Superb overview of Vic Godard’s brilliant career so far, veering from punk to pop to jazz but never failing to hit the heights. Glenn Airey pays homage.
Even to his aficionados, Vic Godard‘s body of work can be a confusing one. It’s full of stops and starts, sudden shifts and slight returns. Thankfully, the threads of continuity – artistic restlessness, quality songwriting and sympathetic collaborators – make all the head-scratching worthwhile. These constants are perfectly demonstrated on 30 Odd Years, a handy new road map to a career that’s actually closer to forty summers old, not that anybody’s quibbling. And if you’ve already got your bearings, don’t worry, this is still one you’ll want to hear as there are some fascinating rarities included. The new collection is essentially an updating and a spruce-up of 20 Odd Years which came out, er, fifteen years ago, although that description doesn’t really do justice to the standard of the more recent material or indeed the tremendous remastering job performed by Mike Coe.
Vic has always done things his own way, and done them in style. Back in 1976 this meant shedding his punk rock skin almost before he’d begun, establishing the trend for future years in which, by the time the world caught up with him, he’d already vanished and popped up somewhere else. Not traditionally the way to succeed in the music business but, happily, Vic has never worried about such trifles. In any case, his arms-length approach to stardom hasn’t stopped him making countless great records and becoming a widely revered figure in the process. Whether nodding to punk, pop, rock, soul, swing, Latin or even skiffle music, the strength of material across these two discs hardly wavers. Nor does Vic’s endlessly listenable voice, from the sardonic, teen-who’s-seen-it-all sneer accompanying the thrilling garage clatter of Don’t Split It to the perfect music hall phrasings of the Blackpool songs penned alongside Irvine Welsh.
The track listing is broadly chronological but in Vic’s case this is far from straightforward. A clutch of key tracks on disc two, for example, are generally considered Subway Sect classics from 1978 but didn’t see daylight in fully-realised form until almost thirty years later. Then live versions of both Ambition and Johnny Thunders are slotted into the timeline at the point of their respective (twenty-first century) performances. Later this year, Vic and his trusted producer-conspirator Edwyn Collins will be unleashing a collection of northern soul material entitled 1979 Now, just to confuse future compilers even more.
Edwyn was one of the young Scots particularly inspired by an early visit from Vic and the Sect as punk sortied north of the border. They went on to found Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and the other bands from whom so much great Scottish pop is descended. It was one of Vic’s lasting achievements to take the melodic genius of his own heroes, like Television and the Velvets, and pass it on to willing young ears without losing their seductively nihilistic attitude. Edwyn, Roddy Frame and others later repaid the debt by helping Vic to produce some of his finest work. Re-hearing these tracks from the 1990s, in the remastered context of 30 Odd Years, is truly startling. The likes of Malicious Love, Same Mistakes and We’ll Keep Our Chains are simply wonderful songs, beautifully performed, and as tuneful and timeless as anything in your collection. The Scottish connection endures to the last song here, as Vic performs Johnny Thunders in Glasgow with the Sexual Objects featuring Davey Henderson, formerly of the Fire Engines and Win, and another of the Sect’s young converts from 1977.
As a young shaver myself, I well remember worming my way to the front of Hanley’s Victoria Hall in order to ensure a good view of headliners Altered Images – alright, let’s face it, their singer – and witnessing at extremely close quarters the Subway Sect during an early 1980s swing incarnation. Like most of us teenaged provincials, I’d heard more about the band than I’d heard of their music itself, perhaps a Peel session or two notwithstanding. Their set that night certainly wasn’t what I was expecting and, as I recall, the rest of the audience were a bit nonplussed too. Everyone agreed about one thing though. That singer looked fucking cool. You could smoke onstage in those days and Vic took full advantage in classic Rat Pack style. With hindsight, of course, it wasn’t just the tux and the cigs that were cool. It was the disregard for people’s expectations and the single-minded determination to explore whatever styles he damn well felt like.
The jazz and swing phases of Vic’s career are well represented on 30 Odd Years and the selections serve to remind us how comfortably he always inhabited that role. Tracks like T.R.O.U.B.L.E. and Stamp of a Vamp illustrate how instinctive his connection to this music is, and shine a very unforgiving light on the shortcomings of the TV talent-show dilettantes and boy bands who seem to think that anyone can deliver ‘easy listening.’ Check Vic’s recent top ten albums and you’ll see how a well-rounded musical education encouraged him to treat the foundation stones of popular music with the respect they deserve. Having shit-hot musicians helps too, of course.
Speaking of which, some of the very strongest tracks here are those featuring the Black Arabs, the London funk group who popped up performing the hits of the Sex Pistols in one of the more memorable moments of the Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. Empty Shell, Make Me Sad and Stop That Girl have always been some of my favourite Godard numbers and they pack a particular punch in these polished new surroundings. The shifting backdrop of superb musicians has always been central to Vic’s continuing productivity and 30 Odd Years showcases his work alongside an impressively broad range of players, not least his recent Catalan associates Mates Mates, with whom he performs the joyous (Oh Alright) Go On Then. Less traditional instrumentation marks out the songs from 2002’s Sansend, and they’re all the more intriguing for it. Sequenced beats and samples snake around Vic’s vocals on tracks like Back in a Void Again and The Writer’s Slumped, although Latin and Eastern influences also make themselves heard, indicating once again the breadth of their creator’s musical inspirations.
Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of this terrific collection is that the most recent songs – specifically those from 2010’s We Come as Aliens – are absolutely up to the standard of Vic’s best work. Back in the Community, Take Over and Best Album are entirely representative of that record’s brilliance. They’re all immediate garage pop classics and it’s exciting to think that there’s plenty more to come. The great man shows no signs that he intends to slow down any time soon – in fact he’s probably more active now than ever, so keep an eye out for his live shows. I could hardly believe the news that he’s playing two gigs on my North Staffs doorstep in May, so anything is possible with Vic. Whether you fancy dipping a toe into his catalogue for the first time, or simply like the idea of having such a thoughtfully compiled overview within easy reach, I really can’t recommend this double CD enough. Buy it and play it to your neighbours. Nobody should be in the dark about Vic Godard. Then phone the bookies and lump a few quid on 40 Odd Years making an appearance in 2024. Roughly speaking.