Out this week on his own GNU inc imprint is the Vic Godard compilation 30 Odd Years, available as a double CD or download. The album spans his entire career and its gathering some highly positive reviews, Louder Than War, for instance, rated it 10/10. To mark its release, and with Vic’s permission, I’ve posted below a feature and interview with the singer that was originally used last year in the e-Fanzine Positive Noises.
‘Vic is the great lost soul of the era: his nihilism is more extreme than anyone’s. He seemed to have seen through the circus which he was being enticed into, from day one. He saw all the contradictions and didn’t want to be a pop star.’ Geoff Travis quoted in England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage.
One of the most intriguing individuals in English music over the years has been Vic Godard, a man grandly described by 6 Music’s Marc Riley as ‘the greatest living Englishman’. As a teenager, Vic came to the fore – or at least almost came to the fore – with his band Subway Sect, a scandalously underrated act whose ‘We Oppose All Rock and Roll’ philosophy has, however, proved remarkably influential. This signalled their hope that they might help music find a way out of what they perceived as rock’s cul-de-sac.
So how did Vic and the band go about tackling that?
Well, for starters, they created a (non) image and ditched any onstage macho posturing when they played. Subway Sect dressed in Oxfam clothing which they dyed grey in a bathtub. Live, they would make no visual effort to grab attention – unless their ploy was to prove so intriguing by dressing drably and eschewing any obvious stagecraft that you actually felt compelled to watch.
Interaction with the crowd was obviously negligible. No stagediving into the front rows or even telling everyone how wonderful they were for our Vic. Unusually for a frontman, he didn’t compulsively crave the adulation of audiences, instead he preferred polarising them, favouring unpredictable reactions, good one night, hostile the next.
Likewise, with his Fender Mustang held awkwardly high, Rob Symmons would remain almost static throughout their sets, sometimes staring at amps or random spots on the stage rather than engaging directly with fans. At one point he even suggested the band glue their shoes to the stage, proposing that they walk on wearing socks and then step into the shoes and lace them up. This idea was rejected but not without being discussed seriously first.
Additionally they hit on the idea of eliminating lazy recycled riffs in their songs; for example, no easy Chuck Berry-isms were allowed and if the chords to any new song reminded them of the sound of any traditional rock song it would be quickly rejected. Obviously solos were a no-no, as was anything that sounded ‘heavy’ – and Vic’s definition of that word could include even The Sex Pistols. The Sect’s brittle, trebly guitar sound ensured that ‘heaviness’ wasn’t ever going to be something they would be accused of.
Highly literate – when I spoke with him he was reading Enid Starkie, an Irish literary critic born in 1897, known chiefly for her biographical works on French poets – Vic put a great deal of thought into his lyric writing. Filmed by Wolfgang Buld in 1977 for his Punk In London documentary, Vic explained his methods: ‘I write, say, an essay or something like that and condense the words for a song so it doesn’t end up being a normal rock song hopefully.’
To assist this aim, Vic veered away from the language of ‘rock’, rejecting any Americanisms like ‘yeah’ and ‘baby’ and insisting on using ‘English’ words to give us his own idiosyncratic view of a Britain sliding into economic and political crisis. Or whatever else took his fancy.
Nobody’s Scared, a single with the startling opening lines: ‘Everyone is a prostitute / Singing the song in prison’ was the first time the band were captured on vinyl but it took Subway Sect until the spring of 1978, a whole six months after it had been recorded, to finally see the release of that debut 45.
In the fast moving world of punk and then post-punk (and Subway Sect could be said to have been both simultaneously) delays like this didn’t help their cause as their sound had progressed significantly in that time.
Their manager Bernard Rhodes concentrated his energies on his main act The Clash, although he did find time once the next 45, Ambition had been recorded, to – without the band’s permission – speed up and add ping pong sound effects to the track, which again failed to find a fast release. Rhodes also sat on tapes the band had recorded for a debut album which was then shelved. Finally he sacked the whole band apart from Godard, who was put on a wage of £50 a week to write songs.
After experimenting with a Tamla/Northern Soul infused set that included a cracking cover of Tony Clarke’s Blackpool Mecca stomper Landslide, Vic moved direction again. And not for the last time either.
An L.P called What’s The Matter Boy? (credited to Vic Godard and Subway Sect) hit record shops in 1980 on MCA offshoot Oddball. It’s hard to categorise this collection of songs; punk and Gallic pop, soul and swing being just four of the influences utilised but the album is united by Vic’s consummate songwriting skills. The London funk act The Black Arabs (best known for their disco medley of Sex Pistols tracks on The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle) helped out on percussion and backing vocals while former Clash drummer Terry Chimes and his bassist brother Paul also became involved.
Of course, Vic didn’t really bother promoting his long awaited debut and almost immediately changed path yet again.
Profiled in The Face in January 1982, he looked surprisingly dapper, photographed in a starched white shirt and dickie bow, in fact, it was easy to imagine the staunch Francophile Godard – who was born Vic Napper but renamed himself as a homage to the French film auteur Jean Luc – as a character from an early 60s movie by one of that director’s contemporaries like Claude Chabrol or Agnes Varda.
Rhodes had set up Club Left in the heart of London and Vic had taken on the role of resident crooner and was keen to inform everyone that he’d rather play to old people than young and that his songs were right for Vic Damone fans and the Radio 2 playlist.
He’d moved from uneasy listening to easy listening in less time than it takes many contemporary bands to record and bring out an album.
Vic is no David Bowie but he has certainly reinvented himself on a number of occasions over the years. Disillusioned in the mid 80s, after another album T.R.O.U.B.L.E encountered release problems, he again sprung a massive surprise by becoming Vic the Postman and rising to deliver mail to the citizens of the capital at the kind of hour when many a rocker is just beginning to think about turning in to catch some shuteye.
The image might change and the amazing juxtapositions of influences might move from Tony Bennett and The Velvet Underground to hip-hop and bhangra but what doesn’t change is Vic’s singular knack for ignoring the easy option to pursue instead whatever he thinks is the most interesting route to follow.
Occasionally he even threatens some kind of commercial breakthrough, like the release of The End of the Surrey People on the reactivated Postcard label in 1993 or when, in 2002, he collaborated with Irvine Welsh on the musical Blackpool but any potential leap into the consciousness of the wider public is always somehow thwarted.
Postcard Mk2 met was with far less music press enthusiasm than it had received during its first incarnation – possibly due to albums not even being sent out to the music press for review purposes, while most of the songs written for Blackpool were dropped from the actual performances of the show – which also met with a subdued response from theatre critics.
In 2007, Godard revived the Subway Sect moniker and, along with their White Riot tour drummer Mark Laff and, on some tracks, original bassist Paul Myers, re-recorded the songs that had originally been intended for the lost debut LP; these were released as 1978 Now on Overground.
This year should see the Edwyn Collins produced 1979 Now, new versions of their post-punk meets Northern Soul set, the first fruits of which, the vinyl single Caught In Midstream/You Bring Out The Demon In Me came out on Record Shop Day in Britain in April 2013 on AED Records.
You seem to be going through a pretty productive period at the moment, doing plenty of shows and releasing the Caught In Midstream single, with an album to follow in the not too distant future.
Yes hoping to finish the album ‘1979 Now’ in the next few months, gigging with Subway Sect, The Sexual Objects, Mates Mates and a jazz combo.
Are you still working as a postie?
I’m lucky that I do a jobshare so have every other week off – otherwise the out of town gigs would be severely affected.
How did the recent Velvet Underground covers set go in Glasgow?
It was really enjoyable as it always is there, and it was good to see Stephen and Katrina (of The Pastels). Everyone at Mono seemed in a nice laid back mood. I had great backing from Davy Simon and Douglas MacIntyre (of the Creeping Bent Organisation). I loved singing She’s My Best Friend as I had recorded it in the early nineties but had never had a go live.
You first saw the Pistols by accident, didn’t you? Walking past the Marquee and hearing what sounded like a racket, made you decide to investigate what was going on.
We saw Jordan first and that’s how we knew it was connected to Sex. I had been in there a few times over the years from when it was Let It Rock so I knew they had Nico stuff on the Jukebox, but didn’t know about the group till that night in February (1976).
How did you discover Let It Rock/Sex, was it while you were on your way to watch Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge?
No I didn’t ever go to the New Kings Road when seeing Chelsea play as I always came down Fulham Road and it was out of my way. I have a sister who was a bit of a mod in the sixties and she used to take me down the Kings Road now and again.
She bought me a shirt for my birthday and was served by Malcolm. It had a pin to hold the collar together like the ones Illya Kuryakin wore in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Years later the same shirts were painted over in broad stripes and had had the Karl Marx photo added, and the price was more than doubled.’
The Marquee story is a neat example of being in the right place at the right time. What brought you to Soho that night?
We were on our bicycles which was handy as we didn’t need to worry about the last bus and we were on the lookout for a group to see as gigs weren’t advertised in those days so you went to Soho and had a look for one. Our favourites at the time were the Count Bishops as they were like a 60’s US punk group transported to London 1975, and we found out later that Mike Spenser was indeed an American who’d moved to South London. We stopped going by bike for some reason and came to regret it walking home from the Screen on the Green gig a while later.
Why was that?
The Screen on the Green thing was out of our bicycle area so we went by bus, meaning a long walk home from Islington, although we didn’t mind as we taped the gig and it came out well. I think it was the first time we saw the Clash and they were drastically different to how they became without Chimes and Levene.
You were also a fan of Dr Feelgood before Punk, weren’t you?
When we used to see Dr Feelgood and the rest of the r’n’b groups from the era, I was listening to and buying soul records but they weren’t rarities (unless you count the Jimmy Castor Bunch). I’d been a fan since the sixties of great tunes and it just so happened that in those days that meant mainly soul.’
When did you start listening to Northern Soul?
It was only just after punk that I was loaned a selection of 45s that belonged to a friend of some of the Sect, called Jacko. He regularly travelled from Acton to the wilds of Stoke, Wigan or wherever and collected the records. I was looking for something new to do that wasn’t punk and this fitted the bill. I started writing songs heavily influenced by the music, to which I could put my words. These form the body of the album we’re working on at the moment.’
So after seeing the Pistols that first time (this being the show that earned the band their first press coverage with NME’s ‘Don’t look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are coming’ piece) you began going to see the band regularly and at one gig McLaren mistook you and the future members of Subway Sect for a band and invited you to play at the Punk Special at the 100 Club. Do you think you would you have become a musician anyway if he hadn’t?
Not a chance. It would never have entered my mind. Even when the group got together we didn’t think we’d be doing music. We had no instruments but we had an old Super 8 camera so our first plan was for a film to be done down on the tow path at Mortlake. We wanted the Brewery in the back ground as we thought it looked a bit Eastern European but we never got round to a script. Next we got a tape recorder out and did the Moliere play entitled ‘A Doctor In Spite of Himself’, with our drummer Paul Packham doing the lead roles and the rest of us doing the minor roles (he was our only extrovert in those days).’
The White Riot Tour show in Edinburgh was voted the fifth best ever gig in Scotland by the Scotsman newspaper and you’ve since worked closely with some of the guys who went along that night like Edwyn Collins and Davy Henderson. Any specific memories of the show?
Yes I do but I don’t remember anything about our set. I nearly killed myself before we played by grabbing the Safety Curtain as it went up. Luckily for me it ripped and I fell to the ground holding a bit of it. The manager wasn’t very happy about it though so I was in disgrace. Walking into the venue we were awestruck by the size of it as thus far we’d been playing in bingo-hall sized places, and this looked like the sort of place you’d go to see Max Miller.
Ever bump in to Bernie Rhodes in recent years?
I haven’t bumped into him lately [since the early nineties] but I had a phone call with him a few years back.’
The End of the Surrey People was released on the reactivated Postcard label in 1993. How did you find working with Alan Horne, the album wasn’t really promoted that well, was it?
I didn’t expect anything of it really as I thought my recording and singing days were long gone. Alan was no more suited to selling an album than I was but we got on fine at the time. Doing the album was a break for me as it led to me getting into the recording process for the first time. Before then I’d been content to take a background role and do as I was told. Once I’d got a 4 Track and Drum Machine I thought I could be the next Teddy Riley and started thinking about what made a great record great. Hip-Hop also changed my lyrics in a profound way. I started thinking in syllables connected to beats and have carried on doing things that way. My songwriting is confined by the beats. It’s not that I can’t do a ballad but I tend to work on things I’m enjoying and beats and bass lines do it for me.
Have you ever thought of writing your autobiography?
Easy one this – yes but as I’m a lazy sod I’ll wait till I get one of those computers you can talk to.
Would you like to recommend any music, books or films?
Music: Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy Lunceford, Charles Aznavour, Jermaine Dupri, Peter Skellern.
Books: Biography – The Life of Monsieur de Moliere by Mikhail Bulgakhov
Horror: Mateo Falcone by P.Merimee
Comedy: The Misanthrope by Moliere which has recently been re-done by Roger McGough
Photography: What Presence! Harry Papadopoulos
Films: Anything with Norman Wisdom, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jerry Lewis, or John Le Mesurier. My favourite film is Diva as it has the Post Office and Music at its heart.
Anyone wanting to find out more on Vic should have a look here: