Between Boots and Ballet Shoes
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.