Although the Subway Sect shared stages with the Clash, Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks as far back as 1976, the group’s debut vinyl was a 1978 single; their first longplayer didn’t follow until two years later. (The Sect did record an album in ’78 for Clash manager Bernard Rhodes, but it was never released. As a result, Bristol-born singer-songwriter-arranger Vic Godard broke up the band, and original drummer Mark Laff joined Generation X.)
By 1980, the Sect had reformed (at least once). Several of these early hard guitar-pop incarnations are chronicled on A Retrospective, which consists of two singles and a radio broadcast from ’78, a cut from that lost LP plus a 1981 45 side. The evidence is plain that the early Subway Sect had incorporated a strong Buzzcocks influence (plus flashes of Lou Reed and Television), and that Godard was a talented musician slowly fashioning an identity.
By the time they finally got to make an album, the Sect had again been revamped and was serving merely as a backing band for Godard, who had developed into a skillful vocalist with a budding predilection for folky, low-key, non-aggressive — hell, non-rock! — music. Considering the band’s background, What’s the Matter Boy? is a surprising belated debut. The cover is terrible and Rhodes’ production is totally flat, but the charming songs’ upbeat freshness and originality (start with “Enclave”) more than compensates for the flimsy presentation.
The Subway Sect (who transmuted the following year into JoBoxers) may share titular credit with Vic on Songs for Sale — a collection of homages to (and one cover of) his idol, Cole Porter — but Godard is entirely in charge. Abandoning rock’n’roll completely, Songs for Sale is a wonderful record of concise pop creations delivered in a cool, suave voice. Proving himself a masterful tunesmith and crooner, Godard manages to update 1930s/’40s Tin Pan Alley without resorting to mimicry or selfconsciousness. As produced by Alex Sadkin, the memorable, sturdy tunes sound of the period without being corny. Sure it’s a pose, but Godard is evidently sincere in his nostalgic affection, and he makes the music his own with real panache.
Finally emerging as a solo artist, Vic made T.R.O.U.B.L.E., a brasher, more ambitious and almost equally winning swing record with one Porter tune and eleven lively originals. Dance rhythms of the ’40s subtly seasoned with horns and a spot of accordion energize the giddy romance of songs like “The Devil’s in League with You,” “Caribbean Blue” and “Stop That Girl.” “Out of Touch,” a snazzy guitar instrumental that could have come from a ’60s spy flick, is an intriguing change of pace.