A Conversation of Crass
An interview with Mick Howes, Anarcho Punk
Can you tell me a bit about your experience of Anarcho- Punk?
The gig scene was almost every night. It was about two or three times a week and you knew various anarchy centres that started up. It started with the one in Wapping, which was where they released the Crass/Poison Girl single, ‘Bloody Revolution’. I don’t know why they never lasted very long in one place. They moved around and there were hippy aspects and punk aspects of the younger and older people if you like.
Moving The Squat
So it moved from Wapping, which I went to once, because that was like 1980 you know, we were young then and then it moved to Westbourne park. That’s where I first saw Conflict and The Mob and it was kind of every week and that was like a meeting place as well and they used to meet and sell stuff. It was just a meet up of likeminded people you know.
Then it moved to Rosebery Avenue and I don’t think it had a name there. And yes it was just a place basically to see bands, Crass never played there as far as I know but all the bands that came into being because of Crass. They all used to play these venues and it was just something different and instead of just talking. These people were actually getting up and doing things – setting up gigs, setting up organisations and it all started with the Crass single with the Poison Girls.
I was going to other gigs at the time, was still into other punk bands but it was like “wow this is different” you know? There’s an entire subculture here who kind of means what it says and there’s more to it then three chords and a load of shouting you know? And Crass did some squat gigs as well which kind of took off because of their background in festival movement it was kind of like the start of a free party movement – which later on became something completely different but it was like people getting up and doing things.
Crass, they squatted the Rainbow theatre which is a long lost big music venue, the police turfed them out of there and they suddenly went to this place called the zig zag club and they put on a gig and about fifteen bands must have played, they played all day and there was free food and free drink and it was wow you know I really felt part of something different.
That’s quite an important part because the music press –I’m talking about NME and Sounds at the time basically they didn’t really like the bands and used to criticise them and slag them off all the time basically but this kind of made people sit up and listen they thought ‘well hang on a minute these bands aren’t just saying something they’re actually doing something as well.’
My experiences at Stonehenge as well – if you want the classic kind of hippy punk crossover well the Stonehenge festivals of the early 80s are the best example of that because you have crusty anarchist band playing but also bands like Hawkwind playing as well. And I didn’t realise then but it was actually the people at Dial house who organised the first Stonehenge festival in 1974/5 so it all kind of links in. Kindred spirits. It made me think as much as I love punk music this was more then music. It was a lifestyle choice a political choice. Because at the time vegetarianism was kind of new to a lot of young people, certainly me and a lot of other punks too. Animal rights became a big deal.
Are you a vegetarian now?
I am yes, since those days, since 1982 yes and I wouldn’t say it was a particular band that did it but it was being part of that kind of movement and you had the animal liberation front as well which Conflict got heavily involved in and they were always doing benefits and that kind of thing and that’s what made me feel it was much more then a bunch of geezers playing to mad punk rock.
… It was like a whole ideology…
A way of life, yes and although I didn’t go to Dial house, because a lot of people went there but I just thought I didn’t want to just turn up and say hello because I thought if I went there it would be better to interview them for a fanzine or whatever but because I didn’t have one I left it. But a lot of people just went up and stayed with them but I was probably a bit shy to be honest.
So you never went to Dial House?
I never went to Dial house, no but I went to the anarchy centres because that was gigs and mates you know. Its funny though because back in the 80’s everybody called it the Crass Commune including the music press because they used to kind of make fun of the fact it was a ‘commune’ – I mean it wasn’t really but it was kind of a free living bunch of hippies. I knew where it was it’s the extreme line of the central line on the tube.
Colin from Conflict
I met Colin and Steve before and I had some friends who were in bands but much smaller bands really. As a movement it was far different to anything I’d seen before but I can’t have been the only one who was bored with bog standard punk rock for punk rock’s sake but this became everything from eco warriors to paving the way of vegetarianism to serious far left and anarchist politics and all that. Before long I was reading things and getting into things I’d never have dreamed of doing, as were so many other people.
I was lucky – right place right time really, living in London and going to gigs and all the gigs were cheap and we were skint either on the dole or doing shit jobs and all the gigs were either 50p or £1 to get in and other gigs were £4 or £5 which may not sound like much now but back then that was a massive difference. A fiver was a night out.
You’d get violence as well because you’d get skinheads and fascists who used to turn up. I’m not saying it was a utopia because there was trouble as well – I was terrified of skinheads. But on the whole there was a level of acceptance, it didn’t matter what you looked like so much either. You didn’t have to tow a party line to look the part. It didn’t matter.
What kind of person would you say you were before punk and what was the turning point where you changed?
Well before I was just a very shy schoolboy really who although I kind of had mildly left wing parents, normal labour voters and I didn’t know or really care that much at 15- 16. It turned me into an environmentalist, a vegetarian, I used to say anarchist but I have voted in the past. I was extremely shy and introvert as well and meeting people and getting into it kind of let me come out of my shell.
Where were you based?
I’m from Lewisham so Conflict were the local band I guess. There was more happening in north London to be honest and we used to go to North London, two, three times a week for gigs or just to meet up with people.
A lot was going on and a lot of people were into it, I mean the gigs were in small places but if they’d have gone with the mainstream they could have been playing big places like Brixton Academy but they didn’t, they shunned the mainstream.
So many DIY releases came out at the time. People were just getting together, pressing records and doing it.
You say you were passionate about animal rights; did you ever get involved in any of the protests?
Yes I did a few things, a bit of sabotage as well, I went out with the ALF and I applied for a job in an animal testing laboratory so I could go there and report back what was going on but they sussed me! Going undercover appealed to me at the time because I was about seventeen. I though I could take pictures and find out what was going on. It felt like an individual could do something to effect social change. But it did take direct action to do it.
Crass started an independent label at a time when major labels were extremely powerful, did that inspire you to feel like you could do things and not just accept what you were given?
Absolutely yes, it made you think there was more then major labels, Crass Records began and then Conflict started a label as a direct result and they started springing up everywhere yes and it gave you a sense of you didn’t have to go through the mainstream. You may not sell as much but in some cases you did sell as many as you would have done if you were in a mainstream set up. Certainly the DIY ethic you know, making your own T-Shirts and things. Basically not going down the same old route because the punk fashion used to embarrass me a bit. Everyone’s trying to look the best or a bit cooler or whatever. But this changed all that. It was an eye opener.
What were the fanzines like? Were they important to you?
Mick: The fanzines yes gosh I’ve still got a box full of them! They were just cheap and at the time that was when everyone used to read the music press. Everyone read NME every week and Sounds – it was the only way to find out about gigs and bands back then. Me and my mate did start a fanzine and we interviewed Charlie Harper out of UK Subs at a bar and it was all a bit drunken really and never really saw the light of day. We did our own stencils as well and started doing graffiti and collages. It did inspire me. I suppose after a while something had to give and I ended up drifting away from it but its still there with me and I’m a changed person because of it.
How much would you say Crass influenced other bands like Conflict?
Mick: Starting with Conflict yes when their first single came out, I think in 1981, I thought they were just a carbon copy because they had a symbol which was a bit like Crass’ and they had a female singer as well as male and they sounded a bit like Crass. When I first heard them I thought this is a bit of a rip off almost. But then after that first single I realised they were their own band and they became as big as Crass, certainly on the underground scene.
But they weren’t my favourite band I mean I love the Poison Girls and they don’t get as much credit probably because their music wasn’t hard and fast punk rock but the politics and the attitude and everything and the scene they were in as well was as important in a lot of ways.
I got into Amega Tribe and Rudimentary Peni who’s art work was so obscure and mental. Check out his work his name is Nick Blinko. Their first single was blow away punk and they were an Anarcho-Punk band. I’d never seen bands do their own artwork before, you didn’t get that when you bought a UK Subs album. Also Hagar The Womb.
Do you think anyone is doing anything close to what Crass did, now?
No. I’m sure there are many worthy bands out there but nothing like the way that spiralled.
What was it like back then to buy a Crass record with posters and patches in them, had that been done before or was that pretty original?
That was so original, the sleeves then, you used to buy your LP, it was quite cheap as well. You’d get this big fold around cover and it would fold out into this big poster/piece of art. As far as I’m aware I don’t know anyone who was doing fold out sleeves. They did it with 7’ singles as well, they used to produce leaflets and booklets as well on everything from political theory to recipes. But when you bought an album, and this was when vinyl was king obviously. You weren’t just buying an album you were buying a piece of art as well. And the poster would be – Vaucher as well was a brilliant artist and she’s now being recognised in her own right as an artist as apposed to just a member of a band. But it took a long time for the recognition to come around.
You’d buy something and be sat on the bus with it reading an essay. It was something else it really was.
Did you feel personally you’d been kept in the dark by the government?
Mick: Yes I did and it made me angrier. My dad was kind of politically aware and used to tell me stuff but not on the level of this so I wasn’t completely naïve but it did open my eyes to the lies and corruption and everything else that was going on. I got arrested three times on demos because of it and it made me angrier. I felt things had been hidden to a certain extent but I wasn’t completely in the dark.
Were you badly treated by the police?
Mick: Yes. It was bad, I was strip searched. I was kept in and refused phone calls. I was kept for hours and hours, treated like shit basically. This was for the Stop the City Marches in the ’80s. It was unofficial and unannounced on the spot demonstrations to try to halt the war machine and money machine of the city of London. Of course the police took a dim view of this, as did many other people and it got ugly and violent. Then it got controlled because basically they just stopped anyone dressed a bit scruffy from getting the tube to Bank. You just weren’t allowed to do it!
Stopped By Police
It was so effective that unless you had a job in the city, you’d be stopped. Then the police learnt how to control it and contain it. That was certainly an influence of the Anarcho-Punk movement at the time, especially the one in 1984.
Can you name one song, which you think encapsulated the entire movement?
‘Do They Owe Us a Living’ by Crass. Because its swearing but its making a point as well. As a teenage hearing that, it ticked all the boxes really.
There’s a song called ‘Big A, Little A’. What did you think of that?
The other side of the single was Nagasaki Nightmare, which was different and almost a departure musically. A lot of people didn’t like that. But after the intro part that goes off on its own tangent too. It made me think they were progressing musically and the characters Steve Ignorant did I just thought they were funny. He does the Queen’s voice (laughs). You know it’s like a musical departure for them because its not like hard fast punk all the way through. It’s quite a long song as well. But that whole single, when I first heard it I wasn’t sure but over time I liked it. Now I think its up there with one of their finest songs.
Crass’s Songwriting Development
This was the first time I heard Crass have a guitar intro like rock songs have guitar intros. They hadn’t done that before it was a break with what they’d done before. A saucepan is used as a bit of percussion as well. It was great. The bass line is kind of rocky and funky.
Finally, what is Anarcho-Punk to you? Would you be different if the band (Crass) never existed?
Yes I would be different. It made me think politically, it made me think environmentally. It also made me think about right wing fascism because Nazis at the time, the National Front were getting big. We had to think about politics and serious things. It changed me politically.
Are you still quite heavily involved in music?
Yes I go to a lot of gigs and a lot of Anarcho-Gig too. I have tickets for Hagar The Womb and I have seen Conflict in recent years and Steve Ignorant. Yes I still have a guitar and I still go to see a lot of gigs. It has certainly influenced me and I still wear a Crass T-Shirt from time to time.