1978… & NOW…!!!
Album Reviews of:
‘TWENTY ODD YEARS: THE STORY OF...’
by VIC GODARD AND THE SUBWAY SECT
(Motion Pace CD-010, October 1999)
and ‘1978 NOW’ by SUBWAY SECT (Overground Records, 2007)
For those of you who’ve just joined us – Hi, siddown, shuddup, and pay attention. Let’s play the catch-up game? And stop me if I’m going too fast. A Subway Sect double-CD might not necessarily be an attractive proposition. The conscientious reviewer anticipates less a heart-warming nostalgia-rush as a nose-picking pimple-squeezing near-death experience. But pay attention, this is heritage stuff. Subway Sect began as two residents of the obscure suburb of Mortlake SW14. Tall gaunt Vic ‘Godard’ Napper and guitarist Rob Simmons evolved from busking the blues with the minimum of fuss, while retaining something of Mortlake’s sense of distance and insularity. Early participants in the Punk purge, they had no kamikaze controversy for the red-top nationals, little attitude for the Pop inkies or anti-star charisma for the fans to pick over, although Vic Godard’s dead-or-alive drone probably betrays too many e-numbers in his orange juice.
Sure, they were there at the Sex Pistols second-ever gig – The Nashville 23 April 1976, alongside such future luminaries as Tony James, Adam Ant, and Dave Vanian. Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Dreaming’ (Faber & Faber 1991) sets the scene. Strolling past the Marquee Club one Spring night of 1976 he was drawn in by the dissonant racket of the Sex Pistols on stage, or rather, Johnny Rotten already ‘in the audience, throwing chairs about’. Something new was in the air, above and beyond trajectories of phlegm. Savage loved this confrontational image which blew the R&B stuff he’d previously been into, clear out the water, even though he was less convinced by the actual music. Then, on the first night of Malcolm McLaren’s legendary 100 Club Punk Festival of 20th September, the first band on-stage supporting the Pistols were Subway Sect – Paul Myers on bass, Simmons guitar, Rob Ward drums, plus vocalist Vic. They played alongside Stinky Toys, and a hastily convened Siouxsie & the Banshees – with Sid Vicious on bass. First-person accounts make the event sound about as attractive a proposition as being hermetically sealed in a padded cell full of repugnance and pig-snot. Less the sound of the suburbs, more the sound of the sewers. McLaren had wanted as many groups as he could get, rough was fine, but the proto-Sect he deemed even too inept for that. Nevertheless, as Godard recounts, ‘Malcolm paid for our rehearsal time, at a place called Manos in Chelsea… he booked us in there, eight in the morning until seven at night, all week, and paid for it. And we were supposed to be on the festival the next week!’ On the night they did all five songs they had ready, including “Nobody’s Scared”, “Don’t Split It” and “Out Of Touch”. In Vic’s later lyric they were a band ‘sitting at the bottom of a learning curve’ (“Same Mistakes”).
But in contrast to the speed and blur of the other groups, there was something more rigorous about Subway Sect, even then, a stage demeanour as relentlessly drab as Eastern Europe, a sound coming in at oblique angles more akin to, but less able than, the New York art-Punk of Television. To Mark Perry they were ‘melodies immersed in a beautiful, monotonous dirge… a sign that Punk could be a lot more than the fat sonic assault of the Pistols, the Damned and the Clash’. ‘We wanted to sound like the Velvet Underground or the Seeds’ says Godard now, ‘nothing remotely heavy. We never used ordinary guitars, a Gibson or a Strat, we used Fender Mustangs because they have a trebly, scratchy sound. We became quite purist.’ Kevin Pearce called them ‘the strongest, wisest urchins ever to take part in Pop’, four ‘piquant punk pucks straight out of a Truman Capote story’. As Godard resumes, they used to ‘dye all our clothes grey in those days, in a big bath. We liked the colour. We got the twangy guitar stuff from the Velvet Underground’. Vic later conceded a more varied mix of inputs, the acid-garage of Count Five and Thirteenth-Floor Elevators all the way to French chanteuse Francoise Hardy. ‘Our guitarist refused to allow any macho Rock ‘n’ Roll attitudes on stage.’ So, no logo long before the ‘No Logo’ movement. But back then, a badly-tuned pimply guitar cutting through the tune like rusty razor was enough. A certain measure of ability was suspect. Blank, inspired incompetence was better, defined by lame-brained mentally-retarded riffs. But as blank, fast rock exponents the Sect soon reconfigured into a fuller, more coherent sound.
Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, appreciative of the Sect’s angles of subversion took them under wing – a strained relationship from the off. But it made them an integral part of Clash’s ‘White Riot Tour’ – twenty-seven dates through May 1977, what Jon Savage calls ‘the last great Punk tour’ alongside the Slits and the Buzzcocks. The Clash even poached a Subway Sect song – ‘USA’, to spice up their own ‘I’m So Bored With You’, to create “I’m So Bored With The USA”, making it a far more a brilliant rant than the Sect’s template.
Recorded some months earlier, the totally essential 45rpm “Nobody’s Scared” c/w “Don’t Split It” (Braik, March 1978) eventually came out on Rhodes’ own label. And it’s not quite Stanley-knife slash-your-wrist stuff, with Vic’s wavering wimp-vocal more ‘Pete Shelley’-vulnerable, than it is a derisive ‘Johnny Rotten’-sneer as he opens ‘everyone is a prostitute’. Vituperative bass-runs resemble pieces of heavy artillery, running high buzzing lead guitar over the top of the answering ‘singing a song in prison’. Vic’s flat-voiced inflexionless voice accuses ‘moral standards the wallpaper… media TV what’s to speak, take my decisions’. Daft Punk seldom came dafter, a poor artefact, with the Subway Sect already peaking at a low point. But essential? Yes, this is heritage stuff. If the Punk aesthetic places value on the spontaneous amateur over the virtuoso, then – where most of the bands that made it actually had respectable histories with competent Pub-Rock credentials and beyond, the Sect actually lived the aesthetic.
There were sessions in Gooseberry Studios, off Gerard Street, working towards a 1978 vinyl album, but – abruptly curtailed by Bernie Rhodes, only one ironically-titled track emerged – “Ambition” c/w “Different Story (Rock And Roll Even)” (Rough Trade, December 1978). Opening with a Who power-chord and piping organ-riff it’s their best shot at commercialism – even in the raw and flawed alternate take salvaged onto the ‘Twenty Odd Years’ compilation. ‘What you want is buried in the present tense’ yelps Vic in contemporary year-zero vein, then more mysteriously, ‘I won’t be tempted by vile evil, ‘cos vile evil is vile evil’. Elsewhere, the tapes for that projected album still gather dust, gaining legendary status as the ‘Great Lost Punk Album’. As a teasing taster, four of the tracks – including “Double Negative” and zinger “Stool Pigeon” (‘I play the right track when the needle is bleeding, / I remember money wrapped in dishonesty’), were salvaged onto ‘A Retrospective 1977-81’ (Rough Trade 1984). Then Motion Records collected further candidates onto ‘Twenty Odd Years’, with “Parallel Lines” (issued as a free ‘NME’ flexi), “Chain Smoking” and “Rock & Roll Even”. Another cut, “Exit – No Return”, resembles something like a slicked-up New Wave not a million miles from a ragged Boomtown Rats. It opens with slow guitar, although a jarring edit abruptly cuts to a faster vocal section, as though two tapes are colliding, losing some of its energy, before closing with a shimmering cymbal-clash. The gathering reputation buzz, accelerated by dedicated blogs and journalist’s re-evaluations, finally led to Punk archivist label Overground Records initiating a project to recreate the songs intended for their debut LP, reconvening the Sect for ‘1978 Now’. Despite the intervention of years and separate career-developments the resulting album recaptures what had been thought forever lost, proving that Vic’s delivery has only strengthened over his odd recording history, developing rather than losing its original character. Original drummer Mark Laff plays, and bass-player Paul Myers also appears on some tracks.
Meanwhile, caught up in the turmoil of 1978, Godard was concentrating more on solid musical settings and earnest lyrical vignettes in a tradition that runs from Dylan to Verlaine (that’s Paul, not Tom). ‘What I was trying to do with the songs was to change the way Rock songs were written. To pare it down, take out all the Americanisms. I didn’t mind what went into the song, as long as the language was different; no ‘yeahs’ and ‘babys’.’ The Clash’s JG Ballard ‘High Rise’/‘Crash’ urban hyper-realism was quickly overlaid by a more conventional sense of social relevance. For the Sect, the idea was to work – not with power, but with weakness and introversion. To them, failure was more interesting than chart success. An appropriate inclination, as it turned out. To Geoff Travis who released “Ambition”, ‘Subway Sect were so literary. 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.’ On a strange track collected on ‘Twenty Odd Years’, with accordian and producer Wiggy on guitar, Vic teases out the conundrums of the Punk ethic, ‘we are part of the new breed, and love is not what we agreed…’
To Vic himself ‘I thought the Sex Pistols were the end of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But it turned out, they weren’t. Nor were the Clash...’ instead, there was movement within and without. Already the first wave of bands were charting with albums, as the Sect remained under-represented on record. Instead they supported Buzzcocks on their summer ‘Love Bites’ tour, as Sect’s continuing personnel metamorphosis charted an erosion of democracy – away from four-way tension. The split seemed inevitable. Paul Myers briefly pacted with Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cooke as part of The Professionals. Drummer Mark Laff joined Generation X. And a new Sect appeared with a revised line-up for LP ‘What’s The Matter Boy?’ (1980), recorded in Stoke Newington with Terry Chimes of the Clash drumming, and his brother Paul on bass. Rhodes brought in the Black Arabs to overdub the rest. Narrative track “Empty Shell” hangs together well. “Split Up The Money” is a petty-criminal cash-from-chaos scam that opens with laughter and develops into a kind of Sham 69 sing-along. “Vertical Integration” uses an acoustic strum of the Who’s “Can’t Explain” riff as a vehicle for symbolist lyrics about a ‘wilderness of change’, ancient monuments in the desert and ladders lying on the ground (representing vertical
At last, a Subway Sect album. Even though it was recorded with what was essentially a pick-up band, and the Sect no longer actually existed in any meaningful sense. Yet Godard didn’t even promote it, he preferred to switch direction, bizarrely pursuing a more pointedly solo career as a torch crooner for his well-received ‘Songs For Sale’ album in 1981. The new reference points were Harry Connick Jrn’s hazy sax and tinkling keyboards, Big-Band swing, David Johansen’s ‘Buster Poindexter’, and the Jumping-Jive of ‘Look Sharp’. Of course there were cross-overs, but the newly evolving story would be different from the old, and deserves separate coverage elsewhere. While ‘NME’ produced a part-work self-assembly ‘The Book Of Modern Music’ supplement, which persisted in opining that ‘Godard is a major talent in the making’. Across the years since, Motion Records issues the Subway Sect ‘Singles Anthology’ (in 2005), while eventually Vic reconvened the Sect, bringing the story full circle by recording ‘1978 Now’…
SUBWAY SECT: THE PUNK YEARS…
‘John Peel Show’ Radio 1 session (24 October 1977) with (1) Chain Smoking (2) Parallel Lines (3) Don’t Split It (4) Nobody’s Scared'
"Nobody’s Scared” cw “Don’t Split It” (April 1978, Braik BRS 01)
“Ambition” cw “A Different Story (Rock & Roll Even)” (November 1978, Rough Trade)
“Parallel Lines” (free ‘New Musical Express’ flexi-disc)
Unreleased Original Subway Sect Album (1) Chain Smoking (2) Birth & Death (3) De-Railed Sense (4) The Ambition (5) You Stand Back (6) Rock & Roll Even (7) I, Change (8) Parallel Lines (9) Staying (Out Of Touch) (10) Imbalance (11) Eastern Europe (12) Exit – No Return (13) Forgotten Weakness (14) Enclave (15) The Idiot Of It All
‘What’s The Matter Boy’ (1980, 1996 Polygram expanded CD edition) – (1) Stop That Girl (2) Birth & Death (3) Stand Back (4) Watching The Devil (5) Enclave (6) Out Of Touch - View (7) Vertical Integration (8) Split Up The Money (9) Stool Pigeon (10) Double Negative (11) Exit - No Return (12) Empty Shell (13) Make Me Sad (14) Watching The Devil (15) Stool Pigeon (16) Double Negative (17) Head Held High
‘Subway Sect: A Retrospective 1977-‘81’ (Rough Trade Rough 56, 1984) (1) Nobody’s Scared (2) Don’t Split It (3) Chain Smoking (4) Parallel Lines (5) Ambition (6) Double Negative (7) Head Held High (8) Stool Pigeon (9) A Different Story (10) Spring Is Grey (11) Watching The Devil (12) Stop That Girl
‘Vic Godard & The Subway Sect: Twenty Odd Years’ (Motion Records, 1999) 2CD set covering Subway Sect plus Vic’s subsequent solo career with Working Week and Adventures In Stereo
‘Subway Sect: Singles Anthology’ (Motion Records, 2005) (1) Nobody’s Scared (2) Don't Split It (3) Ambition (4) Different Story (5) Split Up The Money (6) Out Of Touch (7) Stop That Girl (8) Instrumentally Scared (9) Vertical Integration (10) Stamp Of A Vamp (11) Hey Now (I’m In Love) (12) Mr. Bennett (13) Holiday Hymn (14) T.R.O.U.B.L.E. (15) Johnny Thunders (16) Imbalance (17) Won’t Turn Back (18) Won’t Turn Back (Version) (19) Conscience Be Your Guide (20) Same Mistakes (21) No Love (Now) (22) She's My Best Friend (23) Place We Used To Live (24) Lazy So & So
‘1978 Now’ (October 2007, Overground Records – new recordings of ‘lost’ original album songs with reconvened Subway Sect) (1) We Oppose All Rock And Roll (2) Stayin’ Out Of Touch (3) Shainsmokin’ (4) I Changed My Mind (On the Telephone) (5) Eastern Europeans (6) Why Did You Shoot Me (Birth And Death) (7) Stand Back (8) Imbalance (9) Derail Your Senses (10) Not Watchin’ the Devil (11) Stool Pigeon (12) Idiot Of All (13) Exit-No Return (14) Rock & Roll Even