For a male group like the Subway Sect the idea was to work, not with power but with weakness and introversion. To them, failure was more interesting than chart success. They were so literary. Vic is the greatest lost soul of the era; his nihilism was 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. -- Alan Horne
In a world that worships the mediocre and holds the herd instinct to be the highest virtue, it's inevitable that a figure like Vic Godard would slip down between the cushions of history. Punk vocalist, big-band balladeer, sarcastic singer-songwriter and postman, Vic managed, despite the best efforts of the rock industry, to record a string of great albums, some of which were even released.
He began as the singer of London punk group the Subway Sect. Apparently forming after Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren told them they looked like they should be in a band, they started out in 1976, inspired by seeing the Pistols play live. Before then Godard (not, one assumes, his real name) was a schoolboy who spent his leisure time recording Moliere plays with his friends. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the Sect rejected the simplistic sloganeering of the Sex Pistols or the having-a-laugh style of Sham 69.
Getting their name from a stint busking in Hammersmith underground station, the band wore black or grey, and Vic affected the casual cool you see in Cartier-Bresson's photographs of Sartre and Camus. Francophile, very intelligent, and existentialist by temperament, the Sect made a very different punk from any of their contemporaries. Early tracks like Nobody's Scared and Ambition are slices of bitterness as acid as anything that spilled from Johnny Rotten's lips or bile duct. But Godard's anger was a passive-aggressive slow burn. He was the sort of kid who feigns cynicism because he cares too much, not because he likes breaking things.
Record company machinations split the band up after they recorded an unreleased punk album in 1977. Apart from the Ambition/Different Story single, the first released material to bear the Sect name was the What's the Matter Boy? LP released in 1979, which saw an increased soul influence to Godard's music. He followed this up with Songs for Sale in 1981, which at the time was viewed by the band as a failure. Neither of these records shows Godard at his best, although they're by no means all bad.
As if to prove to Vic that anyone but him could be famous, his backing band from Songs for Sale went on to become the JoBoxers, who had a big British hit in the early 1980s with Boxer Beat, a huge favourite at the school discos of the time. Meanwhile Vic went on to record the In T.R.O.U.B.L.E. Again LP for Blanco y Negro in 1982, but they decided not to release it, and Rough Trade eventually picked it up two years later.
In T.R.O.U.B.L.E. Again is a wonderful record, but it's easy to see why B y N threw up their hands at it and sniggered to themselves. Recorded with "the cream of London's jazz musicians", it sees Vic go for a big band jazz style more reminiscent of George Gershwin than Joe Strummer. Songs like The Devil's in League With You, I'm Gonna Write a Musical and Nice on the Ice are funny lyrics with great tunes, and he manages an unmannered version of Noel Coward's Twentieth Century Blues.
But artistic quality and commercial success seldom walk hand in hand; and still more rarely do they sustain a lasting and meaningful relationship characterised by mutual respect. Sadly, he never did get to write that musical. After the failure of T.R.O.U.B.L.E., he gave up on the recording industry and went to work for the Post Office (just as Jah Wobble from post-punk combo PiL spent much of the decade in the employ of London Underground).
It was, perversely enough, the death of punk pioneer Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls that brought Godard back into the studio. He recorded a brilliant punky tribute (Like) Johnny Thunders, produced by Edwyn Collins. Collins had been a member of Orange Juice, a critically-acclaimed 1980s Scottish pop group best known for the single Rip It Up. Orange Juice were greatly influenced by the Subway Sect's mixture of Philly soul and punk, and Collins was delighted to return the favour and help out Godard, producing his comeback album for Postcard Records.
The End of the Surrey People is an excellent record, perhaps his finest, blending smooth soul with often vitriolic sentiments. The Water Was Bad has a silky background, tinkling piano music and vocal harmonies, to accompany Vic's never-quite-soulful voice as he tells of a relationship gone wrong. The title track lays into smug rich people in England's Home Counties, and The Pain Barrier satirises architects. Other tracks like Same Mistakes and Malicious Love have a similar mix of bitterness and smoothness, combining Collins's production skills with the emotion Collins's own records tend to lack.
And that wasn't the end: he followed up with Long Term Side-Effect, another album, in 1998. With a slightly rawer sound and lacking Collins's hand on the knobs, it's less good sonically, but with the same high-quality songwriting. There's still no sign of him becoming a star, but it looks like that never mattered to him.