Vic Godard – Thirty Odd Years
- Neil Cooper
- 10 March 2014
An exquisite package dedicated to the anti-career of the prolific Subway Sect man
'It's a literary and philosophical group,' says the voice of the late Edinburgh-based poet Paul Reekie in a faux-radio interview at the start of this two-CD, 44 track retrospective from Vic Godard. As a singer/songwriter, Godard's band Subway Sect may have been forged by punk, but his adopted surname, taken from iconoclastic filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, revealed a far smarter talent who quickly and quietly stepped aside from the melée to plough his own maverick furrow. On this respect, Godard's low-key singularity has slowly but surely cast him as an elder statesman reclaiming and refreshening his past.
Reekie, like many people on this album, first encountered Godard with his band Subway Sect supporting The Clash at the Edinburgh Playhouse on the 1977 White Riot tour. Reekie went on to become president of the Scottish branch of the Subway Sect fan club – the literary and philosophical group he waxes lyrical about here. As Godard's online sleeve-notes relate, the pair eventually became friends, with Reekie in attendance at every Godard appearance in Scotland.
One suspects the Subway Sect of the White Riot tour sounded not unlike the poundingly raw trilogy of 'Don't Split It', 'Nobody's Scared' and 'Parallel Lines' that kick off this joyride through Godard's back catalogue that reveals Godard as craftsman, explorer and multi-faceted pop songwriting genius.
While the period clatter of this opening salvo can't disguise such ability, a more obviously sophisticated sheen starts to peep through on the songs which appeared on Godard's 1980 debut album, What's The Matter Boy? 'Double Negative', 'Vertical Integration', 'Empty Shell' and 'Make Me Sad' reveal a writer who had already matured into a post-punk Tin Pan Alley troubadour possessed with coffee-bar roots; a maverick way with words and melodies to swoon to. This period culminated in the kitchen-sink delights of 1981 single, 'Stop That Girl', possibly the only Northern Soul tinged ditty to feature an unknown Turkish accordionist accompanying a lyric that finds Godard warning a friend to keep an eye on a potential Sapphic usurping of his amour.
Godard went even more MOR when he donned dickie-bow and dinner jacket to become a full-on, swing-time crooner and headline act of Rhodes' Radio 2 friendly Club Left revue in response to the redundant cartoonification of 'punk'. Such pre-punk, post skiffle roots are acknowledged on the vintage vinyl stylings of the CDs themselves here, with the Gnu label looking like classic purveyors of 78RPM platters.
The results of Godard's revolt into style, with a band made up of a jazz cabaret combo who would soon jump ship to team up with American singer Dig Wayne as the chart-bothering JoBoxers, worked a treat. Whoever decided it would be a good idea for this incarnation of Subway Sect to tour with Bauhaus, however, which saw Godard playing to Goth-filled halls sandwiched inbetween the head-liners and The Birthday Party fronted by a manic Nick Cave, should probably have explained their motives to the kohl-eyed monsters who bottled Godard offstage.
One has to go on to Godard's website for full details of who played on what and when here, but the notes that accompany them, penned by Godard's spouse and creative factotum, The Gnu, make for a comprehensive primer and a fascinating insight into Godard's peripatetic but prolific anti-career. The cast of thousands involved could have stepped out of an existential gangster flick filmed by Cecil B Demille.
These include one-off collaborations with the likes of chamber-pop ensemble Ravishing Beauties vocalist Virginia Astley, on the soulful, organ-led Merseybeat of 'Spring Is Grey'. The cream of London's nouveau jazz set, including Simon Booth and veteran sax player Larry Stabbins' Working Week project, also appear most notably on thrilling car chase instrumental, 'Stayin' Outta View'. More recently, Godard has teamed up with the fantastically named Mares Mates, a Catalan band who, even more fantastically, reside in a town called Vic.
It is Godard's Caledonian connections, however, that prevail the most, with the Edinburgh Playhouse White Riot date also attended by Edwyn Collins and Alan Horne, who would go on to found Orange Juice and Postcard Records, respectively. Orange Juice covered Godard's 'Holiday Hymn' for a John Peel session years before Godard released it, though neither version is here.
As producer of 1993's End Of The Surrey People and 1998's Long-Term Side-Effect, Collins trimmed the lounge-bar cheese, heightened the Northern Soul leanings and gave the sound more depth with a band that included at various points Felt/Primal Scream keyboardist Martin Duffy and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook.
While the cuts from 2002's Sansend take a leap into electronic programming and dub on 'The Writer's Slumped' and a Latina shimmy on 'Americana On Fire', it's back to basics for a gloriously ramshackle live take on Subway Sect's seminal second single, 'Ambition'. With Godard backed by The Bitter Springs, harmonica and slide guitar are to the fore in a way that makes it sound like it could have been recorded at any point since the early 1950s. So it goes too for the punkabilly demo of 'That Train' recorded with long-lost London thrash-beat quartet, Wet Dog.
Which brings things full circle, to five tracks from '1978 Now', which, released in 2007, revisited the songs and spirit of the original Subway Sect's lost debut album that featured rawer versions of material eventually heard on 'What's The Matter Boy?'.
Godard took another side-turn by way of Blackpool, a musical co-written with novelist Irvine Welsh, and, to date, only ever seen once at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University, where drama students performed in a production directed by Welsh's regular stage adaptor, Harry Gibson. It would be a shame if this bucket-mouthed end-of-the-pier post-Thatcher era romance never saw light of day again, because the show's two numbers captured here showed more than ever Godard's old-time vaudevillian roots.
Godard's entire canon, in fact, could be said to be made up of show-tunes of sorts. The off-kilter intelligence of Godard's melodies and lyrics reveal him as a parallel universe Lionel Bart or Don Black, with a similarly sired and quintessentially English common touch as both, but with a Penguin Modern Classic and a frothy cappuccino to keep him creative company. This is as apparent on 2010's 'We Come as Aliens' as it was way back on 'Nobody's Scared.'
It is apparent too on the plethora of YouTube links peppered throughout the online sleeve-notes. The live footage from every era they reveal act as a visual appendix to an already comprehensive package.
It is the final song of this collection, however, that joins the dots between Godard's past and present. 'Johnny Thunders' was originally released by Godard in 1992 as part of Rough Trade's Singles Club. The version here was recorded live with The Sexual Objects in 2012 at a gig in Glasgow. The Sexual Objects, of course, are the latest and most driven vehicle for Davy Henderson, one of those who first drew inspiration from Godard at the Edinburgh Playhouse White Riot show.
Godard and the SOBs first played together at a 2010 tribute night to Paul Reekie at Edinburgh Book Festival. Since then they've frequently collaborated frequently, most recently when the SOBs backed Godard on a stormingly special live run through 'What's The Matter Boy?' in its entirety. The final date of the joint Godard/SOBs tour was the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh, in the same room where, more than a decade ago, when the venue was still the far more basic Cafe Royal, Henderson's previous band, The Nectarine No.9, headlined a show. The night ended with a rip-roaring version of 'Johnny Thunders', with none other than a kimono-sporting Reekie on lead vocals.
If any recording of that performance exists, it isn't here. It is Reekie's voice, however, that ends this exquisite package just as it began, with a one-minute paean to Godard's legacy that helped shape pop music as we should know it, in all its literary, philosophical glory.