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Call it Crass but There Is No Authority But Yourself: De-canonizing punk’s underbelly

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In popular music histories of punk, much has been documented on punk music and the formation of a punk canon. Much of this is focused upon the discussion of its generic development, its politically disruptive nature as a music genre, and the construction of its history, however exclusive that might be. Within moving images, documentaries such as The Filth and the Fury, The Clash: Westway to the World and The Punk Rock Movie have all contributed to the canonization of particular bands, performers and artistes within the popular conception of punk history. While the canonical narratives of punk tended to concentrate on popular punk bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, for example, we can understand these bands as having their ideological messages commodified through their affiliation with major record labels. Outside of these major labels and their punk artistes existed a DIY punk scene known as ‘anarcho-punk’, which was associated with an overt sense of political commitment and authenticity. At the centre of this particular scene was the band Crass, who articulated an anarchic and pacifistic DIY ethic as a touchstone for an alternative way of living, and used punk music as a vehicle for furthering the anarcho-punk movement’s ideologies. Investigating the ways in which Dutch film-maker Alexander Oey mediates the story of Crass in his film There Is No Authority But Yourself, this article examines how Oey’s documentary seeks to evaluate and deconstruct established canonical approaches in order to illuminate a wider set of practices at work in the mediation of punk historiography. In doing so Oey’s documentary rewrites the narrative of punk history in a way that takes account of the significance of punk’s underbelly. Within this article I will show that, although the Crass documentary may on the surface appear to be generic and non-challenging, with regard to a narrative interspersed with archive material, it considers the reconstruction of the past in its grafting of Crass onto the punk narrative timeline. It also considers how current activities of the band members continue to be influenced by their early political principles and the political directives of the anarcho-punk movement. Alexander Oey’s documentary takes its title from the final lines of the Crass album Yes Sir, I Will, ‘You must learn to live with your own conscience, your own morality, your own decision, your own self. You alone can do it. There is no authority but yourself’, and thus reflected the band’s dogmatic belief in one’s personal responsibilities to enable change. In his previous work Alexander Oey is renowned for documenting stories that challenge some of society’s accepted values and has engendered controversy with his previous films Euro-Islam According To Tariq Ramadan, My Life as a Terrorist: The Story of Hans-Joachim Klein and Negotiating With Al-Qaeda?.
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Keywords: Crass; anarcho-punk; canon; documentary; punk; punk cinema

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Birmingham City University

Publication date: September 1, 2015

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  • Punk & Post-Punk is a journal for academics, artists, journalists and the wider cultural industries. Placing punk and its progeny at the heart of inter-disciplinary investigation, it is the first forum of its kind to explore this rich and influential topic in both historical and critical theoretical terms.
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