Subway Sect: We Oppose All Rock & Roll (Overground)
Jon Savage listens to Subway Sect's brief recorded legacy, and talks to frontman Vic Godard.
IF SUCH A THING could be measured, Subway Sect were, for a couple of seasons in 1978, the greatest punk rock group in the UK, if not the world.
Still teenaged, the Sect were Year Zero punks – free to reinvent the wheel, and that is what they did: the extreme treble of Rob Simmons's guitar clanging like a dustbin lid; the pounding beat from long-haired drummer Bob Ward, incongruous yet perfectly at home; Vic Godard turning and twisting in paroxysms of introversion. As he hit those wobbly Marc Bolan notes, you could hear snatches of lyrics, as concentrated and sharp as the manifestos that they were: "The language we use: is it what we want?"; "Do you want to learn, or am I being wasteful?"; "Ask you: is life absurd?"
Naturally, it took a rock hater to play the best rock of the period, but this is a contradiction that has torn others apart, and the Sect were no different. Just when they reached their perfect pitch, the first group split in autumn 1978, after which Godard effectively became a solo singer, performing extraordinary songs like 'Stool Pigeon' and 'Double Negative' with a variety of back-up bands. By the time of 'Stop That Girl', featuring the Black Arabs, we're into the New Pop/Club Left era of which Godard was, briefly, a part. And then, after the mid-'80s, silence until 1993's Edwyn Collins-produced The End Of The Surrey People – surely a concept we can all identify with.
Despite the quality of Godard's later work, it is those first teenaged Sect recordings – including the three bonus cuts – that punch all the neurons. Here is the period's secret heart – hermetic, sarcastic, passionate and prophetic. 'Ambition' is a slacker anthem over a decade before its time, while 'Nobody's Scared' remains the definitive kiss-off to the punk generation, mapping a whole 20-year social history: "We're talking in cliches/Betray yourself for money/Having is more than being now! Nobody is sorry."
You sang "We oppose all rock and roll" but you still played rock...
Vic Godard: The problem was that that was all we could do. I love rock'n'roll like Chuck Berry but I don't like the whole middle-class version: I hate The Rolling Stones doing Jimmy Reed numbers. I suppose it's because that's what I do, and it embarrasses me, like some of my old numbers.
Yet the songs still sound very timely.
When I was making the records, I knew they weren't going to date, that they weren't about any particular time.
Can we talk first about the bonus CD; are the three tracks from the aborted 1978 album?
Yes. It's very sad that [Clash and Subway Sect manager] Bernard Rhodes wouldn't collaborate, because if he did, we would have everything. Some of the stuff had to come off a cassette bootleg, and we had to spend £1,800 at Abbey Road studios cleaning up the tapes. There's an album's worth of material there: 12 or 13 songs. Bernie sacked the group and kept me on. He had it in his head that I could do better by myself than with Subway Sect – if they'd have been interested in learning their instruments I might have stayed with them rather than Bernie.
I'm hoping that this coming out will get Bernie off his arse and we can go back and get the tapes and do it properly. He still owns the tapes. He's not interested: won't even talk about it. I just make records even if I lose money: that's what I like doing in life.