From Whisperin & Hollerin:
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