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I trust that Vic Godard and Subway Sect don't need much introduction to cool folk like Mudkiss readers. They were in there at the beginning of the UK punk scene, touring with The Clash on the legendary '77 White Riot tour. They put out a couple of great singles - "Nobody's Scared" and "Ambition" and recorded an album which was never released, a managerial decision that effectively sabotaged their career. The songs eventually came out last year as "1978 Now!", recorded as much as possible with the original group. Not that Vic's ever had the pension plan in mind, though!


Photo: Vic at The Tunnel Club in Aberdeen by Dod Morrison


Anyway, I was lucky enough to meet him when we were both on Johnny Brown's "Mining for gold" show on resonancefm. Vic turned out to be a very engaging guy, and was keen to come and talk to us. We're both SW London boys, so it was only natural that Vic came over one wet January afternoon. This is what happened over a cup of tea or  two.....and thanks to Shelley G for some of the questions.


Den - Well, when it all began, did you ever think you'd be talking about it 30 years later?


Vic - No - but I did know that I wanted to do something memorable!


Den - I always thought Subway Sect was a great name, perfect for the austere black and white image of the group. Where did it come from?


Vic - Well, it certainly wasn't off the cuff. We spent about a month discussing and considering different names. I think we made the right decision in the end. Same thing with the look - we were a bunch of poor guys, buying clothes from Oxfam - when they were still cheap there- cos that's all we could afford. We wanted to look like poor Eastern Europeans. No danger of any visual confusion between us and the Sex Pistols!


But it was strange that in the early days when the scene was still very fragmented, that two different groups - the Clash and the Buzzcocks - should independently come up the same new look, the Jackson Pollock thing with the Clash, and the Buzzcocks and Mondrian ... maybe its because they were both coming at it from an art school background, where we were just ordinary blokes.


Photo: Subway Sect 1977 courtesy Vic Godard

Den - The Sect always seemed to have an outsider/otherness vibe about them.


Vic - We used to spend a lot of time in libraries because we couldn't afford to do anything else. So we started looking for all different kinds of music and books. Like from seeing Dr Feelgood we'd got to people like Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley. Then at the library we started finding things like Debussy, Erik Satie, or an amazing album of 13th century French troubadour music that I've never been able to find again.


Den - What were you into musically before punk and the start of Subway Sect?


Vic - Mainly soul, Faces, Roxy, Bowie, Velvet Underground and reggae. It really bugs me that people talk about the early '70's as a terrible time for music. There were all kinds of great soul, funk, reggae, even pop records made then. Maybe its that most music writers are only interested in rock music and other people with English degrees. I've always been more interested in music that's cheap to make, like for dub all you really need is a deck and a mic, or a cheap electric guitar and amp for punk and someone to shout over it. But at that time, before hip hop, it would have been pretty impossible to make a cheap disco record, say.


I never went to a gig until the 1st time I saw the Sex Pistols - or maybe it was Dr Feelgood just before? The early Pistols gigs were amazing - they were still learning, it was often pretty discordant but really powerful. So I got into seeing them all the time at places like the Nashville and taping the gigs. But one day there was a gig where you could see that Maclaren had gone out and bought them a whole lot of new equipment. I always thought they sounded better before, more like the Nuggets type group! I used to have 20 or so tapes like that but they've all gone now. I reckon Paul Cook's got 'em (laughs)! But it’s ok if they're back with one of the original guys. Three of the guys who became the Sect were real soul boys. My main thing was Desmond Dekker, I recorded "Stop that girl" at the same place he used, Vic Keary's Chalk Farm Studio a few years ago. Otherwise, we saw the 101'ers when they supported the Pistols, they were good, but it was obvious that the group was Joe Strummer and 3 other guys, and he'd have to do it somewhere else. He looked totally different then too. The first time I saw him with the rest of the Clash they were all wearing suits like The Specials had a couple of years later.


Den - Subway Sect and The Clash were both managed by Bernie Rhodes. Malcolm Maclaren's always kept a pretty high profile, but Bernie Rhodes seems a more enigmatic figure, he gets quite a lot of respect from people like Mick Jones and Tony James. Are you still in touch? Anything you'd like to say about him?


Vic - (slight pause) No, not really! I've had no contact with him in years and he did us no favours.He did put us on the White Riot tour but after that his commitments to The Clash meant he didn't really have time for us. Bernie was one of a group of older people who helped make the scene happen, like Johnny Rotten's partner, Norah, giving people lifts... Mickey Foote, who produced the album that didn't come out, or Ted Carroll with his record stall in Berwick St.

We'd listen to something like "Nuggets" and then go up there looking for 

other singles by people like the Seeds and the 13th Floor Elevators. Places like that were real feeding grounds for punk. And someone like Wilco - he had a massive influence on punk, not just how he played but the way he moved on-stage. I'd never seen anything like that; he had the same kind of manic intensity as Johnny Rotten.


Den - I've been listening to last year's "1978 now" album. I remember at the time, everyone seemed to be getting albums out, but nothing from The Sect. How different might things have been if Bernie Rhodes had let the album come out then?


Vic - Well, we'd have done a whole lot better I'm sure. In the end I think Bernie felt that he didn't have enough control over us, unlike a group like, say, the Clash, and lost interest. Things just moved so fast then anyway once things got started. It seemed like you'd hear about a group one day and they'd have an album out the next. I always thought Malcolm Maclaren missed a trick there, holding the Pistols album back so long while everyone else was getting theirs out. But then I never understood why he disrupted the group by getting rid of Glen Matlock for Sid, when he could have put another group together around Sid. Loads of people would have wanted to be involved with Sid then.


Den - And now for today's wild card. I was listening to the Department S single "Is Vic There?" - Any link there with you?


Vic - I think so! I hadn't really thought about it, but I knew a couple of the guys in Dept S. My parents used to get really fed up with people always calling and going "Is Vic there?” But Dept S said they always got calls asking for someone called Vic. It’s all about crossed lines maybe?


Den - When we met before, we got into a good link of Johnny Thunders' "Its not enough", your "Johnny Thunders" song and back to "Born to lose". Where did you meet him first, the White Riot tour?


Vic - No, they weren't on that. That was mainly the Clash, us, The Prefects, The Slits sometimes, Paul Weller - the line-ups varied according to where we were and the size of the venue. The first time I saw or met Johnny Thunders was when we saw them at the Roxy. They'd come over to Camden to watch us and the Clash practising and said "Come and see us play tonight." By then the Roxy was a pretty grim place full of pissed up kids looking for trouble. The Heartbreakers were great but they had so little material. I think they played two sets but ended up playing the same songs twice mostly. They probably played "Chinese Rocks" about 4 times!


Funnily enough, after that Sid taught me how to play "Chinese Rocks" on the guitar. I'd always just wanted to be a singer and lyric writer, but once I was in a group I found that I had to learn guitar to express my ideas, it was impossible to put across the song I heard in my head without being able to play an instrument. I had a go at the bass too.


Den - Which leads into the next question. There are a few people around who blame Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers for bringing smack onto the English punk scene. Personally I don't agree, but you were in closer, any views?


Vic - (Looks bit surprised) Do you know, I haven't heard that before? Who's saying that then?


(See Keith Levene's comments and John Robb's footnote for an example.)


"Punk Rock: An Oral History" by John Robb. Page 184 - Keith Levene:


"If anyone should have the finger pointed at them for being junkies, if anyone came and completely brought a plague to London, those fuckers (the Heartbreakers) did. Fuck that anyway, because most of them are dead."


"At this stage the New York punk scene was a lot more hard drug-driven than the younger, more naive British movement. ... But when the Heartbreakers came to town for the Anarchy Tour they brought some heavy duty rock'n'roll lifestyles.") - John Robb's footnote


As for the Heartbreakers being responsible? Not at all. Yes, they liked taking H and they wanted to stay here as long as they could because the gear was so much better than what they'd been used to in New York. That was all down to the Persian Revolution. Suddenly there was just a sea of heroin wherever you went. It was so easy to get. Everyone knew you could always score from the Persian guys in MacDonald's on Kensington High Street, and you'd see someone like Johnny waiting in line for his turn.


Photo: Bitter Springs at the The Macbeth in Hoxton by Phil Guild

Den - That's just what it was like...  anyway, coming more up to date, here's a few random questions for you. Will you be working with the Bitter Springs again?


Vic - Yes, I hope so, maybe we'll do some gigs together if they're not too busy. Simon's great. I often work with him; he's one of those people who's just a non-stop songwriter. Whenever I talk to him its "Look, I've got these new songs..."


Den - You did a gig at the Parliament Club a couple of years ago with your old guitarist Rob Symmons and his group Fallen Leaves. Have you kept in touch over the years? Any chance of him playing with Subway Sect again?


Vic - I've been trying to get him to do a book with me for a couple of years but its difficult as he's got family commitments.. He wants us to play at his Parliament club, but basically there's a certain level of pay we won't go below and he's notoriously tight, so not for the moment. I really wanted him to play on "78 Now" but he said there was no point. He thought we should be trying to put out the original tapes of the album - but they don't exist any more.


(Shelley - at this point Vic denies playing in just a kagoule and says what's a kagoule anyway?)


Den – Drummers; how did Garry Ainge get involved, and what happened with Mark Laff?

Vic - I was out on my post round in Twickenham, having a break in the caff there, and Gary comes up, introduces himself and says give me a call if you ever need a drummer. Turns out he lives in Twickenham too. Then we do some gigs with Lawrence (Felt)'s new group, Gokart Mozart, so he's there too. Then Mark Laff starts acting up a bit. Basically he's living down in Brighton and doesn't want the hassle/expense of bringing his kit to gigs. He'd tried things like using the support act's kit, but that led to problems and after it had happened a couple of times. Well, let's say if you've got that or someone who's been calling you for ages, desperate to play with you...

Also our bass player, Mark Braby, plays just about anything. He can play mandolin, ukulele and he's a really good drummer too, but with a different style to Gary. There are a couple of songs on the new album with both of them playing drums.


Photo: Vic with Subway Sect at the Parliament Club by Phil Guild


Den - Is it true that you were kicked off the 2008 Rebellion line up for "not being punk enough"? What happened?


Vic - We weren't really given a reason. We went down really well at Blackpool but were dropped for the Forum show in London. But it was pretty clear then that we didn't really belong on that bill. My heart sank when I saw the audience, all punks in uniform. We looked and felt like aliens in that context. I thought they'd hate us and we'd probably get bottled off, but we went down really well. When we were kicked off, we were replaced by Stiff Little Fingers, which says it all. Sorry, but I've no interest in being part of a retro punk cabaret circuit. That was a gig that paid a lot more than we usually get and that's why we did it



Den - Favourite song you've written?


Vic - Cor, that's a hard one ... I think it’s got to be "T.R.O.U.B.L.E.". I always come back to that one. It’s easy to sing and it was easy to write. It was almost automatic, like it came direct from another planet. Sometimes it seems too good to be true with a song when it’s that easy. I couldn't believe it hadn't been done before. I spent a while playing it to friends and asking "Are you sure this song isn't out there already?" before I was convinced.


Den - What are you listening to at the moment?


Vic - Steely Dan and Donald Fagen! They're great, I never heard them at the time, but I found my way back to them because they've been sampled so much in hip hop. I've found a lot of good music that way, like the Whatnauts "My thing”. Our drummer Gary has an amazing Northern Soul singles collection; he buys them on eBay and puts about 20 of them on a disc for me. There are a couple of Northern Soul type songs on the new album.


Den - What else are you doing?


Vic - There'll also be some basic 60s garage/Nuggets type songs on the album, and it'll be a bit experimental in parts too. It'll be called "Subway Sectioned".

I've just got a graphic equaliser for my guitar and suddenly it sounds great. We were doing some gigs with Bricolage in Scotland, and after one of the sound checks their guitarist came up to me and said, "Sorry mate, but yr guitar sounds like shit. Why don't you use my little box?" I tried it and got this amazing sound.


Otherwise, I've been working at Greenwich University with some young guys called One-Deck and Popular. We'll be doing an album together, no title yet. They're from Coventry so they're steeped in that dub and Specials sound. They're into a dub and skank thing. They're still learning a lot about sound and recording but it sounds good. There's a few guests on the album too - David Devant and his Spirit Wife, Simon from Bitter Springs, Becca who sings with Wet Dog, and the G.O.B. (Glorious Old Bastard from Bedford). I'll do some backing vocals but I'm not really right for singing lead on dance music. Also, we're recording the Sect album on 16 track in Acton but I'll finish the mix at the studio in Greenwich.


There are a couple of collaborations I've got into thru MySpace. There's Public Record from Philadelphia - they're like an instrumental version of Steely Dan, great brass and drums. They've given me a tape of an album they've recorded and free range to do whatever I like with it vocally. There's also Eric Blowtorch, he's coming over for a couple of days. He's booked time at the Mad Professor's studio in Thornton Heath, and got people like Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovelle and Rico coming along too, so I'll go and meet him and see what's happening.


Den - And finally, first record ever bought?


Vic - "What does it take?" by Junior Walker and the All Stars, probably at the Music Box in East Sheen.


Den - And that was about it for the afternoon. It only remained to present Vic with his honorary Mudkiss badge as a memento of the day. I hope some of the enjoyment of our session comes across - I'm sure not every Mudkiss reader will agree with everything Vic says, but he's really thought out his views on where he's from and where he's going, and can back those views up with wisdom, humour and experience. There's a real integrity about Vic and the Subway Sect that goes beyond sales. I'm really looking forward to hearing the new album "Subway Sectioned" when it comes out. The Vic Godard/Subway Sect story is about a man who has only ever wanted to make music on his own terms, regardless of money or fashion, and if that isn't what punk was always meant to be about, I've been wasting my time.


Subway Sect live:


February 26th - Deaf Institute, Manchester + BBC Radio 6 live with Marc Riley

February 27th - Tapestry @ St Aloysius Social Club, London NW1

March 20th - Swiss Concrete @ the Wheatsheaf, Oxford


Forthcoming LP "Subway Sectioned" on vinyl on Aufgeladen und Bereit Records, Hamburg.




Photo's: Courtesy of Vic Godard.

And thanks to Phil Guild for the photo's of Vic with Bitter Springs at The Macbeth in Hoxton and Subway Sect at the Parliament Club

Check out: 'Punk Rock: An Oral History' by John Robb


Interview by Den Browne 12.1.09

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