Over the past few years, I’ve accumulated three singles by the Cravats, which is only a small portion of the group’s discography. During their original run from 1978 until 1982, they released two full-length albums and ten singles, an impressive catalog for a band as uncommercial as the Cravats were most of the time. I know there are Cravats super-fans out there who know the band’s catalog well, and I won’t pretend to be one of those people. I know very little background information about the Cravats and I’m only familiar with this small and idiosyncratic sampling of their discography, but I enjoy these records.
I had some dim awareness that the Cravats were an outre / experimental punk band, but I think their 1979 7” The End on Small Wonder was the first time I’d sat down with one of their records. According to the price sticker, I picked this up for $7 from Vinyl Conflict in late 2016. Score! The a-side, “Burning Bridges,” is what sticks out on The End. Having expected something non-linear and avant-garde, it surprised me just how much of a tune “Burning Bridges” is. Built around an infectious horn line, it reminds me of horn-driven 90s (ska-?) punk like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones or even Reel Big Fish. That sunny horn line would have gotten me skanking if I’d heard it in 1995, the song’s brisk beat, propulsive bass, and triumphant chord progression sealing the deal. The b-side of The End is about three times as long as the a-side, so it’s mastered at about half the volume. That keeps “I Hate the Universe” from having the same impact as “Burning Bridges” even though it’s a similar song, an upbeat punk tune a bit like the Ruts, while the more ruminative closing track “The End” sounds like the weirder end of the Dangerhouse catalog (like Black Randy & the Metrosquad), which is more indicative of the other two Cravats records I own.
The next Cravats single I picked up was 1981’s Off the Beach. While the horns are still there, the music is now more jittery, and rather than gliding over top of the rhythm melodically, the horns skitter mosquito-like around the edges of the angular rhythms. The b-side track, “And the Sun Shone,” reminds me of their Small Wonder label-mates the Fall. Like many of the Fall’s best tracks from this period, the song is built around an ominous repetitive rhythm while horns, guitars, and electronic noises wander in and out of the mix like strangers in a busy train station. The back cover lists the sources of the sounds on the record in random order, including items like the band members’ names, musical instruments like drums, saxophone, and clarinet, and non-musical sound-making devices like a coffee percolator, vacuum cleaner, and drills.
The third single in my Cravats collection is Rub Me Out on Crass Records. The Cravats made their way to Crass Records after releasing five singles and an album on Small Wonder, releasing the Rub Me Out single in 1982 as well as their second album, The Colossal Tunes Out, on the Crass-related label Corpus Christi. Crass Records might seem like an odd fit for the Cravats if you’re only familiar with bigger Crass Records bands like Rudimentary Peni, Dirt, Flux of Pink Indians, and Crass themselves, but anyone who has delved deeper into the Crass Records catalog will have no trouble reconciling the Cravats’ uncommercial music with Crass’s intriguing but defiantly non-commercial aesthetic.
I’m tempted to say the move to Crass invigorated the Cravats’ non-commercial proclivities, but a closer listen makes me think Rub Me Out continues developing some of the ideas on Off the Beach. That being said, while the a-side is still not too far off from what the Fall were doing, the song’s eerie horn break is disquieting in a different way, one of the strangest and most exciting moments in their music that I’ve heard so far. The b-side, “When We Will Fall,” is more conventional still, an upbeat, punky song driven by a nervous but infectious horn line that’s not far off from “Burning Bridges.” You hear some electronic squiggles buzzing around the edges of the mix, though, and there’s a lengthy break in the middle where they wander off into Room to Live-era Fall land again, with spooky, whispered voices that sound like they might belong to Eve Libertine. Revisiting this single to write this piece, I think it’s the best of the three I own, with strong production and a confrontational aesthetic that hits like a jolt of electricity.
Rub Me Out also features great design work. The other two singles had interesting sleeve designs, but the Cravats take full advantage of Crass’s default 6-panel fold-out poster sleeve. The band poses with strange costumes and homemade instruments in front of their logo backdrop, which I’ve only recently realized is just the copyright symbol (clever fuckers). My favorite part of the design, though, are the text collages made of rub-on letters (which fits the theme of “Rub Me Out”), which are harmoniously chaotic, similar to a Jackson Pollack canvas. They also bring this lettering style to Crass Records’ address on the sleeve’s rear panel, and it looks cool as fuck.