Paul KerrCrass and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

[Any opinions expressed in this post are mine alone.]

In December, two members of Crass, Penny Rimbaud (drums) and Steve Ignorant (vocals) generously took the time to speak with me for this article, which Jeffrey agreed to publish. [Because it’s fucking awesome! Ed. ]  Much has been written and said about Crass, which formed in 1977 and is more of a phenomenon than a mere band. I am not a Crass-ologist, but I do know something about nuclear weapons, so both interviews covered the band’s involvement with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

As an aside, Ignorant (whom I interviewed  on December 8) and Rimbaud (whom I interviewed the previous week) are tremendously nice, especially considering their vitriolic music. The former seems like a geezer you’d chat with in a pub; the latter comes across as an anti-capitalist Gandalf.

They’ve Got a Bomb

Crass were playing songs about nuclear weapons early on. Track four on their first full-length album, 1978’s The Feeding of the 5000, is a ditty titled “They’ve Got a Bomb.” George Berger’s The Story of Crass has a great description of that  song and its impact:

The awkward gap in the song, where a silence splits the song down the middle was accompanied at gigs by a sudden darkness in the room and film of an atomic bomb exploding.

I must also mention the 1980 “Nagasaki Nightmare” single (sample lyric: “Dying they’re still dying, one by one/Nagasaki nightmare”), which includes album art with an anti-nuclear collage, You can see the whole thing here.

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

ACW readers likely know this, but CND, according to its own history, launched in 1958 at a London meeting “building on the work of earlier anti-war movements.” The CIA described CND in 1984 as “the most influential peace group” in the UK, explaining that the campaign “first flourished during the ‘Ban the Bomb campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s.”  CND had “successfully organized several mass demonstrations in London and numerous smaller activities at military bases, according to the CIA.

Rimbaud told me that he has been a “lifetime supporter” of CND; he also mentioned the campaign’s close ties to the broader peace movement. During CND’s heyday, he explained, one would assume that “anyone with social awareness would be interested” in the campaign. In his 1998 book Shibboleth: My Revolting Life, Rimbaud wrote that Crass “decided to promote” the cause of CND, which was “downtrodden and dog-eared” at the time. The band subsequently displayed the CND symbol, which is also the peace symbol, at their gigs.  Crass adopted the symbol partly as a means to silence critics from both the left and the right, according to The Story of Crass and Shibboleth, as well as my interviews with Ignorant and Rimbaud.

During our conversation, Rimbaud recalled that, shortly before Crass released their first album, he and bandmate Eve Libertine visited CND’s London office in an effort to obtain some CND badges. The office, he said, consisted of “a grotty room” containing a very small staff who were “totally taken aback”  by Libertine and Rimbaud’s interest in CND. Upon leaving the office, the pair said to themselves, “Bloody hell, something ought to be done about this.” The staff did not welcome Crass’ support either during that visit or during some early-1980s CND rallies. “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 wrote in Shibboleth. Ignorant agreed that CND did not know what to make of Crass, but noted that the organization still accepted proceeds from the band’s benefit gigs.

Rimbaud has argued that Crass’ efforts helped to revive CND, writing in Shibboleth that “our efforts on the road slowly bought CND back to life. We were responsible for introducing it to thousands of people who would later become the backbone of its revival.” During our interview, Ignorant argued that Crass “can take a bit” of credit for raising public awareness of CND, but added the campaign would anyway “have been in the forefront again,” because of nuclear-weapons issues’ prominence. 

Ignorant cited several specific examples. First was the UK protests concerning  ground launched cruise missiles which were deployed at the Greenham Common air base in 1982. NATO had decided to deploy the missiles in 1979. CND’s history explains that

In September 1981 a mainly women’s march from Cardiff arrived at Greenham Common US Air Force base in Berkshire, where the first Cruise missiles were to be based. What was at first a temporary camp soon became both a permanent peace camp and a women-only camp.

For its part, the CIA described that site as “a major focus of peace activity.” Ultimately, the 1987 INF Treaty banned the missiles, which retuned to the United States in 1991.

Second, Ignorant discussed British public concern raised by reports of excess leukemia near the Sellafield nuclear site –  the subject of a 1983 documentary. He also mentioned a British government-distributed leaflet “on what to do in event of” a nuclear war. Presumably, Ignorant was referring to this 1980 30+-page document titled Protect and Survive. According to John Preston, CND responded to the document by producing  “an oppositional parody called Protest and Survive…mainstream public mockery and criticism of Protect and Survive was widespread following its release.” Somewhat more colloquially, Ignorant characterized the document as a “right load of bollocks.”

The End

Near the end of our conversation, Rimbaud expressed his concerns about missile defense, Brexit’s potentially negative effects on European security, and nuclear power’s apparent resurgence.  By contrast, my interview with Ignorant turned to broader themes of punk and DIY which are beyond the scope of this post. 

I find the Crass song “Banned from the Roxy,” from The Feeding of the 5000 remarkable because it quickly goes from a complaint about being banned from a punk club  (“Banned from the Roxy, okay / I never much liked playing there anyway”) to a rant covering a wide range of issues, including the threat of nuclear war:

They keep their fucking power ’cause their finger’s on the button / They’ve got control and won’t let it be forgotten

Draw your own conclusions.