Crass Penis Envy (1981) REVIEW
Crass’ Penis Envy defies the stereotypical lethargic depression that can infect the odd punk album. Optimism evades the staunchly confronted subject matter in a provocative way (like a car crash you simply cannot turn away.) It reaches its inky tendrils out to anyone willing to drown in thickly cryptic verses which make the topics of murder and misogyny into divine and quintessential punk poetry.
Libertine (lead vocalist) is not alone is her eerie escapades – her lyrical genius is bolstered by backing vocalist Joy DeVivre (whose memorable ultra-feminine voice creates the perfect backdrop for a brutal discussion of innumerable perspectives on just a few broad topics – keenly narrowed down to make Libertine appear to be a slapdash journalist, scrawling down a notebook’s worth of criticisms brilliantly worded and possessing the serrated unspeakable phrases of the often shunned rough draft.)
The guitar rhythms conversely collide with Libertine’s demeanor and vocal anguish to create a perverse image of the boldness of their music and the horrors of the content they simultaneously cover. Penny Rimbaud’s off-kilter approach to drumming with stunning rolls that punctuate and pierce through the thoroughly ironed – and somehow still raw – lyrics is mesmerizing as we hear an apology spill from his mouth near the end of one of the tightly-controlled and chaotic tracks that drifts into unplanned territory nearing the end (how punk is that?)
One could consider the guitar (lead guitarist, Phil Free, rhythm guitarist B.A. Nana) to be the life blood of the album that strictly paces it along in a cavalcade of much-needed noise to force us to confront the conflicting yet all-too-powerful imagery the band manages to describe. If the guitar is the acidic, normalized and necessary tool to help set Libertine’s anti-melodies alight then the bass guitar is the paralyzing feature.
As I listened to the album I couldn’t help but feel a measurable amount of control and restraint spit forth by player Pete Wright – it’s completely dooming presence matches Libertine’s desperate pleas for some sort of sanity in a self-destructive society while the guitar is at war not with the ideals discussed but with the way in which the content is presented.
“Bata Motel,” the disarmingly catchy opening song offers us an insight into the media’s role in the oppression of women via metaphoric discussion of high heels (the terrain she covers in the span of a speedy punk anthem leaves the listener reeling.)
She describes similar alienation in “Berkertex Bribe” which deals more primarily with the topic of purity. It is at the precise moment of Libertine’s introduction in “Bata” that the listener becomes eternally grateful for the lyric book in front of them, as her shot-gun speed voice describes the entire devastating life story of a theoretical woman trapped in the bondage of societal constraints that in third-wave feminist jargon could easily be believed to sum up ‘the perpetuation of ‘rape culture’ and the confines that women are finding incredibly difficult to escape from. The song utilizes a sort of sarcastic melodrama that is itself its own opposite, in a stunningly intellectual burst of energy and nihilism-approaching noise.
The album fearlessly discusses fear: of total destruction from unyielding warfare, of the ‘shit condition’ both women and men (in a cleverly feminist and unflinchingly analytical way) have to face in our society – these include partially self-inflicted sickeningly cyclical constraints as described at length in “Systematic Death” and the searing albeit controversial discussion of the potential banishment of monogamous love as normality and the depths this will raise the status of women from (in fact Libertine sees a direct parallel with female oppression to marriage as she croons unyieldingly in “Smother Love:” “love don’t make the world go round, it holds us right in place/ keeps us thinking love’s too pure to see another’s face.”)
Libertine and her band-mates are evidently studious scholars as they take down a number of either highly respected or highly known figures (mostly for infamous reasons) in “Where Next Columbus?” The song is a memorable liquid nitrogen feeling flash because it discusses the different meanings of one body of work, or one person’s mark on the masses (“another’s left, another’s right/another’s peace, another’s fight…”) while tackling the effect of these figures approaching omnipresence, she describes the morbidly ironic subsequent effect which turns the observers (and I do mean observers, the idling fandoms are merely a philosophical detriment in morale and principle that eventually lead to more) into conformists (‘who’s your leader? Which is your flock/ who do you watch?”)
By the end of Side A, the listeners are aware that there are two main focuses to the band’s madness: sexism and war. “Poison in a Pretty Pill” an ironically pacifist song (I say this because the noise and friction stimulated by this band are enough to constitute a war – albeit one combatting harmful ideals, but a violent attack nonetheless) delivers one of the most lasting and poignant lines Libertine dead-pan musters: “at least the blood red poppy was of nature’s will.”
“Poison” is the counterpart to the irresistible “What the Fuck?” which forces the listener to face graphic imagery of war’s victims “Dry, the bodies/incandescent in the heat” and in a sadistic/compassionate (goddamn, a psychologist would have a field day with the content of the album, the source of which Libertine’s talented mind which balances the drive for peace and truth with an intensely insightful view of the human condition) way she reveals the motives and complexes that may be held in the world’s greatest crime perpetuators.
Libertine wields the sword of sharp music while unearthing the double-edged katana on each deeply perturbing track she modestly presents (production-wise the album certainly didn’t break the bank, but this is much appreciated and rooted in the much discussed punk ethos.)
Perhaps the outliers of the album are strategically shuffled to the end: “Health Surface,” a song that discusses the sterility in feeling and staphylococcus in reality of medical institutions and the part and parcel care-givers is one that exposes a dark view from Libertine about their effect on a human body (a hopeless down-spiral if I’ve ever heard of one.)
“Dry Weather” tapers the album off effectively by asking any lingering questions – fueled by much desired rage one would seek in a punk record – Libertine best summarizes her attitude and view of the world with the ending line that leaves a lot to be digested “I don’t want these games.”
Crass then fulfills every promise they have made to the listener for more uneasiness (prompted by discontentment with their surroundings – thank god it’s not the meaningless ‘fuck the status quo’ shtick again) by letting our record player’s needle trace more mockery of monogamy as DeVivre commands our attention: “never look at anyone/ anyone but me… I’d never be untrue my love/ don’t be untrue to me…”
The album is a stunning look into a band’s multi-faceted approach to ‘current events’ and more accurately the human condition and the capabilities possessed by the mad and powerful. It is quite possibly the most underrated punk album I’ve ever come across and deserves an incredible amount of recognition in order to match the work and time that helped the belaboured album (recorded to sound as though no effort was put in at all – apathy rules! – but we know better) flower into the “beautiful bonsai/erotically rotting” that it is.