English radical ranting poet Attila the Stockbroker (a.k.a. John Baine) made his debut onstage in 1980, in the punk era. Within months, he was reading poems like "Russians In McDonalds" on the influential John Peel radio show, opening for The Jam, and doing benefits for the Socialist Workers Party. Nearly a quarter-century, four books and 25 recordings later, Attila still makes his living as poet-in-residence (and PA announcer) for his local pro soccer team, Brighton & Hove Albion (which he helped save after its owner sold the stadium for profit without building a replacement). He's also a band leader and organizer of many a gig, event and beer festival. His tour with American radical singer-songwriter David Rovics stops in Pittsburgh on March 15.
You've been both applauded and criticized for using humor in your work.
I've always been unashamedly committed to the idea of being political and having a laugh at the same time. It's the case in political entertainers, and in the left generally, that there's an absence of humor (there's a lot of vegan, non-drinking, non-smoking tree huggers) but I like having fun, I like having a beer -- a lot of beer at times. We're socialists and anarchists -- we want these things because they would make it a better world, a more fun world. I've come into criticism that if you do serious pieces about fascism and then one about bogeys, you're not really a serious performer. But I care personally about all these things -- I write poetry about life, and life is about being angered, but it's also about having fun, about flatfish and dirty sleeping bags.
For you, life is also about sports.
My local football [soccer] club -- Brighton & Hove Albion -- is one part of my life that I treasure very much, but a lot of people on the left aren't too into football, and I think that's a shame; football is one of the things that brings people together. At Brighton, they've seen first-hand how the system works, what capitalism does. That struggle has made all kinds of people think more deeply about the way society works as a whole. It's only football, it's not exactly defeating capitalism, but what we have done is show the people around us that you can stand up and save the things you love. It's us saying, "This is our culture, and some capitalist bastard isn't going to take it away from us."
Your poetry and songs are often very critical of America.
I'm not critical of America, I'm critical of the American government. Some of the music, some of the culture I love the most in the world is American. But right now, together with the U.K., we are in possession of the two most hideously disgusting imperialist governments in the world. Britain and the U.S. are involved in a sort of blood oppression relay race -- for the past 150 years, the U.K. won, and now the U.S.A. has taken the lead.
This is your second U.S. tour -- how do the audiences here react to your material?
On my first tour of the States, I came with T.V. Smith [of punk band The Adverts]. It was a lot of fun, but we were mostly playing commercial punk clubs -- I actually had to take a flag off the stage at one of them before I played, which is disturbing because "punk" and "patriotic" are two words that just can't go together in my mind. This time I'm touring with the most sussed political singer-songwriter in the U.S.: all the gigs are set up by activists, and they're in very different venues. I played in a church for the first time last night, and tomorrow morning we're performing at a suburban high school!
Your roots are in punk rock, and it seems like all the ingredients of the first punk explosion are back today -- any signs of a revival?
Punk rock is right back on the agenda [in the U.K.], but very few of the new bands have any kind of socio-political awareness. It's unimaginable to me that singing about what's going on in the world can be "fashionable" or "unfashionable," but there has been a feeling in the U.K. that if you write directly radical political music, you are absolutely and completely out of fashion. Meanwhile, what's in fashion is the doodling kind of songs about "lurv" by idiots like Coldplay.
What can political artists hope to accomplish in the current climate?
Political songwriters and performers can do no more and no less than anybody else in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement. We can express the feelings of many more people, but it's really a matter of changing the way the system's run -- which means changing the electoral systems in both countries. The choice in England under the two-party system is a choice between a bucket of sick and a swimming pool full of sick. And Blair's all but said, "OK, you hate us, but what are you going to do, vote the Conservatives in?" And he's right, because no matter how traitorous and disgusting and awful New Labour is, [the Conservatives] are even worse. But we've seen in Scotland and in Wales that, as soon as people think their vote matters, it changes their perspective. That, for me, is a realistic first step, because the fact is I'm old enough to know we're not going to have a revolution tomorrow.