Sunday, April 7, 2013

Won't Look Back

Subway Sect were there at the beginning. They played the Punk Rock festival (which tradition demands I should have prefaced with the word “legendary”) at London’s 100 Club in August 1976 alongside the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and the fledgling Siouxsie and the Banshees. Those bands all went on to burn brightly and, in the case of some, relatively briefly. Subway Sect released two singles in 1978: Nobody’s Scared, with its thunderous drumming, choppy guitars and accusatory lyrics - “No-one knows what they want/No-one even cares” - and Ambition, a Farfisa-tinged slice of infectious punk with the nihilistic, stylised warble of lead singer Vic Godard (“Nothing ever seems to happen to me”) on top. On the cover, there was a black and white shot of Godard, suitcase in hand at a grim London railway terminus, dressed as always in open-necked shirt, loose tie and suit jacket in various shades of grey. Subway Sect were always like that: dark, stark clothing and the haircuts of 1950’s angry young men. Then there was Godard: only two Ds in honour of Jean-Luc and he looked like the author photograph on the back of a French existentialist novel. These boys seemed to be a different kettle of fish.

1979 passed and nothing. The album the band recorded never saw the light of day and they split up. And then in 1980, What’s the Matter, Boy? was released, an album under the name Vic Godard & Subway Sect. Some of the songs were the band’s but with radically different arrangements and the album showed the influence of northern soul, 50’s rock ‘n’ roll and even earlier easy listening. I loved it: if Subway Sect were apart from the herd, this set Vic even further apart. Produced by Clash manager Bernie Rhodes it was probably intended to make Vic a star but it largely baffled critics and post-punkers alike. So Vic went back to being a postman in south London, something he would do intermittently over the next thirty years. In between, there would be albums and gigs; sometimes with the Subway Sect suffix, sometimes just in his name; sometimes with a lounge-jazz sound, sometimes with coruscating guitars. He has always worked with great people: Edwyn Collins and jazz musician Simon Booth from Working Week have produced albums; ATV’s Mark Perry, Polecat and Morrrisey collaborator Boz Boorer and Sex Pistol Paul Cook, have all featured.

On Friday night at the Green Door Store, an intimate underneath-the-arches venue, Cook was again on drums for the annual Brighton appearance by Vic Godard and Subway Sect, alongside original Sect bassist Paul Myers and more recent collaborators Mark Braby and Kevin Younger. Before they came on, we caught the tail end of the set by support band Asbo Derek (shamefully, it took me three days to get the joke in their name) and their perfect capturing of that spikey 1977 Television Personalities sound. And with equally humorous lyrics, they aimed their vitriolic barbs at targets such as Tory twit Eric Pickles, animal-loving but diversity-hating Brigitte Bardot and the Royal family. There was a fantastic moment during the song Backstairs Billy, an attack on the Queen Mother’s poor treatment of a legendarily promiscuous homosexual retainer (they can say that, they’re gay), when there was a collective gasp from the audience as they realised what lead singer, Jem Price, was going to rhyme the word “bedsitter” with but couldn’t quite believe it. Asbo Derek were a lot of fun and I wish I’d seen their whole set.

Older now but as dapper as ever, Vic takes the stage in grey Oxford bags, white open-necked shirt, cardigan and specs; only his nasal south London accent, when he speaks to the audience, gives away the fact that he is not a visiting professor. It is a tremendous set, spanning his entire oeuvre from rumbustious versions of those two early singles – Vic blasting out the harmonica on Ambition - to songs from his most recent album. The tapes of the original Subway Sect LP having been lost, in 2007 Vic recorded those songs as an album - 1978 Now – with the original Sect sound. Some of them – Out of Touch, Chain Smoking – featured on later albums with mellower arrangements but it is the spikier versions we get here.

Despite some repartee (I hate the word “banter”) between Vic and Paul Myers concerning the break-up of the original band (“You sacked me”; “No I didn’t”), they are enjoying themselves on the tiny stage. Seeing Paul Cook up close you realise what a great drummer he is. With a minimal kit, he is the mainstay of the northern soul rhythm that so many of the songs depend upon. There is plenty of nostalgia on offer: a poignant Empty Shell from the first LP, the rumba of Stop That Girl from 1986’s T.R.O.U.B.L.E album, and The Water Was Bad and Won’t Turn Back from 1993’s The End of the Surrey People. But it’s not all turning back; some of the best songs are the most recent: defiant opener Best Album (“we are not gonna leave until we’re done”), Back in the Community, a hymn to the vagaries of the prosaic working world, complete with On The Buses references to clipboard-toting Blakeys and oppressed Butlers, and the rollicking Rhododendron Town are all from the last album, 2010’s We Come As Aliens.

There is a great atmosphere as the set comes to a close but the late club night that is to follow dictates that there is only one encore. Then there is just time for a quick word and a handshake with the man before we head home. A new album is in production but, with only half the tracks complete, there is probably no danger of Vic increasing his average output of an album every five years.

Picture by Dave Stubbings

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