Being Steve Ignorant is bliss

By Graham Reid

Steve Ignorant's late 70s punk band Crass weren't afraid to write lyrics introducing ideas of anarchy and social disobedience. Photo / Supplied
Steve Ignorant's late 70s punk band Crass weren't afraid to write lyrics introducing ideas of anarchy and social disobedience. Photo / Supplied

In Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip's pointed but very funny rap on Thou Shalt Kill four years back, Scroobius rolled out a catalogue of groups noting after each one they were "just a band". And so it goes: "The Sex Pistols, just a band; the Clash, just a band; Crass, just a band; Minor Threat, just a band..."

Hold up. What's the punk-era Crass doing in such illustrious company alongside Radiohead, the Beatles and others? After all, they only lasted six years after their first release in 1977 and their albums - like Penis Envy and Christ, The Album - were hardly chart-toppers.

Ironically, Crass are important because they were not "just a band". They were in the vanguard of a change of consciousness and introduced ideas of anarchy, dissent, social disobedience and the DIY ethic into popular culture, an influence still felt today.

"I don't consider it too grandiose to claim Crass was later to become one of the most influential bands in the history of British rock," founding member Penny Rimbaud wrote in his autobiography Shibboleth in 1998.

"The band was never a great musical influence, but the effect of its lyrics on broader social issues was enormous."

And Steve Ignorant - real name Steve Williams, co-founder of Crass with Rimbaud, who also lived in their open house commune in Essex - still carries their banner today. Speaking from his London home, Ignorant is scrupulously polite, amusingly self-effacing and admits immediately "I've 'ad a few beers". He is bringing his Last Supper tour to Auckland, still singing Crass classics to enthusiastic audiences - despite how the British political and social context has changed since the late 70s.

"Let's face it," he says, "this is 2011 or whatever and we do what we do on stage. But what's really important is the people in the audience get to meet each other, and Crass was always about that.

"That is still relevant, and in a way it's even more important now because who else is doing this? I was reading the paper this morning that Take That have got together. Who the **** are Take That? And they say Lady Gaga is now being seen as punk rock. Well, no she's not. With this Last Supper tour, like-minded people are getting together again and that's what it is about."

Ignorant says back then, and even more so today, he and the many members of Crass were uncomfortable with being seen as leaders and fielding questions about what approaches people should take in political or social action. Always an intuitive rather than intellectual anarchist, Ignorant says he still has no answers.

"People talk to me about 'the anarchic way to deal with a patriarchal society', and I'm like, 'I beg your pardon?' Get out of here. It's bonkers. I'm just a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, machine gun who screams down a microphone doing these amazing songs that people got into. But make your own life. We never ever said people should do this or do that, or hopefully we didn't. If we ever did, I'm really sorry. But let's do one last concert in New Zealand because Crass never went there.

"I will be there at the bar, drunk out of me nut as usual, and smoking - although that'll get me chucked out - but I will be talking to people. That's what it's about.

"Why not celebrate it rather than have it as 'Crass was this very heavy thing'. It was, but at the same time it was about getting pissed. When you listened to Crass, was it sitting round having cups of tea? I think not."

He speaks about how it is an individual's duty to protest "in a peaceful way; mind you sometimes you have to clench your fist", and that speaking the unadorned truth is important to him.

"Maybe it needs someone to say, 'The first time I had sex it was a bloody disaster, but that's the way it is'. Before I had done that I'd seen Hollywood films and it was all romantic beaches and saxophone music. But no, this life is real.

"It doesn't matter what schism you adhere to or what anarchistic thing you grab on to, you are just your own person - and when all those groups go away, like Crass did, there are no myths and masters. You're on your own."

Beyond Crass, Ignorant has explored his working class roots in a number of ways, notably through his interest in the history of Punch and Judy shows, and East End music hall songs which he researches and plays. He enjoys their double entendres, the coded language of barrow boys and cabbies, and says it is where the anti-authoritarian working class attitudes of punk came from.

"Right in the middle of the [Last Supper] concert I might burst into an old Cockney East End London thing, I dunno," he laughs.

And then he recalls how he came to music hall songs and can barely contain his spluttering.

"I got into that when Crass packed up. I went around all the people in Crass and asked if they wanted to do a drums and vocals thing with me, and they didn't. So I thought I would do what all singers do, I would write my own album.

"But thank God I met a friend who showed me the film about Spinal Tap and there's that bit about 'Naughty Jack, he's a saucy one'.

And I was going to write an album about Jack the Ripper. Imagine if I'd done that? Wharra joke."

LOWDOWN
Who: Steve Ignorant, formerly of Crass
What: Steve Ignorant presents The Last Supper; Kings Arms, June 19

- NZ Herald

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