HISTORY & BACKGROUND
Act One: Setting The Scene (maannn)
By mid-1978, the punk scene in London was all but dead in the water. The initial burst of energy and creativity was a spent force. Although great bands such as Buzzcocks and Generation X had only just released their debut albums, these were made up largely of material that was 18 months old. It had just taken the A&R men time to cotton onto something that had come from the streets.
Punk had served its purpose. The Pistols had exploded into a freak show circus. Like all the best youth culture phenomenon, they burned bright, outshone all around them, and called it a day. Sadly, a section of the scene couldn’t move on and the door was left open for groups such as Discharge, Anti-Pasti, and Crass who were regurgitating the same old themes and sounds of the previous two years, only without the style of The Clash or creativity of a Lydon or Weller. No fun.
Once punk had become a cliché of King’s Road poseurs acting out the part for tourists, other scenes started to spring up in various corners of the city. These included a club called Billy’s on Dean Street in Soho This was a club run by Rusty Egan and Steve Harrington, who later went onto fame with the band Visage. The theme was Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy, Kraftwerk, and Euro disco. The look was to dress up.
An antidote to the onsetting punk uniform of the likes of The UK Subs. Punk had been about self-expression and individuality, now it had become the regimented uniform of leather jacket, ripped up jeans, and a dog on a string! Fuck that! Billy’s pulled in no more than 30 punters on Tuesday nights, but this was the scene that was to spawn the legendary Blitz club. Meanwhile, another group of disaffected punks had started listening to their old Small Faces, Creation, and Who records…The sharp dress ethos, as well as the snappy guitar driven power pop sounds, had inspired them to create something new from the past. Two bands instigated the new Mod scene: The Purple Hearts from Romford and The Chords from Deptford. They started playing regular gigs at The Wellington pub at Waterloo. Again, at first there were only a handful of followers, but this was soon to spawn a nationwide explosion of new Modernism.
Act Two: The ‘Real’ Swindle
The story of Department S begins in the origins of these two scenes, which, although miles apart style- and music-wise, shared a common belief in the rejection of the darkness and apathy that punk had fallen into. Time to move on, time to get sharp.
This time in London club/gig history was exciting and fertile. There were bands to go and see every night of the week and by 1979 you could choose between such artistes as Human League, Stray Cats, Madness, The Specials, Fad Gadget, The Chords, Soft Cell and many more.
A group of friends, who were regular gig goers, decided (over a few beers too many!) to form a band of their own. The name for the band was to be Guns For Hire. All they needed now was some musical instruments and the ability to start playing them. The main core of Guns consisted of Vaughn Toulouse, Tony Lordan, and Gary Crowley. The playing side of the project was a consideration, but the lads decided to pre-empt fame by having Guns For Hire badges and stickers made up first. The music could wait…
As the stickers gradually turned up on the walls and trains of the London underground system and badges were distributed amongst friends, something rather strange happened.
One night at a gig in Aylesbury, a punter came up to one of the (non-existent) Guns and gestured admiringly at his GFH badge. The punter then continued to extol the virtues of Guns For Hire, who, he claimed, he had seen play live only the night before! This called for some positive action. Gary Crowley relayed the story to his boss, Clive Banks, promoter for Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. After much badgering by Gary, Banks agreed to stump up the cash for the Guns to record a demo. Only one problem with this rock ‘n’ roll swindle: unlike the Sex Pistols, Guns For Hire couldn’t play a note between them, even if they had existed!
At the news of this upcoming recording session, Vaughn and Tony decided to take on the Guns mantle, while Gary was to be the band’s manager. Deciding that having a couple of people involved who could ‘play’ would be a good idea, Vaughn and Tony enlisted the services of Mike Herbage, a friend of Tony’s (who had met, each under the misapprehension that the other wanted to start a fight!) and one John Hasler, original drummer with Madness. Suddenly things were moving…
Herbage and Toulouse came up with a punk infused ska epistle called “I’m Gonna Rough My Girlfriends Boyfriend Up Tonight”. The stickers were still getting stuck and 2,000 badges had now been sold. Guns For Hire hadn’t even played in public. Polydor Records offered to put the group into the studio to record. ‘Swindle’? You better believe it.
The demo of ‘Boyfriend’ and a punkabilly version of the Banshees’ ‘Staircase Mystery’ were enough for Korova records to offer a one-off single deal. The Guns now had two songs to their name. Zig Zag Magazine printed a full-page article about the group in their 100th edition in late 1979. Malcolm McLaren would have been proud of this one!
‘My Girlfriends Boyfriend’ was recorded at a dingy recording studio in Camden Town. It was released by Korova, early 1980. Elvis Costello sang its praises. Jesus.
The music press gave the single decent reviews, but by now people wanted to know if this mythical group was ever going to play live. This was a definite no-no as far as Guns For Hire was concerned; they only had two songs and had no wish to play live. It was all one big joke and that’s how they wanted it to stay. They had made a single and that’s as far as it wasgoing to go.
Guns For Hire made their live debut in August 1980 at The Rock Garden in London’s Covent Garden. The NME reviewed the gig and to the Guns amazement Paul Du Noyer actually liked the show. This was now getting ridiculous. A matter of months before, the group was a nonexistent joke and now they had released a record, had been made offers by major record labels, and a gig that the group themselves described as ‘a drunken bloody mess’ had gotten a decent review in the most prestigious music weekly in the country!
Act Three: Let’s Get Serious
After several more live shows around London, Guns For Hire sat themselves down and decided what to do next. The joke had been played out and a laugh had by all concerned. It was a case of enough is enough or to take it all a stage further. John Hasler decided to call it a day. The rest decided to continue but felt that the joke had gone on long enough. A name change was called for. After suggestions varying from The Discords to The Signet Committee, the name Department S was decided upon. It was taken from the TV detective spoof of the same name.
After several line up changes (including a bloke called Sam on synth who was found to be a fan of Rick Wakeman – he just had to go) Department S finally got it together and started playing live around London’s thriving live circuit.
They now had all of six original songs and two cover versions (Roxy Music’s ‘Editions of You’ and Bolan’s ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’). The music itself was difficult to pin down, influences ranged from Syd Barrett and Marc Bolan, to Lydon himself. Psychedelic Glam Punk I suppose you’d call it, with a pinch of Pop Art thrown in for good measure. Gary Crowley described it as ‘the culmination of 25 years of rock music’. Hmmm…
By now Department S had got something of a reputation on the London live circuit and Clive Banks talked Jake Riviera into recording the group for a single to be released on his Demon Records label. It was decided that “Is Vic There?” would be the single. It was recorded in a converted front room studio in Shepherds Bush and was produced by Dale Griffin and Pete Watts, formerly of Mott The Hoople. The result was a track that was a mixture of Syd’s Pink Floyd, mixed with the urgency of Iggy. The press loved it and Department S got their first single of the week in Sounds magazine. The B-side was a cover of ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’. The backing vocals were originally recorded by the just formed Bananarama, but sadly the girls’ vocal ability was, shall we say, in it’s infancy. Thunder Thighs (Mott’s backing singers on ‘Roll Away The Stone’) was called in to do the job properly.
The single got the group a lot of press and a couple of support slots on tours with Toots and the Maytalls and The Spizzles followed. At this stage the line up was: Vaughn Toulouse – vocals, Mike Herbage – guitar, Tony Lordan – bass, Stuart Mizon – drums, Anthony Lloyd-Barnes – synth. This was about to change when Mark Taylor replaced Lloyd-Barnes.
By now things got a little more serious and a management deal was struck with Clive Banks. A publishing deal was also agreed with ATV music (now owned by Paul McCartney). More live dates followed and the group was now a lot tighter due to the tours that they had undertaken. Interviews in the press, photo shoots, and sessions on BBC radio were all to follow. Not only that, but Department S now had the backing of, of all people, The Jam, who, due to Gary Crowley’s friendship with Paul Weller, the band had supported at The Rainbow in London. Sadly, bad news was to arrive.
“Is Vic There?” had been out for about four months, got a bit of airplay on underground radio and had been a hit on the indie charts. In the natural scheme of things, that’s how it should have stayed. But what with all the press attention and the tours and radio play, “Is Vic There?” entered the national charts.
Up until this point the whole thing had been a lot of fun, but now Department S were to discover what an unpleasant place the music industry can really be. The single stayed in the charts for twelve weeks and three Top of the Pops appearances ensued. Suddenly this infamous little indie group was news. Things changed considerably. Tours followed, lots of press exposure in the national press as well as the music media, and concerts in Europe (including an appearance at the New Pop Festival in Rotterdam in front of 200,000 people!). At this time The Jam were the biggest group in the country and swept away all opposition in the NME reader’s polls. In the winner’s poll, Paul Weller voted Department S best new act, best songwriters, and voted Mike Herbage best guitarist in the country. Egos were growing, fun was conspicuous by it’s absence.
Tensions were beginning to rise within the group and personality clashes were becoming more frequent. This was added to by the management’s growing interference in musical policy. A new single was recorded as follow-up to ‘Vic’. “Clap Now” had been a live favourite and was one of the group’s best songs. It was rejected outright by the record company and management alike (‘Great piece of art lads, but not a hit single’)
“Going Left-Right” was decided upon as the next single. The group wasn’t happy as they felt that “Clap Now” was a much stronger track. By this stage a new producer had been flown in from America, David Tickle, who had been engineer on Blondie’s classic LP, “Parallel Lines”.
Not only did Tickle take up a substantial amount of the £70k advance that Department S had received when signing a major deal with Stiff records, but he really failed to grasp the ideas and sound that the group was trying to produce. He was basically a hippie. So much for ‘artistic freedom’.
By now, the conflicts within the group had got to such a stage that something had to give. Individuals were behaving badly and things were falling apart. At this stage, Tony Lordan left the group and with him went the soul of anything it stood for. Jimmy Hughes, formerly of The Banned and Cowboys International, replaced him. Neither group fulfilled it’s potential, Jimmy’s luck wasn’t about to change with Department S.
Recording of the first album was now under way, and considering the pressures and upheavals of the previous few months, things went fairly smoothly. The new single was selling reasonably well and had gotten favourable reviews. More tours followed plus TV appearances and more radio sessions.
“Going Left-Right” hadn’t sold as well as ‘Vic’ but had gotten into the lower reaches of the charts. It was a massive, beat-driven, aggressive song with brilliant psychedelic guitar, courtesy of Mark Taylor, and trance-like synthesisers. It just wasn’t what was getting onto the charts at the time.
Psychedelic Punk for the 80’s, it was never going to hit the top ten. The group was annoyed that “Clap Now” had been blocked as a single and Stiff started to get in a sweat. They assumed that the new single would sell as well as ‘Vic’ and that’s when support from both the record company and management started to disappear…
The LP – to be titled “Sub-Stance” – had been completed and it was just a matter of time now before it’s release, or so the group thought. The record company demanded a new single. “I Want” was offered up. It had already been recorded at the same time as “Left-Right” and was earmarked as a future single. It was the first time that this inexperienced outfit had had to sit down and write a song to order. Toulouse and Herbage, being the group’s chief songwriters, set about coming up with a hit single. It didn’t work. The record got a mixed reception from the press and sold abysmally in England, though it fared better in Europe.
Morale was at an all time low within the camp. Not only that, but a divide and rule ideal seemed to be management policy. Herbage had become increasingly alienated during some recent European trips and his behaviour was becoming ever more eccentric, to say the least. Some might say antisocial. When other members of the band took a more commercial stance, the portents were becoming ominous.
Act Four: The Death Knell
After some headline dates in Spain, Department S returned to England and were called to a meeting with the management. They were informed that Stiff had decided to terminate their contract and not only that, but that they were not going to release the LP that had taken 2 months and £50k to record. The band was shattered.
The end was in sight. At first there was no panic. When Department S had signed to Stiff, there were any number of labels they could have signed to. These parties, so the management informed the band, would be only too willing to step in. What they hadn’t banked on was Stiff refusing to let go of the master tapes for less than the £50k they had cost.
Meanwhile some members of the group were making wholesale musical policy changes. A more chart friendly pop sound (in the style of ABC – who were becoming massive at the time) was decided upon. This did not go down well with Mike Herbage, whose stance was that the band should stick to it’s guns and not try to jump aboard the nearest bandwagon. After increasing friction and some rather stormy arguments, Herbage was politely asked to leave the group.
That was basically the end of the band. They had lost their heart when Lordan left and their main creative music writer when Herbage went. They carried on for a few months but never played live again and released no more records. They split shortly after. Management had shown little if any support when the going got tough. They were only interested while they thought a fast buck could be made. The same went for Stiff records, whose support was needed by such an inexperienced bunch. The punk ideals that had served Stiff so well when they released records by The Damned had seemed to go the way of every other moral code with the advent of the 1980’s.
Department S were by no means world beaters. They had potential, which sadly, never had the chance to be fulfilled. Inexperienced management, with kids who wanted to be in a pop group. A music industry that was brutal beyond belief.
If you’ve gotten this far it means A: You need to get out more! And B: You’ll probably agree that it was a fairly interesting little adventure that the group had.
The Department S LP was eventually released in 1993 on the Mau Mau label. The irony being, that Mau Mau is part of the same company as Demon, for whom Department S originally recorded “Is Vic There?”.
Sadly, Vaughn Toulouse was not to see his work get the release it deserved. He died of AIDS-related illness in 1991. He was a very talented lyricist.
Please enjoy this site, feel free to peruse at your leisure – Waldo Pepper