This Tuesday, a vital piece of punk rock history lands in Seattle.
Steve Ignorant, lead singer for legendary British anarcho-punks Crass, stops at Capitol Hill’s most prominent club, Neumo’s, to play a set of Crass songs on what’s been dubbed The Last Supper Tour (tickets, $21, are still on sale). It’s the first (and last, Ignorant has insisted in interviews) time in almost thirty years that audiences will be able to hear Crass material performed live, in any form, with the participation of any of the original members of the band.
Even more than any of the other politically-charged bands that roared through the first wave of punk rock in the late ’70’s, Crass put their money where their mouths were. Feminism, environmentalism, governmental injustice–even the self-sabotaging nature of the punk movement itself–were addressed by Ignorant and company; and they augmented the punk-rock buzzbomb of loud/fast/aggressive sonics with a sophisticated arsenal of sound collages and multi-media presentation–years before other bands followed suit. Crass also emphasized their message as vigorously as their music, in deed (hoaxes and protests targeted at the reigning Thatcher government, benefits for several socio-political causes) and in word. They stuck defiantly by their ideals on the recording front, too; forming their own record label, completely producing and distributing their music independently, and living up to their pledge to break up in 1984.
In the ensuing years, Steve Ignorant’s sung in other bands (Schwartzneggar, the Stratford Mercenaries), explored artistic expression as a sculptor and Punch and Judy performer, and written a well-received autobiography (The Rest is Propaganda). With the Last Supper Tour, however, he’s looking back passionately at the legacy forged by his first band and celebrating their material live, with a stable of enthusiastic backup musicians who’ve previously played with everyone from Morrissey to Killing Joke to The Damned. In addition to the Neumo’s gig Tuesday evening, Ignorant will also be talking to local author Chris Estey and signing copies of his autobiography at the Comet Tavern from 6 to 7:30pm that night, giving fans an opportunity to meet this veteran punk musician, author, and political gadfly in a slightly more relaxed setting.
Ye Olde Concerts Examiner caught up with Steve Ignorant by phone, just hours before The Last Supper Tour hit the stage for a gig in Canada. This combination Cockney punk/renaissance guy addressed the current tour, Crass’s legacy, and the recent Crass reissues with directness and humor.
What’s the US portion of the Last Supper Tour been going like so far for you? You’ve played New York, and now you’re in Canada.
Well, the first stop was Brooklyn. The venue was only expecting about 200 people, and about 400 turned up. The joint was hopping, as they say. Last night, we played in Montreal. That was live, to 1000 people. The response from the audience has been really good. It’s just been great so far.
It really seems like this tour is for the Crass fans. You’re doing it for the people who’ve been affected by your music.
I think that is absolutely right. I was talking to a bloke last night, and he said, “I’m really excited about tonight, not just because you’re playing, but I’m gonna meet some friends I’ve not seen in fifteen years.” The funny thing is, that [with] all the shows we’ve done–even back in Europe and the UK–what seems to happen is: we go onstage, and yeah, it’s great and people love it, but suddenly it seems to take second precedence because most people go and they really get into meeting each other afterwards; after years. It’s like a real melting pot of people, and it’s lovely to see. And that’s what Crass gigs used to be like. It used to be like a real meeting place almost, and it seems to be happening again.
So amongst some of your peers in the original punk movement, were there any particular bands or figures that inspired you; that you fed off of, creatively?
Yeah. Obviously, I was inspired by The Clash. They were the first band I ever saw. I remember walking into that concert hall, and Joe Strummer was belting out his gravelly vocals…But it was Paul Simonon standing there with his bass, all dressed in black, blond spiky hair standing tall… And I just thought, that looks really good. I never stopped being inspired by other bands that I met. There was a band called The System that I really liked… [and] a band called Theatre of Hate, with Kirk Brandon. I quite liked what he did. I got inspirations from all over the place.
Are you much on attending live rock shows in addition to playing them now?
Nahhh… I’m 53 years old. I go down to the pub, I read the paper, and play a bit with the dogs [laughs].
When you were attending live shows, were there other live shows besides The Clash’s that made an impact on you?
Certainly, The Adverts… I never got to see The Pistols; Generation X, I saw and quite liked them. But I don’t like Billy Idol anymore… I stopped going to big shows. I saw Dr. Feelgood, and they were great…Ian Dury… But then I started finding these small pubs in London, like small back rooms, and they were cheaper gigs. I could just come and see these unknown bands…
So how do you think the Steve Ignorant of 1977 would feel about the Steve Ignorant of 2011 going out on the road with all these old songs?
Oh, I think he’d think he was a boring old fart! “What a cop-out [laughs]…The bald old coot. 53 and still doing it [laughs]? Don’t he know nothing?”
You’re also doing an appearance at the Comet, signing your autobiography. Could you tell me a little about the book?
Well, of course, it’s about me [laughs]; it’s not all about Crass. It’s about where I was born; how I grew up; what music influenced me; how I got into skinhead culture in the late sixties, when I was a bit of a football hooligan like every other kid in England at the time…There’s a bit about Crass; and life after Crass. I basically tried to be as honest as possible and talk about everything.
How long had the autobiography been gestating? Is it something that you’d been working on for many years, or did it kind of come in a rush for you?
It had been in my head for about twenty years. But I met this guy, Steve Pottinger. And he gave me a book of his prose that he wrote… His writing is similar to how I write, so I asked him if he’d help me do it, and he said yeah. It took about a year-and-a-half…
The Crass reissues have come out very recently, and I know there was some contention about them from some of the old band members. Is that something that’s been resolved? I know Penny [Rimbaud, Crass’s original drummer] seems to be OK with them, but what about the other band members?
All we wanted to do was firstly, save the Crass material, which was on two-inch tape, from what used to be analog. So Penny Rimbaud and I went in and decided to put it all on digital. While he was sitting there, he realized he could tweak the sound so that it sounded better; so that we could get the sound we always wanted. When we used to record onto vinyl, because we were always short of money, we used to cram as much material as possible onto a 12-inch disc. Well, that meant that the actual grooves were so close together you couldn’t get a big bass sound. That’s why all the old Crass records sound tinny. I used to hate it, because we never sounded punk, particularly. So Penny said, “Would you mind if I sort of muck around with them?” and I said, “Go for it.” He sent me a sample. I was like, “Wow! At last! It sounds like we should’ve sounded.” So he said, “I’ll do the others, then, if that’s all right.” And I said, “Yeah, go for it.”
So he did it, and Gee Vaucher [the artist responsible for much of Crass’s original album and poster art] got excited about it and started mucking about, and started coming up with all this lovely artwork. We sent these samples to each member of Crass, and said, “If you want to contribute, feel free.”
…When we first put the stuff on CDs years ago, you lost half the artwork; it was so small, you couldn’t read it. With the new releases, you see everything; it sounds better; you’ve got additional artwork; so what’s the problem? We [original Crass members] had to have this meeting. During the meeting we had this fight. Blah, blah, blah…All we’re doing here is talking about our…record here. “You don’t like the color of the cover?” “No!” [So] I said, “All right then. Can we change it?” “No!” “Can we put out these re-releases like we’d like to?” “No!” “So can we put out the material, exactly like it used to be?” “No!” God almighty. I stormed out of the meeting, really p***ed off. Penny and Gee phoned me and said, “Guys, what should we do?” And I said, “Let’s just do it. I’ll just do [the old Crass songs] on tour. What great publicity.” So I will say–live, here and now–if I am taken to court, it was all my responsibility. I am to blame [laughs]…That’s also part of the reason that I’m doing this tour. It’s so that people remember Crass–and those great songs–for these lovely nights that we’re having; rather than this bull**** that’s going on about these re-releases.
You seem to have a lot of pride in the original material. Aside from squabbles about the artwork and audio, do the dissenting members not share that pride?
I think the problem is: One of the things we discovered at these meetings was that there was a lot of history dating back before Crass; that some people didn’t like other people from way, way back. And that really, really upset me; because that means that all the time we was in Crass, there were these resentments under the surface. I decided, don’t get down about it. I thought…You know what? I’m going to go and perform these songs. And I’m going to perform them the best I can. And I’m going to put my body and soul into it, because in a funny way, Crass songs don’t belong to Crass no more. They belong to the people. And when those people sing along every night, I think, “Yeah…sing your hearts out, because they’re yours now.”
[An unedited, unexpurgated version of this interview will appear soon at the SunBreak.com; stay tuned for a forthcoming link.]