Actually, I say I read them in quick succession: in truth, I had to give up on Slash before I even got to the much-publicised excesses of his former group. It wasn't that it was turgid. Because it wasn't; it was efficiently-written, and even managed to convince me I was listening to Slash's authentic voice. It's just that it was a little... predictable. Even when consuming shed-loads of drugs or wrecking hotel rooms, Slash never offers any surprises, or tries any introspection or exposed any frailties or lapses in judgement. They say history is written by the victors. Well, it's certainly the case that Slash is auto-hagiography, a self-justification for his career.
That's not to say it was bad; I've certainly read worse. It's just that I had the misfortune to read it after Penny Rimbaud's biog, which was far more confessional, insightful and contemplative. It offered a few genuine shocks, too. Slash, for example, doesn't ever let on about consensual homosexual encounters in the showers at his school, unlike Rimbaud (this is territory yer average rock bio doesn't cover, though I'll bet Robbie Williams is just itching to get it off his chest...). Nor did Slash fess up to soiling himself while trying to chat up a groupie in his band's early days, though, again, Rimbaud delivers such a story, regardless of the light in which this places him. It's also an exercise in extending the form of the genre, incorporating essays, digressions on politics and, at one point, a disturbing and (presumably) fictional account of the stabbing of a john in a back alley.
They've been written out of much of rock history, though books like George Berger's Story of Crass are redressing the balance. While preaching anarchy, the Sex Pistols and others turned very conventional very quickly. Crass, on the other hand, walked it like they talked it. The group's ethos could have been summarised as "keeping it real", distributing pamphlets and vegetarian recipes along with their songs and remaining legendarily accessible and hospitable to their legion of fans. Unlike most of today's rappers, who profess this credo but surround themselves with sycophants and bling at the earliest opportunity, Crass refused at all turns to toe any sort of corporate line, and this philosophy has also found its way into Penny Rimbaud's writing. They've never reformed, and the likelihood of them doing so is about the same as that of Germaine Greer choosing The Monks' Nice Legs, Shame About The Face * as one of her Desert Island Discs. Rimbaud's autobiography is incredibly honest, entirely self-aware, and questioning in a way that most rock biogs never are. Perhaps this is why it's published by the anarchist AK Press rather than, say, Simon and Schuster or Omnibus. Perhaps, too, that's why I've never seen it pushed by Waterstones in the manner of Dawn French's or Alex James's biogs.
Of course, all of this ethical lifestyle and political posturing would count for little if the music wasn't up to snuff. In truth, some of the group's output is, as it was once memorably damned by Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, "a series of shock slogans and mindless token tantrums". But when they were good they were very good. And the best stuff was where they ditched the bog-standard, conventional speed-punk (e.g. Do They Owe Us A Living, Gotcha) and used cut-ups, tape loops, samples etc. Rimbaud's work on Annie Anxiety's Soul Possession springs to mind (and it's supposedly being re-released this year, too). As does their astonishing early single Reality Asylum. 30 years on its visceral impact is undiminished, and if I ever compile a CD entitled Uneasy Listening, then Reality Asylum is a definite contender for the lead track. You can get it below.
Download Reality Asylum by Crass (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)
See There Is No Authority But Yourself (documentary, 58 minutes) below
* Incidentally, check out this Victor Lewis-Smith-tastic piece of Christmas VT