Steve Ignorant On Crass & The Angry Young Men Of 1950's British Literature
In the first of two features on anarchist punks Crass, Alex Burrows talks to Steve Ignorant about how the 'Angry Young Men' of British literature influenced his philosophy and work. Next week: an interview with Crass's Penny Rimbaud.
The same year Stephen Williams was born in 1957, British Prime Minster Harold Macmillan told the populace of Britain that they'd "never had it so good". But in reality, Williams was born into poverty while Britain struggled with the after-effects of war. An alcoholic father, a violent brother, a strict grandfather and a preoccupied mother plunged the boy into a world of misery in which he was forced to forge his own education, amusement and dreams.
Two decades later he'd change his name to Steve Ignorant and form Crass with Penny Rimbaud. They would make the biggest change to popular music – and popular culture itself – since The Beatles. "I don't consider it too grandiose to claim that Crass was later to become one of the most influential bands in the history of British rock," Penny Rimbaud wrote in his autobiography Shibboleth (AK Press, 1998). "The band was never a great musical influence, but the effect of its lyrics on broader social issues was enormous."
It wasn't for their music, but Crass certainly have become the singularly most influential band – in terms of ideology and business practices – of the late 20th century. They cast a long shadow in the two final decades of the last millennium but their influence is still felt today, in everything from the new methods being adopted by floundering record labels; the music industry's distribution and business practice; DIY culture and the internet's dissemination of both ideas, music and art; resistance and radical politics entering and setting agendas in the mainstream.
At the age of 20, Steve Ignorant wrote the most memorable songs for the recently reissued Crass debut The Feeding Of The Five Thousand. Now, at the age of 53 and long after leaving Crass behind, Steve has published his autobiography with the same confrontational attitude and sense of injustice. But don't expect a book exclusively about Crass; The Rest Is Propaganda is about Steve's life and simply covers the band as part of it.
Dedicated to his two favourite authors Alan Sillitoe and Barry Hines, Ignorant writes in a prose style influenced by Sillitoe and the rest of the angry young men. A similar book to Jah Wobble's recent and thoroughly enjoyable Memoirs Of A Geezer (Serpent's Tail, 2009), it's a basic and modest narrative, reflective of Steve's working-class upbringing and background, his mistrust of the political establishment and loathing of authority of any form.
Which isn't a million miles from the attitude of Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero protagonist of Ignorant's favourite book: the 1958 Sillitoe classic, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (a line from which Ignorant takes for his own book title). Even the book cover of The Rest Is Propaganda even features Steve in a photographic remake of a still from the 1960 film adaptation starring Albert Finney as Seaton.
So is Seaton a character Ignorant identifies with?
"Being a teenager in Dagenham, I didn't know how to qualify it. I didn't see anything wrong with the character of Arthur Seaton - apart from the pregnancy bit."
Depression would eventually hit Steve as an adult and result in a suicide attempt, but as a teenager he would escape the drudgery of life by embarking on a brilliant career of school truancy. "Books had opened up a whole new world for me," writes Steve in The Rest Is Propaganda. "I might have been skipping as many maths lessons as I could but if there was English lesson in the school day I'd be there, because I knew Mr Stewart would feed my imagination."
His English teacher did exactly that by introducing Steve to Billy Liar (Keith Waterhouse, 1959). It struck an immediate chord with him, not least Billy's fantasy world of Ambrosia and his parents' inability to understand him.
For Billy it was Ambrosia. For the teenage Stephen Williams it was the world of David Bowie he'd inhabit, whose songs he'd sing whilst walking the streets of Dagenham when playing truant.
"I can't say I understood every word he was on about about in Ziggy Stardust," laughs Steve, "but it really felt like he was talking to me. It made sense. 'Yeah, that's exactly how I feel – I wanna freak out in a Moonage Daydream!' Just to get out. It was the only form of escape I could find."
Steve's school edition of Billy Liar also contained Sillitoe's Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1959), which Steve moved onto next.
The defiance of the character of Colin and the narrative simply confirmed the thoughts already formed in Steve's head. "Even at a young age, I had a sense of what's just and injustice. So that made a huge impression on me. To make a statement like that – deliberately losing the race just to piss off the governor of the borstal – was fantastic."
From there Steve would delve deeper into the literature movement. "Those were the only books I read at that time. Things like A Kid For Two Farthings [Wolf Mankowitz, 1953], The L-Shaped Room [Lynne Reid Banks, 1960], Up The Junction [Neil Dunn, 1963], of course. Anything to do with the working class.
"They spoke to me strongly; they confirmed what's right and what's wrong. Like The L-Shaped Room or Up The Junction's abortion themes: if you got in trouble, tough shit. You had to deal with it. And that was going on until the 70s."
Social injustice is a theme that runs through the work of Steve's other favourite author, Barry Hines. Although not really part of the angry young men movement, as soon as Steve saw the book cover of A Kestrel For A Knave (1968) featuring the now iconic movie still of David Bradley as Billy Casper flicking the V-sign, Steve knew this was a novel for him.
"I didn't put it down. I read it cover to cover. That injustice. All the kid wants to do is fly his hawk and they won't fucking leave him alone."
Hines is most well known for A Kestrel For A Knave and Ken Loach's subsequent movie adaptation, Kes (1970) but he was also the writer of Threads, the terrifying 1984 landmark TV drama which documents an imagined nuclear strike on Sheffield. It won Hines a BAFTA award and was heavily sampled by Conflict (whom post-Crass, Ignorant went on to work with) for opening track 'You Cannot Win', from their 1986 album The Ungovernable Force. "In an urban society, everything connects…"
Steve recently got in touch and received signed and dedicated copies of Hines' The Price Of Coaland Looks And Smiles, then sent him a copy of The Rest Is Propaganda in return. "I hope he likes it. I hope he reads it!" laughs Steve.
In 2010, Steve has finally settled on the coast of Norfolk, working as a volunteer lifeboat crew member. It's a far cry from Dagenham in the 1950s. Rationing ended in Britain in 1954 – just under a decade after the end of the war – but its effects were still being felt by those on the poverty line when Steve was born.
"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.
"That why I liked these dramas. It wasn't about juggling fast cars and going to parties and doing the twist. It was about blokes getting drunk in pubs and nicking the postal money; it just spoke to me."
The 'angry young men' description of the new wave of British literature was itself a simplified cultural pigeonholing of a new generation of writers. In the same way as punk consigned overblown stadium rock to the dustbin (albeit temporarily), the Terrence Rattigans and Noel Cowards of post-war Britain's time was over upon the arrival of playwrights and novelists John Osbourne, Harold Pinter, Alan Sillitoe et al.
The writers themselves hated the somewhat patronising and condescending 'angry young men' tag and even had a dislike for each other - not least the working-class Sillitoe (described in his obituary in The Guardian earlier this year as "a staunch atheist" and "one of the most important British writers of the postwar era").
But as a movement, they typified English provincialism and the English condition; they couldn't have come from anywhere else. And neither could the similarly bloody-minded obstreperousness, mischief-making and the sheer scale of defiant resistance which now seems like verging on eccentricity of Crass.
"Germany got Baader-Meinhof, England got punk," says the slogan on the sleeve of The Feeding Of The Five Thousand reissue, but the Crass agenda was nearer to France's Situationist International and their demanding of the impossible.
So did the social alienation and socio-political/anarchistic style of the angry young men inform and shape the attitude of Crass? Did they directly influence Steve's approach to songwriting?
"Yes. Yes. That's why when people ask me if I've ever read any anarchist literature I say no, because my idea of anarchism comes from those angry young men books. It coloured the way I wrote for Crass and it styled my attitude – which I've still got."
That attitude was most prevalent on 'Do They Owe Us A Living?', one of the first songs Steve ever wrote for Crass.
"When I wrote it, I thought, 'What a great line'. Do they owe us a living? Well I should make my own living really… but no, they do owe us a living. Well yes they do – in a funny way: they owe us courtesy, a bit of fairness and justice and they should bloody well leave us alone.
"Yes – they do owe us a living. Like they owed Billy Liar a living."
The Rest Is Propaganda by Steve Ignorant and Steve Pottinger is out now, published by Southern. The Crassical Collection re-mastered reissue of The Feeding Of The Five Thousand by Crass is out now on Crass Records. Stations Of The Crass and Penis Envy – the following re-mastered reissues in The Crassical Collection series – are scheduled for release before the end of the year.