One of the defining
features of the original 1976-78 Subway Sect was the stinging, discordant
guitar of Rob Symmons. Despite this, he's rarely been called upon to
tell his side of the Sect story. Now, in his first interview for over
20 years, he reveals all to Enclave...
So, how did the Sect
"I suppose it began
when I started a new school when I was about 15, and I didn't know anyone.
Everyone else was into Yes and brown velvet loon pants, and I hated all
that and so did Vic. We liked the same sort of music and the same sort of
clothes - things like denim and corduroy."
What kind of music
was it that you were into at that point? Velvets and stuff like that?
"No - I didn't hear
much of them till later. I think the New York Dolls were around at that
time, they were obviously an influence, and I liked a lot of older music.
I remember the record we both liked was a B-side called 'Little by Little'.
And Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers - when that LP came out it got
played a lot on the Charlie Gillet show in London, and that was a big thing
for us. There was a compilation album called 'Nuggets' as well, which had
bands on like The 13th Floor Elevators and the MC5, and that was a big influence.
We'd sit round and play our favourite records to each other, and I think
we just had a lot of common things going with hating everything that was
around, hating all that music, but not really knowing what we wanted to
Were you playing
at that point?
"No, not at all. Then,
at lunchtime I used to go round to Vic's house and we started off playing
the record player and singing along, and then I bought a guitar and Vic
bought a bass - they were both old '60s guitars, semi-acoustics, which I
think we just got for the look really."
Are those the ones
in the photos in the booklet for the 'We Oppose All Rock & Roll' CD?
"Yeah. So we were both
into that and it just sort of evolved from there really. It started off
at lunchtimes, then we were taking more time off school, always going round
to Vic's house and playing around. I think The Velvet Underground were known
about - Vic had one of their records, and I heard of them through him."
When did you become
a band, then?
"There was us then,
and then there was a couple of others - Paul [Myers, bass] who was a friend
of Vic's from school, he joined in. We didn't really know what we were doing
- made up a couple of songs, or Vic did. We really knew what we wanted to
do after seeing the Pistols. They were doing some of the same songs we knew,
really obscure B-sides, people like The Stooges and Dave Berry. We thought
no one else knew those songs, we thought they were our thing. Then we decided
that's it, that's what we're going to do. We got another schoolfriend called
Ray Price in as a drummer - we bought a really cheap old drumkit - I don't
think it was a Woolworths one but it was something like that. We played
a party then, for someone from school, and everyone walked out! Ray left
after that, he just wasn't interested, and we got Paul Packham in, who I
think was a friend of Paul's - he'd been in the Boys' Brigade or something,
and he could remember how to do one drumroll. So he became the drummer."
How did you come
to meet Malcolm Maclaren?
"We used to see the
Pistols every time they played, and there was hardly anyone in the audience
- you know what they say, empty room with about 15 people. And people like
The Clash and The Damned would always be there, and we'd talk to them at
the bar. We must have gone 'Oh, we've got a group', cos people went "Oh,
what's its name?" and of course we didn't have one, so we just came up with
Subway Sect. And I think word just got around that there was this group
because Maclaren came up to us at the Roundhouse and went 'So you're the
Subway Sect are you?' And we weren't - we'd played this party, and that
was all. We met him again after that when he wanted to come and see us rehearse.
We went 'Oh bloody hell, we'd better start doing something'. So we wrote
a couple of songs, cos we didn't have any. He was doing this festival, the
100 Club one, and he came to see us in this rehearsal place in Chelsea,
and we were terrible. We were there in the evening, and he went to the guy
who ran the rehearsal place - I remember listening to him through the door,
going "This group are going to be really big, you've got to do them a big
favour - they can't afford to pay for a rehearsal place. What time do you
open in the morning?" The bloke said 11 o'clock. He said "I want you to
come in and open at 7 and they're going to be there all day." He just talked
this guy into opening really early and doing it really cheaply - he was
selling us to him, convincing him it'd be worth his while. So it was a couple
of days, first thing in the morning till late in the evening. We had four
songs, and we came in and rehearsed solidly."
What songs did you
"'No Love (Now)' was
the first one, then 'Nobody's Scared', a song called 'Contradictions', and
'Don't Split It'."
Then there was your
first proper gig, opening at the 100 Club Festival in September '76.
"Yeah. I remember arriving
and it was an empty hall. The Pistols were there, and The Clash, and Steve
Jones [Pistols' guitarist] was really nice to us, helped us tune up cos
we just sounded a racket. The Clash were just sort of laughing at us, and
I remember Rotten was really nice - he came over and said 'Don't take any
notice of them, you're really good, don't worry about them.' They helped
us a lot. Then I remember when we were playing, just thinking this was what
I wanted to do - it was what we wanted to do."
Did you go down quite
well that day then?
"I think so. I remember
there was a big audience there for the Pistols, and there'd never been anything
like that before. This was before 'Anarchy in the UK' - it was all still
Were you very different
at that time to what was later released?
"The sound was very
different. Very hard to listen to - high pitched, jangly guitar, which was
an assault on the ears. Very basic drumming - we liked stuff like Eddie
Cochran where the drums sounded like a cardboard box."
Was anything recorded
around that time? Demos, live tapes or whatever?
"We used to take our
tape recorder into where we rehearsed, so Vic must've had quite a few tapes.
I had a reel-to-reel tape as well. Those first songs we played at the 100
Club, we'd tape them a lot to listen to."
Was the actual gig
"I don't know. I mean,
some people must've taken tapes in - we used to tape the Pistols ourselves,
and play along to them at home."
Did you get any press
recognition at that point?
"Yeah! That was the
funny thing, cos when we went into school the week after the 100 Club concert,
Vic used to get the NME delivered and I used to get the Melody Maker. We
went into school and there was this massive article with us at the top!
I think the journalist had asked us our names just before we went on stage.
We used to go into Hammersmith so we could get the NME and the Melody Maker
a day before everyone else. That was another thing actually - reading about
the New York scene without actually hearing it. I went over to Paris to
see the Pistols, but I went at the wrong time and they weren't playing,
but there was this French magazine which had pictures of people like Richard
Hell, Tom Verlaine, Talking Heads, and that was another part of our influence.
We hadn't heard any of those bands, but there was a big article in the NME
and I remember us both reading it, seeing those pictures - their look, with
the dark glasses and things. It was good just to know that there was someone
else out there - unless you were there at the time, it'd be impossible to
know what the music scene was like. It seemed there was just nothing."
Would you say those
groups did influence you when you finally heard them? People have compared
your guitar style to things like Television.
"They have, but I can't
see how! I mean, to us at that time, they were just incredible musicians.
Even the Pistols were. We did like Television, and we covered one of their
songs, 'Glory'. That was much later though. But when we played the 100 Club,
we'd only heard one of their songs, 'Little Johnny Jewel'. I had to bring
that back from Paris, I think."
Looking at the photos
from the concert, you're all in your grey sweaters and cardigans and stuff,
which I suppose was quite different to look that most of the other bands
would've had, people like the Banshees in their bondage gear. Was that a
"Yes. The Clash had
come along then, and they weren't like the Pistols really. When we saw the
Pistols they did all these songs and it was a bit of a mess - they were
like the end of the rock thing. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before.
It was chaos. Then The Clash came along and they were jumping around in
their bright clothes, and it was like 'OK. We'll be grey, and they can be
like that.' But we'd worn those sort of clothes before at school anyway
- grey postman's trousers and that sort of thing. So we were just being
us really. There wasn't that kind of punk fashion then anyway - that came
later, with all those stupid haircuts."
I suppose something
else that set you apart a bit was the subject matter of the lyrics, which
would tend to have quite an intellectual edge to them. Where did that come
"Me and Vic used to
read books in his bedroom, before the group started. That would have been
when he was doing his A-level French, so there was stuff like Camus and
Satre. And there were a lot of things on TV then - lots of strange French
films. Seeing stuff like that was a big thing, as teenagers. 'Clockwork
Orange' too, that was a big influence. There was this cinema we used to
go to, the Paris Pullman, which would put on all the French stuff, and we
used to go down there and sit in the coffee bar. It was because apart from
us it was all old blokes in their 40s and 50s, and there we were, a couple
of young kids of 16 or 17. But we really liked stuff like Jean-Luc Godard,
which was where Vic got his surname from. A lot of the look came from things
that as well - we had things like French film yearbooks from about 1964
and we used to sit round looking at all these black-and-white pictures of
French film stars. Also, there was a lot of imported Eastern European kids'
TV series at the time, which influenced us - all these Polish kids with
their hair cut with shears, and I wanted to look like that. And 'Noggin
the Nog' - that had a really good theme tune, which I taped, and we sort
of used that on 'Out of Touch'."
Were you trying to
put across some of that confrontational, disturbing thing from 'Clockwork
Orange' and the like in the music as well?
"Oh yeah, very much
so. It was much better to be hated than liked."
Were you a part
of the punk thing, or did you feel you were kind of separate?
"Well, there was only
the Pistols, the Clash and us, and I suppose the Buzzcocks, and they didn't
play that night. There wasn't anyone else, so I suppose we did feel a part
of it at that point. Mostly there was no big audience - the audience was
just other groups basically. People like Mick Jones would be there, and
Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Damned."
I suppose after the
100 Club, that was when you started going out and playing other places?
"We didn't. There was
that, there was the ICA, which was terrible, the Royal College of Art, which
was really good - we had seven songs by then - and then we played somewhere
called the Lacey Lady with The Clash, and there was no one in the audience.
Literally no one, apart from the people who'd come along because they knew
us or knew The Clash. There wasn't a big thing going on at all, even when
The Clash were playing."
When did you get
involved with Bernie Rhodes?
"When we played the
100 Club, we still needed more rehearsal time, and Malcolm said that Bernie
had this rehearsal studio, where we went the weekend before the concert,
and again rehearsed for a couple of days. That was when we met Bernie."
What do you remember
about him from that time?
"Not much, really. At
that time, after we'd played the 100 Club, there was a feeling that Malcolm
Maclaren wanted us to rehearse at the Pistols' place on Denmark Street.
We'd rehearsed at the Clash's place, and me and Vic wanted to carry on there,
and the other two wanted us to rehearse at the Pistols' place. But then
the Bill Grundy TV thing happened and suddenly the Pistols were huge, and
Maclaren was full time with them. So by default we went to the Clash side
with Rhodes. It could quite easily have gone the other way. Anyway, we did
those four concerts, and a while after we did Harlesden - that was early
the following year."
Do you think you
were getting much recognition at that time compared to people like The Clash
and Buzzocks, who were starting to put records out?
"Not as much. But really
we'd spent a long time just rehearsing. We had loads of new songs, absolutely
loads. Probably at least 20."
Quite a lot that
never emerged then?
"Yeah. By the time we
played Harlesden [early '77] we had a huge set. But we deliberately kept
ourselves back - we didn't want to be a part of that huge scene that was
blowing up around then."
Why was that? Did
you want the chance to develop in your own time?
"Well, we were very
anti-rock - we wanted to see the end of the rock thing, whereas lots of
other people just seemed to want to carry it on. We were at music college
by then, and listening to a lot of strange experimental stuff. We used to
do experimental music in college, with everyone playing instruments they
couldn't play, banging things, and we used to record it all. The lecturer,
Christopher Small, might have the tapes. We'd been learning about people
like Erik Satie, Debussy, people I'd never heard of before."
Was that an influence
"Yes, a big influence.
More in terms of attitude than sound, because we weren't good enough to
play it! But Erik Satie, he was someone who did something that was new and
revolutionary at the time - when his pieces were first performed in Paris,
there were people booing and walking out. We wanted to do polarise people
in the same way. The Dada movement was also an influence because they were
people who looked very ordinary but produced revolutionary art. 'Rock and
Roll Even' was about all of that - that song summed up what we were about,
really. The title came from those surrealist paintings that were called
things like 'Nude Ascending Stairs Even'."
Did you develop quite
quickly, then, from the initial thing I suppose you would've had of just
getting three chords and bashing them out?
Before we started playing live we were covering songs the Pistols did like
No Lip Child, Stepping Stone, that sort of stuff, and we moved very quickly
to playing completely our own stuff."
Did you write much
yourself, other than 'Don't Split It'?
"No. That was the only
one. Vic was a brilliant writer, and I was useless! I mean, I loved his
Did many of the songs
you were doing then emerge on his later solo albums?
"A lot of them came
out really badly on 'What's the Matter Boy?'. I don't know about anything
else. Did stuff like 'Eastern Europe' come out later?"
No, never heard that
one. Wasn't there one called 'Derailed Sense'?
"Yeah, that was a bit
later. 'Eastern Europe' was early, and I remember one about sailing down
the River Nile. 'Derailed Sense' was pretty different at first to what it
became later - a lot of the songs and lyrics evolved. And 'Rock and Roll
Even' was a completely different song."
Then Paul Packham
"Yeah - I think he wanted
some money! I mean, at that point we all had nothing. I think he'd just
got a job loading trucks at Watney's, the brewery. He nicked the drumkit
and sold it. He was instrumental in getting a lot of our equipment, and
getting rid of it as well..."
Were you still at
school at that time?
"I think me and Vic
had just started college, that same September. Paul was probably at home,
and so was Paul Packham, so he would've had no money. I dunno why he left
exactly, I suppose he just wasn't into it as much as we were. He was into
music, but he was more of a soul boy."
Then you got Mark
"Yeah. The Clash had
just picked up their drummer - they'd rehearsed loads of them, and he was
one of the ones that had almost got in but didn't. This tour was coming
up, the White Riot tour, and they said get him in. He was their second choice."
Did you enjoy going
"Yeah. It was what we'd
always thought of doing, and we were doing it. It was like that first time
we played the 100 Club - we were doing what we wanted to do, and it was
great. It was an incredible feeling, cos you'd never have dreamed you'd
be playing on a stage."
What happened after
the White Riot tour?
"There was another period
when we rehearsed for a long time without a drummer. Mark Laff had gone
- he joined Generation X. They sort of whisked him away. I'll always remember
the last place we played, they were really worried that we were going to
beat him up or something! We weren't, we were quite pleased for him to go.
They hustled him out - it was really funny."
Why did he leave?
"He wanted to be a rock
star - he was into that whole thing, which we didn't want. And I suppose
he saw them as fulfilling that role."
Then you got Bob
"Yeah. We rehearsed
loads of drummers, and there was one really young kid who came with his
dad, who we should have had. But I think Bernie was getting fed up with
us not choosing one, and this bloke came in with really long hair who hated
all the music we liked - I can't remember who he liked, all these crap groups.
So just to be contrary, we picked him!"
Good drummer though.
In a 'Zig Zag' interview around that time, you were saying how you were
after someone who played the drums, as opposed to the cymbals...
"Well he didn't, he
played the cymbals! We had to teach him what we wanted him to play for each
song. But he was very powerful, whereas the other kid who we should have
had, who was really good, you just couldn't hear him. So it really changed
our sound to have a solid drummer behind us."
And I suppose not
long after that you would have done 'Nobody's Scared' and 'Don't Split It'
for the first single.
"Yeah - that was straight
afterwards. When we did 'Don't Split It', apart from the organ and piano
we did it live with Vic singing and everything, and that was the first time
Bob Ward ever played the song. It was just looking at each other, nodding
heads, and that was what came out on the single. It was also the first time
Vic had sung it with new lyrics - I remember giving them to him in the car
on the way there and he sung it live, still reading off that bit of paper."
Do you think the
single was representative of what you sounded like at the time?
"No - it was much cleaner,
because they got all our guitars tuned up in the studio and it was all properly
engineered. That version of 'Sister Ray' with The Slits was probably more
what we were really like - falling over and banging into each other and
And then there was
the Peel Session.
"Yeah, we did 'Nobody's
Scared', 'Don't Split It', 'Chain Smoking', 'Parallel Lines' and 'Out of
Touch', but 'Out of Touch' was dropped when the session went out. Alan Freeman
used to play it a lot. He was a big fan of ours, which was really funny
because he'd given me my leaving present when I'd left school, so I'd met
him when I was 11. He probably used to play the session more than John Peel
I suppose by Spring
'78 you were getting a bit more attention, with the single coming out and
the odd music press feature. Did it seem things were going uphill at the
"Yeah. We did our own
tour, headlining with The Lous, we played a week in France, headlining at
the Sugar Club and playing a Yves Saint Laurent party. We did three nights
with Patti Smith as well, and we blew her off stage - even the reviews said
so! We were really good then, and we started getting ready to do the LP.
We should've done a load more before really, but Bernie Rhodes stopped us.
Because of Bernie, we didn't know that there were record companies interested
in us. And there must've been, because they were signing up all these other
crap groups - everyone else was rubbish. They really were."
Why do you think
Bernie held you back then?
"I think just because
there was so much dross around at that time, so in a way it did us good
to keep us separate from all that. All those groups playing at the Roxy
Club and places like that - we would never have done that. We were more
the ICA, the RCA, places like that."
So then you went
in to do the Legendary Lost LP. What happened there?
"I'd love to hear that
- I've only heard one track from it. It was Linda Lusardi's brother that
engineered the sessions."
What songs did you
"There was one called
'I Changed My Mind', 'Ambition', 'Out of Touch', 'Chain Smoking', 'Rock
and Roll Even', 'Stand Back'..."
'Stand Back'?! What
did your version of that sound like?
"It was a sort of twangy
Buddy Holly thing. We did 'Exit No Return', 'Parallel Lines', 'Derailed
Sense', 'The Idiot of All'..."
'The Idiot of All'?
Did that become 'Enclave'?
"Yeah. 'Eastern Europe'
we might have done, although I don't know whether we might have gone off
that one by then. 'Why Don't You Shoot Me?' would've been there, and 'Imbalance'.
We wanted to do 'Imbalance' as a single - we met Sid Vicious and Nancy,
who really liked us, and she knew someone who had a label. Me and Vic were
going to do it behind Bernie's back, but we never did. We'd do that live
and it'd go straight into 'Nobody's Scared'. That was really really good."
Why didn't the album
"I don't know, because
I wasn't there. We just went into the studio, did all the songs - we didn't
even know who it was going to be released by, and it wasn't really finished.
I don't know whether they ran out of money or what. Cos after that, by the
time we split, we actually had a few better songs - we had 'Stool Pigeon',
'Watching the Devil', 'Double Negative', 'Vertical Integration'. We were
doing those. 'Vertical Integration' sort of replaced 'Don't Split It' -
that was the one where we'd improvise for ages and ages."
Then there was the
'Ambition' single, which was the only thing to come out from those sessions.
"Yeah. When that was
released, I wasn't in the group - I remember I was with my mum when I got
the music papers, and it was Single of the Week in every one of them. Huh!"
Were you there when
the organ was put on?
"No. Me and Vic hated
that song, really hated it. It was just like some big rock record. We didn't
want that out at all."
Do you still hate
"No, I think it's all
right now! I mean, as far as most people are concerned that is the one Subway
Sect song, which is funny because we really, really hated it."
How did the band
"You'll have to ask
Vic! It was around autumn '78, and all of a sudden he was going up to the
studio and I didn't know he was going there. I wasn't told - he was just
suddenly incommunicado. I knew there was something strange going on because
we were really close friends, then I went to play tennis with Paul and he
So was there a bit
of bad feeling at that time?
"Yeah, there was. Not
towards Vic, but we were all friends so I didn't really understand it. I
was disappointed in Vic because before we were always together. But it was
obviously much more Bernie's doing than Vic's. I don't think Bernie ever
really understood us - he'd come up from the '60s club scene, so he wasn't
on the same wavelength as me and Paul at all."
Did you carry on
playing after the Sect finished?
"No, that was it. That
was what I wanted to do with Vic, and I wouldn't have thought of playing
with anyone else. I was useless, anyway. No one would've had me!"
You did have your
own sound though.
"Yeah, and I think that's
what Vic lost really. I mean, he got other musicians in but it didn't mean
anything. If you play badly and you've got something, it's much better than
something played well. It was a very conscious decision to have our own
sound, and I think Vic lost that."
What did you think
of the Peel Session he did immediately after, and 'What's The Matter Boy'?
"Oh, I didn't like it
at all. The Peel Session with that rock group, and all but three of the
songs on 'What's the Matter Boy?', was all songs that we did. I thought
'Empty Shell' and 'Make Me Sad', the ones that we didn't do, were brilliant
- I thought Vic was a brilliant songwriter, and I love those songs. But
the others, those were our songs, and our versions were a hundred times
Did it bother you
that it was still called Subway Sect, or Vic Godard and the Subway Sect?
"Yeah, that really annoyed
me. When me and Paul were chucked out it was never publicised, so people
would go along and think this band was us! Before the Pistols and everything,
when me and Vic were at school and we liked all this obscure music, the
one thing we hated was when someone would come out as So-and-so and the
Something Band. We hated that, and then he went and did it! I really couldn't
believe that, although I do think it was more down to Bernie."
What did you think
of the jazzy stuff that he came up with later on?
"Oh, I loved that -
it annoyed me at first when it was that crap band doing all our songs, but
I loved the Northern Soul stuff and 'Songs for Sale'. I love Vic's songwriting."
Would you ever do
a Subway Sect reunion?
"No, because we always
hated that sort of thing, comeback tours and stuff. I'd see Vic again, but
not to do that."
Did you stay in touch
with Vic after the split?
"Yeah - we played tennis
together and things like that. And he still worked on his songs with me
for a while - he'd come up with a new song and we'd work it out on the guitar.
I last saw him about three years ago, when he'd just done that single, the
remake of 'No Love'. I thought that was brilliant, really good."
Was it similar at
all to how you used to play it originally?
"No, not at all. It
had really harsh, trebley guitar. Much louder, more aggressive - just one
guitar and Vic singing. But I think the lyrics and chords were pretty much
the same. I loved that remake though, thought it should've been number one!
The Velvet Underground cover on the B-side surprised me, because I'd heard
he'd stopped listening to that stuff."
Yeah, I believe he
did for a while, when he used to just listen to old music, Cole Porter and
stuff, but he's obviously got back into it.
"Yeah, that was it.
I remember I was still seeing Vic at that time - he was round at my house
and we went down to the local library. I got out a double album, Ella Fitzgerald
and Cole Porter cos I loved that music. We used to be mad about those songwriters,
their skill. But Vic had always liked Glen Miller and things like that when
we were at school and everyone else was listening to The Groundhogs!"
What are you doing
"Working in the library."
No likelihood of
a return to music in the near future then?
"No. But I suppose Vic
didn't think he was going to either, did he?"
c. Mark Sturdy 1999.
Taken from the Vic
Godard & The Subway Sect Fanzine "Enclave".