Category: Articles and Reviews

Herbage Interview Whisperin & Hollerin.com – 2003

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DEPARTMENT S were one of the most promising of all the UK’s post-punk outfits, who were sadly railroaded back into obscurity after releasing several superb singles and what should have been a memorable album in “Sub-Stance”. A combination of bad timing, lack of faith and old fashioned bad luck ensured they would splinter before they really began. However, LTM have recently released “Sub-Stance” with additional tracks for the very first time. TIM PEACOCK asks the band’s fantastic guitarist MIKE HERBAGE about the band’s brief, but exciting career and what he’s been up to since.

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.

I’m still friends with them to this day and I eventually made an LP with them in 1984.

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?

MIKE: Um…Right…..How can I put this… David Tickle really didn’t understand where we were coming from. He’d lived in America during the London punk explosion and really didn’t understand why we didn’t want massive over production. I tried to do everything in one take, with as few over dubs as possible.

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.”

The first guitar based record that pushed my buttons was ‘Sabre Dance’ by Love Sculpture. The guitar on that is fantastic, I love it to this day. But I’ve always loved guitar players who use the instrument for aural experiments. Pete Townshend on ‘I Can See For Miles’ or Syd Barrett on ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. Eddie Phillips of The Creation was very impressive as well.

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.

Sub-Dance Behind the Department of S

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Somewhere between hell and Woolworth’s lies Essex University and another frustrating soundcheck. This time round it’s Department S’ turn. Five young musicians struggling against the university’s impossibly high hall, trying to form musical shapes out of the messy noise.

“Can you turn down the monitors please?” pleads Vaughn Toulouse, “they’re too loud…” The sound man at the back of the hall raises his eye brows in frustration, and adjusts another dial. “I can’t hear my guitar” moans Bage. Another eyebrow raised, another dial turned. The musicians become increasingly listless as the procedure continues. Each instrument has to be individually tested, as does each musician. Finally they get to play a song. It involves using a tape of synthesised music before Stuart the drummer interrupts with his drums. The tape starts. It lasts about 20 seconds before Stuart comes in with hammering precision.

Vaughn at the microphone, waiting, turns to the drummer. “Stuart, play it like you played it in Birmingham last night”. Stuart stops. “What do you mean?”, “Sort of off-beat, you did it last night when we were playing”, “Yeah Vaughn, I was playing it wrong last night, it was a mistake”, “Yeah…. Well…. doesn’t matter. Play it off-beat, it sounds far better”.

The soundman looks up again from his desk. “Are you ready yet?” he shouts across the hall. “Yeah”. The tape starts. The off-beat (sort of) drums come in. The band start up and immediately a piercing white sheet of feedback screams through the speakers. The band grind to a halt. “I hate soundchecks” Vaughn says 20 minutes later.

Step Two: Monte Carlo or Bust

Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Department S was the success of their first single, the wondrous “Is Vic There?”. A kind of novelty single, the band have since released two far superior songs: “Going Left Right” and “I Want”. Neither have emulated the success of “Vic”. Department S, are now, according to some, one hit wonders. In other words finished, useless. What the snipers don’t take into account is the amount of excellent material the band have now compiled. Far more accessible and weightier than their previous work, their progress is reflected in their current live show.

The first half of the set, apart from “Vic” and “Age Concern”, is too leaden, too one-dimensional. The reliance on bass and drums is overwhelming. There’s no light. No shade. Heavy Metal even. The second half is where the band really pick up. The music has flair here. There are tunes and life. Energy and adventure.

New songs such as “Tell Me About It” show off a catchy funk side, whilst “I Want” is an epic journey throwing off random images, (“Oh god I want Xmas all year round, I want a swimming pool but I don’t want to drown”) to a great dance tune.

Where the first half of the show suffocates, the second half is by far the lighter, and better for it. Consequently the band’s cold exterior on stage gradually drops as the show progresses. Depending on the audience of course. Tonight Vaughn is being heckled and enjoying it. He lets the mouths shoot off, takes it all in and then challenges back.

At one point he calls the hecklers “Hippies”. I looked over the crowd and saw he was talking to punks congregated at the front.

Step Three: Tell Me About It

In the hotel room, Vaughn and Stuart talk.

Were they depressed about the relative commercial failure of the last two singles?

“Yes and No” says Vaughn. “After ‘Vic’, that being a surprise hit…it isn’t really representative of the band. Where as I think “I Want” and “Going Left Right” are. Looking back on it, I’m glad that ‘Vic’ charted, but it’s not the Department”.

“If ‘Vic’ had got to 30”, butts in Stuart, “and not so many plays, then the rest of the numbers would have caught on. But ‘Vic’, it was as if it had been a number one hit.” “Well ‘Vic’ was on it’s own anyway” argues Vaughn.

“It didn’t matter that it was Dept S, it could have been anybody. I don’t regret it if that’s what you’re trying to say, but I was more pleased that “Going Left Right” charted at all. And “I Want” has sold really well, but because of the Xmas rush it hasn’t charted. But it is selling well, and still is, so there is interest. But where ‘Vic’ was good was that people knew about us from the first single which meant we didn’t have to plough round the grotty club circuit for years”.

Did they worry about commercial failure?

“No, because I’ve got complete confidence” states Vaughn simply. “I think you need it. If you start worrying about whether a record is going to be a hit or not…there’s more records that are really good that aren’t hits than ever there are the other way round”.

“There are so many records that should have been hits, and now “I Want” will rank alongside them, that’s alright by me. It would have been better if it had taken off yeah, but because it hasn’t it gives us time to sort things out.”

Apart from the trio of singles, did they think the rest of their music was accessible?

“Do you think it is?” Vaughn immediately shoots back. First half of your set, no, second half definitely. “Well the way we run through the set is as we write” replies Vaughn, “So that probably means we’re getting more accessible from your opinion. I think we are as well. It’s the way we do the set. ‘Vic’ was the third number we wrote as Dept S and the early ones like “Age Concern” and “Monte Carlo”, they were the early songs.”

Which brings us to “Sub-Stance”, the album Dept S have just recorded. It will be presented in much the same way as the live set, old onto new, and much of the band’s new material will have to be left out.

“It’s getting dated so fast” agrees Vaughn. “We really are moving fast now and I want that album out fast. The way we’re going at the moment we’re going to have another album of material before this album even comes out.”
It doesn’t matter that it will basically be old material on the album?

“Oh no” answers Vaughn. ” Because I want it to go more or less in the order it was written.” Department S is a great band name I say, changing the subject. and “Monte Carlo”, they were the early songs.”

Any reasons behind it?

“Because it doesn’t label us as anything” replies Vaughn. “The whole thing that we set out from the band point of view is that Dept S would not be five members full stop, but members would come and go, and as Dept S used those members up they would leave. Like Tony was basically used up and so was Eddie before him, so they left…. Or were elbowed out by the rest of us and someone else got in.”

“At the moment Jimmy (the new bass player) is good and he fits in. Say in the future any one of us might get bored and want to move on. We don’t want to be like Status Quo or Slade. The band that stays together for ten years grows old together.”

There seems to be a cold detachment about you on stage though. The audience has to work as much as you do. Why?

“Inexperience of not enough gigs” is Vaughn’s answer. “And I don’t think that we’re warm people. I don’t want to sound contrived and I don’t want to come across the same way the Banshees do. Like Siouxsie, she does come across as being really cold, but she’s also very exciting because of that”. “She does snub her audience” he continues, “but then again, I think it’s getting a bit dated, that sort of approach. But I don’t want to go out kissing with the arms open. If they can come round when we’re basically being ourselves…We’re not forcing ourselves on the audience. We’re just there and there for the taking.”

“When we go on stage” explains Stuart, “that’s exactly what we’re like off stage. Everyone plays their best, there’s no two ways about it, but you don’t go on stage and go above your station”.

Do Dept S offer an alternative to everyone else then?

“We’ve just got to try and find that out. We haven’t been given a handle by anybody (the dark side of pop?) and we’re not going to give ourselves a handle, so we’ve got to find that out. We’re still a relatively new group. We’ve only been together for 15 months which does make us pretty new.”

“But now, with the new bass player” says Stuart, admiration in his voice…”that keeps it more interesting” interjects Vaughn.

“As soon as you get into that stable routine business – from then on it’s business and boring. It gets like that as soon as you sign really. Immediately the record company wants hits, all that sort of thing. The more hits you get, the more freedom you get. Which is the main reason for having hits as I see it.” It’s about time Department S had a lot more freedom.

Step Four: I Want

Vaughn says he’s never been in love. Stuart says he had a Jack Russell dog he once adored.

Vaughn says that the ultimate love is marriage and children.

Stuart says that marriage is just a piece of paper.

Vaughn disagrees, but thinks there’s more important things in life. I don’t.

Vaughn says, “I hope there is. If I’d been waiting to fall in love for 21 years I’d be a pretty manic depressive I should think”.

What is important in life according to Vaughn is living it, and some of his songs have to get serious to reflect this. “Yeah, the songs we’ve written in the past, even the ones we’re writing now, like “Fighting Irish” and “Somewhere Between Heaven and Tesco’s” do deal with serious subject matter. But I suppose life does have a certain amount of seriousness. Doesn’t it?”

“I avoid seriousness” says Stuart. And Vaughn gives him exactly the kind of look that says please play your drums off-beat.

Just for tonight.

No, Vic Still Ain’t Here

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Steve Sutherland – ‘Melody Maker’ – 2nd May, 1981

I bet you wouldn’t have resisted it either. Entering the unmarked door adjacent to The Blitz’s fly specked back entrance, I gave way to temptation, put on my straightest business face and in a dark brown voice asked the girl at the desk: “Is Vic Here?”.

She sighed, signalled upstairs with her thumb and calmly returned to her paper. I felt a right prat.

“Don’t worry,” says Vaughn Toulouse, Department S’s suave singer, “We’ve got nutters ringing up the office all the time going ‘Is Vic There?’ and putting the phone down.”

“Yeah” adds Mike (alias Bage) the guitarist. “People are phoning me at home doing it now”.

The cause of this irrepressible craze – as if you haven’t gathered – is the bands first single; the tale of a desperado-enlisting Busby to help locate a well known vapour rub. So much for letting your fingers do the walking!

“Vic”, currently charging up the charts, is what the business calls a sleeper. Released last December, it did the usual radio rounds, died an ignominious death, and apparently disappeared into the bargain bins forever. Not so – for some absurd reason the perky little platter wouldn’t lie down, though exactly why nobody seems sure.

“I reckon it’s cos the British public’s a bit slow,” opines Bage. “It began to get a bit more airplay so it started to sell a bit more and ‘course the more it sells, the more it gets played, and I s’pose the more they have it pumped into their pathetic brains, the more people have the need to go and buy it”.

Mark (alias Eddie Roxy) simply concludes “It’s a very good record” and Vaughn suggests it’s because “it doesn’t wear off like other records do. I think you can listen to ‘Vic’ time and time again without having to turn the radio off.”
And just who is the mysterious Vic?

EXPLANATION

“It was some bloke who phoned up the office one day and said ‘Oh, is Vic there’?” Bage’s answer in unconvincing.

“It was a wrong number, someone gave him a silly answer like ‘No, but Harry’s been in and out all day’ and the song came out of that.”

Enough of this pap, and down to the hard facts. Department S were formed “about eight months ago from a bunch of friends and friends of friends,” and took the name from the old Peter Wyngarde spoof detective series. They were assisted on their way up by Vaughn’s old chum and occasional TV personality Gary Crowley, and haven’t looked back since.

Gazza hustled around on their behalf until Clive Banks – Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe’s promoter – gave in under his persistent barrage, paid for them to record a demo, heard ‘Vic’, went suitably bananas, and immediately signed them to Jake Riviera’s F-Beat subsidiary, Demon Records.

In short, overnight success. “If it had been a struggle,” claims Vaughn, “we’d have given up by now. We’re a lazy bunch. We’ll work as a successful band but say in six months time we’ve gone down the pan, we’ll split because nobody wants to struggle in clubs for years”.

This cocky attitude has so far served them well, and they’ve managed to crack the Top Thirty without all the hassle of continuous gigging.

“Three weeks with The Spizzles was enough,” says Vaughn, referring to their recent trek around the country. “I don’t think we’re gonna do that again. We’re just gonna pick an area, go there and do a couple of dates over the weekend – it’ll be like a holiday and we wont get too knackered”. “There’s no way we could go out on tour for more than about ten dates without it getting messy in every way; Dress sense, on stage, everything. We wouldn’t be giving our best so we might as well do it this way and deliver the goods.”

Touring though has actually tightened them up considerably: “We can just close our eyes and play it all backwards now” claims Bage.

There was a time, however, in the not too distant past, when Department S had a reputation as an erratic live act. Bage flies onto the defensive. “That was blown out of all proportion. It was just that the first gig we did everyone kept falling over due to intake of certain substances. We’ve never really been that bad, we just couldn’t play before, that’s all. Now we’re good.” He stops and scratches his head. “No, we’re brilliant.”

No one blows their own trumpet like these boys. They make Bob Geldof sound like Harpo Marx.

“Well if you believe in yourself, who do you expect to believe in you?” ponders Vaughn. “I see no point in being modest. You’ve gotta think you’re good otherwise there’s no point in going on.”

But surely there are limits to this arrogance? I mean, bassist Tony Lordan and drummer Stuart Mizon haven’t even deigned to stay for the interview.

“They don’t think it was worth it so they just buggered off.” The others aren’t too keen to hang around either. Mark and Bage grow increasingly anxious that they’ll miss themselves on the ‘Top of the Pops’ chart rundown. And Vaughn’s committed to attending Radio 1’s “Newsbeat”.

Consternation grows worse when Jon Blackmore arrives to take some pictures. The lads claim they’re unprepared and further still the absent two will get the nark when they find out they’ve missed a photo session. Vaughn complains he hasn’t shaved, and Mark is scared he looks like Shakin’ Stevens in his denims. But they soon acquiesce, and then we can’t stop them launching into a lavish parade of outrageous poses.

Image is important to Department S. They’ve deliberately and successfully set out to avoid the pitfalls of dressing to order, and have been bravely willing to forgo the advantages of hitching a ride on the latest passing bandwagon in order to escape the inevitable commercial death that accompanies the decline of any ‘Movement’.

BOREDOM

“When we formed the group,” claims Bage, “It wasn’t the sort of thing where we went ‘Right, we’re gonna be like this.’ We didn’t have any ideas, and so what it’s turned into is naturally what just came through. We didn’t actually sit down and say ‘We’re gonna wear these clothes and we’re gonna sound like this. We just did it to do something about boredom, by forming a band.”

“That’s right,” agrees Vaughn. “By the end of the punk thing the UK Subs and The Cockney Rejects had made everyone bored, so we just did something about combating our boredom by forming a band.”

“And now we’re successful without having to make horrible records” adds Bage. “Just good ones.”

Vaughn, Bage and bassist Tony learned all about trying to pull a fast one when, as typically talentless, wide eyed teenagers, they formed a mess of a group called Guns For Hire and recorded a best forgotten ska single called “My Girlfriends Boyfriend” in a half hearted attempt to cash in on 2-Tone fever.

“That was just a joke” claims Vaughn. “It was just a group of friends who got together, couldn’t even play any instruments at first, and just took it from there. We just got a load of badges and stickers done – like taking the Rock’n’Roll Swindle one step further. Eventually though we jacked it in.”

There’s no particularly dominant member of the band, although Vaughn writes all the lyrics and mostly steals the limelight “Cos I’m the best lookin’ I s’pose.”

“We’re not a group as such,” he continues. “We’re five individuals that make Department S. It’s like a closed-circuit business-sort of a PIL set-up.”

The next step towards assured stardom is to press for their own label (they already have their own publishing company) and to release another single, “Going Left Right” when (if) “Vic” decides to give up the ghost for good.

A chip off the old block, the newie could well be massive, with another monolithic guitar intro giving way to an insistent synth motif, depth charge drums, and Vaughn’s voice – deeper and more forceful than ever – delivering a crushing criticism of the regimented routines nightly re-enacted on our club and disco floors.

A dab hand with lyrics, Vaughn used to write for ‘The Face’, although he claims it makes no difference having wielded the poison pen himself, preferring to plump for the old “all rock writers are frustrated musicians” line.

“I’d rather be in a band. I prefer the excess that I hope will go with it – the fame, the money, the fast cars, the fast women…”

Coming your way yet lads? “Slowly” they grimace and giggle together. “Very Slowly”.

Live Review and Article from the Dutch Magazine ‘Vinyl’ (1981)

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No more than halfway into playing the summer hit “Going Left Right” Tony Lordan gets hit on the head by several beer cans thrown at him by some skinheads. He flings his bass guitar up in the air and jumps off the towering stage, prepared for a fist-fight. Naturally, things don’t get this far and so Department S continue their unrewarding task of opening the NEW POP festival on the northern stage. Later on, addressing Tony, “You were rather hot-headed just then, weren’t you?” “Yes well that’s good for me,” is all he wants to say about it. So what kind of crowds do Department S play to? “We don’t have a specific kind of crowd; our audience is quite varied basically people who like dancing.” The performance in Rotterdam is the band’s debut outside England, their first appearance on a festival, and the first time they’ve played in the daytime. A slightly confused Vaughn Toulouse leaves the stage saying “Thank you. Goodnight”.

PACE

Department S look rather tough: lots of leather, sunglasses, berets, and Vaughn is wearing a policeman-type cap. The band name does have a rather militant ring to it, but as it turns out, it stems from a cop show on TV. “We were looking for a name that sounded right and everyone came up with suggestions, but Department S was the only name we all agreed not to disagree on.” Their previous incarnation was Guns For Hire (“another name that sounds nice”), who recorded one single for Korova Records entitled “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend”, but this one failed miserably. Department S have been around for well over a year now (since July 1980) and their first single “Is Vic There?” was received with wild enthusiasm. It was recorded for the indie label Demon (“to attract attention from the record companies”) which introduced the band to their present manager, Gary Crowley. Department S signed with Stiff for their second single “Going Left Right”, a label which allows them to have total freedom, including sleeve design. The current single is also doing well, all the more reason for the band to push themselves to the limit. “Yes, well, things have been going fast after all. After the success we’ve been having with the first single we weren’t prepared for it at all, but now things seem to be going fast for the public, rather, whereas we get the impression that things are happening at the right pace. Our feet are firmly on the ground and we want to keep things that way too”, explains Tony. Vaughn: “This is our first big performance, but it isn’t what we want, really. We prefer to play smaller clubs.”

GOOD TIME

The main rationale behind forming Department S was their desire to escape the humdrum of a “normal” job, the same as with other bands. “We’re into havin’ a good time.” Punk proved to be the common denominator and provided the band members with a starting-point for making music instead, the only remaining alternative. Besides Vaughn and Tony there is Mike Herbage (Bage) on guitar, Stuart Mizon on drums, and Mark Taylor on keyboards (who replaced Eddy Roxy – now a member of Dream Sequence – after the debut single release).

Dream Sequence

Besides Vaughn and Tony there is Mike Herbage (Bage) on guitar, Stuart Mizon on drums, and Mark Taylor on keyboards (who replaced Eddy Roxy – now a member of Dream Sequence – after the debut single release). “Just like nearly all bands these days, punk was what brought us together, though few people realize this. It was mostly the Pistols’ attitude which appealed to us.”

This does not mean that Department S are a punk band. Of course there are distinct punk influences, but just as much is taken from pop and rock, some things from the blues even, as in “Whatever Happened To The Blues”, a song dealing with speed, characterized by danceable rhythm, short strong melodies on guitar and keyboards, and brief, snappy vocals. “We’re a dance band, that’s right. Not in the conventional sense, but like you can dance to lots of music nowadays, says Vaughn. Tony, on the other hand, feels that what they create is not merely entertainment. “You should be able to dance to music, okay, but it should also be alright to play it in your bedroom, if that’s what you feel like.”

Not that Department S have any particular statement to make. “Of course some opinions are incorporated in the lyrics, but people will have to think about them themselves. What’s more, everyone has different points of views within the band .” Tony: “We’re a group, as in a group of individuals. Of course we have similar points of view but those are rather obvious things. Everyone opposes fascism, for instance, but there’s no need to state that kind of thing, is there?”

GLAM

Their roots are as varied as their views, except perhaps that none of them like “heavy hard rock”. “Vaughn loves glam rock, and Iggy Pop, whereas I like The Beatles and The Small Faces; Bage is bonkers about Lou Reed and Stuart for example is a funk freak”.

Tony keeps on rambling and sometimes finds it hard to leave part of the talking to Vaughn. “I’m not used to interviews”, he says afterwards. Two more singles are in the pipeline, of which “Clap Now / Monte Carlo Or Bust” is the third, which will include “Put All The Crosses In The Right Boxes” as a bonus track. What will be on the fourth one is still a matter of debate. Recordings for an LP will begin at the end of this year. How many songs released as singles will end up on the album? “Possibly two, maybe none. It depends on how many songs we’re yet to write. At the moment we haven’t got a great deal of time for rehearsing, but sometimes, all of a sudden, we get productive.” Department S: Going Alright.

ANN BOUMA

We’re Not Just a Bunch of Silly Cults

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Here, as I so astutely observed in my recent singles reviewette, we have what we in the trade call a tricky one. Clocking the five characters collectively known as Department S, you quickly realise that they are as motley a crew as you could wish to find this side of a menagerie.

The voice, Vaughn Toulouse: sharp dresser, cock sure, bit of suss. Bage: chubby guitarist, frilly shirt, tartan trews, sweet smile. Bassist Tony Lordan: Sta prests, doc martins, 2-tone chic. Stuart Mizon: sticksman, chubby in crombie. Eddie Roxy: swishly hair styled synth player.

Seewhaddamean? This ensemble have been looking unusual together for 8 months now, brought together by their mutual desire to avoid real work of any kind, and a wish to form a ‘proper’ group after the short lived Guns For Hire.

Vaughn, Bage, and Tony were those involved, but prefer not to harp on about GFH cos they felt justly miffed that when the band was in existence everybody ignored them but since Department S, the subject of the Guns just keeps coming up. For posterity, Vaughn and Bage, seated in the surprisingly Spartan surroundings of the Boomtown Rats office (only one gold disc!) set the record straight with regard to this one.

Bage: “Guns For Hire wasn’t really a group. We got a record deal before we had any songs, so we had to come up with two.”

Vaughn: “And Ska being the thing of the moment, we jumped on the bandwagon and fell off!”

Bage: “Blatantly, very blatantly.”

Vaughn: “We got offered a deal with 2-Tone – The Specials were after us.”

Bage: “They never caught us though.”

Vaughn: “Our bandwagon was going too fast.”

With that spectre successfully laid to rest, I ascertained that Dept S had swanned into a deal with Jake Riviera’s Demon label with consummate ease, the result of which is ‘Is Vic There?’, that natty little number that made it’s muddled little mark. Bage was pretty straightforward about it: “The only thing we’ve relied on is talent…. It’s the best way to do it. You don’t want to bugger around playing for years do you?” If you’ve got it, flaunt it?

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Vaughn: “It’s just a case of, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and we know who the right people are. I’m the only one who knows Jake, but I think he’s a good geezer. An alright character.”

Bage (modestly): “It’s not just that, we just happen to have a few good songs as well. I reckon our single’s brilliant myself. If it was rubbish, it don’t matter who you know, they’d tell you wouldn’t they? If they think they’re going to make money out of it, they’ll do it. It just happens to be good.”

True, true, but it is a real box of mixed biscuits; bits of psychedelia, bits of nouveau technology and bits of good old guitaring. Bage explains why: “It’s all different ’cause none of us are into one sort of thing. We all listen to different records. I mean, we could say lets all dress the same so we’ve got an image. You’ve got your Spandau Ballet, they’ve got the cult with no name, we’re the band with no cult, basically.”

Vaughn: “We’re different people, with different characters. It’s no good us dressing up the same and pretending to like the same things ’cause we don’t, that would be false.”

Bage: “You can’t even put a tag on us, which we like, you can’t say they’re a punk group or this or that and the other, cos we ain’t. We just make good records. Well, we’ve made one good one!”

Vaughn reckoned they’d well and truly covered the options with their 57 varieties brand of music: “I think we’ll outlast bands like Spandau because it’s not all fad to us. We can apply to any sort of cult, verging on a lot of things.”

Bage, it turns out, is responsible for the dreamy psychedelic quality. And the mysterious Eddie Roxy plays the echoing electronics, but never says anything. He spent most of the interview looking longingly at my ‘lovely’ legs (fool!). Vaughn is the man behind the cover versions of Bolan and Roxy. But they don’t stand rigidly behind their tastes. Vaughn elucidated: “Bage said to me: Listen to the first two Pink Floyd albums – so I did. God…..They were alright, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I think we’ve all listened to them now, that’s fair enough. But I’ll tell him to take it off and listen to a Marc Bolan album or something and he will.”

Despite impressions to the contrary, Vaughn isn’t a Bolan freak, in fact his hero is James Cagney, the old Yankee Doodle Dandy trip, a fact that made itself obvious when he executed a neat shrug of the shoulders, dirty rat style. Down to earth Tony did reveal one common influence though: “You don’t get a band coming together from different directions – we all came from punk rock, we were all into that.

I suppose we’ve all drifted off into our own directions that we were into before that, but in a new way, with fresh ideas.”

Bage: “But we’re doing it properly this time instead of buggering it up.”

Vaughn: “Even Marc Bolan, though he changed it to a vast degree, was doing sort of long guitar solo’s and drum breaks. The New York Dolls hit that on the head, but no one knew about them until mid ’77.”

Not exactly plundering the archives, but taking the best and bringing it up to date?

Bage: “It’s not consciously taking the past, it’s just what’s in your head. If you’ve got crummy stuff there you won’t use it, will you? You don’t go back to 1974 and say, ah, that was a good riff, we’ll have that one.” Vaughn got to the bare bones of the matter: “Basically, none of us want to work. That’s why we’re doing it. Everybody’s on the dole and moaning about it at the moment, but I think it’s great. I’ve been on the dole for three years. It’s triffic.”

I probed them about their definition of themselves as being ‘The 1980’s produce of 25 years of rock’, but got a politicians answer.
Vaughn: “We’re all Jeff Bridges fans. There’ll be lots of groups coming out soon naming themselves after television shows, it’ll be the next big thing.”

Tony: “The Waltons are coming soon.”

Various band members gave away their age by remembering Department S and Peter Wyngarde with startling accuracy: that ‘tache, the awful haircut, the frilly shirts, (just like the one Bage was wearing!) and how he disgraced himself in a public toilet.

“But we don’t cover that side” assured Vaughn, “That’s not an influence”. Their real influences (yes, they do admit to them) range from Lou Reed, James Brown, and Bow-Wow Wow to Edith Piaf. But not Vic Godard. I’d read somewhere that the legendary Vic that they wished to track down on vinyl was that man, but such an idea was met with screams of denial.

Bage: “Can we throw her out the window now?”

Tony: “It’s Victor Mature actually.”

Vaughn: “Vic Godard can have it if he wants it. I hear he’s been looking for it. He’s not one of my heroes though. Not a James Cagney.”

Dept S haven’t been that easy to catch live of late, and those gigs they have done have varied wildly in quality. Again it comes down to internal disagreement.

Bage: “Some of us like playing, the others don’t. I hate it, Tony loves it. To me it’s a necessary evil, to him it’s a reason to get drunk.”

Tony fought back: “I just don’t like the idea of going back to the late 60’s, early 70’s bloody studio band thing. It’s pathetic.”
Vaughn prefers playing eventful places like the Rainbow and Hammy Palais, but rejects the so-called prestigious venues like The Marquee, which he calls ‘a pit’. That doesn’t mean they approve of the secret gig syndrome.

Bage: “If we played a secret gig, no-one would turn up! We’ve played in small places most of the time, it’s always been our mates turning up. Spandau Ballet make a big thing about it, but we’ve been doing it for yonks. I suppose I don’t like playing half the time ’cause you get morons coming along who take no notice, who’re just there for the piss up and all that crap. It’s a pain in the arse lugging gear about, not getting a sound check, all that crap. I’d rather stay at home and watch the telly.”

Vaughn: “You can’t win, it’s hard at the top.”

Bage: “It’ll be even worse when we get there.”

Such a happy band, always telling jokes. Despite the fact that John Peel likes them, Dept S aren’t doom and gloom merchants. In fact, they’re seriously thinking of assassinating Vaughn so they can sell more records. Fame, money, more fame and prosperity is all they ask for. It’s early days yet.

Bage: “Not a lot has happened to us. We’ve got quite a lot of press for what we’ve done. We don’t phone people up and say we’re brilliant, but people have heard of us. Probably something to do with Crowley.” (As in Gary, band publicist/TV personality/Jam fanatic).

Vaughn: “But there’s not much competition. We will get big. Every 5 years you get an excellent band – Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin (!), T.Rex, Pistols and now…”

Bage: “I suppose it’ll be more interesting talking to us in about a years time, single at number one, walking down the road and getting mobbed…”

I remarked that I found them refreshingly honest. (No, not conceited!) Bage puts his foot in it: “It’s no good coming out with a load of bull though. You should have seen us at the Rock Garden though, we were brilliant?” Well, if you think you’re good…

They played me a tape of a session done for Richard Skinner, which included their next single, a funkier, dance oriented number, but again totally different from their other tracks. It’s as if parts of them become dominant in turn: tantalisingly herd to pin tags onto, which is just the way they like to keep it.

We retired to The Pretenders’ office (more gold discs in there!) to take pix. While Tony was trying to hide behind Bage, Vaughn was preoccupied with the way his jacket hung and expressed a desire to spread himself across a desk, playgirl-fashion, just like Montgomery Clift used to do.

If they don’t end up scratching each other’s eyes out, the delicate love/hate balance currently at work in Department S should see some more damn fine ditties coming our way. How can a band named as Paul Weller’s fave new rave possibly fail?

Between Boots and Ballet Shoes

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Whoever Vic is, wherever Vic is, he can’t take the credit for inspiring a very, very fine record. Written on the strength of a phone-call that turned out to be a wrong number, ‘Is Vic There?’ is the first single by some bunch calling themselves Department S. It’s good, alright, and so are they. But you needn’t take my word for it: in the recent NME Winners Poll, being chosen as a fave new act by Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton, with an additional ‘best single’ nomination by Weller as well.

I’d last seen four of the London five piece just as they were emerging from the ruins of a group called Guns For Hire, at a Rock Garden debut which singer Vaughn Toulouse was later to sum up as “A drunken bloody mess” – not a million miles from my own impression of the event, as it happened.
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Department S aren’t used to the interview game yet and they discuss themselves with a succession of reluctant shrugs and mumbles, unwilling to try and define their music too closely, and partly suspicious after Vaughn had found himself grotesquely misquoted in a Hot Press piece last week. (But then you often find that the most eager, articulate talkers, who’ll theorise about their work until the cows come home, are the ones least capable of delivering where it really counts: in the music itself.) Toulouse, incidentally, has only recently finished a stint as a critic himself, contributing reviews to The Face.

Anyway, the facts are these. The quartet which made its chaotic debut in London last July, soon grew to five-piece with the introduction of synth player Eddie Roxy – who left soon after to form his own synth-oriented group. His replacement is Mark Taylor, who doubles between synth and guitar: “Because the synth isn’t important enough in our sound to warrant a full time player. The main reason we got it in the first place was just to fill out the sound – not to get all Gary Numan.” Apart from Taylor and Toulouse, there’s Michael Herbage on guitar, Tony Lordan on bass and Stuart Mizon on drums.

Back in the Guns For Hire days the group barely gigged at all, but did come up with one interesting single: “My Girlfriends Boyfriend” on Korova was a kind of stroppy punk with a ska edge. But it didn’t set the world alight. With a change of personnel came the re-think, and a change of name. “It was a different group. It was fairer on the new ones. It was the first time we had a real group – GFH was never a real group”. Having struck up an association with Jake Riviera, the new Department S found themselves with the chance to put out a 45 on Riviera’s Demon label – resulting in the enigmatic and tense ‘Is Vic There?’, backed by a knockabout version of Bolan’s ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’, both sides produced by ex-Mott The Hooplers Overend Watts and Buffin, who the band met through friends The Nips.

It was a rather unadventurous choice for a B-side, though the band themselves are less than happy with it, putting it down to running out of studio time and lack of control over mixing. “We did it for a joke in the first place, cos we didn’t have enough songs.
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None of us was there when it was mixed. I really don’t like that song”, Vaughn explains. “It’s about the worst song Bolan ever wrote. But all the best ones have been done, like the Banshees did 20th Century Boy”.

The follow up single will be ‘Clap Now’ which they describe, pulling faces, as “Psychedelic Funk….with glam-rock drums”. And if that sounds confused, it’s meant to. “We’re all different people really, all of us are having our own say”.

Two of the group’s bigger breaks so far have come with support slots for Toots & The Maytals (“except the crowds wouldn’t listen cos we were different. I remember these kids at Cardiff shouting ‘C’mon, skank it up boyo’ and I just thought ‘Aw, fuck off’ “) and, more successfully with The Jam (“the only headliners to give us a decent sound check”). What remains to be seen is whether Department S can ever create a sizeable audience of their own. “Short hair music” is the definition that Vaughn Toulouse favours, but he stresses that their main aim is to find and provide an alternative – both to the elitism of Spandau Ballet & Co. and to the bootboy boredom of present punk.

Not that the band are ready to make any great claims for themselves. The reckless abandon of their stage act contrasts with the cautious reserve they display in other areas: “We haven’t signed anything. We haven’t even got a manager. We don’t want to jump in until we know what we want to do. We’re all fairly inexperienced in group things”.

At the same time, they repeatedly assure me they’re not taking it seriously, that “it’s still a laugh”. So can they succeed? I think that they can if they can find the will, they’ll find there’s a way.

Firing Blanks

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Guns For Hire toss off numbers like they couldn’t give an expletive. In spite of being a band that’s gathering a bit of a reputation for itself, they were happy to make this night’s gig a casual shambles; they didn’t betray a trace of ambition, nor care or anxiety to impress. And yet, in some confused and chaotic way, impressive is just about what they were. 

Guns For Hire, apparently special friends of this contingent, responded with a performance directed entirely for their benefit; and if the resultant atmosphere of rowdy camaraderie was enjoyable as spectacle, it did tend to leave the rest of us on the outside looking in. But it doesn’t matter; for all the cheerful boasts of incompetence and under-rehearsal, Guns For Hire gave a demonstration of that same promise you can detect in their first single, the argumentative “My Girlfriends Boyfriend”. A frankly stroppy song, it shows off the band’s exuberant aggression well enough, but it can be a mite misleading – it’s punch-drunk ska feel is by no means indicative of their whole sound, which veers more towards a sort of modernist punk. Line-up wise, GFH are your basic guitar-bass-drums outfit plus a singer who – whilst his onstage behaviour is completely in keeping with the band’s (i.e. seems pissed) – lets the side down a trifle with some unnecessarily contrived vocals: basically a low, sonorous tremble, reminiscent of Bowie at his more ponderous, or Lou Reed anytime.

In between some unapologetic apologies like, “We ain’t learned this one yet”, they’d amble and crash through such numbers as ‘Age Concern’ and ‘Product’ – two songs, in particular, which sounded as interesting on the lyrical side as they’re raucous on the musical. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the time or place, least of all in this packed and suffocating dungeon of a gig, to judge a comparatively inexperienced outfit’s present abilities or potential.

From The All Music Guide:

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Fronted by the flamboyantly mysterious Vaughn Toulouse, Department S haunted the fringes of the new wave scene like a batty aunt, looking down its nose at the chaotic strivings of its peers, while the band, itself, managed a career of such controlled chaos that it was no surprise whatsoever to discover that its was originally conceived as a non-existent concept. By the time the parties responsible for that earlier jape finally picked up musical instruments and began to actually play, half the record companies in Britain were chasing them; “Is Vic There?” — the band’s so-memorable debut single — still bristles with the excitement of the age, a new wave anthem that should have set them up for life. Instead, an album recorded for Stiff went unreleased and, while there were a couple of more singles, Department S had folded by 1982. It would be another decade — and in the aftermath of Toulouse’s death — before the album was finally given a release, but it was instantly revealed as everything the band had ever promised. Even “Is Vic There?” is occasionally humbled by its highlights (“Somewhere Between Heaven and Tescos”, “Age Concern”), while “Going Left Right” stands among the finest songs of the entire post-punk early ’80s. Sub-Stance rounds up the entire Department S catalogue, opening with the album and continuing with five live tracks, four forgotten B-sides (including a tremendous cover of T. Rex’s “Solid Gold Easy Action”), and an early demo. The resulting 22-track anthology should go a long way toward re-establishing Department S as every bit the legend they once threatened to be – DAVE THOMPSON

From Leonard’s Lair.com:

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History tells us that ‘Is Vic There?’ was the highlight of Department S’s career. A supposed one-hit wonder, the single found its way into the top 30 back in 1980 thanks to increased airplay for this hitherto underground hit. Not for the first time though, the commercial success killed the band.

Faced with the pressure of a record company clamouring for more hits, the members soon split; deciding to do what in modern terms would be to ‘keep it real’ rather than sell out. Until now the album remained unreleased but the ever-exhaustive LTM Records have seen fit to issue the whole album with various bonus tracks. Although never quite being at the top of the game in their two main forms of music i.e. post-punk and new wave, this is a skeleton worth retrieving from the cupboard. In front man Vaughn Toulouse they had a voice whose demeanour and monotone made him a charismatic figure. They successfully negotiated the usual morose routes by developing a knack for expediency and aggression. There’s the white-funk of ‘Fighting Irish’ and singles ‘I Want’ and ‘Going Left Right’ matched ‘Is Vic There?’ for swagger and military precision. The five live recordings even surpass the originals in some cases, ‘Clap Now’ in particular packs a much bigger punch than the Substance version. ‘Tell Me About It’ was their shot at a more commercial route and to be fair it does not compromise their earlier vigour at all. With B-sides of the calibre of ‘Put All The Crosses In The Right Boxes’ they make as competitive rivals for The Nightingales for lyrical bite and incisiveness. Happily, there’s enough material here to rank them above the usual ‘Where Are They Now?’ status.

From Whisperin & Hollerin:

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As we all know, the road to pop stardom is littered with also-rans and chancers, many who can easily and deservedly be dismissed as ‘One-Hit Wonders.’

But fate can also be equally cruel to artists who show true potential and fall by the wayside due to a combination of bad luck, circumstances and – often – a gross lack of faith from the self same record company that initially welcomed the unfortunate band to their collective bosom. DEPARTMENT S sadly fell into this latter category. Those of you out there who can still recall them will no doubt remember their one (actually bloody great) brush with stardom, the punchily atmospheric “Is Vic There?” that hit the Top 30 in April 1981 and brought Top Of The Pops appearances, unstoppable hype and – perhaps inevitably – the band’s premature crash and burn barely 12 months later.

Over (crikey) two decades later on, “…Vic” still sounds as potent and smart as ever, led by Mike Herbage’s scorching guitar, mysterioso keyboards and Vaughn Toulouse’s charismatic baritone. It’s as impressive an introduction as any band could wish for, but it’s by no means the whole story, as “Sub-Stance” proves, proffering 22 tracks in all; ransacking the band’s entire (and unfortunately slim) archive.

The first 12 tracks are DEPARTMENT S’s criminally unreleased album (Stiff rejected it, refusing to release the master tapes for less than £50,000, thus causing the band to splinter) and listening to it now you wonder why they invested such little faith in this fine quintet as these songs drip with charisma and distinctiveness. Indeed, while DEPARTMENT S may have been spawned by two disparate movements (Mod and New Romantic respectively), by the time they got to record these songs – with BLONDIE engineer David Tickle at the controls – they were a powerhouse.

For starters, it’s hard to see why “…Vic”s follow-up singles failed, as the manic “Going Left Right” and the dark and challenging “I Want” are within hailing distance of similar genius, but there are loads of other fine tunes here: indeed “Ode To Koln,” the strident opener “Of All The Lost Followers” and the band’s under-exposed secret weapon “Clap Now” are the equal of any of the singles. Musically, too, DEPARTMENT S seemed to have it cracked. In Mike Herbage they had a ceaselessly powerful and inventive guitarist; in Vaughn Toulouse they had a nicely arrogant front man with a great line in acerbic wordplay (check “Clap Now” and the sarcastic, but sinister ego overload of “I Want” and you’ll see what I mean) and the meatily effective Tony Lordan/Stuart Mizon rhythm section had a propensity for bastardised disco beats good enough to challenge Blondie or the Gang Of Four respectively.

The remainder of the collection hardly lets the side down, either. Tracks 13-17 represent DEPT S at their best live, running through the singles, “Clap Now” and the unrecorded “Tell Me About It” with verve, consistency and power to spare. “Tell Me…” is considerably more commercial than most of the band’s material, but even when they gave it up to the funk like so many white boy outfits at the time they retained their integrity.

Intriguingly, the final clutch of B-sides and out-takes maintain the standard. OK, the daft cover of T-REX’s “Solid Gold Easy Action” could be happily jettisoned, but the brilliant “She’s Expecting You”, “Monte Carlo Or Bust” and Toulouse’s ironic suicide scenario “Put All The Crosses In The Right Boxes” suggest that DEPARTMENT S – like all great bands – had established their own special identity with their B-sides alone.

Pressure, circumstances and ego tragically curtailed DEPARTMENT S’s obviously enormous potential and the terrible premature death of Vaughn Toulouse from an AIDS-related illness in 1991 places an incredibly sad post-script at the end of the story. Nonetheless, “Substance” is a more than welcome release that should ensure Toulouse and co’s work gains at least real posthumous attention. However belated, respect is unquestionably due here. (9/10) – TIM PEACOCK