND’s unoﬃcial (Crass) and oﬃcial (Trafalgar Square,
Brockwell Park) activities.
In early 1979, interviewed in the punk fanzine Toxic Graﬃtti,membersofCrassspokeof
amorestrategicmotivationfor,astheyputit,“always play[ing] with the CND banner up.”
(Figure 3 shows fanzine issue 4 from later the same year; its production was supported by
Doing so was undoubtedly remarkable in the late 1970s (rather than, say, the early 1980s)
because CND and the wider anti-nuclear movement were still in the doldrums then –
major second-wave activities like Greenham Common Women’sPeaceCampand
Glastonbury CND Festival would not be organized until 1981, for instance. Crass had been
criticized for the CND connection from the start: “They claim to be anarchists and hide
behind CND badges –how relevant,”sneered one 1978 music press review, suspecting that the
CND link was, like the vegetarianism and communal living, a throwback to the 1960s
counterculture; that is, Crass were more hippie than punk (qtd. in Berger,124).Butitis
noteworthy also that one can sense the politically reﬂexive level of nuclear discussion and
range of views within the group even in a short extract such as this.
ANDI: WE ALWAYS PLAY WITH THE C.N.D. BANNER UP.
G: IT’S A LOT OF PEOPLES BAISIC FEAR, I FIND IT SOMETHING HARD TO
PHIL: WHEN YOU PLAY UNDER A BANNER LIKE THAT YOU CAN SAY WHAT
YOU LIKE ABOUT ANYONE, AND NOT BE ACCUSED OF POLTICAL BIAS.
ANDI: THE C.N.D. IS AS MUCH AN ESTABLISHEMENT AS THE S[OCIALIST W
[ORKERS’] P[ARTY] OR THE N[ATIONAL] F[RONT].
PHIL: WELL IT ISN’T AN ESTABLISHMENT ON IT’S OWN, AND IT DOES HAVE
THIS ATMOSPHERE OF BEING POLITICALLY NEUTRAL.
(“Crass Interview”9, typography original)
Nightmare”/“Big A Little A,”on which both songs are critiques of the nuclear state, the
former more directly. The paper record sleevefoldsoutintoa36×55cmdouble-sidedblack
and white poster, which we can think of as a tour de force of musical-cultural propaganda
(Crass,“Nagasaki Nightmare”). (Crass visual artist Gee Vaucher’sroleinthedesignofrecord
covers is discussed in McKay,“Gee Vaucher’s.”)ThereistheCrass-brandedfrontcover;the
lyrics of both songs; a set of newspaper-style columns of tiny-packed text outlining facts and
details about nuclear power and weapons, as well as of the history of protest against them;
individual images as artwork montages of smiling world leaders standing on nuclear corpses;
grisly, grainy shots of burned bodies; a series of images in which the Queen’sfacemorphs
into that of a Japanese nuclear victim; several phallus/missile juxtapositions visually empha-
sizing the gender critique stated in one of the columns, that “the biggest bang on earth . . . [is]
the climax of all prick-power”;Japanesecalligraphy;anedgetrimintheformofacartoon
about living in the nuclear age; everyday media violence via shots of cowboys, and a soldier
on television; stenciled Crass slogans (FIGHT WAR NOT WARS); and surveillance. It is an
Anti-Boom Manifesto for the punk generation.
The centerpiece of one side (Figure 4)is
missile and bomber bases, nuclear waste dumps, power stations, civil defense bunkers,
nuclear weapons factories, national and international transport links for all the above, and
more. One of the columns opens with a striking statement of what Crass viewed as the
Figure 3. Toxic Graﬁtty punk fanzine cover, 1979: Anarchy and peace issue.
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 7
pervasive nature of nuclear culture, via a punkreferencetotheSexPistols,andtellsus
something important about what Manabe and Schwartz term nuclear music, too:
No future. Did there used to be a future? Who took it away from us? No-one much under
ﬁfty remembers what it was like before there was the Bomb. But it changed them too. Who
can say how much it changed all of us, our music, our lovemaking, our art, our taste and
smell? In the world of Things, the Bomb is everywhere. . .. Every time you turn on the light,
there’s a Bomb behind the switch. (Crass,“Nagasaki Nightmare”sleeve)
The reader/listener’s intended light bulb moment rests in the recognition of the nuclear
power and weapons connection, a mini-event of nuclear sublime in the everyday
domestic sphere, experienced as one sits “at home in the global thanatocracy of the
nuclear regime”(Lütticken, 45). Crass’s audio-visual anti-nuclear project extended to
other media too. A concert review in the music weekly Sounds from 1981 describes the
use of moving image by the band in live performance, shown on screens each side of the
stage. The multi-media texts to represent the nuclear sublime were produced by Crass’s
experimental ﬁlmmaker Mick Duﬃeld (see Duﬃeld), and can be seen as a kind of
“alternative media –an Alternative TV, to use [fanzine innovator] Mark Perry’s band
as exemplar”(Worley,No Future 79). The italicized language illustrates the alienating
eﬀect the ﬁlm had on the Sounds journalist, to the extent that the concert review is less
focused on describing the band or their music, and more on capturing the feelings of the
reviewer himself while watching the ﬁlm.
The musical side is . .. disturbingly illustrated with a graphic bombardment of cutting room
ﬂoor, ﬁlm montage bludgeoned into your senses. . . . A taste of the full-blown horror of
Figure 4. Crass,“Nagasaki Nightmare”/“Big A Little a”single sleeve fold-out poster, 1980: “atour de
force of musical-cultural propaganda”.
nuclear war hell is provided with footage showing . . . the sickening atrocities committed at
Nagasaki and Hiroshima. . . . Equally chilling is the tape-recorded selection of “count down”
talk-overs. . . . All these eﬀects are ﬁtted together to form a terrifying portrait of what could
happen tomorrow. (Pouncy,“Tea and Anarchy,”emphases added)
Disturbing, “sickening,”“chilling,”“terrifying”. . . these were the intended psychological
outcomes of attending a Crass concert, prompted by the screenings of Duﬃeld’sﬁlm
edits of footage of nuclear destruction alongside the band as they played live nightly.
Crassonics –“No Reverb”: Anger, Violence, Expressibility
. . . to what extent is the nuclear “sensible”at all? Its dangers can certainly be argued in
writing, in the abstract and conceptual use of language –but is that enough? (Lütticken, 51)
It’s not the words that do it, it’s the sound.
Leon Rosselson, on political song (qtd. inIrwin)
How have the recorded sounds of anarcho-punk –what I now tentatively term
“Crassonics”–captured and articulated its self-styled “aesthetic of anger”?Thesometimes
complex esthetic of anarcho-punk claimed to be predicated on “anger,”as Crass sloganized on
the cover of 1983’sYes Sir, I Will,asthebandOmegaTribeputitwiththeir1982EPreleaseon
Crass Records, Angry Songs (as incidentally, punk itself would revisit with something like
Lydon second autobiography Anger Is an Energy in 2014), and as a 2016 collection of academic
and other writings on the topic maintains (Dines and Worley). Of course, there were other
models of anger around anarchism –only a few years earlier in London, after all, the Angry
Brigade of clandestine “urban guerrillas”and stark communiqués had employed political
violence in the form of a bombing campaign aimed at engendering armed insurrection (see
Carr). But what would be diﬀerent about this new anarchist anger? It was musical and it had
revival that was concurrent with the establishment of CND in the ﬁrst place, might have relied
on earnestness of vocal delivery, an acoustic and collective human-scale of music-making, and
plaintive or deﬁant lyrics, this project diﬀered (see Cline and Weiner for US folk and country;
Titus and Simich for a survey of “the impact of the Atomic Age on [US] music”:11).Crass
claimed that music was “changed by the bomb,”and they sought to conﬁrm this observation
not only in lyric and text but also with the very music they were making. Their music
incorporated and created sounds of destruction, alienation, and accusation, in a righteous
and relentless assault on the new nuclear norm. But in the binary culture of the (anti-)nuclear
sublime, listenability and expressibility seemed polar opposites: for Crass, to express nuclear
horror in music and capture the outrage around it, one had to interrogate the limits of what
one would be willing to listen to. Thompson describes how, “as Crass’ssoundmatured,it
shifted away from the commercial end of the late ’70s punk sound and tried to stake out an
anticommercial antiaesthetic”(“Crass Commodities”312–13). Considering that Crass’sver-
sion of “the late ’70s punk sound”was already quite radical –as illustrated with the reception
of The Feeding of the Five Thousand,describedabove–that experimental shift and interroga-
tion of listenability as the band matured was a considered esthetic and political project.
We can approach the sound of the music via the capture and manufacture of that sound.
Recorded sound does not just happen: it needs capturing through the recording process,
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 9
and much of the success here was down to the innovative approach of Southern Studios
owner and engineer John Loder, sometimes called “the ninth member of Crass”(Ignorant,
161). In Samantha Bennett’s view, Loder’sachievementswouldgoontoread“like a ‘who’s
who’of 1980s and 1990s underground and alternative music, with a focus on punk,
hardcore, post-hardcore, noisecore, grunge and industrial subgenres”(“Recording”;see
also Sheppard). Assistant engineer Harvey Birrell has described Southern Studios’ssonic
and technological achievement: “These bands made a terrifying noise and John captured
that on record”(qtd. in Bennett,“Recording”). Rimbaud remembers the austere “spirit”or
“studio vibe”of the recording space located in Loder’s north London house’s garage, where
the aim was to produce “a very dodgy sound”:“John never attempted to make [the studio]
comfortable. It was almost hostile and it wasn’t a nice place to work. It was not a good live
room and there was no drum or vocal booth. No attempt to create atmosphere or presence”
(qtd. in Bennett,“Songs”8, 4). Bennett further explains Loder’s approach:
. . . taut and “up front,”Loder has brought the band’s lyrical anger and anarchist aesthetics
under control. Signiﬁcantly, the vocals are positioned quite low in the mix, enveloped by
guitars and Rimbaud’s own relentless snare rolls. The most noticeable factor is the absence
of any ambience, reverb or other time-based eﬀects processing. Penny Rimbaud described
this intended sonic characteristic as: “Rawness. [John and I] developed that sound together.
The key instruction on The Feeding of the Five Thousand was ‘no reverb.’We’re punks –we
don’t have fucking reverb!”(Bennett,“Recording”and “Songs”9)
In a 2011 interview, singer/”lead shouter”(Ignorant, 271) Steve Ignorant would argue
that Crassonics were both musically uninformed (“none of us were musicians”)and
informed (“Rimbaud was into . . . jazz”). The “ineptitude”(Hegarty ch. 6) that could
perhaps make music be noise, and that was more widely part of punk’s anti-esthetic
practice, is only partially present here.
The Crass sound came from the fact that none of us were musicians. . . . [But] because
(drummer) Penny Rimbaud was into avant-garde sort of jazz, he would say . . . “I want an
atmosphere of terror”,sowe’d come up with sounds like that. It was about the atmosphere.
(Ignorant, qtd. in Kennedy)
But it was also about the singing voices, both male and female. In particular, it was about
In his band history of Crass, Berger states as much: “the anger was in the vocals –raw,
unprecedented, primal”(116), as well as speedily garbled, relentless, often incomprehensible
without the lyric sheet. One of Ignorant’ssignaturesoundswasasustained,painfulutter-
ance –acrossbetweenscreamandvocalfry–sometimes on a single-repeated word at the end
or indeed start of a song (the “me”of “They’ve Got a Bomb,”the word “mother”at the start of
“Mother Earth”), which could break down as the voice sought to transmit extreme outrage
and panic, or lose meaning through repetition, or constitute a tortuous sort of what might just
be melisma. Let us call that vocal stretch to the end of sound or the end of the world malisma.
One might think anarcho-punk a curious propaganda because one could often
simply not comprehend its lyrics. Partly this was a conscious strategy worked out in
the recording studio between Rimbaud and Loder, as Rimbaud has discussed: “the
‘under-mixing’of words was a statement. We are not stars. If you want the words, read
the book”(qtd. in Bennett,“Songs”8). Crass songs, in particular, were so very wordy,
yet words relegated to being sources of the sound of disgust, anger, outrage. We can
10 G. MCKAY
say that Ignorant’swasanuclearvoice;articulationandreferentialityweresecondary
as language broke down in the eﬀort to express the inexpressible, nuclear meaning-
lessness captured and presented in sonic form. What held it together –gave it some
meaning; made it more than a Beckettian performance of existential crisis –was that it
was always struck through with the righteous indignation of protest. The ideas and
projects were transmitted through the quality of the singing voice and its delivery of
words, and in the lyrics themselves, not least through the use of swearing. While some
other punk bands self-censored their own swearing or taboo lyrics with polite sub-
stitutions for radio edit versions of what they hoped would be potentially hit songs (the
Stranglers’“Peaches”;theJam’s“This Is the Modern World”), or were sneaking in
a swearword via utterly banal lyrics (the Sex Pistols’“Pretty vacant”–sung “vay-
CUNT”), Crass were uncompromising. Triggs has written of the wider movement’s
incorporation of “an explicit and violent use of language as part of a general shock
tactic strategy meant to oﬀend and draw attention to punk itself”(73), but with Crass,
the strategy was not only self-serving. It was intended as a lyrical and sonic eﬀort to
communicate the anger and outrage of modernity’s“slaughterhouse of war,”to lay
bare and shatter the everyday experience of life in, as they saw it, the “reality asylum.”
Not all were attracted by Crass’s fuck-laden expression of worldview; for artist David
Tibet, an otherwise sympathetic erstwhile collaborator, “the excessive use of profa-
nities . . . made their work easy to overlook or dismiss as merely foul-mouthed outrage
for its own sake”(qtd. in Berger,121).Probablyitdidnothelptheircasetobe
considered for large open-air free concerts for mixed audiences such as a CND
national rally, say, either.
Crass could be thought of as exploring Greil Marcus’s observation that “[t]o make true
political music, you have to say what decent people don’t want to hear”(qtd. in Street,
155). While conventional enough in lineup –bass guitar and kit drum as rhythm section,
two guitarists, lead singer and backing vocals –some avant-garde musical and sonic
techniques were also employed to unsettle and disrupt. Silence ﬁgured mid-song as the
non-sound of the end of the world (“They’ve Got a Bomb”), or as an entire track in lieu of
a song which had been subject to censorship (“Asylum”). Extracts from radio and
television news and entertainment were increasingly included in songs as sonic and
verbal counterpoints, textures of everyday media discourse, and the laying bare of
propaganda. Such media extracts could include the sounds of tuning or switching
between channels –contrast and variety are added to the recording, of course, but the
political point concerns the pervasive nature of media, its essential role in the construc-
tion of normal life and thought, and (in Crass’s view) the twinned illusions of choice and
freedom of expression. As one mode of delivery male and female band singers used
spoken voice, which could be deceptively calm and seemingly dissociated counterpoints
to the rest of a song’s storm or an urgent and righteous solo accompanied only by
alienating sound eﬀects. An ostentatious instrumental anti-technique was oﬀered by one
of the guitarists, N.A. Palmer AKA Hari Nana, consisting of limited barre chords played
very fast with the fretting hand on the ﬁngerboard from above rather than below. The
drumming, by Penny Rimbaud, relied quite heavily on a military-style snare –more
Rambo than Rimbaud –but with regular use of fermata structuring the rest of the song’s
musical accompaniment, and endlessly disrupting musical ﬂow and progression. The
“terrifying noise”of anarcho-punk, Crass Records’musical “atmosphere of terror,”and
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 11
Southern Studios’sonic signature which went beyond “even the hardest, most aggressive
sounds in popular, rock and metal genre[s]”(Bennett,“Songs”11), were what the bomb
was up against; or, altogether less heroically, the noise and atmosphere of Crassonics
were what anarcho-punk produced to oppose the nuclear state, were all it could produce
to stand against the bomb.
The Nuclear Shadow Became “A Stain on Our Heart”: Surviving the Bomb
If they drop a bomb on us, we fucking deserve it.
We know we’ve got it coming, we fucking deserve it.
For a band so ﬁxed on ideas of peace and anti-nuclearism, the contradictorily paramilitary
aspects of Crass were clearly evident in their black uniform clothing, the military buzz of the
snare drumming, and the sound and scene of war woven into their very music, art, and media
alike. Arguably, as with radical feminists involved in the concurrent Greenham Common
Feigenbaum)andforanarchistslikeCrass,nucleartechnology–weapons and power –was
astructuralorsystemicfeatureofsociety:“Contamination/Contains the nation,”they sang
(Crass,“Contaminational Power”). In their view, nuclear weapons stood as the limit case of
capital, religion, nation, and the (nuclear) family’sfoundationalviolence,butnotexceptionally
so: they were the product of the pervasive and inescapable logic of such macro- and micro-
relations. “Big A”and “Little a,”as the single put it –where the bomb is indeed behind the light
switch in every British home. But, over the period of the band’sexistence,endingin1984,the
limits of anarcho-punk were sensed when “many fans seemed determined to languish only in
the darkness of shrill denunciations of war, animal suﬀering and impending Armageddon”
(Cross,“There Is No Authority”17). Other fans and activists would grow weary as what
Worley calls the “relentlessly bleak vision [of Crass’s] hair-shirt politics”(No Future 168)
became counter-productive. Within the band itself exhaustion and cultural despair, anarchy
subsumed in apathy, the performative challenge of keeping on doing rage on stage, internal
and external pressures, political tensions around nonviolence, all took their toll.
Their ﬁnal single included the song “Nagasaki Is Yesterday’sDog-end”(a dog-end is
acolloquialtermforacigarettebutt).Thesong consists of 11 fragments of music, with
pauses, each one introduced by the repeated shouted instruction (with a drumbeat for each
syllable) “ATTENTION.”In the last, longer fragment, the rhythm and music self-destruct, as
the lyrics exhort the listener, “Choose your path. It’stimetofuckingact....It’stimeto
fucking act”(Crass,“Dog-end”). It is the end of the band, playing a song that ends with the
sound of a band falling apart; it is also a desperate-sounding acknowledgment of both the
fading power and the limits of propagandist inﬂuence through something as apparently
ephemeral as popular music. A male voice barks “Attention!”like an oﬃcer to new recruits –
who would have thought, six years earlier, that would be how Crass would end up trying to
make the anarchists, punks, and anti-war activists stand in line (“Choose Your Path”)in
opposition to the “slaughter games”of the nuclear apocalypse? The esthetic of anger almost
seemed to be turningagainsttheband’sfanshere,forsomehownotbeingsuﬃciently radical
or disciplined. That is why “we fucking deserve it . . . if they drop a bomb on us”:westopped
12 G. MCKAY
listening, we stopped believing, and we were simply not uncompromisingly activist enough
(for Crass) anyway. Richard Cross explains that lyric: “abstention from . . . [the peace and
anti-nuclear] struggle is an untenable act of surrender”(“There Is No Authority”10). Crass’
intermittent hectoring tendency (“Don’tjuststandthere,”they had instructed listeners on
1978's “Women”,soundinglikeanirritatedschoolteacher–perhaps here betraying band
members’age gap from many of their school-age punk fans) was now over-dominant. Also,
though, there was a high degree –too high, it seems –of internalization, as the images,
imaginings, and sounds of the bomb and war had indeed changed the members of the band
as people: the “shadow”cast by “the violence and terror of the nuclear age”had become “a
stain on our hearts,”they would explain (Crass,“In Which Crass”). (And, we should
remember here the wise words of the Sex Pistols from 1977: “They made you . . .
apotentialH-bomb.”)“In the end,”recalled singer Ignorant,
it just burnt me out. . . . I stopped going to gigs. I got fed up with seeing people wearing
raggedy black clothes. I got fed up with hearing songs about nuclear war. I got fed up with
hearing, at the end of a track, the BOOM! of a nuclear explosion. (186)
For Crass artist Vaucher, similarly, the end of the band was in part an esthetic rejection of
her own protest repertoire of visual shock material trying to capture the inexpressible: “I
didn’t want to paint another corpse, I didn’t want to paint another eﬃgy anymore”(qtd.
in Unterberger; see also Shukaitis). The British radical punk version of the Anti-BOOM
Manifesto was losing its critical and cultural power. It was not only that the bomb-
changed music of Crass, as an interrogative political project of unlistenability somehow
bolted on to one of the gold-record commercial success, was becoming predictable. After
all, by and large, pop does that, even experimental, political pop: few acts are capable of
sustaining sonic innovation for that many years. But their music was sounding more
joyless than ever, when perhaps what people needed now was to dance against the bomb,
or even just dance for a while. The music was also becoming self-consuming, like the
Crass circular tail-eating-head logo had always shown (Figure 5). Of course, it is possible
that the “endgame millenarianism”(Cross,“Take the Toys”119) of pieces like “Nagasaki
Is Yesterday’s Dog-end”was actually more about the end of a band than the end of the
world. In Stacy Thompson’s view, the Crass project ended in or as a very particular kind
of “failure,”one which “gestured”toward “possibility”:
the most instructive contestatory practices of punk lie neither in its . . . scandal nor in its
provocation . . ., but in its very failures using these aesthetic strategies. . . . [I]t is precisely in
its failure that Crass gesture[d] toward the possibility of an aesthetic space within the
cultural ﬁeld of punk that economics do not determine or even signiﬁcantly condition.
While DIY products and practices such as Crass’s free ﬂexidiscs, 45 pence singles, and
beneﬁt gig touring circuits may seem altogether more comprehensible esthetic challenges
to economic certainties, for Thompson cultures like these remain inescapably ﬁxed in the
“commodity market.”But if failure –freighted word –is inevitable, it is also productive:
Crass may indeed conﬁrm the impossibility of an alternative and non-militaristic
esthetic; but it is in anarcho-punk’s attempt, which was a sustained and disseminated
socio-cultural gesture, that possibility is glimpsed and articulated.
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 13
Popular Music, Protest, and the Bomb
Bands in the scene were only too well aware of questions of complicity and resistance,
and a strand of anarcho-punk’s productivity was its self-reﬂexivity. One persistent strand
of punk and anarcho-punk alike was its meta-analysis: songs about the industry or the
scene or other bands, record covers explaining how to make a record, messages cut into
the matrix space of the very vinyl itself, even pricing strategy as communication (every
Crass single cover that stated “Do not pay more than 45p”was a tiny knock at pop’s
commercial priorities). Having discussed the cultural work, media products, and perfor-
mance of anarcho-punk, and then Crassonics, in the context of its anti-nuclear music,
I want now to consider how it turned its ﬁerce social gaze closer to home. Two critical
positions from anarcho-punk bands Crass and Poison Girls throw further light on the
nature of nuclear music, or, to be more accurate, the nuclear music industry. As we have
seen, when Crass started out in the late 1970s, “always play[ing] with the CND banner
up,”CND itself was in the doldrums. Yet within three or four years the campaign was
riding an extraordinary wave of public support and expanding membership, and pop and
punk musicians and festivals alike were championing the cause. So, a successfully devel-
oped mix of music, youth, and politics? Not necessarily, in the eyes of Crass. In a long
essay called “The Last of the Hippies”included with 1982’sChrist: The Album, Rimbaud
a very real danger to the long-term existence of CND and its allies is the current interest being
shown in it by the music business. Peace has become a saleable commodity, a trendy product,
and established record labels . . . are now bending over backwards to be seen to be support-
ing the cause. (5, emphasis added)
Figure 5. “The music was becoming self-consuming, like the Crass circular tail-eating-head logo”itself
(gray background image).
14 G. MCKAY
For one measure of how popular anti-nuclear and anti-war music could be, note that in
1984 alone three songs containing anti-nuclear or anti-war sentiments topped the UK
singles charts; together they held the cherished #1 spot for 14 weeks (Oﬃcial Charts).
That is, in 1984, for 25% of the year, the best-selling weekly single in Britain was
a protest song, about war, the Cold War and nuclear weapons.
As John Street has
shown, such a hugely popular political period is almost unprecedented in British pop
(46–48). But for Crass, the musical commodiﬁcation and sheer saleability of peace
politics by other post-punk acts were profoundly problematic. In their view, peace was
an existential concept and revolutionary aim, unachievable through proﬁt-based com-
mercial exchange, and diminished by contact with such. While popular music could be
propaganda (as theirs was), propaganda could not be product for pop (in their view).
The diﬃculty of this position was that it made their radical criticality and autonomy
(including of production, performance, distribution) isolating and ultimately even self-
defeating, as they seemed unable or unwilling to recognize other popular music
successes in or collaborations for political communication. Poison Girls, erstwhile
fellow anarcho-punk agitators and label mates, had a more interesting critical perspec-
tive on the music/military industries crossover. Less ﬁxed on glib accusations of
“trendy product”-making, the critique of Poison Girls was situated in an economic
reading of culture. In No Nukes Music fanzine in 1981, singer Vi Subversa discussed the
situation of radical bands agreeing on major label contracts: “[I]f a band signs up to
EMI or whoever it is, that’s actually putting their proﬁts into weapons. I mean that
company is part of the same parent company that’s actually making the electronic stuﬀ
in bombs”(qtd. in Cross,“Take the Toys”142).
Subversa’s accusation contains a reasonable and accurate observation: two years
earlier the leading record company EMI had been acquired by Thorn Electrical
Industries to produce a new organization, Thorn EMI, one of Britain’slargestcom-
panies. Thorn EMI had four core areas of business, which included music and defense
(Grace’sGuide). EMI Records were involved in the new punk music of the 1970s: the
company’s roster of bands included the Sex Pistols (brieﬂy) and X-Ray Spex, as well as
even overtly political groups like the Tom Robinson Band and Gang of Four.
Subversa’s argument continues: “once a band signs to one of the major labels,”they
are politically compromised. “They might be an anti-war band, or a Marxist band . . .
but they’re cashing in”(qtd. in Cross,“Take the Toys”142). The latter accusation
(cashing in, selling out) was a familiar part of punk discourse, though it did carry
particular potency when a band was publicly political (see Hesmondhalgh on “selling
out”and “burning out”in punk and post-punk). But it is the ﬁrst part of her argument
that bears most weight, for it is here that we see anti-nuclear and anti-war music’s
radical critique zoning in on music itself, the entire wider popular music ecology. As
both Crass and Poison Girls exemplify, in thought and practice alike anarcho-punk
conﬁrms Manabe’s observation that “[p]rotest music has always been a largely DIY or
participatory endeavour”(“Responses”). While many “early Punk groups seem to have
been fantastically naïve about the industry”(Savage,304),forbothCrassand,more
substantively, Poison Girls here the nuclear music of commercial pop –even or
especially that which might state an anti-war or anti-nuclear position –was
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 15
CND it don’t fool me / I don’t want to live in a weak country.
Special Duties,“CND (Campaign for Nuclear Destruction)”
Penny Rimbaud has sometimes been susceptible to making grand claims for Crass and that
movement (for instance, Crass were “one of the most inﬂuential bands in the history of
British rock”[Shibboleth 110]; or Crass were “more powerful than . . . Dada”[qtd. in
Solomons 41]), so caution is required with a statement from him such as Crass “slowly
brought CND back to life”(see above). Richard Cross has challenged the view of Rimbaud
and of Jon Savage in England’sDreaming(584) that anarcho-punk “sowed the ground
for . . . the popularity of CND”in the 1980s, while Worley has noted that Crass’claims of
inﬂuence “should not be overstated”(“One Nation”78). For Cross, the revival of the anti-
nuclear movement then was a response to Europe-wide concerns about a new arms race,
Cruise and Pershing ﬁrst strike, and US-controlled missiles. Even so, he argues, “Crass and
anarcho-punk can quite legitimately claim . . . to have convinced a substantial number of
radical youth to commit their energies to the most militant anti-militarist wings of the
disarmament movement”(Cross,“The Hippies”13; emphasis added). Chris Dalton, the
Youth CND worker who had helped organize the 1983 Festival of Peace concert in
Brockwell Park, when the punks rioted for the Damned, articulates a more inclusive
narrative of political inﬂuence, which draws from across contemporary popular music
broadly –but which does recognize anarcho-punk’s place in that landscape.
I was deﬁnitely but indirectly inﬂuenced by the music and records of Crass as a 15/16-year-
old in the period 1978–79. . .. [T]heir music was remarkable for how it sounded (and still is
for its production) and for what it said. . .. But I wouldn’t say that Crass brought CND back
to life. These things are always more about plate tectonics than a single volcano, however
distinctive the eruption. . . . When it came to youth culture and music etc., Youth CND went
with wherever our musical tastes met with musicians who were happy to support the
cause. . . . It was Paul Weller, Madness, and a fair number of commercially well-known
artists, as well as people such as Billy Bragg. We were teenagers! (Dalton)
Even if a very small number of other punk bands sought to embrace the bomb, either as
symbol of nihilistic existence –“the ultimate No Future”(Worley,No Future 242; see also,
Worley,“One Nation”75) –or in support of the West’snucleardeterrentinthecontextofthe
Cold War –as with Special Duties, above –it remains more powerfully the case that punk,
and its more radical oﬀshoot anarcho-punk, could contribute “forms of aesthetic activism
that challenge[d] the reigning thanatocracy”(Lütticken,39),andcoulddosowithurgency
and timeliness in an era of international crisis. Sven Lütticken has most positively noted about
nuclear opposition that “it takes a planetary threat to create global unity”(41) –this is surely
aresonantandimportantobservationforclimate emergency activists today. “Terrifying”
Crassonics and anarcho-punk’srelatedmusicandmediaformedasustainedandpopular
radical cultural response in Britain, which, despite its limits and ﬂaws, bannings, and “fail-
ures,”disseminated widely in sound and inﬂuence.
16 G. MCKAY
1. The original Manifesto BUM (“boom”) is a 1952 painting by Italian avant-garde artist Enrico
Baj for an exhibition of what was newly-termed “Nuclear Art”in Milan, which ﬁgures visual
imagery (a mushroom cloud) overlaid by slogans and fragments of nuclear text.
2. The 1984 singles were, in chronological order: Paul McCartney’s“Pipes of Peace”(two
weeks), Nena’s“99 Red Balloons”(three weeks), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s“Two
Tribes”(nine weeks). According to John Street, whose survey of political #1s ends at 2001,
only 1969 comes near, also with three chart-toppers: “The Ballad of John and Yoko”by the
Beatles, Thunderclap Newman’s“Something in the Air,”and Creedence Clearwater
Revival’s“Bad Moon Rising.”But in 1969 the combined weeks at #1 totaled only nine
(three for each).
3. Such commercial acceptance of nuclear politics in music is not always the case. For example,
Noriko Manabe has shown how, in the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement in Japan,
few popular musicians are involved: “most artists on major labels (with some notable
exceptions) have not spoken out publicly against nuclear power, and much of the music
of the antinuclear protest movement thus far has been from independent artists”(Manabe,
“No Nukes”). “Furthermore,”she notes, “musicians airing such views can see a reduction in
Figure 1, I owe thanks to Chris Beckett for permission to reproduce photography, and for
supplying me with a high-resolution copy. Figures 3–5, from author’s collection. Thanks are due
to Penny Rimbaud and to Chris Dalton for taking time to respond to my queries. Thanks to
Samantha Bennett for making available to me her 2014 IASPM paper on John Loder, Matt Worley
for making available a copy of his 2011 article, and to my one-time UEA colleague Yvonne Tasker
for comments on a draft of this piece. I am grateful also to the journal’s anonymous readers for
thoughtful and detailed reviews of an earlier draft.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
George McKay is Professor of Media Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK. His research
interests are in popular music from jazz to punk, festivals, alternative culture and media, social
movements and cultural politics, disability, and gardening. Among his books are Senseless Acts of
Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties (Verso, 1996), ed. DiY Culture: Party & Protest in
Nineties Britain (Verso, 1998), Glastonbury: A Very English Fair (Gollancz, 2000), Circular
Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Duke UP, 2005), Radical Gardening: Politics,
Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden (Frances Lincoln, 2011), Shakin’All Over: Popular Music and
Disability (Michigan UP, 2013), and ed. The Pop Festival: History, Media, Music,
Culture (Bloomsbury, 2015). He was a founding editor in 2002 of the Routledge journal Social
Movement Studies. Forthcoming is The Oxford Handbook of Punk Rock (Oxford UP), which he is
co-editing with Gina Arnold. He was Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellow
for its Connected Communities programme (2012-19). His website is http://georgemckay.org.
ROCK MUSIC STUDIES 17
George McKay http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7770-0502
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