Tony Barber courtesy of the Buzzcocks

Interview with Tony Barber by David Ensminger 

Jul 12, 2022

Revisiting the Explosive Year of 1978.

As I was finishing the Folklore Program at the University of Oregon in 2008 and focusing on punk music, street culture, and visual arts, I began working on the rough draft of my book Visual Vitriol. This interview with Tony Barber, who was bass player and producer for the Buzzcocks at the time, was meant to guide me through a better understanding of the pivotal post-punk period as bands like Crass emerged. Their emphasis on direct DIY actions, whether in the form of booking Do-It-Yourself gigs or masterminding their own media (a zine, record art, stencils, flyers, et cetera.) was important to my claim that punk created its own vital ecosystem. Tony was also guitarist for the band Lack Of Knowledge, whose 45 record was released by Crass Records during the same era they issued MDC’s Multi-Death Corporation single. By 1985, the Crass offshoot label Corpus Christi Records released the Lack Of Knowledge Sirens Are Back LP. Through the lens of Barber, we’re able to understand the diversity of the scene, the fan culture of anarcho and post-punk, the initial impact of Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, and the role of independent record shops like Small Wonder.

David: I know Lack Of Knowledge would play youth halls, churches, and community centers. Did you do that because Crass was the model or because those were the only places to play? 

Tony: Crass were really the model. I guess they were one of the first bands to actually do it on a consistent level. It’s different than when a band said, “We’re never going to go on Top of the Pops,” and they did, like a year later. To be fair, The Clash never went on Top of the Pops, but that’s about the only thing they stuck to, isn’t it—you know what I mean? Crass said they were never going to do loads of the things, and they never did. They turned down loads of offers in America, all over the world. They turned down millions of offers to go on television. They turned down major label record deals for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Then they said they would never ever play a commercial rock venue. And on that level, they were setting the example, not in a pompous way of like going, “Okay, you kids out there in your bands, we want you to do it like this,” but what Crass did—and it is hard to explain to sicko Crass haters or these negative, conservative punks you get these days—is that when someone does something like Crass did, and they do it, it matters.

But Crass printed all their own flyers for gigs, they had their own newspaper, they put their own records out, they even distributed them, and they didn't go through Rough Trade. Everything was done themselves. At their gigs, they had their own P.A., everything. By doing that, and doing it successfully, the culmination was them being the biggest underground band in Britain. It made you go, “It can be done. So we’ll do it too.” It wasn’t just like, “Crass is our favorite group! Let’s copy them.” Because as far as we were concerned, we were just a bunch of kids. We didn’t know anything about real politics. We all thought we did, and we wished we were as clever as Penny Rimbaud, but we weren’t, and if someone were to come along and say, “Hi, my name is Mr. Smith, I’m from CBS Records. I’ve heard that first single, and I think it’s great. I think you guys could do well. How’s two thousand pounds sound?,” he would’ve gotten four yesses before he had even finished the sentence from everyone in the band. We weren’t clever enough to have anything to say, but we did want to play music. I’m not trying to say that as being a justification for being an abject failure or whatever.

I’m not a killjoy party pooper, but it’s when you started to think about things, you realized it’s bullshit... the music industry is like a fat, overweight animal gorging itself on other people’s food.

Crass could put a gig on at a place that held two thousand people and pull more people than groups that were in the charts. They could do that without having even one finger stuck in the pie from a fat businessman at any level. So, consequently, you’d go see Crass play at a big place, and it was one pound to get in. You’d go see The Boys, or someone else at the Marquee, and it was a fiver to get in, and you’re thinking, “But why? Why a fiver to see a band with the same amount of equipment?” You started asking yourself questions, and you realized what a parasitical industry the music industry really is. I’m not a killjoy party pooper, but it’s when you started to think about things, you realized it’s bullshit. That’s why there’s so much wastage, so much inefficiency. That’s why the music industry is like a fat, overweight animal gorging itself on other people’s food. Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous. Then you’re like, “Fuck, we’re going to put on our own gigs, and it will only be fifty pence to get in, which means everyone will come to it, and it will be packed,” which is kind of what happened.

Lack of Knowledge

Lack Of Knowledge tried to play gigs at the Marquee. It was four pounds to get in. We were the first band on the bill and hit the stage at 7:15. There would be no one there because there was no one who liked us. Our mates weren’t going to travel to some club on the other side of London to pay an extortionist sum of money because we’d put on a gig at a church hall somewhere in King’s Cross, or there would be a squat gig, and there would be four hundred kids there, all selling fanzines to each other. The flyers from the era show a general vibe of what it was like, what was happening at gigs in London at that time. It was like there were two parallel music industries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s the only time it really existed, because whatever people say about the 1960s hippie era, certainly in London, it was controlled by the same four to five parasites that then tried to jump in on punk. All those hippie clubs in London were all owned and run by people who were managing Pink Floyd and then went on to manage Ian Dury. All those kinds of people. The hippie thing wasn’t what people thought it was. It wasn’t some idealistic thing. Most of it was bullshit. People involved in it then were people like Richard Branson. That punk and post-punk scene in Britain was nothing like that. It was the real deal. 

David: Tell me about 1978.

Tony: It was albums like Chairs Missing by Wire. It’s a phenomenal year for records. I think all those records have something in common, even now. My girlfriend will go, “What about Magazine and XTC?” What she doesn’t understand, at the time, they were the same “group.” They came from the same ideas pool. I think that was the breakthrough year, but, unfortunately, British music completely lost its way in the early 1980s. The death of ideas in British music occurred in 1982-1983, and I really do mean that as well. I can’t speak for American rock music, because I’m not American. My understanding of American rock music was based on seeing it from the other side of the Atlantic, which was like, “Why are they still listening to REO Speedwagon? We’ve got The Scream by Siouxsie And The Banshees, and they’ve got REO Speedwagon.” As far as we were concerned, that was the reality after all the kerfuffle of Richard Hell and the Talking Heads had all died down and gone away and proved to be a cul-de-sac of ideas.

Let’s be honest, Richard Hell—two albums, one of which is rubbish, and the other had like four good songs, and three of which he wrote before the Voidoids, songs he had written for The Heartbreakers and Television. So the sum total of Richard Hell’s entire career is like four songs with three different bands. I’ve done better than that! Whereas you look at a band like Magazine and Alternative TV, and you can’t deny there’s a gulf in the kind of creativity level. I just didn’t see that in America. I know people can go on about how the New York scene is where punk began, but it’s all bullshit. It’s a stupid argument. If you go with the argument, okay, New York punk: Talking Heads, Television, et cetera. Then you have English punk: The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Damned, Buzzcocks, Dr. Feelgood, whatever. Then ask, what did each one of those things directly spawn? And you can put a list together from Britain that just looks like the greatest list of bands, ever, in the history of music. But if you did that list for America, you’ve never heard of any of them. It’s not because I feel culturally superior, it just gets in my throat when I see polls about the top one hundred albums, and … The Image Has Cracked by Alternative TV is not in there. That just shows you, doesn’t it?

Everything to do with music that we see or hear now is coming from a carefully controlled and calculated kind of thing, where there’s only one way of thinking. In fact, I was having a conversation last night with my girlfriend, who’s American, and I was saying you’re less likely now to see a Black person in a rock band than twenty-five years ago, even though, apparently, now is a much more multicultural, open, and freer sort of society. But the thing is, when I went to punk gigs in the 1970s, you’d walk in, and there would be a couple of Asian kids with safety pins through their cheeks. You’d be watching a band on stage that had a girl bass player, a Black drummer, and a Jewish guy on guitar, and a white singer. There were bands like X-Ray Spex, Magazine, Adam And The Ants, or a post-punk band. I made a compilation CD to listen to in the car while we drove to the city, and every other group on this CD has a female singer, and she asked, “Why were there so many women in these post-punk bands?” And I have to admit, I don’t listen to music in those terms. But, thinking about it, when punk came out, it was the people of my generation, my age and a couple of years older, that punk influenced, that formed what would become post-punk. Punk put something in everybody’s head: anybody could do it.

What that meant was, you could be a female, you could be Black, you could be white, you could be poor, you could be middle class. Chances are, if you went to see a punk band in the 1970s, there were probably upper-class and middle-class people involved with the band, in the management or whatever, and there were women in the band. When you think of music today, you think of a band like Coldplay. The likelihood of anybody not being a white student in the band is like, well, it’s not going to happen, is it? It’s this big fallacy about how openness and cultural acceptance have transformed society into a more tolerant, open place. I say, but things were much more experimental in the 1970s. It could just be the world I lived in, which consisted of North London and going to gigs all the time every day and buying every single album that came out every week for four years. So that was the world. It was definitely a different sort of environment for music then. But I don’t even think about it in terms of most of them having women, for I just listen to them. In my mind: they are bands.

David: People have theorized that post-punk is where women and people of color could contribute because they were shut out of hardcore or oi music, which was so white and narrow.

This idea that punk was some white working-class moron movement is absolutely fucking codswallow.

Tony: You got to understand as well: post-punk happened two-to-three years before oi and all that shit. This is another great fallacy about music. Someone somewhere is likely writing an article denouncing punk as being a kind of sicko white working-class movement. That’s the complete opposite of the reality, because what is now considered to be punk—someone in their leather jacket with studs all over their back—isn’t what punk rock was when I was going to gigs in 1977. Just look at the back of the Live at Roxy album. This idea that it was some white working-class moron movement is absolutely fucking codswallow.

I will go fucking ballistic when I read that article when it comes out. It’s one of those cultural agenda-based things that drives me mad: people constantly trying to dig up what’s going on and dismiss things from the past. It’s got nothing to do with punk being a white working class thing, which people felt excluded from. In fact, it was the opposite. I am saying that punk rock in England was probably in a gay club with middle class people and there would be probably more women in the audience than men, and the men would be wearing makeup, and half of them would be gay, and there would be a Black DJ. They’re the people who formed the bands, ’cause those people were the fans of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Buzzcocks. Those are the people dressed up at the gigs with T-shirts with writing all over them and their funny eye makeup and fishnet stockings, stilettos, and Swastika armbands. They went out and formed bands, like Scritti Politti, all those kinds of bands, the first post-punk stuff. That’s my favorite kind of music, really, in terms of that whole era. It’s the sort of thing that I always go back to, as well as the early punk. I suppose I cannot escape from it.

Bands like Radiohead... are sort of just the Yes of their generation rather than being the Joy Division of their generation.

I was lucky, in a way. Small Wonder was the nearest record shop to my house. So, being fourteen years of age, having that near my house, I was able to cycle there on a Saturday morning at nine o’clock, hang out in the shop all day till six o’clock at night, then go down there weekdays as well. Jump on the bus, nip in there. So if they said, “We’re going to get the X-Ray Spex single in on Wednesday,” we could get down there if we went straight out of school and legged it to the bus stop real quick. I was lucky because I lived in a good place, a good time, so I don’t like it when I hear punk and post-punk history being banded around and dismissed as some things that are patently untrue. I think that some of that music is probably more interesting and experimental, more ideas-based, than even any of the avant-garde bands out there now, excluding bands like Radiohead, because to me, they are sort of just the Yes of their generation rather than being the Joy Division of their generation.

Crass - insert

I had the same vibe in the 1980s from bands like the Cocteau Twins. People would say that they were the natural successors to Joy Division and The Sex Pistols, and I would be like, no, the Cocteau Twins are just fucking like renaissance music—a 1970s wish-washy major label rock band. When you’re really into music, you can make the distinction, but the mainstream people really can’t. I prefer music when it was like that.

When I was at school, there were three kids at my school who liked music. Three kids. Cause in the 1970s, when you liked music, you looked different than everyone else. Everyone else dressed like a little version of their dad. And you had spiky hair or a badge on, or you had a haircut like David Bowie. Everyone else had a side part in their hair. Whereas now, we live in an era where everyone dresses like a pop star, even a bloke who works in a fucking K-Mart. The guy pumping your gas looks the same as the guy in R.E.M.

David: Speaking of the days before everyone looked like a pop star, how did you end up getting turned on to Crass—through singles at the record shop or through gigs? 

Crass - The Feeding of the 5000

Tony: I was lucky, again, ’cause I was in Small Wonder the day they brought in their demo tape. Me and Paul, the bass player from Lack Of Knowledge, we heard them play the demo tape there. We freaked out. We absolutely loved it from almost the first play. They used to play the demo tape, which was about twenty minutes long and with about eight songs on it, constantly in the shop. They were obsessed with it. We were obsessed with it too after the first two, three times we heard it, too. The other thing that people don’t realize is when Crass released TheFeeding of the 5000 in Oct. 1978, that particular style of fast, loud music—let’s call it, for the sake of argument, in the style of British punk—was dead. None of the bands were still going. They had all split up, barring The Clash, who had decided to become sort of American. They became like a version of REO Speedwagon, but with spiky hair. No, I love them, don’t get me wrong!

But when Crass came out with that album, when they put their stuff together, it was a shot in the arm in terms of—you had a whole generation of kids that had all been primed by The Sex Pistols, the first Clash album, and singles like “Orgasm Addict,” and “Where Have All the Boot Boys Gone?” Then all the bands had gotten major deals, or their records didn’t sell and they got dropped, which caused them to split up, or they had been on a major label record, made a few good records, and now played to the television crowd and became poppier. People like X-Ray Spex and The Buzzcocks. But this whole generation of kids, ages fourteen to seventeen, had one really great year, 1977, of buying great punk records, then all the bands had gone. A typical example would be the second Adverts album.

David: It’s really different. 

Tony: When that record came out in 1978, that would typify why a band like Crass became so big virtually straight out of the gate because all the bands— Penetration’s second album, Advert’s second album, those records were coming out—and people like me were buying them and going, “It’s okay. I’m still not going to buy Genesis, I’m still not going to buy the Talking Heads, but surely they can do better than this.” Sure, we don’t want them to rewrite “One Chord Wonders” forever, and no one wanted The Clash to re-write “Janie Jones” forever, but “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” just simply wasn’t doing it, nor was a punk group that got rid of distorted guitars and replaced them with synthesizers and acoustic guitars, like the second Advert’s album—which I love, don’t get me wrong—but I’m speaking on a general level. So, I was like, I’m not going to say the Adverts suck, because they’re the Adverts, but suddenly a group like Crass comes out. People forget this now. They put that record out, and it was like, “Winner takes all, thank you very much.” Like when someone scoops up all the money on the table into their arms and goes, “Cheers.” It was like that.

The style of music they were doing was different enough to be like, okay, it’s not the same old rock’n’roll speeded up and a singer swearing. It’s actually a weird, different type of music. No one knew much about them. They didn’t play gigs in clubs, so you couldn’t see them in the same way you could go and see 999. And the hipper kids out there every week buying the new records had gone from buying God Save the Queen to buying a Scritti Politti single in a folded photocopy sleeve. That was where you were at. At the same time, Crass came along and you knew, this is better than all of it because they’re saying something. They’re doing it in a kind of avant-garde way. It’s so far off the fucking radar of what normal rock music is, that it was like, you have to like this band. It was almost like you had no choice. When you’re a kid, somewhere in your mind, you’re subconsciously or subliminally searching for something for you. You want to have a music that is yours, that’s not the music that your uncle listens to, or not the music your dad listens to, silly Eddie Cochran and all that. This is your music. This is your time, now. You are the one who is going to go out there, you are the one putting on the gigs with your band and hiring church halls and printing flyers and making fanzines and traveling up and down the country and sleeping in train stations.

David: At the time, when they were doing the cassettes and early singles, did you see their graffiti and stencils? 

Crass never ever advertised a single one thing... in the music press.

Tony: Not a lot, but they did the stencils around the time of The Feeding of the 5000, and I saw Crass graffiti on the Central Line in late 1978. Their thing was more printed material. I actually loved them. I remember being in Small Wonder when they first used to come in there, when the first album was being readied to be released. I got to know them before it came out. They would come and talk to the Pete, the owner. A week or two before the release, they came to the shop with these banners they made that had the big Crass logo on natural fiber. They had two of them. They brought them to Pete to hang in the store in the window because they really didn’t believe in advertising, and they didn’t want to do posters. They were the first people to do that. They were the first band that came along and said, “We don’t do advertising.” Even though Scritti Politti and those bands were kind of alternative and did things in a DIY fashion, they still had ads for their records in ZigZag. Crass never ever advertised a single one thing they did, in the music press anyway.

Crass- Stencil art

So I was talking to them. I guess they thought, “We’ve got a fan.” I was sitting there going, “I absolutely love your fucking record. I know it’s not out yet, but I’ve listened to the demo in here every fucking day for the last two months. I already know all the words!” Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher said, “We got these banners that we’re going to hang in the shop, so I tell you what, why don’t you have one.” So, they gave me this banner, and I still have it. I just went over to Dial House and gave it to Gee about six months ago to be photographed in a new Crass book they’re doing themselves that’s going to have a photograph of every single piece of artwork—banners, flyers, record sleeves, patches, and everything they ever did in the band. It’s actually going to have every fanzine they were ever in, which is fucking hundreds. One part of the book is going to be the front cover of every fanzine. So they gave me the banner, a book of lyrics, too, which I’ve still got as well. In terms of being aware of them, I was right in there at the fucking beginning. I almost went to see them even before TheFeeding came out. I might’ve seen them the week before. I started to see every single gig they did in London. I used to tape them on my cassette player. I used to get there for the sound checks and stuff. This would be like late 1978, early 1979. 

David: Were those crowds as mixed as early punk gigs? 

Tony: Yeah. This is the other thing. I get so angry, and I end up leaving messages on forums because of their juvenile misinformation. For instance, you’ll just be on a website, and someone will mention Crass, and it will be bombarded with ten people going, “Crass were a fucking bunch of hippies.” You just go, “What?” “Crasstafarians. Crass are a bunch of peace punks.” You go, “This is just a complete and utter load of bollocks.” I say to myself, I was there. I get so indignant. I was there, you fucking prick. All those early Crass gigs, everybody looked like Johnny Rotten. There was no one dressed in black. That didn’t come until years later. It’s like when The Sex Pistols started playing at the Roxy in London, and then you had Slaughter And The Dogs and the Buzzcocks and Wire and X-Ray Spex. In conversation, if someone turned around to you and said, “What I don’t understand is, why in the fuck didn’t all those bands wear leather jackets with studs in the back and have green mohawks?” Then, you go, “Sorry?!” “That’s what all punk groups looked like back then in 1977,” they might say. Then I say, “That shit was invented in 1980.”

So I get mad when people talk about Crass because being peace punks had nothing to do with it. I took photos at Crass gigs, ones I went to, early ones. Unfortunately, I only have two photos left from Acklam Hall. Of course, no one is there. The gig is fucking empty. They barely had twenty people at the gig. But of the twenty people at the gig, there is not a single person dressed in black. It was the band that was dressed in black. There hadn’t been a band that dressed in black. Everybody at the gig wore brothel creepers, tartan trousers, and multicolored punk clothes, just like what punk rockers wore. It wasn’t like Crass suddenly they walked on stage, and as the curtains opened, there were one thousand people dressed in black and the scent of patchouli oil in the air. There’s this idea from people that Crass was like, “Great, let’s form a band,” and someone said, “Well, what about an audience?” And they were like, “Well, let’s form that as well!” It’s all just bullshit, because when you went to those early Crass gigs, all the kids looked like punks.

When I think of Crass, and seeing them in the 1970s, the first thing that comes into my mind is loads of kids with spiky hair and The Clash and Adam And The Ants T-shirts, or homemade shirts made with stencils and leather jackets in The Clash sort of style. If you said, “What were you or your mates wearing?” I’d be going, “Red tartan bondage trousers, probably pointed black creepers, probably had a The Clash T-shirt on, or I might have had a homemade Crass shirt by that time.” We didn’t look anything like what people perceive to be Crass fans because there was no such thing yet. That really didn’t happen until the early 1980s—a Crass fan being an unwashed bloke with a pair of old Army boots with no laces in them.

David: And were there women and people of color at the gigs? 

Tony: Oh yeah. The other thing about the Crass gigs: there were actually real hippies at some of their gigs as well. Not a lot. Crass were a really political band at a time when bands didn’t really sing about politics. Not only did the bands not sing about politics, but the bands that had politics, they tried to eradicate that out of their being—at least politics—in an overt way. So instead of The Clash singing, “I’m So Bored with the USA,” they were singing “Drug-Stabbing Time.” 999 were doing the Separates album, and the Adverts were doing Cast of Thousands. Now, we all know their great lyrics. T.V. Smith’s a brilliant lyricist. The lyrics on The Clash album are probably more political and well thought-out than the material on the first album, but to a fifteen-year-old kid, that’s not what matters. You actually want to hear a bloke singing, “Of course they fucking do!” (“Do They Owe Us a Living?”). That’s what you want to hear. You want to hear Joe Strummer say that! You don’t want to hear him sing about more toned-down arguments. At fifteen, you don’t have that rationale.

Crass audiences were definitely mixed because I remember being appalled that there were people with beards that looked like a teacher from my school handing out literature from a table. Only appalled in the sense that they quite possibly might have listened to songs longer than two minutes at home, not that I felt like beating them up because they had beards! It was just me going, “For fuck’s sake.” You know what English people are like. I’m talking about their haircuts! 

David: Did you attend any of the Rock Against Racism gigs? 

Tony: Oh yeah. I was at The Clash one at Victoria Park with X-Ray Spex, and the other thing about gigs at that time was that a lot of the punk bands would play double bills with reggae bands. The funny thing with Crass, they came along and said pretty uncompromising stuff. They played one Rock Against Racism gig, I think, in the early days. They were sorta appalled by the stance of the lefties, so they refused to play another one again. What they were appalled by was the fact that organizers just used it as an exercise to recruit people into their political organization, which was well-known for being a front for the Socialist Workers Party. And because Crass were pacifists, they didn’t believe in the idea of armed revolution and stuff like that, so they could not support RAR. That’s the short version, anyway: Penny could provide you with the elongated, intellectual version. [laughs]

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