23 February 2009


Penis Envy
Crass Records, 1981

Legend has it that the third album by Crass, Penis Envy, climbed to the top of the British independent charts despite not containing any singles. This is not entirely true. Teenage girls flicking through the May, 1981 "Bridal Special" issue of Loving magazine might have noticed a small coupon, nestled between stories like "Dreamy Wedding Dresses and Magical Make-Up" and "How Revealing Is Your Underwear?", advertising a free mail-order flexi disc. "Yes, folks, we've got together with Creative Recording and Sound Services* to offer you the chance to make your wedding day that extra bit special with this romantic song," the offer read. The song, titled 'Our Wedding', was so cheesy as to be absurd. Over pipe organ and church bells, a trembling female voice promised: "All I am I give to you/ You honour me, I'll obey you."

If anyone had looked for other records featuring the singer credited on the disc, Joy De Vivre, they would have stumbled upon on an album sleeve picturing a blow-up sex doll on one side and, on the other, a biblical quote about the creation of woman from man's rib laid over a photograph of pigs hanging in a slaughterhouse. And look for it they did. Especially after NME reported the hoax the following week, on the cover of its own facetious "Bridal Special". At the same time, a pamphlet was making its way around the English music scene – created by the band – which poetically (or melodramatically, depending on your point of view) explained feminist concepts such as the male gaze and accused Loving magazine of selling its readers fantasies of "pure unadulterated shit".

The album behind it all, Penis Envy, must have sounded like an industrial version of hell to listeners who weren't prepared. Far more confronting than the sound of most post-punk bands at the time and only mildly tempered by age, it is an acerbic and thrilling collection of what would probably be known nowadays as "electroclash" – punk vocals mixed with drum machine beats and primitive sound collages, funk bass and electric guitar made to sound like an emergency siren. On 'Health Surface' Joy De Vivre sang in the same satirical feminine voice as on 'Our Wedding', interrupted every now and then by giggles, about hospitals and death. For the rest of the album her counterpart Eve Libertine took over the microphone, spitting lyrics about gender constructions like razor blades: "Poor little filly/ They fuck her mind/ So they can fuck her silly."

* Note the acronym.

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