VIC GODARD AND THE SUBWAY SECT:
A Subjective Profile in Punk Rock Courage
By Michael Layne Heath
Televisionary interviewing Lou Reed ca. 1990: How long can you be a rock and roll performer?
Reed: Well, see, that problem disappears if we don't call it rock and roll. So I'll ask the question, 'how long can you be a musician?' What would your answer be?
TV: 'Until you die'.
Reed: There you go.
You don't get old being no fool. A lot of young wise men, they deader than a motherfucker, ain't they?
-Richard Pryor as 'Mudbone'
Take it as a given, dear reader, that the Music Biz is a bright, loud, gaudy merry-go-round in a crowded summer carnival. So much attention, so much energy and time, is expended upon grabbing the Brass Ring. But what of those who had the imagination, guts, and artistic self-confidence to choose to ride the damned thing in the first place? Who's to say that what they do isn't just as valid?
With that in mind, I've been thinking a lot lately about Vic Godard. Godard's merry-go-round of choice, as a precocious teenager coming up in 1970s London, was Punk Rock; yet not only did he take a pass on the almighty Ring - he came to realize there was just as much fun to be had on other rides around the funfair. Indeed, his body of work since then - both as a solo artist and under the band name that brought him his initial infamy, the Subway Sect (the cream of which has been skimmed into a newly released CD anthology) - is a keen, clean reflection of a sense of willful curiosity about music in all its variety, of refusing to be tied down to one genre or another. For me, it makes Vic Godard one of the most fascinating, musically engaging characters to improbably emerge from a now sorely codified, rapidly receding chapter in pop music.
For far from being a future haven for Mohawks, safety pins and other loudfastrules wildlife, the initial stirrings of what became Punk attracted all manner of creative souls, taking a look or listen around them at what was otherwise wrinkling that point in time, concluding 'this sure beats the hell out of that.' From all accounts, Godard and his school pals who became the first Subway Sect were precocious and creatively inquisitive, in that way only smart teenagers can be, devouring and soaking up everything that spoke to their sense of cool. Moliere and other French literati; photos and movie matinees devoted to that country's original New Wave (unsurprisingly, the inspiration for Vic's surname); the American garage rock bands showcased on Lenny Kaye's now-seminal Nuggets collection.
Add to this what they were able to hear and read about the early New York Punk scene of the time - specifically its more literary minded faction, whom also changed their names in tribute to perceived French artistic brethren - and it seemed like all they needed was being in the right place at the right time.
That opportunity came when Godard and friends were spotted waiting on line at an early Sex Pistols gig, by Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. Assumed to be a band, and thus encouraged by McLaren to put together a set of tunes, they found themselves debuting as opening act on the first of two nights of a now legendary Punk Festival, held at London's 100 Club in the fall of 1976.
Despite having, even for then, impressive management clout - taken under the wing of Clash bossman Bernard Rhodes from practically the moment they got off the stage that first night- no one expected much from the Subway Sect. At a time when anti-image was the prevailing image, the Sect was perfectly resolute in its choice of wearing as much gray as possible.
Their early sound - honed on tour with the Clash and the Patti Smith Group, among others - was equally monochrome; a scratchy, seething, trebly urban racket over which Godard hesitantly warbled deeply thought, possibly half-baked poetry (clearly inspired by his Parisian and Lower Bowery touchstones), with sporadic bleats of mouth harp for added garage flavor.
That the Sect was the object of such lowered expectations among Punk scenesters only served to assign their first singles - the still timely "Nobody's Scared", the undeniably classic "Ambition" - that much more impact upon their release, in 1978. Those singles still excite, incite and thrill, still hold up as well now - one might even venture the potentially unpopular opinion that they have dated far less than even the best Pistols or Clash tunes.
Moreover, the Sect holds a place of honor, in my private canon, as the only nominal punk-era band to use the word 'concatenation', in their song "Chain Smoking" (which, given its definition - 'the act of linking together' - does make a weird sort of sense within the song's concept).
So 1978, as has been well documented, was the year the initial Punk energy nucleus split apart into a multitude of pieces, paths and tangents. So where did this leave our hero? Well, Godard's singing on "Different Story" (aka "Rock and Roll, Even" - flipside of the "Ambition" single) of the pivotal line 'we oppose all rock and roll' was to prove, in fact, more than just a pose.
In what seems retrospectively, ironically, a perfect punk rock strategy to take, Godard chose to forsake punk rock. Hell, rock music pretty much altogether, choosing to take (as UK writer John Carney put it) 'a defiant stance in the middle of the road.' Subsequent recordings on the cusp of the new decade found Vic's muse still looking to Paris and New York, but with the music moving in a lighter, more sophisticated, almost Continental pop direction that didn't allow much room for the primitive fumblings of the early Sect. These included 1980's What's The Matter, Boy? - ostensibly the Sect's debut LP, in reality Godard backed by various cohorts of Rhodes', the latter having sacked the actual band, retaining Vic as an in-house songwriter for other acts in his stable, such as it was.
Infrequent live appearances in the early 80's kept your average UK punk concertgoer scratching their head, if doubtlessly fueling the Godard/Sect mystique. Opening for trendier-than-thou bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus, Vic would make his customary entrance, cigarette in hand, wearing immaculate, high-Vegas lounge lizard attire, debonair as you please. He and his backing quartet would then proceed to turn out a slew of original tunes that turned the Pop clock all the way back to Tin Pan Alley and the big bands, with the occasional nod to Cole Porter and Noel Coward chestnuts.
Suffice to say, Vic's efforts to transform one's local Rock Palace into a 1940's dancehall - if just for the night - weren't quite the way to satisfy the needs of the Gothic cognoscenti of the time (although it might be tempting to track down how many went on to jump with both feet into the late 90's swing revival). Many of the originals from this edition of the Sect ended up on 1982's Songs For Sale LP, which additionally calls to mind the music hall underpinnings of Ray Davies' songcraft, even Lou Reed in his cheerier, fool-for-love moments (interesting to note that one of the few covers the Sect ever attempted was a walloping rendition of the Velvets' "Head Held High").
Things went on this way for Vic for the rest of the 1980's; a ghost from a previously fertile cultural era, disappearing and reappearing in fits and starts. Working one moment at a London off-track betting shop, another as a short order cook in Soho. A spell spent languishing in Junkie Hell. The infrequent, secretively publicized live show. And every so often, putting out records that sounded totally out of time with whatever was troubling the rock charts, like 1985's T.R.O.U.B.L.E., a genuinely swinging affair which found Vic accompanied on most tracks by London's conservative jazz session-man elite.
All was otherwise quiet on the Godardian front until 1991. Having resumed the citizen in the form of a daily route with Her Majesty's Postal System, Vic decided the music itch was too insistent not to scratch. To do so, he hooked up with Edwyn Collins, onetime leader of early 80's Scottish indie-popsters Orange Juice and a longtime Sect fan. First out of the gate was a rueful but rocking little tribute to the then newly departed Johnny Thunders. Two albums were to follow over the new few years, End Of the Surrey People and Long Term Side Effect. Both are solidly written and played, niftily handling many diverse styles: sweet Hammond-organ-driven R&B, edgy Verlaine/Voidoids guitar rock, Cajun punk mash-ups, and of course, the odd croony hat tip to Vic's beloved Mr. Bennett (Tony to you). Godard returned the favor by singing backup on Collins' 1995 worldwide heavenly pop mega-hit "A Girl Like You".
And the view on this side of the millennium sees Godard still plugging away. His latest LP was 2002's Sansend, on which Godard added hip-hop beats and technology to his already overflowing creative palette. Amazingly it all hangs together quite nicely, parts even reminiscent of Beck circa Odelay in its sample-happy clamor, Vic coming on like a worldly, streetwise older uncle to current Brit rapper Mike (The Streets) Skinner. More recently, Godard collaborated with Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame on a stage musical, Blackpool; he also makes a voice-over appearance (part of a wide-ranging narrative cast that also includes Mark Perry and Vashti Bunyan) in Saint Etienne's utterly charming cinematic portrait of London, Finisterre.
And now this new Singles Anthology, and if nothing else, it's worth listening to if just to be shocked into lockjaw silence by the sweep of the guy's work. The rigid blare of the original Sect. The once heard never forgotten, deliciously Gallic-flavored soul of "Stop That Girl," a personal favorite with its omni-gendered lyric twist. Whether coolly negotiating the yellow line at closing time with Frank and Dean, or kicking up talcum powder on the sprung dance floor of some off-season seaside disco, Godard's never been less than a charmer.
Vic still does the odd gig around London with various bands, including some of his old Sect mates. He's big on contemporary R&B and hip-hop, but has also made time to dig on the last two Dylan albums, and is well respected by newer bands, such as those latest Brit aspirants to glam and excess, The Libertines (who even maintain a Vic fan-page at their online fansite, www.libertines.org). And still walking his daily postman's route.
Vic Godard is an inspiration to me because his has been a fiercely individual artistic path; stuck to at all costs, undeterred by trends (even the one that first gave him his voice), still holding the flame of his creative convictions; one to, even now, be watched closely and admiringly. The Godard/Sect Singles Anthology is a high treat and a great reminder of an amazing talent. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to give "Ambition" another spin on the old laser victrola right now (in recog of his).
More info at:
And a great interview with Vic at:
VIC GODARD'S 10 FAVORITE TRACKS as posted on www.libertines.org
- Debussy: "La Plus Que Lente"
- Jimmy Reed: "Goin' Upside Your Head"
- Joe Tex: "Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman) "
- Talking Heads: "Air "
- Television: "Little Johnny Jewel"
- Richard Hell: "Kid With The Replaceable Head"
- Francoise Hardy: "Le Jardin"
- Leroy Smart: "Mr. Want All"
- McFadden & Whitehead: "Ain't No Stopping Us Now"
- Gregory Isaacs/Trinity: "No. 1 Entertainer"
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