An Interview with Vic Godard



Vic Godard & the Subway Sect is one of the first British punk bands; what inspired you and your bandmates to form the group?

The only reason for starting a group was that we saw the Sex Pistols and realized being a group wasn’t anything to do with the music. And it was an us-and-them situation. You couldn’t quite like it; you were either changed forever or were appalled by it. We’d already visited (Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique) Sex, so we knew by the clothes that the group were connected to, and that was confirmed when we saw Malcolm, who was easy to spot as usual. It suddenly became possible to get a group together by buying a bass and a guitar from junk shops in Fulham. That was in the days when Fulham wasn’t gentrified and had junk shops. Then we bought a Hire Purchase Drum Kit for £85 from Lewisham, in South East London. Unbelievably, our old kit has been restored by a drummer to its original state and is still being used in Essex!

How did you come up with the band name?

The name Subway Sect came like this:  we took the Sect bit from The Downliners Sect, who were an obscure London 60’s group that dressed up as Sherlock Holmes for a record cover and looked very silly. They were alone in being called a Sect and we preferred that to “group.” Our way of learning to play consisted mainly of studying Jimmy Reed and Velvet Underground songs, as they had the fewest chords, other than Bo Diddley. The first song we recorded into a reel-to-reel tape player was Diddley Daddy, as it had one riff all the way through. We also tried Nadine by Chuck Berry. So we took “Underground,” which is what we call the trains in London, and changed it to Subway, which is what they call the Underground in New York.

What was it like touring with The Clash on the White Riot Tour (1977)? What was the craziest thing that happened?

We were in the coach and drove through Caen (an impressive Norman Capital with huge walls), but soon reached the outskirts of Le Mans. The driver got confused and pulled up outside a cafe with a crew of bikers sitting at the pavement tables, looking like a cross between Marlon’s Wild Ones and Frankie Abbott with the Fenn Street Gang. Our coach driver was walking down the coach from front to back, asking if anyone knew any French. All the people round me pointed at me and said, “He’s got an A-Level,” whereupon I was literally dragged from the coach and thrown at the mercy of the bikers. They looked me up and down a bit and took the piss, but told me where the venue was somehow.

We’d never been away with the Clash and so they were usually on-hand if we had problems – and they were our specialty! On that night, Paul Simonon decided to restring his bass back at the hotel while we did our set and soundcheck. During our soundcheck, people trickled into the venue, which looked like an old cinema, with red seats and a big aisle. After the first soundcheck song, Myers, the bass player, lost the screw that held the machine heads of his bass, meaning the strings were loose and just made a horrible plonking sound. The crowd were in now and it was time to play, but we had just guitar, drums and vocals. The bikers from the cafe then turned up and started pelting us with bottles, cans and other dangerous objects, which were bouncing off the guitars throughout the set. Mick Jones then came on stage and told Myers to play all the songs on the top two strings, which Mick would tune and hold at the correct tautness for the pitch for the rest of the set. It didn’t stop the ruckus, but at least we got out unscathed and finished our set. Manager Bernard was in the aisle with the bikers and had a wide grin on his face throughout, so it became one of my fondest memories.

You were a postman for many years; did you have any Subway Sect fans on your route?

Possibly a few over the years I spent on Delivery, but I did many jobs where you don’t meet the public, like Transport Management Planning. I rarely did one route for more than a year on Delivery and at the end did different towns, sometimes up to five per week. So I had plenty of different locations, but it probably happened less than twenty times in all, so my hiding place was a good one! About ten years ago, my next-door neighbor saw me on Breakfast News when a film crew was sent to our office to film packet-sorting for the Christmas rush.

What are some of the newer bands you are interested in these days?

This is tricky, as I listen to the radio all the time when I’m up to it, but don’t know who is new and who isn’t. Callum Easter and Pozi are new and they’re good, as is Billy Nomates. I’m waiting for the new LP from Future Islands, as the last one was fantastic. I love bass lines, and this group has the best ones I’ve heard for ages – I love everything about them and love playing along to their records on my old SG Copy Bass that I bought off a Wizard in 1989 for a tenner (he’d paid a fiver at a car-boot but only told me that later!).

Where did the idea come from to start your clothing line, and what is your level of involvement?

The clothing line started with me being a fan of a sitcom we used to have in England called “Fresh Fields.” In it, Julia MacKenzie plays Hester Fields, who lives in Barnes in SW London with William her husband, who works in the city as a well-paid accountant. I identified strongly with her character. Each episode sees her take up a new challenge to fill the time, while her husband is at work. Dress design didn’t ever feature, so possibly that’s what led me there. She takes up fencing, which I thought maybe dangerous.

My partner Mandy has made dresses and suggested trying a design on a dress, as the whole pattern wouldn’t fit on a T-shirt. I’d been selling those for years but had too many designs and couldn’t get every size for every design. So we thought we’d try dresses; Mandy used some of her drawings and I added a few borrowed ideas for the others.

Do you have a favorite venue to perform at?

The Lexington in London is where I’ve played a few memorable gigs, but more importantly, Mandy and me had our first night out together there at a Monochrome Set gig in 2017. I’ve also done some memorable gigs nearby at the Water Rats.

Outside London, I have a particular attachment to a venue in Newport South Wales called Le Pub; I played there only once but loved it and they gave me a share instead of a fee. It’s owned by the community and I was happy to contribute, but haven’t been back since. Maybe one day?

The instrumentation on your 1981 single (on Rough Trade) “Stop that Girl” has a very unique sound, sort of like a Zydeco sound that I can’t put my finger on. Can you tell me the songwriting process or inspiration behind the song?

“Stop that Girl” was one of the songs I wrote for The Black Arabs to sing when they were asked to be the support act for Dexys on their first UK Tour. I had help from Henry, the singer, who suggested repeating the verse chord progression for the second half of the chorus. That made the song a winner, and when I was asked to try a lead vocal, it may have been intended as a guide for Henry to do the final vocals. Bernard Rhodes had added horns from Dexys to The Black Arabs backing track, plus a fantastic accordion part, played by a musician he found at a local Turkish wedding in Camden Town. One night I was working at Rehearsals in Camden and Bernard asked me to pop over the road to Chalk Farm Studios. He told me it was famous for being the place where Reggae hits had been made in the late 60’s-the early ’70s. The tapes were sent there from Jamaica to be sweetened for a white audience, usually by adding sugary strings. Mickey Foote was there directing the horns, the accordion, and the Black Arabs and it sounded like Charles Aznavour meets the Stylistics. I immediately loved what they’d done.

When they told me to try a lead vocal I found it easier than any singing I’d done before. For the first time, my voice sounded like it belonged on the track. Even during the first take, I could tell it was a classic, and Bernard came into the room while the red record light was on to give me instructions. The door was heavy and a loud squeal came out on the intro. I couldn’t believe my luck, as it was in time with the track, and made the intro flow superbly towards the start of the vocal. It even fitted with the lyrics! Fortunately, the legendary Vic Keary was the engineer and he agreed with me that it worked, and so Bernard was persuaded of the need to keep the door squeal in. It wasn’t particularly successful, but I’ve been trying to make tracks as good ever since!

I’ve noticed that many English and Irish singers have an American accent when they sing, with the exception of some bands, like The Arctic Monkeys, The Undertones, and of course, Shane MacGowan. Any theories?

I loved David Bowie singing in English when I was a kid, and still listen to his old stuff like “Did You Ever Have a Dream” and “The London Boys.” I think it’s very natural for singers from Ireland and the North [except Mark E] to sing in American, as it’s closer to their language than us in London.

Who were some of your creative heroes growing up?

My heroes tend to be outside of music. There’s too many recording artists who inspire me, but I wouldn’t class them as heroes. In the past, I got to meet David Bowie and Richard Hell. I’ve borrowed a lot from them. When the group first started, I was heavily influenced by three writers and singers more than anyone else – Johnny Rotten, Francoise Hardy and Jonathan Richman. I’d say that between them they contributed more than most to what became the Subway Sect. With Hell it was the lyrics, with Hardy it was the melody and song construction. With Bowie and Rotten it was the idea that you could become someone other than oneself to make music and prance about generally. Jonathan had a naive quality that matched us to a tee.
When it comes to heroes, I’m no different to any other member of the public who doesn’t watch soaps or reality TV. I do have a love of daytime TV though, and I have a soft spot for Dion Dublin, who is an ex-footballer and now a TV star, the jockey Frankie Dettori (whose career in the saddle I’ve followed since he was an apprentice) and the TV chef Ainsley Harriott, who started my love of cooking, due to his morning show “Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook.”
In the 90’s I became mesmerised by R’n’B, so I was an avid collector of tracks by the producers of the day, starting with Teddy Riley, then on to Eddie F, Timbaland, The Neptunes, Rodney Jerkins and the Bad Boy producers. In hip-hop, I was into The Beatnuts, Mobb Deep and Terror Squad. I could listen to Big Pun and get a buzz I never got from Biggie or Tupac, even though I was a follower of both. Old Skool by Tupac is one of my favourite classics, but my favourite Bad Boy track is still “Flava in Ya Ear” by Craig Mack (which has Biggie on the remix.)

Can you tell me about your present and future projects? Were there any projects, release dates or shows in the works that have been affected negatively by the pandemic?

Present projects are mostly like this – either written or telephone interviews and the odd podcast when someone technically proficient visits the garden or garage. I have to run a steady ship here as I’m living with my dad (who is approaching 99) and two cats (brothers Jussi and Laszlo, who are both one and a half).
So gallivanting isn’t really an option. I started lots of songs earlier in the year, but I never finish songs unless they are needed for live gigs or recording, so have left them on various devices for possible future use.
I paint cigarette boxes instead nowadays and that fulfills a similar need. It’s also remarkably similar to songwriting. I also play the piano at the cats and have a growing repertoire including songs by Fats Waller, Elton John, Abba, Jimmy Reed, and others. 
Are you working on anything now that is a response to the pandemic?
We only had two gigs booked at the start of the year, so cancellation wasn’t too messy. I had a lot of inquiries but have said no to everything, as I can’t see the point of advertising things that may not happen. Also, in recent years I’ve played less gigs than I used to because leaving my dad for too long is tricky. Instead of gigs,  we are doing a series of “gnusletters” about various matters Sect throughout the last 44 years, so we have a lot to get through. A lot of our set-time is usually devoted to my stories about the past, but as my memory fades, I am hoping for input from other witnesses to make a fuller story. By making my back-catalog available for the first time in one place, it should give a flavor of what you might expect musically from one of our gigs.  The one thing missing will sadly be the comedy aspect, which has always been crucial since we formed the group in 1976. There have often been hilarious moments at our gigs, and they have increased in regularity with age. Comedy is what I miss most. We need a new Bill Hicks!
Back in March, I was recording bits into my tape recorder, but in order to play them back and turn them into songs, I have to know there is a possible use for them. When this isn’t the case, I just keep adding more and more stuff without playing anything back to myself later. That is probably why I spend so much time with a paintbrush in hand! And my musical outlet is learning other people’s songs on the piano.
Interview by Robin Crane