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Book Reviews - Attila the Stockbroker, Gong, BBC Sessions, Skin Alley

by Dave Thompson

Heart On My Sleeve - Collected Works 1980-2020

By Attila the Stockbroker

Cherry Red Books (ISBN 978-1-909454-87-3)

When Attila the Stockbroker first appeared on the UK punk scene at the dawn of the 1980s, it is unlikely that many folk saw him sticking around. There were, after all, already several self-styled poets spitting acerbic rage and humor into the audience; someone even coined a name for it, the all-too-accurate “ranting,” and Attila, a menacingly proportioned skinhead with a repertoire that embraced dead cats, Albanian football, Soviet take-overs, Depeche Mode fans and fellow ranter Seething Wells’s foreskin, was just one more lone star shouting the odds before the headliners came on.

There was always something about him, though, that raised him above the pack. A genuine sense of humor but, more than that, a sharp satirical eye that shrouded a profound awareness of injustice. Behind even the most surreal Stockbroker vision there lay a headline that had caught his attention, a high court judgement that offended his sensibilities, a gutter press campaign that outraged him.

A love of the Clash did not in any way clash with his love of folk music (if the annual music paper polls had a category for Best Thrash Mandolin Player, he’d have cleaned up); a way with words which left most rock’n’rollers sounding even dumber than they tend to look.

True, not everybody liked him. When the Stockbroker opened for John Cale in London, the Velvet legend stormed up to him afterwards to make it clear just how little he had enjoyed the performance - harsh words when you consider that Attila loved Cale almost as much as he loved the Clash.

But a first album was followed by a second… a third, a thirteenth…. Including comps and live albums, there’s around thirty Stockbroker albums on the streets now, and if his approach to presentation has changed over the years, the genius that resided at the heart of his earliest poems (and, later, songs) remains untainted by time.

Heart on my Sleeve proves that. It’s a chunky book, 330+ pages, close to 200 verses, neatly corralled within a tightly choreographed guide to the things that have mattered the most to his pen across the years: early memories and family, politics, journalism, football, current affairs. And it’s another mark of Attila’s awareness that few of his topics have dated.

A verse condemning a British judge for his callous disregard for a rape victim in 1981 (“Contributory Negligence”) is no less relevant today than it was forty years ago. The Russians, we hear, are still planning to take over some of our most cherished national institutions (“They Must Be Russians”). Democracy-hating foreign agents are still leaving terrapins in people’s beds (“Libyan Students from Hell”). Brighton football club is still a going concern and, right now, are back mixing it with the big boys, just as a string of poems penned during harsher times made it clear they always would be.

In fact, the only thing we don’t get is the glossary that would, perhaps, broaden this wonderful book’s appeal to international audiences.. for people who maybe don’t know why the name Nigel is so funny, and C&A is exactly where you’d expect him to go. Who is Joseph Porter and why is his sleeping bag so rank? Who are the Tetley Bittermen and what is so awful about Crystal Palace?

And where is the Spencer’s Croft Cat?


On Track… Gong: Every Album, Every Song

By Kevan Furbank

Sonic Bond Publishing (ISBN 978-1-78952-082-8)

Ah, Gong. Possessors of one of rock’s most remarkable discographies, and one of its most convoluted, too. Where, after all, does one draw the line between official releases, semi-official, relevant solo, oddball spin-offs, self releases and bootlegs? All of which infest the catalog like bugs in a bed, and (almost) all are essential to the mythology.

Where does Going end and Daevid Allen begin? Is a Steve Hillage solo album recorded with the backbone of the band more or less a “proper” Gong release than a Pierre Moerlin outing featuring a whole new line-up? And is it Gong if there’s no vintage Gongsters involved?

These are the dilemmas facing author Fubank as he settled down to write this book, and the bad news is… he cheated. If an officially released studio album bears the Gong name it’s in, regardless of who the musicians are. If it doesn’t meet those two strict criteria, it’s either ignored or relegated to what amount to the appendices.

So, full entries for the likes of Gazeuse and Expresso II, but nothing for Banana Moon and Continental Circus. Mother Gong are in, Gilli Smyth’s solo releases are out. And so on.

All of which surely leaves the average pot-head pixie admiring the author’s discipline, but cursing his adhesion to the rules. And turning once again to their well-worn copy of Gong in the 70s, convinced that it deserves more exposition than the single sentence it receives here.

But them’s the rules and we must obey. And if we accept the criteria that bind the content, it’s a fun book, an enjoyable read, and it will definitely have you reaching for whichever Gong poison you have on the shelf, and listening anew while a cast of characters discuss each track’s origins and background.

An impressive array of past members pass through the pages, from early members Mike Howlett and Tim Blake, to the full current line-up of the band, while the book’s proximity to the release of the Love from Planet Gong box set ensures that, in terms of the albums Furbank does explore, few teapots are left unpoured. In those terms, this is a terrific book and Gong-lovers should pounce on it sooner rather than later.

Besides, the strictures that bind this book’s contents are those that bind the remainder of the On Track series too, a … is it fair to call it a flaw? A failing? A misstep?… a whatever that seriously dents what could have been a major contribution to discographical lore. Some bands’ careers are straightforward enough, album after album with just a glance towards the archives and barely a solo nod worth registering. But for others, and Gong are paramount in this category, it’s the archives and the extra-curricular antics that add so much of the magic, and the offshoots that cause fresh flowers to flourish.

Without them, we get barely half of the story.


Live on Air and Other Broadcasts - Volume Two: Rock, Pop, Folk and Jazz at the BBC 1962-1967

By Tamsin Darke (ISBN978-1-6671-8710-5)

Hate to say it, but this one is seriously going to divide those among us who collect, catalog or otherwise get very excited by the idea of BBC Radio sessions.

The gold standard for any such book is Ken Garner’s now thirty year old In Session Tonight, an epic rendering of every BBC Radio session broadcast between the birth of Radio One in September 1967 and the early 1990s. Every broadcast, every band, every song performed, every musician, every producer, every studio. It’s relentless in its attention to detail and it’s impossible to simply pick it up and flick through. Open it, and you’re down the rabbit hole for days.

Live on Air, on the other hand, is great so far as the broadcasts and bands are concerned, but actual performances are limited primarily to major pop, rock and folk artists, and other detail is absent. If you need to know what shows a particular performer appeared on, it does its job. If you want to know more than that…..

Comparisons with In Session Tonight are, of course, unfair. Garner had unfettered access to the BBC’s own archive. Darke, by her own admission, worked from back issues of the BBC’s weekly listings magazine, the Radio Times, period transcription discs and sundry “at the Beeb” style compilations, off-air recordings and so forth. In other words, anybody could have compiled a similar book from the same sources.

But they didn’t. And, by that token, this book is an invaluable resource simply because there is nothing else like it on the market. Or on the internet. Yes, certain individual artists are well served on print and on-line, and if your interest goes no deeper than the Beatles/Stones/Kinks/Who axis, then save your pennies. But there must be 6- or 700 different artists listed here, ranging across even more genres than the subtitle allows for, from Shirley Abicair to Timi Yuro, from the Zephyrs to the Action, to build up not only a peerless snapshot of just how much music was recorded for the BBC between 1962-1967, but also, how much is, alas, apparently lost.

Compare, for example, the listing for Marianne Faithfull with the contents of her own At the BBC album. That contained music from five shows. Live on the Light logs thirty more, both radio and television appearances (British TV’s weekly Top of the Pops is one of several shows featured). The Yardbirds appeared on close to fifty shows; even the most “complete” CD rendering of that catalog mines barely one quarter of them. Leaf through and you will find myriad more, similar (and even more alarming) instances, and while Darke may not tell us exactly what we’re missing, but she at least tells us that it once existed, when it was broadcast and what the show was.

So Live on the Light is not perfect by a long chalk. But until someone else comes up with something bigger and better, it’s peerless all the same. And Darke, whose other books include price guides for David Bowie and quadraphonic sound, should be applauded for the amount of effort that must have gone into its creation.


Skin Alley and Beyond

By Krzysztof Henryk Juszkiewicz

Wisdom Twins Books

Skin Alley were one of the mainstays of the UK festival circuit during the early 1970s, a band with feet firmly planted in both the psyhedelic and R&B scenes of the era, and a mean pop-inflected combo as well. They’re best remembered now, it seems, as one of the first white UK acts to sign with Stax Records, but better feted for their contribution to the legendary Glastonbury Fayre triple live album and, again, for their ubiquitous presence in muddy fields the length and breadth of the country. And Juszkiewicz was their Polish-born keyboard player.

At just over 100 pages, Skin Alley and Beyond is a short book - surprisingly so, given the band’s place in the contemporary scheme of things, and it’s fair to say from the outset that fans caring only for memories of so many free festivals (and the three albums that the author recorded with them) are going to be disappointed. Skin Alley are done and dusted by page 33, which means the bulk of the book is focussed on either the beyond of the title, or the before that Juszkiewicz skipped at the beginning.

For all that, though, it’s both an enjoyable and engrossing tale. Juszkiewicz writes well, drawing you into the tales he tells, even as he frustrates by skipping over what could have been some great stories… a single reference to how the band “mingled happily with musicians from Trees, Hawkwind, High Tide, Bubastis, Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Cochise, Camel, Arthur Brown and perhaps a few more that I can’t remember” leaves the reader starving for furthwer detail. Tell us about the mingling! He mentions the band playing various festivals, but there’s little about what may have happened there. And his account of Skin Alley’s demise feels as though it cloaks more than it reveals.

For all that, though, Juszkiewicz’s love of music shines through brightly, not only during the Skin Alley years, but across the beyond as well - a period that included teaching, notating Tangerine Dream’s latest albums for their music publisher, and a lengthy fling in theater (including the first Elvis musical) which is itself worth the book’s price on its own.

So don’t go in expecting sex, drugs, fame and all that malarkey (in fact, Juszkiewicz admits he had little interest in that side of things), and you’ll be fine. Enjoy instead an honest, open account of one working musician’s experiences … working.