Department S in concert tonight, recorded by BBC Radio 1 for their In Concert series on December 19, 1981. Department S are a British post-punk/new wave band formed in 1980, who took their name from the 1960s TV series Department S. They are best known for their debut single, “Is Vic There?“, which was originally released in December 1980 and reached No. 22 on the UK Singles Chart the following year.
Department S evolved from a previous punk/ska combo, Guns for Hire, fronted by Vaughn Toulouse and also featuring former Madness drummer John Hasler. Mike Herbage joined them on guitar and wrote Guns for Hire’s only single, “I’m Gonna Rough My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend Up Tonight”, released on the Korova record label. The group then became Department S with the addition of bassist Tony Lordan, drummer Stuart Mizon and keyboardist Eddie Roxy (born Anthony Edward Lloyd-Barnes).
They debuted at the Rock Garden in London on 24 September 1980. Demon Records released their debut single, “Is Vic There?”, in December 1980. It was produced by former Mott the Hoople members Buffin and Overend Watts. The B-side, a cover version of T.Rex’s “Solid Gold Easy Action”, featured Thunderthighs on backing vocals.
“Is Vic There?” began to climb the UK Singles Chart, reaching No. 22. The single’s initial success led to the better-equipped RCA Records reissuing the single in March 1981. This edition, featuring a remix by David Tickle, reached No. 67 on the Hot Dance Club Play chart, and the band appeared on Top of the Pops.
The group defied easy categorisation, but recorded a session for John Peel on 3 December 1980. The tracks featured were “Is Vic There?”, “Age Concern”, “Ode to Cologne (Stench of War)” and “Clap Now”.
In early 1981, Roxy was replaced by Mark Taylor. The band’s second single, “Going Left Right“, was issued on 19 June 1981 on Stiff Records (after the label had rejected “Clap Now”) and failed to chart as high, although it received positive reviews. Stiff also released “Is Vic There?” in the US.
Department S began recording a debut album, Sub-Stance, in 1981 with Tickle producing, but the sessions were divisive and Lordan left, replaced partway through by Jimmy Hughes (formerly of the Banned, Cowboys International and Original Mirrors). A third single, “I Want”, was released by Stiff in November 1981. Modest sales as well as differences of opinion with the label resulted in the band being dropped by Stiff, but not before £50,000 was reputedly spent on the unreleased album, which Stiff refused to part with.
After a London concert on 18 March 1982, Herbage left, and the band split several months later.
In February 2007, a reunited Department S (guitarist Herbage, drummer Mizon and former keyboardist Roxy, now on vocals) recorded their first new single in 26 years, a cover version of Alvin Stardust’s 1973 hit “My Coo-Ca-Choo“, with guest musicians Mark Bedford of Madness on bass, Terry Edwards on brass and Michelle Brigandage on backing vocals. It was released on Sartorial Records in October. Several other new tracks were recorded at that time, including “Wonderful Day” (which included guest contributions from Edwards, Glen Matlock and Marco Pirroni) and “God Squad Saviour” (with John Keeble of Spandau Ballet guesting on drums).
This concert, sharing the bill with The Jam, is Department S early-on, a year after their debut and still pretty fresh and energetic. Crank it up and hear for yourself.