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Journal for the Study of Radicalism 1.2 (2007) 77-90

"Do They Owe Us a Living?
Of Course They Do!" Crass, Throbbing Gristle, and Anarchy and Radicalism in Early English Punk Rock
Brian Cogan
Molloy College

Although many books and articles have been written in the popular and academic press about the punk movements of the 1970s in England and the United States, few have gone beyond examining the canonical bands and movements. Works such as Legs McNeil's and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and Clinton Heylin's From The Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World offer valuable insights into the motivations of the American and British punk movements' pioneers.1 However, they do not adequately examine several important aspects of the punk movement, namely the political and social motivations of many of the major bands involved. The two bands I examine here, Crass and Throbbing Gristle, did have to work with distribution systems to which they were opposed on principle, but they did so more in the spirit of subversion than in acquiescence to the dominant hierarchy. They attempted to make a radical statement within the confines of a commodified musical distribution system. Many other more popular bands were simply posturing, but Crass and Throbbing Gristle were the true fathers of radical politics and anarchy in the British punk movement.

Punk, Anarchy, and Radicalism

Numerous contradictory issues of authenticity and perceived commitment to anarchy and outsider ideals exist in any theoretical discussion of punk music. Most of the major bands, while espousing a do-it-yourself (DIY) philosophy, [End Page 77] nonetheless signed with major record labels and recorded for the same media conglomerates and the music system that they berated in song and on stage. In the early days of punk, this is largely because few alternatives existed. Examples exist of bands metaphorically biting the hand that fed them, such as The Clash's song, "Complete Control," a response to their record label (CBS) choosing which songs to release as singles. However, most punk bands felt that working within the system was a necessary compromise to get the message of punk out to the masses. Even the Buzzcocks, who had released Spiral Scratch, considered by many to be the first British independent EP, spent the rest of their early career working for a major label.

Many British punk bands that later were signed to independent labels only did so because they were dropped by or unable to secure a contract from a major label. Their allegiance to independent labels did not necessarily indicate a perceived higher level of authenticity in independent labels. Even the most rigorously independent labels have to deal with mid-level distribution systems to get their records into major record stores. Of course, other punks, particularly Crass and Throbbing Gristle, operated mainly though mail order during their peak popularity. Today, both bands have music readily available in major record stores. The rising popularity of underground music eventually led to both bands' licensing their music to distribution companies who had deals with major record stores.

Many major labels spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to subsidize punk bands that despised the values those labels represented, but it is unclear who was making more of a compromise. Most punk bands, at least the more committed ones, wanted to maintain a level of integrity and ideological consistency. But, although many punk bands used the ubiquitous circled "A" for anarchy, they did so in publicity photos taken by professional photographers to promote releases on major record labels, mostly run by large transnational corporations such as Sony and EMI. For large corporations, the compromise was espousing a radical and revolutionary message through its products. However, punk bands were summarily dropped when they failed to make a profit.

A central question is whether any kind of message was actually...


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