Swells and Attila, a mid 80s Anti-Apartheid gig with the Redskins
CHAPTER 2 THANKS PEELIE
Back in Harlow the Front Line, as the local punk fraternity was called, was growing all the time: there were fully operational bands, bands who were just starting and ‘bands’ who only ever existed as toilet graffiti! Three of the newest ones had just got themselves a gig at a local playbarn, as Harlow youth centres were called, and they were happy to add me to the bill. Newly christened Attila the Stockbroker, I made my debut on a sunny September 8th evening in 1980 at Bush Fair Playbarn, in between sets by The De-Fex, The Condemmed (yes, those two ‘m’s again!) and The Unborn Dead. They were noisy as hell. So was I, in a different kind of way……
There wasn’t time for me to go home and change after the evening’s commute back from my job in London, so I asked my flatmate Steve to take my mandolin along for me and I did the gig in my work suit. It must have seemed very strange indeed – a bloke in a suit with a tatty green carnation shoved in the buttonhole, hammering out his songs on a tinny little electric mandolin put through a phaser unit, shouting poems in between the songs. But, rather against my expectations, I went down really well and was immediately offered another gig, at a Rock Against Thatcher night in the recently opened Square One youth club in the town centre, which, as The Square, is still hosting gigs more than 30 years on.
This was just the incentive I needed to write more material, and I soon came up with a new poem, inspired by a Daily Express front cover I saw when I went home to visit my mum one weekend and my aunt and uncle, avid readers of that spectacular waste of good trees, were there. Half the page was a pinched-face rant about the RUSSIAN THREAT. The other half was a pinched-face rant about SOCIAL SECURITY SCROUNGERS.
I thought it was time they joined forces in a two pronged attack………
RUSSIANS IN THE DHSS
It first was a rumour dismissed as a lie
But then came the evidence none could deny:
A double page spread in the Sunday Express –
The Russians are running the DHSS!
The scroungers and misfits have done it at last
The die of destruction is finally cast
The glue-sniffing Trotskyists’ final excess:
The Russians are running the DHSS!
It must be the truth ‘cos it’s there in the news
A plot by the Kremlin, financed by the Jews
And set up by Scargill, has met with success –
The Russians are running the DHSS!
So go down to your Jobcentre – I bet you’ll see
Albanian students get handouts for free
And drug-crazed punk rockers cavort and caress
In the interview booths in the DHSS…
They go to Majorca on taxpayers’ money
Hey, you there, stop laughing –I don’t think it’s funny
And scroungers and tramps eat smoked salmon and cress
Now the Russians are running the DHSS!
We’ll catch that rat Scargill with our red rat catcher
We’ll send him to dinner with Margaret Thatcher
And we’ll make him stay there until he’ll confess
That he put the Reds in the DHSS!
Then we’ll hang ‘em and flog ‘em and hang ‘em again
And hang ‘em and flog ‘em and more of the same
We’ll GAS all the dole queues and clear up the mess:
Get rid of the Reds – AND the DHSS!
This poem, one of my best known to this day, eventually found its way onto the celebrated Cherry Red punk compilation album ‘Burning Ambitions’ which sold thousands – with the result that, even now, ‘What’s the DHSS, Attila?’ is one of the questions most asked of me by perplexed punks abroad. (One day soon, I guess, I’ll be asked it here too, along with ‘Who was Scargill?’ and my ambition is to live long enough for someone to ask me ‘Who was Margaret Thatcher?’) I still perform it occasionally for old time’s sake, and even though it is completely out of date it still gets a cheer….
After my Rock Against Thatcher appearance I was invited to do a couple more local gigs, also well received: emboldened, I entered the Harlow Council Rock Contest, even though I wasn’t a band, and to my absolute astonishment, got to the final – beaten in the end by my old mates Pete the Meat and the Boys. I had more material now, poetic sneers at the mainstream music scene like ‘I Don’t Talk To Pop Stars’ and ‘Pap Music For Wreck People’. As well as the poems I was writing new songs: by the end of 1980 I’d ditched my early efforts and cover versions in favour of the anti-capitalist pyromaniac anthem ‘Burn It Down’, ‘Factory Gods’, a rant against organised religion, ‘Fifth Column’, strangely prescient of Thatcher’s use of the police as her private army during the miners’ strike a few years later, and ‘World War Three’, an anti nuclear thrash based on a poem by Roger McGough. Oh, and ‘Willie Whitelaw’s Willie’ – nuff said. And I was still going on stage in my suit.
So a set crammed full of biting socio-political comment from Day One, then? Well, yes and no. I was certainly doing my best, but, if I’m honest, in those very early days there’s no doubt whatsoever that the high point of an Attila gig for most of the audience was a song about a dead cat.
By 1980 the Newtown Neurotics were doing quite a few gigs outside Harlow, and, wherever possible, I’d pile into the Transit van along with them. One February night – Valentine’s Night! – that year we had just been dropped off very late back at Steve’s flat in the Spencer’s Croft estate when we saw a cat lying in the road. It had self-evidently just had a terminal encounter with a motor vehicle and all nine of its lives had been used up in one go. Not wanting some poor unfortunate child to be greeted with the sight of a defunct, squashed and bloody family pet the next morning, we picked it up and placed it in some nearby bushes, and expected the council, or its owners, to clear it away: but they didn’t. The cat stayed exactly where it was (obviously, since it was dead) and as winter turned to spring, it came alive again. In a wriggly, maggoty, larval kind of way.
Word got round the local punk scene about The Spencer’s Croft Cat, as it was soon called, and people started making pilgrimages to the bushes to have a look: some didn’t just look, they poked it with sticks and things and watched the maggots crawl out. It remained unburied, and in no time at all had icon status. Its collar disappeared: I’m sure some punk rocker took it. Soon new Cat-inspired versions of political chants could be heard from the punk faction at demonstrations in the Harlow area, puzzling the hell out of the people around us.
‘The Spencer’s Croft Cat is a Dead Cat! Bury the Spencer’s Croft Cat!’
‘The Spencer’s Croft Cat has got Maggat! Bury the Spencer’s Croft Cat!’
‘What’s it got? Maggat! Who’s got maggat? The Spencer’s Croft Cat! When’s it got it? Now!’
The ‘small print’ on the poster advertising my very first gig was a prime example of this. Alongside the Crass-inspired slogan ‘Fight War Not Wars’ was a drawing of a spade and the words ‘Bury the Spencer’s Croft Cat’. Indeed, ‘Bury The Cat’ became a favourite graffito all over Harlow, up there with the ubiquitous ‘Mick and Nick – Ant People’ (I’ve often wondered how Little Mick and his girlfriend felt when Adam and the Ants changed from bondaged-up sleaze-punk sadomasochists into teenybopper pirates!)
Soon I’d written a song, predictably entitled ‘The Spencer’s Croft Cat’, in its honour. ‘Lying in the bushes, gone but not forgotten, its name may not be Johnny but it certainly is rotten…!’ Then I was offered my first ever London gig, supporting the Newtown Neurotics, Sods and Rabbits at the long-departed Music Machine. I thought I should do something special to mark the occasion and bought a couple of pints of fishing maggots -with the intention of showering the audience with them in the middle of the song to illustrate the Cat’s condition (good idea, eh?) But I let the Cat out of the bag, as it were, and only managed to throw one larval handful before Roger from the Rabbits crept up behind me and tipped the remaining maggots over my head. I had a thorough wash and shook out my clothes, but bluebottles kept turning up in the flat for days afterwards….
To this day, that song is still requested across the world occasionally, and to Robina’s chagrin, when asked for it, I’ve still played it once or twice – now elongated to include ‘Dead Cat Strut’ (after ‘Stray Cat Strut’ by the Stray Cats) and ‘It’s Decomposing’ (after ‘What You’re Proposing’ by Status Quo). The Cat never was buried, though the bushes where it lay have been long since cleared away and an old people’s home built on the site. Yes, there is one corner of Spencer’s Croft which will be forever feline. And a bloke from New Zealand on a visit to London once travelled all the way to Harlow to pay homage there. No, I’m not making that up.
Of course, I shouldn’t be talking about this. I should be building up a picture of the hard-nosed radical street poet, unmoved by humour and frivolous songs about dead cats. In this country, if you get on stage you’re supposed to fit into a category: ‘poet’, ‘singer- songwriter’ ‘comedian’, whatever. And if you want to be ‘taken seriously’ by the people that matter, you are supposed to do ‘serious’ or ‘funny’, one or the other. Well, I don’t give a f**k. I’ll do an angry song and follow it with a silly poem if I feel like it, or vice versa. I don’t fit into boxes! The saga of The Cat did have one very important and serious effect though: it ensured that for the next ten years, Harlow felt like my punk rock home, just as Southwick and Brighton was and always will be my family and football home.
And then, in January 1981, after about six gigs, I got my first press feature.
In the Harlow Gazette.
‘CITY GENT’S MANIC TOUCH’ was the headline.
‘By day a mild mannered worker in a London stockbroker’s office, he changes into his alter ego Attila in the evenings, playing ‘manic’ folk’.
(‘Mild mannered’? Me?)
But this local journalist’s attempt to rewrite the Superman story in local hackese bore immediate fruit: I got a call from a young wannabe impresario called Ray Santilli, who said he’d like to manage me. There and then, he promised me a showcase A&R gig at the famous Dingwall’s jazz club in London and an interview with the Daily Mirror, though he’d neither seen me, met me nor heard me perform before.
‘Yeah, right’, I thought.
The next thing I knew the Daily Mirror were on the ‘phone wanting to do a photo session with me, in my suit – and a bloody Viking helmet. Then I got confirmation that I was booked at Dingwalls, and Ray Santilli said he’d pay for a coach so that the local punks could come and cheer me on, to impress the A&R people (jazz A&R people?) he was inviting to come and see me. I couldn’t work out why he was doing all this, and I thought it was time to meet him. (Though I didn’t say so, I thought the Viking helmet was a really, really naff idea as well).
‘But Ray’, I said. ‘You’ve never seen me do a gig. You don’t know any of my stuff.
It’s not jazz. It’s left wing performance poetry and rude, loud, very primitive punky songs, thrashed out on three chords on a cheap little electric mandolin put through a phaser unit. It’s indescribable really. I can’t sing, the mandolin sounds really tinny, and I’ve only been doing this for four months and about six gigs. I’ve got an awful lot to learn! No-one’s going to sign me, honestly! Especially not if they’re into jazz!’
‘It doesn’t matter what you do’, he said. ‘You’ve got a great stage name, and it’s a great story. Leave the rest to me.’
‘Well, Ok, I’ll do the photo session for the Mirror, and the gig, but I want free beer for the Harlow Front Line punks as well as the free coach to Dingwalls!’
I got it.
I did the photos, in my suit and a Viking helmet. I looked a complete and total plonker, and even though you might think that a national newspaper feature four months after my first gig would be everything I could have ever wanted, I was mightily relieved when the editors decided not to run the piece.
The gig? A Monday night showcase at a cavernously empty Dingwalls. Fifty Harlow punks (the entire audience, apart from a posse of bemused A&R types) polished off Ray’s free beer on the coach trip down and went absolutely berserk all the way through my set. They cheered my poems to the rafters and sang along to ‘Willie Whitelaw’s Willie’ as though their lives depended on it. Some invaded the stage to sing backing vocals on ‘The Spencer’s Croft Cat’.
‘Dead, dead cat – and it’s got MAGGAT!’ they shouted. ‘Bury the cat. Bury the cat. BURY, BURY, BURY THE CAT!’
The jazz A&R men left half way through, shrugging their shoulders in disbelief, and Ray Santilli disappeared soon after. I know he didn’t know what to expect, but I’m sure he didn’t expect what he got, if you see what I mean….
But, again, there is a rather large postscript. One day a few years ago, remembering that strange episode and thinking that I had heard his name bandied about somewhere recently, I put ‘Ray Santilli’ into Google. Here’s what I got: ‘Ray Santilli is a London-based film producer, who on 5 May 1995 presented for the first time his alien autopsy footage to media representatives and UFO researchers. It was suggested that the body belonged to one of the aliens picked from the supposed Roswell UFO crash site in 1947.’
It soon became apparent that this whole scam had become the film ‘Alien Autopsy’ starring Ant or Dec out of Ant & Dec (please note: I’m not interested in Ant & Dec and I haven’t seen the film) as Ray Santilli. With Ray Santilli as producer. He probably designed the costumes as well.
And it is, indeed, the same bloke. The same bloke who persuaded the Daily Mirror to take pictures of me in a Viking helmet. The same bloke who tried to persuade London’s top jazz impresarios to take under their wing a foetal, nay, embryonic Attila the Stockbroker about 6 gigs old, shouting poems and thrashing a tinny, out of tune electric mandolin while ‘singing’ about a dead cat and Willie Whitelaw’s Willie.
Why wasn’t the alien’s photo in the Mirror, Ray? It wouldn’t even have needed to wear a Viking helmet. And it’s a shame it was dead. You could have got it a gig at Dingwalls …