INTERVIEW: STEVE IGNORANT, CRASS
BY WILL KENNEDY
In 2011, when Crass vocalist Steve Ignorant and his band arrived in Australia for the Last Supper tour, UB alum Will Kennedy spoke to him about music, politics and puppetry…
When I first got into Crass I was blown away by the music, it was unlike any punk band then or probably after; the military drum beats, the bass lines that could be sampled for hip hop, the scratchy guitars, just wondering where you got that sound from?
The Crass sound came from the fact that none of us were musicians. I’d just write down the words and I’d go along to (bassist) Pete Wright and say, “This is how I want it to sound, Pete.” For example, I’d say I want it to go, “da da da da,” and he’d go, “like this?” And I’d go, “Yeah that’s it.” We’d do songs like that and um, because (drummer) Penny Rimbaud was into avant-garde sort of jazz, he would say, “I want a grunting sound on this,” or “I want an atmosphere of terror,” so we’d come up with sounds like that. It was about the atmosphere. I think that’s why Crass was so unique. And, ah, the scratchy guitar sound came from that we just had rubbish guitars. In all the years that Crass were together, (guitarist) Andy Palmer never learnt to play a chord.
What about your vocal style, I reckon it’s really rhythmic, it’s sort of almost proto-rap…
A couple of other people have said that as well. I hadn’t realised that. It was obviously just the songs I was writing. I remember it was about 1981 or something and I was in New York with a friend of mine and we found a family who were in the sort of ghetto part of Coney Island and I said, “What’s that sound?” And they said, “Oh, it’s scratching.” I was like, “Wow!” And through that I started listening to rap music, you know Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, and when I got back to England I was looking everywhere for rap music, but it hadn’t arrived in England at the that time.
In the Crass years 1978-84 what bands did you respect or get into?
Conflict, of course. Of course, there was Subhumans and all that lot. The Damned, I saw them a couple times but I never rated them much, I always saw them as like, I dunno, the Freddy and the Dreamers of punk, I could never take them seriously. The Sex Pistols, I never got to see but The Clash I did see and they were fuckin’ brilliant, I have to give it to them.
What about the lyrics in “White Punks On Hope”, where you sing: “They said that we were trash, well the name is Crass not Clash, they can stuff their punk credentials cause its them that take the cash”?
That’s because I was so disappointed when they went to America and they didn’t come back. And when they did come back they were talking about American things. I couldn’t relate to that and I thought as an English band you should talk about your own local issues. When they started, they were like, “We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that,” but they never did. I always felt that one day me and Joe Strummer would sit down and have a beer and chat a bit. I did admire that bloke.
What about current bands?
Like who? Justin Bieber? This is gonna sound strange, I don’t really go out and see bands anymore. I live in a very small village, but there is a little pub there every Saturday night bands play there, basically covers and that sort of stuff, that’s as about as much as I do these days. I’m 53, I think I’m going through a sort of middle-aged thing. I’ve started going back and listening to things like The Who, ska, Motown, stuff I used to listen to when I was nineteen.
Crass had very strong and polemical lyrical content that dealt with many political issues, from religion to pacifism. Just wondering what your views are on violence as a political tool?
I’ve always said that pacifism, as an ideal is really nice, but in reality, we all had to face up to a bit of violence, I just think that it is inevitable. If you go on a protest march, you um, you’ve got a group of people and it’s fine, but if you’ve got two cockheads trying to beat you with a stick, you gotta actually hit back. So you know, you can’t avoid it. It’d be fine if everyone was nice to everybody but they’re not, most people are bleeding horrible.
How did you or do you see the anarcho-punk movement in relation to the rest of the punk scene back in the early eighties?
Well look, I know a lot of us were misguided, and we got a lot of it wrong. But all those bands in the anarcho-punk thing, we really did try, and I think to some extent we succeeded. At one point the independent charts in England were independent and there were all these record labels coming out, there were magazines, you know, it was a really good attempt. I don’t know where those people have gone now, but we had a really good go of it. What the anarcho-punk scene was in relation to the mainstream punk scene, was to show that it could be done.
To go back to the lyrics of “White Punks On Hope”. You say: “objecting to racism is like a candle standing in the dark”, “black man has got his way to deal with it, stuff you and your white liberal shit”. What are those lyrics about?
The reason that was written was because, when we started Crass we were approached by a political organisation called Rock Against Racism (RAR), and they wanted us to be at the forefront of their movement thing. We did the a gig and they came and up said, “Here’s your money,” and we said, “Isn’t it for RAR?” and they said, “No, it’s for you.” That’s what it was all about. So I was like, “No, the money should go back the RAR.” These organisers were white, liberal, middle-class wankers. I couldn’t understand that they were just in it for the money. So that song was actually about that, but obviously objecting to racism isn’t like a candle standing in the dark. I mean, you know, you’re never gonna stop racism. I’ve tried for years, like the blokes at my local pub are still banging on about it, I’m quoting them not me, “the darky come here and take our jobs”, all that sort of stuff. So you know, that RAR organisation was a complete and utter farce and that’s what that song was about.
How do you view Anarchism in relation to Marxist socialism? A couple of your songs refer to left-wing macho street fighter being as bad as the right wing ones, and also about Marxist cons about class dividing lines.
Well again, I always thought that it didn’t matter what bloody political party you’re affiliated to, there is always gonna be people at the top and people at the bottom, organised factions tearing shit out of each other. I just thought, what a complete waste of time. I’ve never been one to go into a room and be lectured at by some bloke telling me about some other bloke called Karl Marx. I don’t give a stuff. I’m the wrong person to ask about that. I don’t like any political organistaion, I would bare nobodies flag but my own. That’s the way I’ve always looked it. I have to say that I don’t consider myself to be an anarchist. I’m just a… what am I? I’m just a beer drinking, smoking machine gun.
What was it like living in the Crass house, squatting and that?
Well, it wasn’t a squat, we had to pay rent, but it was cheap, about seven English pounds and it was pretty chaotic! It was a fairly small house next to a farm and it’s got a big garden, so you know, we’d grow some of our own vegetables. And because it was so remote we could make as much noise as we wanted to and not disturb anybody, so it became sort of our headquarters.
I heard that you used to do some Punch and Judy performances?
Yeah I did that; I did that for about nine years. I don’t know at the moment, cause the puppets, they’re paper mache, so they’re so old and fragile and falling apart. But I’m thinking maybe in a few years time of taking it up again, ’cause I do enjoy doing it. What I didn’t enjoy doing about it, was that I did it through an agency and they sent me to people’s houses to perform at kid’s birthdays, and I hated dealing with the sort of posh mums and dads where you couldn’t use words like bum or fart. That put me off really. But, you know, another thing put me off; I’d always let the kids handle the puppets afterwards. The kids would sit on your lap put their arms around you and I’d notice that the parents would look at me as if was some kind of pervert.
That’s a bit fucked nowadays, anyone who is friendly with kids is seen as a pervert.
Yeah, apparently there’s a paedophile behind every lamppost!