Album Review: Penis Envy by Crass

When I discovered the British anarcho-punk band Crass, I was completely blown away.  I had been into such acts as The Clash, Sex Pistols and the MC5, all of which mixed fast, abrasive music with political posturing, but I wanted something that took it to the next level.  Crass was just what I was looking for.  They were angry, intelligent, iconoclastic and unbelievably distasteful.  My admiration for the group was cemented by their third release: 1981’s Penis Envy.

As the title suggest, this album put the band’s female members into the spotlight and critiqued contemporary society from a female point of view.  It was a departure for a band whose two previous albums were dominated by male vocalist Steve Ignorant’s shouts and growls. On this album Steve’s vocals are absent, and he is credited as a group member who is “not on this recording”.  Instead Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre handle all the vocal parts.

The music on Penis Envy, manages to be as loud, distorted and hard hitting as any of the group’s previous releases, but it feels more complex, polished and deliberate than anything they did before.  The guitar sound is fuzzed out beyond belief and many songs are soaked in sea of distortion comparable to that found on later releases by Jesus and Mary Chain’s, My Bloody Valentine’s and Big Black.   Phil Free plays many snarling, angular guitar leads, often painfully screeching from the higher register, while a second guitarist N.A. Palmer produces droning waves of staticy distortion, that manages to complement the leads rather than drown them out.  Drummer Penny Rimbaud’s distinct style is perfected on this album, and Pete Wright’s often crunchy bass work perfectly compliments the rest of the band.

Eve Libertine dominates the vocals on all but a couple songs.  She sounds sharp, clear, fierce, intelligent and unbelievable angry. She her strong vocals manage to soar above the ferocious noise of the backing, and never sound wish washy or drowned out. On pieces such as “Systematic Death” and “Where Next Columbus?”, Eve delivers rather lengthy political rants at break neck speed.   Other songs such as “Poison in a Pretty Pill” “Lover Smother” have moments that are distinctly more melodic than anything the band has previously done.  Overall the album sounds just as angry and heavy as any of Crass’ previous work, but Eve’s clear vocals (compared to the often unintelligible growls of Steve Ignorant, who is also a phenomenal vocalist by punk standards) and the cleaner production make this by far the band’s most accessible album (though it will still me unlistenable to the majority of people).

The subject matter on this record is the real kicker  Bata Motel aggressively depicts domestic violence and rape and their relationship with to conventional gender norms, from the point of view of the victim.  Systematic Death discusses a couple who are so alienated, and apathetic they have allowed mainstream society to transform them into mindless, workers and consumers with no other means of venting their frustration or expressing themselves.  Similar themes are also explored in Dry Weather, which also features a simplistic yet awesome opening guitar riff.  Elsewhere on the record, “Berkertex Bride” and “Lover Smother” present a sharp criticism of compulsory monogamy, marriage, sexual repression and the commercial culture that has grown around them. Berkertex Bride, while managing to be one of the more musical song on the record, presents us with lines like:  “The painted mask of ugly perfection, the ring on your finger, the sign of protection… How well you’ve been caught to support your oppression”.  “Lover Smother” features similar themes about the prison-like aspects of compulsory monogamy, but presents them through a wall of distorted noise that is likely to throw many off guard.  Additionally “Where next Columbus” features a high speed rant on the highs and lows of western Philosophy, with a backing that combines an almost surf guitar sound with high intensity noise rock.

On Health Surface, Joy De Vivre, (who in some ways is this band’s Nico) offers a melodic, punk ballad about waiting for death in a hospital.  The album closes with a short, intentionally saccharine piece, also sung by De Vivre called “Our Wedding”, that poses as a love song, but present marriage in a disturbingly light, in which the bride gives all of her identity to the groom who is subsequently bounded to her.  This track was the subject of a scandal, in which members of the band operating under the name Creative Recording And Sound Services, convinced a girl’s magazine called Loving to release it as a Flexi disk with one of their issues.  The magazine, represented many of the values the opposed on this album, and the scandal caused a tabloid uproar.

The album’s cover feature what appears to be a black and white image of some sort of prepackaged sex doll, while the back cover features butchered pigs.

The album got the band and some of it’s label mates charged under Britain’s obscene publications act.  In 2010 an excellent remastered version was released, with excellent bonus material as part of The Crassical Collection.

For anyone looking for abrasive, female led punk, or music that challenges social norms or sexual repression this is a great place to start.  The band sounds great, Eve is an awesome punk vocalist, and Joy is her perfect foil.  It is most impressive that such a strong release was achieved by a band operating on it’s own small time label, years before the DIY culture had really established itself.  Penis Envy remains a favorite of mine, and I have spent much of the subsequent years looking for music that approaches it’s strengths.

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