Of all the groups who played at the 1976 Punk Festival, only two fully embraced the idea that "you don't need to play an instrument to form a band". One of them was Siouxsie & the Banshees, a bunch of Sex Pistols hangers on from Bromley, the other was the Subway Sect.
In contrast to the Banshees, the Subway Sect looked frighteningly normal. While Siouxsie dressed like a day-glo extra from 'Cabaret', the Sect took to the 100 Club stage in grey V-neck jumpers and' baggy jeans. Singer Vic Godard wore a '40s-style suit, with a latch-key hanging round his neck.
In the event, their banality left almost as deep an impression as the Sex Pistols' rock theatrics. If they'd shown any hint of musicality, no doubt the critics would have crucified them for being a bunch of no-marks who'd missed the point. But the four-song set they served up was, by an accounts, an absolute and glorious cacophony. It seemed to capture everything punk was about.
"In the punk days, all the bands were quite frankly a lot better than they were making out" explains Godard, now a postman living in Kew. "But we really were awful, The Clash seemed to us like Eric Clapton in terms of their ability. In our eyes, the Sex Pistols were as good as Yes ... Our guitarist used to be in awe of how good they were on their instruments. We didn't have a clue."
Not surprisingly, the Subway Sect - or more accurately Vic - were viewed as genuine mavericks. Like ATV and Throbbing Gristle, they seemed genuinely enamoured with the possibilities punk presented. Consequently, they continued to attempt the improbable for the next three years, writing songs in sophisticated styles that were often far beyond their musical capability. This experimental bent partly explains the strange trajectory of Godard's career, a chequered affair that has variously spirited him from art-punk and swing to a stint in the early 80's as an ultra-smooth, Mel Torme-style crooner.
After a break of nearly a decade, Vic returned in 1993 with the critically-acclaimed album, "End Of The Surrey People", produced by Edwyn Collins for the resuscitated Postcard label. And now, following several well-received CD reissues of his early material, the singer is set to release his first new material for three years, a limited vinyl single on the London-based Garcia label (distributed via New/Plastic Head) (* No Love) . Musically, it's a far cry from the cacophony of the Sect's Punk Festival appearance, but Vic still thrives on the experimental spirit. To him, it's still the songs, ideas, and lyrics that count most. he's never owned a guitar good ,enough to record on he boasts. "That guitar there it has the same strings on it since I bought it five years ago. I hate buying guitars, it's embarrasing, You go in there and they expect you to play something good, Then they'll take it off you and do an intricate solo. And that's just the shop assistant. Huh!"
We're lounging around in the frontroom of Vic's place, a one-bedroom ground-floor flat in Kew, which he shares with his wife. On the wall opposite us is his CD collection, mostly hip-hop albums, arranged on some wooden shelves put up for him by his mate Paul Cook - yup, that Paul Cook. ("He's a really good carpenter.") A well-thumbed copy of 'Hip Hop Connection' magazine lies on the coffee table, leaving us in no doubt about his current musical taste. Meanwhile, his cat nudges playfully around our feet.
In amongst this vision of domestic harmony, Vic sits in a pair of baggy strides, smoking a succession of king size ciggies. Since it's early afternoon~ and his shift at the post office is over for the day, there seems no hurry to rush things. He sticks the kettle on, and programmes an early Snoop track into the CD player. With his angular features and crop of short, thick hair, he still has the mildly exotic air of an off-duty French film star. Only film stars usually don't always have to get up at four o'clock in the morning to post letters. "I quite like it," he says. "It's nice being up when no one else is around. Once you're out of bed, it's a great feeling. And you've still got the rest of the day to yourself."
Usually, Vic spends his afternoons recording on his home portastudio, or else driving over to Edwyn's studio in West Hampstead, which he uses when the former Orange Juice singer isn't working there. "I've written loads of songs and instrumentals over the past couple of years. The difficult bit is getting them down on tape."
If you haven't sensed it already, Godard real name Vic Knapper - is a bundle of contradictions. But rather than tearing' him painfully apart, they seem to glue him together into a unique and charming character. When you first meet him, he's keen to transmit an aura of complete ordinariness. He'll talk about his job, his cat, or the problems he's having with his car. But his lyrics, and an occasional throwaway comment in conversation, reveal a man of extraordinary perception and feeling. Bitter-sweet, romantic and cynical, and, at their best, all three at the same time, his words are those of a true poet. If, as Elvis Costello maintains, rock lyricists are a race of pygmies, Godard lurks in the shadows like a camera-shy colossus. As one critic put it, "Vic Godard is a one-off."
Godard's springboard to fame and (mis)fortune was the September 1976 Punk Festival, which Malcolm McLaren had organised. to convince the press and public that his proteges, the Sex Pistols, were spearheading a genuine movement. Indeed, it was McLaren who suggested that Vic and his mates - who were already regulars Pistols' London gigs - should form a band, to swell the number of support, the first night of the festival.
Before that, they'd shown little interest in music. Born and brought up in Barnes, south-west London, Vic had befriended the other group members - Rob Simmons, Paul Packham and Paul Myers - at Sheen Secondary School. They had all shared a feeling that they were outsiders. "All those flared denims and platforms in ,1975 were like a uniform," he recalls. "Anyone who didn't have that image was looked upon as a weirdo. Even if you didn't know the person you were instinctively drawn together. It was like a little pocket of resistance."
In the late summer of 1974, Vic got a place at Ealing Technical College (now Thames Valley University), studying Humanities. "It was the kind of place where all. the people who failed went," says Vic. "I didn't want to move away from London. I'd rather have died than go to, say, Hull." He was joined by Simmons, who was by then learning to play guitar. Together with Myers and Packham plus a van-owning mate, 'Barry 'Baker' Auguste, they used to sit around in Vic's bedroom reading Moliere plays. Occasionally, they'd attempt a primitive R&B tune in the vein of Jimmy Reed, with Simmons' guitar augmented with the banging of chairs and cardboard boxes. Otherwise, their social life centred around the soul and funk nights held at Cheeky'S Pete in Richmond and the Hunters in the North End Road, West Kensington.
Then fate intervened. One Friday night in February 1976, Godard (as he was soon to style himself, after the French film director) and Simmons were walking past the Marquee when they heard an unholy racket coming from within. 'The Sex Pilots' as they thought they were called, were smashing up headliners Eddie & the Hot Rods equipment and getting their first notable the music press. Vic was impressed not so much by the music, but the energy and attitude. Me, Rob and Paul Myers started going to all their gigs," he explains. "There were lots of coteries of people who knew each other. We thought Paul would like them because he wasn't into music at all. "We hoped it would inspire him to play" At the end of August McLaren hatched his plan for the Punk Festivall festival, and hearing that Vic and his friends had a group of sorts, booked them to play.
By this time, they were doing Elvis and Johnny Cash covers in the basement of a youth club on the Barnes and Mortlake borders. "We went to Malcolm's offices in Bell Street, round the back of the Edgware Road and agreed the terms" remembers Vic.
While the newly-christened Subway Sect bought guitars and a drum-kit on HP, McLaren hired out a place called Manos in 'Chelsea for a week of intensive rehearsals. Initially Paul Packham had sung, but Vic now moved' to vocals.' Packham was coerced into playing drums after admitting to a brief stint of skin, bashing with the Boy Scouts.
On Monday 20th September 1976, the Subway Sect made their live debut, kicking off the first .. night of the Punk Festival, also to feature Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Buzzcocks, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Stinky Toys (from France), the Vibrators, and the Clash. The Subway Sect. played five songs, including raucous versions of "Nobody's Scared", ''Don't Split It", and 'Out 'Of Touch". Godard was astonished at how well it went. So, too, was the Clash's manager, Berriie Rhodes who phoned Vic later that week and offered to take the band under his wing. Amazingly" this meant a weekly wage, and free use of the Clash's rehearsal facilities in Chalk Farm - christened Rehearsal Rehearsals.
Their next gig was supporting the Clash on 23rd October at the ICA in Pall Mall. How ever, all didn't go to plan. "We got too confident," rues Vic "Baker who later became a roadie for the Clash, was in charge of driving us about. We did six songs, and rather than memorising the order, he insisted that we wrote out set lists. He must have done it in a panic, 'cos everyone was different.. We'd go '1-2-3-4', and everyone would launch into a different song. It was a total disaster. That was the seed of the drummer leaving."
Packham stayed for two more Clash support slots, at the 5th November 'Night Of Treason' gig at the Royal College Of Art, and at Lacey's In Ilford. The Sect then retreated to Rehearsals with a new drummer, Mark Laff, later of Generation X. Their next outing was again with the Clash, this time on the band's infamous White Riot' tour, which crisscrossed the country throughout April 1977.
By this time, Subway Sect had a rudimentary grasp of their instruments, but they remained loud and shambolic. The Glasgow date was attended by several future Scottish indie stars. "I saw the Subway Sect and I didnae really have an opinion on them," commented the Fire Engines' David Henderson. I was just fucking scared. Edwyn Collins was equally impressed: "We thought they were fucking brilliant. The Clash were like a traditional rock group, but Subway Sect just made a glorious racket, We found it all very inspiring." Super 8 footage of Vic on the Clash's tour bus can be seen in Don Letts 'Punk Rock Movie', also featuring a live rendition of "Why Don't You Shoot Me?",
After the tour, Bob Ward replaced Laff. "Bernie wanted a drummer with short, punkstyle hair," says Vic. "He was getting on our nerves at the time, so we decided to do the opposite. When Bob Ward turned up we just cried with laughter. He had hair down to his bum. We gave him the job on the spot." In October 1977, the new line-up recorded a John Peel session. Jagged and edgy, tracks like "Chain Smoking" and "Parallel Lines" leaned heavily on Simmons discordant guitar, but hinted that Vic was evolving into an accomplished songwriter.
Subway Sect's abrasiveness was reflected in the very real violence that was plaguing punk gigs at the time. During a Sect gig at the Bell in King's Cross, one of the Clash's entourage, Henry Bowles, died after he was thrown through a window by the pub's bouncers. (Later, "London Calling" was dedicated to him), Rob Simmons was called to give evidence in the subsequent murder trial.
Meanwhile, the Subway Sect continued on their unique musical path, unencumbered by the weight of expectation. In the spring of 1978, after supporting Patti Smith, they played a five-:-night residency at the Gibus club in Paris. Clash roadie Robin Crocker (alias Banks) accompanied them on the trip, filing an account of his experiences for 'ZigZag'. One night, Nico turned up to chat with Vic, while the band let rip with crunching versions of their expanding set, occasionally performing flat on their backs. Their repertoire included songs like "Eastern Europe", "Derailed Senses", "Changed My Mind On The Telephone" and Television's "Glory".
Already, Vic was expressing his affections for pre-rock music - Debussy, Frank Sinatra, ministrel songs. "We didn't like any other bands," Vic points out. "We stopped going to soul discos and started listening to weird stuff. We really hated punk. I still do." Not that any of those influences could be heard on Subway Sect's first single, issued on their return via Bernie Rhodes Braik label. "Nobody'scared"/"Don't Split It" may have hidden a tune between the snowstorm guitars, but the overall effect was a honed cacophony. To promote the single, they played a string of dates with French band, the Lous. Vic explained his technique for writing lyrics to 'Sounds' journalist Jon Savage: ''We use English words as much as we can, also English words that aren't used in conversation, let alone songs."
The band spent the following months in Goosebury studios in Gerard Street, working on a debut album. Bernie Rhodes was keeping a close eye on the project and wasn't happy with its progress. His remedy was to sack Myers and Simmons. "Bernie had some talent, but He was a very hard man to deal with," says Vic. "The Clash were his main priority. We were like a tax loss. My main beef was that he shouldn't have sacked everyone, because we could've gone on and done a really good album. But he's a man who likes to be 100% in control."
In the event, Rhodes replaced them with a 16-year-old jazz-funk bassist, Colin Scott, who lived down Vic's road, a keyboardist, Steve Atkinson, and guitarist from Bristol called Johnny Britton. Rhodes' had a great idea for making them 'feel like a seasoned unit - he bought each of them a red Fred Perry jumper.
In December 1978, the new line-up taped another Peel Session. This time, the pre-pop influences were brought to the fore, with Vic crooning his way through the punk swing-along of "Watching The Devil" and the soul-inspired stomp of "Stool Pigeon".
The same month, the brilliant "Ambition" , was released as a single on Rough Trade. According to Godard, the catchy keyboard riff was added on Rhodes insistence while the band were touring with the Buzzcocks. The chicanery didn't end there. "We thought 'A Different Story', was going to be the A-side. It wasn't even called that. We knew it as 'Rock'n'Roll Even'." The German documentary, 'Punk In London 1977', included footage of Subway Sect performing "Ambition" at Rehearsals, together with an interview in which a typically laconic Vic claimed that his lyrics were distilled from longer essays.
A debut album still hadn't materialised, so Rhodes took the step of hiring London funk band the Black Arabs (who had appeared on the Sex Pistols' "The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle" album) as backing musicians. Meanwhile, the existing Subway Sect fell apart. Only Britton was retained by Rhodes, who was attempting to push his career in another direction. teen modelling. A fresh rhythm section was found in the guise of the Clash's first album drummer, Terry ChiInes, and his bass playing brother. Typically, Vic's own guitaring was wiped from the album, without his permission.
Two years in the making, "What's The Matter Boy?" finally appeared in April 1980, via Bernie Rhodes MCA-funded Oddball label. To promote it, Vic Godard & the Subway Sect appeared at the Music Machine, supporting Siouxsie & the Banshees. Paul Myers - soon to join the Professionals - was back on bass and like the rest of the band arrived at the venue in Harris Tweeds. For the mainly-acoustic performance, they changed into candy-striped· Beach Boys shirts. The Banshees Were decked out in full Goth regalia, as were their followers. The bizarre contrast was like a faint echo of 1976.
If the identi-punk hordes were bemused then the critics were delighted "What's The Matter Boy?" had included some quite astonishing songs including "Birth And Death" (a swinging version of "Why Don't You Shoot Me?"), the beautiful ballad "Make Me Sad" and the soul-pop of "Split Up The Money", which pre-empted the sound of Rhodes' other proteges, Dexy's Midnight Runners. Julian Cope cited "Empty Shell" as one of his favourite ever songs. The only thing that let the album down was its muddy production courtesy of Rhodes and former Clash soundman, Mickey Foote.
The Music Machine gig revealed Godard's growing interest in Northern Soul, with the band covering Tony Clarke's "Landslide". Postcard's Alan Horne was in the audience and bootlegged the gig, rushing home to Glasgow to play the tape to Orange Juice. They were so taken with one song, the chiming soul-stomper "Holiday Hymn", they copied out the lyrics and set off to London to meet Vic. Later, a demo of it turned up on their 1992 "Ostrich Churchyard'" collection.
After "Split Up The Molley" was lifted as a single, Rhodes began scheming again. This time he' wanted to launch Vic Godard on a solo career. "He wanted me to do a Pet Shop Boys sort, of thing," laughs Vic. "But I was turned off by drum machines. I was into jazz and old music - Gershwin, minstrel songs. I'd started using more session musicians, and thought, well if all I've got to do is sing, then there's no reason to stick to rock."
Still living at' home, and now on £50 a week, Godard was cultivating an image of a man of leisure, playing golf with Simmons and betting on the gee-gees. His interest in jazz and swing was shared to an extent by Bernie, who started Club Left, initially 'held at the Wag Club but later moving to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go and Ronnie Scott's. One of the DJ s was Johnny Britton, who around the same time issued a cover of a fresh Godard song, "The Happy-Go-Lucky Girls" as a single (Oddball BRIT1 2/81). Later Britton joined Orange Juice as an auxiliary guitarist.
After Rough Trade issued a transitional single, the Black Arabs backed "Stop That Girl", in January 1981, Godard or to be precise Rhodes, began shopping around for a new deal. "You never knew what Bernie was' doing," says Vic. "He was a mystery man. You'd be kept in the dark until the very last minute." As a stop-gap, Rhodes issued Godard's jazzy "Stamp Of Vamp" on his own Club Left label, before securing Vic a deal with Island.
The result was an album of '40s-style crooner music, "Songs For Sale", which included a version of Cole Porter's "Love For Sale". It was a darlng move, but one much in keeping with the pseudo jazz culture being promoted by new style magazines like 'The Face'. Island weren't impressed and sold the rights to London. The album spawned a single - the great "Hey Now (I'm In Love)" but as with most phases in his career, Godard's 'lounge lizard' period came to an inconclusive end.
For the project Rhodes had drafted in the Club Left house band, made up of four jazz musicians from Bristol. However, after a tour supporting Altered Images, they decamped to form Jo Boxers. "One of the main problems was Vic's totally un-professional attitude," keyboardist Dave Collard told 'NME'. "He was so lazy he sometimes wouldn't turn up for gigs. We ended up doing impromptu instrumental sets." later, Jo Boxers covered a Vic original, "Forget Me Love", on the flip of their "Just Got Lucky" 45.
In 1982, Geoff Travis and Mike Always started a new label Blanco y Negro, and asked Vic if he wanted to do an album. Roping in Simon Booth, later of Working Week, they began work on "T.R.O.U.B.L.E.", a sophisticated swing-jazz album. It was so sophisticated in fact, that its £30,000 budget was soon swallowed up by musicians' and studio fees. "They panicked" rues Vic, "They shelved it."
Around this time, Godard got a job washing up in MacArthurs, an upmarket Hamburger joint in Sheen. It was there he, met his wife. Later, he worked for Ladbrokes, taking bets. "I'd feel privileged even if I was in a normal job," he'd told the 'NME' two years earlier. "I'd like to be a milkman or a postman because I like working outdoors! I'd get to chat to all the housewives. Meanwhile, Bernie was still employing him as a songwriter, as part of a mad scheme that involved Vic knocking out ten songs a week, at £10 per song. "They just got demoed to death," explains Godard. "None of them came out."
In 1985, Rough Trade gathered together, the tracks from " Nobody's Scared' and the two Peel Sessions and issued them as "A Retrospective" a fine introduction to Vic's varied ouevre. The same year, the "T.R.O.U.B.L.E." tapes were dusted down by Mike Alway, who issued the uptempo "Holiday Hymn" in the Low Countries on his El Benelux label. The B-sides included the track, "T.R.O.U.B.L.E.' (later covered by El's Anthony Adverse, an exercise in swing-jazz sophistication. Then, in 1986, Geoff Travis decided to release the album in its entirety, presumably because some of the poppier material, like "Tidal Wave" and the great "Ice On A Volcano", fitted in with the blue-eyed soul-jazz sounds of comtemporary acts like Animal Nightlife, Working Week and the Style Council. There were even reworkings of "Out Of Touch" and "Chain Smoking". Much to Vic's chagrin, though, the tapes weren't mixed. The music biz had dealt him another duff card. And, so Godard retired from music for a while. Having played a live session for Capital RadIo, and a couple of low-key gigs, he fulfilled one of his ambitions and became a postman... He didn't touch his guitar for another six years. A whole generation of young bands came and went. Slowly, however, he became a name to drop. The Jesus & Mary Chain took an abrasive sprint through "Ambition" on the B-side to "Never Understand', The Chesterfields covered "Holiday Hymn" on their "Kettle" LP. Edwyn Collins continued to cite his early work as an influence.
Then in 1992, Vic began recording on his newly-acquired portastudio. Around the same time, Geoff Travis paid for the recording of several new' tracks, including "Johnny Thunders', an infectious rock'n'roll eulogy to the late New York Dolls guitarist. The track appeared as the September 1992 instalment of Rough, Trade's singles club. When the money from Geoff Travis ran out, Vic began recording with Edwyin Collins in his bedroom studio. Amazulu's Claire Kenny played bass, while ex-Sex Pistol Paul Cook drummed. Issued by Postcard in the spring of 1993, the album turned out to be something of a minor lett-fieild masterpiece, with new songs like "Malicious Love" and "Same Mistakes" benefiting from an edgy, indie-rock treatment.
Orange Juice producer and British reggae legend Dennis Bovell even provided a dub ver- . sion of "Won't Turn Back', which appeared on the flip of the single of the same name. Back in his own frontroom, Godard began work on a number of hip-hop and jazz tracks, while also collaborating on several songs with former 'Bow Wow Wow guitarist Matthew, Ashman who sadly died last year. Meanwhile he added backing vocals to Edwyn's Collins' "Gorgeous George" album (Collins later covered "Won't Turn Bilck" on his "Keep On Burning' single). With the Overground label reissuing "Ambition" earlier this year with exclusive versions of "Chain Smoking" and "Ambition", salvaged from the abandoned Subway Sect punk album and Demon reissuing "What's The Matter Boy?", it seems' as if Vic is enjoying something of a quiet rennaissance.
A limited vinyl slngle, "The Place I Used To Live", is due for release on Garcia in July (*They actually released "No Love" & 'She's My Best Friend" on 7"), while Vic is currently playing guitar with the Long Decline a band formed by ATV's Mark Perry. He also plans to record an album for a new label, Motion, and there's even talk of putting out the Subway Sect's unissued album, with all those long lost classics like, "Eastern Europe" and 'Derailed Senses". The future looks cheery. Ambition can get you a long way.