Sue Gogan interview
Part 1 by Jason Gross
Even in the microcosm of the 2nd wave of UK punk that we call 'post-punk,' there were a handful of beloved heroes who seemed to carry the banner for the movement above everyone else- think Gang of Four, Mekons, PiL, the Fall, Joy Division- and who provided an artier spin on the early rebellious nature of punk itself. In the heady days of PP, there were a lot of other groups also creating adventurous music- some of the favorites here include bands that I was lucky enough to work with for Kill Rock Stars reissues including Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, Delta 5. But even beyond those amazing groups, there were even more obscure PP outfits who also did courageous, strange work, including Prag Vec. The brain-kid of singer Susan Gogan and guitarist John Studholme, they found kindred spirits in bassist David Boyd and drummer Nick Cash (and later Jim Thirwell aka Foetus). Their recorded output consisted only of 4 song EP (1978's Wolf), a single (1979's "Expert) and a few compilation cuts on a 1980 album, all put out on their own Spec label. But these poignant bits added up to a compelling whole that was unhinged and vibrant in the best spirit of post-punk.
I'd been corresponding with Gogan (who's taken up a legal career and does the occasional folk/country gigs), trying to encourage her to do a reissue/compilation of Vec's work but sadly, legal/band issues have been tying up the process for years. As some compensation, I did wanna get PV's story on the record so I asked her about her early years, the dynamic of the band, the post-punk scene itself (she did note 'I hope this is accurate! It was such a long time ago. Reading old reviews of gigs has been helpful').
PSF: Could you talk about your family's background?
SG: I was born in Dublin in the Stella Maris Nursing Home, the second of six children, the seventh didn't survive. My mum came from a well to do family- her father was a lawyer of some repute, Attorney General, and judge of the Supreme Court. He was also a politician briefly, when he gave the opposition speech on the 1937 Constitution of Ireland. A very learned man; a Catholic. My grandmother was a Protestant, she was required to change her religion to marry a Catholic... such was the way in those days. A glamourous woman without any shadow of a doubt. Her and my grandfather were well travelled and lived an elegant lifestyle. My mum went to boarding school from an early age... a very early age... 3 I think... could that be right? She used to reminisce about being in school during the second world war, and rationing. My dad on the other hand came from a slightly more bohemian background. He had artistic talent... his father was an Irish Republican activist, and was jailed for a time for his activities. He worked in the National Museum of Ireland; he was an Irish scholar and poet, also a very learned man. His first wife, my grandmother, died in her 40's of cancer when my dad was 12. I am supposed to look like her, she had dark hair. I don't think I look like her at all though people always told me I had my father's eyes.
We lived in a well-heeled Dublin suburb, and then moved when I was three to a beautiful house overlooking Killiney Bay. Helen Shapiro was singing on the radio. We stayed there for 3 years then moved to England for another three years, back to Ireland because my dad didn't want his kids growing up in a pagan country! I was educated in private schools, courtesy of my grandad the judge who paid the fees... first in day school, then in boarding school from the age of 6. Thanks grandad. I found it pretty horrible, and when we moved back to Ireland when I was 9, before being sent off again to Irish college for a year. I remember I was always trying to get my siblings to play 'Borstals'! I clearly felt that I must have been a bad girl to get sent away like that. Dad collected me from school and before returning to Ireland, we went to see Queen of the Tatars. "Can't Buy Me Love" (1964) was released that year. You Can't Do That on the flip side. My mum was a big film fan, and used to take us to the cinema- Kidnapped, A Hard Day’s Night.
My dad was a businessman. He studied at night school to get his qualifications. He did a masters later, much later. My mum was studying history in university when she got married, so she dropped out, and never finished, something I am sure she regretted, though she was proud to have studied, and been in college. Her father was vehemently anti-German after what happened in WW2. He and my grandmother were at the Olympics when Hitler was coming to power. My mum inherited that antipathy. The political cocktail was quite mixed, but generally we were pretty apolitical. Likewise, my dad was more religious than my mum, and when I told him at 15 that I wasn't interested in Catholicism, he didn't seem too surprised – ‘your mother's influence!’ (heathens!) I was packed off to boarding school again for another two years, much to the chagrin of Barbara and one of her best friends, Sylvia, who blamed me for their banishment to the wilds of the Dominican Convent Wicklow also.
My dad was quite a stylish rake in his day- he designed clothes, and my mum who was a gorgeous thing, she modelled them. He manufactured the dresses until his company went bust. It was then we went to England. He had a terrible time looking for work and I think I take after him in that way. He had quite a long period of unemployment while my mum worked to support the family. We lived on my grandparents' estate in the Dublin suburbs, not far from the sea. It was really quite an amazing childhood, what with getting a very good education, and having a lot of space to run around. We never had much cash, toys or clothes, but nice houses and gardens and sea: very bourgeois.
"Pretty Flamingo" by Manfred Mann... The Isley Brothers... "This Old Heart of Mine." '...Been broke a thousand times...' Great intro, great song, could never work out all the words, ‘til now on You Tube. At 13, I fell in love with a sailor. He was 17. He used to write to me love letters from wherever he was away.... PSF: What other kind of music did you hear from your parents and others when you were growing up? What was some of the first music that really engaged you as a fan? SG: 1957, 1959, I was waist high to a be-bopper. Helen Shapiro was on the radio when I walked in to the scullery to find my mother and home help. I had followed the music, it would draw me to it, its magnificent magnetic force, the husky tones of Shapiro: "Walking Back to Happiness," "Please Don't Treat Me Like a Child. All I remember is the SOUND! And the backs of the women, elbow deep and industrious at the big sink with wooden draining boards either side...as they turned, the bright window framing their heads, at shoulder height.
Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, "Calamity Jane"!!!! ‘Whipcrackaway! '...Oh the Deadwood stage is a-comin' on over the hill...' Leather fringe jacket, Yes!!!
Elvis Presley or Cliff Richard?? Elvis! - The Young Ones: Inspirational tho. Elvis was definitely more my taste. West Side Story - alien - cool - but very far away - inner city Puerto Rican emigres. '...I want to be in America...' George Chakiris... to die for... the dancing...the sassy women. 'Maria, I first met a girl named Maria, and suddenly I found how wonderful a sound can beeeeee, Maria, say it loud and there's music playing say it soft and it's almost like praying...' Schmaltz... crooners....
John or Paul? John!! "A Hard Day's Night," "Can't Buy Me Love," "You Can't Do That"... 9 or 10 And I preferred the B side. Why? I liked the raw bluesey sound, the discordant rattley guitar (which I know know to be a Rickenbecker, and John played the solo). The Searchers, "Needles and Pins," Peter and Gordon, Walker Brothers, "Make it easy on Yourself." I loved the high drama and their style... Scott Walker's voice... deep rich sound... Top of the Pops, my friend Mary watched it every Thursday with her family; they had BBC, we didn't... Paul and Barry Ryan, and then Barry Ryan doing "Eloise". The drama of the song, he had a great voice, the black polo neck!!! The song went on and on. I learnt every word, got great mileage out of it. And speaking of black polo necks, Dave Berry... skinny and cool... "Crying Game".... Sandy Shaw. "Girl Don't Come." 12 years old - Bops in the Tennis Club - on my own!!!
13... smooching.... R&B, soul music... Jimmy James. I tried to persuade friends to come but always ended up going on my own and had fun dancing - my mum would drop me off and collect me. I met a two-timing, no-good smooth talking guy and when I found out he was playing away, I stopped going. Cold water on my hot night out!!! Them, Georgie Fame, Small Faces, Steve Marriot.
Days were spent either in school or at home. My parents' friend Victor Conroy, advertising exec, sponsored a radio programme - Watneys Red Barrel light beer. Suddenly, we had piles of 7"s arriving. Dusty Springfield, a 78 rpm of "Hound Dog" – amazing. Chris Montez... "The More I See You." Herb Alpert, smooth and swinging. I fell in love and broke some hearts.
Murray's Records Shop and basement cafe with juke box - The Doors, Jose Feliciano, King Crimson. I bought In the Court of the Crimson King. I had to have it. It was phenomenal When I got it home and played (it), having only heard it in other people's houses, I could listen to the whole thing and read the lyrics, and I thought some of it was pretty strange. I liked "I Talk To the Wind" and "Epitaph"... not so much "21st Century Schizoid Man," which I found pretty scary. I liked Robert Fripp's guitar playing. I think that was the most outstanding realisation for me at the time alone in my bedroom with my record player. Bob Dylan and the Byrds- "Tambourine Man" "...Play a song for me." Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen? Dylan! "Maggie's Farm." Beach Boys - hard to fathom but great sound. Guitar - at home in the suburban semi-detached. Let it Bleed - over and over. Taste in the background- my brother's. Dionne Warwick over and over and over... my mother's... Harvest Neil Young...
Back from boarding school at this stage after 2 years of exile watching Valerie mourn her beloved to of "Band of Gold"...and Sylvia shake her booty to "Smoke on the Water" Hockey and horrible girls - mostly - some harmless - upstairs in the dormitory exchanging songs - folk – "Working Class Hero," "the Banks of the Ohio" (No!!! aaaagh Deirdre Devaney! your fault!) and my friend Rosy Gonzalez teaching me Mexican songs - Que Triste, Los Ojos Espanoles... Flamenco riffs... I was a slow learner... My dad was so proud. We had spent a summer in Spain when I was 7 and had learned pretty good Spanish in those 3 months... so he would get me to entertain his dinner guests. (No!) Well, at first yes...but then I began to protest.
School choirs, church hymns, distant, disengaged, mostly, not enough attention and time... some theory...obscure... compelled... holy pictures, prayer books, colourful, mysterious, emblematic, enigmatic - troping – visceral.
Torn between parental direction, friends' house parties. The Troggs a unifying sound with the counter culture - their sleaze - Reg Presley's voice! '...Baby, baby is there no chance I can take you for the last dance all night long, yeah I've been waiting now there'll be no hesitating...' No hesitating... Please!
Ballads in the west of Ireland, 14, in Achill Island - London skinhead, Chris - outside the dance hall... showband... knees up and quickstepping around the hall... Fast forward 8 years - no change - showbands and couples quickstepping around the hall - rarified....
Horslips, back in Ireland and Skid Row at Kerry festival... Hungry and smelly - van ride back to Dublin. Summer adventure... Skid Row playing "Southern Man." Gary Moore's screaming guitar. Wow. Carole King, my friend Brenda - Genesis, no thanks.
Monterey Pop - Janis Joplin teetering in her gold crochet body hugging screaming and yelling hair flying rock and roll... Woodstock... Otis Redding... Jimi Hendrix... Sandy Denny... Beatles, Traffic (Stevie Winwood brilliant voice, amazing sound... The Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys...HOW do they do it???).
Paris, 17, Captain Beefheart, Safe as Milk... now that was an eye opener...ear opener. Incredible String Band, Lou Reed, Transformer over and over and over. Transformed my life. 18 in London. Left home after row with my Dad. Going crazy. Big city... wow. David Bowie... gay rights - feminism - Brecht and Weill, Henry Cow - Jazz - transgender - cross dressing - transvestititsm - communes and left wing politics - Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come - Notting HIll Gate - Ladbroke Grove - anarchism - Baader Meinhof - Elton John (No!). Soul music, soul searching - reggae - ethnic - soul food - whole food.
The Derelicts, making music, Kinks cover, "(Here Comes) The People in Grey," Velvet Underground, Martha Reeves, Supremes '...Set me free why don't you babe, get out of my life why don't you baby, cos you don't really love me you just keep me hanging on....'
Such fun!!! Drums, bass, guitars, fiddles, backing vox, 'Get up stand up, stand up for your rights'... Wailers.
1975 - 76 Sex Pistols - everything changes - write your own story, make your own music, claim your own territory. pragVEC - John - Ornette Colman, Eric Dolphy, more Beefheart, Holy Modal Rounders, Buzzcocks...
Patti Smith, Subway Sect, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids - 'I belong to the blank generation... I can take it or leave it each time....' Torn t-shirts - torn curtain - torn apart....growing up....ATV... Mark P... Mark Smith - The Fall. Phil and Claude, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams. Death and Destruction - on my own - go back to my roots - R&B - Jackie Wilson - Ruth Borwn, Sonny Boy Williamson, Eric Burdon (oh yes! how could I have left out the Animals from my previous life?).
PSF: Rewinding a bit, before Prag Vec, were you involved in any bands?
SG: I started playing guitar and singing when I was about 15. I had a Bob Dylan songbook, and learnt quite a few folky tunes at school. When I went to live in London in 1973, I took along my guitar but didn't do much playing until I was asked to sing with a band that was being started by some neighbours. We did soul and R&B covers, and changed our name every few gigs. We finally settled on a name - The Derelicts - and over 1975-6, we played a lot of gigs, residencies in several pubs around London, and a lot of college gigs, benefits for various activist groups etc., like Rock Against Racism and Spare Rib, a feminist magazine.
PSF: Could you talk more about how when punk came along, that changed how you saw and thought about music? How different, or maybe liberating, was it to you?
SG: The first I heard about punk was when a friend, BD, came to see the Derelicts at the Chippenham in 1976. He had been to see the Sex Pistols, and was a bit reluctant to tell me their name. He had been mightily impressed by them. When he said their name, I was shocked! Stunned. It was a bit of a wakeup call. We were fairly complacent in our own little scene that included the 101'rs and other assortments... It could even have been 75, could it? We played the Chippenham in the early days. Then the Elgin on Ladbroke Grove, then the Red Cow in Hammersmith, and the Nashville Rooms. Joe Strummer re-branded and started the Clash. Richard, the drummer in the Derelicts, drove their gear a couple of times, and came back with his take on the new line up.
Gradually, the principles or ideology of punk started to filter through. I went to see a few bands, and what came across most significantly was the right to tell your own story, and invent your own music. This was unequivocally a liberation for me. Sourcing your own melodies and writing your own lyrics was such a delicate thing to attempt. That has never gone away.
The Derelicts were inherently antiestablishment, and there were elements of that band that were reproduced by some of the new punk sensibilities, so in some sense, it was not such a big step. We played reggae covers, punk and reggae artists were often on the same bill, the short dykey hair do's that were skin head/mod/soul style were not so far away from some of the punk fashionistas... But trouser legs were taken in, hair was bleached. Some bands imported the political iconography wholesale, and I found some of that a little exploitative and contradictory. I searched for my own 'art' whether it was informed by sexual politics, (Kate Millett) or science fiction writers, particularly Philip K Dick, or the all revealing beatnik prose and poetry of Charles Bukowski. Somewhere in between all this the voice of Dusty Springfield and pop sensibilities of the Small Faces or the Hollies added fizz to the polemic.
PSF: Again before Prag Vec, did you go to see any of the early punk bands? Please talk about these shows and what kind of effect they had on you?
SG: John and I went to see as many bands as we could. The Pistols, the Clash, Patti Smith, The Flaming Groovies. The Ramones, the Slits. X Ray Specs, bands that played the Roxy, the Music Machine, the 100 Club. We started writing a new set for the Derelicts, and when it was revealed in all its sub-Slits glory, it did not go down well. At all. There was a parting of the ways, and John and I started looking for new people to play with. Kate Korus, who had left the Slits, was very friendly with John- they had a great rapport. Nothing happened. We ran into Nick at a gig, and we set up a rehearsal. It was magic. We agreed that John and I would find a bass played and get back to him. Happy days!
We had previously auditioned a couple of drummers, one of them a Scottish guy called Hugh who came to play with us a few times. When we met and played with Nick, there was no turning back. He had a much stronger sense of where we were coming from (and going to). He was deeply entrenched in the developing punk culture both artistically and musically.
The other element in his playing was that he had a light swing touch that I loved. I liked those easy listening sounds of the ‘60's that manifested in "By the Sea." John and I had already established a common interest in our liking for Captain Beefheart, in particular, Safe as Milk. John was very well informed about the development of jazz music, Gato Barbieri, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Colman in particular. It was the individualism of their approach which so impressed him, and he tried to convey that to me. I focused more on lyrical content, while he developed the musical side, and then I would improvise my lyrics over his chord structures. That continued when we found Dave Boyd through advertising in the music papers, and then Nick joined us.
David Boyd was a big Wire fan, as were we. Dave was in art college with Graham (Lewis), the bass player from Wire.
PSF: What was the origin of the band name?
SG: We had a gig in April 1978 and we need a name. We went to the pub and stayed there until we had agreed on one. I was reading a book about vector analysis, and I frequently talked about pragmatism, which I was trying to understand. John married the two. We wanted a name that was not a name. End of. John subsequently said that we wanted something like Kraftwerk, with whom he was vary enamored (and Can).
PSF: When pragVEC first got together, how did you see the band as different than other bands on the scene?
SG: I suppose what was different about pragVEC was that what we were doing was unique; not totally unique, but it was ours. We were coming up with music that was neither Pistols or Buzzcocks, was not Blondie or Ramones- we were not trying to imitate anyone but rather invent a new sound that was our own. That was after all the message of punk... individual creativity. There was a sense of stepping into the unknown. It was exciting because it had an element of adventure. If the music was informed by our daily lives, then each day was different and held a new story.
We each brought our own musical taste and experience. John and Nick had more experience, Dave was in art college, and a bit younger than the rest of us. But we were having fun. Anything seemed possible, there was great energy in the endeavour.
John and I had already spent a couple of years playing, doing a lot gigs, playing mostly cover versions, and it was this that spurred me on to do something different, to work on original material. I was greatly inspired by seeing the Slits at the Screen on the Green (in Islington). While I identified with them, there were differences- they were all women, and I was playing with men. I was a feminist. There was a public debate about abortion and the right to choose a while later. The Au Pairs, the Poison Girls and pragVEC did a gig together supporting abortion rights and the right to information, I think. The Au Pairs and the Poison Girls were more politically in agreement with our position. I think I speak for all the band, though it is a long time ago now. Musically, there was some cross-fertilisation going on, though I think that it was a case of developing an identity in opposition to other bands, whether it was at gigs or on the radio. John’s chord progressions and riffs always included a flattened fifth, which made the sound jazzier. It could be difficult to sing to, and come up with a melody- sometimes, it worked and others not at all! I was working as a cleaner for a poet called Irving Weinman. He reckoned the style of singing was what he called ‘pitched singing.’ I think Siouxsie used that technique, and John Lydon in PiL.
PSF: Did you feel like any other bands were kindred spirits in the early days?
SG: Definitely. There was a great sense of camaraderie. Swell Maps and Cabaret Voltaire, the Raincoats, the Scrits, we were all playing the Acklam Hall in Ladbroke Grove, we would bump into each other in Rough Trade. We toured with the Monochrome Set and Manicured Noise, alternating the headline spot. Later, we toured with Wire and Magazine. Kindred spirits suggests some level of reciprocity… and there was that sense of solidarity and mutual love and respect with Swell Maps and the Raincoats and the Cabs, Monochrome Set and Wire, as well… I guess. We played support to Pere Ubu in Brunel University- we got that slot because I wrote to David Thomas and asked for the gig when I heard that they were coming to London. They were magnificent! Modern Dance was such a class record.
I worked for a while in the accounts department, and later in the promo department with Scott Piering and Pete Walmsley. I was helping promote the Rough Trade bands... I think I did better in the accounts dept than the promo dept though.
Stiff Little Fingers came over from Belfast and they were very friendly. Rough Trade did very well on sales of their singles, which probably paid my wages in the year I spent working there. I was earning £100 a week. It was good money. Rough Trade was a cooperative at that time and we asked them for help with pressing costs and distribution and were supported by enough members of the organisation, some of whom included Scritti Politti people – Bob Scotland and Matthew I think, who worked on the distribution van. Other bands and musicians that we loved to varying degrees at that time included the Rezillos, they were so funny! The Normal and Robert Rental – we toured with them briefly. Spizz, Essential Logic and ATV (Alternative TV), the Adverts, the Mo-Dettes, Dr Mix, the Virgin Prunes, Delta 5, Gang of Four. Richard Hell, as far as I am aware never came to London. I could be completely wrong, but Blank Generation was THE best! (ED NOTE: the Voidoids did touch down in London in ’77). Ian Penman described me as a female Mark Smith. I don’t think that I was a female anything, but it was certainly a compliment to be compared to the Fall.
PSF: What was the dynamic of the band? Were you or John 'the leader'?
SG: I made the initial move to write the new material. John and I were living together and playing together in another band- he backed me up on my decision to take an initiative. We were very much partners, and it was a case of the pair being greater than the sum of its parts. We were completely integrated in everything we did, and in all our decision-making. I wrote most of the lyrics, John wrote most of the music, we split our writing and composition credits 50/50. We attended business meetings together, though when it came to manufacturing and design I took several initiatives... I had a very good relationship with Steve Montgomery and Pete Walmsley in Rough Trade. I also dealt with the bank and other financial stuff.
Nick and Dave, John and I... the rhythm section and the front line... John and I were to the fore, but without Nick and Dave, especially Nick, there would have been no pragVEC. Nick's approach to the music and the style of the band was a crucial part. When it came to the sleeve design, we cooperated together and everyone chipped in.
PSF: What were the early gigs like and what were the reactions from the crowds? What kind of audience did you have?
SG: The early gigs in the Acklam Hall were played before a mixed crowd who had come to see other acts on the bill as well as friends, neighbours and people who knew us through the Derelicts. We were playing a local venue, I knew the area, I knew a few faces in the audience, some Rough Trade people some people who had travelled across London, some slightly punky, mostly white, depending on whether there was a reggae band on the bill. I expected people to dance more, but mostly they stood and watched. It’s a bit of a blur!
Wayne Glaze, the younger brother of a friend of ours loved us. He was about 14. He liked the lyrics. Wendy used to bring him to some of our gigs. The Acklam Hall was a community centre and had that kind of a vibe- it was a bit of a barn, located under the Westway, it could be a bit harsh. We could have done more with better lighting and staging without a doubt. There would be a couple of journalists... Jon Savage and Ian Penman... Vivian Goldman... Sounds, NME, Melody Maker, Zig Zag and fan zine scribes and other musicians who lived locally, other west London musicians like former 101’rs. And as the Acklam Hall was only down the road from people from Rough Trade, and Honest Jon’s where Gary Hill and Ali worked. They were both very helpful in promoting the band, and Gary recorded several gigs for us. Ali put up some of the money for our first record, along with Nick and Dave. Small Wonder and Step Forward were other independent labels, releasing similar music, and they would drop in also.
When we played with Pere Ubu, the safety pin brigade came in numbers and pogo-ed, and there was a lot of spitting at that gig. Nice. Some people got the humour, and some people thought we were too arty or whatever. We were compared to Beefheart- Safe as Milk was a starting point for John and mine musical collaboration. In early 1978, there was a lot of scepticism about the validity of the politics of punk. Gradually, people cut their hair, took in their flares and changed the palette of their wardrobes. With a friend of ours, Boris – introduced us to Slim and Slam and Screaming Jay Hawkins – we were developing a kind of mod/beatnick sensibility, so long as it tickled our fancy.
See Part II of the Prag Vec interview
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