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War Poet of The Modern World

Interview with
Paul Morley, NME, 9 December 1978

Vic Godard

Old conceptions justified
Tradition stays in tune
You make guitars talk information
That tells you what to do
The lines that hit me
Again and again
Afraid to take a stroll
Off the course of 20 years
Out of Rock'n'Roll
We've just been waiting
For it to fall
We oppose all rock'n'roll
It's held you for so long
You can't refuse
It's too much to lose

– 'A Different Story', Vic Godard

VIC GODARD HAS been leading Subway Sect with sincerity and persistence for two years. He is one of the new writers in rock who deftly and intuitively rode along the punk swell, objectively using the sub-culture for access and experiment, and who was hardly harmed when the seductive nihilistic sparks were stamped out.

Vic GodardHe is a songwriter, vague, straining, craving, who has the sensitivity to achieve in his own way something as important and valuable as greats like Morrison, Coyne, Buckley, Hammill (who, let it be said while we're hanging around, have more to do with the Public Image masterpiece than any New York Dolls or David Bowie).

With Sect, Godard has performed steadily since the beginning of 1976, appearing all but anonymously on key dates and tours as the new rock developed.

They popped up as support to Patti Smith at the Rainbow earlier this year, and most recently and noticeably, they supported Buzzcocks on that quartet's long autumn tour.

It would be hard for you to be unaware of Sect's existence, yet you're probably totally ignorant as to how they sound, or did sound. Early on they were a shambles. They systematically tighted up into simple, sparse rock, with Godard self-importantly whining packed lines of incoherent syllables and adjectives.

The line-up until the middle of this year, was Godard, Rob Symmons (guitar), Paul Myers (bass) and Bob Ward (drums). This group recorded both the fumbling first single 'Nobody's Scared', on Braik Records (Bernie Rhodes' label) – which implied nothing except that Sect were probably very ordinary – and the massive new single on Rough Trade, 'Ambition', a sublime, wise song that is the definite beginning of Godard's real development.

The bare structure of the song is as old as the group itself, but the way it's presented is how it should be measured. And it's a triumph that's more to do with Godard than anyone else. The group has since parted company with both Symmons and Myers.

The sound and devices in 'Ambition' lie snugly between two of this year's best pop singles – 'Shot By Both Sides' and 'Jilted John' – i.e. an innovative use of pressure, atmosphere and subtle aural trickery. Lyrically, it's bright and fierce, Godard wobbling and warbling weakly yet somehow right – like a harsh 'Unicorn' Marc Bolan.

The single is whole and compelling, and juts out in even such a year of wealth. The B-side, 'A Different Story', is as mature and exciting, a frivolous, exaggerated musical structure with a defiant, realistic lyric (quoted in part above), with Godard whistling unconcerned and jolly through the last few bars. As with all Sect's songs, its appeal is one of irresistible challenge and certainly.

Musically, as with John Lydon and others, Godard is as much a comedian as anything, parodying rock's limitations and using all sorts of incongruous idiocies in his song's make-up. The music seems straightforward, but isn't. It's subtle and layered.

Godard is also another rock person who isn't adjusted to normal rock routines. His point of view is that he doesn't mind the crassness and glitter as long as it doesn't interfere with his art – and he thinks nothing does. He's probably right.

For this interview, I met him at the second floor cafe at the Camden Town Co-op. He loped in 40 minutes late, from rehearsals. Micky Foote, who produced the first Clash album and Sect's 'Ambition', swapped small talk with me while we waited.

When Godard arrived the earth didn't shake. His clothes were as ragged and shapeless as his physique, his face an overlarge mass of angles and protrusions. He remained ironically tight lipped most of the time, with only an occasional trace of a smile or an alarming gutteral giggle.

His conversation was painfully slow, withdrawn, mocking, any word with more than a couple of syllables drawn out and emphasised with a kind of self disbelief. It took a lot of work to extract anything from him. In the cafe, we talked about Sect music.

How did you find the group you've got now?
Um, Colin the bassist, he's a friend of mine, Steve the pianist is a friend of Mickey Foote's and John the guitarist is a friend...of no-one (ha ha ha ha). He used to be in this group from Bristol who practised in the same studios. Bob's from the old group.

Are these people into what you're doing?
Yeah, I think all of them are. They like other stuff too. Colin likes funk. But he still likes the songs. Have you seen any of this group?

At Hammersmith Odeon on the Buzzcocks tour, how was it playing such a large seemed like you weren't aware there was an audience?
Yeah, that's what we usually do in a place like that. We cope alright. We're getting used to it by now.

You played The Rainbow 18 months ago with Buzzcocks, Clash, The Jam, The Prefects. You didn't like that.
No, I wasn't ready for it. At small places you tend to get covered in gob, while the next night you'll play a big place where everyone just sits there. So eventually you begin to prefer the big places.

But there never seems any communication in a place like that. Especially when you're have to fight to draw people's attention when you might not feel like it in such a place.
I never think of it like that...fighting to get people's attention. I just do what I want to do. I don't sort of fight. I just look at people. It's really funny, when you're playing, looking at these people showing other people to their seats. It looks really funny from stage – all the torches going around.

But doesn't that disturb you? You're playing away and people are loping in, scuffling to their seats with their ice cream and peanut Treets.
No I think it's quite funny. I reckon we did quite well at Hammersmith for a support group. When I used to go there to see groups I never used to arrive for support groups. Support acts used to be booed off. Remember the support for Lou Reed...Ducks Deluxe...they got booed off.

People are more open minded these days?
I don't know. I think it was just that our name was associated with the same music as Buzzcocks. So people probably thought they'd better watch and listen.

What kind of image do you think people associate with Subway Sect...just tagging along with Buzzcocks?
I think people on this tour have seen that we're completely different from the Buzzcocks.

Was there any specific reason that you did the Buzzcocks tour?
It was just a really good chance to get a new group didn't really work out...ha ha ha ha...

So what are you looking for with this new Sect, musically?
I've got an ideal of what I want, but we haven't got that exact sound yet...I want a sort of really lightweight kind of thing, but jumpy...not like pop. We're getting towards it gradually, but we've got to get each individual instrument worked out – and we haven't yet.

Are there any reference points for this sound – like, something that's gone before?
It's bit like northern soul, slightly. That's about the nearest thing. But it's just coincidence. I was telling Colin, our bassist, what kind of sound I wanted, and I was trying to explain by singing...and he said oh it sounds like northern soul. And he brought a load of northern soul records over, and it did except they've got big brass bands on.

Why did you never go after this sound with the other Sect?
Because we had a different sound in mind. It was far more worked out in the old group than it is now. All it involved of was kind of making the guitars as trebly as possible and having a deep bass. It was very simple.

It seems very consistent now – it didn't before.
Yeah, probably. That's because the musicians in this Sect are better.

You weren't pleased with the first single, 'Nobody's Scared'
Not when it came out. I like it now. It sort of grows on you. But I wouldn't listen to it at home, whereas I would listen to the new single. If I had a copy.

Would you dance to it?
No, I don't dance anyway.

It is a dance record.
Yeah. The new sound I want to get is dance music. Sort of a disco version of the old group.

Could you work solo somehow, or you do you prefer five ideas going into the group?
It's not exactly five ideas. It's just sort of five people. I'm glad we've got the people we've got, because everyone is different. So there's a good chance of getting something good. It's like five people from completely different corners.

But does this 'something good' have to be something just you alone have to be pleased with, or do all five members have to be satisfied?
I think all five members will be pleased with it. They will be pleased with it (ha ha). No, because it's got a bit of each at the moment. The only person it might not have anything of at the moment is John the guitarist. He's the one who's got to change more than anyone else.

Does he know that?
Yeah. He's already changed his style.

Who writes the music?
I just write a song as if it was an acoustic number, then I play it to everyone and they join in. It's a lot easier than the old group – I had to teach them everything. But it's not as disciplined as the old group. They couldn't play their instruments very well so they had to work hard to get numbers done, whereas this new group know they can play so they tend to fiddle about more.

How do you see the development of Sect from the early days. Do you see lots of changes.
Three. There was the first, bass, drums, guitar, voice, sort of, the first single...then there's the in-between bit where I started playing guitar – that was a good period – and then there's the new Sect.

AFTER HALF AN hour, we moved to a pub the other side of Camden Town tube station. When we got to the pub, Godard said that he had left his scarf behind in the cafe. He went back to collect it. Five minutes later he returned, admitting he wasn't wearing a scarf in the first place.

As we settled down in the pub, he revealed under pressure that Sect was a lot about growing awareness. He outlined a song cycle that he had composed that specifies development.

Godard: The song cycle, yeah...there's 'Birth And Death', which is about someone...sort of the futility of lots of people's births...then there's 'Chain Smoking'...which is about someone's battle to get out of what's preordained for them...then there's 'Ambition', which carries on the same thing a bit further.

Sect's pattern is about growing up, about growing awareness...
Like 'Watching The Devils', where that actually happens in the song. You get one verse which is a sort of uphill struggle, slope, then the person goes uphill, then downhill, then uphill, then again. Then the solo portrays the some thing.

Is this abstract representation of growing up is something you've been trying to communicate all the time Sect have been together?
Yeah, in much simpler forms earlier on, obviously.

And you don't feel anyone-else is saying this sort of thing in rock?
Er, you'd be the expert on that. You'd probably know more about that than me.

No way...but you must be aware or hope that you're alone...

And proud?
I wouldn't use that word. Horrible word. Hate that word. I just sort of think that it's a natural thing. Because it's unnatural for people like me to be involved in the rock business.

Because I'm not the sort of person you'd expect.

You mean rock as a career?

Don't you think certain things can be said in rock without being embarrassed?
Yeah, but up until now it's been restricted to a special type of person. Now you're getting in rock quite a lot of people that you wouldn't expect to find. Which is quite good.

You mean they're introverted or something like that?
Yeah, and they're not sort of flash.

Did you ever consider using another medium?
Yeah. I did try making a film once. I've got a film script somewhere. I tried to write some stories.

Did they deal with the same things you concentrate on with Sect.
Exactly. Growing up.

How did your growing up process develop. Did major things happen that made you see things more clearly?
Yeah – at school. When I did my O-levels I was sort of a good boy, but after the O-levels – well, before them really – I just really didn't want to do it anymore. For some reason I just completely changed my outlook. I don't know what influenced me to do that.

What did you begin to think?
Just started to wonder why I was doing all this.

Is this the time you started to express yourself?
Yeah, I was trying to write songs then. Not very successfully.

So what happened between that discovery and Sect? You left school?
I went to college, I did European Studies.

Didn't you ever wonder why the heck you were doing that?
No, because it was something that I wanted to do. But after a while I didn't get on with the teachers.

What happened between Sect and college.
Started doing blues stuff at gradually became more serious as I started to write songs, then we didn't do any more blues.

You were trying to represent something that you felt as you were growing older?

Do you think you're succeeding?
In the songs, yes.

When did you start to realise about life and death?
When I was doing my O-levels. About then.

Was it a big blow to you?
No. I felt much better. It happens to most people at sometime. It just has not happened to some.

And that's what you're trying to represent?
In some songs.

Do you see a place for it, in rock?
Yeah, there should be. I don't think at the moment the people who listen to rock are interested.

You printed the words to the songs on the new single.
There are some things you can't really understand if you just listen to them. It's not sung particularly clearly. It's a bit wobbly. It's very difficult to hear certain things. It's also really easy to get the wrong idea.

How did you develop that warble, It's a new trick.
I dunno.

But in saying the things you want to say you seem to be going out of your way to make the music more accessible. More 'poppy'.
Yeah it's good contrast to have someone with my voice, which isn't really pleasant on the ears, with a very pleasant backing.

Also what you 're singing isn't necessarily pleasant.
Yeah. That's the big kick I get doing really pleasant music with really unpleasant lyrics. Making things that are sad sound really happy.

Doesn't it distract in any way?
No. It makes it seem more poignant.

Do you thing you're naive?
One part is. The other part of me is really instinctive.

Do you think this naivity comes out in the songs?
Not at all. That's me as a person. I...don't think any of the songs have anything to do with me – the me that talks to people. It's a completely different person. I usually don't say what I feel when I'm talking to people. Only when I write. About serious things, y'know...I'm not a serious person.

You don't seem the sort who gets pissed every night.
No, not that. It's just that I like laughing. If you read the lyrics it's like a completely different person.

Do you feel embarrassed about what you're saying?
No. It's just that if I went around all day as the same person who writes the songs I wouldn't have many friends.

Do you ever write happy songs?

There must be other things to sing about?
I think all the songs will roughly be as they are now. It may not be the same style, but it'll always be the same basic thing it comes down to. The music will probably really change.

How would you present an album? Would you try and impress a pattern?
Yeah, that pattern I was talking about earlier on. Oh no, I couldn't do that...'Ambition' has already been released as a single. I'd forgotten about that. I'll have to write a new cycle.

It is that easy?
Yeah, quite easy. I get quite a lot of ideas for words and music. I find it easier to write the music than the words, funny enough. I could write loads of songs like the Buzzcocks – those lyrics are really easy.

But honest.
There's no point in being dishonest about the subject they're tackling. But they're much the same from song to song.

How do you feel, working within rock?
I don't really see myself as being within rock.

So how do you operate?
I just do what everyone tells me.

As long as it doesn't interfere with what you're saying you don't mind?
Well, I usually don't do it.

But don't you think that working within the rock biz can disrupt and distort what you're trying to say.?
I don't see how.

All sorts of ways...the glamour, the gloss, because people expect to be merely entertained – they're not looking for anything else.
That factor still doesn't corrupt in any way what we're trying to do. It only would if we reacted in any way. And we don't.

Do you ever see yourself becoming 'Ambition' is very commercial.
I don't think it is. We've got far more commercial songs than that. The B-side, for a start.

But what happens if you do get poputar...could you cope?
There's nothing really to cope with.

What about fiddling around with record companies, all sorts of irritating pressures?
I wouldn't do any of it.

Being recognised in the streets?
That doesn't really bother me anyway...I get recognised sometimes now. People come up to me and say how bad the group is...and I agree. I don't think it's that much of a pressure.

So essentially whole thing is just a need do something. You could remain in a corner as long as you were creating something.
I do it in a corner now. But it'd get very boring after a while.

Can you see yourself getting bigger and bigger?
Yeah, I can and I can see ourselves getting smaller and smaller as well.

Do you want to get bigger and bigger?
I'd like to get bigger and bigger and bigger and then get smaller and smaller and smaller. I want to get bigger to see what it's like and then when I get fed up with being bigger I get smaller and see what that's like again.

If you weren't doing this what do you think you'd be doing?
Probably writing some very bad books.

So you feel that for you rock's the best medium?
I don't know. It's the only one I've tried. It's the easiest one to get in to. It's the only one you can get into.

And it you get fed up with rock?
I don't think that far ahead. The only thing planned is that I'm going towards that sound.

What would happen if your four colleagues walked away tomorrow?
I'd get a new group together immediately.

And is what you're doing satisfying?
Yeah. It's great to write a song and see what it's like, see how it works out when you've practised it, see what the final product is, and to see how close you can get to your initial idea.

Are you a loner?
No. I don't like going to places on my own. I haven't been anywhere on my own for ages.

What about love? That doesn't seem to come into what you're singing about.
No. Not really. I never really think about it.

A lack of interest?

What are you interested in?
Me? Geography...birds, the feathered variety. I used to be interested in stamps but not any I more. Anything that's not scientific.