Punk legends Crass continue with their programme of remastered reissues of the “Crassical” collection with this, their third, and some might say, most controversial album.
Whereas on previous albums the female vocals of Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre had been present but largely playing second fiddle to Steve Ignorant’s bitter snarl, here they take over the whole show and Mr Ignorant is nowhere to be seen. Women in punk rock certainly weren’t a new thing; X Ray Spex had Poly Styrene plus there was Siouxie Sioux, The Slits, Gaye Advert…etc but Crass, being the politicos that they were allowed the female aspect of the band full reign to vent their frustrations. This was something of a genius stroke on the part of the band as rock and roll, and punk was no exception, was still largely male dominated and not without a heavy dose of sexism. “Penis Envy” served to redress this balance in no uncertain terms.
What is particularly interesting listening to this album and reading through the lyrics 30 years after its initial release is how close to the true spirit of feminism this album truly is. This is a real plea for equality where, more often than not, on tracks such as “Bata Motel”, “Systematic Death” and “Berkertex Bribe” the targets for Crass’s barbed diatribes are not the macho idiots that perpetrate sexist thought but the simpering females who play up to it and allow it to happen in the first place. On “Penis Envy” males and females stand shoulder to shoulder as a unified force for feminism in stark contrast to the male bashing militant feminists that have become the stereotypes. It isn’t all po faced and serious, however, “Our Wedding” is a parody of the sappy “you and me forever never to part” type of love song that Crass play entirely straight and in doing so managed to convince teen magazine of the time Loving to give the song away as a free flexi disc…a perfect example of subversive irony.
Perhaps because of the heavy female involvement and the greater melodic possibilities the vocals of Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre afforded the band, “Penis Envy” does stand as the band’s most “commercial” and accessible offering. The acidic, snarling guitars are still in evidence as are Pete Wright’s fluid bass lines and Penny Rimbaud’s skittering drums but it is all bound together in tighter more concise songs that, dare I say it, owe as much to pop music as they do to punk rock. N.A Palmer and Phil Free explore their playing partnership to a greater degree here and allow the guitars to experiment with different levels of harmonic and rhythmic interplay that goes beyond three chord thrashing. It is often easy to allow the band’s political views to overshadow the music but the truth is Crass were a very capable and innovative outfit that expanded the narrow envelope of punk to take it into new areas, partly influenced one suspects by their early incarnations in the experimental art rock field in the early 70’s…particularly on “What The Fuck” which, as the title may suggest, inspires a similar reaction from the listener with it’s jarring discordant noise, choral vocals and lengthy spoken word passages.
“Penis Envy” is the sound of a highly organic and evolving band at the top of their game yet not content to sit on their laurels. It is the perfect compliment to the already reissued “Stations of the Crass” and “Feeding of the 5000” albums from recent months and an essential purchase not just for existing fans of Crass but anyone keen to delve into the history of punk and broaden their political and social outlook as, sadly, many of the issues tackled here are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago.
Scribed by: Ollie Stygall