Chris Low first discovered punk in the late 1970s. At the age of eleven, he witnessed Crass play his hometown of Stirling and immediately immersed himself in the band and fanzine scene that would come to be known as Anarcho Punk, producing three issues of his fanzine, ‘Guilty of What?’ and sitting behind the drum kit for seminal Anarcho Punk acts Political Asylum, The Apostles, Oi Polloi and Part One. Most recently he has co-compiled a double album compilation for Optimo Records covering the wide range of music produced under the umbrella of Anarcho Punk. Outsideleft caught up with him recently in the unlikely surroundings of a London gym.
OL : Firstly, thanks for sparing the time to talk to Outsideleft and congratulations on compiling the new 'Cease and Resist' compilation double album. It's a great album actually. I was listening to it again earlier and the variety on that album is just huge. There is a cliche'd image of Anarcho as shouty punk music, but only a few tracks on the record actually sound like that.
Chris Low : I think one of the things we succeeded in doing on the album is demonstrating the diversity and expansive musical palette that the Anarcho punk scene embraced. One thing which is interesting, for example, is you might have thought that the inclusion of Alternative TV on the album was odd as the other bands on it are more identified with Anarcho punk than ATV, who are often identified as an original '77 punk band, albeit a more experimental one, as we saw on their 'Vibing Up The Senile Man' [ATV's second album]. When we were originally offered the opportunity to do this album some 10 years ago, the idea was to demonstrate the bloodline going back to the progenitors of the original DIY music scene - Pink Fairies, Twink, Third World War, Gong, and most notably Here and Now, who embarked on the free gig tour [which took place in the summer of '78] with ATV which was, as I understand it, a major inspiration to leading Anarcho Punk band The Mob to form. In fact, Mark Wilson of The Mob is pictured in the crowd on the sleeve to the album from that tour. So that links all the way through to the latest additions within the track list, namely D&V and The Ex, showing that bloodline from the original DIY bands with their agitational, libertarian politics, to Anarcho Punk bands, with 1986 being the cutoff point for the album. Mark Perry from ATV was the only one of those few “progenitor” bands who responded to my request to be included, and he understood what we were we were going for, so I am very pleased we managed to include ATV on the album, especially with such an amazing track.
OL: You became an Anarchist Punk at a really young age, didn't you?
Chris Low: I first saw Crass when I was 10 or 11 and I was going to gigs before then. I went to see Sham 69 when I had just turned 9 and you know, Skids, Clash, all those bands before I was in double figures.
OL: That’s impressive. I think I would have still been seeing The Wombles at that kind of age!
Chris Low : Then again, as you know, yourself, it was very, very different to now. It wasn't particularly unusual to be buying records and going to gigs at a very young age back then.
OL: You were just 14 when you started drumming with The Apostles, which is the same age as original punk band Eater's drummer Dee Generate, which caused a bit of a stir at the time...
Chris Low: Funnily enough Eater have been my one of my favourite punk bands, since I discovered them on that Live at the Roxy album and I actually had a badge of theirs long before I heard them, or many other punk bands for that matter. When I heard that first Apostles demo, almost had a similar effect for me as hearing Crass for the first time and really opened up a hell of a lot of stuff musically and, ideologically, and just the general kind of feeling that they had was incredibly exciting. A lot of it, in retrospect now is just absolute nonsense, but all that Baader Meinhof gang worship and the Angry Brigade all seemed fun and romantic, then, you know? I suspect that if you travel back in time and break the audience demographic down by age, you will actually find Anarcho Punk attracted a very, very, young audience, the reason being because the lyrics, to a great extent, gave incredibly simplistic answers to sort of questions that you have at that age. We were talking earlier about how Crass and Anarcho Punk was deliberately asexual. Crass were trying to push back against that kind of idea that you're in a band because you want to get laid and it’s all about looking as sexy as possible.
OL: Is that something that you think is more unique to Anarchist Punk?
Chris Low: That's a very good point. You know, everybody talks about 1977 as the year of punk, but I totally dispute that. If there ever was a year it was 1979, when things became mainstream with the release of The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle and Sid Vicious's version of Something Else on Top Of The Pops. That’s when I remember everybody from school suddenly getting into punk. Folk who haven't shown any interest in it before, were suddenly buying copies of The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, buying Sex Pistols singles, etc, etc. Crass's 'The Feeding of the 5000' album came out the same year as The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, they were both 1979 releases. I was going to record shops buying UK Subs, Dickies. and even bloody Sid Vicious and then a month or so later, suddenly, this record appears, which was just £1.45 or something and there was loads of swearing on it and it just sounded incredible. All us schoolkid punks always hung out at the Stirling record shops at the weekend back then and all the talk that Saturday was "have you seen this new record by this band Crass, I haven't heard anything like this". The record shop I used to buy records from in Stirling was called Hayes Music and it literally sold sheet music, bagpipes and recorders. It was like a Scottish Country Dancing shop, but it had like this little section of punk records, which was tagged as New Wave. If any record piqued your interest you'd ask a woman wearing a tabard behind the counter to stick it on and then listen to it on headphones. By 1979 most of the original punk bands were wearing frilly shirts or working on their second album trying to break the American market like The Clash. It wasn't really hitting the nail for me so to speak, so Crass's 'Feeding of the 5000' album certainly more than hit that spot.
OL: For me too, seeing Crass play, and other bands like them, showed me that music was actually more than wanting to be on Top of the Pops or trying to emulate rock stars to get laid.
Chris Low: I suppose if you're in London you would have a very different perspective because somebody like Tony Drayton [editor of Ripped and Torn, a leading punk fanzine] would have been going to see Adam and the Ants before they got signed and were selling out the Electric Ballroom without having a record out, but when you're living in Stirling, the idea of some sort of DIY scene doesn't even exist, it hadn't even entered my consciousness. When I first saw Crass at Stirling Albert Hall, literally the month before I'd been there with my school to see Josef's Technicolour Dreamcoat and a matter of months later on the same stage was Crass playing. That was pretty mind blowing in itself. I also remember going to see Sham 69 at the Glasgow Apollo and it was a seated venue, so you're sitting there watching the spectacle on stage like its the kids Saturday Morning Pictures. The Crass gig wasn't like that. It's not something I really thought about at the time, but the demarcation between audience and spectator wasn't there. Even with bands like Sham 69 and The Clash, they still seemed like kind of rock gods, you know, it wasn't like Crass where you've suddenly got members of the band giving you badges and handing out flyers and stuff like that.
OL: I remember at Digbeth Civic Hall in Birmingham, where I saw Crass a few times, the things I really noticed were, firstly, the stage lighting was very subdued. There weren't any spotlights, just ordinary lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling and it was all quite dark. There was no division between the band and audience and I'd never seen that at any gig before.
Chris Low: I've just realised for the first time, when you mentioned the subdued lighting and everything, the only other spectacle I'd seen like that was when you'd have a school theatre production, in which the actors were your peers, people in your class were performing on this stage with literally just house lights, no fancy flashing lights. That, probably subconsciously, made it seem very, egalitarian and inclusive and accessible.
OL: They really were the opposite of The Clash, who just wanted to be American rock stars and sign to a big label. Crass didn't and said do it yourself, and we'll help you do it yourself. Once that 'Crass uniform' aspect started to appear though, and the stencilled lettering on everything, did that cause a problem for you because it started to feel quite regimented?
Chris Low: I always remember thinking that the stencilled cover art was just fantastic. You know, I always thought the graphics were fantastic. With every sort of fanzine, you got a whole kind of brilliant visual approach and aesthetic in its own unique way. So that was never something I had a problem with myself, but I remember thinking when that Crass clone look emerged, shapeless army surplus and those hideous Chinese sandals and matted henna’d hair which was by the time I was 13, or 14, I thought that was really shite. That's why the book I'm working on at the moment is titled 'Best Before 1984', because I think probably by the end of 1983, things did generally start to become more standardised and predictable and generic, and a lot less inspiring. If I could travel back in time, I'd pay more attention to Annie Anxiety's set supporting Crass than any of the other bands on the bill. I'd seen her a couple of times before, but it was only the last time I saw at Dunfermline that it really clicked. It could have perhaps been because by that time, I'd heard a few Throbbing Gristle songs and things like that. When you're at that very young age as well, you're developing incredibly quickly, and everything that comes your way you absorb and you try to make sense of, so you're actually undergoing a constant reappraisal.
OL: A lot of art came out of the movement too. Dave Kings iconic Crass symbol, Gee Vaucher's collages and photo montages, and a whole mix of other people as well doing their own artwork.
Chris Low: Yes, you can view Crass more as an art project than an actual band. The greatest legacy, actually, is the visual side much more I would say than the musical side, and of course ideologically as well, as an introduction to ideas and a general mindset which I think stays with you for life to a certain degree.
OL: In terms of legacy, do you think Crass and Anarcho Punk actually made a substantive difference or was it just shouting into the wind? Did it make music smarter and more responsible?
Chris Low: I think the difference it made is actually beyond the realms of music and beyond what is even identified as Anarcho Punk, like anti-globalisation protests, squatting riots in Barcelona, protests in Indonesia, etc. I can immediately identify those as being part of an Anarchist community worldwide. I'd certainly say the original wave of Anarcho Punk also opened up people's ears to an incredible diversity of music, which brought you to new areas like Mark Stewart. Tackhead, stuff like that. You had a lot of poetry too. There were also early Power Electronics bands like Whitehouse, Ramleh, Consumer Electronics, all of which had an interface with the punk scene and played at many of the same venues as anarchist bands . Musically, it propelled you into million worlds, outwith and beyond the realms of punk, which I think was incredibly important. Now, sadly, I don't think it does that. I think it's perhaps become more insular.
OL: So is there still a place for Anarcho Punk now, or is it of its time?
Chris Low: I think it was very much of its time. There's still a place for any kind of dissent though against a common enemy and that's needed now more than ever. I just wish more bands would actually concentrate on what are genuine threats rather than the easy targets. I'm probably well out of touch with what is going on with underground grassroots punk. I'm hoping that kids of 15 are starting up these bands and what’s important is that old farts like myself don't know about these bands, because that shows that they're actually operating under the radar, because that’s where the real underground is. The important thing is to have bands whose spirit has been directly inspired by Anarcho Punk whether consciously or not, rather than whether they sound like punk. All the best original Anarcho Punk bands didn't really sound like Punk, as can be heard on the compilation.
OL: That's a great quote to close this with. Thanks for a really interesting chat and insight into the origins of Anarcho Punk in the UK.
Cease & Resist - Sonic Subversion & Anarcho Punk In The UK 1979-86 is released 12th may on Optimo Records
Read a review, Anarcho in the UK, here⇒