HUCK takes a stroll into the bucolic English countryside to visit the commune-style home of anarcho-punk band Crass
For one group of frustrated pacifists living under Thatcher’s steely gaze, punk was more than just a new kind of rock. It was the voice of resistance. HUCK takes a stroll into the bucolic English countryside to visit the commune-style home of anarcho-punk band Crass, pioneers of direct action sound.
Down a rocky lane in the Essex countryside, sunk between rolling hills and a farm spotted with velvety cows, there is a place that doesn’t exist according to Google Maps. At the entrance to this hidden oasis a farmhouse stands, surrounded by tree houses, lily pad ponds and weeping willows, with its doors wide open. But this is not your average pastoral retreat. It is, in fact, a hothouse of anti-systemic dissent. Complete with a few nice wind chimes.
Truth is the Dial House, as this little utopia is known, has been harbouring outcasts since 1968. Not only was it the birthplace of British anarcho-punk band Crass, but it has also run an ‘open door’ policy since its inception over forty years ago. To this day, anyone can turn up unannounced and stay for an indefinite period, if space allows. All the current inhabitants ask is that visitors contribute in any way they can; through gardening, cooking, art, writing, discussion or something else. There are no rules. And all this is due largely to the vision of a man, now sixty-seven years old, self-named Penny Rimbaud.
“I didn’t really know what the fuck I was doing,” laughs Penny about the early days of the Dial House. The former coalman and art teacher found the sixteenth century house while motorcycling around Essex in the mid-‘60s and started to rent it, at minimal cost, with two other artists. But Penny grew frustrated with the ‘your cupboard, my cupboard’ feudalism and decided to try something different. “All I knew was I didn’t really want to live like I had lived,” he says. “The commune movement existed in America at that time, but there really wasn’t any sort of model to go by here. So I just stopped [participating in society] and for quite a while I lived here on my own wondering what the fuck was going to happen next. Then, through word of mouth, people just started turning up.”
For many years the house was almost self-sufficient. Its inhabitants grew their own vegetables as well as trading produce with the neighbouring farm and nomads passing through. “I thought, ‘This is enough. We don’t ever need to go beyond here’,” remembers Penny. “We can live our lives, we can tell our stories and people can come and go – what more do we need?”
Penny may have wanted to let go of society, but society wasn’t ready to let go of him. After one of his closest friends, organiser of the Stonehenge Free Festival Wally Hope, died in suspicious circumstances, Penny’s contentment turned to rage. Wally was arrested for possession of LSD on his way to the second Stonehenge Festival in 1975 and incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. When he was found dead weeks later, having suffered with chronic dyskinesia, Penny said heavy-handed state intervention was to blame. The advent of Wally’s death, combined with the police brutality festival-goers claim to have witnessed at the peaceful Windsor Free Festival in 1974, mobilised Penny into action. He explains: “I suppose I realised after Wally’s death that this idea that we can be free is an illusion, quite clearly we can’t. And that’s when I became political. My politics weren’t to persuade anyone to think a certain way. I really just wanted to [make people question things]. We were sort of issuing bloody warnings… and a lot of them were off-the-wall… but people could see the truth in them. I think there was also an understanding that we lived that truth. It wasn’t like we were saying, ‘Smash the system’ and then coming back to a [palace]. This place is beautiful but it’s built on sweat and blood.”
So when a local kid, later known as Steve Ignorant, who was “pissed off with everything” stumbled into the Dial House one day in 1977 after hearing there was a drum kit inside, nature took its interminable course. “Steve had seen The Clash down in Bristol and he’d come back to Dagenham to start a band,” remembers Penny. “The mix of Steve’s street anger and my political anger created an enormous tension, which was very effective.”
“Our interest is to break barriers and to redefine; to say to people, ‘Anyone can do whatever it is they want to, but you need to actually get out and do it…’”
Soon enough other members of the household took interest in the riotous, discordant punk sounds being created and wanted to get involved, including Joy De Vivre, Pete Wright, N. A. Palmer, Eve Libertine and Gee Vaucher, who still lives there today. “Gee had been living in New York art directing an avant-garde newspaper called International Anthem at the time,” remembers Penny. “But we were trying to find a way in beneath the boards, you know.” Gee came on board and brought her subversive art skills too. As well as contributing musically to Crass, she produced the majority of their iconic artwork, often combining photorealism with collage and abstract techniques to create radical images – usually drawing on family and war – that became hugely influential, notably to Banksy who she collaborates with today.
So, Crass – with their epochal ‘There Is No Authority But Yourself’ tagline – was formed. And the ever-changing line-up of likeminded anarcho-pacifists took to stages across the UK, exclusively playing benefit shows and getting behind causes, like the anti-war and anti-globalisation Stop The City riots in mid-‘80s London.
Just as bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag rose up Stateside against Reagan’s frugal conservatism, so too was Thatcher the ying to Crass’ anti-capitalist yang. “Thatcher was actually a godsend to us,” says Penny, characteristically provocative. “Someone less articulate, someone more reasonable in their presentation would have been less of an interesting opponent. When the Falklands War kicked off, the silence of opposition was tangible. We immediately went into a critical attack and immediately got into big problems with the authorities, which wasn’t something new.”
The band’s political momentum reached new heights when Crass guitarist Pete Wright edited a fake telephone conversation between Thatcher and Reagan for a prank. The bogus tapes – which featured Thatcher apparently admitting responsibility for the controversial sinking of the Argentine ship ARA General Belgrano, and implying the H.M.S Sheffield was sacrificed in order to escalate the conflict – became front-page news. The US State Department believed the ‘Thatchergate Tapes’ to be Soviet KGB propaganda and although the tape was credited back to Crass eventually, it had done significant damage to the reputations of those in power.
But it had damaged Crass in the process too. Obscenity trials and conflicts in ideology took their toll and in 1984 Crass disbanded once and for all. “Crass failed because it didn’t create global revolution,” sighs Penny at his desk in the Dial House, surrounded by books and records – from Richard Dawkins and Nietzsche to Miles Davis and Brahms. “But we stood for do-it-yourself. And, actually, that’s happening more and more now.”
The global revolution may have failed in Penny’s eyes, but the spirit of independence that Crass embodied inspired a new generation of anarcho-punks. Bands like The Fall, The Pop Group, Chumbawumba and more recently No Age and anti-folker Jeffrey Lewis – who released a Crass covers album in 2007 – all took influence. Likewise, founder of Vice magazine Gavin McInnes was moved to call Gee “the most talented artist living today” on his Street Carnage blog and, bizarrely, celebs like Angelina Jolie, Alice Dellal and David Beckham have all been spotted wearing Crass tees. An ironic twist for a band that always rejected the “peacockery of fashion punks”.
Even Penny is shocked by Crass’ reach: “When Steve and I started the band we didn’t have any idea that it would ever expand beyond us just pissing around in the music room. But as it expanded, we all saw the political possibilities… Punk had initially been nothing more than an expansion of rock and roll. It was a bit naughtier and a bit more antisocial but very much within the context of the music business… But we were raucously independent, you know. We wouldn’t do press interviews and we wouldn’t engage in any way with major labels. That’s why we set up [Crass Records], which enabled us to sell records at a third of the commercial price… If it wasn’t costing us anything why should it cost anyone else anything? We wanted to share that [autonomy] around.”
Over the years, Penny and Gee have remained fiercely committed to that fight for autonomy – even when lucrative commercial offers came knocking at their door, from brands and middlemen keen to piggyback on their maverick identity. “Gee more than myself has been offered endless opportunities to get into the commercial domain but that’s really not our interest,” says Penny. “Our interest is to break barriers and to redefine; to say to people, ‘Anyone can do whatever it is they want to, but you need to actually get out and do it’… Find a way of unconditional living.”
At home at the Dial House, those barriers continue to be broken down to this day. The former Crass members were forced to buy the Dial House at auction in 2001 to save it from developers but the decision meant they were able to stay true to their ‘open door’ ethos – which has welcomed everyone from Bjork to peripheral members of the Red Army Faction in the past. More recently, they have used the space to hold Permaculture workshops, Tai Chi lessons and inspirational talks among other things.
So is the spirit of rebellion alive and well? “Of course. It’s more powerful than ever,” insists Penny. “There will always be those that say, ‘No, I’m not going to stand for this shit’… I’ve always loved skateboarders for that. They’ve turned the urban landscape into a playground; it’s become their mountain, or beach. And that undermines authority in a way that no amount of political rhetoric will, or can, undermine it… Everyone can do that sort of slipping the system. That’s where it starts. And it should be a game.”
And for Penny and Gee, the stubbornly resolute ex-members of Crass who still live true to their hippie ideals in the remote Essex countryside, ‘the system’ must seem like a distant memory. Their global revolution may have failed, but the local one is going pretty damn strong. “Crass was this ideology of love and peace, but mixed with, ‘We’re going to fucking fight for it!’,” reaffirms Penny. “I think it was Che Guevara who said, ‘The true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love’ and I think that’s right. It would be nice if one day we could do away with that word ‘rebellion’ and then we can just talk about love.”