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At Leisure: Steve Ignorant of Crass

At Leisure is a series of films produced by Luke Turner, writer and co-founder of The Quietus music website and filmmaker Ethan Reid, in which they explore the hobbies and interests of cult artists, and examine the connections between those activities and their work. In this third film - which you can watch on the Lush player tomorrow (Friday) -  we head to the Norfolk coastline, where former Crass vocalist volunteers on an independent lifeboat.

 

IN A NUTSHELL

Steve Ignorant was born Stephen Williams in Dagenham in 1957. With a tough early family life, he moved to Bristol for a job working in a hospital putting plaster casts on broken limbs. Inspired by seeing a gig by The Clash, he decided to try and form a band, but finding that his old Essex pals weren't interested, he headed to poet and artist Penny Rimbaud's Dial House commune on the edge of Epping Forest in Essex. Rimbaud agreed to play drums in what would become Crass, and the duo were joined by, among others, Eve Libertine, Phil Free, Joi De Vivre and Gee Vaucher.

 

Ignorant now lives in Sea Palling, a small village near Cromer in Norfolk, where he continues to make music and volunteers with the local independent lifeboat crew; the subject of this latest Quietus At Leisure film. The Rest Is Propaganda, Ignorant's autobiography, was published in 2010.
 

 

OUR TAKE

Crass is one of the few bands whose body of work represents a way of life; as much as it is a collection of albums, singles, gigs and so on. They've influenced anyone from Sleaford Mods and Suede to The Charlatans; electronic musician Moby and folk artists like Jeffrey Lewis, and while you might not be able to hear that in a sonic legacy, it's the spirit of independence and doing things against the grain that has struck so many. Indeed, it's likely that Crass inspired as many environmental activists and radical direct action groups as they have other bands. Indeed, Lush contributor, naturalist and punk enthusiast Chris Packham counts himself as a fan, and went to see them play live as a teenager.

 

Crass was a group that took the posing nihilism that had started to blight first wave punk rock and turned it into a fierce, political energy. A strange combination of individuals, from the working class Ignorant to the upper class and much older Penny Rimbaud, gave them a unique identity and an ability to appeal across social and age divides. It meant their music was far more sophisticated and smarter than a lot of punk rock groups - as Ignorant says of the tension that made their sound so direct: "I would be like ‘Why are you being so wordy? Why use ten words when you can just say Fuck Off!’"

 

Crass lived in the Dial House commune - a community based around a farmhouse on the edge of Epping Forest near London; growing their own food and having an open door policy that welcomed in those who might need a place of refuge in difficult times. From this base, the band released records in sleeves covered with political texts, as well as sending out mail in support of the campaign against nuclear weapons and animal rights organisations. This meant that they frequently got into hot water - the police threatened them with an obscenity charge for the Realty Asylum record; staff at a record pressing plant refused to work on their Feeding Of The 5000 album until supposedly blasphemous lyrics were replaced by silence; and the commune was reportedly placed under surveillance by the Government's Security Services.

 

The band called it a day in 1984, after which Steve Ignorant recorded with Conflict and Current 93 among others, releasing a slew of excellent albums with his ever-distinctive vocals at the fore. In 2007, Ignorant played Crass songs for the first time in a decade, raising funds for the Sea Palling Lifeboat - his fellow crew members turned up in full sea-going gear, walking through the crowd with collection buckets.

 

Ignorant is now based just inland of the coast at Sea Palling, living in a cottage with his partner, his dog, and a huge collection of books - Graham Greene,  Alan Sillitoe, Barry Hines and authors comprising the movement in British literature known as "the angry young men" are particular favourites.

 

Crass made music that had the power to change lives - and, indeed, Steve Ignorant avows that joining Crass saved him from his difficult teenage years. It's hardly surprising then, that Ignorant has ended up working on a lifeboat that itself is independent, both from the British coastguard and mainstream rescue service, the RNLI. It's not an anarchist lifeboat, per se, but just like Crass, is an organisation run by individuals from all walks of life, united by a common cause - saving and changing lives.

 

Ignorant told The Quietus that when he's on the Lifeboat nobody is paying attention to his past in Crass: "This skinny little runt from Dagenham who goes to America, does all this stuff, and used to be the lead singer in Crass, is now just number eight in the crew,” he said. “When I'm on the boat, there's no Steve Ignorant. There's no airs and graces, you just do it."

Five Easy Pieces - Where To Start With Steve Ignorant

 

Crass - Owe Us A Living

From the controversial opening attack on religion onwards, Crass' Feeding Of The Five Thousand album is a tough, uncompromising listen. Yet that doesn't mean that the band wasn’t able to hide something oddly catchy amidst the racket - you can hear that on Owe Us A Living, an early example of Steve Ignorant’s tight, hectoring vocal at its best.

 

Conflict - To A Nation Of Animal Lovers

Ignorant joined fellow anarcho-punk group Conflict on this EP devoted to animal rights and attacking the meat industry, released in 1983. Following the demise of Crass the following year, he appeared onstage with the band before featuring on Crass records released during the late 1980s.

 

Current 93 - Falling Back In Fields Of Rape

After the end of Crass, Ignorant collaborated with Current 93 on the album Dogs Blood Rising. Led by David Tibet, Current 93 is one of the most unusual bands of the already far-out British esoteric underground, their music sitting in the hinterlands of industrial and folk. On this track, martial, metallic drums and chants back Steve Ignorant's spoken-word lyrics on the horrors of war.

 

Steve Ignorant - The Last Supper live album

Steve Ignorant's decision to play Crass songs live in the years since Crass split has not been without controversy. Penny Rimbaud was initially skeptical of the decision, though eventually he came round, joining Ignorant onstage at this 2011 gig. Ignorant, meanwhile, had the reasonable retort of: "I don't have to justify what I do...Plus, most of the lyrics are still relevant today. And remember that three-letter word, 'fun'?" The gigs were used as fundraisers for the Sea Palling lifeboat, and the album release comes with a documentary about their work.

 

Steve Ignorant & Paranoid Visions - Join The Dots

Lifeboatman by stormy day, vocalist by night. Steve Ignorant's 2013 album with his collaborators, Irish punk group Paranoid Visions, shows he's lost none of his ire, vocal ability or belief that the state of things might be changed by song. Difficult times still require angry sounds. Ignorant's work with Paranoid Visions has included two albums and singles, along with live appearances at festivals around the world.

 

In Quotes:

"It was really bloody hard. Then the 'Swinging 60s' came along. Well, we never saw the bloody 'Swinging' 60s down in Dagenham – just the same old same old." 

 

"Books had opened up a whole new world for me. I might have been skipping as many maths lessons as I could but if there was an English lesson in the school day I'd be there, because I knew Mr Stewart would feed my imagination." Steve Ignorant - The Rest Is Propaganda

 

"I was totally shocked by Brexit, but I sort of knew it was coming really. With all the media stuff we had in England at the time it was all about the migrants and refugees, that they're gonna take our jobs and the usual old bullshit, and that's what the media sold it on and that's why people voted for Brexit. We're in a new millennium and we've still got this fucking skin problem. Look at England, or look at the USA, you've got soup kitchens and food banks. You could pick up a Charles Dickens book written in the 1850s, and it's still like that." 

 

“New technology is making it easier to put material out at a lower cost, I think it’s great. Who knows what Crass would have done if the technology was available in that time? If the techonology is there use it. And I’d rather kids are doing self released stuff recorded on a mobile phone and put on youtube than queuing up to get on X-Factor.” 

 

"The material of CRASS can still tell people to keep asking questions, and to carry on thinking for yourself. Do something with your life; don’t get fooled by this reality TV rubbish that’s going on, because it’s not true, it’s false. Just that really, to keep questioning. Don’t accept what you see."

Crass made music that had the power to change lives - it's hardly surprising that Steve Ignorant has ended up working on a lifeboat

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