Poison Girls – Persons Unknown / Crass – Bloody Revolutions

poison girls






The germ of this split single lies in the arrest of anarchists Ronan Bennett and Iris Mills on trumped up charges of conspiracy to cause explosions with persons unknown. After 18 months of imprisonment where they were subjected to numerous indignities, they were found not guilty of all charges and finally allowed the freedom they should never have lost. During that year and a half, friends and supporters of Bennett and Mills took on the name of Persons Unknown to help publicise and fund their cause. Both Crass and Poison Girls played benefits for Persons Unknown and, following their release, Bennett penned the copious liner notes for this particular single.

Poison Girls were a misfit band from the start. At a time when female visibility in bands was generally restricted to the glamorous and young, Vi Subversa, the lead singer, formed the band in her mid forties (she is currently 78 and living in Spain). With a honeyed voice that has echoes of Marianne Faithfull, Lesley Woods and Eartha Kitt, Vi uses the phrase ‘Persons Unknown’ to encapsulate all ordinary people whom the authorities may choose to brand with that nomenclature: “Housewives and prostitutes / Plumbers in boiler suits / Truants in coffee bars /Who think you’re alone.”  The suggestion is that any of us could end up like Bennett and Mills, accused of a crime we did not commit and vilified by press and government. Throughout the song, Subversa makes the point that society encourages people to live lives of isolation making it easier for the authorities to exercise control: “Habits of hiding /Soon will be the death of us /Dying in secret from poisons unknown.” The only response to this is to try to reclaim power from the state by not being scared to speak out about what we feel is right: “Survival in silence / Isn’t good enough no more /Keeping your mouth shut / Head in the sand.” The music is swaying, circular, woozy: it reminds me of the music of a carousel, albeit a carousel powered by electric guitars. In the course of the song, Subversa covers the whole gamut of society from “accountants in nylon shirts” to “cleaners of lavatories” but,above all, it is a call to arms challenging each and every one of us to cast aside the social conventions imposed by the state that shackle us: “Flesh and blood is who we are / Flesh and blood are what we are /Flesh and blood is who we are /Our cover is blown….”

Crass’ ‘Bloody Revolutions’ is the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of anarcho-punk. Around the central musical, and symbolic, motif of La Marseillaise, this 6 minutes and 24 seconds packs in five distinct musical movements, linked only by lyrical content. After an initial collage of sound, comes the dull thud of monotone bass and drum over which Steve Ignorant intones, “You talk about your revolution, well, that’s fine /But what are you going to be doing come the time? / Are you going to be the big man with the tommy-gun?”  There is little question that this is a reference to The Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ and ‘Tommy Gun’ although only later in the song does it become apparent that it is also a critique of their perceived posturing. But Crass are far more concerned with wider issues than mere rock star ‘revolutionaries.’ Not for them, the adoption of left wing credentials: ‘Bloody Revolutions’ is an attempt to put a metaphorical bomb under the notion of left wing revolution:

“You talk of overthrowing power with violence as your tool
You speak of liberation and when the people rule
Well ain’t it people rule right now, what difference would there be?
Just another set of bigots with their rifle-sights on me.”

Ignorant’s vocal style and delivery have always been problematic for me as they seem to encapsulate the worst sort of yobbish, aggressive, faux Cockney punk and in the second part of the song it is at its worst as he barks in stentiorian style, like a man on the corner selling the Socialist Worker Ignorant so clearly despises. And then a thing of wonder occurs: Ignorant shuts up, a beautiful guitar emerges from nowhere and the fantastic Eve Libertine takes over vocal duties, sounding as though she’s channelling the voices of Maddy Prior initially and then Poly Styrene. In the final part of the song, over militaristic drumming and La Marseillaise,  Joy de Vivre hammers home the message by speaking the final lines:

“Nothing’s really different cos all government’s the same
They can call it freedom, but slavery is the game
There’s nothing that you offer but a dream of last years hero
The truth of revolution, brother………………. is year zero.”

Just like Crass themselves, ‘Bloody Revolutions’ is an unholy mess and yet it somehow works. Within the confines of a pop song, there is an intelligent argument posited whether you agree with it or not. The shouty, barking, male lead is counterbalanced by a beautiful femininity. And whatever you think of Crass’ politics, they put their money where their mouths were. From the proceeds of this single, they established the Wapping Autonomy Centre as a central meeting place and venue for anarchists. The fact this closed due to the disagreements of the different factions of anarchists only highlights the naive idealism at the heart of this band.

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2 Responses to Poison Girls – Persons Unknown / Crass – Bloody Revolutions

  1. C

    Great to read this, I think you’ve encapsulated the whole feel of it really well . It’s really interesting to read a current perspective on it too; I spent some significant moments of my youth in the company of Crass and the Poisons, going to numerous gigs and being very caught up in the anarcho movement of the late ’70s/early ’80s. Looking back it somehow seemed so depressing and dark (not just sartorially…) but at the same time that naive idealism felt so crucial, so meaningful. I don’t have any major desire to listen to Crass now, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world at the time.


    • Glad you liked it and thanks for leaving a comment.


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