Adult Problems - Vic Godard is Punk Gone Postal
Vic Godard is the most under-appreciated punk that ever lived, and in a subculture that fetishizes under-appreciation, that’s saying a lot.
Vic Godard is the most under-appreciated punk that ever lived, and in a subculture that fetishizes under-appreciation, that’s saying a lot. His band Subway Sect was part of the first wave of UK punk and shared the same manager as The Clash, and if it weren’t for bad luck and Godard’s entirely contrary nature, they may have been huge. But Vic Godard refused to go along with punk’s degeneration into uniformity, absurd political posturing, and willful anti-intellectualism. He idolized Cole Porter and acted like it. He went seamlessly from extremely literate and tuneful punk, to northern soul, and finally, to full-on standards and swinging pop. Nobody gave a fuck, and that number kept shrinking because people—if you haven’t heard—are simply awful. They want back rubs and mosh pits: two things that Vic Godard was congenitally incapable of providing. So, like The Mekons but more so, he became a cult figure—a wordy jazzbo to get booed at by automatons in bondage gear. Then he wasn’t even a cult figure. He quit and became a postman.
But Vic Godard’s legend grew, the fact that he had become a public service employee only adding to it. Artsy garage rockers, New York scum punks, and the occasional famous rock band all covered his songs. Record store employees would drop their façade of indifference and get wicked excited at the prospect of getting a new customer into Godard’s music. His fan base is still small, but it’s rabid, like an angry puppy—an angry little puppy in black rim glasses, a completist’s knowledge of Okeh 45”s, and really boss shoes.
Vic Godard came out of retirement in the early 90s with a song tribute to Johnny Thunders and has been recording ever since. Orange Juice’s Edwyn Collins had him sing back up on “Girl Like You,” completely failing to introduce him to a generation of Empire Records’ fans. Godard then re-recorded the Subway Sect album from 1978 that was shelved by the label with the tapes subsequently lost. The re-recording is easily one of my favorite records, sounding entirely timeless as either a punk album or a particularly pointed psych garage artifact. His voice has maintained its strangled urgency, sweetness when appropriate, and strange, almost off-putting coolness—the same coolness that allowed him to convincingly swing while opening up for the Buzzcocks. Coolness is like satire is like a knife; in an amateur’s hands it’s a disaster. But Vic Godard has always had—you know—aplomb.
I heard Godard had a new single coming out and, what with the death of Margaret Thatcher and the Metropolitan Museum now putting on hardcore matinees (or something; I only skimmed Page Six), I figured now was a good time to reintroduce Vic’s music to you, the wild and handsome Noisey readership. A brief interview with a man that I consider one of the best singers and lyricists to come out of punk in any of its permutations doesn’t really do the man justice, but I hope that you will check out his new single with Subway Sect, out on AED Records, his OTHER single with Catalan’s Mates Mates, and—of equal importance—his incredibly rich and astounding back catalog.
Margaret Thatcher died just in time for your new single. Over here, responses ranged from "I like The Exploited" to "I like Reagan" to “I don’t know who that is because I'm young and our public education is terrible but I Googled her and now I'm going to make jokes” to “Making fun of dead people is mean.” My general rule of thumb is “Call Nelson Mandela a terrorist; get made fun of when you die.” But I don’t know what you know. As a punk, an Englishman who (I believe) still works in the public sector, and a human being, how do you feel about Ms. Thatcher’s passing?
My dad says he's glad he's seen her off. He's in his 90s and has opposed her party all his life. In England, it’s very instructive at the moment, as you can see a huge chasm between reality and those in control of politics and the majority of media outlets. We have one of Thatcher’s lieutenants in charge of the BBC and her most rabid admirer in charge of its principal rival. Her death has coincided with a few more important ones for me. Thatcher’s worst excesses have been surpassed by the Eton Mafiosi.
Speaking of, do you still work as a postman? I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it, but humor me. What do you do? Do co-workers know about your other life? Do customers? Does the job inform your writing at all?
No, I'm not sick of talking about it. I do some simple mail delivery. Co-workers of a certain persuasion know about it. There are five of them in a soon-to-be-issued documentary. When I first got into music at work, I gave a copy of an LP to a driver and his son later told me he'd used it to plug a hole in the garage roof. Another postman I gave a CD to used it as an ashtray. However, for a short while about ten years ago, we had a huge PA system in our old office, and every day, Americana on Fire would blast out, with everyone joining in at the end on "Let's Go." After a few days of that, I was getting a bit sick of it, so I gave them a copy of Blackpool [the EP of songs that Godard wrote for a musical theater collaboration with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh], and that took over and was used on the coach on their annual work outings to that fine town.
I've not yet personally delivered any of my stuff, but have come across LPs in the sorting and asked the postman to be careful with it. Quite a surprising amount of people I've delivered to have been on my albums or played in the Sect at some point. I suppose that is the weirdest thing (although, I work in several areas). Customers don't know unless someone has told them, but I was on a round a few years back with a couple who came to a gig and then saw me with their mail at the doorstep.
It’s nice to see Edwyn Collins on the mend. His new songs are brilliant. He’s been a long time supporter of yours (I know he produced a few records in the 90s). How did that relationship come about? Is he producing your next record?
Edwyn is producing the new one and is doing a great job, but is also out there promoting his LP at the moment, so I'm working on arrangements for the last five songs. He is very good at putting people at their ease, which people sometimes need. I, however, need the proverbial rocket up the arse to stop me being at ease, unless I'm doing supper-club jazz. When Geoff Travis suggested Edwyn as producer, we started working together on End of the Surrey People, which was mostly an eight-track bedroom tape with a few from a studio thrown in. It led to me getting my own four-track recorder and drum machine, and from then on, I was hooked. I went back to do a couple more albums with Edwyn a few years later—Long Term Side Effects and In Trouble Again. 1979 Now is by far the best song-wise and we're keen to make sure it is LP-wise, too. We do have a couple of tricky ones to do though so I am not totally confident yet.
You used to write about hip hop in the 90s. What are you listening to now? What other genres?
I don't know anything about the current hip hop scene, but at work, I can hear familiar voices from the past rapping over disco beats, which I find a bit dismal. Hip hop for me is a nostalgic thing, and the 90s to me are what the 60s are to indie bands. The 90s were a golden era for hip hop, R&B, and dancehall music. I listen to the the Fall a lot in the car. The punk I like is the same sort I used to like in the mid-70s, and that sound is represented nowadays by the Sexual Objects [a new band with Davy Henderson from The Fire Engines]. They have far better songs than most Nuggets-era groups, but wouldn't be called punk now as they don't wear leathers and I haven't noticed a tattoo yet.
And reggae or dub? [I tried to get him to revisit negative comments he’d once made about "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," but he was having none of it. So much for me as punk reggae provocateur...]
I wouldn't describe myself as a huge fan of any one genre—more a dabbler, but I do get a bit obsessive when I first discover something new to me that I like. It’s probably not embarrassing for the rest of the world, but in England, we have had a few records that have been big that have annoyed me just so much—I Don't Like Cricket, I Love It being a good example. Also we had Elvis Costello and Sting to contend with. Everything is personal taste, and I've played with people who love all that. I don't know what the lyrics are other than [UK pop reggae like] Ken Boothe.
[Letting my fanboy nature perhaps get the best of me, I also asked Godard a bunch of confused questions about the nature of rock and punk and art. I’ll spare myself the embarrassment of the entire questions, but he told me two things that I find useful.]
I think the word punk has derogatory connotations and that’s why we all like it still, but my conception of what it means is totally out of date. Music-wise, it would be typified by the groups you used to see playing in one scene in a 60s b-movie."
I think there will always be a gap between commerce and art. One makes a lot of dough, and the other chips away towards an ideal.