Punk Rock Academy 102: Anarcho-Punk - with Steve Ignorant

Another look at punk and what it all means with Tommy Monroe

Posted on Jan 11th, 2012 in Features and Interviews / By Frankie Reeves
Punk Rock Academy 102: Anarcho-Punk - with Steve Ignorant Punk and anarchy go way back. Before The Sex Pistols brought anarchy to the mainstream, it was just a utopian philosophy free from political, economical and commercial restraints. The 'Pistols' ham-fisted tongue-in-cheek approach quickly turned anarchy into an aggressive idea with no real meaning, but it also changed the possibility of anarchy from abstract and idealistic into something tangible for hundreds of malcontent youths. But was anarchy for the UK really desirable? Did anarchy really require one to be an anti-christ, destroying the passer-by and not knowing what you wanted? This month, we'll try and pin down the real definition of anarchy in music and, with the help of Crass' Steve Ignorant, uncover how punk bands have adopted the concept of anarchy as an integral part of their creations.

Six months ago, the Met Police instructed all Westminster residents to report anybody suspected of expressing anarchic beliefs. Assumedly, the image of anarchy they held was one that combined historic 19th-century anti-governmental violence with a Sid Vicious-esque leather-clad nihilistic junkie. It's safe to say that anarchy has never developed a particularly positive public image, which is probably resultant of the multiple meanings associated with it, for example the common association with left-wing radicals (this itself seems broadly to contradict the concept of a state void of adminstrative power).

Different bands have used anarchy in different ways, be it nihilistic, aggressive, politically connected and/or pacifistic, and it would of course be pompous to measure the legitimacy of these approaches if we agree that anarchy stems from many schools of thought. This said, it can be argued that the most renowned and respected band to champion anarchy explicity were Crass, who many believed created and defined the 'anarcho-punk' sub-genre. Their music, a combination of hardcore punk rock, avante-garde arrangements, improvisation and spoken word, was interwoven with working-classing disillusionment, antitheism, female oppression and pacifism that had never before been expressed so fluently and directly in music.

Having recently spoken to Crass vocalist and songwriter Steve Ignorant, it was interesting to discover that both left- and right-wing punks had attempted to recruit Crass as spokespersons for their causes when the band began. At this time in late '70's Britain, punk had divided into these two polar-opposite camps with very little sub-categorisation, an immediate taste of the many divides that punk music would continue to create amongst its followers. Crass adopted the anarchic stance in order to remove themselves from this “political arena”, and Steve's first songs, inspired by “teenage years, disillusions and just [being] fed up with everyone telling me what to do”, slowly evolved into well-researched anti-political anthems.

It was not just Crass' lyrics that contained anarchic advocacy, however. The band practised what they preached, most notably in raising money to open Wapping's Anarchist Centre in the early '80's and attempting to sabotage Thatcher's PM campaign. They may be remembered as a band, but Crass' music was not necessarily the most important aspect: “Everything was just as important, even the artwork was as important as everything else, for example, the way we conducted ourselves at gigs was vastly important – you treated people with respect, you didn't act like a rock star, you didn't use the dressing room except to put your jacket there or something”. Crass would never reach the heights of fame that bands like The Clash later went on to achieve, and this behaviour goes some way to explaining why; Crass always maintained their position as members of society fighting a societal revolution, rather than artistic deities with perceived hierarchal benefits over their audiences. The music may have been the main focus for many, but it was no more than an expressive tool that shared their message in a format that people could relate and respond to. This is perhaps best observed, ironically, through their notorious track ‘Punk Is Dead’, released at the height of the punk craze in 1977 – “All these shops were selling punk gear...this uniform of tartan bondage trousers and black studded leather jackets posing for pictures...it was like y'know what? Punk is dead in the sense that it's being commercialised already”. Crass were not like the commercial punk bands; unimpressed with fame and fortune, they sought to abolish the notion of anarchy as a fashion statement and punk as a music genre, and recreate the two as a merging way of life.

It may not have been purposeful, but anarchy managed to filter into the way they created their music too. Steve mentioned that because the band were not musicians, “We weren't held by that thing that all musicians have, this structure you get caught in”. In this way, every single detail was covered; Crass were anarchists through and through, and they'd be damned if they let their music be governed and restricted by harmonic regulations and critical musos.

I finally asked Steve to help us answer some questions raised in the first of these features around the philosophy “what is punk?”. He believed that the measure that determined whether bands were 'more' or 'less' punk lay simply in attitude and commitment to their ethics, comparing Adam Ant's dismissal of anarchy for pop iconography to Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem', using the poems of Wilfred Owen as a subtle intellectual celebration of his homosexuality at a dangerous time for the LGBT community. Steve believes that Britten, a contemporary classical composer, was by far the more punk of the two as a result of this honesty and artistic integrity, implying that 'punk' is an abstract concept to describe a positive, life-long rebellion against a personal and/or societal oppression. Steve believes that “it doesn't matter where you come from or what you're doing” when it comes to possessing punk attributes, and this leads towards an argument for punk bands to expand into other musical territories that do not necessarily utilise the punk sound, though “you've got to be careful to not lose relevance to where you're coming from” - it seems of vital importance that, in order to be a respected punk figurehead, one must remain true to their expressed beliefs throughout their careers.

The Sex Pistols did make one good point in 'Anarchy In The UK', using mainstream media to draw attention to non-commercial issues; if it wasn't for their infamous ramblings, perhaps bands like Crass wouldn't have received the attention they deserved, no-one would have bothered to reclaim anarchy as a positive political stance, and indeed the idea of anarchy may have continued life as nothing more than an idle thought. Steve Ignorant sang 'Punk Is Dead' in 1977, and believes it has never “risen from the grave” since. He does however believe that “a lot of people [are] keeping that fire burning” and that “it hasn't only been bands or people in music”. Protesters, squatters and the CND peace movement are just a few groups that Steve believes have “kept punk alive on the streets...there're a lot of unsung heroes out there who have done just as much as Crass did and certainly more than The Sex Pistols did”. Stick that in your Country Life, John.