Between 1980 and 1982, as Vic Godard and The Subway Sect, Rob, Sean, Dave and Chris hosted a club in Soho every Thursday night at the Whisky-a-Go-Go (later abbreviated to the WAGG) in Wardour Street where the band played under the banner ‘Cool Bop & Swing’. Bernie Rhodes had had his eye on this long-forgotten venue for some time and with Sean transformed it into Club Left; it had a panoramic view overlooking Soho’s Chinatown and was last used as a regular music venue in the 60’s for groups such as Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames. Johnny Britton was the regular DJ and their refined set became the “Songs for Sale” album on Phonogram.
In addition to Vic, each week Subway Sect performed regular sets for different guest singers; Lady Blue, Bananarama, Tom Cat, Johnny Britton and the great Dig Wayne. Dig’s previous group were Buzz And The Flyers, the influential New York rockabilly band of the late ‘70’s. The club quickly became a magnet for the musical luminaries of the time who were attracted by its laid back and intimate feel.
Georgie Fame himself returned to perform as well as the legendary Slim Gaillard, (who featured in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On the Road”) who became something of a fixture. They took the whole club on a UK tour and also toured with Bauhuas, Altered Images, John Cale and The Birthday Party before moving the club along the road to Ronnie Scott’s. At Ronnie’s, JoBoxers quickly evolved with Dig as the front man and they used the opportunity to develop with many more influences, both past and contemporary, before signing to RCA records.
The biggest problem for Subway Sect was, while everyone had heard of them, very few people had ever heard them. Subway Sect Mk 1 (1976-79) released possibly the rawest, grumpiest and most era-defining debut singles of early punk, 'Nobody's Scared'. This was up there with the likes of 'Blank Generation', 'Anarchy', and 'New Rose', its opening verse brimming over with textbook Anarcho-nihilsm, reminding us, ‘everyone is a prostitute – singing a song in prison ’. Nice. But could anyone ever find a copy?
Then, in a sharp stylistic shift that gathered rockabilly, folk and… skiffle, frontman Vic Godard, assembled the remnants of Mk 1 members and Black Arabs to record their debut LP, ‘What’s the matter Boy?’ a near-genius concoction of snappy, off kilter songs allegedly mastered at the wrong speed - which so baffled their record company MCA they relinquished all marketing duties to Rough Trade, where it remained unloved, until a 2000 CD release (at the right speed) put it back in partial circulation adding an earlier Peel session and the immensely catchy and again barely-heard single ‘Stop that Girl’ (swirling accordion supplied by a local Turkish wedding entertainer no less!).
The metamorphosis continued. Subway Sect Mk 2 (1980-82) offered ‘Songs for Sale’, the most sublime collection of mutant crooner tunes never heard. So musically taut, so authentically swingy, so lyrically surreal it completely defied categorization. And it disappeared the moment it was released.
What was going on? Could it have been the name - which somehow evoked a clan so cultish and mysterious they would forever be destined to remain beneath the pavement? Or could it have been their manager Bernie Rhodes stirring the soup with an ever-subversive hand, whilst keeping both eyes firmly on his more visible charges, the Clash?
On the rare occasions Subway Sect Mk1 ventured above ground - starting with the 100 club punk festival Sept '76 (a messy rehearsal), Harlesden Coliseum March '77 (Vic topples face first into the wings like a felled sapling as the Buzzcocks step onstage over him) and the subsequent Clash tour – they were a jarring, shambolic event which even a decidedly punk-friendly journalist responded to thus: " I'm told it's music that grows on you - if it grew on me I'd cut it off...". They stood blinking in grey pullovers, dazed and uncomfortable on vast, brightly lit Civic hall stages before velvet curtains as swaying herds of impatient Mohawk and leathered Clash fanatics hurled beer glasses (they withheld the spit – that was an honour solely reserved for the beloved headliners).
It was art rock, but without much art... or rock. But we looked forward to their performances and obtusely defended their static, droning atmosphere. And - because of Vic's stoic refusal to toe the identikit-punk line, plus the vague whiff of intrigue and espionage that always seemed to surround them (we'd also seen those French New Wave films at the Scala) - they remained a group we always kept within spitting distance of our hearts.
So why, in 1980, is everyone now dressed in dickie bows, quiffs and cocktail dresses, lindy-hopping like Pearl Harbour never happened, in a dingy Soho 'beat' club on a wet Thursday night, watching a band with the same name as those 100 club punk fest debutantes, playing joyous, tightly wrought, 'cool bop and swing’ with a professionalism and energy so at odds with that dissonant anti-rock - it might just as well be another band.
Well - it is another band, bar of course Vic, who seems to have been reborn as Tony Bennett's shyer, less suntanned, less vocally blessed younger brother. But - he can sure carry off a mean DJ and pop his fingers like a pro, and this time - no falling over.
Club Left as it was rather provocatively called, proposed, ‘discussion, conversation, entertainment', for those hipsters who had survived the death of punk, had given a body-swerve to New Romanticism for being far too silly, frilly and synthy and were desperately in search of something substantial, original and fun with which to rebel. As Vic notes, “wearing our tuxedos and smiles in a sea of gothic black leather and mascara was the most satisfying rebellion I have ever been a part of”.
I'm not sure that Club Left delivered all it promised, but what it did provide was some thrilling pre-rock and roll sounds and attitude - and gave us, not only that lost masterpiece, ‘Songs For Sale’, but at least one great enduring legacy in a band that would become the only chart-storming, table dancing, half-mast-trouser-wearing Northern Soul groovesters that made the ‘80’s swing - JoBoxers.
It also spawned a fanzine, aptly named ‘One Flight Up’ put together by myself and a few Club Lefties in DIY punk fashion, offering space and voice to anyone who could be bothered to put pen to paper, printed on an old litho machine culled from some Portobello Road hippies which we housed in the Clash’s rehearsal space. It had an edgy, unpredictable energy, looked like a punked-up ‘50’s fashion mag and lasted for just one issue.
And that – might just be a fitting epitaph for the Club itself.
But I doubt if London – or anywhere else for that matter has ever seen a night quite like those irreverent, eclectic, swinging Thursdays in Soho.
While it lasted, Club Left was a brief sanctuary from the conspicuous loadsa-money high-Tory consumerism that was fast overtaking our era - shoulder-pads, filofaxes and power-lunches in Soho as unemployment, right wing hooliganism and a totally pointless war ravaged the land.
The club’s members were all lucky enough to have been products of a time when a crew of motley teens murmuring a few naughty words on teatime TV was practically a hanging offence. We not only believed in, but lived through a proper, significant rock & roll moment (perhaps the very last) where teenage music was seen as a rebellious, seditious force of change. And trust me there was a hell of a lot to rebel against in the late ‘70’s. This might seem implausible now when global brands and corporations seem to have colonised most of culture, and kids form bands for one reason alone – a shortcut to the ‘A list’, but back then, the notion of 'subversion through music’ was something people took quite seriously.
Of course punk rock never really changed anything. A few teenagers left home, made bands, got politicized, wrote fanzines, lived fast, died young. But that’s teen spirit – it would have happened anyway. More disturbingly, my recollection as a wide-eyed fourteen year old at punk gigs was that there always seemed to be a sinister backline of old men (and by that I mean over 30) lurking in the shadows, watching, making notes, muttering to one another. And these men (and we all know who they are) forged entire careers - some huge, some tiny, based on the premise that they created this revolution. Not so. It was created by us - the teenagers - the 'kids' who got regularly stopped and searched by bored coppers, beaten up by ‘straights’, turned away from jobs and thrown out of school because of our allegiance to the cause. From us came the bedroom bands, the homemade fashion, the DIY fanzines, the artists, the DJ's, the mad, possessed anarchic faces that would have done it themselves regardless. And some of these faces were the boys who became Subway Sect Mk 2.
So - back to Thursday night in 1980 at the Whiskey-a Go-Go - a sweaty, swinging fishbowl suspended over the sugary neon glow of Soho’s Chinatown. It’s like a film set in here. People are dressed as their favourite Noir icons or beat generation hipsters. The joint is jumping with a soundtrack part smoky jazz, part lost R&B treasures. Here are the club’s top ten tunes: 'If I had a Hammer' Trini Lopez - 'In the Meantime' Georgie Fame, 'Sea Cruise' Frankie Ford,’ 16 tons' Tennessee Ernie Ford, ‘Mack the Knife’ Ella Fitzgerald/Bobby Darin, ‘Hit the Road Jack' Ray Charles, ‘Shake rattle and Roll’ Count Basie / Joe Turner', 'My Baby Just Cares for me' Nina Simone, 'Love for Sale' Eartha Kitt, 'My Daddy Rocks me' Mae West, 'Exotica' John Coltrane.
By the time the Whiskey became the Wag (a pale imitation of what Club Left had pioneered) it needed a whole new dance-floor due to the heavyweight jiving and stomping that went down on those fabled Thursday nights!
Now - the boys from Bristol are back onstage and keen to flex the musical muscles they've been honing in Vic's swing set. They're hosting new singers. There's Lady Blue, a turbaned Sarah-Vaughan-voiced Diva from Peckham, Tom Cat - a barely out of kindergarten Brian Setzer lookalike who delivers rockabilly like he was born in the back of a '57 Chevy and there's Buzz - or is it Dig? Not quite decided yet, but suddenly the stage is alight as a wildcat black American Rockabilly grabs the retro mike and hollers with the joy of Chuck Berry and the snarl of a young Elvis and the band start rocking deep and heavy - a sinuous collison of Northern Soul, Blues and stomping jazz. And everyone at once drops their bowties and their faux tropical cocktails - because an electric feeling is surging through the club - something big is about to kick off....
Did it oppose all rock and roll? Not quite, but what it did do was re-affirm the music’s elaborate roots, haul it back to basics and cut through the synths, frills and excesses of the 1980’s - like gangbusters.