It's Friday tea time, and Vic Godard, punk legend and founder of the hugely influential Subway Sect, is reclining in his garden in Kew, listening to the cricket on the radio. Given that Godard and a reconstituted Subway Sect will be ripping it up this weekend in the club-house of Glasgow Accies as part of Alan Bayley’s sounds of the Suburbs organisation, such languor is an all too appropriate image of England’s dreaming, and as far away from the filth and fury tabloid image of ‘punk rock’ circa 1977 as you can imagine.
“Monty Panesar is my hero at the moment,” Godard enthuses of England’s test match bowling star. “The West Indies team were completely humiliated.”
As such commentary suggests, Subway Sect never quite fitted in with punk’s original safety pins and torn t-shirts set. Formed in 1976 at the suggestion of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, within weeks Godard and co made their live debut at the 100 Club’s Punk Festival, and stood apart from the off. Their scruffy, dressed down greyness leaned towards received ideas of Parisian existentialism. Their songs, including the seminal Ambition, may have been rough and not always ready, but, influenced as they were by French pop, Frank Sinatra, Northern Soul and The Velvet Underground, were invested with a ramshackle literacy that would eventually see Godard hailed as one of the UK’s greatest post-punk songwriters. It was the band’s ordinariness, though, that Godard thinks provided Subway Sect’s initial appeal.
“I think people could see it was quite an easy thing to do,” Godard says. “We didn’t have a massive backdrop like The Clash, which put them out of reach, and you could see we were borrowing equipment.”
Looked after, albeit not very well, by Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, all of the original Subway Sect bar Godard were sacked, and a new band drafted in to record their debut album, What’s The Matter, Boy? Godard smoothed things out even further when he donned a lounge suit and dickie-bow to reinvent himself as a swing-time crooner and declared an allegiance to Radio Two.
“It was one of the best things I ever did,” Godard reflects, “just to get as far away from the punk stuff as I could, snd bring in a rockabilly band to make it more acceptable to young people.”
While Godard’s trad showbiz leanings were now obvious, somehow being sandwiched on bills between proto-goths Bauhaus and a then deranged Nick Cave’s early band The Birthday Party never quite worked out. Audience reactions were extreme, and a Liverpool show saw Godard bottled off by disgruntled miserablists.
When Godard’s backing band jumped ship for brief chart success in 1983 with the short-lived Jo Boxers, featuring American Dig Wayne on vocals, Godard quit the music scene to become a postman. Only in the 1990s did he return to the fray, by which time he’d become a fully fledged icon. The forthcoming release of 78’ Now, an album of new recordings of original Subway Sect material that’s remained unreleased for almost 30 years, finds Godard finally returning to his roots.
“Everyone keeps going on about this long lost album,” says Godard, taking a brief cricket break, “and I got really fed up with all this, and I thought, if I record it, they’ll never mention it again. The blueprint for it came from an old rehearsal tape from 1978, which was recorded not long before we split up. I wanted to release it how I was, but we ended up trying to get the original band back to re-do it. Rob Symmons, the guitarist, is still pissed off about what happened and didn’t want to know, but Paul Myers played bass on three tracks. He didn’t have much time, because he’s got quite a heavy job as an outreach worker.
"We’ve also got Mark Laff, who played on the White Riot tour, on drums. His drumming style’s completely different to our other drummer, Bob Ward, so it sounds very different to the old tapes. It was really interesting revisiting it, because I realised that a lot of the songs were a lot better than I thought. We watched the DVD of the White Riot tour that’s just come out, and realised we weren’t playing it properly. So it’s been like an archaeological dig.”
Godard’s two dates this weekend may be his first this side of the border for several years, yet his musical influence has carried down the years, ever since Subway Sect, along with The Slits, supported The Clash on the White Riot tour. Postcard Records founder Alan Horne played a tape of the Glasgow date to Orange Juice singer Edwyn Collins, who would go on to cover Godard’s song, Holiday Hymn. Collins would go on to produce Godard’s early 1990s album, The End Of The Surrey People, released on a briefly reignited Postcard, which featured Collins and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook as Godard’s backing band.
On the east coast, equally inspired by Subway Sect’s Edinburgh date supporting The Clash were Davey Henderson and Russell Burn, who would go on to become the nucleus of the Edinburgh’s most incendiary avant-guitar band, Fire Engines. Also in attendance was performance poet and then member of Thursdays, Paul Reekie. Reekie would go on to become president of the Edinburgh branch of the Subway Sect fan-club, and in 1999 appeared onstage with Henderson’s post Fire Engines band, The Nectarine No 9, singing a cover of the Godard penned Johnny Thunders. Reekie would go on to make a cameo on Godard’s 2002 Sansend album.
In the mid 1990s, back in the songwriting saddle again after being gifted with a guitar by his wife, Godard was approached by Creeping Bent Records, Glasgow’s keepers of Postcard’s flame, to appear on their singles club. Creeping Bent band Adventures In Stereo, led by ex Primal Scream guitarist Jim Beattie, covered Nobody’s Scared, Godard co-wrote The Secret Goldfish’s Somewhere In The World, and there was also work with The Nectarine No 9 and The Leopards.
In 2002, Godard wrote songs for Blackpool, a musical play co-authored with Irvine Welsh. An exploration of a weekend away-day in the archetypal seaside town, to date the songs remain unreleased, while the show itself was produced by students of Queen Margaret University College Edinburgh’s drama department. While recorded sporadically, Blackpool remains an ongoing work in progress.
“The way I do things,” Godard attests, “is a scattergun approach. I tend to stumble into things, and some of these things can’t be rushed, or not everyone’s available because they’ve got jobs. There’s one song that’s a big ballad, and needs a few hours in the studio whereas the punk thing is just bish bosh.”
While Godard has kept his day job as a postman, the current revival of interest in all things punk has opened doors for Godard on the international festival circuit.
“I bumped into Bid from The Monochrome Set, who was playing in Sweden with his band Scarlet’s Well.”
Also on the bill was a Swedish band made up of four postmen, who did a cover of Godard’s song, Make Me Sad.
“They asked me to sing it with them onstage,” Godard says, “but they had to give me a CD of it so I could learn it, because they did it quite differently. It worked, though. There we all were, this band made up entirely of postmen. The other song on the CD used the lyrics of The Sex Pistols song, Seventeen, but set to their own tune. It sounds a bit like Franz Ferdinand,” Godard says, squaring the circle of influence.
At the end of the show, the Swedes presented their mentor with a Swedish postman’s shirt.
Day jobs may yet cause another demise of Subway Sect.
“Mark Laff’s got his own business as a corporate masseur,” says Godard, and he goes all over the country with that. The only other one we’ve got to worry about is the bass player, who’s doing The Knowledge. So we might lose him in two years when he becomes a cabbie. I’ll keep writing, though. I finish work by 11 0 clock in the morning, so it’s all I do. That and the cricket,” says a punk legend, and turns the radio on again.
Vic Godard And The Subway Sect, Citrus Club, Edinburgh, Friday, Accies Club, Glasgow, Saturday
The Herald, June 2007