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About Remembering: Vic Godard Interviewed
Helen King , November 18th, 2014 11:57

Lapidary and unclotted, witty, punchy and surprising - Vic Godard of Subway Sect talks to Helen King about The Fall, Bernie Rhodes, being a postman, and recording old songs for his new album in Edwyn Collins' studio

Apparently, in the late 1970s, there persisted an untested public consensus that inadvertently ingesting a piece of eggshell carried with it the risk that said fragment would ultimately navigate its way towards one's appendix: a primitive heat-seeking exoskeletonic weapon searing its way through gut and gristle towards that superfluous and wormlike peninsula of an organ. It was agreed that the tiny shard would then plunge its razor-sharp tip into its fleshy target, puncturing it and triggering a bad bout of appendicitis.

There was also, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the phenomenon of cassette magazines: C-60s received through the post stuck to a bit of cardboard, upon which were recorded various reviews, interviews, jingles, and news items for your listening pleasure. One of the most well-known of these publications was the short-lived yet far-reaching SFX, which captured many audio oddities of pop, punk, and new wave between 1981 and 1982.

Subway Sect's Vic Godard was interviewed by SFX's Chris Salewicz in 1981, and the resulting clip was short and just a tad surreal. Godard was working in a London burger bar at the time, and the 'interview' consisted of little more than a protracted digression on burger recipes and the aforementioned potential gastronomical peril. In a recent conversation with Godard, I asked about this incident, and he recalled it instantly and with amusement:

"Ha, yeah. What I remember about that is that they were mostly bothered with capturing the sizzling sound coming from the burgers…"

He's right; after the opening salvo, the clip begins via a triumphant segue into an audio which can only have been achieved by sticking the microphone head more or less directly into the pan, and is punctuated thereafter with the clatter of crockery, the sad slap of meat in grease, Godard's muffled voice in the background, and pointless interjections from the interviewer such as, "So, you've got a great big lump of mince… 15lbs… Oh yes, you've opened it up now…"

At one point Salewicz enthusiastically admonishes Godard for allowing a bit of eggshell to fall in the pan as he embarks on the binding process of the burger-making:

Salewicz: "Ooh, hold up, you've got a little bit of shell in there…"

Godard: "Where?"

Salewicz: "There."

Godard: "Oh. What, that? it's only a little bit…"

Salewicz: "I expect you wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't told you…"

Godard: "Oh."

Salewicz: "Well, stray bits of eggshell can cause appendicitis. It's a well-known fact."

Godard [clearly concerned but sceptical nonetheless]: "What, a little bit like that?!"

I'm not sure why this is so funny, but it really, really is. It's a funniness which is amplified by the tenor of Godard's utterly distinctive voice, accent and delivery. His unmistakable sinewy estuary drawl, inflected by perfectly timed missed beats and pauses, and offhand colloquialisms poised consistently on the point of laughter. It's an attribute which (literally) speaks of a magnetically strong personality, and renders an extended interaction with him decidedly rich and rewarding (and very often mordantly funny). More than that, though, the whole slightly surreal burger bar episode gestures towards something vital about Godard and the idiosyncratic path he's carved throughout his long career, something he and I ended up arriving at over the course of our conversation.

My chat with him comes off the back of his new release with the Subway Sect, 1979 Now!, a pellucid album of northern soul-inflected pop-punk written back in the year named, but only recorded some three decades later during a series of fragmented stints between 2012 and 2013 at Edwyn Collins' West Heath Yard studios (with Collins and Seb Lewsley as producers). The result is an unusual document which encapsulates the dynamic suggested by the title; neither strictly old (1979), nor strictly new (Now!), these songs not only straddle the distance described by their provenance, but depend upon it for their considerable potency and poignancy.

After dredging up the underground during the first wave of UK punk with Subway Sect - formed with a nudge from Malcolm McLaren and swiftly falling under the management of Bernie Rhodes, the colourful character at the helm of The Clash (Subway Sect joined the latter on their 1977 White Riot tour) - Godard entered an intensively creative period, producing a wealth of material during 1978 and 1979 which in many crucial ways sat awkwardly with the punk aesthetic with which his band were by then closely associated. Instinctively at odds with the increasing distension and anti-intellectualism of the punk trajectory, Godard gradually and determinedly became something of an outsider among the (ostensible) outsiders, neither deterred nor encouraged by the alternately dynamic and turgid shifts in the British counterculture of the time.

That 30-plus-year-old SFX interview – with all its attendant weirdness – wasn't the last time those interested in interviewing Godard chose to follow him around during his day job. It is a relished and oft-touted fact that Godard temporarily eschewed the music business in 1986 and became a Royal Mail postman; it's a job he has pursued throughout his numerous musical projects since, and to this day ("I walk an average of 12 miles a day – it keeps you fit").

From burger-bar kitchen to postman's round, interviewers and music critics seem to have been consistently – the temptation is to say inordinately - fascinated by Godard's non-rock & roll life: "People have always wanted to get me at work. Like at the Post Office… I've lost count of the amount of film crews who have followed me around on my round. Seriously, it must be in double figures."

It seems fair to suggest that that fascination stems in part from a perceived dichotomy between the twin images of Godard evoked; the snarling punk upstart and the vaguely quaint postie on his daily round, or the kid in the greasy spoon flipping burgers, an appealing meshing of two ostensibly oppositional worlds which can be explored in Godard's singular persona. More than this, the complete absence of affectation, and the palpable affection with which Godard approaches his two careers, somehow affords insight into the nature of the creative work for which he is known.

The fact that we soon embark on a long and enthusiastic digression on the vagaries of the postal systems of the Victorian era ("There used to be like four posts a day, right? Four") ties in beautifully with our subsequent exploration of the impulses behind 1979 Now! and Godard's broader musical career: "The best thing was in Paris, where they had that thing where you could put your letter down a tunnel and then it would go to the other side of Paris."

Oh like one of those pneumatic tubes, where it would just be sucked along by air pressure, right?

"Yeah! that was the best system! It was like in those old-fashioned shops where they had a bit of metal that you put the bill in and then it went up to the till. It was that sort of system, but you actually put letters in there."

Handed a bunch of northern soul 45s by Subway Sect bassist Paul Myers in early 1978, Godard immediately felt a kinship with the tone and tenor of the dancehall Motown-inflected soul music which garnered such love and devotion in the industrial north of England through the late 1960s and onwards. He began to write intensively in this vein, coining a slew of gorgeously realised, contagiously danceable soul-stompers which got their first live outing during Subway Sect's 1980 support slot for Siouxsie And The Banshees. These songs were exceptionally well received, yet never made it onto tape beyond a series of live bootlegs (captured by Postcard Records' Alan Horne) which have, in part, formed a template for the new studio recordings for 1979 Now!.

So the impulse behind 1979 Now!, was it essentially one of preservation, a desire to document this music after all that time?

Vic Godard: Definitely. I felt these songs were too good to just forget about. It was the same with 1978 Now! [2007's release collecting together the similarly 'lost' punk songs written by Godard during the year in question.] A lot of people knew those songs but they'd never been out as one album, the way we'd have done it back in 1978. And it was the same with [1979 Now!] - nobody had actually seen them, other than at that one gig. The only [bootlegged] copies you could get were okay - the sound was alright considering it came from a cassette from 35 years ago - but still. It just wasn't good enough, really.

Was the intention always there in terms of recording those songs as an album at some point?

VG: Yes, in a way. But then also the thought came about through that Kevin Pearce fella – he's got that blog Your Heart Out, and he put the whole gig up on there, all the songs together, and that was the thing that really started the process off. I listened to it and I thought, God, that should have been an album! So I started exploring some of the songs that hadn't been used. And then, Edwyn offered time in the studio…

Were you striving for a kind of authentic reproduction of the songs, to replicate and record them as they were in 1979?

VG: Definitely. But it didn't really turn out like that. I actually found a cassette of some original demos too late; just as the album was being mastered. One of them - 'The Water Was Bad' - has come out pretty similar to how the original was, even though it was a demo, it was just the style in which we did it. But mostly they were done from memory. I didn't have access to any demos. Some of the songs, like 'Holiday Hymn', I've played live over the years with different groups, but with the rest it was about remembering.

Did you not refer back to the bootlegs, even?

VG: No. It was all from memory. I did have my 1979 diary, that was helpful, with all the words in it, but the cassette came just too late cos it was all finished by the time I found it. If I'd found it six months earlier there'd have been at least two, maybe three more songs on there. It's not that I didn't remember they existed, it's just that I couldn't remember how they went. I could remember bits, but not enough to reconstruct them. By the time I'd found this cassette, the record was being mastered. Edwyn had Roddy [Frame] in the studio during that period too, so we had big gaps over the two-year period. The other factor was Edwyn's imminent move up to Scotland, so they had to pack up all the gear [at West Heath] and we had to get everything done to make time for all of that.

Both 1978 Now! and 1979 Now! benefitted from having original and past members of Subway Sect on board…

VG: The first one [1978 Now!] was punk. I had the original drummer back from the White Riot tour – Mark Laff [Generation X] - and he was very helpful in terms of getting the authentic sound of what it was like back then, especially in terms of his drum sound.

And bassist Paul Myers returned for the second record…

VG: We had him on 1978 Now! but he had to drop out because his job didn't give him time to re-learn all the songs. He couldn't remember them and would have had to learn them all from scratch.

There's that really strong northern soul bass sound which I think he does really, really well.

VG: Yeah. He's more into this music than the punk stuff, and it really shows in his bass playing.

The Sex Pistols' Paul Cook, your long-time collaborator and also a member of The Professionals with Myers, features on drums, and members of your live band contribute some gorgeous and abundant backing vocals. And then, of course, there's the influence of Collins as producer…

VG: Edwyn knew exactly how to get the northern soul-y sound we wanted.

Obviously you have a long-standing friendship with him. What impact did he have as producer on 1979 Now!? What was that working relationship like?

VG: Well, Edwyn's in charge! It's his studio, and it's all his equipment, and that's gonna shape the sound, obviously. There was one song where he told me it needed a middle eight, and I didn't have one, but he told me I needed one, so I just whipped one up.

On order…

VG: Yeah! It was exactly like that! I said, 'What chords should I use? F & G?' And he went, "Yeah, that'll do." Then I said, "What tune shall I use? Something like this?" And again he said, "Yeah, that'll do." When he doesn't like what I'm doing he doesn't tell me it sounds shit, I can just tell by his face. He kinda screws his nose up.

Prompted by Vic's mention, talk moves on to Kevin Pearce, the brilliant and prolific writer, researcher and cataloguer behind a slew of fiercely passionate zines, books, and blogs including Hungry Beat, Esurient For Change, Something Beginning With O and the aforementioned Your Heart Out. Pearce's work is marked out by both its eloquence and its depth of research, and Godard makes a frequent appearance in his journalism. In his recent e-book, Something Worth Waiting For, Pearce discusses the reception of Subway Sect's 1980 album What's The Matter Boy?. A journalist at the time asserted something that struck me as particularly interesting in the light of Godard's recent projects with 1978 Now! and 1979 Now!

Pearce reports that in 1980 a writer suggested that your leitmotif (if you had one) was nostalgia – does that sound fair enough to you?

VG: Ha. Yeah, absolutely. I think everything I do goes through a sort of nostalgia prism. It's not all about the past - I've got the present in there - but it goes through this prism of nostalgia. I'm not a very modern person. I don't really like modern literature. Most of the stuff I read goes way back. Although I just read a book about The Fall, which is REALLY good – Steve Hanley's The Big Midweek, but that's a rare foray into the 21st century for me. Most of my stuff goes back a long time.

What do you usually read?

VG: Well, usually stuff between 1780 and 1870. Fiction, that is. But with The Fall, I think they're actually quite nostalgic, too: all the riffs they're coming out with are all borrowed. The lyrics are all very modern, referencing things that I would never read, but in that context I really like it. A lot of his stuff references TV programmes or films or plays on the stage.

That fascination with nostalgia, is that something that dates back for you? I mean, from before you had your own back catalogue to be nostalgic about?

VG: Yeah, definitely. In 1976 we were all obsessed with 60s stuff - The Seeds, The 13th Floor Elevators, Velvet Underground. The sound we were going for was totally influenced by was something that had been and gone over ten years before.

So did you feel at the time that you were consciously looking back?

VG: Well, my lyrics were nothing like those groups, but the music was. Mainly cos it was three chords, it was all we could do but no one in the 60s on Nuggets came out with songs like 'Nobody's Scared' or 'Parallel Lines', you know?"

What about that other legacy of the 60s… You said once that The Beatles make you feel physically sick. Do you still have that visceral reaction?

VG: That's why I like that Robert Elms show on BBC London Radio. He never, ever, plays a record by The Beatles. Ever. The only time they ever play The Beatles is when he goes off on holiday. I don't mind some of the solo records like Ringo Starr's Photograph, it's just when they get together, I don't like that. The first time I saw them on telly was when they had their first record. I hated them! They were like the Take That of their era. The Americans went mad for them, didn't they? In a really big way. And The Beatles were basically just doing bad versions of what the Americans already had, weren't they? That makes it even more baffling. I think a lot of it was their look. They all had those little suits and they all looked the same. And they all had that mop-top look.

But you guys had a 'look', didn't you? Subway Sect had a 'look'?

VG: Yeah but we didn't look like The Beatles! All we had, when we were doing our northern soul stuff, were those three-button stripey T-shirts. And it was Bernie Rhodes who insisted on them… And it's not just The Beatles. I never liked Elvis either. I still find it baffling why people like Elvis.

My feeling is that Godard's "prism of nostalgia" has long been a structuring and shaping force in his creative life, and is the optic which describes and accounts for his perennial outsider-ness and idiosyncrasy. For a man who has been so closely affiliated with the key members and movements of British pop culture for over 35 years, to remain so stubbornly at an obtuse angle to them speaks of an outlook inherently inured to the trends and turns of the zeitgeist. It's an outlook which, arguably, is very often the genesis of the truly vital and the truly original. Even while Subway Sect were being earmarked as new standard-bearers of the nascent British punk scene, Godard and the band were acting on their love for Cole Porter and Tony Bennett, taking up a residency at Club Left in the Whisky-A-Go-Go (later Wag) club on London's Wardour Street (which is going to be recreated on November 20 at the 100 Club.) At these nights, DJ Johnny Britain (who will be in attendance at the upcoming event) played a load of 1940s records and the attendant clientele donned the suave and elegant fashion of three decades earlier.

Did you dress in the 40s and 50s gear at Club Left?

VG: Nah, I had an ordinary tuxedo. A lot of them had all the zoot suit gear on. But I just wore what Frank Sinatra would have worn in 1959.

Invited to the Club Left reunion show is Bernard Rhodes, a man who played a big part in the early days of the band. I was reading another interview you did, with Sounds magazine back in 1978. You were with Bernie, in some ice-cream parlour…

VG: Marine Ices! That's where Bernie Rhodes used to always go. It was right opposite where Subway Sect used to rehearse, near our favourite cafe, but Bernie refused to go in there, he said it was too dirty. Do you remember Harry Enfield when he did the Greek cafe with the old man… was it Stavros?

Ha, yes.

VG: I'm sure Enfield went in that cafe at some point and used it for that character, because it was exactly the same. They had this old Greek Cypriot bloke working there, and his dad was behind this little hatch doing the cooking. And he used to knock on the little hatch saying, "Right. Three sausage sandwich." And then literally ten seconds later, they'd be done… How did he do that? So Bernie, he never really liked working-class places like that. He'd say, "I don't wanna be surrounded by these dirty old men that you lot like." So he used to go to Marine Ices."

A bit more upmarket?

VG: Much more upmarket. About 100 yards down the road. That's where he liked to do all his interviews. In fact, he bumped into David Bowie in there one time.

Really?

VG: Yeah. I'm glad I wasn't there at the time. It was really embarrassing, apparently. I would've been cringing! I bumped into Bowie one time in the street, and he was really nice to me, I got my album signed and all that. It was on the day that he did 'Rebel Rebel', and he was telling me all about the ins and outs of the recording, and I was on my own, and I thought, God this bloke's really like a normal person! And then I heard about Bernie bumping into him at Marine Ices and I just thought, Oh no, the poor bloke.

Why? What happened with Bernie and David Bowie?

VG: Oh well he spotted Bowie and just went over to him and said, "I'm Bernard Rhodes," and told him where his career was going, basically.

Sounds awkward. In that Sounds interview the writer notes that Bernie insisted on Marine Ices and then took a booth behind you during the interview, eating multiple knickerbocker glories and pretending not to be listening in. Are you still mates with him?

VG: Nah, not really. I've spoken to him since the old days, but not much. I've invited him to the thing at the 100 Club, but I don't think he'll turn up. I don't know if he's spoken to the rest of the group. I think he's keeping a bit of a low profile nowadays. Oh, but he turned up to McLaren's funeral, didn't he? Got hold of the microphone, I heard all about it…

Me too. [It's a great story. Apparently Rhodes got up to deliver a rambling speech about McLaren and about how he wasn't punk, before heckling Vivienne Westwood during her speech and shouting his own name out repeatedly…] Was he hard work when you knew him?

VG: Oh yeah, very hard work! Bloody nightmare. He just talked in riddles. Malcolm McLaren said to us, "I got a mate who's got a studio you can use for free." He gave us the address, and said, "Phone this number when you get there." So we did, and about ten minutes later Bernie Rhodes turned up with a bloody mop and bucket. He was like, "I know Malcolm told you it was free but it's not quite free…"

What?

VG: He said, "First, you gotta clean the place out."

You're fucking kidding.

VG: No! We didn't do it though. We just laughed at him.

Is that really true?

VG: Yes! He did it to everyone who went down there. He did it to Orange Juice. Apparently he said to them you can have a look around but first he gave them this mop and bucket. That was his standard thing. Wanted to see what their reaction would be.

I'd love to know which bands actually did it.

VG: Actually there was one group of young kids from a place called Chandler's Ford in Hampshire who used to come down every week in late 1976… They were real Clash fanatics, they just used to come down and play Clash songs. They were actually better than The Clash; they knew The Clash's songs better than The Clash did. And I tell you, they were probably the type who would have mopped up if Bernie told them to.

And Bernie used to tell you guys what to wear?

VG: Yeah. I remember he just gave our bass player, Myers, a fiver, and said, "Go and get outfits for the group." And Myers said, "What can I get for a fiver for the whole group? That's like, a pound each!" But anyway he went off down Camden market and came back with these stripey T-shirts, which actually did the job really well.

It worked, did it?

VG: Well, put it this way, we didn't look anything like Siouxsie And The Banshees.

Isn't there some story about you lot and some red jumpers – also at Bernie's instigation?

VG: That was another occasion, right at the beginning of the tour with the Buzzcocks. Bernie Rhodes gave someone else – I think it was Mickey Foot – a fiver, and said, "Go and get some outfits for the group. Make them all the same, except get something different for Vic." So Mickey came back with four bright red v-neck jumpers and one white v-neck jumper for me. Thing is, I never wore the white one, and it only worked for Bernie's plan if I wore the white one. He wanted the crowd to realise instantly who the frontman of the group was.

Wouldn't they realise that anyway? I mean, if you were actually, you know, being the frontman of the group?

VG: Well, he didn't think so. As soon as we got away from Bernie and went on tour we just used to swap them around.

Didn't you try to do something to one of the lights at a gig, and you accidentally set the jumper on fire?

VG: That's right, yeah! So then that jumper had a great big burn hole in the middle of it, and I decided I would wear that out to mark me out as the singer like Bernie wanted. That night, though, I was absolutely crying my eyes out. Well, we all were actually, the whole band, we were all absolutely crying our eyes out when that happened just at the thought of what Bernie would be saying.

Was he a bit tyrannical?

[pause]

Or not really?

VG: Not really. He definitely tried to be, but it didn't really work.

Did you respect him?

VG: No.

Ha ha ha.

VG: That was the difference between us and The Clash. They really took to heart what he said. More than we ever did.

Godard's revisiting of the songs written in the early days of Subway Sect has resulted in a remarkable project, one which comes filtered through that "prism of nostalgia" and arrives at something far beyond it. The 11 tracks which make up 1979 Now! are, at one level, slabs of masterful straight-down-the-line post-punk-inflected northern soul rendered crystalline and bright by some astonishingly astute production work. ('Caught In The Midstream' is pretty much flawless in this respect.) But you can also hear the distance of the years between composition and consolidation, and it's a distance that is rich with the nuances of a life lived in singular fashion and with a markedly slanted relationship with the past - its own past, and that of the British counterculture of the last 50-odd years.

Like Godard himself, this record brims with charisma and bristles with a slew of skewed references accumulated over a lifetime driven and defined by markedly eclectic tastes and tendencies. Listen to 'Born To Be A Rebel', with Godard's inimitable voice in fine, fine, fettle, and find yourself tumbling all over a tune so infectiously bold and melodic it makes you want to shout out in recognition. The alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) arch and heartfelt lyricism - which flags up those known affinities between Subway Sect and Dexys, and Subway Sect and Orange Juice - exists in these songs at the very top of its game. They prove that Godard had already become a masterful lyricist by 1979; lapidary and unclotted, witty, punchy and surprising. His words are always pitched at the perfect angle to his music, and when that music has as strong an identity as this does, it results in a delicious series of conceits of uncommon force: "There's these things stirring in your memory/ Take a quick look back but it's too sad/ Sometimes when I look at you, I think that you're plain mad/ Cos although it tasted good, the water was bad."

Clocking in at just about half an hour, and bookended by swirling instrumental stompers '1979 Now! Intro' and '1979 Now! Outro', this record makes its point with decision, verve and an effortless grace. The musicianship is instinctive and jubilant, and the production faultlessly apt; it's a concoction which when flung together with the palpable songwriting muscle on display here makes for an irresistible slab of soul. Songs like 'Holiday Hymn' and 'You Bring Out The Demon In Me' come tearing in with feet stomping and hearts ablaze, and it would be a stony heart that isn't utterly seduced in response. Godard was absolutely right to recognise the worth of these songs, and - with the band and the talent behind 1979 Now! - has managed to turn what could have been a perfectly acceptable nostalgia excursion into something very much more vital, alive, now. There ain't no eggshell in these burgers.

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