Still Ignorant, not so Crass
Gal détourN talked to former Crass frontman Steve Ignorant about punk, Burt Bacharach and Punch and Judy
'It's not an alternative to anything, it's just shit. How can you be an alternative to the music industry when 75 per cent of the time your PA doesn't work. Stupid.' This assessment of punk's DIY ethos comes from Steve Ignorant, former frontman not only of Crass but of the whole alternative music scene.
In the late 1970s and early 80s Crass were the ultimate politicised cult band. Questions were asked about them in the House of Commons because of their anti-Falklands War record 'How does it feel (To be the mother of a thousand dead)?' and they fooled the Observer with a hoax tape of Thatcher and Reagan talking about the Bomb. On more than one occasion they found themselves banned and, despite doing everything on their own label, they still managed to outsell major label bands like AC/DC. They also released Bjork's first band Kukl, a fact for which they are rarely credited.
But legions of 'anarcho-punk' bands soon followed, and a new strain of right-on, vegetarian, moralistic dropouts were born - the forerunners of new-age travellers.
'Other bands came along and they were a fucking nightmare', Steve Ignorant recalls. '"Take milk in your tea?", er yeah, "wear leather?", er yeah, "is that carrot organic?", oh fuck off, please, fascist bastards! But those bands got labelled "Crass" bands, and then that became what we supposedly were.'
Although Ignorant readily admits that Crass were too purist - 'we should have dealt with the music press, we cut our own throats' - he has no sympathy for the almost religious PC extremes that some followers went to. 'I remember talking to one bloke after a gig, and he was trying to be so non-sexist, non-racist, non-"everythingist", that he couldn't say anything! The language just wasn't there. What are you trying to say? If you like the look of that bird over there, well just say it.' He points out that the all-black Crass uniform, that many followers dutifully adopted as a pseudo-political statement, actually came about when a washing machine accident turned all their clothes dark.
In their prime, Crass were invited by EMI to sign a deal with Polydor - they refused. 'We went along and considered it, and they said, "we can market your revolution and get you into property in Gidea Park". We were like, "you've got to be fucking joking!".
'Would I go for it now? Yes I would. I think times have changed, to do it on your own is virtually impossible. It's all so sewn up. You can't even play in London without having to agree not to play in the same area for two weeks before or after - and this is just for a bloody pub. If a major label made sure the product was being produced, and then dealt with it afterwards, I'd love it, but a lot of "alternative" labels don't, or can't, do that.'
These days Steve Ignorant is suited and booted, plays a mean piano, and expresses an appreciation for Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Miles Davies and Shirley Bassey. 'It's only now that I've finished with Crass that I realise how brilliant those musicians are. Once you start trying to play those songs you realise how intricate they are; the arrangements are amazing.' Although Crass did experiment, the 'punk' for which they are remembered had its limitations. Ignorant regrets not having had the kind of musical career that would have enabled him to work with people like Bacharach and Paul Weller: 'Noel Gallagher gets the chance to sing one of Burt's songs, what a bastard!'
So does 'punk' mean anything now? 'Yep, a bloke with a mohican haircut, very brightly coloured, tartan bondage trousers with a Carling Black Label bum flap, leather jacket with Chron Gen, Crass and a Dead Kennedys symbol on it somewhere, steel toecap Doc Marten's, 24-hole with red laces, and a stud in his tongue, very spotty, holding a can of Special Brew down the King's Road!'
It should be apparent that Steve Ignorant is not the dour moralist that some might expect. 'I'm not going to spend the rest of my life in that dark corner that I used to. Once you get to 40, you realise you've got 40 left if you're lucky. I'm gonna live my life and have a bloody good laugh doing it. I think you have to go through that snarling rage thing that Crass went through, and then you start, not mellowing, but just getting things in a better perspective.'
Until a couple of years ago Ignorant made a living by performing Punch and Judy. 'That was bringing in good money, but it has to be kept traditional, with the hanging scene and all the kickings, farts and baby bashing; it's meant to be a scream against authority.' He is derisive of right-on reworkings where Punch ends up cuddling a bunny rabbit, because, like so much in society, he believes that there are too many fools following too many rules and taking the polite, safe option. 'Everyone's playing safe, look at the fuss that bloke from East 17 went through because he said he liked taking E; what's so bad about that?'
Any closing remarks? 'Yeah, I wished I'd have punched more people in the face for being such bastards to me or others.' He's obviously dumped the pacifism as well.
Steve Ignorant is now a songwriter and performer with the band Stratford Mercenaries. He will shortly be writing his memoirs of the Crass years
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999