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?

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