Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Penis Envy

Released 1981 on Crass Records/Southern Records
Reviewed by aaroneous, 16/08/2000ce

I discovered this album at a very crucial time in my development. I was 14, flushed with hormones and self-righteousness, and aiming my anti-society missiles at whatever crossed my path. I would go far out on a limb to make a connection between things I felt excluded from as a result of just not fitting in, and fascist dictatorships on a mass scale. Having devoured all of the “distopia” novels I could find, I had found the political stance of punk articulated this feeling most directly. Besides, you can’t pogo to Huxley. All the while, I was trying to reconcile this with a recent break up which had left me feeling like the entire manner in which love expressed itself was indelibly linked to predetermined and artificial societal roles.
I had owned a few other Crass records, and, while I found their militantly anarchistic views compelling and their bass lines snazzy, I really had a hard time feeling WELCOMED as a listener. The music seemed to serve as just a backdrop for rage, utilized a martial snare drum, and felt a little too much like the propaganda it railed against. Not to mention the two male singers sounded sinister as hell, almost shouting themselves hoarse. Great for when you get grounded for wearing a black armband to school, but not much good otherwise. All that changed when I took a chance on this album.
The first thing that makes Penis Envy immediately distinct from the rest of the band’s catalog is that it sung entirely by the two women in the band, Eve Libertine and Joy de Vivre. (Their artist-in-residence, the amazing woman G-sus, provides the graphics for the album as well, featuring some of the most striking collage work punk ever produced) Second, the music is very dynamic, seemingly well thought out, and plays more like a soundtrack to the message than an air raid siren announcing it. Lastly, the message itself is the most focused and consistent to be found on any of their albums, the subject matter dealing with the nature of love, the origins of sex roles in society, and rendering of the female gender as a commodity by the institution of christian marriage. All of this is sung with the most complete combination of indignation, admonition, genuine concern for the plight of the oppressed, and, ultimately, hope for the future.
The album opens with the track Bata Motel, in which a woman begs for her own bondage and abuse. As if the sheer arsenal of words of surrender didn’t deliver enough of an impact, to say the music here is complex would be a grand understatement. The bass comes in with a line sounding more like a fractured arpeggiated synth lead than a string instrument, and is immediately followed by a rush of sustained guitar. Once the song gets going, it’s clear that the rhythm section, which features percussion and some of the most deft bass lines imaginable, is the ship on which Libertine’s submissive rant sails straight down the throat of the un-redirected male it is aimed at, reminding everyone in earshot that this is his actual ideal woman taken to it’s logical conclusion.
Next comes “System”, which breaks down the origin of imposed sex roles as the reinforcing factor in society’s machine working as smoothly as it does. Switching off on focusing on the girl and the boy, who start out being told exactly what makes a man and what makes a woman, their lives intertwine as he works overtime in a factory “pushing little buttons and pulling little knobs,” while she does the best she can to make it easy for him. The song gets more and more frenzied, until it matches the pace of an auctioneer. Most interesting is the way the music gets MORE full as it progresses, because it starts out a dense wall of sound, and the vocals are delivered both quickly, intelligible, and with considerable emotion. A nice touch is that, throughout it all, Libertine refers to both of the characters as poor victims, and seems to really care that their lives end as they do, standing in front of the rubble of the home they worked their whole lives to pay for, having “almost paid the mortgage when the system dropped its bomb.”
From here, we go to a slowed down song entitled “What the fuck?”, serving as an open letter to the masters of war. This is a synthed out dirge that occasionally explodes with an audible thud reminiscent of an actual mortar falling. The writing here is poignant, with lines like “what now/Now you would destroy the earth?/dry the riverbeds/what now, now in your control of birth and death/lie the bodies incandescent in the heat/” Think War Pigs sung by an all grown up Polly Styrene.
Songs like “Poison in a pretty pill” and “Berketex Bribe” play on tension and release, with the explosions being the most articulate and musically rocking things you’re likely to find in any “political music.” The band starts to fully utilize the potential of having a studio right in their farmhouse, and the instrumentation expands from the two-guitar bass and drum assault to include percussion, sythesisers, wah-wah pedals (!) and ambient effects, all serving to enhance the impact of the overall message, as well as appealing to the creative and emotive place from which all political awareness must spring.
One good example is the song “Health Surface”, which deals with the cold science of western medicine and way the dying are treated in the convalescent home. The song starts out sounding like the kind of Muzak one would hear piped through the crackling speakers of the hospital to soothe the inmates-I mean patients- before bed pan changing time. The song is sung in the tone of a hymnal, and the mood is that of a low budget commercial for the comfort afforded the ill in the face of death. Then, as if ripping away the shit stained floral plastic curtain, the song becomes a triumphant toe-tapper, with swiss style yodelling and a whistle solo!
It is here that the band begins to experiment most fully with turning their anarchic soundscapes into songs, and turning the rigidity of their songs into epic narratives. The scale of the subject matter, and the scope of the music, goes far beyond any narrow preconceived notions of what constitutes a protest song. Crass changed the rules, creating their own universe from which their unique perspective originated, holding up a mirror to our lives as well as giving sympathy to the hollow lives of the those not yet turned on. On their first album, they declared punk dead, but it wasn’t until this album that they presented any real challenge to it. From here on, either punk would have to expand its definition of itself to include this music, or this album would have rendered punk ineffectual and obsolete. The debate still rages, but, given the continued popularity of Crass among those committed to living their lives free of the taint of societal death culture, punk is alive and well, and even big enough to accommodate the occasional accordion as long as it’s blast is directed at the greedheads.

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