Review Summary: Newly-wedded wife, this shouldn’t be your life.
Formed in 1977, Crass were undeniably the genuine article. An anarcho-punk rock group from the United Kingdom, they never signed to a major label, instead opting to release their work independently on their own label. And really, what’s more punk than learning the ins-and-outs of distribution to subvert the very system you turned your back on. After releasing the Feeding Of The Five Thousand and Stations Of The Crass in 1979, we arrive on Valentine’s Day 1981 with the blank stare of a Teenage Doll greeting us with open… mouth.
Penis Envy is a very big departure for the band in many respects. Gone are the usual angry male vocals provided by Steve Ignorant, with Eve Libertine (and Joy De Vivre on one listed track) taking the helm in his place. At this point in the band’s career, the girls of the band were utilized for backing vocals exclusively, so having them front an entire album was a bold move. The question is: did it pay off?
From the opening of “Bata Motel,” we’re greeted by a very familiar Crass formula, with a sample followed by the most beautiful noise you’ve ever heard. Libertine’s vox captures the deranged masochism and anger of the song perfectly, the drum work is a perfect backdrop to this meltdown caught on tape, and the guitar work by Phil Free, Pete Wright, and Andy Palmer just mesh into a rock-solid wall to slam into. I would be remiss to leave out the best part of the song (and the album in general): the pull-no-punches lyrics. Penis Envy is one of punk rock’s defining documents in my eyes, and a lot of that has to do with the lyrics and their delivery. On the very first track, we get a glimpse into the not-so-distant world of sexual abuse, submission, and the roles women played in society. The entire runtime of the album is about breaking these bonds and fighting right back. Its existence makes everyone uncomfortable, which is how you know it’s working:
“You force-hold me above the ground
I can't get away, my feet are bound
So I'm bound to say
That I'm bound to stay”
“Systematic Death” sprints through the lives of various people and how from birth to death, we are just cogs in the machine. The little boys and girls are groomed to be the little workingman and housewife of tomorrow, depicting the lives we lead with almost-frightening precision:
"Poor little fuckers, what a sorry pair
Had their lives stolen, but they didn't really care
Poor little darlings, just your ordinary folks
Victims of the system and its cruel jokes!"
One of the album’s highest points is the 7-minute “What the Fuck?,” a brooding, atonal rant concerning the mistreatment of Earth and its resources. In less trustworthy hands, this could have been unbearable, but within what seems to be a cacophony is one of the most entrancing listens of the 1980s. More so than any Crass album following or prior following this one, Penis Envy captures a visceral disgust that most anyone can understand. While it does paint the band stressing the importance of environmentalism quite well, the main attraction is the song’s attack on the unfeeling greed some feel while doing just that:
"But would you see the fire in the world where you exist?
Will your hard eyes register the pain?
Are you so cold that there is no distress?
Where there’s death would you give death again?"
Crass, being the shapeshifting beast that they are, complement their lyrics with tunes ranging from the pounding speeds of “Where Next Columbus?” and “Smother Love” to the African-influenced-stylings of “Berkertex Bribe” to even a bout in an uncharacteristically frail-sounding melody with “Health Surface,” which melds with Joy De Vivre’s wispy delivery until the song springs to life towards the very end.
The album culminates on the last track, which was originally not listed on the album. The song is convincing. If you were to isolate this track and separate it from the album, you might not even notice how conniving and cheeky it is. In fact, that’s very much what happened back in 1981, when popular romance magazine Loving had a giveaway for a plexi disk called “Wedding Song,” provided to them by a group by the name of C
ervices. Yes indeed, Joy De Vivre’s heavenly voice was so convincing, they fooled a magazine and their readers into thinking she was being genuine. The harmless pranks of an anarchist group, no harm done.
No, of course there was harm done. Of course there was outcry, of course people were outraged by the album’s title (despite it being a reference to Sigmund Freud’s famous, if not outdated, terminology), and of course Crass and many other punk bands at the time faced consequences for putting their controversial art on display for all to see. But again, that’s what it was meant to do. Penis Envy was made solely because of how much unrest it would prompt. It’s a living, breathing document in punk and feminism whose message of unrest still holds truth today. As disappointing as that may be, use this album as your fuel just like Crass and their fans did so long ago. Get mad. Get upset. This is the change that needs to happen and it’s not going to happen in your wedding gown meekly saying “I do.”