Penny Rimbaud: Freedom Fighting
A trip to Dial House takes you through the Essex town of Epping, past a veterinary surgery and an old village hall, down windy country roads and through a number of creaky farmhouse gates. On a bright afternoon, the atmosphere in the garden is of pure tranquility: a swing hangs from a tree by a wooden guesthouse, freshly picked apples are laid out across a picnic table and at the entrance there are Buddhist prayer flags with messages of love, peace and acceptance which are believed to travel with the wind that passes through. But for over 50 years, Dial House has been the hub of some of the most radical countercultural activity in musical history. The doors of the house are open. And they have been ever since Penny Rimbaud moved in.
Rimbaud is most famously known as the drummer, lyricist and organiser of Crass – arguably one of the most significant punk bands to ever exist. Since the turn of the millennium, much of his output has orientated around poetry and jazz. His most recent journey began in the colourful fringes of the hippy movement.
After being expelled from a number of public schools, dropping out of a philosophy course at Oxford and then delivering coal for a living, in the early 60s he took a teaching job at the South East Essex School of Art. During his time there he declined an invite to Andy Warhol’s Factory, and in 1964 John Lennon presented him with an award for a Beatles artwork competition on national television. But, most importantly, at the School of Art Rimbaud connected with other radical thinkers, including Gee Vaucher, who would go on to establish herself as a renowned political artist and create Crass’ iconic record covers. In 1967, Rimbaud and Vaucher moved into Dial House together (Vaucher is tending to the gardens on the day of my visit), establishing an anarchic/pacifist “open house” policy and creating waves of countercultural activity – including the free-form music group EXIT, which consisted of a loose, rotating cast of bohemians.
At some point, Wally Hope showed up. Here was an underground leader with an aura so magical that, according to a couple of sources, he once summoned a snow blizzard in the Dial House garden with the power of his mind, before dismissing it moments later. Hope and Penny co-founded The Stonehenge Free Festival, which first took place in 1974 (the festival ran until 1985, when it was violently shut down in a major police operation dubbed the Battle of the Beanfield).
In 1975, Wally Hope was arrested for possession of LSD, labelled a schizophrenic and incarcerated. When he was released a few months later, Rimbaud and Vaucher discovered that he’d become physically and mentally disabled. His death a few weeks later was declared a suicide, but after 18 months of obsessive research, Rimbaud reached a conclusion that he’s always maintained: the state murdered Wally Hope – either directly, or by the brutal overprescription of psychotropic medication. Rimbaud was consumed by rage. The embers of the hippy dream had faded away. He’d been pushing people away and he was alone at Dial House, until a disenfranchised working class kid called Steve started making frequent visits. And this was where Crass really began.
Not many punk records from the 70s and 80s still have the power to shock, but after all these years Crass’ music still packs a punch. Driven by Rimbaud’s militaristic drumming, the band’s unusual guitar-bass interplay seems inspired by an avant-garde attitude and a lack of conventional talent, while vocalists Steve Ignorant, Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre delivered unsanitised fury.
From the start, Crass attracted constant controversy and police monitoring. Workers at the pressing plant refused to produce their 1979 debut LP Feeding of the 5000 due to its blasphemous content, a major incentive to set up their own label. Along with Flux of Pink Indians’ second album The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks, in the mid 80s copies of Crass’s radically feminist LP Penis Envy were seized by police from Manchester record shop Eastern Bloc. The band subsequently fought a court case where they were charged under the Obscene Publications Act – a prosecution also encouraged by Conservative MP Tim Eggar, who deemed their anti-Thatcher, anti-Falklands War single How Does It Feel (To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead)? “beyond the acceptable bounds of freedom of speech, being the most vicious, scurrilous and obscene record that has ever been produced”.
Of all Crass’ controversies, perhaps the most high-profile was the “Thatchergate” hoax. The band’s bassist Pete Wright edited recordings of Thatcher and Reagan to fake a private conversation in which Thatcher admits to purposely starting the Falklands War and Reagan suggests Europe would be targeted in nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. The tapes were reported by major newspapers. Before The Observer eventually worked out that Crass were behind them, the US State Department had declared that they were in possession of KGB tapes, and Thatcher was made aware of the project.
The band’s imagery was frequently bleak, but Crass were actively trying to inspire communities based on love and compassion. On tour they’d perform in church halls or scout halls in economically disadvantaged areas, donating profits to causes such as striking miners’ organisations, rape crisis centres and the legal fees for anarchists accused of plotting a bombing campaign. Their homemade leaflets promoted vegetarianism, environmentalism and nuclear disarmament. They had a complicated relationship with the anarchy label, but they adopted the symbol to distance themselves from both the right wing and the left wing punks who sought violence with seig-heiling skinheads. In the Crass song White Punks on Hope (the title a play on The Tubes’ single White Punks on Dope), Steve Ignorant declared: “Left wing violence, right wing violence, all seems much the same/ Bully boys out fighting, it’s just the same old game.”
It all seems very distant from the Penny Rimbaud who sits before me, sage-like, among the idyllic surroundings of Dial House. But almost four decades later, his political stance hasn’t softened. “What has socialism ever done for working people except further their slavery?” he asks, indignation rising in his voice. “Talking nonsense about ‘Workers Unite’. Workers unite about what? Further slavery? Our message was, ‘Workers: just say piss off and walk out. Find a life.’ Not, ‘Oh, well, you know, let’s go for better conditions.’ Better conditions are always a tiny little concession.”
I ask if he feels at least a degree of excitement about the popular, compassionate movements led by left wing politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. The answer is a firm no. Instead, Rimbaud is excited about the the current US government’s potential of self-implosion. “Please don’t get the idea that I’m a supporter of Trump – I’m not,” he emphasises. “But I do like the fact that he’s broken the mould. And if, for example, the Oxbridge mould here could be broken, we’d start moving… I think what Trump is doing is exposing the gap. Do we seriously think that people like Obama or Clinton or anyone else before [were] not pulling the same tricks? The thing with Trump is he’s either arrogant or stupid enough to not care if someone knows. He’s so much more transparent.”
It’s a controversial stance, and I feel it’s necessary to point out the unsavoury phenomena of right wing figures cloaking hateful movements with a sense of anti-establishment panache. In March last year, former Sex Pistol John Lydon was interviewed on UK television by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid. After describing his meeting with Nigel Farage as “fantastic”, Lydon argued that Donald Trump isn’t racist, before calling him a “possible friend” and chuckling with his hosts. “That’s why I was saying I say this with caution.” Rimbaud frowns slightly. “I don’t expect to hear anything particularly socially responsible – and when I mean socially responsible, I don’t mean that in some bourgeois sense, but in the sense of kindness or compassionate views – to stem out of Lydon’s mouth, frankly. So it wouldn’t surprise me he did say things like that. Wherever his information comes from, it’s certainly not a pool in which I’ve bathed.”
The Sex Pistols and Crass weren’t necessarily contemporaries – Feeding of the 5000 came out the same month Sid Vicious died, and Crass marked the beginning of a different wave of punk. But if comparisons are drawn between the two acts, it’s one of image versus authenticity: the Pistols with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records and Malcom McLaren’s media-savvy shock tactics and Crass’s staunchly DIY methods of creating actual social change.
But these days, Penny Rimbaud doesn’t seem to feel much obligation to the underground. Quite the opposite, in fact. “What interests me is getting worthwhile socially helpful, culturally helpful, useful messages out into the mainstream world,” he explains. “I think the wing of punk that Crass belonged to suffered greatly through ghettoisation.” One of the most radical political musicians of today, he argues, is Beyoncé: “I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of what she’s got to say. She’s playing a very clever game, I think. And it seems to me she’s doing considerable good for Black America. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to black radicals because I haven’t been to America for about four years now, to sort of catch on as to where their feelings are about all that.”
“What I want to do is help people find their own desire – outside of the promoted concepts of desire that the mainstream poses”
There’s the sense that, in his eighth decade, Penny Rimbaud has reached a stage of equilibrium. Within moments, he seems able to transition between serenity and the rage required for political protest. He tells me it’s Zen – something he discovered as a teenager, and began practicing seriously in later life – that’s taught him how to “passionately engage with things without effectively doing my psyche and my deepest self any damage.” Since surviving life-threatening illnesses as well as a heart attack, he’s adopted a clean lifestyle (hence the vaping). But his attitude to death is exemplary of someone who’s been studying eastern philosophies. “I remember being in the ambulance during the heart attack, and just saying to the really wonderful medic who was looking after me, ‘Look, don’t get worried if I die, I’m perfectly happy to die. Life’s been great, and the last thing I want is for you to feel concerned that you didn’t succeed.’”
It is with Zen, and its concepts of detachment, that the world’s most principled punk rocker achieved inner peace. These ideas have inspired Penny Rimbaud to liberate himself from the suffering of attachment, of conventional romantic relationships, of unnecessary arguments, of monetary desires. “To be free of that, is nothing but beautiful,” he tells me. “And I am free of it. It’s been hard work. It has to be. One has to maintain it.”
Photography: Alex De Mora
What Passing Bells is out now via One Little Indian