One of the defining features of the original 1976-78 Subway Sect was the stinging, discordant guitar of Rob Symmons. Despite this, he's rarely been called upon to tell his side of the Sect story. Now, in his first interview for over 20 years, he reveals all to Enclave...
So, how did the Sect begin?
"I suppose it began when I started a new school when I was about 15, and I didn't know anyone. Everyone else was into Yes and brown velvet loon pants, and I hated all that and so did Vic. We liked the same sort of music and the same sort of clothes - things like denim and corduroy."
What kind of music was it that you were into at that point? Velvets and stuff like that?
"No - I didn't hear much of them till later. I think the New York Dolls were around at that time, they were obviously an influence, and I liked a lot of older music. I remember the record we both liked was a B-side called 'Little by Little'. And Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers - when that LP came out it got played a lot on the Charlie Gillet show in London, and that was a big thing for us. There was a compilation album called 'Nuggets' as well, which had bands on like The 13th Floor Elevators and the MC5, and that was a big influence. We'd sit round and play our favourite records to each other, and I think we just had a lot of common things going with hating everything that was around, hating all that music, but not really knowing what we wanted to do."
Were you playing at that point?
"No, not at all. Then, at lunchtime I used to go round to Vic's house and we started off playing the record player and singing along, and then I bought a guitar and Vic bought a bass - they were both old '60s guitars, semi-acoustics, which I think we just got for the look really."
Are those the ones in the photos in the booklet for the 'We Oppose All Rock & Roll' CD?
"Yeah. So we were both into that and it just sort of evolved from there really. It started off at lunchtimes, then we were taking more time off school, always going round to Vic's house and playing around. I think The Velvet Underground were known about - Vic had one of their records, and I heard of them through him."
When did you become a band, then?
"There was us then, and then there was a couple of others - Paul [Myers, bass] who was a friend of Vic's from school, he joined in. We didn't really know what we were doing - made up a couple of songs, or Vic did. We really knew what we wanted to do after seeing the Pistols. They were doing some of the same songs we knew, really obscure B-sides, people like The Stooges and Dave Berry. We thought no one else knew those songs, we thought they were our thing. Then we decided that's it, that's what we're going to do. We got another schoolfriend called Ray Price in as a drummer - we bought a really cheap old drumkit - I don't think it was a Woolworths one but it was something like that. We played a party then, for someone from school, and everyone walked out! Ray left after that, he just wasn't interested, and we got Paul Packham in, who I think was a friend of Paul's - he'd been in the Boys' Brigade or something, and he could remember how to do one drumroll. So he became the drummer."
How did you come to meet Malcolm Maclaren?
"We used to see the Pistols every time they played, and there was hardly anyone in the audience - you know what they say, empty room with about 15 people. And people like The Clash and The Damned would always be there, and we'd talk to them at the bar. We must have gone 'Oh, we've got a group', cos people went "Oh, what's its name?" and of course we didn't have one, so we just came up with Subway Sect. And I think word just got around that there was this group because Maclaren came up to us at the Roundhouse and went 'So you're the Subway Sect are you?' And we weren't - we'd played this party, and that was all. We met him again after that when he wanted to come and see us rehearse. We went 'Oh bloody hell, we'd better start doing something'. So we wrote a couple of songs, cos we didn't have any. He was doing this festival, the 100 Club one, and he came to see us in this rehearsal place in Chelsea, and we were terrible. We were there in the evening, and he went to the guy who ran the rehearsal place - I remember listening to him through the door, going "This group are going to be really big, you've got to do them a big favour - they can't afford to pay for a rehearsal place. What time do you open in the morning?" The bloke said 11 o'clock. He said "I want you to come in and open at 7 and they're going to be there all day." He just talked this guy into opening really early and doing it really cheaply - he was selling us to him, convincing him it'd be worth his while. So it was a couple of days, first thing in the morning till late in the evening. We had four songs, and we came in and rehearsed solidly."
What songs did you have then?
"'No Love (Now)' was the first one, then 'Nobody's Scared', a song called 'Contradictions', and 'Don't Split It'."
Then there was your first proper gig, opening at the 100 Club Festival in September '76.
"Yeah. I remember arriving and it was an empty hall. The Pistols were there, and The Clash, and Steve Jones [Pistols' guitarist] was really nice to us, helped us tune up cos we just sounded a racket. The Clash were just sort of laughing at us, and I remember Rotten was really nice - he came over and said 'Don't take any notice of them, you're really good, don't worry about them.' They helped us a lot. Then I remember when we were playing, just thinking this was what I wanted to do - it was what we wanted to do."
Did you go down quite well that day then?
"I think so. I remember there was a big audience there for the Pistols, and there'd never been anything like that before. This was before 'Anarchy in the UK' - it was all still underground."
Were you very different at that time to what was later released?
"The sound was very different. Very hard to listen to - high pitched, jangly guitar, which was an assault on the ears. Very basic drumming - we liked stuff like Eddie Cochran where the drums sounded like a cardboard box."
Was anything recorded around that time? Demos, live tapes or whatever?
"We used to take our tape recorder into where we rehearsed, so Vic must've had quite a few tapes. I had a reel-to-reel tape as well. Those first songs we played at the 100 Club, we'd tape them a lot to listen to."
Was the actual gig recorded?
"I don't know. I mean, some people must've taken tapes in - we used to tape the Pistols ourselves, and play along to them at home."
Did you get any press recognition at that point?
"Yeah! That was the funny thing, cos when we went into school the week after the 100 Club concert, Vic used to get the NME delivered and I used to get the Melody Maker. We went into school and there was this massive article with us at the top! I think the journalist had asked us our names just before we went on stage. We used to go into Hammersmith so we could get the NME and the Melody Maker a day before everyone else. That was another thing actually - reading about the New York scene without actually hearing it. I went over to Paris to see the Pistols, but I went at the wrong time and they weren't playing, but there was this French magazine which had pictures of people like Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Talking Heads, and that was another part of our influence. We hadn't heard any of those bands, but there was a big article in the NME and I remember us both reading it, seeing those pictures - their look, with the dark glasses and things. It was good just to know that there was someone else out there - unless you were there at the time, it'd be impossible to know what the music scene was like. It seemed there was just nothing."
Would you say those groups did influence you when you finally heard them? People have compared your guitar style to things like Television.
"They have, but I can't see how! I mean, to us at that time, they were just incredible musicians. Even the Pistols were. We did like Television, and we covered one of their songs, 'Glory'. That was much later though. But when we played the 100 Club, we'd only heard one of their songs, 'Little Johnny Jewel'. I had to bring that back from Paris, I think."
Looking at the photos from the concert, you're all in your grey sweaters and cardigans and stuff, which I suppose was quite different to look that most of the other bands would've had, people like the Banshees in their bondage gear. Was that a deliberate contrast?
"Yes. The Clash had come along then, and they weren't like the Pistols really. When we saw the Pistols they did all these songs and it was a bit of a mess - they were like the end of the rock thing. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before. It was chaos. Then The Clash came along and they were jumping around in their bright clothes, and it was like 'OK. We'll be grey, and they can be like that.' But we'd worn those sort of clothes before at school anyway - grey postman's trousers and that sort of thing. So we were just being us really. There wasn't that kind of punk fashion then anyway - that came later, with all those stupid haircuts."
I suppose something else that set you apart a bit was the subject matter of the lyrics, which would tend to have quite an intellectual edge to them. Where did that come from?
"Me and Vic used to read books in his bedroom, before the group started. That would have been when he was doing his A-level French, so there was stuff like Camus and Satre. And there were a lot of things on TV then - lots of strange French films. Seeing stuff like that was a big thing, as teenagers. 'Clockwork Orange' too, that was a big influence. There was this cinema we used to go to, the Paris Pullman, which would put on all the French stuff, and we used to go down there and sit in the coffee bar. It was because apart from us it was all old blokes in their 40s and 50s, and there we were, a couple of young kids of 16 or 17. But we really liked stuff like Jean-Luc Godard, which was where Vic got his surname from. A lot of the look came from things that as well - we had things like French film yearbooks from about 1964 and we used to sit round looking at all these black-and-white pictures of French film stars. Also, there was a lot of imported Eastern European kids' TV series at the time, which influenced us - all these Polish kids with their hair cut with shears, and I wanted to look like that. And 'Noggin the Nog' - that had a really good theme tune, which I taped, and we sort of used that on 'Out of Touch'."
Were you trying to put across some of that confrontational, disturbing thing from 'Clockwork Orange' and the like in the music as well?
"Oh yeah, very much so. It was much better to be hated than liked."
Were you a part of the punk thing, or did you feel you were kind of separate?
"Well, there was only the Pistols, the Clash and us, and I suppose the Buzzcocks, and they didn't play that night. There wasn't anyone else, so I suppose we did feel a part of it at that point. Mostly there was no big audience - the audience was just other groups basically. People like Mick Jones would be there, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Damned."
I suppose after the 100 Club, that was when you started going out and playing other places?
"We didn't. There was that, there was the ICA, which was terrible, the Royal College of Art, which was really good - we had seven songs by then - and then we played somewhere called the Lacey Lady with The Clash, and there was no one in the audience. Literally no one, apart from the people who'd come along because they knew us or knew The Clash. There wasn't a big thing going on at all, even when The Clash were playing."
When did you get involved with Bernie Rhodes?
"When we played the 100 Club, we still needed more rehearsal time, and Malcolm said that Bernie had this rehearsal studio, where we went the weekend before the concert, and again rehearsed for a couple of days. That was when we met Bernie."
What do you remember about him from that time?
"Not much, really. At that time, after we'd played the 100 Club, there was a feeling that Malcolm Maclaren wanted us to rehearse at the Pistols' place on Denmark Street. We'd rehearsed at the Clash's place, and me and Vic wanted to carry on there, and the other two wanted us to rehearse at the Pistols' place. But then the Bill Grundy TV thing happened and suddenly the Pistols were huge, and Maclaren was full time with them. So by default we went to the Clash side with Rhodes. It could quite easily have gone the other way. Anyway, we did those four concerts, and a while after we did Harlesden - that was early the following year."
Do you think you were getting much recognition at that time compared to people like The Clash and Buzzocks, who were starting to put records out?
"Not as much. But really we'd spent a long time just rehearsing. We had loads of new songs, absolutely loads. Probably at least 20."
Quite a lot that never emerged then?
"Yeah. By the time we played Harlesden [early '77] we had a huge set. But we deliberately kept ourselves back - we didn't want to be a part of that huge scene that was blowing up around then."
Why was that? Did you want the chance to develop in your own time?
"Well, we were very anti-rock - we wanted to see the end of the rock thing, whereas lots of other people just seemed to want to carry it on. We were at music college by then, and listening to a lot of strange experimental stuff. We used to do experimental music in college, with everyone playing instruments they couldn't play, banging things, and we used to record it all. The lecturer, Christopher Small, might have the tapes. We'd been learning about people like Erik Satie, Debussy, people I'd never heard of before."
Was that an influence then?
"Yes, a big influence. More in terms of attitude than sound, because we weren't good enough to play it! But Erik Satie, he was someone who did something that was new and revolutionary at the time - when his pieces were first performed in Paris, there were people booing and walking out. We wanted to do polarise people in the same way. The Dada movement was also an influence because they were people who looked very ordinary but produced revolutionary art. 'Rock and Roll Even' was about all of that - that song summed up what we were about, really. The title came from those surrealist paintings that were called things like 'Nude Ascending Stairs Even'."
Did you develop quite quickly, then, from the initial thing I suppose you would've had of just getting three chords and bashing them out?
"Extremely quickly. Before we started playing live we were covering songs the Pistols did like No Lip Child, Stepping Stone, that sort of stuff, and we moved very quickly to playing completely our own stuff."
Did you write much yourself, other than 'Don't Split It'?
"No. That was the only one. Vic was a brilliant writer, and I was useless! I mean, I loved his songs."
Did many of the songs you were doing then emerge on his later solo albums?
"A lot of them came out really badly on 'What's the Matter Boy?'. I don't know about anything else. Did stuff like 'Eastern Europe' come out later?"
No, never heard that one. Wasn't there one called 'Derailed Sense'?
"Yeah, that was a bit later. 'Eastern Europe' was early, and I remember one about sailing down the River Nile. 'Derailed Sense' was pretty different at first to what it became later - a lot of the songs and lyrics evolved. And 'Rock and Roll Even' was a completely different song."
Then Paul Packham left.
"Yeah - I think he wanted some money! I mean, at that point we all had nothing. I think he'd just got a job loading trucks at Watney's, the brewery. He nicked the drumkit and sold it. He was instrumental in getting a lot of our equipment, and getting rid of it as well..."
Were you still at school at that time?
"I think me and Vic had just started college, that same September. Paul was probably at home, and so was Paul Packham, so he would've had no money. I dunno why he left exactly, I suppose he just wasn't into it as much as we were. He was into music, but he was more of a soul boy."
Then you got Mark Laff in.
"Yeah. The Clash had just picked up their drummer - they'd rehearsed loads of them, and he was one of the ones that had almost got in but didn't. This tour was coming up, the White Riot tour, and they said get him in. He was their second choice."
Did you enjoy going on tour?
"Yeah. It was what we'd always thought of doing, and we were doing it. It was like that first time we played the 100 Club - we were doing what we wanted to do, and it was great. It was an incredible feeling, cos you'd never have dreamed you'd be playing on a stage."
What happened after the White Riot tour?
"There was another period when we rehearsed for a long time without a drummer. Mark Laff had gone - he joined Generation X. They sort of whisked him away. I'll always remember the last place we played, they were really worried that we were going to beat him up or something! We weren't, we were quite pleased for him to go. They hustled him out - it was really funny."
Why did he leave?
"He wanted to be a rock star - he was into that whole thing, which we didn't want. And I suppose he saw them as fulfilling that role."
Then you got Bob Ward in.
"Yeah. We rehearsed loads of drummers, and there was one really young kid who came with his dad, who we should have had. But I think Bernie was getting fed up with us not choosing one, and this bloke came in with really long hair who hated all the music we liked - I can't remember who he liked, all these crap groups. So just to be contrary, we picked him!"
Good drummer though. In a 'Zig Zag' interview around that time, you were saying how you were after someone who played the drums, as opposed to the cymbals...
"Well he didn't, he played the cymbals! We had to teach him what we wanted him to play for each song. But he was very powerful, whereas the other kid who we should have had, who was really good, you just couldn't hear him. So it really changed our sound to have a solid drummer behind us."
And I suppose not long after that you would have done 'Nobody's Scared' and 'Don't Split It' for the first single.
"Yeah - that was straight afterwards. When we did 'Don't Split It', apart from the organ and piano we did it live with Vic singing and everything, and that was the first time Bob Ward ever played the song. It was just looking at each other, nodding heads, and that was what came out on the single. It was also the first time Vic had sung it with new lyrics - I remember giving them to him in the car on the way there and he sung it live, still reading off that bit of paper."
Do you think the single was representative of what you sounded like at the time?
"No - it was much cleaner, because they got all our guitars tuned up in the studio and it was all properly engineered. That version of 'Sister Ray' with The Slits was probably more what we were really like - falling over and banging into each other and stuff."
And then there was the Peel Session.
"Yeah, we did 'Nobody's Scared', 'Don't Split It', 'Chain Smoking', 'Parallel Lines' and 'Out of Touch', but 'Out of Touch' was dropped when the session went out. Alan Freeman used to play it a lot. He was a big fan of ours, which was really funny because he'd given me my leaving present when I'd left school, so I'd met him when I was 11. He probably used to play the session more than John Peel did."
I suppose by Spring '78 you were getting a bit more attention, with the single coming out and the odd music press feature. Did it seem things were going uphill at the time?
"Yeah. We did our own tour, headlining with The Lous, we played a week in France, headlining at the Sugar Club and playing a Yves Saint Laurent party. We did three nights with Patti Smith as well, and we blew her off stage - even the reviews said so! We were really good then, and we started getting ready to do the LP. We should've done a load more before really, but Bernie Rhodes stopped us. Because of Bernie, we didn't know that there were record companies interested in us. And there must've been, because they were signing up all these other crap groups - everyone else was rubbish. They really were."
Why do you think Bernie held you back then?
"I think just because there was so much dross around at that time, so in a way it did us good to keep us separate from all that. All those groups playing at the Roxy Club and places like that - we would never have done that. We were more the ICA, the RCA, places like that."
So then you went in to do the Legendary Lost LP. What happened there?
"I'd love to hear that - I've only heard one track from it. It was Linda Lusardi's brother that engineered the sessions."
What songs did you do?
"There was one called 'I Changed My Mind', 'Ambition', 'Out of Touch', 'Chain Smoking', 'Rock and Roll Even', 'Stand Back'..."
'Stand Back'?! What did your version of that sound like?
"It was a sort of twangy Buddy Holly thing. We did 'Exit No Return', 'Parallel Lines', 'Derailed Sense', 'The Idiot of All'..."
'The Idiot of All'? Did that become 'Enclave'?
"Yeah. 'Eastern Europe' we might have done, although I don't know whether we might have gone off that one by then. 'Why Don't You Shoot Me?' would've been there, and 'Imbalance'. We wanted to do 'Imbalance' as a single - we met Sid Vicious and Nancy, who really liked us, and she knew someone who had a label. Me and Vic were going to do it behind Bernie's back, but we never did. We'd do that live and it'd go straight into 'Nobody's Scared'. That was really really good."
Why didn't the album come out?
"I don't know, because I wasn't there. We just went into the studio, did all the songs - we didn't even know who it was going to be released by, and it wasn't really finished. I don't know whether they ran out of money or what. Cos after that, by the time we split, we actually had a few better songs - we had 'Stool Pigeon', 'Watching the Devil', 'Double Negative', 'Vertical Integration'. We were doing those. 'Vertical Integration' sort of replaced 'Don't Split It' - that was the one where we'd improvise for ages and ages."
Then there was the 'Ambition' single, which was the only thing to come out from those sessions.
"Yeah. When that was released, I wasn't in the group - I remember I was with my mum when I got the music papers, and it was Single of the Week in every one of them. Huh!"
Were you there when the organ was put on?
"No. Me and Vic hated that song, really hated it. It was just like some big rock record. We didn't want that out at all."
Do you still hate it?
"No, I think it's all right now! I mean, as far as most people are concerned that is the one Subway Sect song, which is funny because we really, really hated it."
How did the band split?
"You'll have to ask Vic! It was around autumn '78, and all of a sudden he was going up to the studio and I didn't know he was going there. I wasn't told - he was just suddenly incommunicado. I knew there was something strange going on because we were really close friends, then I went to play tennis with Paul and he told me."
So was there a bit of bad feeling at that time?
"Yeah, there was. Not towards Vic, but we were all friends so I didn't really understand it. I was disappointed in Vic because before we were always together. But it was obviously much more Bernie's doing than Vic's. I don't think Bernie ever really understood us - he'd come up from the '60s club scene, so he wasn't on the same wavelength as me and Paul at all."
Did you carry on playing after the Sect finished?
"No, that was it. That was what I wanted to do with Vic, and I wouldn't have thought of playing with anyone else. I was useless, anyway. No one would've had me!"
You did have your own sound though.
"Yeah, and I think that's what Vic lost really. I mean, he got other musicians in but it didn't mean anything. If you play badly and you've got something, it's much better than something played well. It was a very conscious decision to have our own sound, and I think Vic lost that."
What did you think of the Peel Session he did immediately after, and 'What's The Matter Boy'?
"Oh, I didn't like it at all. The Peel Session with that rock group, and all but three of the songs on 'What's the Matter Boy?', was all songs that we did. I thought 'Empty Shell' and 'Make Me Sad', the ones that we didn't do, were brilliant - I thought Vic was a brilliant songwriter, and I love those songs. But the others, those were our songs, and our versions were a hundred times better."
Did it bother you that it was still called Subway Sect, or Vic Godard and the Subway Sect?
"Yeah, that really annoyed me. When me and Paul were chucked out it was never publicised, so people would go along and think this band was us! Before the Pistols and everything, when me and Vic were at school and we liked all this obscure music, the one thing we hated was when someone would come out as So-and-so and the Something Band. We hated that, and then he went and did it! I really couldn't believe that, although I do think it was more down to Bernie."
What did you think of the jazzy stuff that he came up with later on?
"Oh, I loved that - it annoyed me at first when it was that crap band doing all our songs, but I loved the Northern Soul stuff and 'Songs for Sale'. I love Vic's songwriting."
Would you ever do a Subway Sect reunion?
"No, because we always hated that sort of thing, comeback tours and stuff. I'd see Vic again, but not to do that."
Did you stay in touch with Vic after the split?
"Yeah - we played tennis together and things like that. And he still worked on his songs with me for a while - he'd come up with a new song and we'd work it out on the guitar. I last saw him about three years ago, when he'd just done that single, the remake of 'No Love'. I thought that was brilliant, really good."
Was it similar at all to how you used to play it originally?
"No, not at all. It had really harsh, trebley guitar. Much louder, more aggressive - just one guitar and Vic singing. But I think the lyrics and chords were pretty much the same. I loved that remake though, thought it should've been number one! The Velvet Underground cover on the B-side surprised me, because I'd heard he'd stopped listening to that stuff."
Yeah, I believe he did for a while, when he used to just listen to old music, Cole Porter and stuff, but he's obviously got back into it.
"Yeah, that was it. I remember I was still seeing Vic at that time - he was round at my house and we went down to the local library. I got out a double album, Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter cos I loved that music. We used to be mad about those songwriters, their skill. But Vic had always liked Glen Miller and things like that when we were at school and everyone else was listening to The Groundhogs!"
What are you doing now?
"Working in the library."
No likelihood of a return to music in the near future then?
"No. But I suppose Vic didn't think he was going to either, did he?
c. Mark Sturdy 1999.
Taken from the Vic Godard & The Subway Sect Fanzine "Enclave".
Rob Symmons is now in the great Fallen Leaves, still playing and recording.