EDGE OF TOMORROW
How anarcho-punk warned us 40 years ago about the current state of the world politically, economically and socially. And how there’s still hope for a future in anarchy and peace.
They say never meet your heroes. Well maybe I picked some good heroes because meeting Steve Ignorant in the pub and Penny Rimbaud at Dial House within the space of two days was everything it was cracked up to be.
I planned to meet Steve Ignorant at a London tube station, and as I walked towards the bomber jacketed, Dr Martens wearing ex-Crass frontman, I went in for a hug from a man once deemed a threat the society. About to release a new album with his band Slice Of Life and planning a huge UK tour for 2020, Steve Ignorant is resilient, creative and charismatic as ever, despite the years that have passed.
In 2019, Crass are reissuing their back catalogue through One Little Indian Records, a label run by their long-time friend Derek from the anarcho-punk band Flux Of Pink Indians, once signed to Crass Records. “The Crassical Collection will be coming out, which is remastered digitally. But for the diehards who really want that original sound, we’ve left it as close to the original as possible. It had to be done at some point because the tapes are deteriorating so they had to be saved.” Steve spoke about the first time he met Derek, “We were playing at a place called ‘The Triad’ at Bishops Stortford. We all turned up in black with Crass armbands. I think we looked pretty fascistic to them. I went over and tried to start a conversation but I think one of them threw ice cubes at us while we were playing. After the show we got talking and we became friends. Colsk Latter from Flux got in the van with us and came along when we played Covent Garden. We all got involved, it was easy like that. We’d always meet up.” When Crass had their own label there were so many bands in the same movement. I asked Steve who he spent time with most, “Flux of course, then the Poison Girls came on the scene. One band I was really really into was Subway Sect. I saw them once. And a band called Dead Man’s Shadow based in West London. I was at a squat party and heard them playing in the next room and actually stopped my conversation so I could go in and watch them. That don’t happen very often. It was really a case of catching what band you could at that time. Which was pretty difficult to do, living out there in the sticks in Essex. You always had to go to London. But of course the Sex Pistols had folded and The Clash were in America so there was no chance of seeing them. All that first wave of bands had got a bit posh for me so I didn’t feel that I could go and talk to them anymore. I thought “That’s got to change.” Then of course Conflict came along so I was hanging out with those nutters.” Steve joined Conflict after Crass disbanded. They were notorious for their direct and aggressive protesting, they’d get in a lot of fights and would find addresses of people who were testing on animals and throw paint up their houses. Steve kept his distance from that side of things, “When I joined Conflict I made it clear that I couldn’t get involved because of my link with Crass. Because if I get arrested, all of Crass are getting arrested. When I was in Crass I always had to be careful if I was out having a few pints because people knew who I was and who Crass were and if I fall over in the gutter drunk, it’s all of Crass doing that. The Crass angle was pacifism and ‘think for yourself’. Conflict was more direct action. That was their thing. Poison Girls had their thing with the single parent family stuff.”
Crass urged their audience to act out of love not hate, a message the world needs right now when people are so divided. “If you throw paint up a house you’re ruining that property and I don’t think it’s right. They’ve got kids and wives you’re scaring. You shouldn’t mess with their house. But If I was in the pub and someone pointed out a guy who hunted elephant tusks I’d go over there and punch him, one on one.” I asked if he still supported protests and marches, “I’m very careful of what I support these days and I’ve written a song about it called ‘Slaughter House’ coming out soon with Slice Of Life. It’s about ‘I’ll support you if I agree with it but I’m not going to blindly go because I’m expected to.’ That’s what I’m getting at. I don’t want to think “Oh god there’s another Stop The City, I’ve got to go! I’ve got to be seen!” I don’t want to get arrested anymore. I’m 61!” One movement Steve recently got involved in is ‘No Sweat – Punks Against Sweatshops’. “We’re trying to ask every band in the country to make one t-shirt which is ‘No Sweat’ made by the people in India. It costs a bit extra but part of the money goes towards the workers setting up a union to stop sweatshops. Punk rock and sweatshops don’t mix so I’m fully supportive. It’s just asking everyone to do a little bit.”
Crass’ message was to empowering the individual, asking people to think for themselves but the message got misconstrued and some people began following them as leaders, waiting for the next instruction. That was never what it was about. “Yeah it’s similar with Sleaford Mods now. Jason said: “Steve, what’s all this ‘I’m the mouthpiece of the people’?” I went, “You? You fuckin’ muppet! No way.” He didn’t like it and I knew how he felt. I remember a kid came up to me and Dick Lucas (Subhumans) and said “Youse two are legends”. Me and Dick looked at each other and said “They should call us ‘the feet’ or ‘leg-ends’’. People put you up there on this pedestal and then you do something they don’t like and they shoot you down again. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a lot of pressure.”
When the money started rolling in for Crass album sales and gig money, the group were adamant about putting the money back into their scene by giving out free food at gigs, funding an anarchist centre in London and donating to different causes. The members of Crass stayed together at Dial House, living and breathing the band. At Crass’ peak, Dial house had two thousand visitors a year and the band received two hundred letters a week. “What we used to do with the band was basically any money we got from gigs we would put into the house and into a kitty. There wouldn’t be any individual money so I was always borrowing and skiving or doing odd jobs for people like painting and decorating. Of course once Crass got established we gave each member a yearly allowance of £500. That to me was a fortune. I worked out that it was £8 a week but the beer was cheaper, fags were cheaper.” Moneywise, it’s not one million miles away from how Slice Of Life operate. “When we do a gig it’s all split equally. And I never get any money because my wife looks after that for me!” Steve joked. “So you’re still asking to borrow money for a pair of boots just like you were in Crass?” I asked. “Exactly! I’m known as 10p Steve.”
It came to a point where the band were getting a lot of attention from the government; questions raised in parliament, phones tapped, ‘journalists’ coming to Dial House. Steve spoke about that time, “Margaret Thatcher was asked in question time: “Had the right honourable lady heard the latest Crass record ‘How Does It Feel to Be The Mother of 1000 Dead?’ Then we started getting letters of approval from the Labour party on House Of Commons headed paper. I just thought it was a load of fucking bollocks. I started to get a bit twitchy because it was getting really serious. It was no longer two skinheads turning up to your gig and causing a bit of bother. It was proper espionage. Was that why I started Crass with Pen? No. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down that road. I wanted to have a laugh. ‘Sheep Farming In The Fawklands’ I sang a couple of times onstage and then I said to Penny “I don’t like doing this song. I didn’t want to fuck with soldiers. I started sleeping with a baseball bat. Once the Thatchgate tapes came out, which was all a laugh, there was a complete media blackout about us. You couldn’t see or hear anything about Crass at all. I think it’s in Margaret Thatcher’s legal papers that ‘on no account must any member of the Conservative party have any dealings whatsoever with a band known as Crass. Wallop, down come the shutters. Plus, at that time there was a bit of rhubarb because we were getting towards the end of our lifespan as a group. I know Pen had said in interviews that we agreed to stop in 1984. No we didn’t. Literally it was a coincidence that Andy Palmer decided to leave after that gig in 1984. At that time there were differences in Crass in the direction people wanted to take and some wanted direct action. First of all I’m Steve Ignorant in this band Crass and we’re doing alright. Then we’ve got these Italian anarchists coming over, Dutch anarchists – I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. Doubts were in my head about it all. If we’d have carried on we’d have all been banged up. I really believe that.”
We spoke about how punk lyrics and particularly Crass lyrics were prophetic; as relevant today, if not more relevant to the social and political landscape we live in now. Steve was always a sci fi fan and predicting the future was always a thread in his and Penny’s lyrics. “Read 1984 or Ray Bradbury – there’s a story he does that I read at school. I was 15 and it was about a bloke who’s arrested by the police for walking late at night when the police asked him where’s his wrist band – they’re talking about mobile phone watches which are starting to appear at the moment, back in the 50s. That inspired me – Punk Sci fi! It’s better than Steampunk! The Sex Pistols were saying ‘we’re the flowers in your dustbin, blah blah blah,’ and The Clash, ‘Regression’ and a lot of what the other bands were saying – Poison Girls ‘Everybody’s Got Their Price’. Flux of Pink were saying ‘Made In Hong Kong – plastic crap that keeps going wrong.’ The obsolete thing is built in now and you can’t really be a punk rocker anymore because everybody’s a punk rocker now. You can talk and talk and talk, but don’t forget it’s about having fun, getting a bit pissed and rocking out. I don’t ever want to forget that. Think about it but enjoy your life because it’s too fucking short.
Steve spoke about where Crass are in 2019, “I’m still in touch with Pen and Gee, Eve Libertine to some extent. Phil Free and Joy I’ve not spoken to them for ages. That’s not out of not liking them, it’s just that we never went out socially. Pete Wright, I’ve not got a clue what he’s doing. Andy Palmer I spoke to a few months ago, he seemed alright. We’re just releasing these things and seeing what happens. Obviously there is never going to be a reunion of the original band but in 2020 there might be something happening.”
STAND OUT QUOTES
“They shut us down. It just showed what stupid miserable Victorian cobwebby bastards they were.”
“If we’d have carried on we’d have all been banged up.”
“At one time we were selling more records than AC/DC”
“If I get arrested, all of Crass are getting arrested.”
“The Crass angle was pacifism and ‘think for yourself’. Conflict was more direct action. That was their thing.”
“It was no longer two skinheads turning up to your gig and causing a bit of bother. It was proper espionage.”
“I didn’t want to fuck with soldiers. I started sleeping with a baseball bat.”