Crass drummer, activist and philosopher Penny Rimbaud has endured and survived as an outsider of society throughout his life. Back in ’67 he drove his motorbike around the English countryside looking for an abandoned building to live in and found an old barn in Essex where he established Dial House, later to become the anarcho punk HQ.
As part of the hippy movement in the ‘60s Penny helped friend Wally Hope establish Stonehenge Festival. After flying in the face of the state, Wally was arrested and mysteriously died shortly after. The seething anger Penny felt after this experience laid a ripe groundwork for the seeds of protest to spring up. It was 1976 when Steve Ignorant came knocking, invigorated by a new brand of anarchist rock music called ‘punk’. The two formed Crass and the band escalated to nine members who burgeoned and battled through the cracks in the pavement to soon find their message spreading into an anarchist protest movement. Over 40 years on, I visited Dial House where Penny still lives and spoke to him about punk, protest and the complicity of self.
He started at the beginning, when he first found the house.“I was driving around looking for a place I could create a studio because I was a painter. I didn’t want anything to do with professionalism or making a life for myself. I wanted to make a life for other people as well and that went back to my disillusion with the world that my father offered me as a young kid. A world that seemed to have wars and greed and all the things that didn’t seem nice to me. I was expelled from two schools and 3 or 4 years teaching was the only excursion I made into what my father would call ‘the real world’.” Penny converted the barn into a home and lived there with two other teachers for a while. “Then then students were protesting against the outdated Victorian system and I sided with them. I was half pushed out of the job, half walked out. That was it. No more trying. I’d seen this film about an old tradition in China where people could pay to stay in a little Inn with a bed and warmth and food but telling a story. I thought that was a great idea, I really liked it.One dayI got rid of all the stuff I owned and took the locks off the doors. Soon the others left and I was in a big empty house wondering what the hell happens next. The place fills up from time to time but I still sit around wondering what’s gunna happen next. My life is still determined largely by other people’s needs. I haven’t got many of my own. If someone has an idea I’m good at helping or adding to it. Apart from that I quite enjoy sitting in the sun and sleeping.”
Penny lives at Dial House with Gee Vaucher, a lifelong friend who played a vital role in the band Crass by doing the artwork and singing. “I was about 19 when we met. Gee was at my art school and I instantly grew to like her. She was determined and came from a very different background to me. She had amazing art even then. Her sense of line, artistic sensibilities and her social and political sensibilities were coming from a very different place. When it came to art we were really like brother and sister playing games together, reflecting each other and inspiring each other which we’ve done ever since. We’ve shared this growth together. I’d come from a very privileged background. I’d never been exposed to poverty or working class values. It was a real privilege to be included into Gee’s family life and learn what it was like to be there. That was repeated when Steve came up with the band. He was from East London as well.”
Steve Ignorant started coming to Dial house with his older brother, a talented painter, when he was about 13. Penny said, “He was a sweet little kid. A pretty little boy. Funny, innocent, naive, a laugh. When he first left school he was working as a shelf stacker for a supermarket and he used to nick stuff for us and come over on his moped. He’d come up at weekends with a great big block of awful supermarket cheese. I was really fond of Steve. We’ve shared a strange journey together.”
As Steve got older he became fanatical about music and was gripped by the punk movement. Penny spoke about his initial feelings towards it, “The Pistols and those bands slightly pre-empted us, yeah I liked the music. I thought it was good rock n’ roll and initially I was slightly taken in by what was being said. I thought ‘Yeah this sounds radical this sounds like they mean it’. I pretty soon realised that it was all within the framework of rock n’ roll and actually they didn’t really mean it. Actually I was pretty excited, probably more excited by people like Patti Smith and Television, some of the American art bands. But no, there’s no question that people like the Sex Pistols created a platform that we made use of. For one I think the Pistols are a very good rock n’ roll band. I mean politically they were crap in the sense that they didn’t follow through and they didn’t really mean it man. But that’s by the way really. They were an inspiration in the direction of “yeah we can do this but we can do it better, we can actually mean it and get on with it. We can turn this into something positive rather then something which was really rather destructive”.
By late 1977, Crass emerged on London’s underground scene with a nine-member line-up. They wanted people to question their leader’s decisions, their main slogan being ‘There is no authority but yourself’. “By and large, Crass was spot on – radical, ahead of its day. Which is why it didn’t become rock ‘n roll. It couldn’t have.”
Penny and Eve Libertine had already been protesting before the band, “Two years before Crass, Eve and myself were spraying posters in the underground with messages to help people rethink. We didn’t damage property. On a war film poster we’d write ‘Fight War, Not Wars’.”
Over the course of the band’s five albums, Crass told people about governmental hypocrisy, corporate malpractice, societal sexism and racism, and put forth personal viewpoints on sexual abuse and injustice as well as animal cruelty. All this had a profound impact on their fan base, many of whom remain vegetarian or vegan to this day because of the anarcho movement.
Crass disbanded in 1984 but their message of protest and peace has endured ever since though fans and inspired bands. “We were commanding fairly large audiences by the end of the 7 years on the road and certainly large sales. But it had been a long hard battle and we were great at emptying halls initially. That’s what we did. People didn’t hang around to listen, they thought we were crap and they were off. We fought hard.”
Penny maintains close friendships with Steve Ignorant Eve Libertine and Gee Vaucher. They are all currently working on a Crass book together. “Steve’s doing a lot on the book, he’s got a terrific memory. The two of us are pretty good as a team. We keep in touch and that’s good. I see Eve still and work with her, sometimes not for a month or so. She’s such a great artist, I love working with her. It’s a very different domain to the stuff I do with Gee. Gee is mainly visual. Eve is sound and word.”
Penny learned a lot from his experience with Crass which he still employs in the world today through encouraging protesters and creatives worldwide. “Now we’ve got to a point where we’ve found ourselves within the narrative – spread out across animal liberation, feminism, friendships, whatever. We’ve had this strange effect. My job is to develop those effects and say “You’re interested in Feminism? – Try a bit of this.” It’s an extension of what I was doing 40 years ago. Something like ‘Penis Envy’ is even more relevant today – because some people are going horribly wrong on all this gender stuff creating differences where we should be looking for similarities. Creating perturbation where we should be creating peace and joy.” He added, “There is a bit of wisdom that comes with age and its due to experience. I was in Brazil and Argentina recently, very much encouraging the activists there who were really putting their lives on the line. I was saying “If you’re gonna possibly get killed or certainly damaged then first of all, examine your complicity.” That’s what I can offer now and in its day, that was what Crass was doing.”