It's been 30 years since Corpus Christi Records released Dehumanization by San Francisco hardcore band Crucifix. Regarded as one of the most influential anarchopunk albums of the '80s, the 14-track LP is 23 minutes of loud, fast, raw, straightforward punk.
To commemorate its anniversary, two of Crucifix's original members—Sothira Pheng and Jimmy Crucifix—have formed the outfit 1984, which, they insist, is not a reunion band. But it is a tribute band featuring them and members of a Crucifix cover band performing Dehumanization in its entirety. So why not call the band Crucifix? “If we called it Crucifix,” Pheng explains, “it would have to be all the guys originally in the band.” People have been asking the band for years about a reunion. Original guitarist Matt Borruso and drummer Chris Douglas have kids and careers. (Pheng and Jimmy Crucifix have consistently played in bands.)
Dehumanization was shaped by the political ideologies of Crass and the chaotic, brutally intense arrangements of Discharge, and the album delivers solid anarchistic lyrics; thick, aggressive bass lines; heavy, chainsaw-grinding guitar; and obscenely rapid drumming. “At first, we were Crass fans,” says Pheng. “Then Discharge came out with Decontrol in 1980. The combination of politics and ferocity just clicked for us.”
Crucifix formed in 1980 and was finished by 1984. With the exception of Pheng on vocals and Douglas on drums, the lineup changed throughout their short tenure. In 1981, bassist Bryce Kanights and Borruso played on the self-titled EP released by Universal Records. By 1982, Jimmy Crucifix was on guitar and Borruso switched to bass for the 7-inch single “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (spelled out to emphasize the state described in Orwell's book and from which the tribute band got its name). Then, in 1983, Jake Smith played guitar on Dehumanization, the band's only full-length LP; he was later replaced by Drew.
“We started playing when I was 15 and Borruso was 13 in Subsidized Mess and molded into the Johnny Rotten/Joy Divison/Slits post-punk scene, but that only lasted a summer because it got boring,” says Pheng.
By the summer of 1980, the band were coming off the Black Flag California-punk tail. “[Black Flag] hold a spot in my memory as being kings,” Pheng says. “Then studs, spikes and GBH began to heavily influence us. It was so English, a symbol that proclaimed you were punk.”
Tim Kerr of Big Boys recounts, “They were some of the first kids with the GBH liberty spikes and strong hairspray smell. There definitely were bands taking political stances during that time in the U.S., but Crucifix had the British Crass punks look, so they stood out from the others.”
They weren't initially well-received. Crucifix would get shit from bands they looked up to, including Black Flag, who once called them Exploited clones. “As kids, you don't take that lightly,” Pheng says.
“The shows back then were mainly kids between 15 and 22 years old in T-shirts, Vans and Levi's,” says punk photographer Edward Colver, whose photo of Crucifix is featured in Hardcore California. “Crucifix looked like English street punks. I think that was their initial problem in California. People were like, 'What's up with that?' 'Cause people weren't doing that at all.”
Pheng recalls, “We were highly influenced by Crass and wrote them letters.” Holding an imaginary pen in his hand, the singer self-mockingly mumbles, “Dear Crass . . .”
Crass were paying attention to more than just the fan mail. In 1983, John Loder, Crass' engineer and business partner in Corpus Christi Records, flew out to the Channel in Boston, where Crucifix and Flipper were playing. “This old guy walked in, and we were like, 'That looks like John!'” Pheng says.
Later, the band were in the cafeteria watching Saturday Night Fever, and Borruso walked up and told the guys they'd been signed to Corpus Christi. “We were like, 'Pretty cool,' and that was it,” Pheng says. “It was all really nonchalant. We were at the right place at the right time. [Corpus Christi] had never signed anyone from California before. The selling point was probably me being a Cambodian refugee.”
The label seemed to appreciate Crucifix's honesty as kids. “Crass pretty much made us by getting us out there,” Pheng says. “There was no ulterior motive. We were really grateful.”
More than three decades later, Pheng pauses to reflect on the impact Crucifix continue to have. “It's the kids today who are appreciative and are keeping punk alive,” he says. “Punk wasn't supposed to go on for 30 years. It's visceral and immediate. To see kids at shows now, knowing the record was made before they were even born, it's amazing.”