Sixteen years ago, radical punk band Crass disappeared from public view. Right from their inception in 1978, they had always planned to split in 1984, as a nod to George Orwell's novel. As it turned out it was good timing. Crass had become uneasy demi-gods in a movement they had unwittingly created. They were even scared of going on holiday for fear of being seen as "sell-outs", and were becoming disillusioned with the notion that their anarchist-pacifist politics were really the answer to Thatcherism.
Crass arrived at the tail end of the punk explosion, proclaiming "punk is dead" and proceeding to kick at the Clash and the Sex Pistols for not following through on their rebellious stance. During their seven years on the road, the band gave away thousands of pounds to causes ranging from CND to striking miners, attracting the attention of MI5 along the way. They also rejected offers from major record labels who promised to help them "market revolution". Crass needed little help with marketing, as they could, at their height, shift 20,000 singles in a week with no advertising and no airplay. Combining shock value, humour and a distinctive graphic style, the band found it easy to get their message across.
But they found it much harder to stop their fans from seeing them as ideological leaders. The Falklands war saw the band at their most politically active: they recorded an attack on Margaret Thatcher that was discussed in the Commons. The single, How Does it Feel to be the Mother of 1000 Dead?, sold enough copies to make the top 10 in its week of release, but strangely it didn't even appear in the top 100. The band made enemies of both the political left and right and were singled out for particular hatred by then Sounds journalist Garry Bushell.
After their final gig the band retired to Dial House, their Essex commune home, to get on with writing, painting and tending the organic vegetable garden. But even there they found turmoil. There were splits within the house which led to some members leaving. The remainder then found themselves in a legal battle with British Telecom to save their home and the surrounding countryside from being swallowed by a housing development.
They defeated BT in the courts with the help of local villagers, but were immediately thrust up against new owners, property developers Peer Group. Peer Group has recently put the property up for auction, so the four former members of the band who remain there have made a call for help to raise the £80,000 they need to buy it.
The grade 2 listed 16th-century cottage on the outskirts of North Weald was set up as a commune by artists, and later Crass mainstays, Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher in 1967, and it has since become a punk equivalent of the Bloomsbury set's Charleston House. The similarity is not lost on Rimbaud, who managed to persuade the courts of the cottage's significance as a cultural outpost. The house was the birthplace of the Stonehenge festival and the base from which Crass rejuvenated the peace movement and created the blueprint for the kind of anti-globalisation protests seen in London and Seattle in recent years. It was also a temporary home to many of the bands who recorded for Crass's eponymous record label. One such visitor was Bjork, who stayed in 1984 when she was recording an LP for the label with Sugarcubes predecessors, Kukl.
The appeal for funds is an ideological struggle as much as a financial one. After all, the four,
Rimbaud, Vaucher, Eve Libertine and Steve Ignorant (to give them their "punk names"), have breached the old anarchist "all property is theft" maxim. "It was very, very difficult indeed for us to decide to go ahead with the appeal, because in a way even that is contradictory to our ethos," says the commune's founder, Rimbaud. "If it hadn't been for the fact that that idea was so wholeheartedly supported and even to some extent initiated by people outside of here, then I don't think it could be tolerable."
In the heyday of the band it was not unusual to have a house full of visiting fans while others camped in the garden. "A lot of people were really surprised because they were expecting it to be really quite scruffy - filthy dishes piled up everywhere - and they were really quite in awe," Libertine says. On one occasion the local police found a dozen Italian punks searching for the house in nearby Epping Forest. "They were brought here in a police van, dumped, and the police said 'Best of luck mate'," says Rimbaud. "They were very extreme, but when it came to ablutions they were so straight. They were all lined up in a row holding a toothbrush in one hand and a neat little towel, waiting."
Those same Italian punks are now among those who have come together to help with the purchase of Dial House through donations and benefit concerts. This is all very alien for the four, who are used to raising money for others, rather than being on the receiving end of generosity. But they realise that if they are to maintain their way of life and preserve Dial House then they have to swallow their pride.
If successful in buying the cottage, Rimbaud says he may break another anarchist convention by standing for election to the local parish council to repay some of the help that has come from the North Weald villagers. Perhaps then, Rimbaud and his housemates, who are now aged from 42 to 57, will cease to be referred to, as they still are by one local shopkeeper, as "the students".
More details on the appeal are available at the: Crass page at Southern
Those wishing to make donations should email firstname.lastname@example.org