VG: Sansend -- it took years to put it together. Because, really, we were only working on Sunday afternoons. A lot of the time we'd arrive at about six thirty on a Sunday afternoon, so that's why it took so long. There was the odd evening session, but with me being uninformed, and my mate in the group who does all the computer side of it, he's a carpenter, so his hours are basically about ten until six, so by the time he'd finished his carpentry and got down there it took you till about seven thirty and then I've got to be up at four or five the next morning which meant we couldn't work much beyond nine thirty. So we did start off at the beginning with the evening sessions, but we soon reverted back to Sunday afternoons. That explains why there are so many ideas running around in the album. We recorded quite a lot of songs on top of the ones we've put out. The first fourteen that came to us that gelled really well we worked on and we abandoned about six songs I suppose. We just didn't bother working on them. It was all done on a Mac and he was learning it from scratch. So at the beginning it was really slow because he was learning. I wrote all the lyrics except the reggae one which was written by Ken Wisdom. I've changed the odd bits to fit in with what he wrote. He didn't write it to that tune. He gave me a set of lyrics so I fitted them to a tune. So I had to change the odd bit here and there. But it's basically the same.
3AM: Going back a bit, when did you first see the Sex Pistols?
VG: I first saw them in '76. I don't know the exact date but it was when they played at the Marquee. They only did one gig there. They got thrown out. Dramatic stuff. Yes, that was the only reason we started up the band, seeing them. We weren't musicians and they were the only non-musicians we'd ever seen doing a gig. So it really did open the floodgates. For everyone, really.
3AM: Didn't Malcolm McLaren ask you to play at a punk festival he was organising?
VG: No he didn't. He just thought we looked like a group because we didn't look like the rest of the audience. There were a lot of different cliques in that audience and they all looked quite distinct. Like there were a lot of followers of Siouxsie and the Banshees and all that lot. Generation X and Billy Idol. They had quite a dramatically different look to us. They had all the brightly dyed hair and were more glam. Whereas we were pretty drab-looking. We all looked pretty similar I suppose. So Malcolm thought that we looked like a unit already. We were just fans at the time. We had no band.
Me and the guitarist saw the Sex Pistols first and then we went back to school and told the bass player you've got to come see this band and we got the drummer in the same way. Originally it was a bit more awkward than that because when it started off I didn't have a role at all. I was just the impresario, recruiting and getting the group together. But the drummer, the only person in the group that drums at all (he'd drummed in the boy scouts), he was going to be the singer. So just because none of the rest of us could drum he had to get on the drums and that left us without a singer. So that's the only reason I ended up as the singer.
I discovered the American scene through Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. We used to get that and look to see what was going on in New York. And we'd read reviews of Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and we had a rough idea of what they looked like without having a clue what they sounded like. I was impressed when I did finally get to hear the stuff. I really loved the Heartbreakers. They did a lot of gigs over here in 76, 77 and I thought they were fantastic. I loved them. And Television. Their first single, "Little Johnny Jewel" was fantastic. Loved Johnny Thunders. I only met Richard Hell recently, well, not recently but a few years back. I never met him in the punk era. Johnny Thunders he actually rang me up once when I was playing a New York Dolls record! I got him a drummer because one of the drummers who used to play with us joined the Heartbreakers. . . . Their drummers quite often died in those days. . . . He rang up asking who was a good rock and roll drummer. That was Terry Chimes and then he joined the Heartbreakers.
I really admired Johnny Thunders. I thought he had a really unique style of guitar-playing. Live, I think they were one of the best acts I've ever seen. We weren't good enough musicians to imitate them. He was a bit out of my league. I thought he was too much of an expert. At that point we could just about do chords! He was doing lead stuff. We always preferred them to the Sex Pistols because a lot of what the Sex Pistols were doing was based on what they were doing. For my taste, they were the best. Johnny Thunders' guitar-playing raises it above everything else.
3AM: Was it frustrating that your musical accomplishment wasn't up to your ambition?
VG: Yes. That's why the band split up really. The drummer was ok, but the bass player and the lead guitarist were never interested in learning really. My big thing then was about getting better. The way I thought we could get better was learning more chords. So when melodies went to different places you could actually write songs around it. Whereas when you've got a guitarist who can do C major, D major, and E major, it's really restrictive. Once you've done punk style it's really hard breaking out of that without learning new chords. And already, early on, you had the Buzzcocks who were using minor chords. Out of all the English groups, they were the ones we felt closest to. I was already writing songs, and couldn't work out really how to do them with the musicians that we had.
3AM: This was after Howard Devoto had left the Buzzcocks?
VG: Yes, after he left. He left before they had an album out. He left after that Spiral Scratch didn't he? They'd done one EP and then he left. That was it. So the next time they played was at Harlesden Coliseum, where we supported them and he'd already left. Pete Shelley was already the lead singer. So I never met him. So we knew Pete Shelley and Eric Random, he used to hang around with them. Eric Random, he had a group. I think he was a backing band for Nico as well. He was one of the first people to start doing electronic music when Human League started. He did singles under the name of Eric Random.
3AM: You met Nico didn't you?
VG: Yes. I met her more than once. The one time when I really embarrassed myself was when we were going to do "I'll Be Your Mirror" with her in Paris where we did a residency. She was living round the corner from the gig and her harmonium was right up in the top floor garret of this building. Up about eleven flights of stairs. And it was really heavy. So our manager, Bernie Rhodes, he made us hang about with her all day to try and persuade her to get this harmonium and get her to sing. We were penniless. And there she was, her face stuck into this stew. She was really big and really eating a lot. And we were starving. Absolutely starving. She didn't even leave any! I was hoping that we could have the leftovers! But she wiped the bowl clean. Nothing. She came to the gig but she didn't do anything on stage.
I just remember having a real argument with her afterwards because she was going on about how great Eric Clapton's new album Ocean Boulevard was, it was a big hit then, with palm tees on the cover, and she was going on about it. And I couldn't believe that Nico would like something like that. Years later I met her again. I was doing all the jazz stuff. 1981. We did a gig up in Manchester. Eric Random, the mate of the Buzzcocks, he was at the gig, and Nico was at the gig, and I said to him, "Why is Nico at the gig?" And he said "She lives here now. We're her backing band." She'd moved to Manchester in the early eighties. I don't know how long for. It was when electronic music was just getting started. She was really into all that. That was when Manchester was really buzzing. We did The Hacienda. We did the opening night at the Hacienda. The first night ever at the Hacienda. That was probably on the same tour. 1981, 1982. At the same time we also did the first ever night at The Fridge in Brixton. It must have opened at roughly the same sort of era. We did a lot of those first night gigs. We didn't have much to do with the Manchester scene then. Don't forget they were doing all this electronic stuff in the early eighties. Dance music. The music I was doing then was Swing music. Tuxedo and bow tie and all that. It was a reaction against the punk era I suppose. Punk had become very identikit punk at the time -- all the songs were very predictable.
I'd done an album, Songs For Sale where we did all traditional swingy type music. It really went down well at first. In the skinhead era as well. Right in the middle of when the Oi movement was on. We'd be doing all these gigs wearing bow ties and all these skinheads would be in the audience. Sometimes it went down really well and other times it would turn into a massive fight with the tables being turned over. We had a big all-out battle up in Edinburgh with one of these skinhead bands -- I can't remember what they were called now, not The Angelic Upstarts but someone like that. Anyway, it was one of the Oi bands from Scotland and we were doing a gig with them. And it turned into a great big bottle fight between us and them. The audience just got out of the way. Weird. What we ended up doing was drinking with them. I don't know how that happened. That's the only thing I remember about it! Very strange.
Anyway, we were always into this other kind of music. It didn't just occur on the White Riot Tour with The Clash. We were always interested in other kinds of music. We Oppose All Rock & Roll started with the punk era, but we always played Debussy and stuff. Not with The Clash because we weren't in control of what happened on that tour but when we did gigs of our own, when we were in control. We'd have a tape of the music. Started off with monks' music through to sixteenth-century minstrel music up to Debussy, Satie, some early Blues, it worked its way up to James Brown to 1975. But I've always been into French music -- your mate Andrew he's in Paris right? -- well, I've always been into French music. It's not just France though. Russia as well.
3AM: This experimentation and deepening of your ideas, is this how you intend to continue?
VG: Definitely. In the old days I would do that anyway. But when I had a punk band and I wrote a jazzy or swing influenced song I'd sing it onto a tape, just me singing and it wouldn't go any further. Whereas now I do actually know a jazz band, so I can go get them and we can do the song. I can get orchestras off the turntable just as well. The technology has come on so far now since the punk era. You know, instead of getting better on our instruments we could have taken them off other records.
3AM: So what do your contemporaries think about you?
VG: I don't know. Richard Hell, when I met him, I think he was a bit bemused because I was a bit bowled over by him and in his face and over the top. I think I frightened him off a bit. He probably thinks I'm a raving lunatic! I know what Steve Jones thinks of me. Seriously weird! Every time he sees me he says "You're really weird"! But they love the music. Sansend is the best thing I've ever done. That's the feedback they give me. I don't really listen to my contemporaries though.
I listen to hip hop these days because I'm writing reviews for Record Collector and Uncut. I love hip hop and get sent loads of stuff through the post. I try to keep up with stuff but just trying to keep up with hip hop on its own is enough. I haven't really got time to keep up with what former punks are up to I guess! I know the Ramones have done about 40 albums and they haven't really developed. They're still doing the same stuff. Or they were until they started dying. I know that Pete Shelley got together with Howard Devoto -- didn't he? -- and have done an album. I haven't heard it. It got good reviews. I haven't seen it in any shops though.
Like my new album. It's going terribly in terms of selling it. Maybe it's the wrong time of the year, shops are only wanting to stock Christmas fodder. So we're going to try and do a single off it and then relaunch it. "Lazy So and So", "Everything's Crashing Down Around Us" and "Heavy Heavy Heavy Load" -- a three-track thing. And we're going on tour. We did a rehearsal last Wednesday which went really well. We haven't got a DJ yet so we've got a drummer playing the beats but that's not the way we want it but it's ok for the rehearsals. We keep on like that. We haven't booked any gigs yet, but we'll start looking for venues round London and Oxford. Not too far away. We've been offered some stuff in Scotland. Some time on Radio Clyde so we'll try and fit in that and a gig when we do that. It's quite hard to organise this stuff because we all work so it's a matter of getting us all off at the same time. We've all got different hours of work and it's hard to organise it so we all have the same weekend off work.
I hate going on the road but I love going on stage. I love the actual singing stuff but hate the sound checks! And the driving side of it. That's why I like London gigs. But London gigs are quite hard to make money from. Promoters down here seem to want so much money. The last gig I did in London was at Dingwalls and I didn't get paid so all the band didn't get paid because there was supposed to be 350 people there and there were only 320. It's that kind of thing that they put in the contract. In the small print. All that business. Whereas when you work in Scotland they always make sure there's enough money to get the band up there so it's always better organised like that than in London.
3AM: You have any favourite tracks?
VG: "Trouble". I like that very much. Early eighties. I did it with a brilliant band. Pete Thomas's Junk and Jive. They were the backing band for Joe Jackson when he did his swing album. He did a swing album in the eighties. I never knew Jackson but I knew they backed him on that album and went out on the road under their own steam. A swing band. Phenomenal. It's the only time I've ever done anything on a first tape. The vocals. I only did it once and it was perfect straight away.
Working with these musicians is so expensive though because they charge you the same amount for rehearsals as they do for the gig. So if you want a jazz band you can't really rehearse with them. Mind you, if you tell them what songs you're doing and they turn up on the night they're usually very good. I'd love to do more of that stuff live. With a big band. It's really exciting singing with a big swing band. Horns and everything. Really overpowering thing. I'd really love to do that in the future.
The band I used to work with they split up. The pianist was the pianist from Dexy's Midnight Runners -- a decorator in the daytime and he got together these decorators that he knew and formed a little swing band. But now he's got a more avant-garde jazz band and I haven't actually heard them. But they're meant to be good. I'd like to work with his band again. He's got a really good percussionist. I've got some great tapes of live gigs. I taped every gig I did.
3AM: Do you regret having sacked the original band members of Subway Sect?
VG: Yes I do. I didn't at the time. As I said, we had a good drummer, a good rock drummer, but the bass player wasn't into it -- he wanted to be a photographer rather than a guitarist. He was stuck in the punk style and I was wanting to develop into new things and I was beginning to pick up a guitar and bass myself. So I was already trying to work out the bass and the guitar lines myself so it was just easier for me to teach it to someone who was competent. The way we got the next bass player was, there was this fifteen-year-old kid down my street that was a real expert jazz funk bass player, so I actually started teaching him the bass line and then he would teach our bass player the bass line while I was teaching the other people things. Eventually Bernie Rhodes decided to sack all that lot and put together a band with Colin, the fifteen-year-old kid, as the bass player. He kept Bob on as the drummer. . . . He got our own keyboard player in. He got Johnny Britten up form Bristol. He formed a rockabilly band, the Joboxers, down in Bristol. That band was only really put together to do a tour. At the end of the tour there wasn't any reason for it to stay together so after the tour it just folded again.
3AM: The line-up that played on the What's the Matter Boy album of 1980 included Terry Chimes who was on drums on The Clash's first album…
VG: And his brother was on bass.
3AM: ...and The Black Arabs
VG: They were doing all the backing vocals. And the percussions.
3AM: Were they the same who played a disco medley of Pistols' songs on The Great Rock And Roll Swindle?
VG: Yes. They also did a tour supporting Dexy's Midnight Runners. Then they just split up. I wrote a lot of songs for them. Nothing came out on record. Some of the songs I then did myself - "Stop That Girl", "Devil's In League With You", "No Style" -- they're all stuff I'd written as souley type numbers for the Black Arabs to do. So they used them on this tour and they actually went into a studio, they were going to do a single, but then they split up and it never came out. The songs all got shelved and then I did a gig at the Music Machine in round about 1980. And I was doing all these Northern Soul songs that they'd been singing when they were on tour. But I was using my own band.
Ironically, that was almost the original Subway Sect line-up! The original bass player. The original drummer. The guitarist wasn't there because by that time I was doing the guitar work. Very quiet rhythm guitar. And we had a Turkish keyboard player. And another bloke on tambourine and backing vocals. That only lasted for one gig though although we did a lot of demos. That gig was bootlegged and it ended up with some people in Scotland coming down. They eventually became the group Orange Juice and they taped it and started covering one of the songs, "Holiday Inn".
3AM: How did the Irvine Welsh musical collaboration come about?
VG: Well, he always wanted to do a musical, and he thought the songs on my old jazz albums sounded like musical type of things. So he sent me this script and I thought his words were great to work with. Fantastic lyrics to write songs to. But it was one of those things. He was so busy and I was doing my new album and he'd written something like six different scripts and I'd done loads of songs, some with his lyrics and some with my own, I got together about an album's worth of stuff in the end, and did rehearsals with the band The Bitter Springs, but he only used about three of them in the actual finished thing. In fact I think there aren't many songs in the finished thing -- only about four or five -- and it didn't really go down all that well. The songs went down well, apparently! We met loads of times. One of his mates was a big fan, in fact there's quite a big fan base for the Sect in Scotland.
3AM: London. Scotland. Paris. What's this Russian thing?
VG: No, it's just that since I was a kid I've really liked Russia as a place. I went out there when I was a kid. A school trip. It had a big impact. Moscow. Leningrad. I mean, it won't be like that now I shouldn't think.
3AM: So why did you retire from the scene in 1986 and become a postman? Did this add to your mystique? Are you still a postman?
VG: I'm still a postman. Did it add to my mystique? I don't know about that! Actually, I was going to work in a museum. Funnily enough, I'd actually said in an interview during the punk era that I wanted to be a postman. I didn't remember that I'd said it, but years later when I was a postman I had all these press cuttings and there it was. Looking back, we actually already looked like postmen. The old Subway Sect and the old postman's uniform. Now, the postman's uniform is blue but when I joined it was all slate grey. If you look at the old Subway Sect pictures it looks remarkably like the old postman's uniform!
When I joined I always wanted to be delivering mail -- it's an ideal job because you do it in the morning and then you've got the rest of the day free. But it took me years to get that. That's what I do now, but I didn't get that job for about ten years. I was in the sorting office for a few years and then I got made into a manager -- I didn't want to be one, but they offered to put me through my driving lessons for nothing -- and it was a bit of a rush because someone left suddenly, and so I did that and I got more into that. I went on a few computer courses, driving lessons and then HMV driving. I got into it and then I got stuck on this terrible shift from 2 in the afternoon until 10 at night. The only good thing about it was that it was Monday to Friday so you did get weekends. I stuck it for about a year. The only job I could get doing the early mornings was if I did delivery. So I just became a postman.
3AM: Funnily enough, another top guy I interviewed, Tony White, he worked for the Post. Peter Bonetti, the former Chelsea and England goalkeeper, he's a postman too isn't he?
VG: Is he? Oh yes, isn't he on an island somewhere? I was a fan of his. I remember patting him on the back.
3AM: I'm going to have to do a series on famous postmen.
3AM: Subway Sect is you and Nick Brown these days. Who is Nick Brown?
VG: He was my best man. Going back originally, you know I told you about the fifteen-year-old kid who lived down the bottom of the street who became the bass player? Well, his best mate was Nick Brown! He played guitar as well. In the punk-era Subway Sect there was another group that just rehearsed with us, but never did any gigs really, and he was in that. He actually was on one track I recorded in about 1979 called "Spring Is grey". He played bass on that, and then I lost contact with him in the eighties, like he was my best man at my wedding, but after that I never saw him until the mid nineties. He just rang me up and said he'd got involved in a studio because he was a carpenter. He'd done a lot of carpentry work for this studio in Fulham and they couldn't pay the bill. So they made him one of the partners. And that's the studio we did the album in. That's all gone now. They went out of business just as we finished it.
We took about eighteen months recording it. Mainly on Sunday afternoons. If we'd done it on a daily basis we'd have done it in a few months. It wouldn't have been the same though. There's a lot to be said for doing things organically like that. We had a lot of songs that grew out of big fuck-ups out there. When you try to copy one set of songs from one disc to another it got muddled up with another disc, so we ended up overwriting about five songs on top of others which meant that those five were effectively lost. One of them we tried to retrieve by sampling it, the bit of it we'd already made a copy of, and started the song again by sampling what we had left of the original. It effectively turned into a different song. We forgot about the original song completely. That's the sort of thing that happens by accident.
When I think I know what I want, I just do it. What I think I'm doing is nothing like what I really am doing! Ha! It happens quite a lot that! You've just got to stick with what sounds great. A lot of the songs on the new album they really come alive when you do them with a live band. If you've done them on a computer and then you hear it live with a band it sounds really good. It makes you think you should have done the album with a band but then it wouldn't be like that at all. It would be a totally different album. So doing these live gigs, just having a drummer instead of a loop makes an incredible difference.
3AM: It's like when you listen to the Hendrix stuff. The drumming is incredible.
VG: Oh yes. Not just the drummer but the bass playing as well. You can't believe they're two people. How the hell do they know when Hendrix is going to do something and what he's going to do? Amazing!