Scribes Sounding Off: Fantagraphics Books & EMP’s Take Punk to the Masses; and Steve Ignorant of Crass comes to Seattle

Coming out in May 2011 will be Fantagraphics Books’ beguiling tie-in for the Experience Music Project’s next humongous documentation of the Pacific NW music scene: Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind, edited by EMP curator Jacob McMurray. Slavishly documenting and lavishly illustrating through band flyers and set lists and rare record sides and marvelous photography, along with first-person textual accounts, this strange, excited dialogue between misfits in America through bands, venues, zines, and lives and how it was all done punk and how punk was done. How it all started here as well as anywhere else too, and then sort of ended up fulfilling its commercial promise here through a certain big name band on Sub Pop; a promise people either (1.) Denied existed; (2.) Didn’t give a shit about.

Connecting the pre-hardcore punk scene in Los Angeles, roping in the raw sounds out of Minneapolis, and then watching Ian put Henry on the train to LA to front Black Flag, it then shoots up to the steak-house thick and Scotch whiskey swilling port town that rarely saw a touring band and had some gnarly head-bashing cops at any real rock show.

This all might cause some to ask, “After the other early indie scene oral histories, and documentaries like the Punk’s Not Dead DVD, do we really need another account of 80s kids banging their heads on the punk rock?” To which this 300 page, full color, soft cover, elegantly restrained, but honestly awesome book can answer: “Yes. Seattle has never gotten its proper due until now!” From the inspired urban wilderness music of bands like the Blackouts to the national scene-uniting work of Bruce Pavitt (and beyond) — and with an EMP collection featuring around 20,000 viewable/engaging examples for this particular exhibit alone, starting on April 16, 2011 — now is the time to put a milieu-defining anthology of regional greatness all in one place on your bookshelf.

The DVD included with it alone is worth the $29.99 to me, just to hear Tom Price from the U-Men describe how he and Charlie Ryan and the other Ave rat and post-punk fans in his band sparked the smoldering punk rock scene, eventually pulling people out of the dullness of boy-based hardcore sounds. And how when the U-Men’s manager Larry Reid got them a show at Bumbershoot that year, they set the pool near the Mural Amphitheater on fire! And smoke was everywhere, from beneath the stage! And the police came in, just beating everybody up! And Jack Endino conversationally breaking down the Beatles, bass, and art rock elements in Nirvana to show just why that band would rule the world. And Megan Jasper’s admits her Irish Catholic-raised guilt kicked in halfway through that legendary interview with the New York Times, so she just started making fun of a “grunge lexicon” at all, not imagining the journalist would actually run it. And to hear what revolutionary Sub Pop designer and flyer illustrator Art Chantry actually thinks of how the whole goddamn destructive thing ended.

The book is the DVD’s big daddy though, as it has entire double page full color spreads of vintage buttons; the cover of Sub Pop #4 with the Crass logo painstakingly drawn on it; tons of flyers (one page featuring sweetly reproduced sheets for shows from Chinas Comidas, The Mentors, and John Shirley, which is pretty much the story of my young life right there); resplendent quotage about personal pain and political protest from Joey Shithead (love the story about getting thrown off a train while on tour in Eastern Europe), Mike Watt (helping out the workers in Pedro), Exene (and how the early punks were so much different from the cops and narcs who would soon come along), John Doe (who loved being on Elektra with his band X because Phil Ochs released his early records on the label), Mark Mothersbaugh, and all the usual Pac NW suspects: Matt Cameron, Krist Novoselic, The Wipers, Mark Arm, Steve Turner, all the girls and boys.

And one incredible color photograph from Blondie’s Chris Stein of Siouxsie, Debbie, Viv Albertine, Chrissie Hynde, Poly Styrene, and Pauline Black. That shot was recorded when they were absolutely beaming in the midst of each other. And it slyly suggests that one of the secrets to why this area’s punk was the music’s apex inevitably had to do with how many women were participating on all levels of our own music scene. The way that gals in London, NYC, Los Angeles, and Olympia were challenging the ways of the world with the powerful promise of post-feminist revelation. Herein lies the underground struggle and zeal of The Gits; the sharing and caring of riot grrrl; and the odyssey of the last great male rock star.

Taking Punk To The Masses’ gallant bridging of universal punk history with our own in Ecotopia is a reason to celebrate. Your eyes can gnaw on decades of delicious artwork while you read and watch stories you may have heard of, but after this, will never forget.

Speaking of great storytelling, The Rest Is Propaganda by Steve Ignorant with Steve Pottinger is an adventurous tale of wide-scale left-wing affront and incessant aesthetic challenge; but is more-so a fearless adventure tale of a boy who saw The Clash, moved in with a bunch of anarchists, and changed the world one punk rock song, band flyer, radio and magazine hoax, squatter friend, pissed off politician at a time.

Ignorant’s first job was changing the plaster casts of accident victims, and actually encountered a leg full of swarming lice early on in that career. He was a handful for his Bristol-based brother after he moved from his hometown of Dagenham, out on his own for the first time. His friends were burn outs and nothing was happening in that part of the UK musically. The cops were savages and beat downs were a common thing for people round the pub. So after found himself admiring the spite and spit of Johnny Rotten on the telly — but really getting thrilled watching Paul Simonon glower glamorously at an audience whilst Joe Strummer barked down taunts with, “Start your own band!” — well, he did.

After a cranky meeting with the ladies at the dole station, the DHSS gave him his first song, a snarling complaint he chanted and banged out on nearby fences as he walked the miles home to the old farmhouse he shared with a man whose wife just left to take classic punk photographs in New York and work at Time. That older friend was Penny Rimbaud, a brilliant jazz fan/book cover designer/vegetarian who wrote and tended the crops and chickens at the collective he rented for seven pounds a month and refurbished. The house was filled with books and cats and for the first time in his life Steve felt like he could be himself, whoever that might become. Pen though was haunted by the death of a man named Phil; a regional counter-culture figure who had a strange ideology of New Age Christianity and died in a mental hospital after abuse from the authorities who feared him. It just fed his anger at authority even more, but inspired him to create something new and an alternative to the normal way of being, eventually genuinely life-changing for discouraged British youth (and beyond).

Crass began as a spoken word/drums duo between the speed-loving kid in his mid-teens and the wine-guzzling activist in his thirties, and “Do They Owe Us A Living?” was born out of hatred of paternal, meddling authorities and the disconnection with Labour. But things would soon change, as Crass were pushed into a life scaring papers like the NME and Melody Maker with their Dave King-designed inimical-looking logo; after enlisting a restless crew of collaborators to bash and rant a dense level of language and noise the rock scene hard never heard before. They would end up supporting miners when no one else would, men crying in the desolation of their communities by capitalist ravagers shutting down the rural sources of labor; and their great protest song “How Does It Feel?” became a very personal taunt for tyrannical, war-hungry Maggie Thatcher after her Falklands killing spree.

Pretty astonishing work for a band whose first real gig was in a small city squat where two men showed up in Teddy Bear outfits and was shut down by a hippie so as to not frighten the children. Crass’s albums such as the immortal Stations Of The Cross and the frenzied The Feeding Of The 5,000 have been reissued with oodles of extras, and stretch between realms of punk, noise, spoken word, ambient, and godless knows what else you’ve yet to hear. Still hold up, if you like a little punishment with your punk.

I will be interviewing Steve Ignorant in public at The Comet at 6 PM on Tuesday, April 26, before he plays Crass songs at Neumos across the street later in the evening. The meeting at The Comet is free to the public. It would be a great time for early punk fans to finally get to ask Steve a question or two, and get the book and get it signed in person. Even if you found Crass too intense to wholly enjoy, their story is amazing, and Ignorant tells it and his own experiences with real scribing skill and storytelling enchantment. (I highly recommend this autobiography as literature in itself.) Don’t miss hearing some of these tales live!

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