Rest_Is

As promised some time ago, this is my review of The Rest is Propaganda, from Freedom 16 July 2011

Steve Ignorant (with Steve Pottinger). The Rest is Propaganda. London: Southern Records, 2010.

Steve Ignorant, one of the founder members of the anarchist punk band Crass, wrote, recorded, toured and performed with the band throughout the eight intense years of its existence in the turbulent times of early Thatcherism. Although the role of singer was shared amongst many of the musicians in the band, Ignorant’s signature vocal style did so much to define Crass’s unmistakable and innovative (though since much copied) early sound.

More than twenty-five years on from the winding up of that band, Ignorant has authored an autobiography recounting his life before, during and after his time as a member of Crass. The result is an engaging and revealing read, offering numerous fresh insights into the ‘Crass story’, and a very personal coming-of-age tale which brings alive the era of Ignorant’s own childhood and adolescence.

Throughout the band’s life (and in the quarter-century since) Crass were routinely labelled as ‘middle-class hippies’; as refugees from the counter-culture of an earlier era; and as privileged interlopers in the punk arena. Ignorant’s life story punches holes through those perpetual allegations. He describes his childhood in Dagenham and his sometimes troubled family life; the stultifying atmosphere which surrounded him; and the debilitating lack of aspiration which appeared to imprison and limit so many of those in his immediate world. The early 1970s in the UK, as seen through young Ignorant’s eyes, is a recognisably grim and constricting place in which the arrival of something as culturally challenging as ‘punk rock’ is long overdue. The story of how his life experiences led Ignorant to discover Dial House and to forge a long-term alliance with Penny Rimbaud, creating the persona of ‘Steve Ignorant’ in the process, makes for some compelling reading.

There is an honest sense of self-effacement as Ignorant recounts how he was swept up in the tidal wave which surrounded Crass and which swept them into the limelight. He does not attempt to downplay his sense of unconstrained excitement at the way that the world was opening up to him personally throughout this. Ignorant comes across as a sincere, committed and honourable bloke.

It is hard to overlook, however, how much Ignorant’s current concern to justify his actions in taking Crass songs out on tour (and his frustrations with the conflict amongst ex-members over the re-releasing of the band’s back catalogue on CD) shape his account of the group’s work and worth. It’s safe to speculate that, had this book been written 10-15 years ago, some of the arguments put forward here, about the practice of anarcho-punk in particular, might have been somewhat different.

The title of Ignorant’s book comes from the mouth of the anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s classic ‘kitchen-sink’ tale Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Factory worker Arthur Seaton declares, in his defiance to the world: ‘I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda’. This choice is revealing, emphasising how far Ignorant is keen to restyle his former self as an ‘angry young man’ rather than as a strident, furrowed-browed anarchist.

In that respect, The Rest is Propaganda is a very different sort of autobiography to that penned by Crass co-founder Rimbaud in the late 1990s. While Rimbaud is gloriously unrepentant about the ambitions of anarcho-punk, Ignorant is far more circumspect. Indeed, Ignorant is keen to set some distance between his account and the narrowly ‘heroic’ history of the band that he believes others have constructed. One of the things which Shibboleth and Propaganda share is a sense of the relentless intensity of Crass’s work – as the band’s popularity grew it risked becoming an all-consuming commitment. Ignorant began to resent this enforced selflessness and became determined to reassert his own personal priorities after Crass finished.

For several years now, he has become something of a ‘revisionist’ historian of anarcho-punk. Ignorant is keen to stress the multiple shortcomings of the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic, highlighting the chasm which could so often separate the aim from the reality. He recounts numerous instances of shambolic gigs, incompetent event organisers and miserable touring experiences. This might challenge an over-romantic, sanitised and problem-free history of punk DIY, but there is a real imbalance here. It is a shame that Ignorant struggles to recall an equal number of successful examples of collaborative anarchist effort; while the memories of bad food, broken promises and chaotic delivery loom so large. Ignorant has the least time for what he sees as the ‘wilfully restrictive’ internal culture of anarcho-punk and its reluctance to celebrate the idea of good, honest ‘fun’ (something that Ignorant has been anxious to reprioritise in his post-Crass life).

By definition, autobiography can only provide glimpses of the wider world through a personal prism, but one of the most striking things about Propaganda is just how little politics features: both that of the political context of the time, and of the anarchist response to it. The focus is on Ignorant’s input into ‘Crass the band’ (the next tour, the next release) rather than on anarcho-punk ‘the movement’. In large part this reflects Ignorant’s interest in representing himself as that discontented and rebellious young man rather than as an anarchist militant with a Big A. This omission is frustrating and risks devaluing the political contribution which Ignorant himself brought to bear on Crass’s work and which he shared joint responsibility for.

In recent years, the former unity of ex-Crass members has publicly unravelled. That schism is unlikely to be resolved any time soon – especially as the band’s CDs are now being re-released in the face of opposition from some former members. There has never been any prospect of Crass reforming, and Ignorant’s current tour appears to offer the final opportunity to see the band’s anarchist anthems performed live by any of the ‘original artists’. These shows have not been without controversy. With Ignorant mainly playing commercial venues, charging standard rock ticket prices, and selling band merchandise, some of his dates have been picketed by punks protesting that his actions betray the legacy of Crass. Most of those in the boisterous, excitable audiences at these gigs appear to disagree. Ignorant pledges that, following a final show in London in November, he will draw a line under the Crass experience, and move on to new projects. He might find less closure than he expects. Debates about the merits of anarcho-punk are likely to pursue Ignorant long after he settles into being an angry older man.

Rich Cross

Freedom 16 July 2011