LOK Burning Britain Book
LACK OF KNOWLEDGE
It’s true that London’s Lack Of Knowledge didn’t look or sound anything like the typical anarcho punk band, but surely one of the main ideals of the whole genre was that of not conforming – something that Lack Of Knowledge did both instinctively and incessantly. They also, of course, released several records through Crass and gigged with many of the more obvious bands to be found in this book, but it’s the fierce streak of independence that ran through everything they did that really qualifies them for inclusion here.
“If you listen to a Lack Of Knowledge record, even the ones that were on the Crass label, you’ll soon discover that we were not trying to be anything that we weren’t,” elaborates guitarist Tony Barber. “Most people’s idea of anarcho punk is to do with haircuts, clothing and how fast the music is, or how aggressive the lyrics can be… the thing is, we already existed before anarcho punk came along, and we only ended up on the Crass label because we met them before they’d even started their own label, and when we put out our own single, we gave them a copy. But this whole idea of having some sort of template for being anarcho punk? It’s no different really to being a teddy boy or a mod! It’s almost the opposite of what it’s actually meant to represent. And for us to sit here and say, ‘Oh yeah, we were an anarcho punk group’, just for us to even label ourselves as such in fact, would be a complete paradox. We never sounded anything like an anarcho punk group, and that’s probably the one reason why we were one – because we never tailored our sound to fit an imaginary mould.”
Formed in Edmonton in late 1980, and previously known by such weird and wonderful monikers as Assorted Tools, English Assassin, and, rather unfortunately, Trio Of Testicles, Lack Of Knowledge initially comprised – as well as Tony – Daniel Drummond on vocals (formerly with original London punks, Headache, who released the ‘Can’t Stand Still’ 7” on Lout in 1977), Paul Stevens on bass, and Chiefy (AKA Jason Powell) on drums.
“I think I liked the whole do-it-yourself aspect of punk, that was what really appealed to me,” reckons Dan. “And so after going to see groups, it seemed almost obvious to form your own, being a part of it was more important than just watching other bands do it. Before that, bands, not that I didn’t like a lot of them, seemed totally remote… the idea that you might one day be playing in Alice Cooper’s band, for example, was absurd, a complete pipe dream. You couldn’t imagine being that… but you could imagine being in Generation X! It seemed like something that I could actually do, something that was for anybody that wanted to be a part of it. Participation was very important… not wearing something that somebody else wore, but wearing something you’d made yourself. And the anarcho punk thing, of course, was even more focused on there being no divisions between audience and band…”
So, Lack Of Knowledge began booking their own shows wherever and whenever they could, in local youth centres and church halls; hiring out the room, printing and sticking up posters and even manning the door, all themselves, helping create a local punk scene where there was none before.
“I always thought our best gigs were the early ones that we put on ourselves,” recalls Tony fondly. “The minute we played in a rock club like the Clarendon or somewhere like that, it completely devalued what we did, and somehow made us feel redundant as a band… I wouldn’t have been able to tell you at the time what it was we were meant to be doing, mind you, but it certainly wasn’t playing downstairs at the Clarendon on a Tuesday night! We should’ve carried on doing what we’d already been doing, I suppose, hiring out churches, putting on five local bands and charging 50p to get in. Those were always our best gigs; we played better, it was always a more interesting setting, and you felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of it that you never felt after doings gigs in ‘proper’ venues, y’know? I look back at that and think, ‘Fuckin’ hell, we did some amazing things, and there’s nothing out there today to compare with it…’ Not just because of the nostalgia thing, but if I wanted to go and hire out a community centre now, imagine the amount of bullshit you’d have to go through to get permission to do a punk rock show! There’s no turning up and paying four quid to the caretaker any more, is there?
“I think the culture of the country was totally different then, less paranoid, less corporate, and you certainly didn’t have the same amount of private money tied up in local government… the culture was so much more sympathetic to you just seeing an empty hall stood doing nothing, banging on the door and booking it for the following Thursday! Everything’s ‘moved on’ now, and I hesitate to use that phrase, obviously, but all the cracks have been plastered over…”
“Playing those early gigs always felt like a bit of a struggle!” adds Dan, laughing. “We were all rather incompetent, and – speaking for myself, anyway – rather nervous people, and the combination of the two things meant that sometimes the gigs would work really well… and sometimes they would spectacularly explode! The gigs we organised ourselves, we kinda controlled the vibe and set the atmosphere, and they were far more enjoyable to play than gigs where we were playing for someone else. I didn’t so much mind turning up and supporting other bands, playing before someone else to people who weren’t really interested in you, because they weren’t there to see you anyway, so you had nothing to lose. It was more when we started playing at venues where we had no control over what was happening and people were turning up to see us, and I didn’t really like that so much; I found that quite difficult to handle.”
In early 1981, Lack Of Knowledge entered Octave Electronics in Edmonton and recorded their debut single, ‘The Uninvited’/‘Ritual’, which they released on their own LOK Records. An impressively ambitious debut by anyone’s standards, the single established the band’s rather unique sound, revealing the quirky relationship between guitar and bass that would characterise every release and Dan’s richly melodic voice so reminiscent of a young Phil Oakley. It not only got them played on John Peel’s radio show but also landed them a prestigious ‘deal’ with Crass Records.
“We took it over to Dial House and played it to Penny and Gee and whoever else was there at the time,” explains Tony. “[Penny] Rimbaud took it out into the back room and played it, came back in and went, ‘Hmmm, it’s really interesting! Would you be interested in making a record on our label?’ Me and Paul Stevens were sat there going, ‘You what?’ It was the most instantaneous A&R-ing ever, haha! He literally went and played it, came back and offered us a single! I didn’t actually believe he’d even listened to it, ‘cos he was only gone for one minute, thirty, and the shortest song is one minute, thirty-two…! Nah, just kidding, but that’s actually what happened. It was very spur of the moment.”
It was to be well over a year before the band actually recorded for Crass though, and during the interim period they bade farewell to drummer Chief, replacing him with Philip Barker from Klee. Then, after playing many more shows, including the Zig Zag squat event with Crass – and many others – on December 18th 1982, they entered Southern Studios during early August 1983, under the watchful eye of Penny Rimbaud in the producer’s chair, to record the grossly overlooked ‘Grey’ single.
“Oh, it was a whole new experience for us,” says Dan of the session. “When we did our own single we did it on eight-track tape, so there wasn’t a great deal of producing going on, not in the day we were in there anyway… I really enjoyed working with someone else, doing something different.”
“When we did ‘The Uninvited’, we didn’t even get a day in the studio, we recorded it in a fuckin’ evening!” guffaws Tony incredulously. “Then we turned up at Southern and they had extra pairs of head phones, spare mikes, all sorts of shit, haha! But we never got carried away… that was the funny thing about us as a band; we just turned up and concentrated on what we were doing. We never went, ‘Wow, we’re in a big studio!’ It was no big deal to me, to be recording for Crass… I didn’t exactly consider it to be what we should be doing, but I didn’t consider ourselves to have been especially lucky either, and I certainly didn’t think to myself, ‘Hey, we’re on our way now.’ It was just happening, so we got on with it, y’know?”
With its dark, lustrous melodies and flirtations with the electronic post-punk pop scene of the time, ‘Grey’ remains one of the more interesting, avant-garde singles on Crass, but it’s hardly surprising that it threw all the hardcore punks waiting on each new release from the label into some much-needed confusion.
Tony: “We used to go down the Centro Iberico, or the old Autonomy Centre, and you literally just wrote your name on the board if you wanted a certain date, and once you’d wrote it on there, that was your night and you just put the gig on. And people would walk past and see that and go, ‘Oh fuckin’ hell, fuckin’ Lack Of Knowledge! What the hell are they doing here again?’ We used to hear people saying stuff like that all the time, and it was hilarious; you’d look around and it would be some bloke covered head to toe in patches and badges of every single anarcho punk group, except us! The kinda bloke who’s probably now working in a bank somewhere…!”
“But there was never meant to be a hierarchy in the anarcho scene, by definition. So, you put out your own record, and then when you went to see, say, Flux Of Pink Indians, you never thought of them as being ‘above’ you in any way. In fact, one gig where we played with Conflict and all that, we drew the names out of a hat to decide who would go on last… and that happened with that Zig Zag gig we played with Crass as well – the running order was drawn from a hat. But then we had to ask if we could go on before 4.00pm, because we had another gig that same night, which we were putting on ourselves.”
Lack Of Knowledge were then asked by Crass to release an album on their Corpus Christi offshoot, which resulted in 1984’s brooding and absorbing ‘Sirens Are Back’ LP. However by the time of its release, Paul Stevens had left and been replaced on bass by Tony’s then-girlfriend Karen Gower – who couldn’t actually play when she landed herself the gig!
“Uh, yeah, we didn’t ever pick the easy option,” sighs Dan. “That was because we tended to pick people who we knew. Sometimes it wasn’t so much that they were friends, but just because they wanted to play in the band with us, and we thought that was better than having someone who was just turning up and playing with whatever band wanted them to. And seeing as we weren’t on any sort of conveyor belt to success, it wasn’t a case of not being able to wait for them to learn their instrument. It didn’t make any difference to us.”
“We weren’t on a tight schedule!” adds Tony. “And I’d much rather be in a band with someone I’m friends with who isn’t very good than someone who I’m not friends with who I only see on the days we rehearse but happens to be a better player. And all the time we were going, we never ever sent a demo tape to a record company, never ever advertised to get a new bass player or anything… all the things that bands do, we never did. It wasn’t planned that way either; it’s only now, looking back, that it’s apparent. Even when we had a single out on Crass, which was big news at that time, we never sent a copy to anyone! Never said, ‘Oh, we’re a band, just done a record on Crass, are you impressed? Please sign us!’ And I bet there are bands out there that were on Crass who sent copies of their record to the A&R man at EMI and stuff… I bet there is! ‘We’ve got to spread our message further… tour in the south of France and places like that!’ Ha!”
It was back to Southern to record their next release with Mel Jefferson in May 1985, the ‘Sentinel’ 12” for Chainsaw Records (the label ran by members of Living In Texas), a strong, up-tempo offering that was to be their last of the Eighties. Despite the record garnering much critical acclaim – even landing them the lauded ‘Single Of The Week’ in Sounds – Lack Of Knowledge split after a show in Colchester in August 1986. It was ironically the furthest the band had ever travelled to play a show, during a troubled period when various band members were questioning just how comfortable they felt with how far they had all strayed artistically from their humble beginnings.
“It was just personal problems between the members of the group,” claims Dan of their premature demise. “Although it’s absolutely true that we had no ambition whatsoever, we did put a great deal of pressure on ourselves. I’m not sure what all that was about, because playing together now, it’s so completely different. But we just made everything really difficult for ourselves and I don’t know why, and I just felt uncomfortable, felt that the band wasn’t really working. And playing these gigs, expecting people to turn up and be charged money to watch you… and deep down I felt that we weren’t providing people with anything that you could really charge money for. Does that make sense? When we were doing it on a totally amateur level, I felt okay with it, but when it moved up a level, I just didn’t really feel that we were, uh, good enough? I’m not sure why, but that was just how I came to feel, and I’m not sure how much that had to do with other aspects of the band making me feel that way…”
“If you’ve got a record on a major label and it sells 400 copies, it’s a disaster, a total flop,” offers Tony, philosophically. “But if you put it out yourself and sold 400 copies, it would be regarded as an astounding success – but it would still be the same record! And when you do make music with no expectations, and you staple all the sleeves together yourself, you instinctively produce better stuff because you haven’t got the pressure of, ‘Shit, now we’re on a major label, we’ve got to up the ante and become entertainers…!’ It clouds your artistic vision; it taints your purity of purpose. When you first get together as a band, crowded in your little rehearsal room, it’s just you, the four or five guys or whatever, there’s not even some guy from a punk rock label looking over your shoulder… but somehow we moved up a level from the youth club rehearsals and shopping trolleys [for transporting equipment to their practise room], to still being in the youth clubs and shopping trolleys but also being in the Independent Charts at the same time. And it artificially created this idea that we should move more towards being a conventional band because it seemed like a logical progression, when in reality it was the worse thing we could’ve done, because as soon as we put one foot in the water, we were drawn by the currents towards that goal. We were a brilliant group putting out records in photocopied sleeves, doing our own gigs in funny little cinemas in Shepherds Bush – we were about as good as you could get – but as soon as we were trying to operate in the mainstream, we were just this rubbish rock band really.”
In 2001 however, Californian label Grand Theft Audio contacted ‘this rubbish rock band’ with a view to issuing a retrospective CD, a communication which stirred Lack Of Knowledge back into tentative action again, regrouping to record properly for the first time some of the songs they had written in the Eighties but had never actually committed to tape. Then, more recently in 2005, another Californian label, Alternative Records from Berkeley, released a newly-recorded self-titled 7”, and, no doubt spurred by the sudden increase in the band’s back catalogue, Southern re-released the single and LP recorded for Crass as the ‘Grey’ CD. Against all odds Lack Of Knowledge are back together, even playing their first shows outside the UK’s southeast – in New York! – during September 2005, but how long they grace us with their presence for this time remains to be seen.
“We won’t be writing any new material,” explains Tony, who nowadays also plays bass for The Buzzcocks. “These ‘new’ releases are all stuff from 1981 that was never recorded, songs we used to play day in, day out, that we never even did demos of… and the only copies we had of them were old rehearsal tapes or live tapes or whatever. And we consciously made an effort to record them in the most authentic way possible; we didn’t change any lyrics, didn’t change any song structures… didn’t embellish them with anything that we didn’t play at the time… I even used the same guitar and amp!
“We don’t even profess to have reformed really… it’s just that now and again someone rings us up and asks if we’re interested in doing another record! But we did say when we first did it, that we would only record the songs we already had written, and we’re running out of songs; there’s only four or five left that we never recorded, just enough for maybe one more EP. Although we could compile the 7”s onto one CD perhaps, just to tidy up that aspect of it, but then that’ll be it. Except for the occasional show, if it’s somewhere interesting… when there’s some anarchist art festival in Prague or wherever, that realises they can’t get Crass, Dirt, or Flux, so they have to ring us up instead, haha!”
‘The Uninvited’ (LOK, 1981)
‘Grey’ (Crass, 1983)
‘Lack Of Knowledge’ (Alternative, 2005)
‘Sentinel’ (Chainsaw, 1985)
‘Sirens Are Back’ (Crass, 1984)
At A Glance:
The Grand Theft Audio CD ‘Americanized’ mixes up old and new recordings to great effect, but readers of this book will no doubt be most interested in Southern’s ‘Grey’ CD, that features the Crass-released single of the same name plus the ‘Sirens Are Back’ LP originally recorded for Corpus Christi in 1984. Complete with all the original artwork and lyrics, it’s a fascinating snapshot of a thoroughly unique band.