One of the most important aspects of the punk rock revolution was the liberation it provided. Liberation in music. Liberation in fashion. Liberation in art. It truly kicked open doors in the culture of the 1970s and ushered in a new dawn of excitement and opportunity for those willing and wanting to embrace it. Music, fashion and art, however, do not really change the world. They merely enhance lives.
However, very quickly, a consortium of like-minded folk was formed by two individuals wanting to adopt the liberation punk provided. And take it somewhere. They created a vehicle allowing music and art to be more than mere entertainment. To try and effect change. And moreover, they did it themselves. DIY punk rock. Without the help (hinderance?) of a record company contract. Or a Svengali-style manager. Or cheap publicity. It had integrity. A lifestyle was created, which could operate independently. People were encouraged to join. It showed what could be achieved and the freedom it could provide.
It could be used as a way of getting a point of view across. It allowed anarchism as an ideology. Not something a record label would really allow. Labels may allow a band to have the odd slogan here and there. But not the advocation of direct action. Too risky. Record labels want sales. And these sales will influence how that label promotes its artist.
Crass had no such worries.
The founders of Crass were Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant. As this article is dealing with individuals the focus will be on Steve Ignorant. However, expect a future article on Penny further down the line. To form such a collective, and develop it, make both these founding members hugely significant figures. And the same applies to the band’s other members.
Steve Ignorant, originally Steven Williams, was born in 1957. Penny, thirteen years older than Steve, was already part of the counter-culture scene. This helped in their working relationship, balancing Steve’s youthful exuberance. Rimbaud had been through it all before. He co-founded the Stonehenge festival with Wally Hope (AKA Phil Russell) in the early seventies. This could clumsily be termed a ‘hippy festival’. Not someone an angry young Clash fan would necessarily align himself with. Russell was subsequently incarcerated in a mental institution for possessing a small amount of LSD. He died after his release. Penny suspected foul play. He was angry. The establishment and system were the enemy and it was time to wage war.
On the face of it, the partnership of Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud was an unlikely one. But quite ‘punk’ in my opinion. As in doing exactly what you want, and with who you want. A uniting of kindred spirits, as it turned out. A common bond. Steve decided to form a band after going to see The Clash;
‘Joe Strummer said, ‘If you think you can do better then go and start your own fucking band.’ So, I thought, brilliant.’ Steve Ignorant, Freq, 2011.
His mates in Essex weren’t into the idea, so he went to Dial House, a commune where Penny Rimbaud was based on the edge of Epping Forest. Penny agreed to play drums in Steve’s band. Crass. Other members Andy Palmer, Joy De Vivre, Pete Wright, Eve Libertine and Steve Herman soon joined, and the foundations were in place. Some of these members were residing at the commune.
‘They would learn from me. I would be like ‘why are you being so wordy? Why use ten words when you can just say fuck off?’ – Steve Ignorant.
Crass helped invent DIY punk. And inspired millions. And in doing so they had no restriction on their actions. It created a genuine punk ideology. It had a large element of anti-consumerism. No pandering to the masses. Individual empowerment was encouraged. As was the effectiveness of communities. Alternative methods of expression and the co-ordination of activities were employed, whether it be promoting a new record release or planning an animal rights protest, for example. All possible, due to the fact they were DIY. The definition of it. To the letter. Crass could connect directly in a way they wanted with their public. Steve has played down the claim that they DELIBERATELY invented DIY punk, however;
‘I think one misconception that people may have is that we deliberately started the DIY scene and we didn’t, you know? We just used what we had around us. The banners were made of old bed sheets, we painted everything black because that was what we had in the shed.’ Steve ignorant, Bad Feeling, 2017
Whatever the reason, the invention was there. DIY punk was born.
And then they invented and developed something else. Something that went hand in hand with DIY punk. Anarcho-punk. Anarchism was already part of England’s counter-culture scene. However, the punk revolution unleashed a new stream of anger which needed a home. A proper one, not just something hanging on to the coat tails of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Steve and Penny invented a new subculture. It had to have meaning, especially lyrically. When Steve belted a barrage of words and messages across the verse of a Crass song, those lyrics demanded further investigation. How can someone sound so genuinely angry? Who or what is his muse? And the endless expletives enhanced the meaning, in my view. Pacifism. Organised religion. Environmentalism. Animal rights. Feminism. Environmentalism. The state of the nation. The punk scene. These weren’t banal, meaningless songs. Steve’s delivery inspired endless anarcho-punk singers that followed. Spitting rage, with succinct messages.
And then there was the sound of Crass. The band’s screeching guitars sounded threatening. Snarling. Not the comfortable, muscular, produced sound of most punk contemporaries. They were razor sharp. Not always easy on the ear. They couldn’t be any other way. Drums and bass followed in a similar vein. However, there were moments of tranquillity. Moments of barren, slightly erring beauty.
The production was basic, raw and proper. Proper insofar as it matched the subject matter.
Crass were one of the most punk of punk bands. Punk as in the liberating, free and open art form. The kind of art form that says what it feels and acts accordingly. From a blank canvas. There were already signs of punk rock ‘posing’ after its initial hurricane. Certain protocol became expected of bands. The music industry wouldn’t totally subscribe to punk rock principles and expected its bands to follow suit. Be punk, but on our terms, would be one way of putting it. The Punk Police were also beginning to appear.
Crass seemed to resent all of this and set out to be true to themselves and what they wanted to say. There appeared no time for ‘posing’, brown-nosing or acceptance. DIY not EMI, indeed. All they did seemed real. Check ‘Banned from the Roxy’. I love the line… ‘
‘They said they only wanted well behaved boys
Do you think guitars and microphones are just toys?’
It has integrity. Music can be much more than mere entertainment. Words can be weapons. Crass practised what they preached. If such a legendary punk venue as The Roxy didn’t like them, and barred them (apparently due to a drunk performance), then…
‘Fuck ‘em, I’ve chosen to make my stand
Against what is wrong with this land.’
‘Banned from the Roxy’, in my view, has some of the best lyrics ever written. Their mission, their opinion, their action. It’s direct. No ambiguity. Love it.
Crass’s debut album, The Feeding of the 5000, left a calling card like no other. It was released on their own label, Crass Records, in 1979. Checking in at just over half an hour, it is a collection of as sharp and intense punk rock ammunition as has ever been created. It still sounds fresh, and relevant, to this day. Whether this latter quality is a result of lyrical foresight or the world’s failure to resolve fundamental issues is open to debate. A bit of both, maybe. There is no fat on it at all. And all at a basic, low price. £1.99 maximum. Affordable. There is no point releasing an album containing your viewpoint if your public can’t afford to buy it. The opening track on their debut album is a poem, ‘Asylum’. Decrying Christianity in institutionalised form. With profanities thrown in. My god it wakes you up. Spoken by Eve Libertine, one of two women in the band. This was at a time punk rock was a male dominated domain. They didn’t just sing about feminist causes. They walked and talked them. And set an example.
To be honest, upon its release, The Feeding of the 5000 blew everything else out of the water when it came to subject matter. True, the melody and lyrics to a whole load of Top twenty ‘punk’ tunes may have appealed to the masses, but ‘Do they owe us a living?’ related to your everyday life. Like it or not, it went for the jugular.
The band’s work ethic was staggering. Seven albums in five years as recording artists. Countless shows, obviously. Along with all the work involved in DIY punk. A double album with Stations of the Crass. The classic Penis Envy. Though all the tunes on Penis Envy were sung by Eva Libertine and Joy De Vivre, Steve was credited as ‘not on this recording’ but still a member of Crass. The band were always keen to credit all members as contributors. DIY indeed. All hands were on deck.
‘There was always people staying, people visiting, we’d be in the studio or rehearsing, writing songs, answering letters, it really was nonstop for all that time.’ – Steve Ignorant, Freq, 2011
Direct action involved the early spraying of stencilled anti-war, anti-consumerism, feminist and anarchist messages across London. A twenty-four squat of the Zig Zag club in London against the restraints of the corporate music industry was also organised. They were involved in the ‘Stop the City’ actions instigated by Greenpeace in 1983-84 which arguably paved the way for the anti-globalisation protests of later years. These are just three examples of the band’s direct action.
Steve and Crass were subjects of a dossier held by MI5. They were in good company, being alongside Dead Kennedys and Throbbing Gristle in this respect. Margaret Thatcher’s government did not like agitators and Steve and Crass fell squarely into that category. The Labour party even contacted Steve. Possibly they felt he could help their cause. Steve was having none of it, saying ‘it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to go.’
‘The cops were always watching. I got stopped in the street, really odd stuff.’ Steve Ignorant, Freq, 2011.
They had a deep catalogue of music. However, by the time of the Miners’ strike in 1984, they were burnt out.
‘It felt as though if another war broke out, Crass would be expected to write an album about it.’ Steve, Freq, 2011.
Penny claimed it was always the plan that Crass would end in 1984. Steve’s opinion differs. Whatever, it was clear time was up for one of the nation’s, and Punk Rock’s, most important bands.
What they had created was living on, however. There was much more to Crass than just the band itself. The subculture they formed. The DIY punk ethos. Their record label. It’d begun in earnest not only with the band’s own releases, but the Bullshit Detector series of compilations, featuring a whole host of newly formed punk acts. One band who had their first EP released on Crass Records was Conflict. Another anarcho-punk band, strong on animal rights and anarchism. Following his band’s split, Steve joined Conflict on stage on occasions and eventually became a second vocalist with Conflict from 1987. His profile in the music world was strong but it wasn’t as if he could get in touch with an A-lister like Paul Weller and do a project. He was almost too DIY.
‘I wasn’t in that network. I had to start right from the bloody beginning again. So inevitably I ended up on the DIY circuit.’ Steve, Freq, 2011.
In the meantime, the DIY culture Steve had helped create and develop became a considerable force in the early nineties. A combination of political and ideological activism helped a new free party scene emerge, leading to the formation of organised movements such as The Exodus Collective. Gatherings, raves, parties, free festivals became prominent. The numbers got larger and larger at these events. Once again the conservative government were alerted. They didn’t like it. They felt threatened. Again, by agitators. Poll tax riots took place in London around this time; more large public gatherings. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 was soon passed, effectively criminalising unauthorised large gatherings of people.
Steve had spells in the nineties singing with Schwartzeneggar and Stratford Mercenaries. He also worked as a solo artist. In 2007 he performed The Feeding of the 5000 in its entirety (without Rimbaud) at Shepherds Bush Empire. During 2011 he presented The Last Supper, a show where tracks from the Crass back catalogue were played. It culminated with a final show, again at Shepherds Bush Empire.
In 2013 he recorded and sang live with Dublin legends, Paranoid Visions. He worked as a Sculptor, wrote his autobiography, Rest is Propaganda (excellent) and served as a volunteer Lifeguard in his home village of Sea Palling, Norfolk. Respect.
His latest outfit, Steve Ignorant’s Slice of Life are modern day excitement. And class. There is spoken word (‘You’). Again, why use ten words when you can be more lucid? The anger is still there. Steve Ignorant is as relevant now as in the days of Crass. More so, even. With all that has passed since the days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the world should have learnt and moved on. But has it? Where are we? And we still can’t blindly trust those in any position of power.
‘You don’t get me in the slaughterhouse,
You won’t hang me on your hook
I won’t be just another number to stick in your books.’
Taken from ‘Slaughterhouse’ – Steve Ignorant’s Slice of Life, Just Another (2017)
Think for yourself. Do not jump in with your eyes shut tight.
There is musical subtlety and a heart-wrenching lyric on ‘Eleven Chimneys’. Steve’s delivery has depth and beauty. There is reflection and pathos on another spoken word number, ‘The Home Coming’. Both tracks are from the band’s 2015 debut, Love and a Lamp-post. The piano is haunting, the lyric questioning and cutting on ‘Stretford Blue’, again from Just Another. Steve references the performance of a punk singer bouncing up and down on the stage;
‘What does that front of his really protect?’
‘Slice of Life’, the final track on Love and a Lamp-post, is a sweeping torrent that you never want to end. I could go on. The band’s support slot for Sleaford Mods at Rock City, Nottingham, was spell binding.
Sleaford Mods themselves are an example of how modern culture has been influenced by Steve. Sonically different, obviously. But Jason Williamson’s vocal delivery has similarities to Steve’s. Half-sung, half-spoken. Very direct. Angry at times. And succinct. No ambiguity. Inspired to be lyrically direct. Why use ten words when you can say fuck off.
So many successful acts have been inspired to do-it-themselves. The ethos is the same. DIY music. DIY Punk. As in doing you want. DIY Punk does not have to be DIY punk-rock music, of course. Generation after generation of DIY acts, particularly those who based a lifestyle around it, such as The Levellers, owe a huge debt of gratitude to the path forged by Crass. Sonically different again, but with the same liberating, self-sufficient approach courtesy of their own ‘On the Fiddle’ record label.
Inspired by anarchism. Saying what they felt. Doing something about it. Zounds, Chumbawumba, Subhumans, Pussy Riot, and many more, have followed the example set by Steve Ignorant and the band he co-formed.
Steve is now making some of the best music of his career. That, itself, is inspiring. A new album is out shortly. There are few people in punk and new wave, or in modern culture, have made the mark Steve ignorant has. DIY music and lifestyle, anarcho-punk music and many vocalists may well not have materialised without him.
He is a truly Significant Figure.
Bio: Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and he is the author of the short stories ‘Revenge can be Sweet, ‘The Bench’ and ‘One More season’. He also writes flash fiction, including ‘Hollow Love, ‘Wedding Shot over the Wire’, and ‘Family Guy?’ His work has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, We Are Cult, Razur Cuts and Unlawful Acts. A further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables.
Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures in Punk. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.