Department S \ Biography
By Waldo Pepper
Act 1: Setting the Scene
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 Anti-Pasti and The Exploited who would regurgitate the same old themes and sounds of the previous two years, only without the style of The Clash or creativity of a Lydon or a 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 as Steve Strange later achieved 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 emerging punk uniform of the likes of UK Subs. Punk had been about self-expression and individuality, now it had become the regimented uniform of a mohican, leather jacket and bondage trousers. Fuck that! Billy's pulled in no more than 30 punters on Tuesday nights, but this was the scene that would 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 thepst. 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 in Waterloo. Again, at first there were only a handful of followers, but this was soon to spawn a nationwide explosion of new Modernism.
Act 2: 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. At 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, 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 instruments and the ability to play them. The main core of Guns consisted of Vaughn Toulouse, Tony Lordan and Gary Crowley. The actual playing side of the project was a major 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 particular rock 'n' roll swindle: unlike the Sex Pistols, Guns For Hire couldn't play a note between them, even if they had actually existed.
At the news of a real 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 actually play would be a good idea, Vaughn and Tony enlisted the services of Mike Herbage (alias Bage, a friend of Tony) and John Hasler, the original drummer with Madness. Suddenly things were moving.
After a couple of knockabout rehearsals, the Guns entered the studio for the first time. While the resultant demo was no world-beater, it did provoke enough interest for Terry Hall, lead singer of The Specials, to fund a further demo. Since the whole affair thus far had been something of a joke, the Guns decided on the burgeoning 2-Tone movement as the bandwagon on which to hang their coats. Herbage and Toulouse came up with a punk infused ska epistle called I'm Gonna Rough My Girlfriend's 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 offered to put the group into the studio to record. Swindle? You'd 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. Boyfriend was recorded at a dingy recording studio in Camden Town, and released by Korova early in 1980, backed with I'm Famous Now. 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 GFH was concerned; they only had two songs and had no wish to play out. It was all one big joke and that's how they wanted it to stay. Guns For Hire made their live debut on July 24th 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 ("impressive is just about what they were"). This was getting ridiculous. A matter of months before, the group had been a non-existent joke and now they had released a record, courted by major 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 3: Let's Get Serious
After several more live shows around London, Guns For Hire sat themselves down and decided what to do next. It was a case of enough is enough or to take it all a stage further. John Hasler decided to call it a day. He left the group and married his girlfriend Shan (the subject of John Lydon's venom in the Sex Pistols' classic Satellite). The rest decided to continue, but felt that the joke been played out. A name change was called for. After suggestions varying from the Discords to the Signet Committee, the name Department S was decided upon in September. It was taken from the Sixties TV detective spoof of the same name.
Following line-up changes (including a bloke called Sam on synth who was found to be a fan of Rick Wakeman), Department S finally got it together and started playing live around London's thriving live circuit, debuting at the Rock Garden on September 24th. They now had all of six original songs and two cover versions, Roxy Music's Editions of You and Marc Bolan's Solid Gold Easy Action. The music itself was difficult to pin down, and influences ranged from Barrett and Bolan to Lydon. Psychedelic Glam Punk, you might 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 built something of a reputation on the London live circuit and Clive Banks talked Jake Riviera into recording the group for a single for Demon. It was decided that Is Vic There? would be the single. It was cut in a converted front room studio in Shepherds Bush and produced by Dale 'Buffin' Griffin and Pete 'Overend' 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 on release in December 1980, and Department S got their first single of the week in Sounds. The b-side was a knockabout cover of Solid Gold Easy Action. The backing vocals were originally recorded by the newly formed Bananarama, but sadly the girls' vocal ability was still untested. Thunder Thighs (Mott's backing singers on Roll Away The Stone) were therefore called in to do the job properly.
The single got the group a lot of good press, and a couple of support slots on tours with Toots and the Maytals (September 1980), the Spizzles (a three week national tour in April 1981) 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 soon changed when Mark Taylor replaced Lloyd-Barnes. Writing in the NME in February, Paul Du Noyer revealed: 'Two of the group's bigger breaks so far have come with support slots for Toots and the Maytals ("except the crowds wouldn't listen cos we were different. I remember these kids at Cardiff shouting 'C'mon, skank it up boyo' and I just thought 'Aw, fuck off'") and more successfully with the Jam ("the only headliners to give us a decent soundcheck"). What remains to be seen is whether Department S can ever create a sizeable audience of their own. "Short hair music" is what Vaughn Toulouse favours, but he stresses that their main aim is to find and provide an alternative - both to the elitism of Spandau Ballet and co, and the bootboy boredom of present punk.'
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. More live dates followed, and the group quickly became much tighter onstage. Interviews in the press, photo shoots, and no less than three sessions on BBC radio were all to follow. Not only that, but Department S now had the backing of The Jam, who, thanks to Gary Crowley's friendship with Paul Weller, the band had supported at the Rainbow in London.
Sadly, bad news was to follow. Is Vic There? had been out for 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, tours and radio play, the single remained a sleeper and finally 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 a difficult place the music industry can often be.
The single reached number 22 in April 1981, stayed in the charts for twelve weeks, and three Top of the Pops appearances ensued. Vic was even issued in foreign language versions in France and Italy. Suddenly this infamous little indie group was news. Things changed considerably. Tours followed, lots of press epsure 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 punters. 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 winners' poll, Paul Weller voted Department S best new act, best songwriters, and even voted Mike Herbage best guitarist in the country. The band signed to Stiff Records, and in June/July toured the UK with Split Enz. Egos were growing, and fun was becoming conspicuous by it's absence.
Tensions were beginning to rise within the group, and personality clashes grew more frequent. A new single was recorded as follow-up to Vic with Griffin and Watts again producing. Clap Now was a live favourite and one of the group's best songs, but was rejected by the record company and management ('Great piece of art lads, but not a hit single'). Instead the strident Going Left Right was decided on as the next single. The group wasn't happy as they felt the more funky Clap Now was stronger, although with the benefit of hindsight the suits were probably right.
By this stage an album was being planned and a new producer had been flown in from America, David Tickle, who had been an engineer on Blondie's classic album Parallel Lines. However, by now conflicts within the group had reached such a stage that something had to give. Tony Lordan left halfway through the album sessions, and with him went the soul of anything it stood for. Jimmy Hughes, formerly of the Banned and Cowboys International, was drafted in to replace him. Neither group had fulfilled its potential, and sadly Jimmy's luck wasn't about to change with Department S.
Although Going Left-Right hadn't sold as well as Vic, it reached 55 in the national charts and was favourably reviewed. It was a massive, beat-driven, aggressive song with brilliant psychedelic guitar, courtesy of Mark Taylor, and trance-like synthesisers. However such hard-edged fare just wasn't chart friendly in 1981, even with a gem of a flipside in She's Expecting You. The group was still annoyed that Clap Now had been blocked as a single and Stiff started to get in a sweat. Nevertheless the album - 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.
Stiff demanded a new single, and the band offered up I Want. The song had been recorded at the same time as Going Left-Right and earmarked as a future single. It marked the first time that this inexperienced outfit had sat down and tried to craft a Hit Single. Toulouse and Herbage, as the group's chief songwriters, came up with another powerful, brooding song, augmented by a pin sharp horn part arranged and played by the John Barry Set. However I Want got a mixed reception from the press on release in November 1981, and despite an extensive headline UK tour by the band in December the single sold modestly in England, although it fared better in Europe.
By now band morale had hit a low. Herbage had become increasingly alienated during a European trip in January 1982 and his behaviour ever more eccentric. When other members of the band began to take a more commercial stance, the portents were ominous.
Act 4: The Death Knell
After some headline dates in Spain in March, Department S returned to England and were called to a meeting with the management. They learned that Stiff had decided to terminate their contract, and were not going to release the eclectic debut album that had taken two months and £50,000 to record. Although the band was shattered, at first there was no great panic. When Department S had signed to Stiff, there had been any number of other labels competing for their signatures. It was assumed that one of these might now step in, but what the band hadn't banked on was Stiff refusing to let go of the master tapes for less than they had cost.
Meanwhile some members of the group were keen on 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, and is reflected in the unrecorded live track Tell Me About It. This did not go down well with Mike Herbage, whose stance was that the band should stick to their 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 final gig with Herbage was played at The Venue in London on March 18th 1982. And that was basically the end of the band. They had lost their heart when Lordan left, and their main creative music writer with Herbage. Department S carried on for a few months, but never played live again in their original incarnation, and released no more records. They finally split halfway through 1982.
Department S were perhaps not world-beaters. But they had immense potential, which sadly, they were never really given the chance to fulfill. Still, you'll probably agree that theirs was a fairly interesting little adventure. Their back catalogue was eventually reissued in 1993 on the Mau Mau label, although sadly Vaughn Toulouse did not live to see his work achieve the recognition it richly deserves. After a solo single on Respond, and a spell as a DJ in New York, he died of AIDS-related illness in 1991. He was a very talented lyricist, and a charismatic frontman.
The Department produced a solid body of work, and deserve far better than to be remembered one-hit wonders with a novelty single. Going Left-Right and I Want were actually better records than the hit, with the unreleased album also containing more than enough quality songs - Clap Now, She's Expecting You, Romany Blood - to convince. And listening to the five live tracks on this CD from their major club tour in December 1981, it's clear that the Department had become a powerful live proposition. Fortunately in recent years the band has re-formed, giving these songs a new lease of life.
So clap now.