Formed from the ashes of faux ska band Guns For Hire, and named after the impossibly cool 1969-1970 TV show, London’s Department S earned their brief interlude of fame with 1981’s curious, twanging post-punk oddity Is Vic There?, without a doubt one of the greatest ‘telephone pop songs’ of all time.
Who was Vic? And why wasn’t he there?
These were piffling riddles and certainly didn’t stop the band from gracing the studios of Top Of The Pops that year – three times.
The chugging, vaguely-psychedelic 45 was inspired by a deeply strange phone-in sketch on Monty Python‘s Matching Tie and Handkerchief. The female phone voice during the song’s breakdown was Lee Cavanaugh – girlfriend of singer Vaughn Toulouse – who also played Paul Weller‘s betrothed in the video for The Jam‘s The Bitterest Pill.
The B-side to their classic single was a not-very-good version of T. Rex‘s Solid Gold Easy Action, which originally featured backing vocals by the (then-unknown) girls from Bananarama.
The vocals were eventually wiped because “they were fucking awful”.
Technically, Department S scored a second hit with their follow-up, Going Left Right, (if #55 constitutes a hit?) though sadly neither it nor the cult of ‘Vic’ were enough to persuade Stiff Records to release Sub-Stance, the debut album they had already recorded.
It was finally released on CD by LTM over 20 years later.
The band experienced some line-up changes and a shift in musical styles and Stiff dropped the band and increased friction between band members followed, with the band eventually imploding. Vocalist Vaughn Toulouse died of AIDS-related illness in New York in 1991.
The band reunited in 2007 with Mike Herbage on guitar and keyboard player Mark Taylor on vocals.