DEPARTMENT S were one of the most promising of all the UK's post-punk outfits, who were sadly railroaded back into obscurity after releasing several superb singles and what should have been a memorable album in "Sub-Stance". A combination of bad timing, lack of faith and old fashioned bad luck ensured they would splinter before they really began. However, LTM have recently released "Sub-Stance" with additional tracks for the very first time. TIM PEACOCK asks the band's fantastic guitarist MIKE HERBAGE about the band's brief, but exciting career and what he's been up to since.
1. Mike, if I've got this right, DEPARTMENT S came together from the New Romantic and Mod scenes in London. Were you all involved in the 'legendary' GUNS FOR HIRE project prior to DEPT S?
MIKE: "Well myself, Tony Lordan and Vaughn all came from the 1977 punk scene.That was our
connecting link. But by mid 1978, punk was fast becoming a parody of itself, with all the
excitement and optimism being replaced by apathy and uniformity. Horrid groups like
UK Subs and Shambles 69 totally missed the point as far as I was concerned and just
dragged the whole scene into some kind of 'loser' ghetto. Punk started as music for Heroes.
It ended up becoming uniforms for losers. "
"So other scenes popped up around London.
I started frequenting a club called Billys in Soho, which was hosted at Gossips. It was
very outrageous and the music was Bowie, Lou Reed,Roxy Music and loads of European
Electro. Very positive and very optimistic. Unlike a Sham 69 gig. At that stage the phrase
'New Romantic' hadn't been coined. It was a scene that nobody knew about and had no label.
Tony and Vaughn were more into the Mod thing. I went to some of the early gigs because
I was mates with The Purple Hearts, who I'd met at a Generation X gig at the Marquee in '77.
I'm still friends with them to this day and I eventually made an LP with them in 1984."
"Anyway,Tony, Vaughn and Gary Crowley started the Guns for Hire thing, and when they got offered
the chance to record a single for Korova, they asked me to step in. I taught Tony to play bass
and wrote the music for the single (My girlfriends boyfriend). John Hasler, who was the original
drummer, then manager of Madness, played the drums. We only played live as Guns For Hire
once, at the Rock Garden.John left as he was getting married to Shanne out of the Nips. So
Stuart Mizon joined.Are Guns for Hire legendary!?"
2. Can you remember much about the early DEPT S live shows towards the end of 1980? You toured with TOOTS & THE MAYTALS, I believe?
MIKE:"The early live gigs were a shambles to be honest. We could hardly play and we had 6 songs, 2 of which
were covers. 'Editions of You' by Roxy Music and 'Ejection' by Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters
(Bob Calvert of Hawkwind fame!). But we were very enthusiastic and were willing to learn. My main
memory of the 'Toots Routes' tour was that Toots and his group were always stoned ! It was good experience
for us though, even if we were playing to an audience who found our music totally alien."
3. Was there a moment even before you recorded "Is Vic There?" when you really felt the band were gelling together?
MIKE: "I think the defining moment was probably supporting the Jam at the Rainbow, that's when we knew we
either had to take it seriously or not bother at all. That show lead to a John Peel session which opened
more doors for us, and we started getting quite a big live following."
4.I quite vividly remember you doing "...Vic" on TOTP. I remember reading that Vaughan was so nervous he sang the first verse instead of miming. What do you remember about that first TOTP?
MIKE: "Total terror! As usual, we were pissed. The BBC had a cheap bar and we hit it hard. But it was a great
experience. I remember the floor manager on the set telling the kids in the audience how to dance to
each group. Hilarious. Apparently we were a group with a 'New Romantic' feel, yeah right! lol....."
5. You got a lot of press attention on the back of "...Vic." Did the pressure begin to kick in at that time?
MIKE: "Well we got a fair bit of press when 'Vic' was first released. Paul Du Noyer interviewd us for the NME and
Betty Page did an article in sounds, which was great. But when the record became a hit, it all got very
serious and we started to see the nasty side of the music industry. Suddenly it was all about sales and
money. We got a £70k advance from Stiff, which was a hell of a lot of money back then. Lets put it this
way, Culture Club got £20k, and I'm sure they always had more commercial potential than Dept S. So
from being a group of mates, making music they liked and just having a good time it became business."
"I found the commercial side of the industry very difficult to deal with. I just wanted to make music (um...
maaannn), but suddenly I was expected to understand balance sheets and touring costs. Horrible."
6. It's easy to see these things with particular significance with hindsight, but would you say Tony Lordan's departure was the beginning of everything crumbling for the band?
MIKE: "Yeah, definately. To be honest, Tony didn't help the situation, silly little things like 'offering out' the MD
of CBS at a promotional do! But by the time Tony left (or was sacked basically) the band of brothers
had become the band of businessmen, or so the record company would have had it."
"As soon as a large amount of money became involved, it stopped being so much fun. That said, Jimmy Hughes who replaced
Tony, was a brilliant bass player and musically at least, we improved 10 fold. Jimmy had previously been
with Original Mirrors and Cowboys International, also the Banned."
7. "Sub-stance": the debut album that should have been. What songs do you feel proud of listening back the tracks these days, Mike?
MIKE: "I'm very proud of 'Ode to Koln' which is basically a song about a German death camp during the war. As ever, Vaughns
lyrics were superb and I think the whole atmosphere of the song evokes images of decadant Germany in 1939. "
"I also really like 'Of all the lost Followers' which I thought was a very strong statement of intent to open the LP with. 'Clap Now'
was one of my favourites and always went down a storm live. We sampled Humphry Bogart on that track.Sounds great.
'Going Left Right' and 'I Want' are also very strong tracks in my opinion."
8. You worked with David Tickle (ex-Blondie engineer) on the album. What was he like to work with?
MIKE: "Um...Right.....How can I put this... David Tickle really didn't understand where we were coming from. He'd lived in America during the London punk explosion and really didn't understand why we didn't want massive over production. I tried to do everything in one take, with as few over dubs as possible."
"David was a lover of the kitchen sink. We'd be sitting eating lunch in the community kitchen and he
and the engineer would be extoling the virtues of 'Dark side of the moon' and we'd be talking about
Kraftwerk and The Sex Pistols. He really didn't get it. But that said, it could have come out a lot worse. We just had to battle to keep the over dubs to a minimum."
9. Vaughan's lyrics never cease to fascinate me. Some of them are (nicely) arrogant (say "Monte Carlo Or Bust" or "I Want"). Was Vaughan as flamboyant in real life as his songs always suggested to me?
MIKE: "Oh God yes! Vaughn thought he was a star, just by walking to the chip shop! And trust me, he could
be infuriatingly arrogant. But he was a brilliant lyricist with wit and vision. Sadly, certain parties convinced
him that he was destined for stardom, which is what he wanted very badly."
" I think it hurt him when it didn't happen for him.And those who encouraged him deserted him, which is what happens in the music
business I'm afraid.He went to New York for 18 months, to host a newly opened WAG Club, from the
London version in Wardour Street. I dont think it took off though. But he would have been so suited to
that. He loved London club life. It's very sad that he died so young."
10. I imagine you must have been pretty disappointed when "Going Left-Right" and "I Want" were relative flops?
MIKE: "More so 'Going Left-Right'. We worked so hard on that record and it recieved a massive amount of air play.
But I suppose in hind site, such an aggressive,trance and beat driven track wasn't exactley what was making
the top 10 in those days.It got to the top 50, which is probably higher than it had any right to really.That said,
it did very well all across europe, so I cant moan too much."
"'I Want' was basically written to be a hit, or so
Vaughn and I thought. The record company said 'Go and write a hit single' so we tried. I was surprised it did
quite so badly here. Again, it did well in europe and even got to number 1 in Spain!"
11. What was gigging with The Jam like? How did they treat you and can you recall any particular special gigs?
MIKE: "The Jam were brilliant to us.Always made sure we got a decent sound check.And they were beer monsters!
I remember we played with them at a secret gig at Woking YMCA and Weller was so pissed he fell into the
drum kit 3 times during "Eton Rifles".His old man wasn't a happy bunny I can tell ya! Then we played that the
Sobell centre in Finsbury Park with them. 5000 people there for that one. I'd taken to using a Wha Wah by
this stage (listen to 'Tell me about it' on Sub-Stance) and Mr Weller came up to me on stage during our sound
check and asked me how it worked. A month later they released 'Precious'! Git! lol...."
12. Paul Weller described you as "the best young guitarist of 1981". High praise indeed. I also love your guitar playing. Did you have any particular influences in developing the style you have?
MIKE: "I remember I once had an audition with Souxsie and the Banshees (Souxsie was lovely and very friendly) and
Severin asked me what guitar players I liked and I said Mick Ronson and Syd Barrett, that confused them. lol."
"The first guitar based record that pushed my buttons was 'Sabre Dance' by Love Sculpture. The guitar on that
is fantastic, I love it to this day. But I've always loved guitar players who use the instrument for aural experiments.
Pete Townshend on 'I can see for miles' or Syd Barrett on 'Interstellar Overdrive'. Eddie Phillips of The Creation
was very impressive as well."
"But if I has to say anyone had more influence on my playing than any, I'd have to say Syd Barrett. This probably shows on 'Whatever happened to the blues' more than any other track. Believe it or not, one of my early guitar favourites was Richie Blackmore (as un-hip as it is to say). But I'd like to think
that my playing didn't really sound like any of these great people."
13. How were DEPT S received in Europe? Was that tour instrumental in the band starting to collapse?
MIKE: "We always did very well in europe. Especially Holland and Spain. The kids over there were just interested
in having a good time, unlike in the UK or London in particular, where people just stand back and say 'Come
on then boys, impress me' with a cool aloofness."
"I remember 2 great shows in Madrid, we sold out 2 nights
at a venue that held 1200 people, the stage got invaded, it was great! Far from causing the collapse, it
bought some relief from the pressure of the record company in London. The damage had been done long
before we got to play in europe. We played at the Pink Pop festival in Rotterdam in front of 25,000 people. That was memorable I can tell you."
14. It's a typical story, I suppose, but I find it hard to believe that Stiff would have had such little faith in you over the album. Did you get on with the likes of Dave Robinson, Jake Riviera etc?
MIKE: "The biggest single mistake we made was signing to Stiff. They just didn't understand us at all. Stiff was
basically a 'Pub Rock' label.We had 7 major labels after us and we signed to bloody Stiff. Bad move. But
we were convinced by management that it'd be a good idea, and we liked the idea of being on the label
that released the first 2 Damned LP's. That's how we thought, we were only 20."
"What can I tell ya? I can't for the life of me work out why Stiff signed us, we were so totally different to any other group on the label. I mean, Jona Lewie for Darwins sake.But they knew what we sounded like, had heard the demo's, had
seen us live. But as soon as we signed with them, they wanted us to change, to become more commercial.
I'll never understand why record companies do that."
15. What did you do yourself when you left the band?
MIKE: "Had a nervous breakdown! lol...Not quite, but I was very upset with the way it all turned out. I was just a kid
with a dream of playing guitar for a living and the music business turned out to be vile. It left me pretty badly
bruised and I kind of did a Syd Barrett I suppose and walked away. I made an LP with the Purple Hearts in
1984 called 'A popish Frenzy', which was OK as I was just a guest musician and didn't have to deal with the
band politics. Just turn up, plug in and play.Which was fine by me."
"But after that I totally lost interest in the
music business. I din't play again for 18 years, untill I played a gig with a Gary and Simon of the Purple Hearts
at a club in Whitechapel Xmas before last."
16. Did you/ do you keep up with any of the other lads in the band?
MIKE: "Yeah, I saw Mark Taylor and Stuart Mizon only a few weeks ago. And we meet up with Jimmy Hughes
every so often and drink too much red wine. And I bumped into Tony a while ago at a gig, so everyone is still around, apart from Vaughn, sadly."
17. Vaughan released a solo single on Paul Weller's Respond label. I'm surprised he didn't carry on as a solo artist. Do you think he had a future in music?
MIKE: "I think he did have a future in music, but not with the idiots who were advising him. He should have stuck
with what he was good at instead of trying to become the latest naff 1980's white soul boy. He just had
the wrong voice for it. I got my hands on a video a while ago, of him performing 'Fickle Public Speaking'
on some kids saturday morning show. It was abysmal.Sounded like Lou Reed trying to be Issac Hayes."
18. Finally, Mike, was there a real Vic? Did he or she exist?
MIKE: " (Laughs)Oh yes, Vic was a mythical creature that lived with Boadecia in 33AD and danced naked around Stone Henge."