Of Punks and Men: An Interview with Vic Godard
by Anna Battista
- "Don't forget to check 'em out 'cause they're a fuckin' amazing band..."- Steve Mick on Subway Sect, Sniffin' Glue, November 1976
I'm wearing my favourite clothes, black trousers and an old black baggy jumper with a few holes here and there and I'm sitting on the floor, leafing through a few old magazines and sparse articles from the punk era. I pass pages and pages of images of the angry Sex Pistols, the powerful and riotous Clash, the long-haired Ramones, the enthralling Buzzcocks and the raw Damned, just to mention a few of the most famous bands of those times. And I start thinking of all the kids who went to their gigs, wearing weird hairstyles, fashionable badges and the all-encompassing safety pins stuck everywhere. I think of all those kids who bought their records and identified in those songs the bands furiously shouted from their stages, songs that the press and the media saw as an avalanche of noise and nothing else And while leafing through these pages, dreaming of being a magician able to summon up from the pages of a spell book a little genie capable of bringing me back to those times, I stumble on a pic of a guy. He's wearing a white shirt, gently clinging to his microphone and pensively averting his gaze from the audience, looking down, perhaps trying to look cool, perhaps trying to remember the lyrics of the song he is performing. Well, I must admit that he doesn't look like a real punk, but more like a suffering poet. Near the pic, taken by Caroline Coon and published by Mark Perry's punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue on its 10th issue in June 1977, there's simply written, in felt pen, "Vic Godard - Subway Sect". Many years have passed since that picture was taken and since Vic Godard and The Subway Sect, clad in their dyed grey clothes sang and played their imperfectly perfect tracks. I wonder how Vic's doing now. "Very good!", his voice, satisfied and relaxed, beams out of the receiver I'm holding and, since he's kindly keen on having a wee chat with me, we take a step back in time and take a little trip to the late '70s. See, I'm not a magician, but I managed all the same to call the proverbial genie.
It is November 1976, when, in an interview on Sniffin' Glue, Paul Myers, Subway Sect's bass player says that the band took their name from the fact that they went "busking down Hammersmith subway". I wonder if that's true, "Well, not really", Vic reveals, explaining "I mean, we were on our way to our first gig. We just stopped there so we could start off in the underpass, 'cause we carried all the equipment on the bus, drumkit, amplifiers and all that. So, on the way from getting off the bus and getting onto the underground we set up in the underpass." For many, 1976 was the year zero, the year in which punk changed people's attitudes and musical tastes, and it was a time for a change also for inspirations, is it true that Subway Sect took their inspiration from French novels? "Yes, probably in some way, as Françoise Hardy was quite important in that era.", Vic claims, though, musically speaking, Vic admits another source of inspiration, "The Velvet Underground", he states without any doubt at all. Formed in 1976, Subway Sect, before disgracefully ending their career, managed to enter the Olympus of punk rock icons thanks to that long gone Monday in September of the same year, when they played the first night of that two days stint passed to the history of music as the Punk Festival at the 100 Club in London. That Monday, right after Subway Sect, there were two other bands, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
- "The Subway Sect hit the stage first and had all the intellectual wimpeys cringing in horror and yapping about how the band couldn't play etc. The line up of the Sect is: Vic Godard - vocals, Paul Smith - drums, Paul Myers - bass and Robert Miller - guitar, it was their first gig and I loved 'em. They chew gum on stage and look vacant. The four songs they did were great." Sniffin' Glue, September 1976
It was Malcom McLaren who helped The Subway Sect, "We met him before the 100 Club Punk Festival, when he was working in his shop, 'cause he used to sell different trousers to what was around in those days, non-shared trousers. He was thorough about us 'cause he was paying for the rehearsals as well. So he really made sure that we got good enough to do a gig." Of the Punk Festival, Vic has got a particular memory of something that stuck to his mind, "The sound check: Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols tried to rearrange our songs because he didn't think the music we were doing was correct." And there's also a memory of who eventually became an icon for the punk kids, Sid Vicious: "He liked us a lot. We just thought he was a nice bloke, he was a quite shy sort of bloke, a very nice young man." It's weird to imagine Sid Vicious as a shy man, but, as Vic explains, his image was created by people "because of what he was."
- "SUBWAY SECT: This band are real punks ... Their music is very simple, usually using 2 or 3 chords but the strength of the band's personalities as a whole makes up for lack expertise. They deserve more gigs, more chances to show how much they're worth ... A band like this needs to be heard. They're an example to every kid who wants to do something positive." Sniffin' Glue - December 1976
Undoubtedly it must have been rather cool to be able to meet such bands and play with them, still, there was a moment, in February 1977, in which the good star of Subway Sect seemed to fade away for a moment at least. Sniffin' Glue, leaves the positive and kind comments aside to complain "Whatever happened to the Subway Sect. They used to get up on stage and be themselves, now they're rehearsing like an established band", but Vic now states, "Ah, yes, there were a lot of rehearsals then because we were pre-badge, we needed them really badly." On the contrary, Vic doesn't rehearse a lot now, "No, never because I haven't got a group, when I play in Scotland I get there the day before, when I'm in England I'm lucky if I have a group I have to rehearse with."
"Subway Sect's set at Harlesden showed that a lot of rehearsing hasn't changed them. They'll still one of the most important bands around." Sniffin' Glue, March 1977 Though they were considered one of the most important bands around in 1977, the Subway Sect would have lived their annus mirabilis , and at the same time their most disruptive year, in 1978, when apart from touring with Patti Smith ("She was a bit of a cow really", Vic remembers), among the others, they also played in Paris at Yves Saint Laurent party: a nebulous, but still vivid memory "I think I remember Elton John dressed up as a gorilla", says Vic, then he stops to reflect "Oh, that wasn't that weird ... and the ice cream was nice." The first single, "Nobody's Scared" came out in March 1978, followed by a second one, "Ambition", in December of the same year. Unfortunately, by that time Bernie Rhodes, Subway Sect's manager, had already sacked all the band, apart from Vic. At that time Vic was living on the dole with the rest of the group, when Rhodes sacked the band he increased Vic's wage to fifty pounds a week.
But The Subway Sect had already gained quite a few fans: among them there was also Orange Juice's Edwyn Collins who came down to London from Glasgow to look for Vic. Rumours have Vic hiding whenever Edwyn was around on his path "No, I wasn't hiding, we were on tour. He came down when we were doing a tour, 'cause when 'Ambition' came out we were doing nothing, we were supporting the Buzzcocks on tour. And they came down to a place in Camden where we used to rehearse and I just remember Bernard Rhodes making them mop the studio which is what he did to everyone when they came down there: he had them to clean the place, things weren't really florid there then." As time passed, Edwyn Collins remained a constant in Vic Godard's life: Orange Juice covered Subway Sect's "Holiday Hymn"; the refrain "No more rock'n'roll for you" from the Sect's "We Oppose All Rock'n'Roll", can be heard on Orange Juice's "Poor Old Soul - Part 2"; Vic did the back vocals for Edwyn's "A Girl Like You" whereas Edwyn played on Vic's "Long Term Side Effect".
Together with Spearmint's Shirley Lee, Edwyn, who, as Vic tells me, "has just finished recording his new album (Paul Cook who does the drums for him told me)", also wrote the notes for the booklet which accompanied the re-releasing of What's The Matter Boy? (2000, Universal Music Operations Ltd.). Finally re-released in its 1979 original mix and gloriously packaged, the collection features, among the other tracks, the legendary "Stop That Girl," the great riffs of "Watching the Devil," the glorious "Enclave," the melancholic "Empty Shell," the sweet "Make Me Sad," plus four tracks recorded in 1978 for the BBC Peel session, which features also the Lou Reed number "Head Held High." "I Am the Emperor of My Cupboard," Vic sang in "Double Negative" and Subway Sect were emperors in their own style as they prove in songs such as "Exit, No Return," "Stool Pigeon" or "Split up the Money." This seminal album is the sensation of punk, of swing, of freedom and of good songwriting made real in a band which, if they had wanted, might have turned a matchbox into a grenade, to paraphrase one of their tracks.
In the sleevenotes, Edwyn writes: "On its initial release, in 1980, staff at MCA were so bamboozled by this LP that they took the unusual step of handing over marketing and promotion to Rough Trade, from whose warehouse I picked up several copies. One for myself and the rest of Orange Juice and four Postcard cronies. Everyone was excited - myself, Alan Horne, Aztec Camera, The Fire Engines. Vic was an inspiration! The music was, in places, primitive but the ideas were always sophisticated. The underground had moved on." On the back cover of the reissued album there is also a comment from ex-Fire Engines, now Nectarine No.9's, Davy Henderson: "23 years ago the other week I saw the Subway Sect for the first time ... Sat 7/5/77. Things changed forever baby. Things changed forever". When I ask Vic which of the quotes he likes best he says "Davy Henderson's: I like that guy". Vic has often played with the Nectarine No.9 as backing band, in the same way as he's often been playing with bands signed to the Scottish independent label Creeping Bent, from The Secret Goldfish, who co-wrote with him their single "Somewhere in the World" and released a split single with Vic, to The Leopards, to the Nectarine No.9, to former Creeping Bent fellows Adventures in Stereo which recorded another version of Vic's "Nobody's Scared" released on the "Bentboutique" compilation, that also contains two tracks sang by Vic, "Make Me Sad" and the Lou Reed penned "She's My Best Friend". "I thought Adventures in Stereo are a really good live band, but I didn't really like the recordings much, I found them a bit too weedy, not really tough enough for me. But then, when they played live they really worked a quite tough sound. And I really liked The Leopards' new album, I played with Mick Slaven, the singer, Skip Reid the drummer and Campbell Owens, the bass player, quiet a lot."
- "Sniffin' Glue: Are you political through your music? Vic: None of the rest of the group are political, but my songs ... some of 'em have got political ideas in them." Sniffin' Glue, November 1976
Vic has often been considered one of the best songwriters of his generation. In his career, Vic also played with The Black Arabs and he hasn't got any doubt when he is asked what's the best thing he did with them "The song 'Devil's in League With You', which actually was recorded onto acetate and I only heard it a few times, but it was never released properly." The track now features on Twenty Odd Years - The Story Of Vic Godard & Subway Sect (1999, Motion Records). The collection is divided in two CDs, the first one more grim and punky, the second more gentle and swingy, incarnating the next impersonation of the Subway Sect, when they returned at the beginning of the'80s in a new attire, more swingy and jazzy. Carefully compiled (it contains also tracks from the unreleased Gooseberry Studio session, recorded in 1977, plus live tracks) and with a little help from Edwyn Collins, The Leopards, The Black Arabs and Adventures in Stereo, this compilation embodies a time and manages to evoke it for the listeners. The compilation unfolds the story of the band and of Godard throughout the songs, 'Nobody' Scared', 'Ambition', 'Enclave', 'Split Up The Money', 'Vertical Integration' 'Johnny Thunders', 'Stop That Girl' and 'T.R.O.U.B.L.E.', just to mention a few of them.
The Subway Sect truly had an ambition, that of making music, being more interested in it than in making money, that was their strength, and they fulfilled it. Though they never turned into pied pipers of a particular music movement and never managed to create a massive horde of delirious fans behind them, nonetheless they created a niche for themselves, making affectionate music for affectionate fans. Ataractic towards the world and the hall of fame, The Subway Sect and Vic Godard definitely found a place in the heart of the cognoscenti and of those with a good ear for great music. 'Twenty Odd Years' is a golden straw in the haystack of the music releases.
- "I stumbled round as seeded/ And found the magic lot/I knew that time remembered what the rest/of us forgot/ I threw the secret formula upon/the table plain/And sat there waitin' for the strings to/begin again." -Vic Godard, "Vertical Integration"
Vic Godard seems to have found a new integration and a new place nowadays: going back to his connections with Scotland, there's another interesting piece of news about a collaboration between Vic and the writer Irvine Welsh, author of the acclaimed Trainspotting. The greatest surprise is that no, Vic is not going to feature on the soundtrack of the umpteenth movie taken from Welsh's novels, the two are putting together a musical. Hmm, sounds spooky if you think that on Vic' 1986 T.R.O.U.B.L.E. album there is a song entitled "I'm Coming To Write A Musical", weird coincidence or forecasting? Who knows ... But how is it working with Irvine "Really really good: it's the best thing I've ever done. I've never worked with a lyricist before, so it has been a totally new thing to me to put in the music to someone else's words. Yeah, totally unique." And if you are wondering who will star in the musical, for instance, ubiquitous Scottish actor Tam Dean Burn, well, you still have to wait, since as Vic states, "The casting hasn't been done yet. The music has been sort of written, but it's not been recorded yet and I know the script is written, but the actors haven't been interviewed yet. I'm finishing my own album hopefully by February and that's when we probably start recording all the music for the musical, which is called 'Blackpool' and will start in summer 2001."
In an interview appeared on Sniffin' Glue in November 1976, Vic describes a gig Subway Sect played: "We did Sex Pistols' numbers, a couple of ... not the ones they've written, we did 'Steppin' Stone' and a couple of ones I've written then which we don't do now. We did a complete 'noise' first, at that party - that's what made everyone walk out - where everyone smashed their guitars around. I just chanted some poetry over it all." I wonder if he would have liked to write a book, just like The Voidoid's Richard Hell did, or some poems "Yes, I'd love to. I was supposed to. Sometimes I'll do." Meanwhile he is collaborating with Edinburgh's poet and writer Paul Rekkie, "Yes, I've been recording with Paul as I'm getting different lyrics and different voices on this album, so it's just not me doing all the singing, so really, that's why he came about. There's probably going to be one track with him on it I think, but I wanna get a few different guests on there."
At present, apart from working as a postman, Vic is engaged in a different project: his 1982 album Songs For Sale is soon going to be reissued, though he advises "Not probably yet for a while, not until probably later on in the year 'cause I still want to get these two albums out of the way first, the musical one and the album I'm working on now, so I'll be onto that after those two."
Vic has got a favourite song from Subway Sect, "Oh well, there's a really good one, the one that we're going to add to Songs For Sale that I found 'cause a fan sent me a live tape, a song called 'Falling In Love Takes Time' that we did in 1982 and that was never on Songs For Sale at that time and we are going to put it on this one. It was taped at Ronnie Scott's but the quality is quite good." Vic admits that if there is a track he would like to see re-released is "This one, 'Falling In Love Takes Time', but I've got others other than that one. I've got loads of unreleased tapes of songs I've done in the period between 1990 and now. "
At present most of Vic Godard & Subway Sect's stuff is coming out on James Dutton's Motion Records, "James Dutton used to work for Bernie Rhodes in the early '80s", Vic remembers, "Then when Dexy's Midnight Runners became big he started working for ITN as a camera man and then I didn't see him for probably ten years at least and it was through the boyfriend of the bass player who worked with me on the End of The Surrey People album, Clare Kenny, that I met him again. Her boyfriend actually knew Jim and he was in hospital at the time 'cause he had been injured and she told me about him and that's how we got together again. He had an idea of starting off a record label and that's how it turned out, mainly it has to do with reissuing reggae." Motion Records often asked Vic's fans to provide lost recordings or pics of Subway Sect, apparently everyone was ready to help "Yes, I've got loads of live tapes sent to me from different areas. And some of them have actually been used."
King Tubby and Larry Marshall works released by Motion show that the label is also a safe harbour for fans of quality reggae and there are a few releases from Motion Vic particularly likes "The Lee 'Scratch' Perry ones, they are absolutely brilliant. The new one is coming out in February I think and the tracks on it have never been heard in this world." "The first group I saw was the Subway Sect. There's no good or bad states with this mob. They are just an experience, although the audience were pretty subdued during the band's set. The applause was sparse but the music was excellent. 'Eastern European' was the best song: 'I take no acceptance of those hoardings I see/As I run along a street I prefer not to take it/I prefer quotes directed at me/Cigarettes they look at me/And tell me I'm an American/But my recent dreams advise me/They'd be extra life/If I were Eastern European/Then I can concede.' Yes, the Subway Sect are a wonderful band."- Sniffin' Glue, June 1977
Fans would probably love to see old videos of the band, but do they actually exist? "I really made one, no, two videos. One that I've got a copy of which was done when End Of The Surrey People album came out. We did a video with Douglas Hart from the Jesus & Mary Chain who did it for us for really sort of nothing apart from the cost of the film, that's the only video I've ever done really. I did a thing for the French TV before, but there was never actually a video of it, that was singing, 'Now I'm In Love' for the Songs For Sale album, so it was in the early '80s, and that was filmed as a video." Probably fans would love to see these videos, in the same way they love the live gigs. Vic announces that the audience's response during his last gigs was "Fantastic! Enthusiastic! But I suppose that's because the singing is in tune now whereas usually in the past it would be sort of way off. There was a Velvet Underground tribute up in Edinburgh last August that was with The Leopards, it was good. Normally in London we don't get any money, but I like playing gigs anywhere. The audience is really appreciative now. In the past the audience was confrontational, in the punk era, but while I was doing all the jazz stuff in the early '80s, the audiences were really good." Unfortunately radios don't play Vic's stuff: "There used to be a station that used to play my stuff, GLR, but it doesn't exist anymore and it's also a sort of a talk radio now. The only person who would have played my stuff would be the old John Peel thing and even that is not really often. I really don't get any airplay now." Neither does he seem to be very interested in music journalism "Music, white music journalism, well, I don't really read any of it. The stuff I read is all the adverts in American hip hop magazines. 95% of the magazines is just adverts with clothes, jewellery and lycra, it's not anymore about records." Is there a particular band you'd like to recommend us? "There's a record label called Loud and all the groups on that label are really fantastic! When I'm at home I listen to hip hop and R&B from America from the last 10 years." Given the hard times Vic had during his life what kind of advice would he give to young people who have a band and who want to release some stuff on their own "It should be very easy now because a CD burner is really cheap, so you just need some friend who has got a computer equipment and the rest would be down to the person who writes. I mean writing would still got to be done, but, from there on, once the music has been done, it should be easy to sell small amounts, if you pay for small adverts in a publication. Don't expect to make many money out of it...", he concludes, laughing.
- "If life was less complicated and everything had gone according to plan, Subway Sect's 'Ambition' would now be regarded as one of rock music's greatest number ones, and group influenced by Subway Sect, like The Fire Engines, would now be more successful than Duran Duran". NME, 1984
Vic tells me that there aren't great chances for a reunion with the original line-up of the band, "Rob Symmons comes down to the studio where I'm working every Sunday. I saw him last Sunday. He's very interested in the music I'm doing now, but the others, we're not in contact with them. Paul Myers, the bass player, actually joined the Post Office about six months ago, but he didn't like it. Actually he's still off sick, he was there for about two months and then he has been off sick ever since. So obviously we didn't agree with him."
Among Vic's future projects there is that of playing with Pete Saunders, who was in the original Dexy's Midnight Runners "I want to because I want him to do the piano for some of the songs for the musical but I keep on leaving messages on his answer phone and he never rings me back, so I don't know if he's annoyed with me for saying. Perhaps he's not very interested, I want to play with him, but he doesn't want to play with me. I did a gig last year at the Scala in London where we were singing Cole Porter sings with him at the piano. That was one of the most enjoyable things I've done recently." Recently Vic has also been playing with The Bitter Springs, with whom he his working with for the Irvine Welsh musical as well "The NME likes their stuff. I've been working with their singer for two lead vocals for my next album.", he underlines.
Given all his new projects, Vic should have been partying hard on the last day of the year 2000, but he confesses "Ah, I was in bed by about 8.30 p.m.!" But probably he was resting because the new year will be rather busy for him. His resolution is indeed interesting: "Well, I want to go slightly slower, that's my resolution! I'm probably going to release three albums in the year: the new one first, then the musical one and then Songs For Sale. The producer I'm working with is Nick Brown, who's actually my best man, and he wants to do another album as well because I still have got more songs that we can't fit into this album and we found it quite easy to work together, so I'll probably be doing another one after that. You know, he does all the computer stuff and I do all the other stuff, so it seems to be working really well." In an interview in November 1976 on Sniffin' Glue a young Vic Godard stated "I'd sort of like to describe myself as a kid really, I don't wanna grow old. I hate the thought of being old. I always wanna be a teenager and when I'm old I'm not gonna act as an adult. I mean it when people say 'you're childish' at the age of 25..." When I mention it to him he simply laughs "...Ah, wishful thinking..."
After wishing Vic 'Happy New Year', I leave him to his work. The genie that accompanied me through this trip along the years and the music, goes back, not in the magical lamp, but in the recesses of the phone, back where it came from, leaving behind him a trail of memories and in front of him so many albums to release. Lazily, I go back to leaf through the articles I was surveying: the bands are stuck there forever in those pictures, their music preserved on beloved vinyl and re-mastered CDs. I try to build pictures inside my head of the gigs I've missed. I turn on my stereo to play "What's The Matter Boy?" and for a moment I see my trousers and jumper turning into a fazed grey colour: power of the imagination? Power of music, of lyrics and of a talented band more like.
A big 'THANKS' to Vic Godard for his time For further information on Vic Godard & The Subway Sect go to: www.vicgodard.co.uk
The above article was written for the Spanish magazine "Go", Barcelona.