Penny Rimbaud is something of a modern myth. Rock music has never been without its exceptional, intriguing, or controversial figures. Still, few have lived by their own teachings. Penny Rimbaud has.
I was lucky to interview Mr Rimbaud. He was nice enough to talk to us about a variety of topics. He speaks about Crass, the legendary anarcho-punk band. He speaks about his influences, punk rock’s legacy and his vision for the future.
Penny Rimbaud, also, tells us about how he has managed to maintain the integrity of his vision relatively unchanged throughout his life. It’s a highly informative read for anyone looking to embrace a maintain an alternative lifestyle.
First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. I am a big fan of your work.
This means the world to us, and I am deeply grateful.
To begin, could you tell us what influence Arthur Rimbaud had on your youth, and why you decided to adopt his name? What do you think of Rimbaud’s final years?
Arthur Rimbaud had little influence on my youth and what little he had later was more to do with his rebellious nature than his poetics – that came later via a circuitous route; Ibsen, Poe, Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsberg, not to forget Shakespeare.
My legal name was changed in 1977, Penny Lapsang Rimbaud, again more as a rebel statement than a poetic reflection. The Penny part of the equation was because in those days it cost a penny to use public toilets, and my brother, who was an Oxbridge cynic, used to call me a toilet seat philosopher. The Lapsang bit was because that’s one of my favourite teas.
Rimbaud’s final years seem appropriate.
When you first formed Crass, was the agenda immediately to imbue the music with a political message?
Yes, but it was more that the political message imbued Crass rather than Crass deliberately promoting politics. We simply wished to share our ideas with anyone who wanted to listen.
Would Crass have worked in any other way other than as a “political band”?
No, that’s if by ‘political’ you mean a band whose sole interest was in radicalising lives, be they ours or those of others. Is that ‘political’? I guess it is, but that is surely in an amorphous, non-political manner. All Crass wanted was a little bit of truth.
What was the process of songwriting like in Crass?
I don’t really know how the other members of the band wrote their songs, but in my case, the songs wrote me. I simply sat around looking and listening to the world around me and songs popped up out of nowhere. I don’t think that I ever tried to write songs any more than I now try to write poetry, paint pictures or bake bread. Like John Lennon said, ‘life is what happens when you’re making other plans’, the only difference I have with that is that wherever possible I avoid making any plans in the first place.
Was violence a frequent concern when putting on concerts?
Most of the violence that we encountered was inverted love, lost souls looking for a way in/out; a distorted form of nurture. Make an enemy and you make an enemy of yourself. Poverty of mind and/or body creates disharmony. The disenfranchised cannot be blamed for using their fists. Hate is unrealised love. Each and every one of us is looking for a home and a warm bed in which to sleep.
I come from Bucharest, Romania. Understandably, there’s been less political music being made here over the years. Do you think that a group like Crass would have a similar mission in a less developed country than it did in Britain?
In what way is Romania ‘less developed’ than Britain? Being the oldest ‘democracy’ on the planet, the British are the most repressed of the world’s people. Democracy? Democracy has become nothing but enforced slavery and abject poverty met with empty promises and gross patronisation by the ruling classes. Britain’s class system is second to none in its control of the populace.
Distributing music, and other works of art used to be much harder. How do you view the internet as a tool to distribute one’s work?
Apart from the huge volume of ‘works’ available on the internet, I don’t think that much has changed in terms of quality. True artists, musical or otherwise, are few and far between, and I would suggest that a true artist has little interest in distribution. They leave that to the distributors who generally have little interest in art.
Were you ever tempted to follow some of your peers into, potentially, more commercially rewarding territory?
No, ‘rewarding territory’ is like shark-filled waters. Money and art are bad bedfellows. A professional artist is both an oxymoron and an anathema.
Did you enjoy the music being made by your contemporaries, the punk-rock groups in particular?
Not particularly. My listening preference has always been either contemporary classical or improvisational jazz. Punk is generally too formulaic for my tastes.
Crass often played upon the use of symbols, usually depicting various authority emblems. Are you surprised by the way that symbols are used in mainstream pop culture nowadays?
I haven’t noticed that they are. I rather see symbols/logos as being the domain of corporations, which is why Crass ironically adopted theirs – beating them at their own game. I haven’t seen any logo used by bands which has the power of Crass’.
Community was an important part of creating and developing the band. In today’s ego-focused pop music, is there any room for something similar?
By its very nature, pop music has always been dominated by inflated egos because, surely, that is its raison d’etre – take a lot, say little, give less. One the reasons I like progressive jazz and contemporary classical music jazz is that both are based on community interaction. Meanwhile, within the capitalist narrative, which totally dominates the music industry, there is very little consideration or care given to ideas of community – it’s all a matter of I, I, I, buy, buy, buy.
How important has humour been to your work?
To specify forms of expression is to be self-conscious. If humour arises, I laugh. If tragedy arises, I cry. Neither is any more important than the other. Naturalness is the only worthwhile expression. Trying to be funny is not my idea of a good joke.
Does living communally ever-present problems? Were there moments where you considered changing your lifestyle.
No, it is more a case of whether or not we choose to see differences as being a ‘problem’. I do not make that choice and therefore see ‘problems’ as being an opportunity to learn something new about myself and others. How those others might feel about it is none of my business.
No, I have never considered changing my lifestyle because my lifestyle is not a matter of style, but a way of life. Life shows me the way, I simply follow that way.
What do you think of modern anarcho-punk artists? In the U.S.A. in particular there was quite an acclaimed “folk-punk” scene developing in the 2010s.
I cannot honestly say that I think anything of modern anarcho-punk artists – generally I find the genre dated and regressive. There was a brief time when punk was avant-garde, but nowadays it more often than not simply sounds jaded.
What’s your view on anarchism now? It’s a topic I am very interested in, but, I confess, that I have my hesitations about how it can be applied across societies. Does your experience make you believe that anarchism could work on a large scale?
I am sure that anarchism could work on a large scale, but I am equally sure that it will not do so in any foreseeable future. What seems important to me is that people should live their own lives free of any imposed conditions. That is how I live my life. Rather than call it anarchy, I call it common sense – a natural way of living that is free of psychological intrusion. If we all lived like that, the world would be a better place. We can only make changes through example. Ideologies merely cloud the issue.
Crass disbanded in 1984, it is rumoured, partly for reasons related to the political power that the group had accumulated. Was it frightening, or exhilarating to get this power? Did your influence make it more difficult to consider the message you were relating to your audience?
It was neither frightening nor exhilarating. It was a responsibility which we took very seriously. We were aware of our ‘influence’ and the possible dangers that might be a result of it. We were never interested in having power because our mission was to give empowerment to those who followed us. Indeed, whatever power we might have had was diverted to others to make whatever they wanted from it. It was not our job to be conditional. Rules are for fools.
How has your music taste developed since the days of playing in Crass?
Not at all. My choice of listening has been progressive jazz and contemporary classical music for most of my life. It remains that way. I am always attracted to the avant-garde.
I’ve talked to many people whose lives were greatly affected by Crass. The band’s principles seem to still inform their way of life. Was this, ultimately, the band’s goal?
The band’s goal was to inform people that their life was theirs alone. We merely offered ideas as to how this might be made possible.
Finally, many people from across the world continue to discover your work. Many don’t live in large cities, or even in developed countries. If they were to use Crass as a credo, what’s the first thing you would recommend that they do?
Look only to themselves because there is (and only can be) no authority but yourself. Having done that, then look to what precisely that self is, for, in truth, there is nothing and no one there.