No, Vic Still Ain’t Here
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?
“It was some bloke who phoned up the office one day and said ‘Oh, is Vic there’?” Bage’s answer in unconvincing.
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”.
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’.
“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”.