1. Mike, if I’ve got this right, DEPARTMENT S came together from the New Romantic and Mod scenes in London. Were you all involved in the ‘legendary’ GUNS FOR HIRE project prior to DEPT S?
MIKE: Well myself, Tony Lordan, and Vaughn all came from the 1977 punk scene. That was our connecting link. But by mid-1978, punk was fast becoming a parody of itself, with all the excitement and optimism being replaced by apathy and uniformity. Horrid groups like UK Subs and Shambles 69 totally missed the point as far as I was concerned and just dragged the whole scene into some kind of ‘loser’ ghetto. Punk started as music for Heroes. It ended up becoming uniforms for losers.
So other scenes popped up around London. I started frequenting a club called Billy’s in Soho, which was hosted at Gossips. It was very outrageous and the music was Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, and loads of European Electro. Very positive and very optimistic. Unlike a Sham 69 gig. At that stage the phrase ‘New Romantic’ hadn’t been coined. It was a scene that nobody knew about and had no label. Tony and Vaughn were more into the Mod thing. I went to some of the early gigs because I was mates with The Purple Hearts, who I’d met at a Generation X gig at the Marquee in ’77.
Anyway, Tony, Vaughn and Gary Crowley started the Guns for Hire thing, and when they got offered the chance to record a single for Korova, they asked me to step in. I taught Tony to play bass and wrote the music for the single (My girlfriends boyfriend). John Hasler, who was the original drummer, then manager of Madness, played the drums. We only played live as Guns For Hire once, at the Rock Garden. John left as he was getting married to Shanne out of the Nips. So Stuart Mizon joined. Are Guns for Hire legendary!?
2. Can you remember much about the early DEPT S live shows towards the end of 1980? You toured with TOOTS & THE MAYTALS, I believe?
MIKE: The early live gigs were a shambles to be honest. We could hardly play and we had six songs, two of which were covers: ‘Editions of You’ by Roxy Music and ‘Ejection’ by Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters (Bob Calvert of Hawkwind fame!). But we were very enthusiastic and were willing to learn. My main memory of the ‘Toots Routes’ tour was that Toots and his group were always stoned! It was good experience for us though, even if we were playing to an audience who found our music totally alien.
3. Was there a moment even before you recorded “Is Vic There?” when you really felt the band were gelling together?
MIKE: I think the defining moment was probably supporting the Jam at the Rainbow, that’s when we knew we either had to take it seriously or not bother at all. That show lead to a John Peel session which opened more doors for us, and we started getting quite a big live following.
4. I quite vividly remember you doing “…Vic” on TOTP. I remember reading that Vaughn was so nervous he sang the first verse instead of miming. What do you remember about that first TOTP?
MIKE: Total terror! As usual, we were pissed. The BBC had a cheap bar and we hit it hard. But it was a great experience. I remember the floor manager on the set telling the kids in the audience how to dance to each group. Hilarious. Apparently we were a group with a ‘New Romantic’ feel, yeah right!
5. You got a lot of press attention on the back of “…Vic.” Did the pressure begin to kick in at that time?
MIKE: Well we got a fair bit of press when ‘Vic’ was first released. Paul Du Noyer interviewed us for the NME and Betty Page did an article in Sounds, which was great. But when the record became a hit, it all got very serious and we started to see the nasty side of the music industry. Suddenly it was all about sales and money. We got a £70k advance from Stiff, which was a hell of a lot of money back then. Lets put it this way, Culture Club got £20k, and I’m sure they always had more commercial potential than Dept S. So from being a group of mates, making music they liked and just having a good time, it became business.”
I found the commercial side of the industry very difficult to deal with. I just wanted to make music (um…maaannn), but suddenly I was expected to understand balance sheets and touring costs. Horrible.
6. It’s easy to see these things with particular significance with hindsight, but would you say Tony Lordan’s departure was the beginning of everything crumbling for the band?
MIKE: Yeah, definitely. To be honest, Tony didn’t help the situation, silly little things like ‘offering out’ the MD of CBS at a promotional do! But by the time Tony left (or was sacked basically) the band of brothers had become the band of businessmen, or so the record company would have had it.
As soon as a large amount of money became involved, it stopped being so much fun. That said, Jimmy Hughes who replaced Tony, was a brilliant bass player and musically at least, we improved 10 fold. Jimmy had previously been with Original Mirrors and Cowboys International, also the Banned.”
7. “Sub-Stance”: the debut album that should have been. What songs do you feel proud of listening back the tracks these days, Mike?
MIKE: I’m very proud of ‘Ode To Koln’, which is basically a song about a German death camp during the war. As ever, Vaughn’s lyrics were superb and I think the whole atmosphere of the song evokes images of decadent Germany in 1939.
I also really like ‘Of All The Lost Followers’ which I thought was a very strong statement of intent to open the LP with. ‘Clap Now’ was one of my favourites and always went down a storm live. We sampled Humphrey Bogart on that track. Sounds great. ‘Going Left Right’ and ‘I Want’ are also very strong tracks in my opinion.
8. You worked with David Tickle (ex-Blondie engineer) on the album. What was he like to work with?
David was a lover of the kitchen sink. We’d be sitting eating lunch in the community kitchen and he and the engineer would be extolling the virtues of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and we’d be talking about Kraftwerk and The Sex Pistols. He really didn’t get it. But that said, it could have come out a lot worse. We just had to battle to keep the overdubs to a minimum.
9. Vaughn’s lyrics never cease to fascinate me. Some of them are (nicely) arrogant (say “Monte Carlo Or Bust” or “I Want”). Was Vaughn as flamboyant in real life as his songs always suggested to me?
MIKE: Oh God yes! Vaughn thought he was a star, just by walking to the chip shop! And trust me, he could be infuriatingly arrogant. But he was a brilliant lyricist with wit and vision. Sadly, certain parties convinced him that he was destined for stardom, which is what he wanted very badly.
I think it hurt him when it didn’t happen for him. And those who encouraged him deserted him, which is what happens in the music business, I’m afraid. He went to New York for 18 months, to host a newly opened WAG Club, from the London version in Wardour Street. I don’t think it took off though. But he would have been so suited to that. He loved London club life. It’s very sad that he died so young.”
10. I imagine you must have been pretty disappointed when “Going Left-Right” and “I Want” were relative flops?
MIKE: More so ‘Going Left-Right’. We worked so hard on that record and it received a massive amount of air play. But I suppose in hindsight, such an aggressive, trance and beat driven track wasn’t exactly what was making the top 10 in those days. It got to the top 50, which is probably higher than it had any right to, really. That said, it did very well all across Europe, so I can’t moan too much.”
‘I Want’ was basically written to be a hit, or so Vaughn and I thought. The record company said ‘Go and write a hit single’ so we tried. I was surprised it did quite so badly here. Again, it did well in Europe and even got to number 1 in Spain!
11. What was gigging with The Jam like? How did they treat you and can you recall any particular special gigs?
MIKE: The Jam were brilliant to us. Always made sure we got a decent sound check. And they were beer monsters! I remember we played with them at a secret gig at Woking YMCA and Weller was so pissed he fell into the drum kit three times during “Eton Rifles”. His old man wasn’t a happy bunny, I can tell ya! Then we played at the Sobell centre in Finsbury Park with them. Five-thousand people there for that one. I’d taken to using a Wah Wah by this stage (listen to ‘Tell Me About It’ on Sub-Stance) and Mr Weller came up to me on stage during our sound check and asked me how it worked. A month later they released ‘Precious’! Git!
12. Paul Weller described you as “the best young guitarist of 1981″. High praise indeed. I also love your guitar playing. Did you have any particular influences in developing the style you have?
MIKE: I remember I once had an audition with Siouxsie and the Banshees (Siouxsie was lovely and very friendly) and Severin asked me what guitar players I liked and I said Mick Ronson and Syd Barrett. That confused them. lol.”
But if I had to say anyone had more influence on my playing than any, I’d have to say Syd Barrett. This probably shows on ‘Whatever Happened To The Blues’ more than any other track. Believe it or not, one of my early guitar favourites was Richie Blackmore (as un-hip as it is to say). But I’d like to think that my playing didn’t really sound like any of these great people.
13. How were DEPT S received in Europe? Was that tour instrumental in the band starting to collapse?
MIKE: We always did very well in Europe. Especially Holland and Spain. The kids over there were just interested in having a good time, unlike in the UK or London in particular, where people just stand back and say ‘Come on then boys, impress me’ with a cool aloofness.
I remember two great shows in Madrid, we sold out two nights at a venue that held 1,200 people. The stage got invaded, it was great! Far from causing the collapse, it bought some relief from the pressure of the record company in London. The damage had been done long before we got to play in Europe. We played at the Pink Pop festival in Rotterdam in front of 25,000 people. That was memorable I can tell you.
14. It’s a typical story, I suppose, but I find it hard to believe that Stiff would have had such little faith in you over the album. Did you get on with the likes of Dave Robinson, Jake Riviera etc?
MIKE: The biggest single mistake we made was signing to Stiff. They just didn’t understand us at all. Stiff was basically a ‘Pub Rock’ label. We had seven major labels after us and we signed to bloody Stiff. Bad move. But we were convinced by management that it’d be a good idea, and we liked the idea of being on the label that released the first two Damned LP’s. That’s how we thought, we were only 20.”
What can I tell ya? I can’t for the life of me work out why Stiff signed us, we were so totally different to any other group on the label. I mean, Jona Lewie for Darwin’s sake. But they knew what we sounded like, had heard the demos, had seen us live. But as soon as we signed with them, they wanted us to change, to become more commercial. I’ll never understand why record companies do that.
15. What did you do yourself when you left the band?
MIKE: Had a nervous breakdown! …Not quite, but I was very upset with the way it all turned out. I was just a kid with a dream of playing guitar for a living and the music business turned out to be vile. It left me pretty badly bruised and I kind of did a Syd Barrett I suppose and walked away. I made an LP with the Purple Hearts in 1984 called ‘A Popish Frenzy’, which was OK as I was just a guest musician and didn’t have to deal with the band politics. Just turn up, plug in and play. Which was fine by me.
But after that I totally lost interest in the music business. I didn’t play again for 18 years, until I played a gig with Gary and Simon of the Purple Hearts at a club in Whitechapel Xmas before last.
16. Did you/do you keep up with any of the other lads in the band?
MIKE: Yeah, I saw Mark Taylor and Stuart Mizon only a few weeks ago. And we meet up with Jimmy Hughes every so often and drink too much red wine. And I bumped into Tony a while ago at a gig, so everyone is still around, apart from Vaughn, sadly.
17. Vaughn released a solo single on Paul Weller’s Respond label. I’m surprised he didn’t carry on as a solo artist. Do you think he had a future in music?
MIKE: I think he did have a future in music, but not with the idiots who were advising him. He should have stuck with what he was good at instead of trying to become the latest naff 1980’s white soul boy. He just had the wrong voice for it. I got my hands on a video a while ago, of him performing ‘Fickle Public Speaking’ on some kid’s Saturday morning show. It was abysmal. Sounded like Lou Reed trying to be Issac Hayes.
18.Finally, Mike, was there a real Vic? Did he or she exist?
MIKE: (Laughs) Oh yes, Vic was a mythical creature that lived with Boadecia in 33 AD and danced naked around Stonehenge.