Saturday, May 24, 2008

Vic Goddard and Subway Sect

Subway Sect were the Punk band that got away. Artier than their contemporaries, they were Post Punk before Punk had even happened. But whilst the similarly influenced and awkward Wire left a legacy of great records, the original Subway Sect just left the 2 singles: Nobody's Scared and Ambition. The debut album was scrapped and through a mixture of mismanagement and contrariness Vic Goddard's records and song writing style veered through big bands, swing and Northern Soul. Eventually he ran out of genres and became a postman.

However last year he re-recorded songs from the planned debut aiming for the sound and feel of that era. Released last year as 1978 Now, it's a really good record, and I dearly wish it had been around in 1978! An accompanying series of gigs included Leicester Firebug, which was a bit of a treat

School friends Vic Goddard and guitarist Rob Symmons formed the band after seeing the Sex Pistols at the Marquee. Malcolm Mclaren paid for their early rehearsals to get them ready for the 2 day Punk festival at the 100 Club in September 76. In those early days, audiences may have been small but they were all forming bands, as Sex Pistols gigs became the focus for the curious and disaffected.

“I thought the Sex Pistols were the end of Rock n Roll but as it turned out they weren’t. Steve Jones had obviously learned to play from the New York Dolls but we wanted to sound like the Velvet Underground or The Seeds. Nothing remotely heavy. We never used ordinary guitars, a Gibson or a Strat. We used Fender Mustangs because they have a trebly sound. We became quite purist. Our guitarist refused to allow any macho Rock ‘n’ Roll attitudes on stage"

Subway Sect's instruments were on HP but even more onerously they were managed by Clash manager Bernie Rhodes. They were on The White Riot tour in 1977 with The Clash, Slits and Buzzcocks.

Nobody's Scared came out in 1978 on Braik records (Rhodes own label). It's a thrilling and god-awful racket, with the drums working overtime and the other instruments quite keen to put in the hours too!

The opening line "Everyone is a prostitute, singing the song in prison, Moral standards the wallpaper" fits in with Goddard’s aim to change the way that Rock songs were written. “To pare it down, take out all the Americanisms. I didn’t mind what went into the songs as long as the language was different. No “yeahs” and “baby”.

The call and response vocal lines and non Rock ‘n’ Roll language of that debut would also crop up in bands like Gang Of 4 or Au Pairs

Subway Sect’s influences were Johnny Thunders and Jonathan Richman, Erik Satie, Debussy and Dada. Slightly compromised by the fact that they still couldn't really play and the gigs were chaotic.

"The Sex Pistols represented what could be done but they had really been practising since 1974 so they really could play quite well while we literally not only couldn't play, we weren't even the sort of people who would be in a group in the first place and still aren't! I wouldn't look twice at an amplifier! We tended to try and do everything in a different way just because we couldn't do it in a proper way. We had a big thing with the Buzzcocks, we were totally on the same wavelength and the Prefects as well. We came out of the same mould. They were Birmingham, we were London and the Buzzcocks were Manchester but we were very similar, we'd all started from scratch”.

Rough Trade's Geoff Travis issued the second single Ambition later in 78. “Subway Sect were so literary. Vic is the great lost soul of the era. His nihilism is 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”

This makes what happened next all the more extraordinary. The band were recording what should have been the debut album at Gooseberry studios (Linda Lusardi's brother was the engineer), Bernie Rhodes basically sacked the rest of the band scrapped the album and then kept Goddard on as a songwriter (£100 per week for 10 songs…. regardless of quality) for a planned stable of acts.

Ambition was the only thing released from those sessions. It still ranks as one of the great Punk singles but at the time the band hated it. Not just the ones who'd been sacked. Goddard wasn't too keen either. Symmons thought that it sounded like "Just a great big Rock record". Well it didn't. But it certainly didn't sound quite like anything else that Punk had produced either, with it's guitar crashing opening chords, plinky keyboards and bubbling electronics (the latter was added by Rhodes and had the same grisly appeal as the horrible jug sound of the 13th Floor Elevators)

Still tied in with Rhodes, Vic Goddard released What's the Matter Boy in 1980 using many of the songs that would have been on the lost album. It's slick, a bit gimmicky and a long way from The Velvet Underground. Goddard has described his “reluctant cooperation” in making it and calls it a skiffle album. It features original Clash drummer Terry Chimes and his bass playing brother and also The Black Arabs (as featured on the great Rock n Roll Swindle Soundtrack…. oh yes Goddard’s world was still spinning on a McLaren/Rhodes axis)

Stop That Girl is a really good song though and I think long time fan Edwyn Collins definitely cocked an ear to the arrangement of Stop That Girl for his own songs on the first Orange Juice album. Orange Juice also covered Goddard’s song Holiday Hymn.

The line up of Subway Sect for the Songs For Sale album included the musicians that would later make up Joboxers. I saw them at Manchester Apollo in 1981 supporting Altered Images. A soon to be Joboxer asked the audience “Is Vic there?….cos he aint fucking here!” before launching into funny, clever and downright musical set of instrumentals. Without the elusive Goddard.

He recorded an album T.R.O.U.B.LE as a big band with the musicians who’d backed Joe Jackson on his Jumping Jive album but it didn’t get released until 86. Loss of impetus, loss of interest and so he was off to the Post office.

There have been projects since including an album The End Of The Surrey People produced by Edwyn Collins, a musical with Irvine Welsh and the albums Long Term Side Effect and Sansend.

Thing is I’m biased. I was much more interested in the prospect of original Subway Sect songs played as they were meant to be. He’s still an unlikely looking figure, as befits a man who sang We Oppose All Rock N Roll. At the Leicester gig drummer Mark Laff (one of the original Subway Sect drummers, who later joined Generation X) announced that there would be an encore but “Vic’s having a cup of tea” Rock ‘n’ Roll Phew! A chance to see a genuine Punk one off I’ll drink to that!

There are good interviews (well I’ve plundered them) with Goddard and Symmons at

There are streamed tracks of Nobody’s Scared, Ambition and Chain Smoking at

He plays at Kings Heath Hare and Hounds on 30th May

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Stars Of The Lid

I don't spend very much time in the bubble chair suspended from the ceiling, stroking both my chin and a white cat. (I don't spend that much time on the sex swing either!) But if I did, then Stars Of The Lid would be my Ambient music of choice.

Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride make instrumentals because "It just satisfied something we wanted to express. When you're trying to pay homage to the sounds of your refrigerator, there's no need for vocals."

Originally formed in Austin Texas in 1993 they now live in separate continents with Wiltzie living in Brussels. McBride used to have a day job as a Debating Coach. (Now there's a job that didn't feature in the Arctic Monkeys tradesman's line up.)

They use a mixture of heavily treated guitars, strings brass and "Found Sounds." It's not just the fridge, it's the sound of the kitchen it's in! Everything is squeezed, stretched or twisted into a completely different shape. Sounds build and ebb away. And sometimes they don't build very much!

It may be drones and echoes but the effect is often staggeringly beautiful, sometimes you're forced to concentrate on the tiniest sound and other times you can just let it wash over you. Fac 21 from 2001's album The Tired Sounds Of Stars Of The Lid is rich, orchestral, and uplifting but half way through it there is a creepy electrical crackle and rumble. Barely audible, but that's what makes it disconcerting. (Coincidentally Wiltzie and McBride have complained about the initial vinyl pressing of their second album Gravitational Pull vs The Desire For An Aquatic Life which suffered from surface noise. How can they tell? Sceptic slap down! It seems the undynamic duo actually are listening!)

The music is very cinematic and there is a real David Lynch feel. (They even call one of their tracks Music For Twin Peaks.) You could use their material for documentary soundtracks, (once Sigur Ros have been thoroughly mined) or Survival Horror games like Resident Evil.

4AD supremo Ivo Watts described them as making the most important music of the 21st century. (A view possibly shared by Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser who said " Sugar bee slip doh, sequin tree honey trollop")

Of course the whole thing with ambient music is you need to approach it in a different way. On one hand, using it as something nice to go to sleep to or playing it in your crystal shop and incense shack just seems a tad disrespectful. But then you've also got to ask yourself, what is it for and does it mean anything? What if it's just a bunch of random sounds thrown together and shipped out to the gullible?

As with many other things, the answer lies with Brian Eno and his ground-breaking series of albums like Discreet Music and Music for Airports.

In 1975 he was in hospital, in a body cast following a car crash. He was listening to 18th century harp music, with the volume too quiet, but unable to adjust it because he couldn't move. He noticed the way that the music blended in with the environment, working on "many different levels of listening attention without forcing one in particular". Eno made Ambient Music as a working, utilitarian music. To add to or change the environment you are in and the experience you are having. He described it as like a painter taking a figure out of a painting to create space. By taking out the vocals or by using software and loops to create a random element that would replace the musicians own intervention or personality, he could create a space that would filled by the listener's experience (presumably either consciously or unconsciously). So it's ok then. It's official. You can go to sleep to it or even buy a candle and some pot pourri. (That's the ambient equivalent of smashing up the seats!)

The volume thing is important though. Discreet Music was meant to be played at barely audible volumes. Similarly Harold Budd (who Eno collaborated with on Plateaux Of Mirror in 1980) aimed to play his piano as quietly as possible. It's a principle I wish my violin playing eight year old would adopt.

There is a good selection of Stars On The Lid material at and there are 8 albums and assorted solo projects to work through for the truly committed.

I'm just intrigued by the whole idea of seeing this stuff played live. Seating, a string section and projections are promised! Rocking out is not!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Nick Cave Birmingham Academy 05/05/08

On the face of it a Nick Cave gig shouldn’t have been this much fun. What with all the Old Testament bellowing and all that murdering. And lest we forget he is a confirmed Kylie killer. One minute he was duetting with her on Where The Wild Roses Grow and then by the end of the song he’s killed her with a rock and stuck a rose between her teeth. What a rotter.

He’s 50 now and has been perfecting his pervy horror shtick and spilling blood in a literate and unique style over 15 solo albums. For years people have argued that there is a sense of humour at work, but after listening to all that bloodshed and bile could a sold out Academy just be full of serial killers in disguise? And while we’re at it, if Cave can’t think of anything nice to write about, then shouldn’t he go to a garden centre or visit a National Trust property instead.

Evidently not. The latest album Dig Lazarus Dig is amongst his more user friendly. And Nick cave himself was positively jovial.

They opened with the clanking call and response chain gang sound of Night Of The Lotus Eaters and Dig Lazarus Dig. The Bad Seeds specialise in that swampy, alcoholic sound. Rain hammering on a cabin roof and face at the window stuff.

For this tour they’ve brought the full drum shop. Loads of percussion and some songs had 2 drummers (the excellent Jim Sacluvas and his legendary pink drum kit) and any Bad Seed not otherwise gainfully employed could usually be spotted banging something or other.

Dig Lazarus Dig has Cave in full declamatory preacher mode, as he tells the story of a cult figure and his downfall. “The women all went back to their homes and their husbands with secret smiles in the corner of their mouths. He ended up as so many of them do, back on the streets in a soup queue.... Poor Larry” He sounds like he’s having fun by the way h squeezes out the “Poor Larry” line

The swirling Tupelo is as threatening as the storm it describes and Red Right Hand suits the clankier sound of the current Bad Seeds sound. Cave switches between guitar, keyboard and stage prowling and fist shaking depending on the song. His civil war ‘tache remains resolutely lady scaring though. He’s got some completion in the beardy stakes though. Guitarist Warren Ellis seems to have a hermit attached to his chin.

Cave responds good-humouredly to the constant audience requests, although sadly not to the hopeful “Play the one from Shrek”. At one point he announces “It’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s incredible what you can get away with.”

He adopted one fan’s shout of “You’re the man” and enthusiastically took it up as the theme for the evening. After each song the patter would be a variant on “I’m the Man,” or “No you’re the Man”

After playing Your Funeral My Trial he said, “It was a happy day when I wrote that song” before almost giggling “The bitch never talked to me again”. Oh yes he’s in a good mood. Book him for your next children’s party!

Lie Down Here And Be My Girl from the new album sounds excellent, powering along like it’s close relative Third Uncle by Eno. The sparse and delicate Moonland has the arresting opening line “When I first came up out of the meat locker. The city was gone”

The set closer More News From Nowhere has Cave waving bye bye to the audience (oh yes) in contrast to the Birthday Party days when he’d be more likely to be sticking a winklepickered boot into the front row.

Oldies encores included Get Ready For Love where the “All around the world” part got played liked AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie and the frankly beautiful Into My Arms. In a parallel universe couples may well be cuddling up to that one. And some were at the Academy! But just to prove that he’s not ready for the Simon Bates gig yet, his last song was Stagger Lee. As the song veered from taut and brooding to it’s full bloody climax, the stage lighting went as mental as the band in full explosive flight. ...And the language. Dear oh dear! What a lot of mother loving. Unfortunately what we’ve got in that song, is a very bad man who leaves a trail of death and destruction; starting with the murder of the bar man at the Bucket Of Blood and finishing with some sexual bad manners and the line “Billy dropped down and slobbered on his head and Stag filled him full of lead”

(Amazingly this isn't actually the most unsettling use of the word "head" in pop music....That would be the line from the Jacques Brel song Next. "And I swear on the wet head of my first case of gonorrhoea")

As a song and performance it summed up just why Nick Cave is still such a good thing. Funny, hokey, unsettling and thoroughly enjoying playing with the possibilities of a musical and literary history and also well aware of his own image and the fun he can have with it. Backed by a band who rock like bastards.

Night Of The Lotus Eaters
Dig Lazarus, Dig
Todays Lesson
Red Right Hand
Midnight Man
Your Funeral My Trial
Lie Down Here And Be My Girl
The Ship Song
We Call Upon The Author
Papa Won't Leave You Henry
More News From Nowhere

Get Ready For Love
Hard On For Love
Straight To You
Lyre Of Orpheus

Into My Arms
Stagger Lee