Attacco Decente: The Baby Within Us Marches On

Attacco Decente were a band who slipped under the cultural radar, receiving a modest amount of critical and popular acclaim in their lifetime, but nowhere near as much as they deserved. Sporadically active between 1984 and 1996, they were birthed in the tumult of anti-Thatcher populism and gained a reputation as bolshie left-wing activists, far removed from the cosying up to Neil Kinnock of Billy Bragg and the Red Wedge crowd. Yet, as this début album shows, Attacco Decente were a far more complex and interesting proposition than shouty agitators like the Redskins. Their impassioned rhetoric, intricate harmony vocals and innovative use of unusual acoustic instruments make their slim recorded legacy a precious repository of urgent, beautiful music.

The band’s founder member and sole constant was Geoff Smith, a virtuoso player of the hammered dulcimer. Smith formed the group in Brighton with bassist Graham Barlow, releasing an initial 7”, “Trojan Horse”. Guitarist Mark Allen joined and the trio released a 12” EP, “U.K.A. (United Kingdom of America)”. Most of the songs on “U.K.A.” were brittle and callow, but “The Law Above The Law” stood out as a perfect piece of taut, socially committed songwriting. By the time of their first album, Smith had matured as a lyricist and the trio were musically at the height of their powers.

The record begins with the surging, clattering rush of “The Will Of One”. Smith’s sharp, hectoring lead vocals swell against Allen and Barlow’s sighing harmonies, the glistening timbre of the hammered dulcimer and the pounding beat of the tongue drums. This blueprint is strengthened and deepened throughout the album. The band’s razor-sharp vocal harmonies bring a hint of sinister menace and affronted outrage to “The Rose Grower”, a song inspired by the mysterious death of the gardener and anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murrell. On the slower songs, “Dad Was God” and the title track, Allen’s striking acoustic guitar catches a note of wounded beauty that is the perfect foil for Smith’s yearning voice. Elsewhere, side one of the album ends with the stunning “Natural Anger”, a song that culminates in a long solo for dulcimer and tongue drums that takes the breath away with its sheer vitality and virtuosity.

Smith’s lyrics articulate a philosophy in which personal will and political commitment fuse to form an overwhelming sensation of justice. It takes some nerve to write and sing a line like “public school and formal sex gave birth to their economic policy”, but Smith carries it off with consummate ease as he rails against institutions and power structures in “Fear Of Freedom”. The words on this album are inspired by romantic notions of collectivism and struggle, yet their ravishing imagery, and the passion with which the three vocalists deliver them, invest them with a power that is as persuasive as it is idealistic.

Attacco Decente released one more single with this line-up, “I Don’t Care How Long It Takes”, and then waited six years to release the follow-up, Crystal Night. Barlow having left by this time, this second and last album was a more subdued affair, replete with gorgeous love songs and foregrounding Allen’s virtuoso guitar and the silvery throb of the dulcimer. The Baby Within Us Marches On, though, remains the band’s definitive statement: ambitious, tumultuous and (to quote from an unreleased song) an attack from the heart.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector: Vinyl Viands, 2006)