August 25, 2017 | by C.M. Crockford
Crass famously said in 1979 that “Punk Is Dead” but ironically they'd kickstart a half-dozen British anarcho-punk bands, all echoing Crass' plodding, screeching noise yet without the understanding of avant-garde composition. Crass wrote deliberately simple, iconoclastic punk similar to early Oi, but the anarchist collective had listened to enough John Cage to have a period of silence in “They've Got a Bomb,” an eerie auditorial version of an atom bomb's detonation. But because it doesn't have any avant-garde leanings or aggressive spoken word poetry (see “Asylum”), their most famous song is arguably “Do They Owe Us a Living?”
“Do They Owe Us a Living?” being their “hit” makes a lot of sense in the context of a post-Sex Pistols punk scene. The song is fun, easy to shout along with, and most importantly the lyrics are directly about the experience of the working class, not the atom bomb or about being banned from an obscure punk club. The song was originally written to only be played with drums and voices, so the guitar chords are sloppy, fast, and almost irrelevant. Here is the closest the band came to Sham 69 or Cockney Rejects — a universal anthem. And the song is over in a minute and 25 seconds or so, leaving the listener out of breath and overwhelmed after singer Steve Ignorant screams, “Course they fucking do!” as the record then moves straight into the next assault. One of the best things about punk after all is the songs don't overstay their welcome. Like a friend just coming by for a visit, the song and record leave when they're not needed.
The chorus is shouted, fervent: “Do they owe us a living? / Course they do, course they do / Owe us a living / Course they fucking do!” The sister song of “Do They Owe Us a Living?” is “Working Class Hero,” but where Lennon is not quite sure what to do in response to the trappings of the British class system, ambivalent over where to go next, Crass demands restitution for all the shit we have to dig through. The Feeding of the 5000 was released in 1978 as Thatcher was quietly wrenching apart the welfare government that Atlee had built post-World War II, and is a sneering, furious indictment of her capitalist politics that politely dismissed the notion of society or community. Note that Ignorant says “owe us” not “owe me.” The lyrics are firmly couched in the concept of solidarity, as well as in the leftist idea that we’re all in this together (one Crimethinc flyer famously said, “You don't have to fuck other people over to get ahead”): “You try, you try, you try to get out, but you can't because they've fucked you about / Then you're a prime example of how they must not be / This is just a sample, what they've done to you and me.” “Do They Owe Us a Living?” is an intelligent, angry rant, the ideas whirling about, connecting the dots between consumerism and labor, public education and the battering of self-esteem.
A lot of music geeks might have sniffed that punk is too boneheaded and unsophisticated to hold their attention and opt for say King Crimson, but this snobbery always missed a few key points: (1) that punk is largely music for younger audiences, an expression of adolescent anger and deep sincerity with the potential to be enormously powerful (or, in the wrong hands, very predictable); and (2) that punk, in theory (if not always in practice), is working class music. It's music anyone can play, so long as one can get their hands on a guitar and put a few chords together. For all of their classical punk pretensions and obvious intelligence, Crass seized on their potential for proletariat sounds, all but daring others to try the same. “Do They Owe Us a Living?” is their most famous song because it's a synthesis of working class politics and music, a burst of rage that encourages you to play along. While the British class system has endured in insidious and subtle ways, so has Crass.