Congratulations on opening what is sure to be, to date, the least-read edition of this newsletter. As a bit of a follow-up to my guide to Japanese hardcore, I've decided to devote some space to anarcho-punk for a couple different reasons.
- I recently went to see the Subhumans play and, 40 years on, they remain an absolute force. At the merch table, they were selling a 600-page book chronicling their history—seemingly written in size eight font, no less—and, as I slowly make my way through that tome, I've been reminded of how impactful their music has been for me over the past two decades.
- I recently heard an acquaintance dogging on Crass and, when I asked if they were into any of the other anarcho-punk bands, they said they weren't really familiar. I told them I'd write them a little guide and, since I'm an opportunist, it made perfect sense to turn that into a full-on newsletter. So here we are.
To start, much like my previous primer on Japanese hardcore, this is by no means exhaustive. If you are looking for something that is, I recommend Ian Glasper's The Day the Country Died: A History of Anarcho Punk 1980-1984. This is about as good of a document as one can get on this scene. A lot of what I'm going to write about here is covered in far greater detail there, so if you're at all inclined, I recommend giving it a read. Fittingly, Glasper is also the author of that massive Subhumans biography I referenced earlier. If you feel like reading 1,000 pages about angry English chaps, then may you enjoy those two massive books.
The last thing I'm going to say before we start is this: I'm going to take you through this the way I got into it. Because of the nature of discovering music before streaming, that meant I found bands and records out of order, so this is going to be less chronological and more autobiographical, to borrow a term from a movie I absolutely loathe. Hopefully that will be more interesting to the readers who heard Crass once, laughed, and never wanted to engage with their work ever again. I'm not deluded enough to think that I'll be able to steer you away from that opinion, but I will make an argument that maybe, just maybe, it's worth another shot.
Oh, and one final note: I won't be including anything that's crust, D-beat, UK82, or stenchcore in this list. "What is the fucking difference, you pedantic turd," is probably what you're saying at this point but they are different things. Over the years I've seen the waters muddied far too many times, creating a murky, confusing genealogy. In attempt to keep the picture crystal clear, I'm drawing the line where I see and hear it.
And with that, we begin.
They've already been mentioned a couple times here, which makes sense as the Subhumans—not to be confused with Canada's Subhumans—were the first anarcho-punk band I ever got into. My brain is failing me as to why exactly that is, but I think part of it had to do with stumbling across a copy of The Day The Country Died and the cover art screaming "this is punk!" at a time when that was my chief concern in life. Flipping it over and seeing song titles like "Mickey Mouse Is Dead" also felt strangely intriguing to me at the time, though I can now see how absolutely goofy such a thing sounds when written down.
Though I can't remember when or how I got The Day The Country Died, I can never forget the first time I actually heard it. After putting it on my turntable, I was greeted with the sound of static for what felt like an eternity before the distinctive whistle of a falling bomb overtook it. This intro was only 20 seconds long, but I was on the edge of my seat, anxious to hear what happened next. I distinctly remember leaning into the speakers and then getting blasted with the drumroll and descending chord progression that starts "All Gone Dead." When the song ended, I didn't even have time to comprehend what I heard as they jumped straight into "Ashtray Dirt" without so much as taking a beat. The drums were fast, but they were played with a looser, groovier feel than the other punk bands I'd heard to that point. The bass lines always sounded like they were walking somewhere far, far away from the hyperactive guitars, and Dick Lucas' vocals were so delightfully English it almost sounded like he was doing a parody of his local townies. I was hooked.
As I got deeper into the record, I was shocked by how much world building was going on inside of this thing. Though Lucas' lyrics are simple, they carry a sarcastic, distinctly British sense of humor, allowing him to poke back at the punk scene and the larger world all in one go. In "Subvert City," Lucas tells the story of a group of outcasts gaining control of their city after years of struggling only to be met with a new set of discontented residents hoping to overthrow them. It was a simple, bitter tale of becoming what you always hated, all set to a song that had more in common with "Stairway to Heaven" than "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," and it's that dichotomy that made the Subhumans so powerful, both then and now.
Fittingly, they'd go even further into that experimental lane on subsequent records. Their next album, From The Cradle To The Grave, was released the same year as The Day the Country Died and featured a nearly 17-minute title track. On World's Apart—an album that I've heard others argue is their very best, and though I disagree, I see the argument—the reggae and prog elements they dabbled became even more prominent but never felt the least bit ham-fisted. It's for these reasons that the Subhumans were the perfect gateway for me as a kid and, I believe, remain the perfect entry point for anyone trying to get into this specific sub-genre. It doesn't hurt that "No" is one of the ten greatest punk songs ever written. "Religious Wars" is in the top twenty.
Where to start: 1983's The Day The Country Died / 1983's From The Cradle To The Grave / 1985's World's Apart / 1985's EP-LP.
Note: I really tried to keep this brief but I just couldn't do it. I'm sitting a few feet from a Crass flag as I write this and this band changed my life. So here we go.
To understand Crass, I think it's important to contextualize them through one single instrument: the snare drum. Originally, Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud formed the band with the intention of being a vocals-and-drums duo. Though Crass would quickly become a full-on collective, those core elements are what define the Crass sound and much of the anarcho-punk template. Where the Subhumans were versed in classic rock traditions, Crass eschewed all that, bringing in Rimbaud's love of drum rolls and avant-garde compositions to build a band that resembled military marches and protest chants instead of anything traditionally punk. That bit of context could back up the most common critique levied against Crass, which is that they write messages, not songs, but that feels incredibly short-sighted to me.
I've heard many musicians say that the measure of a good song is whether or not it's capable of being reduced to just guitar and vocals while still feeling like a complete thought. It's my belief that Crass did exactly that, only with the snare drum. It's also what makes lumping in Crass with post-punk feel so wildly off the mark. Where post-punk was all about repetitive, grinding rhythms that replicate machine-like drudgery, anarcho-punk has always been about an irresistible bounce, the kind designed to match the sound of boots on pavement.
To jump into the band's actual recorded material, I really do find The Feeding Of The 5000 to be the best entry point. Recorded in 1978 and released that same year (if Glasper's book is to be believed), this puts Crass firmly in punk's first-wave, which is an utterly insane thing for my brain to comprehend. When people rattle off a list of punk originators, it's always acts like the Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, and whichever not-punk-sounding band from the CBGB scene is trendy at the time. Crass is rarely a part of that conversation. But The Feeding Of The 5000 came out before London Calling, putting them right in the middle of that world, and making them the most abrasive, intense act of the entire bunch.
Returning to The Feeding Of The 5000, "Asylum" opens the album with, arguably, one of the most hostile, controversial songs recorded up to that point in time. This sounds like a Lingua Ignota song but from 1978, with Eve Libertine unleashing one of the most impactful screeds against Christianity that I've ever heard. The last line is still so powerful, it sends chills throughout my body when it's delivered (no, I will not spoil it.) It was so intense, in fact, that the pressing plant initially refused to press it onto vinyl, instead leaving two-minutes of blank space which the band then titled "The Sound Of Free Speech."
When "Do They Owe Us A Living?" finally kicks in, you're assaulted from every direction. Ignorant's vocals are so gnarled, and delivered at such a clip, you can almost hear his spit hitting the microphone on those harsh, sibilant syllables. The guitarists sound like they are just dragging razor wire back and forth across the pick-ups. Rimbaud's drums, which are mostly snare, become a trebly, militaristic rumble. Bassist Pete Wright is the only one with the decency to provide some kind of melodic tether to the unsuspecting listener.
But then, after punishing you for the duration of this verse, it all shifts. The drums slow down and open up, bringing in a jaunty groove that suddenly matches that bouncing bass line. Backing vocals emerge, offering a singalong hook that's simple in both approach and sentiment. That ugly, grating distortion on the guitars starts to make a little bit of sense. By the end, you're singing along. Those bits that felt so alienating at the beginning start to come into focus for the first time. It's the perfect coup, as the first three minutes of The Feeding Of The 5000 are so intensely off-putting that they serve as a cunning distraction from the fact that, though they were often staunch proponents of the avant-garde, they also were adept at writing pop songs too.
Here's a sentence you probably didn't expect to read in a mini-essay about Crass but… Tom Delonge once said that his songwriting approach in blink-182 was to write punk-rock nursery rhymes, and we all know how that turned out. It's fitting then that Crass' most popular song, "Big A Little A," is a literal appropriation of a classic schoolyard chant. Not only do they open the song with a recording of kids singing the classic ditty, it becomes the entire basis of this six-minute track. "Big A Little A" may seem like the most melodic song in Crass' discography but, as I've just spent entirely too many words establishing, melody was always a tool in the band's arsenal. Often times, people dismiss Crass for the fact their production is so intensely grating, and sure, that's a tough sell, but when you take a step back and look at the songs themselves, there are bona fide hits throughout the entire catalog. They had a message, but they knew that people could memorize a whole lot of ideology if you put a danceable backbeat and melodic bass line around it all.
Now, there are plenty of intensely experimental moments throughout the Crass discography but, even then, they become much more approachable through the lens of Rimbaud's steady snare drum. Penis Envy, the album that sees Ignorant take a bow and let co-vocalists Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre handle the vocal duties, feels like a perfect blend between the band's twin ambitions. "Poison in a Pretty Pill" is the gold-standard of the band's compositional prowess, as they take disparate component parts and somehow link them all together in a song that attacks, then retreats, when you least expect it.
To me, every Crass album is essential, from the shockingly song-based compositions on the first disc of Christ — The Album ("Have a Nice Day," "Beg Your Pardon") and even the unbroken nature of Yes Sir, I Will yields tender pieces like "Anarchy's Just Another Word," To peg Crass as solely one thing is to miss the broader picture. They were a shape-shifting entity based on the collective's need, anchored neither to sonic orthodoxy or a single collective ideology. They were a living, changing entity, one that gave as much to punk as they did noise-rock, the avant-garde, and even Riot Grrrl. They're endlessly impactful and utterly essential, no matter how much time passes.
Where to start: I promise to do this once and only once, but just run through the discography in chronological order.
I don't even know where to begin with Rudimentary Peni. The obvious place is that Nick Blinko is one of the more singular creators to have ever worked in the medium of punk. His exploits are both numerous and well documented, so I don't want to waste too much time on those more sensational elements even if Blinko's anguish is palpable throughout Rudimentary Peni's work. Hearing Death Church for the first time, after staring at its cover in a record store for the better part of two weeks before mustering up the courage to buy it, I was absolutely terrified and confused by what I was hearing. "¼ Dead" is an incredible opening track, taking a death-rock bass line and then unleashing Blinko's screams of "Three-quarters of the world are starving / The rest are dead." As the song begins to pick up, he starts drawing out that last word deeeeeaaaaaad like roadkill trapped on the mudflap of an 18-wheeler.
Rudimentary Peni records only got weirder from here, mimicking Blinko's own personal issues. Cacophony is borderline proto-industrial in spots, and the overlaid vocal samples make for a record that's outright batty at times. But, even at their worst, there is no one else who would make those choices and then release them. That's even more clear on 1995's Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric which was written when Blinko was detained in a mental hospital and literally believed he was Pope Adrian 37th. The music is vintage Peni, but the choice to include a vocal sample of Blinko repeating "Papas Adrianus" on a constant loop throughout the entire album creates a disorienting effect that, try as I might, has kept me from ever finishing the album in one single go.
That said, the Rudimentary Peni material from the 2000's onward is all quite good. At times, like on 2021's The Great War, they resemble the punk-inspired black metal of bands like Raspberry Bulbs, showing Peni as a band so far ahead of everyone else that, even when they actually resemble something definable, they still sound too genuinely fucked up to ever be derivative.
Where to start: 1981's Rudimentary Peni EP / 1982's Farce EP / 1983's Death Church / 1988's Cacophony / 2004's Archaic EP.
Flux of Pink Indians
For a band with such a terrible name, they are responsible for two of my favorite record titles of all time. The first is Strive To Survive Causing Least Suffering Possible, which feels like a succinct summation of this scene's whole deal in six words. The second is The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks, which is just a fantastic bit of British humor there. It's helpful that, in the band's short discography, these two releases stand as the true highlights. While Strive to Survive is your more standard anarcho fare, the songs stand out and the production feels a bit more accessible, relatively, than some of Flux's peers. On the opposite end, The Fucking Cunts brings out a noisier, more experimental bent that many of these bands played with to varying degrees. The embrace of samples, noise, and loops by a lot of the anarcho bands is something that I don't see get talked about as much but, if you listen to a record like The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks, they probably should be.
Where to start: 1982's Strive To Survive Causing Least Suffering Possible / 1984's The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks
Though an obvious companion to Crass thanks to Steve Ignorant's temporary involvement, I always viewed Conflict as essentially splitting the different between Crass and Discharge. The tempos get a little more charged (see what I did there) and I think Conflict tapped into a bit more of the UK82 sound that was running concurrently to the anarcho-punk movement. Though people often lump the two together, they are two distinctly different things, with only a select few bands merging the two together, and Conflict is arguably the most visible of them all. While their early material skews more toward the traditional anarcho-punk template, by the time of 1986's The Ungovernable Force, it's easy to make the case that they were an out-and-out hardcore band. At times, you can even hear the direct line from this kind of stuff to Neurosis, as you can see twinges of that kind of proto-crust, early stenchcore sound all over mid-'80s Conflict.
Where to start: 1984's Increase the Pressure / 1986's The Ungovernable Force / 1988's The Final Conflict
To get a bit into the other scene that was running parallel to anarcho-punk in the early '80s, there was the rising post-punk sound. Both shared a distinctly bass-forward approach, so it's only natural that some bands had a foot in each sound, and The Mob have always been the platonic ideal of these two sounds merging. The iconic No Doves Fly Here single is what most people, myself included, reach for first when thinking about The Mob, but the Let The Tribe Increase LP serves as a pretty good view of a more buttoned-up take on this whole thing.
Where to start: 1981's No Doves Fly Here EP / 1983's Let The Tribe Increase
Continuing with the post-punk crossover bands, we have Poison Girls. Chappaquiddick Bridge is the album I've spent most time with and it's one that definitely skews more toward the post-punk sound, so much so that I'm surprised I don't see Poison Girls get name-checked more by folks who have exhausted The Fall's catalog (listening for five minutes will fully exhaust you, I promise). Though I guess it's a testament to how subcultural associations and aesthetic trappings really can make such a difference in how we perceive things that should be purely auditory. Anyway, cool record!
Where to start: 1980's Chappaquiddick Bridge
No, not the "Caught In A Mosh" Anthrax—though I've got love for that one too. The gift of this Anthrax was given to me by an accidental Limewire download and, hence, the Capitalism Is Cannibalism EP entered my life. That mistake is one I remain quite thankful for, as this band's legacy is a bit lost due to sharing their name with one of thrash metal's Big Four. Though they released precious little material in their original run, those first two Antrax singles capture a unique take on an emerging sound. At times, the guitars almost remind me of Big Black with how prominent they are in the mix, though perhaps they thought Crass really needed to just hit the overdrive a little harder.
Where to start: 1983's Capitalism Is Cannibalism EP
As a slightly deeper cut, Omega Tribe tends to get glossed over, but they are one that's always jumped out to me. The aptly titled Angry Songs EP and No Love Lost LP are remarkably good anarcho-punk releases that rest just below the surface for most folks. It's not wrong to say a lot of these bands utilized the same sonic approaches, but that's true of nearly every genre to ever exist, so whatever. The differences are always in the minor details, and often the most intangible qualities: energy, passion, and conviction. Those are things you can't quantify, but you can most certainly hear. Omega Trip has all three. They're also catchy as hell.
Where to start: 1982's Angry Songs EP / 1983's No Love Lost
I know, I know, I know, "Tubthumping" and all that. Yes, yes. Let's move on.
Ultimately, despite being the most successful band on this entire list, I was a late-comer to Chumbawamba. I knew that there was more to them than their one-off '90s radio hit, but their discography was daunting. I've still got many Chumbawamba records to hear but, for any doubter, I highly encourage a listen through Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records… and Never Mind the Ballots, which display a range that sees them jumping from anarcho-punk to tracks that capture the expanse of The Cure to the kind of folk-minded moments they'd end their career playing. Of course, the Revolution EP is probably their best of the straight punk stuff that I've heard, but while you might not be able to shake Cumbawamba's association to a grating '90s hit, I swear it's worth it.
Where to start: 1985's Revolution EP / 1986's Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records: Starvation, Charity And Rock & Roll - Lies & Traditions / 1986's Never Mind The Ballots
Okay, this got way too long way too fast so I ended up cutting this off and omitting a bunch more. It's 10 bands, and that's a nice round number, so there we go. If you want even more anarcho-punk, shoot me an email and we can chop it up there. I'll be back in a bit with something far less, uhh, agitated. Maybe.