- by Rich Morris Release Date: Label:
"Fuck her mind so they can fuck her silly!"
Penis Envy - one the fiercest punk records ever made, released when most had written the genre off as dead. A ferocious, laceratingly intelligent, resolutely feminist din which sets the template for riot grrrl a good decade early. It's also possibly the best rock 'n' roll record you've never heard, spiced with surprisingly avant-garde forays into sound collage and musique concrete. There's even a bit of Afrobeat. Think the Manics' Holy Bible, The Beatles' epic freak-out 'Revolution 9' and Huggy Bear on 90s shame-fest The Word. It's like that, all at once.
These days, agitproppers Crass are generally remembered, when they're remembered at all, as a dour, black-clad gang of commune-dwelling anarchists, usually cited as an addendum to the late 70s' punk explosion and viewed as something of an anachronism compared to the bleak, futuristic post-punk of many bands then filling up the pages of NME.
This is unfair, firstly because Crass provided an important voice of protest at a time when UK bands were generally becoming more disengaged, but also because Crass definitely did have a sense of humour. As evidence, there's the stunt they pulled just before the release of Penis Envy (great title, by the way), when they managed to con a popular teen girl mag called (yuck) Loving into giving away a free felxi-disc of a song they'd recorded called 'Our Wedding' under the alias Creative Recording And Sound Services (check those initials). 'Our Wedding' is, on the surface, a sugary MOR pop ballad sung by a bride to her beloved. However, even before you know what she's singing, there's a sadness, a limp, leaden feeling to her voice and the pace of the music. This bride doesn't sound like she walking down the aisle so much as sleepwalking.
Then you work out the words: "Never look at anyone, anyone but me/ Never look at anyone, I must be all you see," our protagonist sings with a cold certainty which borders on the chilling. She ends the song repeating "Don't be untrue to me," mantra-like, emotionless while the sound of church bells is slowly pitch-shifted down to a sinister gurgle. No wonder, when the hoax was revealed, the editor of Loving called it a "sick joke" while the good old News of the World chipped in, branding Crass a 'Band of Hate'.
In truth, the members of Crass burned with a rare conviction, a zeal which would eventually split them apart and drive some of them almost to the point of madness. Having expressed this passion on two albums of fearsome, hardcore punk noise, the band decided to spread its musical wings a little for Penis Envy. This move towards a more experimental, expansive sound fitted perfectly with the feminist perspectives put forward by the lyrics. De facto frontman Steve Ignorant stepped aside to allow singer Joy de Vivre and new member Eve Libertine to lead the charge on songs which tackle gender stereotyping, sexual coercion, self-harm and body fascism.
The band dive straight in, no messing around. Penis Envy's first three tracks are a perfect storm of unrelenting punk fury. 'Beta Motel' explores the way women feel they have to dress to attract and please men. It's like PJ Harvey's 'Dress' but angrier and heavy on the sarcasm: "Thank you, will you take me?/ Thank you, will you break me?", all delivered in a pleading, plummy English accent. The following 'Systematic Death' is, if any thing, even more savage as Eve Libertine gleefully rips through all the ways the system traps us: debt, dead-end job, unhappy families, miserable marital sex and finally, in a bleakly comic masterstroke, nuclear war, a very real threat in the early 80s. The muscular, militaristic yet funky 'Poison in a Pretty Pill', sounding like The Slits, Au Pairs and Delta 5 all together on the mother of all PMT rages, rounds off a damn near perfect opening assault.
From here, the album becomes more experimental. The aptly named 'What the Fuck?' mixes musique concrete with goth noise and atonal wailing. 'Berkertex Bribe' introduces Afrobeat to the band's palette and has a fragility to it which puts one in mind of The Raincoats - until, that is, it bursts into full-on punk thrash around the two minute mark. 'Health Surface', sung in wispy vocals by Joy de Vivre, is limping, lopsided funk which collapses halfway through to be replaced by muffled spoken word and ambient noise before lurching back and suddenly powering towards climax with, off all things, a whistling solo.
The original release finished with 'Our Wedding' as a hidden track, and in this context, following such uninhibited, literate raging, it sounds sadder than ever, like a sigh of resignation at a fate which can be delayed but never avoided. However, if you get hold of the 'Crassical' re-release, you'll find three extra tracks, two of which consist of sound collage, spoken word and studio experimentation, which compliment 'Our Wedding' perfectly, as if the song marks the point at which we move beyond rage into something less coherent but darker, more abstract but equally destructive.
For an album which privileges the 'female' perspective, this feels strangely right, as if we have moved past what the normal constructs of macho 'rock' can express and are left floating in a sea of found sounds, disembodied choral voices, shattered glass - trying to connect, to grip hold of something sensical but always failing.
The updated album blasts out with 'The Unelected President', a 2003 recording which feels totally in step with what has gone before and is thus cheering and a little depressing. Cheering because Crass have clearly lost none of their bite, depressing because, well, what's changed? A sobering thought. For making the listener ponder such unpalatable questions, and for having, frankly, great big hairy lady balls, Penis Envy is an album which deserves to be embraced by a new generation of firebrands.