London would-be punk legends
Interview by John Wisniewski
In the onslaught of UK punk in the mid/late '70's, one of the bands that stood out in the scene but didn't quite get their due was a London foursome who were one of the earliest groups, playing with the big names then and there. Subway Sect's record output was two incendiary 1978 singles: "Nobody's Scared" and "Ambition." But nothing else was forthcoming until a reconstituted version of the band put out their 1980 LP What's the Matter Boy? with the group then splitting up a few years later. But the '90's and '00's saw a revival of their fortunes with reunions, new albums (including 2020's Moments Like These produced by the Clash's Mick Jones) and assorted compilations. Singer/founder Vic Godard tells the story of the beginnings of the band, how the Pistols and Clash management encouraged them early on, what the punk scene was like from his view and how he stays in touch with his former bandmates.
PSF: What music were you listening to prior to forming Subway Sect?
VG: Before the Sex Pistols, half the group were listening were listening to soul and the other half were Bowie fans . Rob the guitarist was in neither camp. He had a great record collection from the '60s. He had lots of rare Bo Diddley LP's with fantastic covers, and went to see the R&B groups of the mid '70's in London; Count Bishops, Dr Feelgood etc.
PSF: How did Subway Sect form?
VG: Subway Sect formed in 1976 as a result of two of us seeing the Sex Pistols at the Marquee Club in February. We started messing around in the bedroom with an acoustic guitar and tape recorder. There was a varying cast of people from the Sixth Form College in Sheen. Bowie fans and soul boys. Then the couple who ran our local youth club (the Annexe down by the river in Mortlake) said we could use the basement on Sunday night when it was closed. There was a P.A. there as they had great soul discos there . Rob [Symmons] the guitarist could do basic major chords and Paul Packham could do great impersonations, so he took the microphone. [Bassist Paul] Myers and me did very little- he kept beat on whatever was available and I had a harmonica. We were mucking about doing comedy covers mainly, but I did start tentatively writing my own words to things like 'Bob Dylan's Blues." We did "Big City" by the Pretty Things I remember.
Rob had a T-Shirt with 'Subway Sect' scrawled on it. When the Ramones played at The Roundhouse for the first time he wore it and Malcolm asked him if he had a group. Then we had a meeting with him and he said he'd come to see us rehearse. We were all on the dole and pooled our money to do that once a week quite near his shop. I'd hastily cobbled together four songs and he liked them but could see we were useless so booked us in for the whole week paying for it as well. Before we knew it, we were playing at the 100 Club Punk Festival. Malcolm told us his friend Bernard [Rhodes] had a rehearsal place in Camden Town, so we could use it free as long as the Clash weren't there. That's how we started supporting The Clash, and through that we met The Buzzcocks, who we supported a few times before going on their 'Love Bites Tour' in 1978. We went on tour with The Damned just before that as well on their 'Music For Pleasure Tour.' We had The Dead Boys on tour with us and hated their music but Stiv Bators was a true gent.
The best support slot for us was Easter 1978 at The Rainbow with Tapper Zukie and Patti Smith. The build-up was nerve racking as Myers' machine head fell out during the soundcheck. We only got to play because of the generosity of Tapper Zukie's bass player who lent Myers his bass. So we played better than ever and the crowd liked us as well.
PSF: What did you think of Malcolm McLaren when you first met him?
VG: When we walked into the Marquee and saw The Sex Pistols the first time, we recognised Malcolm from the shop. I'd been in there years earlier when it was Let it Rock. He had a style of his own. We didn't agree on everything but we definitely had similar tastes. I left College after one year to go on the White Riot Tour and didn't see much of Malcolm until he was starting Bow Wow Wow and they were using Bernard's Rehearsal place along with us The Clash and The Black Arabs.
PSF: Could you tell us about releasing your first single? How was Subway Sect promoted?
VG: Our first single came out too late for us to get excited about it-especially since both sides were taken from our first Peel Session. We'd changed a lot already and didn't realise how great it sounded till a long time later.
PSF: Who were some of the bands Subway Sect opened for?
VG: We've been the support act for lots of acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Altered Images, Bauhaus, Sleaford Mods, the Clash, Damned, Buzzcocks, Nightingales.
PSF: Subway Sect was one of the first punk bands in England. What was the reaction to their music?
VG: The crowd reaction varied enormously, from disinterested to appreciative to having missiles thrown at us. All good experiences when you look back at them. Bauhaus fans were the worst for us.
PSF: Why did you decide to leave music in 1980?
VG: After the Buzzcocks 'Love Bites' tour ended in autumn 1978, I became a songwriter for Bernard Rhodes. I had no group and did no gigs until the gig at Heaven in 1981 supporting Pere Ubu. I did record an LP (What's the Matter Boy) in 1979, released in 1980 without much promotion, although I did a number of music press interviews around that time.
PSF: Have you gotten together with the former members of Subway Sect through the years?
VG: I do stay in touch with the two Pauls Myers and Cook, and Rob Symmons now and again. I see how some ex-members are getting along via social media although I don't do a great deal of that as I spend most of my spare time writing or painting nowadays. Old names from the past are always popping up like [producer] Dennis Bovell, who is 70 tomorrow, and [Rough Trade founder] Geoff Travis who wants to re-issue "Ambition" as a single 45 years after its original release!
PSF: Did you feel that you still had some things to say, post punk?
VG: Of course I've got a lot to say post-punk! I'm no longer at the mercy of anyone else so I can say it exactly as I want to without being edited or reacted.
Vic in his back garden as a kid
Also see Vic Gogard's website
And see our previous article on Subway Sect
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