Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham, October 27 2018
“No matter what your sexual preference or orientation, you should never be ashamed.”
So quoth the ever-erudite Steve Ignorant, punk icon, philosopher and agitator extraordinaire: a rather ironic statement, given that the very first time I set foot in this venue (waaaay back in 1991, under its former name of Synatras) I was treated to the unexpected (and somewhat terrifying) sight of a crustie buggering his own dog on the dancefloor. However, even if the miscreant in question had transpired to be a Crass fan – and, to all intents and purposes, he could well have been – that’s scarcely the singer’s fault some 27 years later. Besides, I’m pretty sure he was referring to consensual practices only…
My apologies to tonight’s first three bands, who work constraints prevent me from seeing: both Plus One and I do, however, arrive in time to catch Stafford seditionists The Mannequin Factory, one vocalist and one sound manipulator/percussionist/tape-treatment bod with a neat line in sonic terrorism that recalls at its best the darkest, most experimental depths of Nurse With Wound, Come, Whitehouse and (obviously, given their appreciation of a certain Mr Ignorant) Crass and Current 93. No standard three-chord axe-thrashing for this bunch: like Alternative TV’s seminal Vibing Up The Senile Man album, this isn’t punk rock, it’s punk poetry set to a barrage of harsh noir soundscapes, with songtitles like Population Control and Famine setting out in no uncertain terms their philosophical standpoint. And, whilst their lyrics do sometimes cross that oh-so-thin line betwixt education and hectoring, coupled with their frontman’s occasional tendency to overdo the old ‘crazee-eyed sneer’ schtick, I have to say, they are disquietingly fascinating: I’d certainly watch them again, and should they ever get round to releasing any albums, they could enjoy – if ‘enjoy’ is the right word for something so confrontational – a varied and creative future.
Which, after all, is precisely what Steve Ignorant has done for the last 40 years. Yes, that’s right, another punk legend celebrating 40 years of revolutionary music: however, far from the cheesy cash-ins favoured by many of his contemporaries, Steve – his former scruffy insurgent oik persona long ago replaced by a dapper, besuited gravitas – has resolutely continued to wage the very same fight he so passionately fought in ‘78-79. Thus, while the sound may have altered somewhat (bassist Pete Row aside, his current combo Slice Of Life are an all-acoustic outfit) the same determination, commitment, spite, bile and rage that infused such widely-celebrated works as The Feeding Of The 5000, Penis Envy and Christ: The Album is still as much in evidence, if not more so, in the likes of Love And A Lamp-Post, the vociferously anti-religious Slaughterhouse and the militantly vegetarian Your Day Will Come. As a result, those initially unprepared for the new approach very quickly become acclimatised: though initially, ears tilt in curiosity, very soon, heads nod sagely in approval.
More to the point, it’s this unorthodox juxtaposition which lies at the very heart of the band’s appeal: in pitting (and spitting) their frontman’s venomous- if slightly more measured than before- outpourings against the gentle, contemplative guitar-playing of Pete Wilson and the tinkling ivories of Carol Hodge, they create something truly unique and special, and its impact resonates long after the last stragglers have left. Perhaps to some extent, Ignorant has realised that the points he’s still keen to articulate- most notably on the melodically stunning Eleven Chimneys and the near-optimistic The Way Things Are – are maybe more audible when not smothered in harsh electric noise: admittedly, the central tenets do occasionally seem slightly dictatorial, to say nothing of the slight contradiction of the group’s vehement anti-animal exploitation stance given that at least two members (though please correct me if I’m mistaken) appear to be wearing leather shoes, but on the other hand, you don’t come to see an artist like Steve for the easy ride. If you want that, there are plenty of other, abysmal bands currently trading under the auspices of ‘punk’ who will quite happily perform such a function…
Possessed of not only an extraordinary piano-playing ability but a gift for spine-tingling vocal harmonies, keyboardist Hodge is undoubtedly Slice Of Life’s ‘secret weapon’: a respected solo artist in her own right, as well as a member of Wildhearts-related rockers Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts (the complete musical opposite of this, but that only reaffirms her versatility) she provides the flurries and flourishes that transport the psych-reggae collision Happy Hour (melodically reminiscent of the Head Hunters’ mid-60s garage rarity Times We Share, though I’m sure that’s pure coincidence) the Portishead-inflected Stratford Blue and Slice Of Life itself just that slight step further towards the otherworldly. Then again, Ignorant’s three-chord anarcho-snarl always portended half-whispered, subterrenean hints of the ‘land beyond’, even in early Crass days: the terrain of the true outsider, in other words, which is no doubt why for every nod to his genre-defining back catalogue this evening (Do They Owe Us A Living?, Banned From The Roxy and a rollicking So What, on which he duets with an overjoyed Brummie punkette) there are just as many to his own hero and inspiration, David Bowie.
Obviously, since the Dame’s passing in 2016 – nope, still haven’t gotten over it either – every cunt’s been dropping homages into their sets, and admittedly, tonight’s first selection, Rebel Rebel, comes across as a little, shall we say, ‘under-rehearsed’: yet Ziggy Stardust, the lyrics to the second verse of which infamously blessed a certain punk combo from Epping (you work it out) with their name, is nothing but an outpouring of pure love, and the closing Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing suite (my own second favourite Dave track after The Bewlay Brothers, incidentally) is little short of jaw-dropping. For any of my fellow Bowieites who never got and still don’t ‘get’ hardcore punk, this is a perfect demonstration of the influence, even if only philosophical, the great man had upon it: that said, between 1970 and 1980, our man from Beckenham Hill changed pretty much the course of everything more than any other white rock artist with the exception of Elvis, Buddy, Dylan, the Beatles and (no, I’m not fucking joking) Lonnie Donegan, so technically, it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise to them. Even if, sadly, it does…
Every bit as determinedly radicalat 61 as he was at 21, the man originally known as Steven Williams (believe it or not a fellow Midlander by birth, despite being raised in Essex) remains a proud loner in a field of one. As he himself says, “you ask me would I fight for my country, I tell you I’m already at war” And, though that approach will evidently never suit everybody, he probably always will be out there, ready for battle against the corrupt and unscrupulous. Whilst other performers of similar vintage would undoubtedly struggle to form a new band so dependent upon communal spirit, collaboration and equality as Slice Of Life, I simply can’t imagine him having it any other way: even fewer would remain, this late into their career, so ‘at one’ with their audience that they would end with an improvised poem thanking “beautiful Birmingham” for its support, but tonight, that’s precisely what he does, and the twofold respect is evident in both directions. As to whether he’s still a ‘rock’ artist, I would question whether he’s ever actually been one: yet regardless of genre, he remains a vital slice of all our lives. Ignorant? Methinks the geezer doth protest far too much.