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The Passion of the Crass [2012-02-19]

When, in 2007, Steve Ignorant – founder member and lead vocalist of Crass, the first and greatest anarcho punk band – first floated the idea of playing Crass’ first album, The Feeding of the Five Thousand, live with a bunch of newly-recruited musicians he didn’t realise that it would turn into a tour lasting two years stretching across the globe with performances in 11 countries. Knowingly titled ‘The Last Supper’, the tour saw Steve perform Crass’ songs with the help of Gizz Butt on guitar (English Dogs, Prodigy), Spike T. Smith on drums (Morrissey, Killing Joke, Conflict), Bob Butler on bass (Schwartzneggar) and Carol Hodge on vocals (Electraglide), often taking the Crass’ message of anarchy and freedom to places the original band could never have reached. The tour ended in November last year back in London with a truly memorable final performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (reported here in Musique Machine shortly after the event). This, Steve had promised, was to be the last time he would perform Crass’ songs live – arguably at a time when, thanks to both the success of the tour and the state of the planet, the demand is at its highest.

Around the same time he launched his autobiography, The Rest Is Propaganda, written with the assistance of poet and writer Steve Pottinger. It paints a vivid picture of what it was like for Steve growing up in Dagenham in the late Sixties, and goes on to reveal how he formed Crass with Penny Rimbaud and the reasons for their split in 1984, and his subsequent work with Conflict (one of the longest serving anarcho punk bands whose debut was released by Crass in 1982), Schwartzeneggar (including ex-members of Thatcher on Acid) and, more recently, Stratford Mercenaries (including ex-members of Dirt and Buzzcocks). The book also reveals some of Steve’s interests outside of punk rock including his work as a Punch & Judy performer and as a volunteer with his local lifeboat crew on the Norfolk coast where he now lives.

But all this retrospection in words and from the stage, while both immensely enjoyable and invaluable as documents of our social history, sparks many questions, not least of which about what he plans to do next. So Steve kindly took time out recently to chat with Musique Machine about all this recent activity giving us a chance to find out about his next steps and getting some detailed insights into areas not always covered by his autobiography along the way.

m[m]:
I was at Shepherd’s Bush for your final performances of Crass’ songs – a wonderful, emotionally-charged evening. But it got me wondering that with the Tories in power again making cuts and sending fleets to the Falklands, plus the recent riots on the streets and a growing protest movement, don’t we need Crass more than ever before?

SI:
[laughs] Well, yea, or a band like Crass.

m[m]:
Are you aware of any?

SI:
No

m[m]:
No, nor am I!

SI:
I’m not putting anyone down, but, I just think Crass was Crass really and I don’t think there’s been anything to replace it.

m[m]:
Your autobiography also came out recently. And the combination of this and the final performance seems to draw a very firm line in the sand, like a kind of ‘getting things in order’ - what lead to you drawing this line so firmly making such a final gesture?

SI:
I think because I want to try something new and every band I’ve been in since Crass I’ve always used Crass’ songs and personally I thought it was about time I stopped having that as a cushion to fall back on.

The new thing I want to do – y’know I can’t believe it: I was reading in my local paper the other day Suggs out of Madness is doing his life in words and music, which is exactly what I was going to do. ‘Cept what I wanted to do was obviously talk about me and my time in Crass, ‘cause that’s what people want to hear, with a few anecdotes shoved in, a bit like a spoken word of the book I suppose, but with visuals and with music to create an atmosphere, like watching a little stage/theatre type thing and use very simple props. And I’m still going to go ahead and try it, but what I didn’t want to happen was for people to come along expecting me to do Crass’ songs…

My original idea, believe it or not, was that the whole Last Supper tour would take only two weeks just visiting every major town in as many countries as we could get to, so like London, Paris, Berlin sort of thing, but it didn’t work out like that and even at the time I thought, “Oh Christ, this is really sort of dragging on, I can’t see the end of it”. So, I really wanted to make sure for people that I wasn’t going to milk it for years and years and that this really was finally going to be it and if people come along to see the next thing I do there is no way that they’re going to hear me doing any Crass’ songs. So don’t come along expecting a sort of punk rock evening, that sort of thing, I’ll be talking about Crass but I won’t be performing Crass and, it’s really funny because it don’t matter how many times you say it people will still come, like in America on a couple of the billboards [it said] “Steve Ignorant presents Crass” – I’m not presenting Crass, I’m presenting Crass’ songs, we told you fifteen times you bastard! Just so you can get more people in the door kind of thing, so there was that kind of thing going on.

And with the autobiography, I don’t know, I’ve been trying to do the bloody thing for about twenty years, but I just found it very difficult to write about myself without either bigging myself up too much or putting myself down being overly humble. So when Steve Pottinger came along and we did it that way, I think that took about two years to do actually with all the editing and Christ knows what and corrections and things, and it all sort of culminated at the same time.

m[m]:
‘Cause I was going to ask: what was the writing process for the book?

SI:
Well, Steve would come over, take me down the pub for a couple of beers and get me nattering. The good thing about Steve was that he was never a Crass fan so there wasn’t that bias. So he was more interested in my actual upbringing and stuff like that. So he got into that and he’s very good at [asking] “so what’s your granddad really like?, what clothes did he wear?” and that sort of set off my photographic memory going, click click click, and it just worked really well. Then he’d go back and type it up, send it to me and I’d go “no, that’s too Northern,” ‘cause he’d say “folk” instead of “people” or “bods” instead of “lads” so there was a few dialect things I had to change but it was pretty easy to do actually.

m[m]:
I can imagine if I’d written an autobiography I’d probably come across some memories I didn’t know I’d had, some of which could be painful, some of which might be pleasurable. Was it a bit like rummaging in the back of a closet?

SI:
Yea, it was really weird because there are things that I really remember like textures, smells and sounds, I really tried to really put that across in the book. When I was writing about living with my step-dad and me mum with the cocktail bar, I think I called it “dead-time”, when we were doing that I had this sort of sick feeling in my stomach for about three days ‘cause I could remember exactly what that felt like, so some of it you get these weird hangovers from. But I think the weirdest thing was when it was finally done and printed and I’m signing them at gigs and I was like “Christ, there’s pictures of my mum in there showing her knickers!” and all this personal stuff that no one’s ever seen before and it’s out there now and I can’t take it back. And I’ve made a couple of mistakes in there, the big one being [about] Colin Jerwood, hopefully I’ve rectified that to a certain extent by what I said at Shepherd’s Bush and that chapter’s coming out of the next edition, so hopefully we can sort that out. [Editor’s note: At the end of 2008, Steve was informed that publishing rights for Crass’ songs had been registered under Jerwood’s name, who while a founder member of Conflict was never in Crass. Steve went on to write about the ‘betrayal’ in his autobiography, but has since found out that Jerwood is innocent in the matter prompting a public apology from Steve on stage at the final Last Supper performance.]

m[m]:
Did the process of doing the book instigate the new “life in words and music” project you mention?

SI:
No, I’d been wanting to do it for quite a while because previous to doing Feeding the Five Thousand at Shepherd’s Bush in 2007 and the Last Supper thing I’d been doing spoken word things at a jazz club in Stoke Newington in London and a couple of them went down really well… and then I went to see Henry Rollins and all he did was stand there and talk - by Christ can that bloke talk! - and I thought “do you know what? I really think I could give this a go and make it a bit more interesting by having visuals and stuff and little snippets of music”. So if I’m talking about, I don’t know, 1972 maybe [we’d] have a little bit of Stylistics-type music just to set an atmosphere and sort of do it that way, that’s what I’m really interested in doing.

m[m]:
And how far are you in to getting it on its way?

SI:
Well, obviously, with the tour and everything that took up so much time, you know, doing that bloody thing for eighteen months, and then having to get over Shepherd’s Bush, and now at the moment we’re working on editing the DVD that’s got to come out… with a booklet to go with it and Christ know’s what, so I’ve sort of put everything else on the backburner for the minute but I’ve got some snippets in there and I’ve got some ideas. ‘Cause Carol Hodge and Pete Wilson who did vocals and bass for me at Shepherd’s Bush, I’m going to work with them to do the music for this thing so it’ll be like a little three-piece band.

m[m]:
Is this new music?

SI:
Yea, it’ll be totally different. And the thing that I’m so excited about is that I can do it in smaller places so it won’t be this big sort of ruction going on, I’ll be able to do it in pubs and bookshops or art galleries, you know, different places.

m[m]:
When’s the DVD due out?

SI:
I don’t know, I was talking to Alison [Schnackenberg of Southern Records] saying that this has got to be out by at least June and she was like “yea, let’s use that as the deadline then”, because the plan is to have two DVDs, I’m not sure how it’s going to work, we might release one earlier, I don’t know, one will be just the concert as was, but the other one will be all the outtakes, all the little bits that people haven’t seen: us in the back of the van or sitting at an airport or at rehearsals, all the little bits that people really are interested in, interviews and stuff like that. To go with it I want to have a booklet, obviously I’ll write for that about the whole Last Supper experience and anybody who was involved, from Steve Whale who was the original lead guitarist, Gizz, Bob Butler who played bass originally, anyone who has been involved even if it’s only one sentence just put a little bit in there, and loads and loads of pictures, I want all the visuals we had of all the people who sent in photos of themselves as punks, I want all of them to be in there, so it gives a real atmosphere of the whole tour.

m[m]:
Are these all the pictures that were being shown as a backdrop at the back of the stage? I was hoping that they’d get put on a website or in a book ‘cause with all the great music and action on the stage I didn’t get a chance to look at them as much as I’d like to.

SI:
Yea, definitely, they’ve got to get out ‘cause they’re so lovely and they worked so well with songs rather than pictures of atomic bombs and all that sort of stuff [laughs]. So that’s the idea, that’s going to take quite a while, so what I’ve got, I’m going to look at the DVD I was sent and think “okay, we can take this bit out and put that bit in”, but I’ve yet to look at all the other footage we’ve got so that’s going to take a while to sift through all that lot. Yea, quite a bit of work going on there but it’ll be good.

m[m]:
At the beginning of the gig you entered the stage to music from the film Kes the book of which gets mentioned several times throughout your autobiography. What is it about the story that hit such a chord with you and your life?

SI:
I just think the similarities really; I used to play truant an awful lot and I remember the actual first time I saw a kestrel down at the River Thames, and, I read the book and it’s just the description of the kid’s school and the injustice, I suppose. I really got it and him being left along by his mum and brother ‘cause they go out down the pub on Saturday night and leave him there with a bag of crisps, a bottle of lemonade and this book he’d nicked on falconry, and he’s reading it ‘til dark, and no carpets on the stairs and that really sort of struck a chord with me, and it’s really funny ‘cause a lot of people I’ve spoken to since have had the same thing. I don’t know if you know but first there was a picture of a kestrel come up at Shepherd’s Bush then a picture of a bloke came up and that was Barry Hines the bloke who wrote it.

m[m]:
You sent a copy of your book to him, did you not?

SI:
I did, yea, but, unfortunately, he’s unable to read it. He’s not in a very good way so I’m in touch with his wife so she tells him things, and his wife was there that night, actually, and his son. It was a real privilege for me to meet them I tell you, bloody hell! God! Barry Hines’ son offered to buy me a beer and I went “no”! [laughs] So that had to go up there just as a ‘thank you’, because that book it sparked something in me, that’s all I can say, and set my on the road to where I am now I suppose.

m[m]:
Just as an aside, is it the same Barry Hines that wrote Doctor Who many years ago?

SI:
Yep, I think so, and he also did a film called ‘Threads’ which was about nuclear war. So, yea, he’s done quite a bit of stuff.

m[m]:
The book paints such a vivid picture of what life was like in Dagenham of the late sixties and seventies and in parts reminded me how violent social life could be – particularly in pubs, on the terraces, and later at gigs. I don’t know whether it’s just ‘cause I’m older now, but there doesn’t seem to be anything like the same amount of rucks anymore.

SI:
Thank God!

m[m]:
Yea, so I was wondering whether you had seen that kind of improvement too, however small, in society, compared to that period you were writing about?

SI:
Yea, hard to tell isn’t it, ‘cause you read the media and [find] if you tell a bunch of fifteen year olds to stop throwing litter in the street you might get stabbed or shot. I mean, I live in Norfolk now and the village I live in is so small there’s only 600 people live here so nothing really goes on. They have a live band on down one of the pubs on the beach, it’s called the Reef Bar, they have cover bands doing heavy metal stuff and occasionally you’ll get a couple of blokes slapping chests and a bit of fisticuffs but nothing on the scale that we used to get at gigs in the early Eighties and stuff. So for me, the sort of areas I move in, yea it has improved. But then again, there’s a road in Norwich, the Prince of Wales, where all the clubs and discos are, I used to go to places like that when I was younger, but I don’t go to those places so maybe it is a thing of getting older that you just don’t put yourself in that position no more. I’ve spoken to people about football, ‘cause it’s too expensive for me now, and I’m sort of not into footballer’s at the moment, they’ve got more money than me [laughs], but I’ve even heard there that there’s hardly any violence at it. I think it’s a good thing.

m[m]:
What do you think might have done that then?

SI:
Well, with the football thing it’s got to be the all-seater stadia, plus the CCTV and Thatcher cracking down on the ICF and the Chelsea Headhunters and all that and banging them up. That really did put a stop to it, and I just think that generation grew up. And couldn’t do it no more, got too fat and bald for it [laughs]. And with pubs and things, I mean you still see people falling over and being a bit aggressive and stuff but, I don’t know, pubs have changed.

m[m]:
Well, yea, they have, they’re more like restaurants now.

SI:
Yea, you go there to eat food rather than drink beer. Well, I don’t, but that’s what people seem to do. So I really don’t know, but I daresay I’d have a different slant on it if I was still going to De Niro’s nightclub or something and having nine Jägerbombs for two quid and then trying to cop off with someone else’s girlfriend kind-of-thing, then it might be a totally different story. But I quite like not seeing all that horrible violence stuff anymore.

m[m]:
Well, I wonder whether it’s something to do with social groups like the ones Crass was very important to that promoted a non-violent message and then, maybe, there was something about rave culture where everyone was too busy getting loved-up?

SI:
Yea, do you know what, I’d agree with you on that. That rave scene was never for me, I couldn’t get into it, but what I realised was… [while] you didn’t see a lot of black people at Crass gigs and it was still a bigger proportion of men to women… even though we had Eve and all those feminist-type songs, it wasn’t until after rave came along that you had this scene with all types, all sexes getting it on together. And, I think you’re right ‘cause that was the generation that could have been the next wave of violent bloody skinheady hoodlumy whatevers and, yea, as you say, they spent all their time getting loved up and spending extortionate amounts of money on bottles of water, but there you go! [laughs] But they weren’t hurting anyone so let them have it.

m[m]:
When you first witnessed punk rock breaking out, seeing the Pistols on telly and The Clash at Colston Hall, was the initial attraction the political side, or the fashion or the music?

SI:
No, it weren’t political at all ‘cause I wasn’t political in those days so, it would have been the fashion, it would have been the look and it would have definitely been the music and it would have been people singing in a proper Cockney accent or a London accent as regards to Steve Harley. I always liked Cockney Rebel, and I was like “d’you know what? This one’s for me,” it’s not people when they come off stage talking in sort of hairy fairy, ten syllables, [affects a posh accent] nicely-spoken people, it was just people sounding like me and I was like “Blimey! I can understand this, I can get into it, and I can afford it”. I could afford to get into it ‘cause all you had to do was get some old crap out of Oxfam and there you were, there’s your new fashion thing and I thought it was great, I mean it really turned me on, man. Out went my smart leather-soled shoes and my jeans from Jean Junction… a total revelation and I loved it, it was great.

m[m]:
But then Crass seem to me to be the first punk band to be properly political – you walked the walked…

SI:
Yea, the funny thing is me and Pen certainly didn’t start Crass thinking “oh, we’re going to be this political band all dressed in black” sort of thing. First it was just going to be me and him on drums and vocals and I thought “oh God, that’s going to bomb”, and then gradually other people joined. I mean Pete Wright didn’t look anything like a punk rocker, he used to wear jesus-creeper sandal-y type things and funny knitted jumpers. We always used to do these gigs and we would get really, really drunk and it was all just a laugh and all this kind of thing and it weren’t until when we got banned from The Roxy and we all sat down and Pen left the band for about two hours and then came back and then Andy Palmer left the band for two hours ‘cause he got pissed off with Pen having left, all this sort of stuff, but then we sat down and talked about it and we just said “look, let’s look at these lyrics we’ve written, obviously they mean something so let’s straighten up our act”.

And then what started happening was that we started noticing things around us, like the SPG [the Special Patrol Group of the Royal Ulster Constabulary accused of colluding with illegal paramilitary groups in Seventies’ Northern Ireland], the Sus Law came in [a stop-and-search law of England and Wales that got abused and was thought to be a catalyst for the race riots of 1981], this kind of stuff, the riots kicked off, the National Front [NF] were sticking their ‘oot in, all this kind of stuff, and suddenly we found ourselves writing about these things, and then suddenly we found ourselves with an audience who agreed with it and the next thing we know there was this sort of, I don’t know, not a movement or anything, but there was just this thing.

Well, first of all what happened was that the SWP [Socialist Workers’ Party] wanted us to be their spokes-band and we went “No!” and they went “Well, if you’re not right [wing], why not?” and we went “We’re not left wing” and they went “well, you must be right wing, then, and you’re all dressed in black so you must be fascists” and we were like “nah.” And then I think we got a call through, not from the NF but something affiliated with it, who wanted us to do some benefits for them or do some gigs, ‘cause at the beginning we did have quite a few skinheads following us, and we said “no” and they said “well, if you’re not right wing you must be left wing” and we’re like, “ah for fuck’s sake!” So, that’s when we said we’d call ourselves anarchists. Then the problem we had was that people’s idea of an anarchist was a bearded hippy throwing a bomb, so then we had to put up the peace symbol to show we were pacifists and we were anti-nuclear and it just went on and on and we got into it and couldn’t get out of it [laughs].

Then we started getting visits from really hard-line Dutch, French and Italian anarchist groups and stuff like that, and that, for me, is when I think it changed: it was something I had to start taking really seriously, really thinking about what I was writing, and this would have been ‘round about ‘Stations…’ [Crass’ second album], and that’s when I stopped writing so much because the stuff that I wanted to write which was ‘Owe Us a Living-y’, ‘So What-y’ -type things suddenly didn’t fit in anymore with the real political, more highbrow stuff that Penny and Pete Wright were writing. But I was quite content to go along and still do the vocals ‘cause I agreed with it and I trusted it. I didn’t worry about it – after Crass I joined Conflict and wrote a load of stuff for them and also with Schwartzeneggar and Stratford Mercenaries, you know, I wrote all the lyrics for those two bands and so, suddenly I realised I could still write, but I’d be really hard-pressed to write a political song now, I think. What have I got to moan amount, I’ve live in a really nice place in a really nice village by the bloody seaside so I don’t see what I’ve got to fucking moan about! Apart from the water bills – we’re on a water meter – and bloody council tax or something – fucking hell! [laughs]

m[m]:
I know that the power of retrospect can be a funny thing but my impression of when the Sex Pistols talked about anarchy in the UK they were talking about anarchy just in terms of chaos – the thrill, the fun of it – and I struggle to find an truly anarchist punk band before Crass…

SI:
Yea, I know what you mean and I’d agree with that because I don’t think anyone else was doing it, I think we had nothing to lose so we just did what we wanted really.

m[m]:
So, where did it come from?

SI:
Well, for me it came from years of injustice from teachers, parents and Christ knows what, you know and grown-ups and things. I think for the others, they’d all individually been in folk bands and stuff like that or had done performance art and stuff but Crass gave us all a certain soap box to stand on or a foot in the door so that people would listen to what we were saying, I think that’s maybe where it came from, years and years of bloody built-up anger.

And we did take it seriously, the idea of anarchism, and we got laughed at ‘cause people say “How can you have anarchy and peace, or have an anarchist state without first having a socialist then a communist fucking thing…” and I was like “I don’t know, I don’t know” like a little parrot, “I don’t know!” and “ask Pen!”. But the funny thing is, John Lydon a couple of years ago, he’s probably forgotten, it’s probably one of his flippant statements that he usually makes but he said “the only true anarchists are football hooligans” and I thought “Thanks John, you try telling that to all the people in Toronto or Seattle who have reclaimed streets and been out there on Stop the City marches and [are] still out there doing soup kitchens and Christ knows what, right, thanks for that mate now I know where you stand having seen you doing your butter advert!”. There was a time I’d have liked to have met the bloke, now I’m not so sure. I’ve been told that when he’s being Johnny Rotten he’s a complete and utter bastard and when he’s being John Lydon he’s not so bad, but why can’t he just be John Lydon then? And just be a nice bloke to talk to rather than sneer, oh, I don’t know I could go on about that bloke…

But I agree with what you’re saying, we were one of the first bands to do that but I think people had been doing it in music before: people like John Cage in experimental music or jazz or, certainly you can go back to Billie Holliday and stuff like that, certainly with that song, ‘Strange Fruit’, “hanging from the tree”, which is about a lynching. So that kind of thing you could say was political. Elvis Presley was apparently political in the sense of he was banned from having his legs shown wiggling about on TV and according to Penny Rimbaud The Beatles were sort of revolutionary, so it’s been going on for ages, but I think in the way that we were doing it, like, really hard-line, saying “this is really fucking wrong” and “sort it out you bastards” I think we were the first ones to do it and then of course other people picked up on that which was great and carried it on. And I think that the music industry and the establishment, we did give it a run for its money at one point. Didn’t stop it, didn’t particularly change it but we had a bloody good go at it, I mean, Christ, what a laugh that was.

m[m]:
You might not like me saying it, but again with the power of hindsight what Crass did, maybe inadvertently, was kind of bridge the gap between the punk and hippy movements, although most documentaries on punk will tell you punk destroyed all the noodley progressive rock coming out of hippy rock bands, but in terms of social ideas I sort of see Crass as almost triggering off the new age traveller movement…

SI:
Well, yea, I think we did. I always thought that that noodley music where you’d go to a local concert and all you’d see is a bloke with his centre parting bent over his acoustic guitar – diddley, diddley – you know, I hated that stuff. But I always said to people “look, it’s all very well to say ‘never trust a hippy!’ and all this kind of thing, but, a lot of good came out of that movement”: you had the homeless centres, the drop-in centres where people could try and sort out their drug problem, you had Release [an agency] where you could go to get a free solicitor if you was in trouble with the law, the squatters’ movement, all this kind of thing. You had the book, ‘Alternative London’, which showed you how to live virtually for free by living out of skips, the first time recycling was bloody heard of ‘cause that’s what that book was all about, so we took those things… and out of that came, as you say, the peace convoys, the new age travellers, we all had a similar sort of ideal. Although I was never into that travelling thing and I’ve never been into outside festivals, I really hate them, [but] we totally embraced it and I think it was a bridge, and I’m pretty proud of that because it stopped all that silly thing of “oh, hippies are boring”, yea, alright, they might be, but – just remember all these good things came out of it and I think it was a positive thing.

m[m]:
The documentary films on punk movement naturally focus on the biggest acts, but there seems to be an ever-increasing amount of retrospectives looking on that particular time. While I’ve seen ‘No Authority But Yourself’ made by some Dutch guys, and very interesting though it was, it seemed to just focus on Dial House and not so much the band. So why haven’t we seen something the equal of these other documentaries that covers what you were up to?

SI:
Yea, that could be a problem as there’s very little live footage of Crass. I think that’s maybe the major stumbling block. But, yea, it’s very odd that there hasn’t been a documentary even if not about Crass but [about] all the bands that came along as well, like your Conflicts, your Subhumans, Poison Girls etcetera etcetera. There’s got to be footage of some of those bands playing, there must be, and of life in general at that time, shots of the street, all the fashions, all that sort of thing, so, yea, I’m surprised, I don’t know why… maybe people’d prefer to watch bleedin’ Billy Eyeball yackering on about what a punk rocker he was and then he’s sodded off to Los Angeles where he still lives [laughs], doing really punk rock music, Bill! Or, you know, Adam Ant, what a little pop star he’s turned out to be, as I wrote in the book, I thought that was a great shame ‘cause when I saw Adam Ant I really liked his whole take on it which was a very Cabaret, decadent, Berlin-y  and he was calling it ‘Sensual Revolution’ and I thought that’s really good and then he wanted to be a rock star and he got in with whats-‘is-face… Malcolm McClaren and became that pirate and the rest is history. I don’t know, maybe people are more interested in that kind of thing, or on the other hand it could be because the way those bands were, all of us, we were really political – you had Greenham Common at the time, you had the miners’ strike the Falklands’ War, and we were all really, really anti-establishment, so who the bloody hell’s going to show that? We might incite riots again mightn’t we? [laughs]

 

m[m]:
In the book you describe the recording of the first two albums live to tape, and most of the songs you selected for the Last Supper were from those two LPs, and your book barely mentions the other LPs – Penis Envy I get because Eve Libertine did all the vocals – but you very briefly refer to ‘Yes Sir, I Will’ as “avant garde semi jazz bullshit” and you don’t refer to ‘Christ – The Album’ at all. And I just wondered what’s different about those albums that meant they didn’t feature much, if at all, in the book?

SI:
Well, Christ – The Album, I think we did a couple of songs out of that at Shepherd’s Bush. We did ‘Feeding…’ which I love and we did ‘Penis Envy’ and then we did ‘Stations…’ and then ‘Christ – The Album’ was really our concept album, you know the boxed thing, and we took ages and ages to record it, and I think at that time it was already maybe too political for me, and it was already by then maybe a job, I mean we were touring all the time plus recording other bands so it had become 24 hours a day, seven days a week sort of thing. And ‘Yes Sir, I Will’, I don’t really know what to say about it; if you read it, which I dip into it sometimes, I mean it is pretty much a catalogue of what was going on at that time, and obviously ‘Penis Envy’ I wasn’t involved in. ‘Acts of Love’, that’s Pen’s personal poetry put to music, the ’10 Notes on a Summer’s Day’ thing, which was the last thing we did under the name of Crass, I just can’t bear that bloody thing at all, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with Crass whatsoever. So didn’t mention ‘em. I didn’t want the Crass bit to sort of take over the whole book. I don’t know, maybe in the future I’ll write a more in-depth book about my time in Crass, which could really give all that information and stuff… I don’t know to tell you the truth.

m[m]:
Was there something different about the way you recorded those later albums, or were they still recorded the same way as ‘Feeding…’ and ‘Stations…’?

SI:
No, we recorded them differently. The main thing – I would only go in when I had to do vocals, so it had changed in that way, and we’d sort of become a ‘proper’ band then, and I didn’t like it so much, well, actually, I didn’t give a shit. After ‘Stations…’, none of them albums had the same oomph for me that the first two had and I think, as you say, looking back in hindsight, maybe we’d sort of hit the pinnacle at ‘Stations…’. Other people have got their different opinions, they’ll say that Christ was the best thing we ever did, but… as far as I was concerned by the time we’d done ‘Stations…’ we’d sort of said it and done it.

m[m]:
You’re clear in the book about the reasons for leaving the band – and living somewhere where no alcohol’s allowed for five years I think’s enough to put anyone off – but this was only a small part of the strict, disciplined behaviour that you all followed without much in the way of respite. Now, do you feel these sort of ideals of anarchy and freedom are pragmatically unsustainable?

SI:
Well, what I’d say is if you try and live your life in the way that we lived, as I describe in the book, either you’ll end up going screaming mad or you’ll just become like a recluse, Zen Buddhist-y type thing. Which, if you want to do that, it’s not a bad thing, you’re not hurting anybody, but – having got older, I’ve got this thing called a mortgage and there’s this thing called the water meter I’ve got to pay and electricity and Christ knows what and for that you’ve got to have this stuff called money which I never used to worry about before and now it’s a real, bloody concern ‘cause I ain’t got none. I’ve got a tab down the pub at the moment, but I’m going to have to pay that off soon. So for me it became unrealistic and untenable to live like that because I didn’t want to end up being a recluse, basically.

m[m]:
Removed from society…

SI:
Yea, it’s too far, I want to let off steam sometimes, I do like going down the pub now and then and talking a load of bullshit with the blokes, mouthing off about Wayne Rooney and what a spud-faced twat he is, and “did you see the boxing the other night?”, blah blah, telling dirty jokes and things. And I don’t see anything wrong with that anymore. Then again, having said that, I’m still up against it, still got this bloody skin problem – I have to pull people up on using certain words and then getting into an argument with that, so it’s still there, still doing a little bit of fighting thing.

It’s relaxed a real lot down at Dial House, it’s not that extreme anymore, and I think even Pen and Gee came to realise that, I think the older they got the less they could live like that. At some point, you know I’m 54 now, and I’m already looking at the garden thinking “bloody hell, one of these days this is going to get a bit much for me”. I’ve got this stuff called running hot water, Pen and Gee haven’t, they’ve got an immersion heater or whatever it is, but there’s running hot water in the bathroom but there’s not any running hot water in kitchen, and they’ve only recently got a wood burner in and they’re in their sixties now so they’re not getting any younger and it gets really bloody damp in that house, so it’s all this sort of stuff which must change, you know, your ideals, just for survival.

m[m]:
Well, kind of linked to that, when you announced from the stage about, you mentioned it earlier, the chapter in your book about Colin Jerwood and the publishing rights issues - whoever was involved, it reminded me of back in the day when all the anarcho punk bands and the fanzines seemed instead of focussing on either the music or the lyrics were more often endlessly debating and defending their actions, that often left them ripe for ripping off.

SI:
Yea, absolutely!

m[m]:
So again, a bit like the unsustainable lifestyle, I wonder whether there’s a bit of a blood and water thing where money doesn’t mix with the anarcho ideals?

SI:
Well, I’ve still been slated for apparently being a bit of a millionaire now since doing Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and I can assure you I’m not.

m[m]:
But, as if that would be a bad thing?

SI:
Yea, I know, I agree with you, I spend more time thinking about what people will think about what I’m earning rather than concentrating on the bloody job I should be doing which is writing bloody songs. Do you know what I mean? It’s like me and Carol and Pete and all the band, we did all sign a contract together saying “this is the way it is and at the end of it this is the way it is”, it makes it a lot easier than having this mish mash which happened with Crass. The more I’ve got into it the more you realise, bloody hell, basically you’ve got to cover your arse on every possible angle. We had to stick up a notice on the door [of Shepherd’s Bush] saying “This is being filmed tonight so if you don’t want to be filmed let the management know or whatever”, you know, or put a mask on or something, because you never know someone might come back and say I didn’t give you permission to use my image. And I had to get all of the band to sign a disclaimer saying they gave me their permission to use their images on the DVD – “yeah, but you’re all mates aren’t you?” – ah, but sometimes it don’t work like that and its better to have a bit of paper saying this is what you agreed with, that’s it, hard and fast. But it just wasn’t the done thing back in the day, was it? It was like we was all punks and anarchists and “we don’t do all that shit, mate”. Idiots! [laughs]

m[m]:
Putting the message aside and thinking of the music itself, Crass’ sound while obviously punk isn’t merely simple three chord thrash, it’s got a kind of avant-garde feel to it, a more interesting sound.

SI:
I think the reason for that is none of us were musicians. Pen had two drum beats – he had his jazz, avant-garde-y drum beat then he had his ‘Banned from the Roxy, military type drum beat and then he had his “boom-tit, a-boom-boom-tit” drum beat, which was basically what you got from Pen. Pete could sort of play bass pretty well, and Phil could sort of play the guitar, but you have to remember that Pen came up through avant-garde music and jazz and all this sort of stuff, and plus The Beatles so you had that influence, you had Pete Wright coming up through Frank Zappa and Christ knows what, so you had that influence coming in there, Phil Free I don’t know particularly what he was into, can’t remember now, and then me coming up from ska, David Bowie and , as I say, Cockney Rebel, all that sort of stuff, so you’ve got all these different influences, none of us could play a note so we’re all writing the songs, I mean, I certainly used to write the songs to someone else’s music knowing that by the time we come out of the rehearsal studio it’s going to sound nothing like it, still, no one’s going to know.

And also the way we used to work, Pen wouldn’t say “can you put a bit more treble on your guitar Phil?”, he would say “look, make your guitar sound like it’s strangling someone” and so it would be in terms of atmosphere. I think that’s the lucky thing we had, because we didn’t get bogged down in “right, we got C and G chords … oh, it’s got to be a D chord after that”, or “no, we got to go to a minor” or whatever musicians do… we could do whatever we wanted, why can’t you have a verse that’s seven and a half lines long? And why can’t you have a chord that really shouldn’t go there? Give it a go, it’s punk rock, anything goes, do it yourself. So that’s what we used to do and I think that’s what made it different. And, plus, ‘cause I was the only one really into The Clash, The Sex Pistols and stuff, no one else particularly was, [so] none of us were trying to copy them, or rip-off their basslines or do a Ramones type-thing, it’s obvious from the sort of songs we were writing it wouldn’t fit that music anyway.

m[m]:
After Crass you went on to work briefly with Current 93, one of the stranger bands that emerged around the time and still going strong. And in the book, along with ska, Bowie and The Clash, but you also cite Mahler and Burt Bacharach as being your choice of music. Do you still listen to such a wide range of styles?

SI:
Oh yea.

m[m]:
What are you listening to at the moment?

SI:
Well, the other day I got given that new Amy Winehouse album… I briefly heard it the other night and it sounded really good. I’m still listening to my Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, Sonny Rollins, I still got my Burt Bacharach there with all different artists on it. Vaughan Williams I’m still listening to, I recently got a CD of his that’s got a thing called ‘Norfolk Rhapsody’ so I got to have that. The Ruts, of course, I’m back into, and funnily enough I’m trying to find a lot of old English Music Hall music.

m[m]:
Oh yea, ‘cause that links in with your interest in Punch & Judy.

SI:
Yea, and that’s why I like Shepherd’s Bush ‘cause it’s an old music hall. And people like Marie Lloyd performed there.

m[m]:
So who were the key figures in that then?

SI:
Well, Marie Lloyd and Maurice Chevalier, there was a bloke called George Robey which is why the pub in Finsbury Park is called that, ‘cause there used to be a music hall at Finsbury Park as well. But best of all, I reckon, was a bloke called Gus Elen, and he used to do songs like ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses In Between” and a lot of his songs were social statement but tongue-in-cheek with double entendres and stuff like that. That’s what I’m really into. There’s a song, not by Gus Elen, but it’s seemingly innocent, called ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, you might have heard it [sings] “with an independent air, you can hear the girls declare, he must be a millionaire … you can see the girls and make them cry, and see them wink the other eye!” and, suddenly it’s like “you dirty old bugger!”. And ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-wow’, apparently it’s about a girl and she sits on a bench and isn’t wearing any knickers, but I’ve got to re-check the lyrics on that, but it’s something about that… anyway, I could go on for ages about it, but I won’t. But I’m really intrigued by it because I’d just loved to have seen it.

m[m]:
And does anyone continue the style on these days?

SI:
Well, you can get CDs off the internet now, and I’ve got a couple. But the only time you’ll really see it done is sort of Christmas time but that tends to be like, ‘Oh, I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ you don’t get the dark, or darker, or more risqué songs, it’s all ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’, you know? So, it’s very difficult to find it, you know, I don’t know maybe I’ll take that on as a career one day [laughs].

m[m]:
You mention the dark side to it, and I don’t know anything about it, but is there a dark side to Punch & Judy? I know there’s domestic violence…

SI:
Yea, very much so. I’ll try and make it brief but basically, it was never called Punch & Judy, that came later, it was always called Punch’s Opera, or The Dominion of Fancy. And the dark bits in it weren’t necessarily the hanging scene, but the dark bits – you certainly won’t see them if you go and see a Punch & Judy show now-a-days - but there used to be a blind character, the blind man knocked on Punch’s door and Punch would open the door and the blind man obviously didn’t know the door had opened so he’d hit Punch on the nose and Punch would say “why are you hitting me on the nose?” and the blind man would say “can you spare a penny for a blind man who lost his sight in the sands of Egypt?” which makes no sense to anybody until you research it and it’s when the English were deployed against Napolean’s forces in the desert in Egypt and there used to be this sand fly that would lay its eggs in your eye and give you either a temporary or permanent blindness. If you got that you got sent back to England and left to beggar on the streets. So it was a slight sort of comment on that.

And there always used to be a doctor in Punch & Judy but doctors, in the beginning of the medical profession, doctors were absolutely hated because the way they used to do their dissections or their autopsies was to use the dead bodies of hung people and the families weren’t allowed to claim the bodies back, so it really is very dark. Very, very dark indeed.

m[m]:
So were you tempted to incorporate any of these darker aspects into your shows?

SI:
Yea, I tried. People didn’t get it. You know, they didn’t understand. It was hard enough with kids and a hanging scene, you know “oh, don’t show the hanging scene!” – kids don’t even know what it is. If I was to have an alien coming out the corner they’d probably be able to understand that, but hanging… and no kiddy’s going to play that in the kitchen, for Christ’s sake, and, anyway, it’s not about the actual hanging itself, it’s all the jokes that go around it. And the fact that punch was the only person who could trick the hangman into his own noose and get away with it. At the time, we’re talking Victorian times, there was over one hundred different words for hanging, and there was riddles and things like “who will piss when they cannot whistle?” - that’s a hanged man, “who wets his trousers and lolls out his tongue?” – that’s a hanged man, to be hung was to “dangle in the Sheriff’s picture frame”, “to dance the Paddington frisk” and you’re talking about being hung for nothing more than a loaf of bread. And people’s life expectancy – they didn’t expect to live past 21, most people expected to end up being hung, so the whole Punch & Judy thing it’s about that.

m[m]:
Well, I wonder with the domestic violence stuff I was aware of, whether that ever caused problems with modern audiences?

SI:
No, I think that’s the way you present it. ‘Cause the main thing you do, you don’t have gratuitous violence in it and you make sure it is slapstick, and that it’s funny. And the baby gets thrown out the window, so what I used to do with that is I made the baby look so ugly that no one would care particularly if it was thrown out the window. But what I used to do is to get Judy to ask to get the baby back, and then she’d give it back to Punch and then Punch would throw it out the window, and the kids could pick it up so they could see it wasn’t dead or anything like that. Punch only hit his victims once, there was no need to do it anymore and it’s just the threat of it and the violent scenes are very short, it’s more to do with the puns and the actual movement of the characters and after every show I always made sure that the kids could put the puppets on their hands so they could see that it wasn’t real. And they could move it and you’d suddenly see their eyes light up… So, yea, it’s a very fine line.

m[m]:
And might any aspect of this be used in the touring show you’re planning?

SI:
Oh I’m sure it will slip in somewhere.

m[m]:
You mentioned that you were working with some of the guys in the Last Supper band too in preparation for the touring show – what sort of style of music is that making?

SI:
Well, the only way I can describe it is like you get background music in films? Sort of like that.

m[m]:
What, like ambient music?

SI:
Yea, I don’t know if you watch the old black-and-white kitchen sink dramas? But there’s one called ‘A Taste of Honey’, well that sort of music. Just to illustrate little themes and I really want to give that a go.

m[m]:
With lyrics?

SI:
It will be with lyrics, well, they’ll be a couple of songs in there. You know, I’m trying to write stuff at the moment, jot down bits and pieces, but I got a couple of things that I’ve never used yet and I’ll give that a go, so, hopefully it’ll work out alright.

m[m]:
And I also saw that this weekend you’re in London at a convention…

SI:
Yea, this conference thing, oh, I’m on a panel – oh, Christ…

m[m]:
What’s that about?

SI:
Do you know what? I don’t know! I know it’s about the politicisation of music, so I don’t know what questions I’m going to get asked, I’ll just have a few beers and see what happens.

m[m]:
Are you expecting more of that kind of thing in future?

SI:
No, I don’t know really, I’ve got a feeling it’s all going to go very quiet for me. I got invited to do a punk festival in Wales but it’s too soon. And, I might go up to Rebellion in Blackpool [an annual punk rock festival] this year but I don’t know if I’m going to do anything there yet. I’m just waiting to see, I’ve been saying to people that I might take a year, year-and-a-half off just to make sure what I do next is absolutely spot on ‘cause I don’t want it to be crap. And I want to make sure that what I’m doing I’m comfortable with and that Pete and Carol are comfortable with it and that it works, basically.

m[m]:
You’re part of the local lifeboat crew. What happens if you get the call when you’re down the pub and have had a few?

SI:
Well, you run down to the boat station as fast as you can, the coxsone will then choose his crew. If you’re too much under the influence you won’t go out on that boat, and if all the crew are pissed out their nuts – which they won’t be – you’re stood down. I mean basically every boatshed, the limit is twenty, twenty five minutes to be on the water, we can do it in seven to nine minutes, I mean that’s the usual thing. But if you’re not on the water by a certain time you are stood down. And it looks pretty bad on you, so, you’ve always got it at the back of your mind. I mean, we’re pretty safe at this time of year in these rough seas they’ll get the all-weather boat out from Great Yarmouth, the RNLI – we’re independent of the RNLI – but someone else with go rather than us. Summer is our busier time so we’re pretty safe at the moment.

m[m]:
And how often do you find yourself getting the call?

SI:
Depends, the year before last we had 19 shouts, last year we had about eight, so, it depends. You get a really good, hot summer down here and you’re going to get the idiots out who drink too much then float away on their inflatable banana [laughs]. Or kids go missing, stuff like that, but, thank Christ, they tend to be lost on the beach and found – they’re the worst ones is the kids – because you know by the time someone’s phoned in that’ll be twenty minutes to half hour already by the time you’re all launched and stuff so you could say it’s a good hour so if the kiddy’s in the water it’s been gone for an hour so, either you’re stood down within twenty minutes of looking for the kid or you know you’re looking for a dead body.

m[m]:
Blimey!

SI:
It’s horrible, isn’t it? And that’s the one that really strikes fear into you, it’s like “oh God, no, it’s a kid” or a dog or something like that. But, that’s what we’re there for. Touch wood, the only kid we’ve been called out for is last year and she was found, in a café, but we were really fucking cacking it. So, yea, all exciting stuff.


Many thanks go to Steve Ignorant for taking time to chat with us.
To keep up-to-date with all of Steve’s activities visit www.steveignorant.co.uk

Pictures taken by R.Cuzner @ Steve Ignorant’s The Last SupperShepherd’s Bush Empire, London 18/11/11

Russell Cuzner
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