"Cool Hand Vic"
Melody Maker, May 8, 1982
Steve Sutherland takes tea with Vic Godard in Fortums. Tom Sheehan: Serviette, cream tea and snaps.
My waitress is a humble, helpful lady approaching middle-age has a habit of saying "nice"
before everything. A "nice" pastry from the trolley. A "nice" cup of tea from the pot.
She's seen 'em come and seen 'em go, toffs, tarts and day-trippers without so much as a wink or a mumble, but today she's drawn to the busy camera much like a moth to a flame. As the shutter violently snaps round the sleepy interior of Fortnum & Mason's fourth-floor tea-room, her curiosity uncontrollably sidles into chatter.
"Who is he?" she expertly angles, suitably girlish after an obligatory comment about the "nice" weather.
"A singer," replies muffled.
"Oh" she checks with a rapid reconnaissance glance, The C&A suede jacket, old tartan tie and dirt-flecked collar of the shrewn faced young an posing slightly on the edge before a cheap imitation of of a painting of Venice. she allows herself to slump slightly as if bemused, eases a fold fromher neatly strarched pinafore and offers, in a way almost rhetorically, "is he anything like Elvis?"
My waitress, you see, is no fool. Maybe years of speculation based on a careful study of table manners and a discerning ear for variations of diction led her to foresee some distinguished greatness, blossoming behind this shabby facade of normality. Maybe she still carries a torch for some South London Ted she once spooned with far back in her beehive days and still swoons to the King on her breakfast time radio, citing him now as her sole musical gambit. Or maybe she's being sarcastic.
Certainly she couldn't be blamed for suspecting some super-snide leg-pull. I mean, the so-called singer chapple In question shambles back to the table with a smile silly enough to put the absolute Kibosh on any chance of charisma.
His voice, too, is weak,almost whiney at times, his old sentences plodding at a ponderous pace far removed from the pop star bellow, brag and bravado she's encountered; and tight-lipped on countless other occasions.
His eyes sometime spark like some supremely wizard mental conspiracy's by passing action into private thought, but he only ever gets really animated when the Maple Dip ice-cream arrives.
So to get down to it, "is he anything like Elvis." Well, yes and no if you reallv must know. He's not a punk rocker - nor any rocker for that matter - if that's what you mean. But, then again, he used to be. Un fact, thinking about it with time on our hands, his spiritual home is surely Las Vegas and chances are if Elvis the P was still sweating bullets through ballads a decade from now. at least part of his set would be penned by Vic Godard.
A legend in his own teatime, Vic Godard is a chef at MacArthur's hamburger joint in East Sheen, has recently married his manageress Georgina and seems suitably, if not ecstatically happy. Oh yes ... and something else ... he's Britain's best young songwriter.
His time is oddly divided these days between washing up the occasional dish and spark like crooning his songs, spiced up with choice standards, backed by his super swing group, the Subway Sect.
Last year this reformed punk and his four Bristol boys were easing the mothballs out of their suits at their Club Left night at Soho's Whisky A Go Go. Recently they moved somewhat up-market to a fortnightly Sunday residency at Ronnie Scott's and even took their toe-tapping talents on conventional tours.
This sunny afternoon's tetea-tete, courtesy of his new record company, Decca, is ostensibly to mull over his forthcommg album but it doesn't quite tum out that way. Forewarned of his rumoured impenetrable vagueness, the closest. ever got to the man is when the interview feers like it's closing in on itself in ever-decreasing nit-picking circles in search of some answer I'm not sure I want. Long pauses of silence punctuate his response and wither my questions. in the very heat of their (mis)conception. into empty. embarrassing self-evident nothings.
Later, however, reviewing our chat through along tape transcription. I realised Vic was always all there, alert, interested, careful - almost canny were it not for that word's connotations of sly calculation.
Vic Godard is nevet sulky. He's shy. His drummer Sean asked me to lend his boss the tube fare home later. He wouldn't ask himself.
So what follows needs to be read as selected out-takes from an afternoon's leisurely apprenticeship in updating the theory and styte behind the likes of Cole Porter. Bear with it please.
A man who can pen lines like: "It's not a flirtatious fancy/Wlthin a strictly limited range/it's not a silly poet's condition/The weather any day may change" can undoubtedly capture, caress or cripple your heart.
When did you first start writing songs?
"When I was at school really. They weren't really songs, they were jottings in the back of my geography text-books ... " What sort of things? "Blues songs. I used to sort of take a format, a rhythm and blues thing or even a well known song and just try to forget about the lyrics and write my own in instead.
"That's how I started off. Then I got involved in a punk group, the Subway Sect, the original edition ... "
That seems about as far away as humanly possible from what vou're doing now.
"Well it is really but in another way it isn't because a lot of the songs we did then, I could easily resurrect now ... our songs were always melodic."
So how did you become involved in the punk thing?
"Um ... went to see the Sex' Pistols ... liked them."
But they weren't exactly melodic...
"They just hated the same things that they hated at the same time ... "
"Um ... rock groups really"
So you never saw the Pistols or punk as anything outside rock'n'roll?
"Not really, no just against rock 'n' roll ... "
In that sense what you're doing now could be said to be similar to punk.
"Yeah. it's no different than what I've always done. I think when rock 'n' roll started was when music really went down the drain. All the things that I like about it, melodies, all thought about the lyrics, went out of the window in favour of rhythm ... "
What's so important about melody?
"It's the best way you can get of putting your ideas across. When people hear thuds they don't really think about the words whereas when they hear melody, they naturally get the words in with it."
But they don't necessarily understand them.
"I don't think that's important. I think you can get things from songs almost subconsciously without really" knowing too much about. I've done that myself, listened to I'll song and got from it not exactly what the composer intended, but just from the sound of it, it was somewhere akin to that."
From what you're saying, just because you're working within certain traditional torch-song framework - something usually looked upon as pure entertainment - doesn't necessarily imply uselessness or preclude any, say, educational or inspirational values.
"No, I don't see why it does .. all we're trying to do is move people and to create something that hasn't been created before."
So what sort of statements are you making? lf you, say, wanted to say something about the Falklands crisis, would it be couched in the same way?
"Yeah, exactly the same. I wouldn't ever say it outright. I think the longer it takes to get to the bottom of something the more worthwhile it is, otherwise you. can just listen to it and then throw it away. I mean, all the songs I like, it's taken me at least a few plays or a few listenings of the song to work out what exactty it's about, and I think the more you can get out of a song over the longest period of time, the longer it lasts."
Is that your process of writing?
"Yeah. I think up a good title first, then think up a good tune, then workout what the song's gonna be about, then write the words."
Because of the mode that you work in, do you set yourself models to work in or do your lyrics come from personsl reactions?
"Um .... some come from personal events but most things are things that haven't got anything to do with me. The songs I write don't have anything topical about them really, they're true of all ages. What we aim for is to make it so they can affect people emotionally on one hand and intellectually if they want it to"
"They can read whatever they want into it. Some songs are written very detached, like the last single we did, 'Stamp Of The Vamp' that hasn't got any emotion in it at all. It's just like an exercise. Other songs have a lot of emotion, trying to put across an aura that can make people think about something they wouldn't normally think about. Like, 'Nice On The Ice', it's supposed to be a middle-of the-road number, you can listen to that song and just take it as Barry Manilow, or, then again, you can also look at the Ivrics and take it as something else."
"lt's really quite a sarcastic song. It's not as straightforward as it seems, it's about everything being nice on the ice but not so nice underneath."
Why do you write songs?
"Why do l write songs? I dunno they just come into my head crying out to be written so I write them ..... " (laughs).
One could very easIly imagine you going away for a year, sitting down and listening to Cole Porter or some-such, working out their method then using it yourself ... "
"That's exactly what it was in the beginning but now I just do it naturally."
What are your influences?
"Um ...I've always listened to the old standards, I've always admired them but I never really thought that I'd be able to do it" ... but, the more I learned, the more I got towards it and then, one day, I just decided that's what I was gonna do."
Where did you hear these things?
"On Radio 2 .. that's the only station that played any records I liked."
How far do you-feel you've moved on from those records and what can you add to them?
"I Um .... I don't know about adding anything musically, but I can lyrically .. A lot of the old Tin Pan Alley stuff was just as you see it. I work on more than one level; I think there's a general lack of good melodic line around in most of the songs written at the moment and too much preoccupation with technology and rhythms."
Do you listen to any contemporary pop music?
"Yeah ..... no .. I don't really, I haven't really heard any of it. I don't really listen to many records because my record player's in a bit of an awkward position. I mean, if you put the record player on, you have to sort of move lots of things to do it. The last records I listened to were Duke Ellington songs .. I really like them."
Aren't you really iust peddling nostalgia? All the records you play at Club Left are from the Fifties and early Sixties.
Sean: "It's not meant to be revivalist or anything .. The music we do there's loads of influences .. There's swing, beat, there's a rockabilly sort of power at times, there's soul as well."
Vic: I'm not really concerned with the music as much as the lyrics. My songs could go with any beat. "
But your critics can't see your songs through your ...... um..shaky singing. Do you think you're adequate?
"Just about, yeah .. But I think the person who writes the song, even if they're not as technically proficient as someone else, can give the song something that a good singer can't sometimes .. That's what l do."
Can you see yourself becoming just a writer?
"Yeah, in about ten years' time. I enjoy performing but I don't enjoy touring ......"
Are you still working in the cafe?
"Yeah, not every day though, only now and then."
"I dunno .. I just like the people. I get on with them .. It's another dimension to your life .. I think the more you do, it helps you in other things. If you sit around doing nothing all the time, you do less and less rather than filling up your time."
But you're hardly super-productive .. Does Bernie Rhodes still look after your affaIrs?
(An outbreak of laughter). "Yeah"
The name Club Left has a politico-beatnik connotation that seems to work against your desire to reach a broader older Radio 2 audience. Was that Bernie's idea?
"Yeah, that's Bernie doing. That's his. way of expressing himself. He's one of those reds under the beds you see. I don really mind what he calls it. I don't think about things like that .. "
Sean: "Funny .... I didn't so it like that .. I asked Bernie why he called it Club Left and he told me it was the onlv club left worth going to .. "
At that moment Vic Godard is hip. He hopes it won't last long. He longs for the day my waitress turns on her breakfast-time radio, hears lines like "I don't wanna be a Johnny go lightlv/That's not my cup of tea. I just want to love you forever/Your sugar has dissolved in me", and thinks to herself "what a nice song."
Steve Sutherland, Melody Maker. May 8, 1982 (page 12 & 13)