It was sometime in 1979 - I’d been to see a Welsh rugby match with my dad and we’d called into Virgin Records which used to be located opposite the castle in Cardiff. My dad would most likely have been browsing for something by Bob Seger, Rolling Stones or his favourite artist Rod Stewart. Our musical tastes did occasionally collide much to my teenage embarrassment - one of my first vinyl purchases was going ‘halves’ with my dad to buy ‘Dance Away’ by Roxy Music. We also shared a fondness for The Pretenders...I’ve often wondered since if he had the same motives as me...my eyes were firmly set on Christie Hynde.
I remember there was a display stand in the shop with a stack of P.I.L. 'Metal Box’ in their silver metallic tins but being an expensive package that was well beyond my paper round finances. I only had £2 in my pocket. Then I spotted Crass ‘Feeding the 5000’ priced handsomely at ‘Pay No More Than £1.99’. I’d seen the name ‘Crass’ daubed on the back of many a punks leather jacket. The backs of leathers were peppered with names of bands, slogans and logos along with a myriad of studs in carefully planned constellations. There was no internet-there were fanzines, the weekly music papers Sounds, NME, etc and there was John Peel. Music information was hard won and I remember buying records purely because I’d seen the name of the band written on other punks leather jackets and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
After buying the record the first thing that fascinated me as we drove home was Gee Vaucher’s monochrome collage cover. A surreal scenario with a bombed out street and a small boy caught leaping high in the air above a group of men standing round a fire, juxtapositions of soldiers in what looked like Northern Ireland (the ‘troubles’ were in full swing at that time) with children innocently playing and centrally a strange burnt android like woman standing in the foreground. And a chicken. The rear of the sleeve meanwhile had a lone figure traversing a moon like landscape hoisting a flag adorned with the Crass symbol, which I later discovered amongst other symbols, depicted the snake of capitalism eating its own tail. It certainly was nothing like any other punk covers of the time which usually sported a sneering bunch of snotty youths staring arrogantly at the viewer.
I got the album home, went up to my bedroom and opened it up. Inside was a booklet with a mass of lyrics typed tightly together with only \ as punctuation and all in lower case - each songs lyrics broken up with more of Gee’s collage works but this time in small bite sized squares. It was as I remember completely overwhelming and very mysterious. I looked at the endless stream of words and immediately noticed the prevalence of the word ‘fuck’. As I was only 12 and still living at home it was time to get the headphones out.
So there I was next to my Fidelity UA9 record player sat on a recently acquired small guitar amp, headphones on with literally no clue as to what was about to hit me.
On the insert the first track’s lyrics had been blanked out with the words ‘The Sound of Free Speech’ scrawled over the blacked out block. The Irish and catholic pressing plant had refused to press the first song ‘Reality Asylum’ as it was blasphemous, talking as it did about Jesus dying for your sins not mine and again the word fuck dangerously near to the word Christ. I’ve never come across a record since that had a blank section because the pressing plant had refused to press a track?
This just added to the strangeness and the anticipation of what was about to come. So after a few minutes of listening to the needle travel across the empty dead wax with a violent start it was straight into Do the Owe Us a Living.I almost fell off the amp so angry and insistent was the initial musical and vocal delivery:
“1, 2, 3, 4 / fuck the politically minded there’s something I want to say / about the state of the nation / the way they treat you today / at school they give you shit / drop you in a pit / you try and try and try to get out / but you can’t cos they’ve fucked you about“.
I just couldn’t keep up, desperately trying to follow the words as the wonderfully monikered Steve Ignorant spat out the angry lyrics railing against his treatment by a society that wanted him to work 9-5 for a shit wage to line the pockets of the bosses. This was completely unlike anything I’d ever heard before musically and lyrically. This wasn’t just sped up rock n roll like The Damned or The Clash, this was music as machine gun.
The album continued in this completely hyperactive manner. It all just seemed so damned fast. In hindsight, post Napalm Death, it all sounds relatively pedestrian and actually quite musical with bouncing bass lines, sheets of staccato guitar and taught, almost military drum beats. But to my ears then it was an absolute blast of thrilling cacophony. Between each violent outburst ie. song there were strange noise collages filled with static, detuned radio and clipped voices drifting in and out. This would be my first taste of avant-garde music, not that I knew it.
I can gauge my own political awareness at the age of 12 by my lack of understanding of the subjects being discussed. I genuinely thought - what do they mean by ‘Fight War not Wars’ - fight one big war not lots of little ones. I know that seems incredulous to any adult mind but when you had no idea of any concepts that questioned your reality of playing toy soldiers and a post World War II child’s fascination with war and its machinery, this was completely new territory. There was a song called ‘Punk is Dead’ - of course to me they had to be joking, I’d just discovered punk, no way was it dead. It took me a long while to accept and get my head around that concept.
There were however enough hooks on songs like Do They Owe Us a Living and Banned from the Roxy to get me interested and into it.
I learnt later that apart from the aforementioned Mr Ignorant who was the token totem young snotty punk rocker Crass were mostly older jazz loving art school revolutionaries who’d witnessed the failings of the 60’s hippie dream and saw punk as a new vehicle for the counter culture. Without Steve they would never have been allowed onto punk stages whose audience had a ground zero approach to all previous music stylings particularly the hippies.
As I persevered with the album I got to understand that lyrically these were concepts and constructs of anarchism and once I came to understand them a little better they became ideologies I connected with. If listening to Never Mind the Bollocks was when ‘shit got real’ this was when ‘shit got serious’.
I would from this moment set off on a path of rejecting the society I was dropped into. Years spent on protest walks, gatherings and actions. Replacing playing football on a Saturday morning with journeys cramped in the back of transit vans going all over the country to demonstrations, to sabotage hunts and to meetings/workshops and gigs celebrating the reactionary cause. This path ultimately led me to a youth spent protesting and subsequently to a life travelling on the road resulting in me living on a piece of land in a community on a Welsh hillside where I finally achieved my aim of ‘dropping out’. No benefits, no bank account, no phone and no address.
The Eighties were the Thatcher years and a time of living in dread at the possibility of life’s destruction from the ever increasing nuclear arsenals on either side of the Cold War. At CND demos in the eighties the ranks were swelled with legions of black clad Crass/ anarcho punks. There were the Stop the City demos, protests defending animal rights anti Criminal Justice Bill anti Poll Tax, anti this and anti that.
As years went by my thoughts and ideas have changed to some degree and I can see some of the failings in the philosophies expressed on that album,as I’m sure some of the members of Crass do themselves but essentially I still believe in a lot of the sentiments on the album. For me it’s about looking after each other, taking responsibility for our own actions, thinking for yourself, questioning everything, self determination and a mistrust of those in positions of power. Nowadays there’s definitely more compromise in my approach but I’m still essentially ‘shaped’ in outlook by that album.
I don’t know how many copies were sold of Feeding the 5000 but during the 80’s Crass records were always at the top of any Independent charts in the music press often with multiple releases, alongside charting output by bands like The Smiths and Joy Division. For some reason Crass never did get offered Top of the Pops.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of putting Steve Ignorant and his current band Slice of Life on at The Parrot. He is a genuinely nice bloke and I told him about hearing Feeding the 5000 at 12 and life never being the same again, which I imagine he must get a lot.
I said to him “I’m not really sure whether to shake your hand or punch you”
He laughed and we warmly shook hands.
“Do They Owe Us A Living....of course they fucking do!”
- Matt Davies