A band watched by the CIA and MI5, it´s punk impact the CrassWritten by Eva Csölleová, Vítek Formánek
SF4AF! Multicultural section
Make an interview with Crass was for me like Mt. Everest is for mountain climbers, I always dreamt about it but never thought it will actually happen. But thanks to kind help and effort from Sid Truelove and Zillah Minx of Rubella Ballet and Steve Ignorants´s wife Jona, we managed to sit face to face (screen to screen) and talk for 40 minutes. Steve was very very kind and nice and answered everything I asked him so that was very fulfilling and I couldn´t ask for more.
You met Penny Rimbaud when you were 15 and he was 35, so he could be your father. How come that you hit it off from word go and understood each other so well, when he was philosopher and artist and you were still juvenile who could understandably have that “youth rejecting adults” attitude?
He was one of the first adults who talked to me as an equal. Other adults always told me what to do, be it parents, teachers or bosses at work but Penny took me as an equal and included me into his conversation even though I didn´t understand it at the very beginning. At that time I was writing poetry and he encouraged me to do so which nobody has ever done before. He didn´t make jokes about it or insulted me and he suggested some books I should read which was poetry in different way, it wasn´t that la-la-la-la la- rhyming thing as you normally find in poetry. That is why we hit it off straight away. He came from different class but it made no difference we were all equals.
Does it mean that you left school at the age of 15 and your education was Dial House and “real life” so you had shorter and closer route to anarchist ideas than those who had academic education and have heard about anarchy movement and had to find their way to it?
No, I left school when I was 16 I became very tired of it as it wasn´t doing anything for me and I was doing what we call play truant. I used to do that awful lot. You must remember where I grew up- in Dagenham- it was very industrial area, major Ford factories. When you went to school and you had certain grade of education you would work on production line, if you got higher grade, you would be a manager. Everything they taught me at school was edging me against that career, so I got very disillusioned with it since it wasn´t for me and in the end I just left. I used to visit Dial House a lot, I wasn´t living there at a time, and that anarchist thing didn´t come up until Crass. There was no talk of anarchism before that in Dial House, it was more about being equal and self sufficiency. I didn´t know that books I was reading and films I was watching were edging me towards that.
Actually what does it mean CRASS?
It means grossly stupid. But it came from David Bowie song.
At the beginning you were drinking and using drugs and probably would have never become a legend hadn´t you picked yourself up? Who was the “boss” in the band or all you have done was always mutual, communal decision?
Yeah, it was always group decision after lengthy discussion, there was no boss. To give you an example, I didn´t have a clue how to produce records it was Penny´s job.
As for drinking and drugs, when we got on stage, we used to fall over, I was forgetting the lyrics, Penny didn´t know what song we were playing it became crazy. And what´s the point of doing it, writing the songs that obviously mean something and we are not able to perform them properly? So either we straighten up little bit or we stop doing it..We had couple of beers before the show but didn´t get drunk and we weren´t heavily into the drugs, so it wasn´t really a big deal to mend it.
When you became famous and had hundreds of followers, didn´t you feel less free and more as ”pathfinders” who are closely observed by those who have no direction in their lives, hence you had to watch closely every step in every way you made since you felt responsible for that?
I would think yes and at least I did. It wasn´t a bad thing. The more people became aware of us, more talked to us and more wanted to discuss. So when I wrote songs I came through them three or four time to make sure there wasn´t anything wrong in these lyrics so people couldn´t attack me, not physically but verbally. And it came to the point where we all felt big responsibility and I don´t think I felt trapped but I felt self conscious.
Do you think, looking back, it kind of helped you to dissolve since you felt so much pressure and responsibility at your shoulders, that you couldn´t handle that any more?
Well, there were other bands like Conflict, Rubella Ballet, Omega Tribe, Flux of Pink Indians
Poison Girls, Snipers who did similar lines, taking lots of weight as well. But in the end
we have been doing it for seven years and last three years it was absolute non stop thing, we always had people in our house, different people from different countries wanted to make interviews and something else happen like Falkland War or Miners strike and it just built up, built up and built up and we all just got burnt out by then. I remember being with Penny Rimbaud and telling him that there is so much going on in the world and I just don´t know what to write anymore. In the last gig, we were in the van and about 20 miles down the road Andy Palmer told us he wants to leave the band. An of course everybody said ” No, please don´t ” and about 20 minutes later, it was me who told Andy ” If you hadn´t said that I would have done it myself”. And now everybody breathed with relief ”Now, at last we can stop”.
Three weeks later I start realizing there was no band any more, it was gone. Strange thing was that while Penny Rimbaud continued writing his books and Gee Voucher continued with her art work, Pete Wright was doing his construction work like he did before Andy Palmer did something else but there was nothing for me. I didn´t know what to do, I couldn´t go back and work in supermarket, I was lost. I couldn´t do what Paul Weller did after dissolving The Jam, making another record, .I was totally on my own and totally lost. It was rough time for me, I didn´t know what to do.
If I got it right, you didn´t really like punk from 76-77 since it had no meaning. Did you rate The Clash as the band closest to your thinking since they had some deep meaning and masses of followers?
No, I never said that, it may have been Penny Rimbaud. I loved everything that was going on at that time, I couldn´t get enough, it was brilliant. The first band I ever saw was The Clash
and they had massive impact on me and I said ”Oh God, boy, at last”. I saw Sex Pistols on TV but to see The Clash live, it was something special and I always had a special place for them.
You were banned from the Roxy club for ever. What was the reason for that?
We got very drunk and made a hell of a racket so sound guy switched us off and we started to smash the equipment and then turn it on again. So after that we were told not to come back, so we didn´t..Because of that incident we stopped drinking.
I always thought that The Feeding of the 5000 meant feeding 5000 hungry people but then found out, it was the minimum number of records, allowed in Small Wonder Records to be pressed. You sold over 500 000 copies which is staggering number. Did it open the door for any future recordings for you by that label and did you say ”fucking hell, we do something right” and surprised yourself?
No, me and Penny said ”5000, we are not gonna sell 5”.I don´t think that album sounds very good because there was not enough bass on it. Firstly we pressed 5000, then another 5000 and then it went on for so many years, I don´t really know how many we sold in the end..
Which countries did you visit with Crass and did you have any European and American tours? How did you get to Iceland which wasn´t the punk hot bed?
Very very early on in 1978 we went to New York and we played some very small gigs there. Nobody new who we were.When we became bit bigger and more known we did two tours in Holland and we did one gig in Germany in Dusseldorf. .What happened there was that we were late and it was pissing down with rain, police came up and wanted to turn punks away, but they said “no” and set fire to police car. So when we turned up there was just big riot. So we said to police “If you gonna stop this concert it will end up really badly, if you let them get inside, they will get quiet”, which they did. After that show we decided that we have to be very careful, since we knew the law in England, what to do if you got arrested by police, but we didn´t know the laws in Europe. So for example if we went to Czechoslovakia and someone got arrested we wouldn´t have known what to do. And then we were telling people to go out and know this and that and we felt it was too much of a responsibility for us so we tended to play only in England. We thought if people wanted to see us badly, they have to come over which was quite cheap at that time. People were coming to England anyway, because of the bands. At that time American bands weren´t doing European tours on the level they did later on, it wasn´t happening then, so people had to come to England to see them.
As for Iceland, it was in 1985........ no it must have been 1983.There was a guy called Einar who was heavily into Crass and he got us there for peace festival. He performed before us with his band Kukl, which had 15 years old singer called Björk. It was the biggest concert we ever played, there were 8 000 people, it was very strange experience but it worked.And I think there is also Crass museum there.
After split in 1984 you all said you will never reform again which is right, but you perform solo all songs of the Crass on Rebellion etc. Do you miss the Crass or you try to bring the message to people who weren´t born when you split up, so in that way you relay them the flag of anarchy in new era?
Crass couldn´t reform anymore, they are too old. Because there are the songs that I think are still relevant so if people want to hear them, why not? If it gives people an opportunity to come in person and meet me and talk or say “Steve, thank you for the Crass music” is worthwhile doing it. I have my own project Slice of life, but all people want to talk about is Crass. Let´s face it, if David Bowie would be alive and I would come and see him perform and there would not be at least one song from Ziggy Stardust album, I would hate him forever.
I personally can´t listen to more then one Crass album at a time, it is very rough and I have enough.
Well, I never listen to it either, not that I wouldn´t like it but it´s something I have done and why should I listen to myself screaming about something?
How did it work when you sung for Conflict, did you have any clashes with Colin since it was his band or he asked you to bring some ideas to make them powerful band after Crass demise?
Me and Colin decided to do those big concerts. When I got in touch with Colin I told him I have the idea for the record. Then I was talking to Paco about doing this big concert in Brixton and that´s how I got involved in. And then Colin came and asked” Do you fancy doing it again” sand I said “Yes”. We were writing songs together and I was always very aware that it was Colin´s band. They didn´t treat me as a guest but they treated me as one of them. But that was the reason why I left since I wanted to start making changes but it wasn´t my band so I couldn´t.. I wanted to put bit accoustic or bit of saxophone here and there but I said “ well I did enough lets move on”.
I have read you played under very dim lights which wasn´t good for filming so now not much footage from Crass on stage exists. Was it deliberate and do you regret it now?
It was deliberate and I don´t think we realized how dark it was. We did it because we didn´t want to be a front person or be picked up. We didn´t want to be more special than anybody else. We also did it because we were using back projection and we had two TV screens either side of the stage that were showing that night´s television and two TV screens showing videos of various things. We wanted it that way. And also remember that at that time not many people had video cameras, we talk about late 70´s early 80´s, they were very very expensive and incredibly heavy.
So does any Crass life footage exist at all?
Yes, there is, a very short one with clips and also one called Crass Live at Manchester, which was part of the BBC news. And there is one short one, can´t remember the name but it may be from the same gig. Also there isn´t very many clear pictures of Crass because not many people had camera at that time.
While living in Dial House, you had policy of “open doors”. How did it work to avoid having trouble makers and parasites, who only wanted to use your hospitality, roof above head and weren´t interested in doing any positive things? Did you have masses of pure homeless drunks you had to turn off?
Honestly, to this day I don´t know how it really worked. Even now, after 40 years it´s still an “open door” policy. It is very very strange how it really worked. For some reason people always respected it. Of course, sometimes it happened that someone stole something like record and other things. But we had a policy of no drugs and I believe what made people think about it was the fact that the minute they entered the house they had to take their shoes off. That was one major rule and sometimes young people turned up bit aggressive but they became less aggressive once they were in their socks. You know, first thing was “sit down and have a cup of tea” and it is difficult to be aggressive if you have a cuppa in your socks. I have been to other places where they tried to have same rule and they failed miserably. They had scumbags and the lot. Maybe it has something to do with location since Dial House is so far away from the city and it takes and effort to get there so for scumbags it was easier to stay in the city. Dial House is very much into the country so where would you get the drugs from, there was nobody around. There were few who would come up, stay for two days and went away but they were heavily outweighed by those who wanted to live in community life. They built up the tents in the garden. When we invited them inside, they politely refused ,they just wanted to be there.
Did you have any in-house structure regime saying who will wash up the dishes today, who will cook, who will do posters, who will work on new recordings, who will buy food, who will grow veggie etc. So did you feel like bench-markers who showed it can work while politicians fail in creating so in major society to make Earth a better place to live on?
No they were not any rules like that. The way it worked was that if you saw dirty dishes in the sink, you wash them up. ”Is anyone cooking food tonight? No, okay I will do it”. Literally it was like that. We had very small washing machine and it used to give us electric shocks. So somebody went to do his washing and he asked around if there is anybody who had dirty washing so he would do it as well. There are people like Chumbawamba who has similar set- up in Leeds and also the band called Alternative from Scotland have the place that is still going. I can see these things working on small scale but I can´t see everybody doing it since there are far too many greedy people and assholes. We did something people did 10 000 years ago and it worked. You know, I think living in community needs people to consider others, they must come first. If you wanted to listen to a record player, you had to consider other people and don´t play it too loud. That´s the main thing. If everybody is considered, things get done. It won´t work if you set that “today Steve is digging the garden or Steve is washing the dishes”.
How was it with payment, did they share the cost?
Some people sung the songs, some did the digging in the garden and some painted the wall, it was their payment.
How could you manage to prevent other residents to talking you into your punk work, recordings, taking new bands into studio etc. More people, more different views, more possible hassles? Did you have your own corner for your private life?
I really can´t explain it to these days and I often ask myself “how did that work?” I am surprised that we actually did any recordings on the cassette but when we rehearsed we just told people that we need time for that and they respected that.
You were obviously watched by police. Could they invade you, make search and arrest you since they didn´t like you or you had some mutual agreement e.g. no drugs and troubles in the house and you will leave us alone?
We knew our telephone was tapped, we had a proof for that but it´s long story to say it now. There was a policeman who was living in the village, the classic English bobby on his bicycle coming to us every week and had cup of tea. He asked us how we were doing but we knew he was always looking around. His daughter used to visit us and learnt how to play drums. But they never came in and searched the place. We knew they had a file about us and we also know that MI5 and CIA had one for us.
What do you do now, something meaningful or just enjoying the life?
I have a band called Slice of Life, I have written my autobiography it´s called All the rest is propaganda I have done that in 2008 and now I work on another one.
How do you view current world and more importantly current Britain? Don´t you think it is in ever bigger mess than 40 years ago?
Definitelly. England is getting to be a lot worse because we are going to leave EU.It will have a big effect. Will we need to have a work permit if going out of the country, will they close the border, will it be more expensive? It´s gonna be mad. Be prepared.
The Feeding Of The 5000 1978
Stations Of The Crass 1979
Penis Envy 1981
Chris - The Album 1982
Yes Sir, I Will 1983
Acts Of Love 1985