Sunday, August 19, 2007


Much recent talk about a particular quality of voice has chimed in with a post that I’ve long intended to write but have never quite got round to ((fail to) see also The Minutemen/ The Associates versus the Blue Orchids). A post on Crass and what I like most about them, if like is the appropriate word. Eve Libertine’s vocals.

Nor am I going to write it here, but I am going to begin to start tentatively approaching an attempt to possibly think about it a bit.

First off all I’m assuming that THAT voice is currently being defined negatively, as a lack of either grain or sweetness, it neither rasps nor purrs, by its absence of any promise of consolation. It may beckon to you but it is not inviting you into any kind of carnal/sensual embrace. What’s exciting in THAT voice, it’s allure, is not the prospect of getting your rocks off, not the prospect of some good loving and a slice of home-made cherry pie, not the prospect of relief and gratification in this world, but a dangerous enticement to you to slip instead into a different and alien realm. Precisely because of its lack of grain, its disembodied quality, it must be coming from some beyond. A promise of incarnation but not carnality. It’s the voice at the threshold. It’s an occult voice. Shamanic. White-puritan-voodoo.

The frisson of Grace Slick’s vocals in “White Rabbit” then is the hauteur, the sense of the initiated leading the novitiate by the hand into a new universe of pleasure divorced from physicality. It’s a non-democratic voice, it is in fact a “stars” voice, in the sense of old-time, pre-Rock and Roll “stars”, impossibly distant and diamond-bright, and it seems to me right to suggest that there is a lineage from Showtunes and old time Showbiz here, something in the phrasing, the clipped consonants and orotund vowels, its assertive self-possession, carrying with it still the trace of the oratorial that rock and folk’s appeal to blue-collar and grassroots had to dispense with. The underlying masochism of the fan/star relationship is invoked, the impossible otherness, the sense of a parallel universe, a separate order of being from which the fan is permanently excluded. The erotic charge in this is well captured in the phrase that exposes the bedrock of the star/fan dynamic: “ontological envy.” The witchiness in it is not red and gold African-earth mother blackness, not Sun worshipping at all, but precisely the realm of the White Goddess, the dark, Moonstruck pre-Christian world of the European unconscious, the primal depths re-illumined by LSD, the subterranean world into which Slick will lead you.

Hence the voices anti-sensual allure. It isn’t the Lotts’-wife numbness of Nico’s frozen borderline, the narcissism of trying to make an object of oneself, to free oneself from power or desire, using smack to calcify the flesh and drain away interiority, rather the voice is both threatening and inviting, irresistible and destructive, the Siren song. In its least dramatic, most heavily mediated aspects this combination is something like “minxishness” at its most extreme it’s the dominatrix. The dominatrix is also a cosmological figure, who through ritual, ceremony and arcane insight transports the submissive into other worlds. This is the feminine principle in it’s properly chthonic aspect, anti-oceanic, not a formless, boundary-dissolving swell or excess, nor woman as the bearer of the “wise wound” attuned to the eternal circadian truths of decay and regeneration, but instead a Lilith sculpted from the hard, frost-limned glitter of black European earth.

Now for me this particular voice reaches a certain kind of peak in Crass’ Eve Libertine and particularly in the astoundingly heretical “Reality Asylum,” a long verbal assault addressed to Christ himself which, though it was written by Penny Rimbaud, is inconceivable without Libertine’s absolutely frigid, aristocratic delivery. This is primal Eve addressing her usurper. Obviously Libertines’ voice is extremely limited, she can’t sing at all in fact but in it’s a-sensual aspects it is kind of definitive. It’s a forbidding voice and absolutely a classed voice, plumy, public-schooled sterility that freezes the blood and withers fruit on the vine. A clinical voice, forensically cut-glass. The voice of a certain type of English social-sadist.

It’s oddly Victorian sounding, horribly prim and priggish, absolutely immured in declamatory Calvinist righteousness. In fact there is something, thoroughly, disconcertingly Dickensian about Crass, especially Libertine in combination with Steve Ignorant’s ragged guttersnipe sneer, but this Victorianism is appropriate when you consider Crass’s obsessive relation with Thatcher. Libertine is a kind of Anti-Thatcher, the same sexless, high-handed stridency, the same contempt for weakness, the same ability to cut the men down to size but wedded instead to old-skool Anarchism rather than Neo-liberal individualism and proving ultimately that there's not much difference between the two. “You alone can do it, there is no authority but yourself,” she tells us at the end of “Yes Sir, I will,” in a weird echo of Thatcher’s "There’s no such thing as Society.”

Remember, she was "Thacher the Milk Snatcher." A Harpy Indeed!


Laban said...

There's something about that posh, slightly disembodied/automaton totty voice, isn't there ?

Can you remember the following

Jane - "it's a fine day"

And The Native Hipsters "There Goes Concorde Again"

Flying Lizards

and Nico of course

Anonymous said...

Are people still mis-quoting that 'society' speech from Thatcher?
I mean even in the 21st Century?
Child, do yourself a favour and read the whole thing as you bloggers are won't to implore others.

Anonymous said...

Are people keen to demonstrate their superiority still shooting themselves in the foot by crassly misusing “wont” and writing “won’t” instead? They are?!

How is it a misquote?

You might think I’m not doing justice to what Thatcher meant and that the quote needs all kinds of additional qualification, but I’m not misquoting her, am I?

I have just read it all, you’ll be pleased to hear. I think it’s mendacious bullshit. So that's been a victory.

Anonymous said...

''You might think I’m not doing justice to what Thatcher meant''

No. You simply do not understand what she meant

tom said...

'Are people keen to demonstrate their superiority still shooting themselves in the foot by crassly misusing “wont” and writing “won’t” instead? They are?!'

And there was I hoping I'd be the first to jump on that.

I've always loved the disembodied totty voice. Flying Lizards were the first band that sprung to mind with me, but there must be others not yet mentioned. Too late to rack my brains now though...

Rowan Wilson said...

At last - an appreciation of Crass that takes into account their aesthetic side. Whenever they are discussed it is only as part of a political current(see, for instance, the recent biog of them which found anything by them that wasn't knockabout punk too noisey or odd or the piece in the Wire a few years ago that concentrated on their pranks). There was something distinctly odd about Crass, as if they had never done the usual basics of a band, jamming blues basics and garage hits, but often approached songform anew. Big Hands and Hello Hero are simply weird - not arthouse weird like Wire but utterly naive. (I'd be tempted to reference 'outsider art' if that term wasn't so flawed and hackneyed.) Punk is Dead with its peculiar reggae-but-not coda. Banned From the Roxy's spare sound. Rimbaud's drumming was almost like skiffle. Ignorant's unearthly wail (check Mother). The extremely odd mixture on Penis Envy, the assault of Christ-The Album (the middle eight on Beg the Question, the structure of Deadhead). Again and again they ignored normal song structure and otherwise allow rhythm or noise to dominate the songs.

And yes, Eve Libertine's voice was quite terrifying with its severe and dismissive blast, especially contrasted with Joy de Vivre's fay to cold air.

Their music was so joyless, as was the whole scene then - which is to say design, fashion, lyrics, etc, and phenomena such as 'vegan police' - yet you hear their live recordings and the audience are, of course, loving it. Has there been a less hedonistic musical movement, in its trappings if not in the lived experience?

Is there anything else interesting written on them?

Rowan Wilson said...

Re- the relationship of old skool anarchism to neo-individualism.

Certainly, Crass had that punk 'no authority but yourself so do it yourself' attitude that often seems to culminate in that dreary 'i'm a self-made man, me' attitude in middle age (and what makes Lydon such a bore now). A reaction against social(ist) democracy and of a repressive class/social structure. But their's was never the nihilistic ego-driven transgressiveness of first-wave punk (cf all the rockist giveaways). Their individualism was anomalous in that it was hippy-derived, so more from pseudo-buddhist/therapy culture (eg Lasch and Rieff) 'know thyself', and was in tension with a moral responsibility (in part born of the opposition, as you indicate, to Thatcher), which could make them seem stodgey, didactic: 'no fun'. Swept away fairly quickly by the new pop of the 80s.

(Intriguing sub-point: an unwritten law that bands get mellower, more 'competent' and 'musical' was undermined by both Crass and Flux of Pink Indians on, respectively, Yes Sir, I Will and The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks. As their frustration rose with an asinine culture, the Falklands War, and importantly their own disappointment with their and their generation's impact, etc their music devolved into manic anger.)