It’s been some journey for Attila the Stockbroker, who publishes his autobiography Arguments Yard later this year, with little to suggest he’s slowing down.
This is the radical performance poet and musician who toured East Germany four times before the Wall came down and was part of the first punk performance in Stalinist-era Albania.
Yet this 57-year-old also once stood in for Donny Osmond at a show, apparently.
He was targeted by fascists during the early ‘80s and once had a 10-minute stand-up political row with the singer of notorious Nazi band Skrewdriver mid-gig at London’s 100 Club.
But he had a far better night playing his Mum’s Women’s Institute in West Sussex.
Times may well have changed and Attila – real name John Baine – has hardly ever stood still, liking to think he remains a thorn in the side of 21st-century Britain.
What’s more, 35 years down the line since his live solo debut, he still has plenty of ambition, not least to play Pyongyang or the somehow-avoided Southport.
That’s where he is this weekend, incidentally (on the Lancashire coast rather than the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), fitting – as is his wont – that date and another on Saturday night in Glossop Labour Club, Derbyshire, around a Championship away fixture for Brighton and Hove Albion at Blackburn Rovers.
“This is very much a feature of my life and has been all the time I’ve been a performer. As much as possible I organise my gigs around my club.
“It doesn’t always work, and by the very nature of what I do and my travels abroad I miss some games. But I normally make around 32 of 46 games a season, home and away.”
After an estimated 3,000 gigs over three and a half decades, is he really sure he hasn’t made it to Southport?
“Many places I’ve played many, many times, but as far as I know I’ve never played Southport.
“I haven’t even been to Haig Avenue, although I nearly went a few weeks ago when Southport were playing Eastleigh in the FA Cup (early December’s second-round clash, a 2-0 victory for the Sandgrounders), with Brighton playing the next day.
“My mother-in-law’s in Northwich, so I was visiting her. I’m very familiar with the North West though.”
At that point Attila gets on to vague memories of the Port being voted out of the Football League (after three successive 23rd out of 24 Division Four finishes in 1978, making way for a certain Wigan Athletic).
But we’re soon back on to the subject of his Friday, March 20th date at the Hungry Monk, Cambridge Arcade in the Lancashire coastal town.
“I’m fascinated by this gig, to see who turns up and then see how many of those who do turn up have got any idea what they’re coming to see.
“I’m not a celebrity and not well known in the mainstream, but was quite amused when I was looking at everyone else booked at this venue, thinking, ‘Hang on a minute – they’re possibly going to get a bit of a shock’.
“I said to the guy putting me on, ‘Are you sure anyone’s going to turn up? It’s not like I’m a household name’. But it seems like it’s going to be alright.”
Launched into public consciousness by legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel in 1982, Attila has extensively toured the world as a self-sustaining DIY one-man cottage industry, playing 24 countries in total.
He’s also released some 20 or so LPs and CDs, 10 EPs and seven books of poetry, and reckons he was once thrown out of his own gig by the bouncers on the orders of main act John Cale, one of his all-time musical heroes.
Meanwhile, his own support acts have included the Manic Street Preachers, Julian Clary, New Model Army and Billy Bragg, while in the early ’80s the influential Radio 6 Music and former Radio 1 and 2 DJ Steve Lamacq was his roadie.
Alongside his solo work, Attila has led baroque’n’roll band Barnstormer for 20 years. And while his solo career started with a gig in Harlow in 1980, he was playing bass as early as 1977 in Brighton Riot Squad at his hometown’s legendary Vault nightspot.*
* After this feature was published, Attila put me right on that, letting me know, “The Vault was not a nightspot. It was a burial vault!”
Reviewing his first album in the NME, Don Watson memorably said he would rather gnaw through his own arm than listen to it again. That didn’t deter Attila though, in fact it was water off a duck’s back for a regular Morning Star columnist who has written for NME, Sounds, Time Out, The Guardian and The Independent over the years.
And now he’s ready to put his story out there in autobiographical form, describing Arguments Yard as ‘social history and personal story combined: a cultural activist’s eyewitness journey through the great political battles and movements of recent times’.
En route there was his part in the Rock Against Racism and Anti Nazi League movements, the Miners’ Strike, the Wapping dispute, Red Wedge, the Poll Tax protests and campaigns against two Gulf Wars. In fact, you could say – and he certainly does – Attila has ‘been there, done the benefit and worn the t-shirt’.
There’s also the non-stop touring schedule, taking him not just all over the UK and mainland Europe, but also Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the old Eastern bloc, with ‘history observed at first hand’ in the latter case.
Back home, Attila has performed at every Glastonbury Festival since 1983 and now even organises his own beer/music extravaganza, Glastonwick, in West Sussex. And away from all that he was at the heart of a 15-year campaign to save his football team from going out of business.
While he remains fiercely political, there are signs of late of a more mature artist not just content to write about the old subjects, as seen with recent works The Long Goodbye and Never Too Late. And running alongside those pieces, Arguments Yard tells of a happy childhood ripped apart by his father’s death and, 40 years later, how he helped nurse his mum through a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s.
And yet for all that career passion, he stresses his message is a simple one – you don’t need to be ‘a celebrity’ to have a wonderful life earning your living doing what you love … although apparently it does help if you have ‘a way with words, the self-confidence and organisational ability of Napoleon and a skin thicker than the armour of a Chieftain tank’.
When I caught up with Attila, he was on foot to the University of Brighton’s Eastbourne campus, giving a talk on his part in his club’s move back from exile to their home city, on behalf of his friend, author Mark Perryman, co-founder of the Philosophy Football organisation.
We quickly get on to football, this scribe breaking the ice by talking about the vagaries of supporting Conference Premier outfit Woking while based 230 miles from home games – what Attila’s old tour-mate Billy Bragg might suggest would make me a ‘victim of geography’.
That appears to be enough to convince this diehard Seagulls fan that I understand the draw of a long-distance relationship with the Beautiful Game.
And he confides: “I once went to see Woking play Southwick in the Ryman League, a 1-1 draw on a Tuesday night at Old Barn Way when Brighton weren’t playing.”
I think it’s the fact he even remembered the score that impressed me (or perhaps worried me), something I confirmed via my treasured copy of Cardinal Red: The History of Woking FC, suggesting that was 25 years ago, an Isthmian League Division One game in September 1989 in which legendary defender Trevor Baron scored for the Cards.
In fact, we pipped our hosts – these days languishing in the Sussex County League – to promotion that season, finishing second. But that’s another story, and I wasn’t there while he was.
So, with that out of the way, I ask if it can really be 35 years in this business they call show for him come September.
“Well, you say ‘in the business’, but I don’t really have much of a relationship with the conventional entertainment industry.
“I do everything for myself, book all my own gigs, put out my own CDs and books, and I’m totally DIY.
“I still do around 100 gigs a year, play all over the world, have a really good time, but I’m a tiny little fish in a huge great pool.
“Most of the mainstream media are scared shitless of me because of my politics and general volatility. But I have a great time.”
I ask him to think back to that first gig in Harlow, not long before his 23rd birthday, and why he’d felt the need to branch out alone.
“I’d been a bass player in punk bands, but I’d always been writing poetry and songs on the mandolin and wanted to earn my living out of it.
“My parents were both talented performers, and I just got this idea it would work getting up on stage between bands and shouting poetry.
“That’s what I did, and at the time I was doing this job in the city for a stockbroker’s company, hence this stage name.
“I went down quite well and it wasn’t very long before I was on the front cover of Melody Maker and getting sessions for John Peel.”
From his shows in Albania and the old East Germany to that one for his Mum’s WI back in Sussex and another at the Oxford Union, he’s played a bizarre mix of venues. Is there anywhere still on his list that he’d like to play for the first time (once he’s ticked off Southport of course)?
“I’d still like to play Pyonyang. And from those you mention to freezing squats in Germany, it’s been very fulfilling and interesting, and I remain a law unto myself, without anyone telling me what to do and no agent or manager.
Touching back on his Harlow debut, if he could go back to those days, what would he do different about those following years? Was confidence ever an issue, for example?
“I’ve always had complete self-belief and don’t have a self-doubt gene. I’m incredibly motivated and have always done what I wanted and followed my own path.
“Getting help from people like John Peel in the early days and a deal with Cherry Red ensured my early albums came out and got me a lot of mainstream coverage – albeit mostly negative!
“But that really set me on my way, and I’m a natural-born organiser. When I was at uni in Kent I was on the ents committee and learned more than anything else during that course how to organise gigs.
“I now organise my own festival, Glastonwick, and also have a sort of exchange system – I go and play in countries and they organise gigs for me, and when they come here I do the same for them. It’s all very DIY, but really works.”
While some of his more recent material is more personal, he’s still not above a little political targeting, as heard on a recent song about Prince Harry that you can find on his website, a poke at readers of The Sun ending with the line, ‘social justice – it’s not for the likes of us’.
“I describe myself as a social surrealist. There’s an old saying, one of my favourite quotes, from Mary Poppins, ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’. What I aim to do is give people a really good evening and at the same time give them lots to think about.”
He didn’t really say the word ‘really’ there, but you get the picture.
“And after 35 years my material includes pieces about my mother and step-father, and there’s a lot of humanity and very serious stuff – some of it very personal. The greatest compliment I get is when people say, ‘That was brilliant, Attila. You made me laugh and cry in the same hour.’”
Is he still as fired up about issues as he was back in the early ’80s?
“Of course I am, and there’s even more to talk about, with more injustice and shit going on. I get angrier as I get older. I’m far more fired up now than 30 years ago.”
As far as I recall, the first time I saw Attila live was in the acoustic tent at Reading Festival in August ’89 – barely four weeks before that Southwick versus Woking fixture he mentioned.
My diary entry lists the bands I saw that weekend, and I’ve actually added ‘Albania, Derek Pringle, Slough and Crystal Palace’ in brackets after his name, clearly aides memoire to writing a review for Captains Log at the time.
The mists of time have fallen since, and the fourth edition of my fanzine never got published, but I’m guessing each related to a song or a rant between songs, with the first and last pretty much self-explanatory and the third no doubt of its time too.
But it’s the third that sticks in the memory, his poetic response to Sir John Betjeman’s Slough. I applauded his view at the time, but was always in two minds, feeling the poet laureate was not only a force for good but also spot on about what the planners had wreaked upon that particular Berkshire town.
I don’t think it was a slight on Slough itself, but to Anynewtown, UK, and in that sense arguably a precursor to songs like Paul Weller’s Come to Milton Keynes, recorded with The Style Council.
I couldn’t draw Attila on Sir John though. Instead, he cited a poet that meant more to him.
“My sort of mentor, poetry-wise, was the great Sussex polemicist Hilaire Belloc.
“My Dad was a talented comic poet. He died when I was 10, but started reading me Cautionary Tales for Children by Belloc. That was what really got me interested in poetry.
“My first gig – rather than the one at Harlow – was really at primary school in Sussex at the age of nine, doing a Belloc poem and Heinrich Hoffman’s Augustus is a Chubby Lad (The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup).
“I’ve always loved words and try and use them in as diverse a way as possible. I’m also very fired up politically, but there’s no way that my aim is to shove ideas down people’s throats.
“What I want to do is make people think then draw their own conclusions from what I’m saying, but at the same time have a bloody good time.
“Some of it’s about football, some of it’s about disgusting sleeping bags, and of course I like a good nob gag!”
Moving on, I switch subjects to The Long Goodbye, a lengthy piece I tell him he should feel extremely proud of, incredibly powerful.
You can find a version for yourself on YouTube, recorded at a gig for Petersfield Write Angle in late 2009, and I put it to him that his Mum was clearly a remarkable woman.
“She was, and we had a fantastic relationship. I took her with me on tour at times, and right to the very end … the last thing she said to me was ‘have a good gig’.
“By that stage she didn’t know who I was, but we were determined to keep her at home. The other poem that goes along with that really was Never Too Late, about my stepfather.
“Until two years before he died, we just didn’t get on, then in that period – especially through his efforts to try and look after Mum, and they didn’t have the happiest of marriages, to be honest, although he always did his best – it really brought us closer together.
“There’s a real message there. However long it takes – in our case, 37 years – it’s never too late to tell someone you love them.”
Again, Never Too Late (also filmed by Petersfield Write Angle, in early 2013 this time) is extremely poignant, and like its predecessor perhaps all the more startling for the fact that it appears to be a major departure for someone more likely seen as a ranting poet once regular on the post-punk circuit.
Of course, some he shared the bill with in the past went on to bigger things. Was there ever any jealousy that the likes of Phill Jupitus became a bit more famous?
“I actually wrote a song about him once. But no, I have no desire – and I know that sounds ridiculous in some ways – to be part of the mainstream entertainment industry whatsoever.
“I just don’t like the celebrity thing. My heroes are people like John Peel, and I like being an underground performer.
“I love the feeling that people who find out about me do so not because they’re told to by some mainstream station but they mainly see me on YouTube or via Facebook.
“I love the underground nature of what I do. I don’t play to huge crowds, there’s normally 50 to 100 people turn up – and I’m very happy with that.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is spread ideas, meet interesting people and make enough money to live on. I’ve managed to do that for 35 years, and I’m very happy with that.”
So does he keep in touch with any of those he worked alongside in his stockbroker’s clerk days?
“Good God, no! I came back from Belgium, where I played in a punk band, and registered as a translator – I speak fluent French – and they got me this job.
“As far as I was concerned, it was something I was going to do a few months to earn enough to live on while working out exactly how I was going to earn a living as a performer.
“That job gave me two things – my stage name and a poem I wrote about the people I worked with, called Every Time I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You.”
If people are finally catching up with his output over the years, where should they start – which book of poems, or which album?
“It’s probably best to go to my Facebook page, and at the moment perhaps Looters or my Prince Harry piece, whic his my favourite of the most recent material.”
At that point he starts to explain a bit about the background of the latter, but by then his students had clearly waited long enough for the Attila the Stockbroker take on football and how to save your club from oblivion.
“The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (by Robert Tressell) is my favourite book of all time and having come from a right-wing, upwardly-mobile working class ‘Hyacinth Bucket’ background, I find the number of people conned by these stupid tabloid newspapers is … anyway, I really have got to go now!”
True to his word, he was gone too, and consequently this scribe ran out of time to ask if he’s likely to stand for parliament in May – with or against the UK Gin Dependence Party.
If you find out before me, just let me know.
* Also on the bill at the Hungry Monk poetry evening on Friday, March 21st are alternative poet/songwriter John G. Sutton and poet/crimewriter/songwriter Ron Ellis.
Former cotton weaver and prison warder John G. Sutton edits online magazine Psychic World and has written several books on psychic phenomena, including the best-selling Psychic Pets.
He has his own show on US radio, operates fortune-telling puppet Mr Stix, and wrote and recorded an album with ‘60s pop legend PJ Proby as well as recording and performing songs under the name 2Hat John. Max Bygraves once described John as ‘psychologically damaged’, which he took to be a compliment.
Ron Ellis won the national Sefton Poetry Competition in 1992 and has published two books of poetry, Diary of a Discotheque and Last of the Lake Poets, also available on CD.
He has written for PJ Proby and Judge Dread and in 1979 recorded punk anthem Boys on the Dole under the name of Neville Wanker & The Punters. Ron also writes crime novels set in Liverpool and around Lancashire featuring private eye Johnny Ace, plus the DCI Glass mysteries, and Southport Faces, a social history of his hometown.
The show starts at 8pm, with tickets £12 from the venue on 01704 809355 or on the door, with food and a selection of ales and drinks on the night.