Unique talent has kept his integrity and reputation
Vic Godard is regarded by many as the best British songwriter never to have had a hit, but the lack of chart success has not deterred him from producing great songs outside the traditional music industry and earning the respect of his peers.
Many people will not have heard of him, but he has been a key figure since the beginning of punk, when Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols manager asked him to form a band to fill a support slot.
Godard, like many others, was exhilarated by punk because it offered an opportunity to be creative, “I was glad I was around in that era because I don’t think I would have got involved in music in any other era. Punk allowed people to be creative, a time when people found themselves.”
“We had a group of people at college that had a look that was different, and we got a group of four from them. One person owned an acoustic guitar, so he had to be in. Right at the start we had a make believe band with a name, Subway Sect, and I think that’s why Malcolm approached our guitarist and asked to see us practice and that’s what started it all off,” he explains.
But a group that had precious little expertise with their instruments, still had to meet the high standards of McLaren before being let loose on stage.
“McLaren came to see us and said we were awful, but he liked us, I think it was the band name, and he said if we worked hard for a week, he’d come and see if we’d improved. We practiced really hard for a week, we were all unemployed, apart from me, and I was doing a night shift as a washer up in a burger place, so we practiced all day, every day.”
He continues, “We had four songs, or the words to four. Even at the sound check the Sex Pistols came along and stopped us after 20 seconds, saying “you can’t play that”. Steve Jones (Sex Pistols guitarist) just looked confused because we were out of tune. He tuned the guitars, but it was still out of tune and Steve said “you’re playing the wrong notes”, but we ignored him and carried on anyway.”
After a beginning like this, the young Goddard was determined to improve the band’s musicianship and his own songwriting, moving in a different direction to other bands around.
Part of this was that they had wider influences than most, “That came from Television and Talking Heads. The others, like the Clash and Sex Pistols who did the more straightforward stuff were influenced by the Ramones, we saw them and liked them, but we didn’t want to be like them.”
But Godard wasn’t just looking West, having a more European sensibility, “Yeah, with Rob (guitarist), we were heavily into French new wave films and we used to go and see them in the late night cinemas after gigs. I’m also into stuff like Emil and the Detectives and a French one a Hundred Million Francs, Belle and Sebastian; we just latched onto anything European.
“I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because we weren’t that mad on America, all the other bands seemed to be into America, not so much the music, but the look, leather jackets, denim, and that was what we violently didn’t like so we were trying to go the opposite way.
That might have had something to so with it, but we liked the music, the Velvet Underground, Television and so on.”
For those not familiar with the late 70s music scene, punk was regarded as an explosive reaction against a time when Britain appeared to be falling apart and the stars of the time were living the jet set lifestyles, further and further away from their fans and their lives.
While some bands churned out punk thrash after thrash, it was getting very difficult to hear Vic Godard and the Subway Sect. There were few music stations on the radio and fewer who would play this music, the TV was trying to avoid the raucous musicians in favour of more business friendly fare.
This was the time when the single was king, but Godard found it very difficult to get a record deal, “That was down to management issues. Our manager also had The Clash, which were the number one thing, we were just an afterthought. We never had anything to do with contracts, because Bernie Rhodes did it all. He used to have meetings with the record companies without telling me!”
There were some good sides to this near invisibility. Godard became an enigma, often whispered that they were the best band you’ve never heard.
“We’ve always found ways to get round the record industry, in various ways. With me it’s becoming a postman,” the singer says, “Ever since 1986, I’ve always funded everything I’ve done myself, without going to any record labels.”
Although Subway Sect have continued playing, the music business doesn’t look too healthy to Godard, “It doesn’t exist. If you look at all the major labels, they have just faded away to a minute rump. In the 70s, they were the music business and Rough Trade and all the independent labels were on the periphery. Now they are the music business The EMIs have all got their drinks businesses, they’ve diversified into games. They’ve faded away, it’s a lot better now.”
As far as he is concerned, they have no future, “They’ll be gone in ten years, won’t they, your EMIs. Virgin will probably be doing a space shuttle, they’ll have diversified into something different.”
Godard does have a future, because of technology. What difference has that made to him?
“It’s everything, because of my wife, who does all the computer side of things, books the gigs, makes the records and so on. It’s a way of circumventing the work record labels used to do. Even the promoters do everything over the internet now, so you don’t even need an agent.”
That must put control back in the artist’s hands? “It does. It gives you total control. If we’d had all that back in the punk era, the world would be at our feet!” he exclaims.
Asking about the thorny issue of copyright leaves the singer looking unconcerned, “It doesn’t affect me, we don’t even put bar codes on our CDs! We are the pirates! We don’t do distribution deals, we sell everything ourselves. We don’t really sell in shops because the amount they pay you, it costs you more to make, than you get.”
Do you see ‘virtual labels’ taking off? “We’ve already got them! It’s what we do, look on our website and you’ll see. Vinyl is going down in price, dramatically. A couple of years ago it was too prohibitive, but now coasts are going down and in 5 years time there could be as much vinyl around as there are CDs”
But with his reputation and as a working musician, the ‘nostalia circuit’ beckoned.
“We got offered a thousand pounds for a punk festival in Blackpool and people really enjoyed it but we felt so out of place in there that I said to the band that if we keep doing this we might earn more money but in a few years we’d get fed up. It’s like a dead end street.
“There’s loads of groups that probably make a living out of it, but then it’s just a job and I’ve got a job with the Post Office, I don’t want another one! I do gigs because I like them and I wouldn’t want to play just our punk songs.”
That one performance also reminded him of something, “We weren’t really punk, when it comes down to it. We didn’t look like them, we didn’t look like them and we didn’t have words like them. We wanted to be different.”
Godard continues to be different, and working with a wide range of projects with different people, including Irvine Welsh and Edwyn Collins.
What is striking is that Godard has played the game his own way, doing whatever he needed to finance the next record or tour, and has stayed true to the initial punk philosophy, but has moved in many musical directions.
At the heart of his musical journey is hard work and a dedication to his craft. Although he may not have anything like the fame he deserves, he does have the respect of his peers, including Paul Cook, the former Sex Pistols drummer who has joined the band.
Godard’s story is also of a maverick who has made his own path outside the industry that has crushed so many talents in the past.